Adventure is about many things. It’s for elite performers and ordinary folk. It’s cycling across America, or bumming around living out of a van and climbing for a while. And it’s about carving out a life for you that’s stuffed full of your passions and the things that make you come alive. I chatted to climber, blogger, author, and all-round nice guy Brendan Leonard about his take on it all.
Alastair: The strapline of your website says you’re about the relentless pursuit of every man’s adventure. It’s a website about normal outdoors folk. That’s quite unusual in the elitist world of adventure. How did that come about?
Brendan: I think there’s a couple of types of inspiration in the outdoors. For example, if you want to watch a climbing video, it’s a lot more inspiring to watch somebody who’s really good at it like Alex Honnold or Chris Sharma. Rock climbing media is always about the high-end of the grading scale. I like climbing a lot but I will never get to 5.13, 5.14 [the very highest standards]. I felt there was this huge emphasis on the elite stuff even though there aren’t that many people who are achieving that high level.
I thought, “why don’t I try to speak about what people feel when they’re out there?”. Because everybody understands what it’s like to climb something that’s really challenging to you, regardless of the grade. It may not be K2 or Everest, but it’s challenging to me to go up a 12,000 foot mountain. There’s not a lot of air up there. It’s really tiring. So if you can capture that feeling or the things all these people have in common, then you’re speaking to everyone. I think probably the biggest purpose of writing is to relate to other people and kind of tell their stories so they can read it and say, “Oh, yeah. I know that too.”
So I try to explain those things through my experiences, and then also make fun of a lot of the dumb stuff we do. You can’t really just make fun of other people. But you can make fun of yourself along with them. It can’t sound like I’m making fun of somebody else. Otherwise it’s just mean. If I’m making fun of me, it’s funny.
Alastair: That’s right.
Brendan: It’s worked out pretty well for me. It’s been a lot of fun. I can do whatever I want every week and see if people show up and read it, see if it gets shared. It’s cool.
Alastair: Would you like to have been an elite climber? Was that the original aim of your life?
Brendan: No. I didn’t start climbing until I was 26, so no way. I think maybe the whole thing for me was trying to understand climbing and be in the mountains. That’s the best part. I love being in the mountains or in the desert, just in these huge places to experience awe and kind of push the limits a little bit and get a little scared and be out in the elements.
Alastair: I think it’s important when you look at the people at the top of whatever game you’re interested in to enjoy watching what they do and be inspired by what they do, but not to be intimidated into therefore going and doing nothing.
Brendan: Yeah, exactly.
Alastair: For example, if you liked painting, it would be ridiculous of you to look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s pictures and think, “He’s much better than me, so therefore I won’t go and paint the sunset.”
Brendan: Right, right, exactly.
“I’ve not been in a climbing video, I will never win a race but I love the mountains. I’m probably a lot like you. It’s about enthusiasm for things regular folks can do. It’s what can be done with 52 weekends and a few weeks of vacation a year.”
Alastair: Most of the people I’ve spoken to for this Adventure1000 thing, people who do really cool stuff, who’ve done incredible journeys or managed to make their life out of their passion, are just normal people. That’s the really recurring thing. I love this line on your website that says, “I’ve not been in a climbing video, I will never win a race but I love the mountains. I’m probably a lot like you. It’s about enthusiasm for things regular folks can do. It’s what can be done with 52 weekends and a few weeks of vacation a year.”
The more I interview people, the more this just comes up over and over again. You’ve just got to make a choice at some point to make stuff happen. Is that fair?
Brendan: Yes. I’m a full-time freelance writer, so I pick my own schedule but I’ve always worked full-time jobs for a newspaper and then for a non-profit organization. You do have to make do with however much free time you have per year. For most people, that’s a very finite thing. It’s five weeks or three weeks or two weeks plus weekends and then your five to nine [microadventure] concept. But we tend to build up all these things that we have to do, “Oh, I’ve got to fix that in the house. We have to mow the lawn or whatever,” and pretty soon our weekends are gone.
