Stories, by diverse voices, to share by firelight

July 27, 2023

The U.S.’ sprawling National Park System and its grand sights have long inspired writers from John Muir to Bill Bryson. But what has long been missing in the country’s naturalistic literary record are diverse voices, particularly those of women and people of color. A new book, the second installment in a series edited by UArts alum Ilyssa Kyu BFA ’11 (Industrial Design) and her husband, Dave, aims to change that.

Campfire Stories Volume II, published this spring by Mountaineers Books, is the second collection of new and commissioned short stories, poems and other works collected and edited by Kyu. The book places a special emphasis on LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC writers, all of whom respond, in their own way, to six different national parks and the Appalachian and Pacific Crest scenic trails. The new book follows 2018’s first volume, which, in a similar fashion, explored the history and folklore of a small segment of our 85 million acres of park land through place-based storytelling.

Growing up outside Philadelphia, Kyu had an affinity for the outdoors but had no experience camping. That changed in 2009 when, as a UArts student, she planned a trip to Toronto with Dave. Derailed by the city’s 39-day sanitation workers’ strike, the couple changed course and opted to visit Maine’s Acadia National Park instead. Camping for the very first time, they struggled to set up their tent and slept directly on the ground, shivering throughout the night.

“We did everything wrong on that camping trip, but somehow we still enjoyed ourselves,” she said.

There, surrounded by Acadia’s pink granite cliffs and thunderous crashing waves—instead of fetid trash bags piled high in basketball courts—Kyu fell in love with camping, despite its early challenges. More trips to parks in California and Washington state, among others, quickly followed, and the nascent idea for a book began to grow.

Kyu began hunting for compilations of campfire stories as a gift for Dave to accompany them on their journeys to celebrate their newfound love of camping. All she could find, she said, were “spooky ghost campfire stories, and I wasn’t really interested in that. I’m also a chicken, so I don’t like spirit stories.”

Dave instead suggested they create their own book as a personal project, and they eagerly embarked on a four-month research trip across the nation. Living in campsites and out of their car, they scoured archives and met with historical preservation nonprofits searching for stories that resonated with the parks they visited. The in-depth research they conducted and the stories they collected formed the basis for volume one.

“We did interviews with dozens of people: park rangers, people who live and work in and around the parks,” Kyu said. “We spoke to lobstermen, boat builders and artists—whoever was willing to talk to us.”

In the years that followed volume one, they welcomed two children into their lives and weathered COVID-19 together. During the depths of the pandemic and childcare, with travel and in-depth research proving completely unrealistic, they turned to the internet and began work on volume two. They focused on the national parks and residency programs and sent out a sweeping call for submissions to gather works. They even supported six writers with travel stipends, recognizing that many national parks are in remote, often inaccessible locations.

“We accepted stories from everyone,” Kyu said, “but it was a direct invitation to groups that are typically left out of the outdoors narrative or marginalized groups.”

Kyu’s UArts education has greatly informed both books, she said, and Critical Studies professor and folklorist Anna Beresin was the first person she consulted when developing her and Dave’s idea. Beresin suggested they should be open to discovery throughout the process and be willing to incorporate elements of their own story, but Kyu was hesitant to do so.

“We didn’t come to this as people who are known in the outdoors [community] or writers,” she said. “But [Beresin] and our publisher encouraged us to tell more of our narrative, which really shaped the book.”

Though there are no immediate plans for a third volume in their series, Kyu says it was designed to grow as long as people want to keep hearing new stories. And with 425 national park sites to explore, there is an immeasurable number of stories to reveal.

Photo by Max Grudzinski