Earl Swift is the author of seven books, including the urgent and poignant Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island. It was named a best book of 2018 by NPR, The Washington Post, Outside, Bloomberg, and Smithsonian, among others, and recently won a Reed Environmental Writing Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Currently a Virginia Humanities fellow at UVA, Swift, 60, of Afton, is among America’s best nonfiction writers. During his 21-year tenure at The Virginian-Pilot, six of his stories were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, as were two of his books (Chesapeake Requiem and Autobiography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream). He’s also been in the running for National Magazine Awards and (twice) for the National Book Award.
In the course of doing his job, he’s searched for missing soldiers in the jungles of Southeast Asia, kayaked the perimeter of the Chesapeake Bay, and spent three weeks canoeing and camping along the James river. He took time off to thru-hike the entire 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail—but ended up writing a story for Outside about pair of hikers he met along the way who were murdered in a camping shelter.
It’s tempting to draw a direct line from Mark Twain’s semi-autobiographical travelogues in Roughing It to Swift’s narrative nonfiction (in part because he’s originally from Missouri, where he started his journalism career at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat). In the digital age, when a lot of what qualifies as news feels either manufactured or regurgitated, Swift adheres to one of the first tenets of journalism: reporting on experience.
But Swift’s hunger for experience and “getting out of the building,” as he calls it, doesn’t just make him a great reporter. He is a role model for outdoor adventurers. As someone who hikes the AT almost every day, his familiarity with the trails and wildlife of the area is a valuable resource (Ed. note: loves deer, hates snakes, faced-down a bear). He also has a reverence for the natural world that is infectious and reminds us it’s not something we should take for granted.
Swift would cringe to read all of this about himself. He is humble, self-effacing, and pretty damn funny. We sat down with him recently in a Crozet coffee shop to talk about writing, hiking, and enjoying “achievable adventures” while they’re still out there for the taking.
Why do you choose to live in Afton?
The short answer is that I live a mile from the Appalachian Trail, and on most mornings I go up and hike. I also lived for 25 years on or near the water, in Hampton Roads, and felt very connected to it. My fiancé, Amy, and I often walk the sandy trails of First Landing State Park, near her home in Virginia Beach. But there’s something about the mountains that trumps my love of water. I am rebooted every day on the trail. Regardless of whatever problems I might be dealing with, when I get out there and take on a tough uphill it balances everything.
Being connected to the outdoors seems vitally important to you.
I’m not a churchy guy, but being out in the woods connects you to something bigger—and, of course, the ocean does the same thing. I don’t know whether it’s because of the perspective you have when you’re on a mountain, or the animals you run into at any given moment.
Well, I never get tired of seeing deer. It’s always exciting to see a bear. But I don’t much like seeing rattlesnakes.
Bears don’t scare you?
We live in a very bear-y stretch of mountain here. Most of the time, they’re just plain fun to see—but they always demand respect. Three or four years ago, I was hiking with a friend and her 10-year-old son, Lincoln. We were on the Albright trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway. About 300 yards after setting out, I heard Lincoln say, “Oh, it’s a bear.” I turned to find that I’d walked right past a bear standing two feet away, on the edge of the trail—an adolescent, and not huge, but bigger than me. I did everything you’re supposed to—raised my hands over my head to make myself look bigger, and spoke to the bear in a firm and commanding voice. It couldn’t have cared less. We had a standoff for a long moment before I started yelling at it to get the hell out of there. Finally, it did, but very slowly. He was like, yeah I’ll leave, but on my own terms, and sauntered into the woods.
Did that put you off of hiking for awhile?
Not at all. Hiking is pretty much my gym. The AT is so close to my house that I just go from Rockfish Gap either north or south, usually south. There’s a five-mile stretch that leads down to the Wolf Shelter and throws a little of everything at you. It’s a good interval workout. And right [about] now, in early spring, it’s beautiful. There’s nothing between you and this incredible view of the Rockfish Valley. You can go with earbuds in and not worry about listening for a rattle, and just cruise. Once summer comes and the snakes arrive, I leave the earbuds at home.
I thru-hiked the trail in 1990 and have very fond memories of lots of places in Virginia that I would like to get back to—and eventually will.
I heard you found a plane-crash site near the AT.
I didn’t discover it, but I did get to it. It was an old radial-engine Marine Corps trainer that had been flying to Nashville from the East Coast. It lost oil pressure over the Blue Ridge. The guys bailed out and both survived. The wreckage is about 600 feet off the AT at the bottom of a steep decline. I knew it was on the south side of Humpback, probably on the flank that faces east. That’s a big mountain, but after a lot of bushwhacking I found the plane, in big identifiable pieces. It’s work to get to it, and even more work to get back out—you almost have to go hand-over-hand. Along the way I found a lot of other stuff too. Weird poems written on boulders—it was little creepy, a little Blair Witch-y.
What’s the most extreme situation you’ve been in?
You mean, when I was sure I was gonna die? There are a lot of competitors for that. The Pilot once sent me around the Chesapeake Bay in a kayak for six weeks, and I was filing stories as I went. One night I camped on this tiny spit of sand called Honeymoon Island, about a quarter mile from land. I pitched my tent, an aluminum-frame North Face Bullfrog. I was settling down for the night when I heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. Five minutes later, there’s another snarl of thunder, and this one’s close. I felt the ground tremble. And then, suddenly, the tent is slammed by this gale-force wind and flips over. The storm brought lightning that hit so close I would actually leave the ground. In an aluminum-frame tent with the nearest taller object a quarter mile away, it seemed impossible that I wasn’t going to get struck by lightning. It was 25 minutes of sustained terror.
