The world may be full of overblown names – “Riverview” apartments that can’t view a river, “Pleasant Valley” subdivisions with no valley and few pleasantries.
But Baratunde Thurston (shown here) – whose new “America Outdoors” is 9 p.m. Tuesdays on PBS — has seen the opposite, places far better than their names:
— Death Valley, in California. “That name is pretty unfortunate,” Thurston said in a Television Critics Association press conference. It was coined by “some colonists who fared badly” in the searing sun.
— The Great Dismal Swamp, in Virginia and North Carolina. The “name does not imply happiness,” but for some people, the swamp was a place to escape to. It “became a refuge for people freeing from slavery, for maroon communities …. I got to visit that swamp and feel the presence of my ancestors.”
For Thurston, who is Black, that was one of several new experiences. One moment, he was with a group called Color the Water; “I had never seen so many Black and brown people surfing.” The next, he was with Dudley Edmonson, a Minnesota nature photographer.
“I am always encouraging African Americans to get outdoors for their mental and physical health,” Edmondson said. “We are a group of people who live under a tremendous amount of generational stress and oppression …. (I) encourage people to get out.”
Now Thurston, 44, has gone far from his own roots. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, graduated from Harvard as a philosophy major, then worked in both tech and comedy, becoming tech director for “The Daily Show” and the Onion.
“I’m very much a product of the East Coast,” he said. But three years ago, he moved West. “I was surprised by how green (Los Angeles) is. I was surprised by the range of ecology.”
Now his series offers more surprises. He spends the first episode (July 5) in Death Valley, with people – including a Texas transplant and the local Timbisha tribe – with people who are happy there. He spends the second (July 12) in Idaho, with Caucasians who know the distant parts.
Martin Black is a fifth-generation rancher who got along with the pandemic. “This self-isolation totally suits me,” he told the TCA, adding he likes a world where “it’s more acceptable not to be so social.”
Lori MacNichol has been flying small planes there for years. “I help others use the airplane to get off that grid and get back to our roots.”
That’s what Thurston was doing throughout the series, whisking to places far from his old life. Each time, he said, “heart rate (and) adrenaline drops. You kind of drop in with people in the places where they are most familiar.” You find life in Death Valley, joy in The Great Dismal Swamp.