In 1976, Larry Burke founded America’s first outdoor lifestyle magazine from a windowless office in the “most dangerous neighbourhood in America”. Now Outside has 2.8 million readers per month.
In that time, Larry has become one of the most likeable entrepreneurs in the industry, and he’s still fuelled by the desire to get out there. Mariah Ranch, his home just outside Santa Fe, is a 220-acre property that he and his wife Gabe established in 1992, and here the sense of space is overwhelming. “We saw the vistas and the 77,000 acres of federal land outside our gate that nobody can build on and we fell in love with it.”
"I was impressed with the Discovery the minute I climbed in. Its capability on challenging terrain is just what you expect from Land Rover. It handled the uneven surfaces and constantly varying conditions of my ranch superbly." Larry Burke
Today, Larry is behind the wheel of a Land Rover Discovery, driving across his ranch as he shares stories of inspiration. From the stables, he heads north along rutted tracks to a favourite viewing spot – flat, high land where we watch the sun set on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
“Live bravely” is Outside’s motto – but it also seems to have a personal resonance?
It’s an expression of a broader life – your whole life. It’s about how you deal with any kind of challenging decisions that come your way. Not just adventure, but anything that summons up that mentality: “I’ve got to deal with this honourably, as best I can. I’ve got to live bravely.” Sometimes you live bravely just having a conversation with your wife about certain subjects…
What does adventure mean to you?
It’s very individual. Some people view adventure as a night run through Central Park. Others need to climb Everest. But everybody has their own definition of what’s adventurous to them. We use the word “adventurous” more often than “adventure” because people often associate adventure with the extremes. But people can be adventurous in simpler ways.
Were you always adventurous?
When I was growing up we lived on the third floor of a walk-up apartment building. There was a cyclone fence with barbed wire at the top; not a single tree in my concreted playground. I would try and ride my three-wheeled bicycle up the fence. My mother always said: “He wants to get out”. I kept trying and trying. Eventually I stacked two-by-four planks up it in a little hill to try and ride over it that way. I fell over backwards and split my skull open.
I grew up in Chicago on the West Side. It was a rough neighbourhood – lots of gangs. My grandfather had never owned a blade of grass in his life, but he got me out of the inner city in the summer and sent me to a Catholic boys’ camp in Cañon City, Colorado. That’s when I had my first experience kayaking, climbing and riding horses. My father said: “We sent him to the mountains, and he never left”.
When I was almost 16, I got into a big wreck racing motorcycles. I was pronounced DOA at hospital… I bled out internally, I broke everything – I was a mess. The surgeon opened me up and pulled my ribcage back and started transfusing blood and suturing up all my organs. Having survived that and then having my younger brother die racing, I always felt that somehow, something was looking after me. I felt… lucky. I think it encouraged me to take more chances.
1970 in Algeria, while travelling to the Central African Republic. The goggles protected Larry from the driving Saharan sand.
Was this living “bravely”?
I never thought of it in those terms. Looking back, there are plenty of occasions when I don’t think I was living very bravely. Sometimes I made a mistake and bit off more than I could chew. I usually ended up breaking something. You don’t want to confuse living bravely with being foolish.
You had a regular job once?
I put in three years with IBM in sales. One day I was sitting with my partner from the sales team in a bar in Colorado. I was 25 years old. I realised that I was never going to experience what I needed to if I stayed where I was. So I told my partner: “I’ve got to get out of this job now before it’s too late. I’ve got to go see the world”. My partner said: “I’m coming with you!”.
I told myself: “I’ve got to go away for a couple of months”. It was a very free-spirited time and two or three months turned into almost five years of non-stop travelling around the world.
When did you have the idea for Outside?
I’d sailed up from South America and was in Fort Lauderdale planning to write about my experiences. I went to the news-stand to find a magazine that covered all I had done in the world outside – not just skiing or sailing or kayaking but all of that in a really good literary style. I asked, “Where is that magazine? It isn’t here. It should be.” And that’s how Outside magazine came into existence.
Was there much of an outdoors-type audience then?
“You’ve gotta live bravely. As often as I can, I wanna live bravely.” Larry Burke
It was very much alive – it just had no voice. All my friends were involved in the content Outside represents. It was not so much about hunting elk or lake fishing for bass – it was more about a contemporary outside lifestyle, with a high degree of environmental awareness. That was instilled in me from camp in Colorado, every blade of grass is important.
But it wasn’t called Outside to begin with…
[Laughs] No! I called it Mariah. It was from the theme from Paint Your Wagon – “They call the wind Mariah”. It resonated with me. The ocean has boundaries, the forest has boundaries… but the wind is free. It was very naïve because no one understood the thought behind it apart from me!
Jann Wenner from Rolling Stone saw what I was doing, realised the strength of the concept and started a magazine called Outside two years after I started Mariah. He sent his publisher to see me about buying Mariah. I said, “Well that’s not going to happen because this is my Rolling Stone”. The response was, “How would you like to buy Outside?”. Rolling Stone was dependent on the music industry, which was going through a mini-recession, and was forced to sell me Outside. It was possibly the greatest stroke of luck, professionally speaking, I’ve ever had because it’s such a great name for everything we’ve done since then – Outside Television, Outside Online and Outside Go. It said everything about us in one word. I went from the worst name to the best name.
Larry on his ranch with one of his horses – Larry competes in reining, a heritage Western ranching skill.
Do you still love your job?
It’s incredibly fulfilling to project my love for living this outside lifestyle to millions of other people. And it’s so much more accessible today. We can go on nearly any adventure and come home safely. But we can still get that feeling of adventure. If you’re going down a class five whitewater river, your heart is still pounding even though very few people die in those rivers. It’s perceived risk versus real risk.
So, Larry, looking at these New Mexico views, what does this area mean to you?
It means space to me. I don’t like to be closed in. The sunsets and sunrises and the vistas are spectacular and I want to witness them on a daily basis. When I’m out on my horses, I feel like I’m part of the old West. Part of the early frontier days when people were starting to settle the West, when Native Americans were still thriving in their villages. It makes you think deeper about what you want to do with your life that’s left. Most people plan too far ahead. They plan for their retirement – but they’re missing the moment now. I really strive to get the most out of every day. Being out here helps me accomplish that. I’m at peace here.
"If you’re really passionate about it, you have to put your head down. You can’t let fear of failure stop you – because it will."
What’s your advice for people starting a new venture?
If you’re really passionate about it, you have to put your head down. You can’t let fear of failure stop you – because it will.
It took us eight years to make a profit at Outside, and we were working in Chicago in the worst ghetto in the country. New York’s Guardian Angels [volunteer crime patrollers] came in to try and help – they couldn’t do anything. They left declaring in the Chicago Tribune: “This is the most dangerous neighbourhood in America”. We didn’t have a single window in our office. You simply had to believe that out there was a blue sky and sun. That beyond our windowless office, the mountains were alive and the rivers were flowing…
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