Why do put yourself in these extreme situations and write about them?
Nothing I do is that extreme. I mean, there are people who do crazier things. Mountain climbers? That is some bat-shit crazy stuff.
Okay, but you seem to gravitate to writing about people in extreme situations, like the Tangier watermen. Why is it important to know about these people and these environments?
Most of it is not by design, or maybe it is and I’m just not aware of it. I’m an extremely geeky guy. The kind of story that interests me isn’t necessarily a life-or-death struggle to survive. Those elements pop up along the way. It’s not like I go looking for them.
For example, I was on Tangier when the Henrietta C. went down and Eddie Jacks [Charnock] drowned, so it was clear that would be part of the book and probably also a magazine story. I met my book deadline in October 2017. In November, I went back to Tangier and re-reported the Henrietta C. sinking for Outside. I liked the way the magazine story turned out so much that I pulled Chapter 22 out of the book and substituted it with much of what I’d written for the magazine. Had I not been there, I’m not sure I would have written about it.
So, adventure finds you?
Oh no, I can see the headline now. Don’t do that to me! [laughs] The key is to leave the building. If you leave the building—if you project yourself into the world—stuff will happen, and you’ll have things to write about.
You’ve had this moment of being the expert on Tangier Island, which is slowly being engulfed because of sea-level rise. It strikes me as a very important story for our time.
Unfortunately, it’s one of those stories that people won’t realize how important it is until the wider implications of climate change become all too apparent. Tangier is the proverbial canary in a coal mine. It’s just the first of hundreds, if not thousands, of towns that will face the same fate. And not long from now. We’ll live long enough to see it begin, and our kids will live plenty long enough to see this at its worst.
The importance of Tangier is not that it’s a town of 460, or even that it has a lifestyle that sets it apart from any other place in America. It’s that it’s the first of many. And how we respond will inform what we do the next time and the time after that.
It’s analogous to this French parable: There’s a pond with a lily pad on it the size of a silver dollar, and every day the lily pad doubles in size. After 30 days, the lily pad covers the entire surface of the pond. And the parable asks, on what day did the lily pad cover only half the pond? The answer is, on the 29th day.
That’s where we are. That’s why I think Tangier is important. It’s a wake-up call. It should be, anyway.
Circling back to you in the outdoors, and adventure. Looking at your work, those seem to be focal points. But you claim they’re not.
I would not necessarily qualify myself as an environmental writer, though it’s certainly one of my passions. But I try to stay resolutely general assignment and not get pigeonholed. Journey on the James is, on the one hand, an adventure memoir, but on the other hand it’s a history book—much of it about the French and Indian War—masquerading as an adventure memoir. It’s a very different book from Chesapeake Requiem, which is not on its face an adventure story, although being there, I guess you could argue, was an adventure.
It’s deep immersion. If there is a common denominator in my stories, it’s that.
There’s also a thread about having these places available to you, that these things are there for the taking.
That’s an interesting point, because none of these are experiences are beyond the means—physical or financial—of most people who read about them. Going on the James River in a canoe is not exactly like going to the river of no return. I’m no Teddy Roosevelt, and I did it. It’s an achievable adventure. And people are really attracted to that kind of thing. And also because, I’m chicken. I’m not looking to kill myself. I want to live a long and boring life.
Swift’s tips for surviving achievable adventures
The author says his side gig as a salesperson at Great Outdoor Provision Co. in the Barracks Road Shopping Center “gives me a chance to talk to people who are about to have adventures and give them advice.” Here it is, in a nutshell.
“Bring water. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the Humpback Rocks’ parking lot and seen people heading up there, and they’re not carrying water. Every time I see someone doing that, especially if it’s an older person, I’ll say, ‘You know, you need to rethink this.’ Just because the sign says ‘40-minute walk to the rocks’ doesn’t mean it’s going to be a garden stroll. Do not be fooled by that sign. You need water. You need lots of water.”
“Never wear cotton while hiking. Cotton will kill you. Cotton absorbs eight times its weight in liquid. If it gets wet it takes forever to dry out. And it will suck the heat out of you fast. If you’ve spent a sweaty day climbing to an overlook, and a wind’s blowing, it might be 60 degrees but if you’re wearing a soaked cotton T-shirt, you are a prime candidate for freezing to death. There are probably more people who freeze to death in that kind of weather than in bone-cracking cold. If you go hypothermic and you’re a mile up the mountain, you’re in serious trouble.”
“Wear wool or polyester, instead. You might think wool would be too hot in the summer. Not true. A light merino wool T-shirt will keep you cooler than cotton in summer, and warmer in winter.”
“Always pack a waterproof shell, even if it’s sunny. It’ll protect you from the deadly effects of wind when you’re sweaty and tired.”
“Wear wool socks year-round. There is no reason for anybody to wear cotton socks at any point in their entire lives. Wool socks wick sweat. When you wear them your shoes will never stink. You will not get blisters to the degree that you do with cotton socks. We spent generations trying to come up with a man-made fabric that could replicate what wool does, but we’ve never quite managed to do it. Wool is the miracle fabric.”
“Bring sunblock, wear a hat, and bring bug spray. I still think DEET might be unparalleled in its effectiveness, even if you can hear your chromosomes snapping as you slather it on. But last summer I experimented with picaridin. It smells a lot better. It seems to be effective against ticks and mosquitoes. And it won’t eat away at your gear the way DEET does. So, I think I may be capable of change, even with my strong opinions. I’m doing a slow turn.”