For his new PBS show, America Outdoors, comedian and activist Baratunde Thurston connects viewers to our natural environments through the most interesting of creatures: humans. A former writer for political comedy outlets like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and The Onion, Thurston is also a prominent activist who is passionate about delving into the nuances of our culture and society. He authored a comedic memoir, How to Be Black, delivered a powerful TED Talk in 2018 titled “How to Deconstruct Racism,” and hosts a podcast called How to Citizen. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Thurston regularly camped and went on hiking adventures with his mom. In this episode, he talks about how the cross-country journey he took for America Outdoors helped him understand his motherland, its people, and the wild places we call home.
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Maren Larsen: Like many Millennials, I was a PBS kid. My slightly hippie parents mostly discouraged me from watching TV at all, but on some rainy days, they'd allow me a glimpse of public access television through our boxy TV, which got decent reception through an old-school antenna. I watched Arthur, and Reading Rainbow, and Zoom. And the Joy of Painting, the Teletubbies, and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.
It's been years since I've seen any of those shows, but through the haze of my memory, I can still feel their warm and safe aura.
I had assumed that era of TV was a relic of the world before 9/11. But it turns out, PBS is still at it, creating shows that can make us feel like little kids on a rainy day, seeing the world from the inside of a blanket fort.
So do you have any questions before we dive in?
Baratunde Thurston: Where are you and how are you feeling?
Maren: I am in Denver, Colorado. and I just moved here a few days ago.
That's how my conversation with Baratunde Thurston about his new show for PBS started. He was thousands of miles away, and his first priority was making me, the person who was supposed to be running the interview, feel much more relaxed and comfortable.
This sweet, neighborly approach might not be what you'd expect from Baratunde based on his resumé. He used to write for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, as well as the satirical newspaper, The Onion. He does stand-up comedy and published a comedic memoir titled How to Be Black. In 2019, he delivered a powerful TED talk called How to Deconstruct Racism. He hosts a podcast called How to Citizen and is a regular guest on cable news shows.
And yet, PBS tapped Baratunde for a very different kind of project.
Baratunde: I host America outdoors with Baratunde Thurston And this is a show that explores the relationship between a diverse set of Americans and, uh, the outdoors. It's fun, it's active, it's challenging and inspiring. And I can't wait for people to see how hard I worked running around this country, doing every outdoor activity there is.
Maren: I watched several episodes of America Outdoors before I spoke to Baratunde. And, one of the first things I mentioned to him was that his show instantly brought me back to those times I had as a kid in front of the TV.
It felt like just absolutely classic PBS to me. It was like Mr. Rogers, but your neighborhood is the whole country. Is that kind of what you were going for? Or?
Baratunde: I liked the way you put that, that like the neighborhood is the whole country. And I think what I was most looking forward to and excited about is like, it's not, it's a people show more than it is a nature show or a quote unquote ‘outdoor show.’
Maren: But it is a show about the outdoors. Each of the six episodes focuses on a region of the country. It's just that Baratunde explores the places he visits through the lenses of the people who live there. And in his own way, he brings that won't-you-be-my-neighbor feel wherever he goes.
Baratunde: Are you the mayor of Cerro Gordo?
Brent Underwood: Depends on who's asking.
Baratunde: Uh, just the visitor man, just a visitor. Welcome. Welcome. Look at this something, right? Yeah. I'm feeling humbled.
Maren: That's Baratunde in Cerro Gordo, California, a Ghost Town on the edge of Death Valley, talking with Brent Underwood for the first episode of the series. In other episodes, he travels to the coast of North Carolina, to Northern Minnesota, and to the hills of Appalachia.
If you're thinking that this seems like an odd gig for someone who made a name for himself in comedy and political and social commentary, well, that's what I thought, too. But it turns out that Baratunde and the outdoors go way back– back to Washington D.C. in the 80s, where he was raised by a single mother.
Baratunde: I've been going outside since I was a, uh, wee one. And my mother really used the outdoors to help my friends and I escape some of the pressures of the hood.
You know, it was a classic 1980s childhood, where my mom tells me, ‘go outside. I don't care what you do. Just be home before the streetlights come back on.’
Which encouraged a level of mischief, which I'm very excited that I survived, but there was also on her part, more organized adventures to get us to see the world beyond our block. And so my mother was a member of the Sierra club. my mother loved going on walks and hikes and bike rides, and she took me and my friends, hiking along the C&O canal, biking, out Rock Creek park, camping out in the blue Ridge mountains. By the time I was 12, I had visited every state on the east coast by car.
