Like many good stories, this one begins with a revelation.
It was 2009. Madison journalist James Edward Mills had a new podcast, and he’d landed the celebrated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns as a guest. Burns spoke about his latest film, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” mentioning the role of an all-Black military unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers in the creation of both Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.
Mills was astonished.
“It was an awakening,” he says.
Mills knew of the Buffalo Soldiers, but not their connection to California’s national parks — a knowledge gap that seemed odd given that Mills had been immersed in the mountains and outdoor life while growing up in Los Angeles.
“I literally taught rock climbing in Yosemite out of college,” he says. “Yet I had never heard this story before. If I hadn’t heard it — based on my background — millions of people hadn’t heard it.”
Mills is currently under contract with National Geographic to write a book, which he describes as “a comprehensive view of the role people of color have played in the protection and preservation of public lands, with a particular interest in the stories of our national parks.”
It is of a piece with his broader work across the past decade, encouraging greater participation by people of color in outdoor recreation.
That work includes a highly praised book, “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors,” which was published in 2014 and included in a 2019 Outside magazine list of the 10 outdoor books “that shaped the last decade.”
Mills’ book documented the first summit of Denali by an all-African American team of climbers.
Outside magazine noted that Mills took his book “beyond the scope of a traditional expedition narrative, exploring the reasons for the glaring outdoor cultural divide and noting that bridging the gap would help people and the planet. Once published, the book ignited a firestorm of productive conversations about justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in the outdoor adventure world.”
This year is the 30th anniversary of Mills’ arrival in Madison in 1992. It was the outdoors that brought him, in a fashion — he came as the Midwest director of sales for the outdoor gear and apparel company The North Face.
“I was told I could live anywhere in the Midwest I wanted,” Mills says.
He liked Madison’s college town vibe — Mills graduated with an anthropology degree from the University of California, Berkeley — and its location in the middle of his sales territory.
“I haven’t looked back,” he says. “I fell in love” — his wife is the journalist Shamane Mills — “bought a house and we’ve been here ever since.”
By 2001, Mills’ enthusiasm for retail had waned. Perhaps it was an early recognition of the adventure gap. He wasn’t going to close it selling to The North Face’s existing customer base. Mills changed careers, to journalism. He spent five years writing business stories for the Wisconsin State Journal, though fresh air and adventure were never far from his mind. He and Shamane Mills were outside all the time, skiing, doing adventure races.
One day at his desk at the State Journal in 2006, Mills spotted an online story about the death of famed climber Todd Skinner in Yosemite. Skinner was a friend. Mills attended his memorial service in Wyoming, which drew 500 people and included a bonfire and slideshow under a brilliant moon.
“A really wonderful event,” Mills says.
Prior to leaving for the service, Mills had contacted an editor friend at Specialty News (often referenced as SNEWS, now called Outside Business Journal) about doing a story. Instead of writing it, Mills made audio recordings and turned them into a radio piece that helped launch a SNEWS podcast. The editor asked, “How would you like to do this full time?”
Mills would, and did until 2009, when he spun off and launched his own website and podcast, The Joy Trip Project, that continues today.
One early Joy Trip podcast came out of an email Mills received from Skinner’s widow, Amy. Her son Jake’s recent third grade writing assignment contained verbatim passages of Mills’ 2006 podcast from the memorial.
“We’re going to have to have a little talk about plagiarism,” Amy noted, “but it’s apparent that he has listened to your podcast many times. I have it on my iPod.”
Touched, Mills wrote: “Jake’s use of my words from this story let me know that in a small way I’ve helped him to remember his father.”
Mills’ “Adventure Gap” book grew out of his helping the National Outdoor Leadership School organize the first all African American summit of Denali in Alaska. Mills was originally on the summit team himself, but hip replacement surgery changed that plan.
“I was able to fly into basecamp,” Mills says, “be on the mountain, and cover the event from the safety of the lodge at Denali National Park.”
This year will bring travel for his national parks book for National Geographic, tentatively titled “Unhidden” and scheduled for publication in 2024. He’s already finding remarkable stories that weave people of color into the historic fabric of the national parks.
“At every stop, there’s a new story I hadn’t heard before,” he says. “That’s what the whole book is about. A rediscovery of historic narratives that have been forgotten or wholly ignored.”
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