That sucks, man. There’s a few people I’m really inspired by who make the most out of whatever time they have off work. They have 40 hours between hospital shifts or whatever and they go do something big. They make you feel kind of lazy. You’re like, “Wow, what am I doing? I was just acting like I was so busy. I really could have been out doing this trail run or whatever.”
Alastair: There’s a big difference between acting busy and actually being busy and I definitely get that wrong a lot.
Brendan: What’s the saying? Saying you’re busy is just poor time management.
Alastair: If you want something enough, you can make it happen, can’t you?
Saying you’re busy is just poor time management.
Alastair: Can you describe your big road trip for people who maybe haven’t read your book yet?
Brendan: Yeah. July 2011, I was working from home for a big software company. I was living with my girlfriend and that ended. I just packed my stuff in my car. I said, “Oh, the hell with it” and hit the road for a little while.
After five weeks running around climbing and hiking and backpacking and meeting with my friends, I realised I could probably just work from the road. I took conference calls from coffee shops and turned in all my assignments. Just as long as I had internet, I could make it happen. I was driving around, seeing all these friends of mine who are in different places in life. Some had kids, some were divorced, some had kids from other marriages, and they were all making these different family models work.
I was kind of seeing a new iteration of the American dream. In America, we always think you’re married, you have two kids, a house, probably two cars and that’s what the goal is. There’s so many people who were making it work differently than that, in a different model than that.
I started thinking, “I’m 32. What’s happening? I don’t have this in my life. Am I going to be okay?” I mean, geez, everybody’s got their own path to happiness, I guess. Anyway, I wrote about the first three months of that trip in the book, the New American Road Trip Mixtape. After six months of living in my car, I bought a van and then continued to live in a van. That lasted almost three years. Just bouncing around the west, driving around, doing fun stuff and trying to find places to work, places with Wi-Fi. It was a blast.
Alastair: I think there’s something massively alluring the idea of an American road trip. Clearly you guys in America feel that, but I think in Britain, perhaps we feel it even more because America’s this foreign country and any foreign country is massively more exotic. Jesus, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read On the Road and Travels with Charlie. I read your book thinking, “Man, I need to go do a big American road trip.”
Brendan: Oh, I would join you for a couple weeks of that. Awesome.
Alastair: I came out to Texas earlier this year to give a talk. I just drove around for a week, listening to country music stations and talking to Texan people, just having the absolute time of my life. It was absolutely magical. I loved it. America is an amazing place.
Most of the people I’ve been interviewing are doing adventures that involve bicycling a long way or walking a long way or climbing big things. But for people who maybe aren’t that energetic, who would get put off by the physical aspect of adventuring, I think you can have a great adventure by car. Certainly you get all the human side of it all, the interactions. I think it’s something that people should definitely do more.
Brendan: Oh, for sure, yeah. I’ve driven 75,000 miles in the last three years.
To experience the world at 11 miles per hour is an incredible thing.
Alastair: How does travelling by bike compare to travelling by car?
Alastair: Oh, cycling is still the best. I bicycled across the US in 2010 with a buddy. On a bicycle, I feel like everyone is interested in what you’re doing and they think you’re so harmless. They’ll just come right up and talk to you at gas stations. They just come over and they’re so drawn by curiosity, that these two idiots were riding bikes across the country.
We’ve met so many cool people that way. To experience the world at 11 miles per hour is an incredible thing. You have all this time and that’s all you have. It’s so slow and I had all this time where you have all this thinking time and trying to make that work. You can eat whatever you want. I mean we calculated we were burning 6000 to 8000 calories per day. You just put whatever you want in your body and then just burns it.
It’s fantastic. I’ve been trying to get another bike trip off the ground. I think we’re going to tour up in Norway next June, north of the Arctic Circle because it really is the best.
