Staring out my corner-office windows from the top floor of the Continental Bank building, on Chicago’s trendy near North Side, I could barely see the cold, gray waters of Lake Michigan through the apertures between buildings. A pervasive gloom hung like wet bedding over the Windy City. It had been more than 15 years since I’d started Outside magazine there. True, our offices were a lot nicer than they’d been back in February 1976, when we were hunkered down in a windowless warehouse on the city’s West Side—once proclaimed by New York’s Guardian Angels the most dangerous neighborhood in America. Bill Kurtis, Chicago’s CBS news anchor at the time, even taped a segment about the active-lifestyle magazine being launched out of an urban office so far from the axes of outdoor adventure.
He had a point. When I sailed my 30-foot sloop back to the States in 1973, after five years of exploration in remote regions of Africa, South America, the Middle East, Russia, and too many other places to name, I didn’t envision starting a magazine that would cover the adventurous lifestyle that had come to define me. But there I was, far from clear skies, open oceans, and big mountains.
As I stared out the window that day, Rex Ryan, our CFO, walked in and asked a question that would change the lives of our staff and propel Outside toward its geographical destiny.
“We have to decide in the next few months whether we want to sign a 10- or 15-year lease on our space,” he said.
“What . . . 10 or 15 years?!” I said. I love the Windy City. I think it is the best big city in America, crime rates aside. But 10 or 15 years? It felt like making a decision to get married. Whoa! “Maybe we ought to look at some options,” I said.
At this time, Outside was only a hiccup or two away from publishing stories like “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Krakauer, and “The Perfect Storm,” by Sebastian Junger, which would grow into best-selling books and major motion pictures. I wondered how moving to a new and potentially unfamiliar part of the country would affect the staff. After all, each month, from our Chicago offices, the editors were consistently serving up top-notch writing and useful advice on gear, travel, and fitness in a unique voice meant to inspire people to . . . well . . . get out of the city. Hmmm.
The search began. Somehow, the Associated Press picked up on Outside’s hunt for a new home, one that embraced an active lifestyle more closely identified with the editorial mission of the magazine. Soon I was taking trips to various cities in the Northeast, Southeast, West Coast, Pacific Northwest, and Rocky Mountain regions.
Background: Every summer, from ages eight to 12, I had attended Camp Holy Cross, in Colorado Springs, a Catholic boys’ camp dedicated to teaching outdoor skills and crafts. I had also attended the University of Arizona, in Tucson, and then worked for IBM in Denver after college. So I was biased in favor of the Southwest and the Rocky Mountains. Nonetheless, I went on the road—from Burlington, Vermont, to Asheville, North Carolina; from Ashland, Oregon, to Flagstaff, Arizona; from Santa Barbara, California, to Boulder, Colorado; and on to other coastal and mountain towns.
In Jackson, Wyoming, I was cruising around with the city’s promoters, politicians, economic-development execs, and a few entrepreneurs who’d made the move from New York and other East Coast locales. I loved the vibe in Jackson, along with its majestic Tetons, and the Jackson guys made a very tempting relocation offer that was hard to refuse—there are no state income taxes in Wyoming.
But around this time, I received a call: “Mr. Burke, this is Sam Pick, I’m the mayor of Santa Fe—you know, in New Mexico—and I was just reading in the paper that Outside is looking for a new home. Would it be alright if I stopped on my way back from a trip east to visit with you?”
I liked Sam immediately. There was a genuine, upbeat, Western tone in his voice; a down-to-earth honesty came through the phone. And when he arrived in Chicago, he looked like his voice: Straight-backed, he was a big guy with wavy, gray-black hair and the slightly weathered, square-jawed face that you might expect on someone from a place called New Mexico.
