Trailblazer: Kolby “Condor” Kirk
Location: Bend, OR
Trailblazing Role: Inspirational adventurer and modern-day Muir
I’m a Modern Hiker because: I’m searching for the balance in my life between the natural world and society. (The struggle is real.)
A walk in the woods requires only a few simple things: time, motivation, ability, a smartphone, a GoPro camera, a drone, and the desire to compulsively document one’s experience in order to share it via social media. I mean – if a hiker visits a beautiful waterfall and doesn’t post an expertly filtered photograph to Instagram, did it really even happen?
Luckily, artist, adventurer, and amateur naturalist Kolby Kirk seems to have missed the digital memo.
Kirk – “Condor” to backpacking pals – is delightfully analog, toting paper, pen, and even watercolors into the wild to craft exquisite journals that serve both as personal diaries and museum-quality art pieces. His meticulous creations haven’t gone unnoticed – his artwork was featured in the popular John Muir Trail documentary Mile, Mile and a Half, is currently displayed on cans of Crux Fermentation Project’s PCT Porter, and even earned him a book deal – more on that shortly.
None of his success is a terrible surprise to anyone who knows him. When I first met Kirk in 2009, he was several months into an ambitious endeavor dubbed “The 100 Hikes Project,” where he aimed to complete one hundred hikes of a specific length and type within a certain time frame – in this case, about six months. “Breaking it down came out to be, like, one hike every thirty-six hours,” he laughs. (If you’re wondering – yes, he met his target, finishing his hundredth hike on December 31st that year.)
You see, Kirk is a goal-setter, an ambitious sort, but in a charmingly old school way. He’s an ideas guy that also thrives on hard, meaningful work that leads to deep, personal accomplishment. His first self-styled “project” began in 1997, when he wrote himself a “letter of congratulations,” sealed it, and sent it to Europe with a neighbor, who then mailed the note back. It was meant to serve as inspiration for Kirk to save money and carve out the time to travel to Europe himself. It took him four years to realize the dream, and he finally opened the envelope while exploring the continent in 2001. “As I’d hoped, I’d forgotten what I wrote in the letter,” he says. “It was really weird, but really incredible to read this letter from my past self to my future self, and opening it at a moment in my life where it couldn’t have been more perfect because my past self really knew me well. It really inspired me to concentrate on my senses while I was there – not just looking around, but experiencing it as much as possible – the smells, the tastes, the textures.”
Another one of Kirk’s myriad adventures was a rather sudden decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011, after being laid off from his job. He recalls, “By the time I walked out of that meeting, I knew exactly what I was going to do: I was going to pack up everything I owned, put it in storage, hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and move to Oregon.” His original goal that year was to complete a hike to the summit of Mount Whitney – instead, he ended up walking there from the Mexican border, and continued on for a total of nearly 1,700 miles on the trail.
Kirk doesn’t tackle big projects for any sort of notoriety, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t found him. If his trail nickname rings a bell, perhaps you’ve seen the video “Condor’s PCT Adventure in 3 Minutes,” an endearing mini-documentary with a twist ending that propelled him toward a bit of viral fame, complete with the requisite Reddit AMA. As it turns out, his decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail paid off both personally and professionally, offering an ever-widening avenue for his exceptional artwork to be shared with the public – his unique journals, filled with immaculate writing, sharp sketches, skilled paintings, and natural ephemera have been featured in Adventure Journal, Sierra Magazine, and even Condé Nast Traveler.
I spoke with Kirk about his emotional connection to hiking and travel, the beauty of happenstance, and his exceptionally Muir-esque documentation style.
While you were in the Sierra during your Pacific Crest Trail adventure, you met The Muir Project crew who created the popular John Muir Trail documentary Mile, Mile and a Half. How did you end up creating artwork for their film?
I was sitting on the side of the Pacific Crest Trail in the John Muir Wilderness, and I was talking to these two John Muir Trail hikers; they were telling me about this group of hikers that were documenting their hike using professional audio and video equipment. My first reaction was that I was impressed, because I knew how heavy that stuff was. So when I heard about this group and that they were doing 220 miles with their gear, I was really impressed. Wouldn’t you know it, during that conversation, some of them walked by! I waved and said hello…I really wanted to literally cheer them on.
So, flash-forward after my hike – around the time I posted my video, they posted their trailer for Mile, Mile and a Half, and I reached out online to congratulate them. A friend of mine had posted about my [PCT] journals, and Ric Serena [director and producer] reached out and said, “How’d you like to do some artwork for a documentary?” It was the first time I’d been hired to do something like that. I had no idea what I was doing, but apparently they liked it, so I became a part of The Muir Project. It was one of those happenstance moments of synchronicity. One of the main reasons I love to travel is hoping to experience something like that.
More recently, your PCT journals have shown up in another interesting place – on the side of beer cans for the Crux Fermentation Project’s new PCT Porter. How did that collaboration come about?
Happenstance! So, I’m at a storytelling night [in Bend, OR], and my story happened to be about my PCT journey and my journals. I was the last to go up, but before that, I was talking to a guy in the audience. Two days later, I find out that he is the graphic designer for Crux, and I find out his dad is one of the owners of Crux, who emailed him a link to my site – apparently they’d been looking for a certain type of artwork to put on the cans, and he’d found my website and sent it to his son, who’d just happened to meet me forty-eight hours earlier! So, they contacted me and said, “We want to put your PCT journals on our beer can,” and I’m like, “Yeah, right, where’s the cameras? This is a joke, right?” But it was quite cool, and it worked out quite well. They asked for interesting pages – you know, visually stimulating pictures. They also liked my handwriting, so it’s a combination of both. I gave them thirteen spreads; I think they used six or seven of them. So what you’re seeing on the can is in fact a combination, a mosaic of my journals – from not only my PCT hike in 2011, but also more recent hikes near Bend on the PCT.
