Though it’s easy to forget in our current political climate, America is a pretty incredible place. We’re far from perfect and there’s a ton to satirically poke fun at, but the headlines don’t necessarily touch on the America I’m talking about. I’m talking about the physical, tangible, explore-able America. The one you can go outside and feel. The one Heat-Moon wrote about and Adams photographed. The one O’Keeffe painted and Roosevelt preserved. I’m talking about the wild America we all love — hiding in plain sight because we all too easily forget that it exists.
During last week’s National Parks Centennial (#NPS100), we encouraged people to turn off their phones, lay off the Pokémon hunting, and drive to their nearest National Park. We urged them to explore for exploration’s sake. James Kaiser agrees with that sentiment and if you need some help getting excited, he’s your man. He’s been writing guide books of the National Parks for more than a decade and has extensively covered Yosemite, Acadia, The Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree (as well as Costa Rica) in a way that’s relatable, exciting, and loaded with gorgeous photography. His guide books dive deep and showcase little known facts — just the kind of encouragement we all need.
So I have to comment on the books you’re putting out. They’re unlike any other guide book I’ve looked at. It’s fun to read. You want to read it like a novel.
Nice, I’m glad you had that reaction because that’s exactly what I’m going for.
Is there any part of you that worries that you’re going to make things too appealing? Do you worry that you’ll bring in an unwanted crowd?
Not really, because … Generally the type of people that buy a guide book and specifically a guide book like mine, those are exactly the people that you want to go to a place like Acadia. You want the people that really appreciate it, that are interested in the history, that are interested in the outdoors. People are going to experience that and take that with them and hopefully get involved to protect the parks and protect the environment. That’s, sort of, my goal and if I can get through to some people that may not be inclined in that direction. That’s even better.
You can maybe sway them over?
It’s interesting you asked that question about unwanted crowds. With the National Parks Centennial, that’s sort of one of the big issues. That’s always a conflicting issue with the National Parks Service; preservation versus promotion. My feeling is, there are so many people not experiencing the outdoors. Looking at their phones indoors. The more people that can experience beautiful, amazing places, the more people will ultimately want to protect them.
That’s a really good point. I think people don’t realize that … There are what, 412 protected spaces in the system?
In the system, yes. If you’re just talking about National Parks I think it’s 58.
I think people underestimate how close a park or protected space really is to them.
Yeah, they’re all over. If you’re talking about National Parks, you’re pretty much within a day’s drive of a National Park wherever you are in the U.S. You start getting into national monuments and restored sites, everybody lives within a couple hour’s drive of one of those. There’s lots and lots of places you can go to.
How old were you when you wrote that guide book for Acadia?
I started on it when I was 21 and it came out when I was 22.
You say somewhere that you just kind of had a knack for writing guide books. How the hell do you figure that out? What did you go to school for?
I actually studied engineering in college. Basically what happened was, I thought I was going to continue through and do something with engineering. There’s a five year program, and I took a year off before going back to the five year program. That was when I published Acadia: The Complete Guide. And growing up near Acadia I had a lot of insider information. The knack came naturally during the first book because it was a topic very close to me. Born and raised nearby, went to the park all the time with my parents. Spent my high school and college summers working in Bar Harbor, there’s a town outside with parks and restaurants so I just knew the area extremely well.
I was able to put all that into the guide and make a guide that offered a lot more than the guides that were out there. When I thought of working on other guide books I really took some of the lessons that I learned doing Acadia. Lessons about researching the right kind of information; geology, wildlife, ecology. That sort of thing. The initial knack that I had was in local information and I wanted to turn that into the type of guide book that I would want to buy. Guide books with great photos and a lot of background information. So I took that first book as a lesson and I applied that to the next parks that I wrote about.
That’s pretty cool because I was going to say, you spent 21 years researching the book without even knowing it. Then the second one you had to figure out on the fly …
What age did you put out the second book?
That was 2003, so I would have been 24.
Do you think you kind of … Not streamlined the process, but sort of learned how to make a guide book quickly and effectively?
I’ve definitely gotten better at it and I keep getting better at it. It’s an ongoing process. The way I look at each new addition, I want to make it even better. That might be better photos, that might be new interesting information. I consider all the books to be an ongoing process. Sometimes there’s new information that comes out about places. There’s scientific research that shares something new and interesting. I’m constantly improving the guides and at the same time I do feel like I have a pretty good template that people respond to. I definitely have my writing style and photography style that people respond to. That is definitely something that’s built up over the years.
Then you went to Costa Rica which was kind of a curve ball. You went from doing these National Parks to doing, not only an international location, but a whole country. How was the response to that?