He asked if I’d let him bring a delegation to pitch the Outside staff on the benefits of moving to New Mexico. “Sure, why not?” I said—though I was fairly sure there would be pushback on moving 1,200 miles to a state most of them had never been to. And I had been to New Mexico only twice myself. Once, on my way to school in Tucson with a Chicago pal, we obligingly let two party girls pull us over on a hot, dry, dusty afternoon in Odessa, Texas, resulting in such a severe hangover the next day that all I saw of New Mexico was the black gravel slipping past my forehead as I hung out the car door losing my lunch. The second time was better—a road trip with college pals to ride horses in Ruidoso. The memory of galloping through forests and across grassy valleys stayed with me.
So my wife, Gabrielle, and I approached the journey to Santa Fe warily. That quickly changed on the drive north from Albuquerque. The land slowly peeled open like dawn on a Mongolian plain. There was nothing to impede the visual senses in the vast landscape between the two cities. I could hardly keep my eyes on the road while studying the sturdy, stepped mesas with varied hues of color. Every now and then, a small herd of wild horses would be grazing at the edge of endless vistas. We imagined riding our horses from dawn till dusk without ever reaching the horizon.
As we crested the hill and got our first glimpse of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the sun, as if on cue, burst through layered pillows of bleached-white clouds to allow a single beam of light to reveal a cluster of adobes, lit crimson-gold, nestled in the foothills. This was Santa Fe? Our mouths dropped open. We looked at each other as if to confirm that we were both seeing the same thing. I thought, if there truly is a God, He must be commanding our attention to this special place. My foot plunged down on the pedal.
For the next 36 hours, Gabrielle and I went all in, and fell even harder for Santa Fe. As we sat under the enormous cottonwood tree in the 400-year-old La Casa Sena courtyard, nursing silver-coin margaritas, I looked at Gabrielle and said, “I don’t know about you, but this is where I want to be.” She replied, “I was hoping you’d feel that way.” And that was it. Barely two days, and my mind was made up.
I’ll refrain from piling on about the well-documented charms—rich history, distinctive architecture, diverse cultures, world-class cuisine—that have been so endlessly extolled by promoters of the City Different, a tagline I’d like to see deleted. Let’s just say that I loved the feel of the place, the chiles, and the new tequilas (which always seem to show up in Santa Fe first).
More important, the proximity of everything I hold dear in life was before me. I could imagine myself running along the ridge tops, skiing the basin, kayaking the Río Grande, taking my horses and dogs camping in the Sangre de Cristos and right on up the spine of the Rockies to Montana. I could breathe. I could be Western. Hell, I could be a cowboy.
Santa Fe’s empty beauty and dramatic sky were in stark contrast to my hometown of concrete canyons and heavy, damp skies. Out among the tabletop mesas and jagged barrancas of New Mexico, it seemed as if I could almost get in touch with the primitive roots of our ancestral past, where early civilizations had scratched a living out of the earth. It would be easy to let the currents of New Mexico take me on a magiccarpet ride to distant and exotic lands. A tingle of excitement shot up the back of my neck, summoning up feelings I’d enjoyed as an ex-pat.
From the time I announced to the Chicago staff that we were moving our headquarters to Santa Fe, three summers passed before we actually arrived in the Capital City. Sure, there were a few internal efforts to resist the move, but in the end, a caravan of trucks bearing the Outside logo left the Midwest, along with a team of 50.
We’ve now been in Santa Fe for 19 years, and our building, in the historic Railyard, is full of young, energetic staffers who wake up for “dawn patrol”— getting up before light to run, hike, mountain bike, fish the Pecos, paddle the Río Grande Box, and skin up to the top of the ski basin for first tracks—all before coming into work and cranking out awardwinning stories. I think Sam Pick is still smiling. I know we are. ✜
Larry Burke is Chairman and Editor-in- Chief of Mariah Media Network, LLC, the parent company of Outside, which has grown into an international multimedia brand encompassing print, online, television, and digital platforms. Shortly after moving to Santa Fe, Outside won three consecutive National Magazine Awards for General Excellence, the only magazine in history ever to do so. Burke lives with his wife, Gabrielle, on a ranch in Santa Fe County with their eight horses and two dogs.