Steve Casimiro on 30+ Years of Making Adventure Stories
March 22, 2019
The former Powder editor shares his tricks of the trade
By 2016, there wasn’t too much Steve Casimiro hadn’t done in his nearly 30-year career in adventure media: Since 1987, he’d been a writer, photographer, and gear reviewer, worked as a magazine editor at Powder and National Geographic Adventure, and in 2009 created Adventure Journal, an online magazine that put voice and perspective first.
But Steve hadn’t tried out the “publisher” job title yet, so in spring 2016, he and his wife, Joni, launched Adventure Journal quarterly, a bookshelf-worthy printed publication including the works of luminaries like Craig Childs, Terry Tempest Williams, Chris Burkard, Peter Heller, Forest Woodward, Krista Langlois, Robert Macfarlane, Sarah Gilman, Ami Vitale, David Roberts, and others. Steve and Joni are currently working on Issue 12 of the quarterly, as well as keeping the online side of Adventure Journal running.
Here’s something you wouldn’t know from Steve’s resume: he is largely responsible for the success of Semi-Rad.com. I had been writing weekly blog posts on Semi-Rad for only a few months in early 2011, sort of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what stuck, when Steve reached out and asked if I would like to write for Adventure Journal. I of course said yes. Over the next few years, lots of people found out about Semi-Rad through Adventure Journal, and Steve became my editor and very quickly a dear friend—who gave me enough writing work for me to quit my day job and make the jump to full-time adventure writing in mid-2012.
I wish every creative in the adventure/outdoor space were lucky enough to have a friend and mentor like Steve, as I did. And Steve, of course, is very busy nowadays. But I wanted to interview him and get into his history and philosophy of making things that resonate with people—something he’s been doing since his early years at Powder in the late 1980s.
Steve did ask me to tell you that our conversation took place in the front seat of his 4Runner parked near the edge of a cliff in the San Rafael Swell. The spring wind was howling and we were on about our seventh or eighth cup of coffee and if this reads staccato it’s a reminder that there’s a reason he’s a writer and not a public speaker. The secret to good writing? Edit, edit, and edit some more. To good speaking? He doesn’t know. To good friendships? Sharing spring in the desert works.
On His Start as a Writer and Photographer
“It all began when I was a kid. I started writing when I was in elementary school. Around 11 or 12, I discovered photography and bought my first camera then. I had a newspaper class in junior high where I learned how to develop film and prints in the darkroom, and to me that just seemed like sorcery. It was just the most amazing thing. You had this blank sheet of paper that all of a sudden had this picture, which, when you’re 13 years old, is probably out of focus and really stupid, but it still was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. Alchemy. That you could bring that with other elements, with words and ideas, and communicate something, even at a pretty early age I thought that was really cool.
“My path to getting here was winding, though. I didn’t really have mentors or people who’d gone before to show me the way, and I was like a dog running around the park from scent to scent, chasing what caught my attention. I went this way and I went that way, and for a long time, I wanted to be a photographer. I wanted to be a wire service photographer. I grew up outside Washington, D.C., and when I was in high school, I would cut class to go down and shoot photos of protests on the Mall and talk to all these grizzled wire service guys, UPI and AP guys, and I thought it was just the coolest thing ever. But I kind of backed my way into a journalism degree, and in the middle of college things snapped into place. I got a part-time job at a newspaper while I was still in school. It was USA Today, which happened to be in my hometown, and while it wasn’t the paper that I would have chosen to start my journalism career, it was an incredible opportunity to land as a student.
“I springboarded USA Today into working for a small paper in Burlington, Vermont, because I wanted to ski and I wanted to write for people that I knew personally. At USA, I covered business, was on the phone, and didn’t feel any connection to the subjects of my stories. You do these short pieces, which come and go quickly, and you don’t have any sense of impact to what you’re doing, if there’s any at all.
“At the same time, I was also falling in love with outdoor sports. My late teens and early 20s were really difficult for me—wild behavior and alcohol abuse. By the way, I’m not sure if I ever thanked you for writing your redemption book so I don’t have to. I didn’t end up in jail, but it wasn’t for lacking of trying.
“Anyway, I hadn’t been exposed to outdoor sports as a kid, mostly had only gone car camping with my parents, but around 16 to 18 I discovered climbing, mountain biking, and skiing all at the same time. In my early adult years they became my salvation. Tying into a rope hung over on Saturday morning didn’t sound or feel very good, and adventure helped me move away from recklessness and toward something way healthier. I discovered Powder magazine, too, and through it dreamed of a life that seemed very, very far away.”
