Tim Cahill and the Great Story Arc in the sky

Joseph Bullington -
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
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Enterprise photo by Nate Howard

Local author Tim Cahill reads to an audience Thursday at Pine Creek Lodge.

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Sketch by Joseph Bullington

Reporter’s notebook

It was near half past seven by the time Scott Boehler was able to coax Tim Cahill away from his table of friends and food and booze to stand lonely before the microphone and begin the night’s reading.

Cahill at last gave in to the expectations of the audience gathered at Pine Creek Lodge and lumbered to the podium like a bear roused from hibernation, carrying a glass of beer in one paw and dragging a chair with the other.

“You gonna sit on a chair?” asked Boehler, as he positioned the mic.

“No, I’m gonna put my beer on a chair,” Cahill responded. “And looks like I’m gonna need another one.”

“Another chair?”

No. Another beer.”

And so the reading began.

“I’m known as an adventure travel writer,” Cahill, who is 74, told the audience. “Today I announce that I am officially retired.”

If this really is the end of the trail, at least it will be well marked. In September, the Society of American Travel Writers honored Cahill with a prestigious Lowell Thomas award, and he showed off the plaque at Thursday’s reading with obvious pride — a monument to his decades-long work to make outdoor-adventure writing great again, a genre worth reading.

In my mind, however, it is the piece for which he won the award — an essay called “My Drowning (And Other Inconveniences)” published in Outside Magazine in 2017 — that stands as the true achievement.

In the essay, from which Cahill proceeded to read, he reflects on his evolution as a travel writer, on what he has learned — and on the time he died a couple years back while rafting the Grand Canyon.

When he helped found Outside Magazine in 1976, “what passed for adventure writing … was found in postwar pulps, magazines with names like Adventure for Men, Man’s Adventure, and Man’s Testicle,” Cahill writes. He argued for an outdoor-adventure story now and then, but the genre was considered “sub literate.”

In his writing, Cahill tried to channel what he calls “a whole strain of American literature that concerns itself with outdoor adventure: from James Fenimore Cooper to Herman Melville to Mark Twain to Jack London to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.”

In his early days, he writes, he was fascinated by the concept of risk.

“But in all these expeditions or journeys,” he writes, “I had begun to realize adventure was about story, not brute survival. Which is how — having exhausted my curiosity about risk — story became my obsession. Story focused on meaning, and a story well told, I thought, provided a brief glance at the meaning of life, a flashbulb moment of human context.”

Story, he writes, is “a lens through which we apprehend our world,” a tool as fundamental to the Homo sapiens species as fire. “In my mind, I have always envisioned a blinding curve of energy, a great story arc in the sky.”

It is here, in this essay, between the self-deprecating humor and the gripping action, that we can catch our best glimpse of the … spirituality at the heart of Cahill’s best work — no better word comes to mind to describe this or the force behind any other great writing.

In fact, Cahill makes the connection himself: “I think the act of losing yourself in the work, any work, is much akin to Eastern meditative states,” he writes. He quotes the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

“And what that has to do with the soul is this: You are part of it. I am part of it. Every human being is part of it. As soon as you are born, your parents start telling your story. As a child, you will skin your knee or walk naked into your parents’ dinner party; later you’ll suffer a broken heart, maybe hit the zone in your chosen sport, have children of your own. And that all becomes part of the human story. It folds into the Great Story Arc and alters it, if only very slightly. And there, in that blinding curve of energy that lasts forever — that is where your soul resides.”


Pine Creek hosts Writer’s Nights many Thursday evenings at 7 p.m. throughout the winter. The next one will be held Thursday, Dec. 6 and will feature local writers and naturalists Doug Peacock and Andrea Peacock. To see the full schedule, visit https://www.pinecreeklodgemontana.com/events/ .