So the outdoors was, for me a really good way to connect with my mother, and to enjoy time with my friends, without the stress of police, of drug deals, of kind of that urban danger that was ratcheting up in the eighties, and the crack wars and the war on drugs was ratcheting up, and um, calming, you know, it was just like the rhythm of nature is very different from the rhythm of human-made institutions and and physical structures. So I grew up seriously doing a lot of outdoorsy things.
And then I took a hiatus from the outdoors as I got more and more into tech and computers and the built world. And this show honestly helped bring me back to something that was a big part of my own founding story.
Maren: Baratunde's childhood in the nation's capital ingrained the language of politics into his speech patterns: when he talks about the outdoors being central to his founding story, you can tell that he's not just thinking of his own early years, but also those of his country. Thus, the name of the show: America Outdoors.
But when it comes to the ‘outdoors,’ part of that name, Baratunde wanted to make sure that this would be an outdoor show unlike any other.
Baratunde: My idea of an outdoor show is premised on the adventure itself. Like a big race or an epic conquest or huge obstacle like this cliff, this mountain, this river, or its on the animals, And you hear a likely European accent explaining to you the mating habits of an animal that you haven't heard of before. And this wasn't really either of those. For me, it was like, ‘look at all these people.’
And I think as someone who I write a lot about America, I comment on America. I am a major public speaker, cable news, mouther-offer. And some of that commentary is quite removed from the country, is a bit ironic. And so if you look at kind of like the hub of cable news in America, it's like New York City, the 30th floor of a building in Manhattan. And this just felt like spiritually the opposite of that.
It actually, you know, what it reminded me of is back in 2008, I did a lot of campaigning for the Obama campaign door to door. And I went out and I knocked on stranger's doors and I stood on their porches and I drank their tea and I had conversations with them about things we did not agree with. And that was a much more satisfying way to kind of do politics than the punditry thing.
So I think of this show, it's loosely political. But it's not in the Brady bunch suit and tie, you know, four box TV set up. We're like sweating on a mountaintop. And that's just a different environment, literally a different environment to connect with someone around and it lowers the temperature, even if it's technically hotter and it's more fun. So I just felt more connected to the country, making this show than doing a lot of other things I've done that presumably connect me to the country.
Maren: In the summer of 2021, Baratunde and his crew set out to talk with Americans in some of our country's most exceptional natural environments. His goal was to answer one burning question.
Baratunde: The question I asked most people sometimes explicitly, always implicitly is, how were you shaped by the outdoors?
Like, there is a tone, there's an energy frequency of a New Yorker, which is affected heavily by this constructed outdoor, highly compressed, highly dense environment. And it is the opposite wavelength of an Idahoan, and someone who needs to see, you know, 10 miles in every direction or they feel claustrophobic. And then that shows up in the politics. It shows up in the food, it shows up in the pace of speech and like the style of their walk. The coastal community of the outer banks, like they are whipped up by the winds of the Atlantic in a really different way than the people at death valley who were whipped up by the winds of that desert, even though both have a lot of sand, it's just really different vibes. It's almost like meeting someone's parents and you're like now I see how you are the way you are.
Maren: In other words, meeting someone's Motherland is often a whole lot like meeting someone's mother. But even people raised on the same land can be shaped by it in very different ways.
Baratunde: We spent time with the Timbisha, who are the indigenous people who originally settled Death Valley. They hate the name ‘Death Valley.’ It got that name because some white dudes got lost and they're like, ‘this will now be known as death valley.’ And it's like, just because you can't hang doesn't mean you gotta brand this whole thing for all time cause you didn't bring enough water. Like that's on you.
So they call it Timbisha. And I met with this elder Pauline Estevez who is just like, very feisty about land rights and the proper use of water out there. And, she has a nephew that we also interviewed right after her. And he works for the resort adjacent to the reservation and he manages their massive golf course and there's like sprinklers and water galore. And it's just this big patch of green and Palm trees in the desert
And so just that contrast. I didn't do a pick a side audience who's right. You know, Pauline you know, the nephew, but we just showed both. And there was some natural absurdity that just hangs there for people to, you know, determine on their own.
Maren: Over the course of filming America Outdoors, Baratunde says there was one place that truly surprised him. And, this will probably surprise you. It was Idaho, a state that he says is no small potatoes.
That's coming up after a short break.
Maren: Baratunde Thurston is well-traveled. On his tour of America, there were few places he went that he'd never seen before. But there was one spot that was completely foreign to him, and it blew his mind.
Baratunde: Everywhere that we went is beautiful, truly. But freaking Idaho, Maren, my God. Idaho shocked me. It's so diverse. It's kind of like the nation in one place.