On Jumping From Newspapers to a Ski Magazine
“Kinda randomly, I developed a phone friendship with the editor of Powder, and when I was working for the Free Press in Burlington, the photo editor came to Vermont and did kind of a courtesy tour. I took him around, introduced him to people, and did the same when the editor came a little later. A month later, they offered me a job as a low-level editor.
“The Free Press absolutely wasn’t the Washington Post, but still, I felt like if I went to Powder I was selling out. I thought, ‘Okay, you got this degree. You studied journalism. You got a job at a newspaper. Yeah, you’re a grunt reporter, but, this is the real world and now you’re going to go write about skiing and entertain people and it’s going to be this puff thing.’ Can it be selling out if there’s no real money in it? That’s how it felt. Young, dumb me.
“I didn’t often go to my dad for advice, but I asked his opinion and he said, ‘Look, you’re 26. You have no real commitments other than this job. You don’t have a girlfriend. You don’t have pets. If ever there was a time in your life when you’re going to do this, what have you got to lose?’
“I was making less than $17,000 a year. I had no money. But I felt like I was just getting my career started. I had great friends, a great life, and I felt like my work was worthy. I loved Vermont. But I just held onto my dad’s words: ‘What do you have to lose? Newspapers are always going to be there. You don’t get opportunities like that very often, maybe once in a lifetime.’”
On His Early Days at ‘Powder’
“Powder had a tiny staff, and still does, to this day. There was an editor, a senior editor, an associate editor, which was me, an editorial assistant, a photography editor, and an art director. That was it. When you’re that small, you do everything and everybody pitches in, so I had a lot of exposure to how the different departments at a magazine run things, compared to my experience at newspapers.
“Once I got there, any doubt about the move was gone. All of a sudden, I’m skiing in places that I’d only dreamed of, and I’m meeting people who are super cool and super interesting and super creative or who just rip, skiers whose ability was beyond anything I had ever imagined. People who starred in ski movies who were now my friends. That first year, I got to go to New Zealand. I didn’t grow up traveling. People didn’t travel like they do now. Are you kidding me? I’m going to go to New Zealand? And then, four days after I got to New Zealand, I was up on the Fox Glacier in this hut. I’m like, ‘Screw newspapers. This is so cool. This is amazing.’
“After I was there for a couple years, people moved up, people moved out. I was 30, and I found myself the editor of Powder magazine. I had this great sense of reverence for what Powder could be—it had formed so much of my worldview when I was just learning to ski—and when I became editor, I felt a real sense of commitment to honor it and also deep humility to get it right.
“I left Powder in 1998, so that’s a long time ago, 21 years. I’m getting tears in my eyes talking about it—I am so idealistic about how magazines can change lives, and not just the lives of dudes who luck into jobs at them. Outdoor adventure saved my life, I’m absolutely sure of it, and Powder gave me my true focus. Newspapers can effect people, for sure, and they can speak truth to power, but magazines, there’s a different kind of level of intimacy and engagement that you have with a magazine. It’s more personal. It’s often deeper. It’s less transitory.”
On Writing the ‘Powder’ Intros
“Powder had a history of its editors writing these intros. They called them Intro, but rather than a true introduction they were more like essays, and I felt like the bar was set really high by the people who’d come before me. Rather than try to emulate them, which scared the hell out of me, I just wrote what I knew. I’m lucky to be in touch with my feelings. I can articulate what I’m feeling, and I wrote about what I felt about skiing, and not just about the left, right, and straight of skiing, but how I felt about my identity or my insecurities or my fears or wanting to have a ski partner or falling in love or what it was like when my first child was born, all those things.
“My intros became this very personal open-hearted expression both of skiing and my joy for skiing, but also of all of those elements of life that become expressed through a passion for a mountain sport and a winter sport. It was scary, at first, to hang it out there. But people would write to me about my intros, things that just blew my mind, like how what I wrote changed their lives. One guy told me he left some grinding office job, moved to Europe, ski bummed for a couple years, pursued his dream of becoming a writer, met his wife. Now he lives in Sweden. He’s got kids there.
“I was stunned. One, that he actually read the intros, and two, that you could have that kind of impact on people through skiing. It made me realize that, yeah, newspapers and journalism can change the world with reporting—but that one of the most powerful ways you can inspire or change people is through sharing your own story while on common ground.”
