Baratunde Thurston used a very familiar line to summarize what he found through his new series, “America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston,” for PBS. He came away from the project – that debuts at 9 p.m. July 5 on Valley PBS – convinced “this land is your land, this land is my land.”
What brought the Emmy-nominated New York Times bestselling author, podcaster and outdoor enthusiast to that conclusion is a six-part series that sent Thurston on an adventure-filled journey to explore the diverse array of regions across the U.S. His task was to discover how those landscapes shape the way Americans work, play and interact with the outdoors.
His journey took him from Idaho where wilderness pilots fly “below the rim” to coal miners who have become beekeepers in Appalachia. Toss in a group of Black surfers catching waves in Los Angeles and Thurston introduces viewers to a diverse cast of people whose outdoor lives are shaped by where they live.
“We found so many beautiful examples and I was privileged to have a number of experiences with all kinds of people for whom the outdoors might feel unwelcome,” Thurston says. “Whether it was Jennifer Pharr Davis, who set a record hiking the Appalachian Trail in a thru-hike or Eric Thompson who is paralyzed and whitewater rafts in Appalachia as well and talks about inclusive and adaptive outdoor access not just as a problem to be solved but as an act to be celebrated and as a way of life.
“Certainly, as a Black person myself, I bonded a lot with all the Black people we talked to on the show who had a very similar message of, ‘Yeah, we got this. This is ours, too’.”
Executive producer Michael Rosenfeld takes great pride in how the series provides so many different perspectives while showing how much in common everyone shares. One theme that all of the participants agreed on is a love of the outdoors that runs so deep they want to make it as accessible as possible to everyone.
Another connection is a shared concern for the changing climate. The continued warming of the planet has many worried how that will impact the way people live and experience the great outdoors.
Dudley Edmondson, who wrote the book Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places – a work that profiles African Americans in nontraditional vocations and avocations in the outdoors – is one of the outdoor enthusiasts featured in the series. Studies have shown that many people of color have deep concerns about activities in the outdoors because of racial problems.
Edmondson has found over the years that when a person begins to focus on the grandeur of nature, there is less time to think about race issues.
“When you’re familiar with those things out there, at least for me, I feel more at home in nature than I do in my own neighborhood, standing in front of my own house,” Edmondson says. “I feel more at home sitting on the edge of a creek or in a wilderness area, a remote forest. I feel more at home there than I do standing on the street in front of my own house.
“I have been that way my entire life once I discovered the natural world as a kid.”
One place where Thurston connected deeply with nature was during a trip to one of the hottest places on the planet – Death Valley. He traveled with photographer Harun Mehmedinović to the desert to capture images of the night sky.
Thurston was moved by the way the photographer described the serenity he found knowing they were looking at the same sky that their ancestors looked at thousands and thousands and thousands of years ago.
The trip to the desert gave Thurston a new perspective on Death Valley.
“That name is pretty unfortunate. One of my highlights in this journey is interacting with indigenous communities throughout the way. And we spent time with the Timbisha tribe, which actually really has named the place,” Thurston says. “They don’t take kindly to Death Valley. There was some colonists who fared badly and painted the whole place with a negative brush. There’s a lot of life there, and so it’s the opposite of the name.
“How people, how plant life, how animals make do. And there’s such quiet, serene beauty.”
It was that experience mixed with those who embrace the outdoors with so much passion that resulted in Thurston fully understanding how this land was made for you and me.
If you would like to see “America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston,” it is also available through the streaming service of the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel. The cost for the channel is $3.99 a month and you also must have an Amazon Prime or Prime Video subscription.