It has these like very green curvy around the river scenes, but it also has this desert vibe and some of Southern California. It's got sand dunes, just like the outer banks in North Carolina.
Idaho blew me away.
And it just, I think I think of it as the most beautiful because I didn't expect it to be. I think to be honest, Idaho exceeded my expectations more than any other place I've visited. And it was also the newest to me.
Maren: In Idaho, Baratunde flew in a two-seater plane, went mountain biking, and, of course, visited a 28-foot potato. He also got very far outside his comfort zone, riding a horse for the first time in decades with 5th-generation rancher Martin Black. And Baratunde, who I'm convinced could strike up a conversation with a fence post, encountered his biggest human challenge yet.
Baratunde: Our rancher in Idaho was a tough nut to crack. For someone who we invited on the show to talk, uh, Martin is a man of few words. And I remember, first of all, just trying to think about what to wear for this.
Martin Black: We go to get you dressed. Yeah. Ready to get dressed. I mean, I thought I was dressed, but yeah, well this is real cowboy stuff.
Baratunde: You're not a real cowboy. So I'm like overthinking all that. Cause like, how do I impress this man and get him to trust and connect with me. But also I need him, like, I don't know how to do horse stuff and I know how to ride a bike. I know how to paddle. I don’t know how to horse. And we’re in the barn and he's just like so cool.
And he's just like, His mouth is even shaped in a way where, like, he just doesn't talk much. He's just kind of like, it's a little tight, just a little, like he speaks in a kind of clipped manner.
Martin: I don't do everything the way they used to do it. I like electricity. I like running water.
Baratunde: And so every syllable I'm like, I'm looking for deeper meaning in everything. And I, so we're in the barn and my horse is Spider and he's like, ‘yes, you just want to, um, get on up on that horse. And then we'll, we'll go out and I'll show you some things.’ And I’m like, ‘Hey Martin, do you want to, you want to show me how to get on the horse? You just left me.’
And like, I just know, like, I don't want to get kicked in the face by the horse.
And he's like, ‘yeah. So you just want to avoid, uh, avoid the hindquarters.’
Really, dude, is this what we're doing? Is this my lesson? And so he just, he had this common sense way of, I think of it as like letting me figure it out. And maybe hazing me a little bit.
Um, so we had a lot of silence, initially between us and I think that's just him, right? That. That's literally his environment. It's very quiet out there. He doesn't like, listen to podcasts.
He didn't know who the Rock was. He talked about, he was like, I go into town if I need something, but I really like it out here.
I like seeing people come in like all this.
Martin: I enjoy, uh, you know, just this vastness, you know, I go Eastern states and see the trees and you, you can't see 50 feet. I don't like that. I like to see, you know, the distance. I like to see if there's somebody over there. Maybe I want to go see him, maybe I don't want to be seen, you know, like, you know, it's, nobody gets to jump on you out here very easily.
Baratunde: It's hard to sneak up on you.
Martin: Yeah. It's hard to sneak up and see him coming for 20.
Baratunde: And then we had a lot of alone time. Cause we had to meet people like up on the ridge and the horse can get there a different path than the, than the pickup. So they got to take the long way around. So I'm, it's just me and Martin and Spider and I just had to learn so fast and not be afraid.
And I think this was the relationship was tough. You know, the interaction was tough. 'Cause, it was like me and Martin and this horse, I don't know either of them, but they're reading me and they're like feeding off me, especially the horse, like, and what I learned, a horse is like an emotional divining rod for humans.
You know, the more agitated I was, the more agitated the horse was, if I was on edge, the horse was on edge. If I was chill, the horse was chill. And if I was ambivalent about my intention, for what direction we go, the horse was ambivalent. So it's like everything I needed to learn, this horse was trying to teach me.
And, and Martin didn't like, hold my hand in that process. He kind of let me figure it out. And then he would say, like just enough, for me to learn it.
Martin: The way I ride a horse, I don't just operate 'em like a piece of machinery. I try to work on their emotions a little bit and keep 'em willing to do what I want and not just forcing them. And you know, they're working animals. They're not, they're not pets. They're not companion animals. They're working animals and I'm out here doing a job and they're out here doing a job. These are your coworkers, real cowboy stuff. Real cowboy.
Baratunde: And then he watched me and he loosened up, but more importantly, I loosened up and I'm like, kind of putting this on him, even retelling it. But I think I was so physically stiff. I was out of my element. I knew we were coming from very different political worlds, like absolutely. And it didn't want to make it about that.
And so I'm like deploying every countermeasure I got from like interviews and conversations and comedy, just to see what might stick.