Alastair: I read somewhere when I was reading up about you a nice quote, you said, imagining looking back later in life, “I don’t remember getting a little bit behind on my bills, that sort of stuff. What I do remember is cycling across America with my friend,” and that those memories last way after you’ve caught up on the bills.
I’ll ask you now a few questions about turning your passion, your hobby, your lifestyle into an actual job, because I’m sure a lot of people say to you, “You’re really lucky, and I’m really jealous.” How did you go about turning what you love doing into a job?
“If you want to be a freelance writer you either have to have a trust fund or an understanding spouse,”
Brendan: I knew I was going to be a writer, but it’s not really that simple. When I was in graduate school, a guy who was a freelance writer spoke to our class and said, “If you want to be a freelance writer you either have to have a trust fund or an understanding spouse,” which I have neither. I grew up pretty working class. So it’s not like I could just say, “Hey, Dad, I need money for five years while I get my career going.”
Alastair: How did you make it happen then?
Brendan: Well, I always worked regular jobs, and then would write on the side and go climbing after work on the weekends. And if I had a week off of work, I would take the two weekends on either side and make it a nine-day trip. I would be sending emails to magazine editors saying, “Hey, I want to do this story. Can I write this story for your magazine?” Of course, in the beginning they said, “No,” or they would ignore me. But eventually, I started getting a few articles for small magazines, where they would pay me $100 or whatever. Just like everybody, I worked my way up until I got some stories going.
And then my blog, it was self-published writing. Nobody was paying me for it. I was giving it away for free. But it gave me a brand and people started to recognize it. And a lot of people would read the essays on there and say, “Hey, why don’t you to write something like this for us?” That has gotten me more business than anything else I’ve ever done.
Alastair: The blog’s been important for you, then?
Brendan: Yes, it’s been the most important thing, just how a lot of people have heard of my stuff. I think I was two and a half years into writing a blog when Climbing Magazine said, “Do you want to write a column for us about climbing?” But in the same tone as your blog, sometimes humorous and insightful or whatever. Now people have found my work and approached me about doing film scripts for short films and stuff like that. And it’s been really amazing.
Alastair: All of that has come through setting up a blog, producing good content, and repeating, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Exactly the same thing happened for me in terms of how I gradually managed to make a living out of what I do; exactly the same. Starting a blog, taking it really seriously, trying to do really good content, even though absolutely nobody was reading it, except my Mum, and just repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.
Brendan: Yeah, I think a lot of people don’t stick with it. They’ll start a blog. And then they’ll update it once a week for two months. And then they’ll get distracted by something else. And there isn’t that reward of that many people seeing it, so they don’t post again for like three months or whatever. And then they’ll, “Sorry, it’s been so long since I’ve posted,” to the audience. To me, you have to take it seriously. And figure out what people like, what are they responding to?
Sticking with it is so important, and then understanding why people read things.
Alastair: Here’s an alternative option: instead of flogging yourself writing articles for fees which are not really increasing in the industry, even as you get more senior, why don’t you just go get a “proper job”? Find a job you like, a proper career, and just go climb on the weekends and your holidays?
Brendan: Gosh, I couldn’t go back to it now. I mean, to me, your work has to be something you believe in, you know. I’m not going to have much money, but I do have freedom and that is the most important part. If I want to go climbing on Tuesday, I go climbing on a Tuesday. If I want to try to go to Europe or go climb in the Alps and try to make a story out of it, I can. I mean, maybe I fail and we spend a bunch of money and only sell one story about it, and it ends up being a huge loss, but I tried, you know.
Obviously it’s not going to work for everybody, and maybe I’ll regret in not having stability, but boy, I’m having a blast right now.
Maybe I’ll regret in not having stability, but boy, I’m having a blast right now.
Alastair: I would certainly echo that. How did you find the process of getting the book published and getting it out into the world? That’s something people ask me about a lot.
Brendan: Well, I’m self-published.
Alastair: You’re fairly well-established as a writer now. Why didn’t you go with a normal publisher?
