Interview With John Rasmus: ‘The New Age of Adventure’

Travel Interviews: Jim Benning asks the National Geographic Adventure editor about a new travel anthology, and about how technology is changing our sense of adventure

09.16.09 | 10:03 AM ET

National Geographic has just published a book collecting memorable travel and adventure tales from the last 10 years of National Geographic Adventure magazine. Edited by John Rasmus, who launched the magazine in 1999 and continues to oversee it today, The New Age of Adventure features 25 strong pieces from around the globe by the likes of Sebastian Junger, Peter Matthiessen, Tim Cahill, Kira Salak and David Quammen.

Rasmus has been around the globe, too, and after editing stints at Outside and Men’s Journal, he’s had some adventures in editing and publishing. I spoke to him yesterday by phone and asked him about the book and whether the rise of GPS and Google Earth has changed our sense of adventure.

World Hum: What does adventure mean to you?

John Rasmus: My definition of it is that it means something different for everyone. It’s a wide open concept that I think is different depending on the individual’s experience and level of adventurousness. The important thing is that you push yourself out of your comfort zone and experience other parts of the world. When I hear people say, well this is a real adventure or that’s not a real adventure, because a real adventure is completely self supported and dangerous and risky, well that’s their definition. But for somebody who’s never been on a backpacking trip, like my 14-year-old daughter last year, who went out for two weeks in the Rockies with a dozen other teenagers and a couple of college-age guides, that was a real adventure for her. Commercial adventure travel trips qualify as well, if they’re well-run and the outfitters are in tune with the values and spirit of adventure.

Why did you call the book “The New Age of Adventure”?

I wanted to underscore that we’re entering a new historical phase in the world of adventure. We’ve moved from the age of exploration where explorers and adventurers were filling in the last blank spaces on the map to a time when every square inch of the planet has been photographed, mapped and GPS-ed by Google Earth. There are no more blank spots. And really, there are new issues and problems and challenges that confront the world. People want to have some reason to go a place and make a positive contribution of some kind through their travels, in addition to just having a great time or pushing themselves to achieve some great personal goal.

In the introduction to the book, you note that over the last decade you’ve been making a transition from covering the age of exploration to the age of conservation. What does that mean in terms of the stories you publish?

I think Paul Kvinta’s story in the book, “Stomping Grounds,” about elephants in India, is a good example of that. It’s in many ways a throwback to the old world of adventure with man-eating lions or rogue elephants destroying crops and the solution before would be to just go out and shoot them. And now it’s apparent to everyone who cares about these issues that it’s a much more complex issue than that, that preserving the habitat of the elephants is important, and preserving the local way of life is important. What was a good old-fashioned adventure story about elephants scaring the daylights out of people is a much deeper and more serious issue.

Another perhaps extreme example of that is Peter Heller’s piece, “The Whale Warriors,” in which he hooked up with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Paul Watson’s group, in the Southern Ocean, and they committed themselves to disrupting and curtailing the Japanese whaling industry. The illegal hunting of whales continues down there in spite of the fact that there are numerous treaties in place protecting these whales. It’s a good old-fashioned adventure story at the bottom of the earth but there’s an underlying conservation message going through it.

Since you launched National Geographic Adventure, the amount of information on the internet has exploded. You mentioned GPS and Google Earth. When we can bring remote parts of the world to our computers in an instant, does it change the way we perceive adventure?

It probably has in ways that we haven’t quite figured out yet. I think it represents the furthering of a trend that’s been happening for a long time, which is that the world is a much smaller, more accessible place than it was in decades past, and that in every decade you could look back and say the same thing about previous decades. It’s so easy to go wherever you want these days. People are much more well-traveled. They are much more willing to go places that are off the beaten path and their appetite for the really exotic is stronger than ever.

Has the internet had any effect on how you edit National Geographic Adventure? For example, do you think readers are as eager as ever to read these great, long feature stories that you have in the book? Have you had to trim the length of your stories to accommodate changing reading habits?

The short answer is we really haven’t. I think indirectly, as more advertising revenue moves to the web, we’re in a more competitive environment now and we have fewer pages to work with, as most magazines do, so we can’t offer as many full-length narratives as we have in the past. But we think it’s important to have one or two per issue that will interest most of our readers. I think long-form journalism will still have a place. If anything people have less patience for reading entire books and feel like a long magazine article satisfies that immersive media experience.

What do you see for the future of National Geographic Adventure? Do you see print travel magazines thriving in 10 years?

I think that 10 years from now we’ll be more of a content brand, just as National Geographic in general is now. It’s television, it’s print, it’s online, and it hits many different audience segments. Adventure will certainly have its print iteration and its digital iteration. Those will have different functions and different value propositions to the users and readers, and I don’t think we’ve sorted all those out yet. But I do think there’s a role for a product that arrives in your mailbox in physical form that you open up and are surprised by—you both know what to expect and are surprised by what the editors come up with. That’s always been the balance that every editor has to achieve. We’ll try to be as valuable as we can on the digital side and as surprising and creative as we can on the print front.

Thanks, John.

Jim Benning

Jim Benning is the editor and co-founder of World Hum.

2 Comments for Interview With John Rasmus: ‘The New Age of Adventure’

Sean O'Neill 09.16.09 | 11:56 AM ET

Fantastic interview! John Rasmus has made Adventure such a great read.

Vishal Gupta 09.18.09 | 1:52 AM ET

Loved the interview - always enjoy National Geographic - And so was good to read from an inside source.

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