And then what I was able to find out when I just like shut up and listened, and didn't try to fill the space, is dude's hilarious. And I was like, ‘all right, we're gonna, we're going to be okay. You're not you're, you're not gonna let me get kicked in the face, but you're not gonna make it easy. Your sense of humor is dryer than the land that you own. And that's, that's cool. I got a lot to learn here.’
Martin: I told you it's not my first rodeo.
Maren: Martin Black's tight-lipped stoicness wasn't the only challenge Baratunde faced in Idaho. After his time on the ranch, he met up with Sammy and Jessica Matsaw, a native couple who lived in the southwestern part of the state, to go on a traditional salmon hunt using spears. But, it didn't go as planned.
Baratunde: We, we approach, the south fork of the salmon river to spend the day with the Matt saws, this couple who are part of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe to join them on their salmon hunt.
How long have the Shoshone-Bannock been here?
Jessica Matsaw: Since time immemorial.
Baratunde: I have a feeling you’ve said that before.
We showed up and the mood was weird in the air.
And most people are excited to see us. We showed up and there was just like a sadness in the air. And I was like, ‘yo, did somebody die?’
Like, it felt really like a mourning. And that's kind of what happened. What happened is they decided not to do the salmon hunt because there were so few salmon. And the ones that they found were weak. They were too soft. They were almost being cooked by the river. It was a climate change catastrophe. And so they were trying to call the whole thing off. And of course the producers like, ‘well, we flew here, we rented the vehicle. It's like, we can't just not, what can we do?’ And they've they sorted out something else. but I was listening to this couple and they had their two little girls. And they were trying to still teach their kids about the salmon hunt without salmon, which was beautiful and sad. So we acted it out and, and they let me hold the spear and stay in the water and jab at like nothing. And they describe their history. They are known as the salmon people. and they said, ‘you know, for thousands of years, the salmon took care of us and now it's our turn to take care of them.’
And it was just super emotional. And I just. As sensitive as I am. I'm not used to leading with my heart in thinking about some issues, especially the climate issue. It can get pretty quantitative or pretty advocacy-ish
But when you see parents trying to pass on a tradition to their kids, and mourning their need to modify it so dramatically, but still finding a way to uphold that commitment. That's fricking beautiful. That moved me deeply. And I just also felt honored to participate in that.
Maren: That mix of beauty and pain is at the heart of what Baratunde loves about his country.
Baratunde: We have a level of beauty that is pretty uniquely wide ranging. And we also have a level of trauma and pain attached to the land that is very, very, very deep.
I consider myself to be very patriotic and I really, really, really love this country. It's been a journey to get to a point where I could embrace that fully, you know without hedge or apology or small print and asterisks and whatnot, excepting the genocide of indigenous people, uh, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, gentrification.
Like there's a long list of issues that don't make me proud.
But I had a really, for me, profound reframing of my relationship with the country just in the past couple of years. And I was, you know, with the solitude of COVID spending a lot of time with myself and reflecting on parts of me that I don't love. And accepting flaws was a really important step for me to embracing and accepting America's flaws as not an addendum to my love for the country, but like an essential ingredient.
It's like, oh, to, to love a person is to know a person. And when you really know someone, you know, all of them, like, you know, the stuff you'd like, and you know, the stuff you don't like, you know, the stuff they're proud of and you know, this stuff they're ashamed of. And I think that proximity to the whole truth of someone, you know, engenders trust and as a really a prerequisite for real love, as opposed to just adoration, or infatuation.
So I love the country because I know the country and I could like integrate all of the shame, all of the challenge, all of the regret and the problem with all of the beauty and all of the inspiration and all of the unique, like we're a country predicated on a shared idea. That's mind-blowing. That's like the nerdy shit ever.
I think that's just really remarkable. And I'm down for that. I'm down for continuing that experiment. I think it's a beautiful thing to try. I think that experiment is made more successful if we don't run away out of a sense of shame or fear from, from the parts of us that we're not proud of.
I appreciate and criticize, uh, this land. And also like, look, if you're black in this country and like your ancestors were enslaved by this country, I think we have pretty high ranking dibs on the title American. Right. It's very hard to be more American than to be owned by America. We are like big property in the United States. That's it we're made in America. And we're kind of a unique folk in that way, even though our ancestors didn't necessarily choose to come here, they clearly chose to stay alive here because that's how we exist. And I think that's also kind of beautiful.
Maren: For what Baratunde says was the most intense segment of the entire series, he traveled to a swamp in the American South and got a powerful sense of what his ancestors really had to go through just to survive in this country.
