The moment adventure writer and filmmaker Hilary Oliver unfolds from the front seat of her Astrovan, her boots send up a plume of dust from the dry Colorado earth and I feel like I’ve known her my entire life.
Which, I think to myself as she pulls a tattered yellow backpack onto her shoulders and envelops me in a hug, is exactly the effect a “good” writer should have on you.
Yet to call Oliver a “good” writer is to undermine her incredible talent. Oliver — who’s become a household name among the inner circles of the outdoor industry — has a knack for giving words to the emotions and observations so many of us who love the outdoors have had, but so few of us can articulate.
On her blog, The Gription, Oliver makes the case for wearing hiking boots in the city, champions a good cry and isolates the real problem with the #LiveAuthentic movement. She profiles athletes for Climbing magazine and recounts her travels for the REI blog and Adventure Journal.
She crafts descriptions for Outdoor Research apparel and pens essays for National Geographic Adventure and fiction for the Dirtbag Diaries podcast. Her words proliferate in the many corners of the outdoor industry, her résumé is brimming and her “fan club” of climbers, adventurers and readers is hungry for more.
But Oliver is quick to remind me that her journey to respected outdoor writer has been slow and, at times, defeating.
After earning a degree in journalism, Oliver scored a job with a natural-foods-industry publication, only to be laid off a few years later. As quickly as her career in writing had started, it came to a halt.
“I had a hard time putting the pieces together,” she says, squinting through the sunlight dappling the trail ahead of us. “I was struggling to make a living, waiting tables, just trying to make ends meet.”
That’s when, thanks to the secretive work of a friend, Oliver got a call from one of her restaurant’s regulars: Brendan Leonard, the adventure writer behind Semi-Rad.com and author of Sixty Meters to Anywhere.
Boy meets girl. Boy asks girl to move into his Astrovan. Girl quits job and starts to write.
“Moving into the van was such a gift since I wouldn’t have to pay rent,” Oliver remembers. “I really owe [Leonard] so much for helping me get into writing for the web, writing for brands. I didn’t realize at the time you could make money doing that.
“But, man, that first year was so hard, and it was really hard on my ego, too, not being able to be a breadwinner.”
There were jaunts to Utah and Montana, Oregon and California, but writing from the road wasn’t quite the Kerouac-tinged adventure she’d envisioned, either. Long hours hunched over a coffee-shop table were complemented by spotty cell-phone service and a surplus of egg-bagel sandwiches.
But they helped Oliver hone her skills and find her “tribe,” a group of outdoorsy women who’d become her go-to adventure partners while Leonard was out of town.
So, when Oliver decided to create a short film last year, those companions were the first women she called. Inspired by the writing of Terry Tempest Williams, Oliver wrote, directed and produced her debut short film, Being Here, a proclamation of her love for the outdoors and a visual collage of the rock-climbing, mountain-biking, picture-taking group of women she’d become a part of.
The film debuted at the 5Point Film Festival.
“I was terrified,” says Oliver, who watched her creation on the big screen, picking apart its flaws. A few days later, as she ate breakfast with her family at a nearby diner, one of the festival’s organizers approached her and slammed down the People’s Choice Award on the table in front of her.
“Of course the tears started,” remembers Oliver as we reach the top of Lily Mountain just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. She pauses, her eyes scanning the mountains around us — “Sorry, I’m just overwhelmed by this, give me a minute here!” — and she laughs: “I was like, ‘Thank you, people, for seeing the film’s message, not my shaky camera work!'”
Even in a male-dominated adventure-film landscape, Oliver didn’t set out to make a “rah-rah women” film; it just happened that her experience was a feminine one. So it means even more to her that so much of the positive feedback she’s gotten has been from men.
“When we see a film made by a man, we don’t call it a ‘men’s adventure film,'” she explains. “We just call it an adventure film. I hope to make something that is a ‘people movie,’ not a women’s one.”
That’s the thing with Oliver: She gives you the words to say when you can’t think of them yourself. So when we turn around to head down the mountain, she says the thing I’ve been thinking the entire hike: “I feel like I’ve known you for years. I guess, in a way, I have.”
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