On Transitioning to a Freelance Career
“When Powder got purchased by Petersen in 1998, everybody in management got dumped, so it was either find another job or start freelancing. I’d been wanting to freelance, but you don’t generally leave a great job when you have a two-year-old mortgage and a one-year-old kid. I was kind of freaked and highly motivated and I said yes to every writing and photography project I could get, from travel to tech to business reporting.
“But quickly I realized, my world is adventure. The outdoor culture, the outdoor space, this is what I love and am most passionate about. This is where I want to live.
“In those first couple of years, I worked with all the usual suspects—Outside, Men’s Journal, Field & Stream, not to mention Fortune, Elle, and other general titles. Pretty quickly after leaving Powder, though, I connected with National Geographic Adventure, and it really felt like home to me. They set the bar very high. It was sober but not serious to a fault, and I loved it.”
On the Birth of ‘Adventure Journal’
“In 2008 and 2009, the economy hit the fan, as we all know. Things were not going well in the media and advertising world. It became very evident that NGA was struggling. In 2008, I’d started blogging at Adventure Journal and seeing whether I liked writing for an online audience. As NGA’s situation was clearly getting worse, I realized I didn’t really want to go back out and freelance. I wanted to write about what I want to write about, and I missed being the editor—having the vision of a publication, knowing your audience, seeing a big picture and having a way to execute. AJ’s audience was tiny, but I had one and it was loyal.
“When Nat Geo pulled the plug on the NGA print magazine in December 2009, I launched Adventure Journal as a commercial entity and started taking advertising, which I realized, 20 years into my career, that I knew nothing about selling.
“And, the business end of that is a whole different thing, but one of the foundational principles was: I’m going to do things I care about, and the ultimate goal of this is, hopefully, to help people have better lives and to write and share about things that have meaning.
“I’m in my 50s now, and as you have kids and you think about the impact that you want to have on the world. You want to spend your time on things that have meaning, and so AJ has a really, really healthy dose of all those things that fill us with stoke, chasing first tracks or the glass-off at the end-of-the-day session, but our through-line is: How is adventure affecting other people? Not just ourselves, but how does living an adventurous life and exploring the meaning of that and why we do those things, how does that ripple outward and affect the world? I don’t wake up every day and think, adventure saved my life, I’d better pass it on, but…kind of. In my experience, there’s no better way to live your life than by following adventure, but if you get to the end and all you have to show for it is a lot of powder days, then what? Good for you, but I don’t want everyone standing over my grave saying nothing but, well, he sure did ski a lot. Intentionally or not, we touch everyone around us, and I think the shared experience of adventure is a powerful way to make real relationships that open the door to profound change for the better.”
On Starting a Print Magazine After Eight Years of Being Online-Only
“We spent a ton of time thinking about print, looking at different papers, feeling paper with our eyes closed, and considering what we wanted that physical experience to be like. We wanted it to be different from what everybody else is doing, but also a real departure from the experience that we all have all day long of swiping and clicking and looking at screens. I felt then, and still feel, that giving your most valuable stories away for free by putting them on your website is an existential mistake that publications make. But if your ‘paywall’ is a magazine, then it darn well better be extraordinary—and extraordinarily different from a digital experience.
“Honestly, I built AJ for myself. This was the publication that I wanted to read and to hold in my hands. It was a gift, a payoff and counterweight for the ridiculous number of hours I’d spent staring at screens. It has a very heavy paper stock, as you know. The body stock is 80-pound and the cover is 130. It’s an uncoated paper, so it’s kind of like an art quarterly, kind of like this hybrid between a magazine and a book. A single copy weighs a pound. We don’t even like to call it a magazine—we want the stories to be as evergreen as possible so you can pick AJs up five years from now and still be stoked on them and maybe discover something new that you didn’t see before.”
On His Writing Influences
“I never actually tried to emulate anybody, at least not consciously. What I did was I read. From the time I was a kid, I read voraciously and I assimilated a lot about rhythm and flow, and later, when I started to realize, ‘Oh, you’re kind of a writer now. You better pay attention to how things are built and structured.’ E.B. White was one of my heroes, and continues to be. The New Yorker, still, but especially so back in its heyday.
“I wasn’t so much focused on voice as trying to understand: How do you construct a story? How do you construct a narrative in words as opposed to telling a story on a chairlift or at a bar or sitting around a campfire?
“And, actually, although USA Today impresses nobody and gets zero respect, working there in my first full-time job really prepared me for the online writing age. Its brevity teaches you to get to the point, to get in, get out, no wasted words. In anything that we do, but especially as a writer, distilling it all and getting to the heart of the matter quickly is important.