Baratunde: So let me paint the picture for you. We are on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. In a, in a region called the Great Dismal Swamp.
And at the founding of this country, this swamp was 2000 square miles. And George Washington, literally our founding Papa. He was a member of a corporation whose mission was to drain the swamp. That's where that comes from. And he wanted to drain the swamp along with his co-founders to monetize the swamp and turn it into productive crops, such as cotton and other unoriginal stuff.
And, and the way that he goes about this is with, you know, forced labor with enslaved people. And they, they attack this swamp and they dredge it and they build these ditches through it. But ultimately they don't really tame it. And they think of it as cursed.
They brand it the Great Dismal Swamp, because there was a lot of ticks and mosquitoes and Gators and Panthers and monsters and demons, according to them. So they're afraid of it.
And a place that the land holding brutal slave economist fear is a great place for people who fear them.
So this swamp becomes a refuge. It becomes a key part of the underground railroad.
It becomes home to maroon settlements of folks escaping that economy, escaping that brutality and, and those labor camps and that torture. It becomes a little patch of freedom and 50,000 folks over the course of almost a century lived in this swamp. To get away from George Washington and his version of America for them.
And I got to enter that swamp. I got to spend time with a descendant of one of the men who was a boatman in the swamp. And I got to go in with an archeologist who spent about 15 years identifying artifacts and telling the story of these maroon settlements. And, uh, there are these little raised islands within the swamp and we're, we're stomping through it.
It's foggy, it's damp, it's misty. I'm wearing a full-body-wader because there's leeches and all kinds of nasty stuff in here. And I'm not a swamp creature, you know, I'm down to do outdoor stuff with me and swamps, and it feels like I'm on a Jedi training mission. Like I expect to see Yoda at any moment.
But our archeologists, he pauses us at one moment and he's like, ‘you see that there? that's one of the islands.’
And he's like, ‘do you want to approach it?’ And they let me go alone. And it was cloudy, overcast, a drizzly day.
And when I stepped foot on that island, the sun came out. And I just felt the presence of my ancestors, of people like a yearning to be free. You know, we have this saying, ‘we're making a way out of no way.’ Like the Great Dismal Swamp was no way. And, folks made it that way. And then the settlements that they were able to build were made possible by indigenous people who lived there thousands of years earlier. Whose patches of ground and clay pots were very useful to the black folk. So there was this conversation amongst very different people across very different times in the same physical space.
And I just, I was moved to tears.
Maren: That connection to the land–through time, through politics, through difference and adversity–is what Baratunde hopes people who watch his show will go out and find for themselves. He's a guy who names almost every project he's done so far with a “how to”: How to Be Black, How to Deconstruct Racism, How to Citizen. So America Outdoors has him once again trying to teach us something.
Baratunde: I want us to learn more deeply how to be together. How to connect with each other, not just the human, each other, the whole thing.
I was impressed and I'm a little shocked to realize the simplicity of like all these different people sharing a connection to common ground.
We have like all this difference and even all this conflict, but there's like a common ground that connects us. And we're all shaped by this land. And, and so many of us have an appreciation of it that we don't often see across the other divisions, which we're very much aware of.
And then of course there's division around how land should be used and who owns it and all that. It's not just a united front, but there is common ground that we literally share. And I think of that as a gateway to connect with ourselves, connect with each other and connect with the planet.
And then when we do that, I want us to work like hell to preserve that relationship because it's in peril, because we've neglected it.
I don't expect viewers to do everything that I did, that it was highly constructed and rather expensive to pull off. But, I hope that wherever folks are, they find a version of what I got that works for them.
Maren: You can watch America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston for free at PBS.org/americaoutdoors.
And, you can read a very thoughtful review of the show by writer Caroline Finney, at Outside.com.
If you want to follow Baratunde's work, well, I'll let him tell you how.
Baratunde: I'm on social as Baratunde and I have a text message number that I use it to kind of a semi-public service, almost like a mailing list And I send regional updates and misses and answer questions and whatnot. So if that sounds interesting to you, shoot me a text 2 0 2 8 9 4 8 8 4. And I just put the word outside in it so I know how you found me.
This episode was written and produced by me, Maren Larsen, and edited by Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver.
This episode was brought to you by Avocado, maker of eco-friendly and affordable products to support your rest and recovery. Shop for them now at at avocadogreen.com.
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Baratunde: So if there's one thing to take away from this show, is that I had a handful of moments looking great, doing extraordinary activities that I don't engage in everyday.
Maren: Yeah, so it’s really Baratunde outdoors.
Baratunde: I just want, I want to, I want to thank America for that. That's a great gift.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.