Brendan: It’s a total pain in the ass! The problem is nobody would listen to me. Like the book idea: “Guess what? I went on a road trip and found myself.” Every publisher in America has heard that story from a bazillion people!
I collected 50-some rejection letters. And I finally just said, “well, geez, you know, I’ve got this blog. Maybe I’ll do some publicity. Maybe if I tell people on my blog that I’m writing a book, maybe they’ll buy it.”
You just upload a Word document and a PDF file for the cover and you’ve got a book two weeks later. I self-published it in December 2013. It’s in its first year and will probably sell a little over 4,000 copies. It’s tapered off quite a bit, but it’s regularly selling about 100 copies a month through Kindle and everything like that.
Alastair: It’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s so democratizing.
Brendan: I thought “what are publishers going to do for me?” Yes, they’ll definitely edit it, which is arguably a good thing, depending on who your editor is. Of course, they can get it into bookstores, and mine is not going to get into bookstores the way I’ve done it. It’s also like I just don’t think that book is going to take off and become a New York Times Bestseller, you know. It’s just not going to.
Alastair: I think that’s good to be realistic about it. It’s a niche book, and so don’t beat yourself up if it just appeals to the niche. That’s what I’ve been trying to teach myself to do with my books.
Brendan: Yeah, there are books like “Fifty Shades of Grey” that are massive, massive sellers. Obviously, we’re not in it for the money.
You should never sleep in instead of doing something you love.
Alastair: Moving on now to people who are saving up, want to get out and do a trip, but they’re basically stopped by a lack of time, a lack of money, a perceived lack of expertise, and all these fears and doubts. So I wanted to ask you, specifically, about how you get out the door to go make adventure happen. I have a theory that people like me and you who go and do these sorts of things are quite often slight extremists with some sort of addictive personality who just want to do things slightly more excessively than is necessary. So a lot of normal people would just happily go climb for a weekend, whereas you decide to go live out of the car for years and do a lot of climbing. For people who want to make that transition to doing something a bit more big and adventurous, how do you get out the front door and make big stuff happen if you’re full of doubt?
Brendan: You should never sleep in instead of doing something you love. Life is going to pass you by and you’re not going to have a lot of memories of sleeping in late. You’re not going to look back in 20 years and say, “oh, yeah, remember all those days we slept until 11 a.m.? Yeah, they were so great, you know.” There’s a great quote by Todd Skinner who’s a famous American climber who died a few years ago, and he says, “The problem is you think you have time, and you don’t.” And that’s true for everybody. It’s just all these different ways of saying the same thing, like get off your ass and do it, you know. Do you want to be a climber? Well, you’ve got to go climb.
Alastair: Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.
Alastair: Do you know a website called DeathClock.com?
Brendan: I’ve seen it before, yeah.
Alastair: That is good if ever you start wasting your life to give yourself a kick in the backside. So my final question then is if I was to give you £1000, what would be a good adventure you could go do with a thousand pounds, or about $1500.
Brendan: Boy, that’s great. I think I might fly to Alaska and go backpacking. £1000 would get me there and then have enough money to rent a car and then go backpacking in Denali.
Alastair: There’s a website, it’s called Kayak.co.uk, it’s for booking flights, but you can type in how much money you’ve got and it can just show you this picture of where in the world you could go right now. And as the year of this saving £1000 has been going, I’ve been looking and looking and looking and it’s just got so I can now get from the U.K. to New Zealand. So the world is within grasp now, which is just amazing. It’s brilliant.
Brendan: That’s awesome. They should show you things you could buy other than that that won’t make you as happy right next to it, like, oh, you could get a bigger TV.
Alastair: Oh, gosh, that’s a good idea.
Brendan: You could buy this completely boring thing that you think is necessary for now, you know, or you could go to New Zealand.
Alastair: I like that. That’s brilliant. Thank you.
You can read Brendan’s blog and buy his book here.
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!