“I think you really have to be unafraid of taking the toaster apart and then seeing if you can put it back together for yourself.
“I tell people who are pitching us, ‘Give me the headline. Give me the dek. If you can put it in the headline and the dek, even if it’s a really, really nuanced story, if you can distill it to that, to those two things working together, then you’ve sold me on it.’ Not to be reductionist, but fuzzy, ambiguous pitches aren’t going to cut it.”
On ‘Doing What You Love’
“I consulted on a magazine startup in the late ’90s. I don’t know how they found me, but it seemed like it was going to be so cheesy. I think it was going to be something like extreme sports. I’d already left Powder, they didn’t know what they were doing, and I could tell from the jump it was just going to be a dumpster fire. I blew them off for months, and they couldn’t find anybody. So, finally, I said, ‘So, alright, what is it you need?’ They said, ‘Well, give us a price. Here’s what we need.’ So, I gave them this absurd price. It was a lot of money, and they said yes. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?’ We only did a couple issues but we lived on that money. But, the thing was, I didn’t want anybody to know about it.
“There absolutely are some times when you have to do things for money, but I know at this stage in my life, I’m not going to waste one minute working on something that I’m not passionate about, that I don’t care deeply about, or that I don’t think serves the higher cause. I think I’ve found my way there, but I wish I’d learned that younger. You’re not going to not eat. You’re going to figure out a way to eat one way or another, and, maybe, ultimately, deciding to be a starving artist isn’t for you. Maybe you’re not that talented or people don’t want what it is you have, but still, if you follow what you really care about, that’s going to nurture you in ways that a ton of money never will.”
On the Rest of His Career
“Well, um, yeah. I thought I was busy with a website, but my focus now and for the next few years is growing Adventure Journal in print and building it into a sustainable business with more people on board than just Joni and me. I think we’re doing something special, and we’ve created a place where an incredibly diverse group of people can talk about adventure from perspectives that you may not have considered, but we still have to scale up.
“Right now I’m working on the lineup of the next three issues, which is so much fun, the most fun, but I also have to figure out the business side, which is a challenge in an environment where people expect to get their media for free. Not only are we not free, but you can get a year of a competing magazine for $12, and our magazine on a newsstand costs $18 for one issue. We’re more like a quarterly book, and my challenge is to figure out how to convey the complexity, nuance, and maybe more subtle appeal of what we’re doing. Once people get on board with AJ in print, they don’t leave. Our renewal rate is 98 percent. That’s unheard of. Not one reader throws their AJs out—they tell us they either collect them or pass them to friends. And if just five percent of AJ’s monthly online readership subscribed, we’d be set for the long haul. It’s not that Joni and I don’t like wrapping and shipping magazines ourselves, but, you know…some help would be nice.”
Advice for Anyone Looking to Create for a Living
“One, you have to have a life goal, a life career goal—why are you doing this, ultimately? You gotta remind yourself constantly. There are so many down moments in any creative path, whether it’s throwing away another shitty story draft or wondering what the hell you got yourself and your family into by starting a magazine, and that commitment, or recommitment, is what helps get you through the ruts.
“Second, you have to figure out your path. And that’s where it gets really hard because it’s so difficult for us to judge our own skills, our talents, our voice. It’s impossible for us to be objective, and you can’t always rely on what other people say or how many clicks you’re getting or how many people follow you. There are people who have millions of followers on Instagram who are producing mediocre pablum, so popularity is not any kind of validation of talent either.
“You have to be ruthless in your self-assessment and you have to surround yourself with people you trust to tell you the truth. I love my supportive friends, but I sure wouldn’t mind hearing them say that my stupid ideas are stupid ideas.
“Also, this part is so hard, but how is what you’re doing different from what other people are doing? In business, you compete as a commodity, in which case you can only fight on price because your product is the same as everyone else’s, or you compete on uniqueness and quality and talent. What’s your value proposition? What makes you different and better?
“Lastly, and this is ultimately the most important consideration because it’s the difference between a starving artist and a working artist: What are you creating or offering that people want to pay for? How does your talent or whatever solve some problem in their life? How do you make a difference in their life? If you’re hitting up outdoor brands at the OR show, asking sponsors for money, they aren’t going to do it just because you’re a cool guy, you’re super rad, you’re awesome, and you’re an amazing artist or whatever, but because you’re going to make their business better. As a creator, it can be hard to get on the program, but the bottom line is the bottom line. The cold reality is they’ll give you money if it’s going to make them more money.
“If you can pull off all those things…write a book about it and you’ll make a mint telling other people how to do it.”