My dad was an outdoorsman in a post-Depression, conventional sort of way: He hunted, fished and camped. He imbued me and my siblings with a love and appreciation of nature.
At some point, when I was fairly young, I announced to my mom and dad that I was going to be a big explorer and a great writer. I had big ambitions, delusions of grandeur.
I grew up on the romantic outdoor stories of explorers in Africa and Alaska and always wanted to be one of them. I’d also been inspired by my cousin, Heimo, who had gone off to live in Alaska. I had promised myself I’d do the exact same thing (Jim later wrote about Heimo in The Final Frontiersman. That became a Discovery Channel series for which Jim serves as a co-Executive Producer.), but when I turned 18, I went to the East coast. I always say no self-professed mountain man in the making ever goes to Connecticut, but that’s what I did!
After college I lived in cities—Chicago and New York City—and enjoyed my time there, but my brother and I had I always wanted to go someplace wild and unknown together. When he graduated from college we did. This was the late ‘80s.
At that time the Amazon and New Guinea were certainly the two wildest places in the world, and we opted for the latter. I’d had a lifelong fascination with that country and that trip was a formative experience.
Topographically, New Guinea is the most amazing place. The interior is filled with huge mountains and the coastline is just spectacular. At that time, no one really traveled there; the only other people we met were two former Israeli army soldiers on a similar trek.
This period of my life coincided with the decision to explore the world of writing. I took some creative writing classes at Northwestern and loved them. I remember thinking I wanted to figure out how to write about the stuff I loved to read.
I started writing letters—this was pre-email—to editors across the country. One of them, Howard Mead, the founder, publisher and main editor of Wisconsin Trails, gave me some assignments. I also got hired to write for Backpacker Magazine and I was off!
I eventually decided to go back to writing school and ended up at the University of Colorado in Boulder and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, also in Boulder. Talk about a fish out of water! There were a lot of wonderful people there and it was a great experience.
While in Boulder, I fell in love with the mountains again and also met my wife.
I have a constant sense of conflict between having itchy feet and wanting to put down roots. My family has a little farmette in Lodi and it’s a beautiful place. I try to root myself here, but I’m always dreaming.
My wife, fortunately, is very adventurous. We honeymooned in New Guinea and were hoping to get back there for our anniversary this summer. My three girls are adventurous too. My oldest daughter and I traveled to Alaska (chronicled in Braving It), my middle daughter hiked the 150-mile Ghost Mountain Trail in New Guinea with me (the subject of Jim’s earlier book, The Ghost Mountain Boys); my youngest is clamoring for her trip. There’s no fountain of youth, so I have to do something while I can still move.
My most memorable caffeine is the coffee I drink every morning. I’m a very early riser—I’m up every day at 4:30 or 5:00, even before the dairy farmers. I’ve found I do my best work before all hell breaks loose in the house.
My current caffeine of choice is a latte made on my very expensive machine. I used to be a black, cowboy coffee drinker. Now I’ve become one of “those” people: I like good coffee and a good machine. On the trail there are lots of places where there’s no coffee and, believe me, I feel it’s absence. Here I can indulge myself and I do. I love it. I usually get my coffee beans at Nunatak Coffee in Beaver Dam when I’m visiting my mom.
My favorite place for caffeine is the old tack house, about 100 feet from my house, where I go to write. I’m not a writer that works in coffee houses; I rarely go out for coffee.
I feel a kinship with the writers. I have a real love of the land and all the writing I love is rooted in place.
Mandela was a visionary and incredibly inspirational. Carter was much maligned as a president, but is an amazing man in so many ways. They’re both models of the kinds of people we should strive to be.
World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: One humble goal: to figure out how to have a better garden. We have a garden, but the art of having a really good, prolific garden continues to escape me. My high-minded answer would be to figure out how to heal the partisan division in this country.