The response has been great. The people that use it absolutely love it. It definitely was veering away from what I was doing with focusing specifically on National Parks but, at the same time, all of Costa Rica is kind of like a giant National Park. Almost 25 percent of the country is protected as either National Parks or protected areas. In that sense it’s actually kind of a similar project, because again you’re dealing with the outdoors, you’re dealing with wildlife. That’s all familiar territory. For me it was a chance to explore a really incredible ecosystem that I had no experience with. The tropics, tropical rain forest, and all the incredible wildlife there.
A lot of the people going to the National Parks would generally be the people inclined to go to Costa Rica because they’re eco travelers. They’re people looking for that. They’re looking for an amazing outdoor experience and they’re curious about nature and wildlife.
Absolutely, and they don’t want to immerse themselves in something that they’re not entirely familiar with. That’s where you come in.
That’s the other thing. One of the things I love most about travel is learning new things. Which became very apparent to me, working on the first edition of the Acadia guide, there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about the park that I learned while writing the book. I love putting that cheap, off-the-map style, interesting information into my guide book so other people can discover it as well.
That’s one of the reactions I love the most. hearing people say “I’ve been going to this place for years and I’ve learned lots of amazing new stuff from your guide book.” To me that’s one of the joys of traveling is learning new things and I think a lot of guide books fall flat when it comes to actually uncovering new things. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of with my guide books.
What do you have planned for the future? Are you going to tackle more National Parks or are you going to go internationally?
Well, I still think there’s a lot of National Parks that I would love to do guide books to, places that I would love to learn about and photograph. I think I’ll probably go in that direction. I’m also constantly working on my website and getting involved with all the possibilities that the digital world opens up. There’s a lot of great, great stuff I can do with my guide books that, I think, are superior to a phone when it comes to having information accessible and that’s easy to flip through. Instead of searching through the maze that is the internet. I’m always keeping my eyes towards the future and I think that there’s so many possibilities that are digital and app based and I’m actively trying to stay on top of that.
Yeah, if there was an app that was the complete guide to Yellowstone I’m sure it would be something worth purchasing.
Yeah, that’s the thing, I still think that apps are clumsy, I still think that trying to find high quality information on the internet is clumsy. I think that the technology is evolving and I want to evolve with it.
I know you kind of touched on it before, but, if you were trying to persuade people to visit the National Parks why should they do it? I mean, especially in the days after the centennial? Why is it worth adventuring out there?
These are some of the most beautiful places in America — that’s why they were set aside as National Parks. Just the idea of a National Park is something that was born right here in America and it really reflects what this country is about. They’re places that are open to the public. They’re places that anyone can go. Before National Parks were created in America, it wasn’t necessarily like that. Lots of beautiful places were owned by private individuals or governments that would not let people go anywhere near them. It’s really a democratic idea and it reflects the best of us. Hopefully this year with the centennial and the spotlight shinning bright on National Parks a new generation of visitors can discover them. Ultimately, they’re going to grow up and be the voters that vote on whether or not to continue protecting National Parks. Hopefully new people get exposed to National Parks and develop a new appreciation for nature and outdoors. Which is something that is increasingly important in the modern era. There’s so many distractions that keep people away from nature and I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
I totally agree and I think now with airline travel getting cheaper and with more people eager to travel internationally, it’s easy to forget how incredible our backyard is.
That’s another thing, there’s two groups of people that are not going to National Parks right now. The ones who think they’re not into the outdoors. They think they are a city person or they’re just not into camping. My feeling is a lot of them don’t understand that visiting a National Park doesn’t have to be a brutal outdoor experience where you’re braving the elements or suffering. You can have amazing experiences visiting for a day, there’s incredible stuff that’s really accessible.
On the flip side of that you have the people whose idea of an amazing vacation is flying to Nepal or going to an exotic location somewhere in the tropics. Sometimes those people are overlooking National Parks because they think that the ultimate vacation has to be someplace else. It has to be outside the United States. That’s so wrong. There are incredible adventures outside the United States but, I’ll tell you I’ve been on incredible river trips in the Grand Canyon and that’s some of the most extraordinary scenery anywhere on Planet Earth. Every time I go through the Grand Canyon on a road trip I just constantly think to myself that I can’t believe this exists here in America. A lot of people just write it off because they think of it as, like…you’re driving between Las Vegas and you drive along Route 66 and you pull over and you see the rim of the canyon and stand there like the Griswalds. It is an epic place and has these epic adventures that are on par with the greatest adventures in the world.
Yeah, absolutely, like you said, you can go into certain parts and certain places like Zion, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and it feels as foreign as Nepal or Central America.
It’s spectacular and people outside the U.S. realize this. When you go to National Parks the amount of foreign visitors is enormous. It’s a much larger percentage than you would think and that’s because they realize that these are spectacular places and they are world class. They’re going to come to America and they are going to see Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone. That’s what’s kind of funny is that, I think sometimes there are more people outside the United States that appreciate how spectacular these places are than inside the United States.
The Mad Ones is a reference to a famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ”
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