Your PCT journals are going to make an even bigger appearance soon, since you’re currently working on a book version. How did that come about?
Heyday Books contacted me after my journals were featured on a page in Condé Nast Traveler. They said they wanted to produce a book of mine, and I was like, “Ok, great!” It created a project for me – all my projects up ‘til now have been my own. It’s been quite a ride here.
[On the PCT], I carried a Moleskine journal, which is a pocket-sized, blank-paged journal. When it started getting full, I asked my friends or my parents to send me a new journal on the trail, and I’d mail one home and start another one. By the end of the hike, I’d filled close to 660 pages [across four journals]. I just finished transcribing the first book and it’s 36,700 words…looking at over 100,000 words for my whole trip! To be able to sculpt that into something that would be a good representation of my journey and be interesting to read or look at has been the challenge of it.
I’m a very visual person, so I’m hoping to include as many visuals in the form of watercolor paintings as I can, and a lot of the journal will be transcribed and edited because it’s so much information. I’m still wrapping my head around all the data that I brought back from that hike.
It’s not just the writing or not just the sketches – there’s more to it. Some of it is so subtle, [that] it’s hard to translate to someone else. When I look at a page, I see how dirty it was, I see how sweaty or dusty I was, if I was tired or rushing, or if the pen was not working, or if it’s coming in splotches, I know it was really hot. There’s a lot of character to your writing, and you might not realize that, or others might not realize that. That’s one of the main things I’m trying to work on with this book: to communicate that to others, to put them in my shoes, so to speak, on the trail. There’s that art that you want to get to a point where it’s almost like being on the trail, but it’ll never be as you are on the trail. You can never replicate that in a book, but I’m sure trying to do that.
It’s exciting. It’s thrilling. You start questioning your sanity. You start questioning if people are going to be at all interested in any of this – all these emotions I’ve never had before in my life. I’m looking forward to turning in this manuscript. It’s been a fun ride so far.
How does it feel to share such a personal thing – your journals – with the public? I mean, it’s not just, “Hey, I saw a butterfly today!”
[Full belly laugh ensues.] I’m laughing right now because I wrote a lot of “Hey, I just saw a butterfly!”
You know, it’s fairly difficult to realize that a lot of this stuff that was meant for my future self or my family is now going to be seen by everybody. It’s easy to concentrate on that, and I don’t want to. The trip is a combination of all of it, and if I leave some of that stuff out, it’s not telling the whole story. A lot of it will be edited out – just because it’s not going to be a thousand-page book – but it is very strange…especially now where my artwork and my writing that I did on the trail is on a can of beer that people can buy!
Why is this visual style of journaling so central to your experiences?
I started journaling on my first trip to Europe, and it was a really emotional time that first week. Not only was I dealing with homesickness, and being away from home for really the first time, but I landed in Europe on September 11, 2001. I was just devastated by what was going on in the United States. It was just such a sad moment for a lot of people, and to add the distance between my family and myself, I really had no one to turn to. This was 2001, so cyber cafés were few and far between – I just needed to start writing things down. I knew it was an important time in the history of the world, but also in my life. I wanted to write down my thoughts and feelings about what I was going through, and it became my hiking companion; it literally became the friend I could talk to.
Every time I create a new project or go on a trip, I start a new journal. That’s how I travel. Some people use a suitcase, other people use a backpack, some people use a camera (which I do), but I journal quite a bit.
I think I ask myself “Why?” every time I journal. There are so many aspects to it, but I think one of the more important ones is that writing or sketching helps me remember. It’s the fact that I’m concentrating on it, I’m translating what I’m seeing into words, I’m translating what I’m looking at into pictures to help keep it in my long-term memory. A lot of things in my journal I can still remember without looking at the journal. By my writing and my sketching, I’m moving these short-term memories into long-term memories. But I’m also writing for my future self, so reading a journal from myself makes it really easy to pop back into that moment, because I wrote it that way. You can spend an hour in one place and try to capture everything, but it’s not going to happen. The writing is mainly for me to latch onto something in that moment and take me back, just like a photo does.
You pick up a stuffed animal from your childhood, and you get this rush of memory and emotions from being a child – it’s the same for journals. It takes you back to that moment and those emotions if you do a good job.
Why do you think your journaling was so prolific along your Pacific Crest Trail journey?
I think subconsciously, I knew that this was a big trip for myself, and I think it’s difficult to do a journey that long without changing. Some of the changes are so subtle that you don’t realize that you’re changing, both physically and emotionally, so journaling was a way for me to capture who I was at that moment. So, it wasn’t difficult for me, because I was confident in my journey.
I realized early on that I wasn’t going to be a “thru hiker” – I wasn’t going to be able to hike from Mexico to Canada. Although my goal changed from hiking from Mexico to Canada, my other goals did not. I wanted to be able to document the trip, so my goals were to keep the journal going and to enjoy myself as much as I could. So while others said, “Ok, that’s it – I’m not going to be able to thru-hike, I have to do something else,” my thought process was, “I enjoy hiking! I’m out here because I enjoy being on the trail – it doesn’t make sense to me to want to leave that, even though I’m not going to get to the end of the trail.”
Hiking is not a sport to me – hiking is something more spiritual or mental. It has all these different aspects to it, that I don’t consider it as a sport, per se. I don’t hike to get somewhere – I hike to be somewhere. It doesn’t matter what mile you’re at, or how far you’ve gone that day, or how far you think you need to go, it’s the fact that you’re even there, you’re in this amazing place…I want to appreciate that as much as I can, and part of that is to write it down.