High School Dropout. Unsuccessful Freelance Writer. Famous Author.
Noted hiking author William Sullivan, MA ’79, knows a thing or two about taking a winding route to the top. After all, his own life has been filled with plenty of switchbacks, detours, and side paths that have led the one-time high school dropout through a life of murder mysteries and Viking ships, to finally sit atop the peak as one of Oregon’s most celebrated writers.
A fifth generation Oregonian, Sullivan’s twists and turns began when, as a junior at South Salem High School, he was offered a scholarship by Deep Springs College in the Californian high desert north of Death Valley. The college—consisting of 24 students and five professors—was impressed with Sullivan’s PSAT scores, and did not mind that he had not yet graduated, so Sullivan dropped out of high school and moved to California for two years to spend his mornings in the classroom and his afternoons riding the range with his classmates.
With an eye turned toward becoming a freelance writer, Sullivan went to Cornell University at the end of his time in California and earned an English degree. His next stop took him to Heidelberg University in Germany, where he studied linguistics, and then finally home to Oregon where he earned a master’s degree in German from the UO in 1979.
Armed with two degrees and the ability to speak several languages, Sullivan then set out to make a name for himself as a freelancer writer, only to find a reality that was just as true in 1979 as it is today: dream jobs are hard to find.
“Lo and behold there aren’t jobs for freelance writers, so I got a job teaching high school English for a year, and after a year of that decided I’d rather do anything else,” Sullivan said. “That was really hard.”
So, his wife Janell Sorensen ’79—a local artist and fellow Duck who, at the time, was teaching preschool—made him an offer.
“My wife said, ‘Okay, I will support you,’” Sullivan said. “‘I will support you for seven years, and if at the end of seven years you have not made a living as a freelance writer, then you have to swear to me that you will get a job clerking at Kmart.’”
Sullivan began writing about a number of topics, including how-tos and documenting the building of his log cabin—which took two summers to build, as he and Janell didn’t use power tools, opting instead for a crosscut saw and an axe—and while doing so accumulated more than his share of rejection letters to accompany his bylines. With time running out on Janell’s seven-year offer, Oregon passed a wilderness bill that tripled the number of wilderness areas in Oregon, and Sullivan—still a struggling freelance writer—had an idea.
“I thought, ‘I’ll write a book about the wilderness areas, and a second book about my adventure going out to see them,’” he said.
Only, after seven years of freelance and preschool paychecks, the Sullivans were almost broke and did not own a car.
Walk through every wilderness area, in one trip.
“I figured I’d take a bus to the westernmost point, Cape Blanco, and hike through one thousand miles of wilderness, across four mountain ranges, to get to the easternmost point of the state, which is the bottom of Hell’s Canyon,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan started by spending two months in the UO library studying and preparing for the trip, and the eventual book documenting the adventure, Listening for Coyote—which, in addition to his hikes, tells of the time he was held up at gunpoint by marijuana growers, poisoned himself on mushrooms, and covered 40 miles per day to stay ahead of snowstorms—was named by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission as one of the state’s 100 most significant books in its history.
The book launched Sullivan’s career, and the one-time struggling freelancer is now the author of 18 tomes, including his well-known “100 Hikes” series that covers the top hikes in five different regions of Oregon; four novels and mysteries, about everything from D.B. Cooper to the Vikings in Norway; a pair of books about Oregon’s history; two memoirs; and one collection of short stories, with a tale set in each of Oregon’s counties.
One of Sullivan’s memoirs, Cabin Fever: Notes from a Part-Time Pioneer, told the tale of the building of the log cabin in a remote area of Oregon, and its accompanying mystery. The previous homesteaders had been murdered on the site—a murder that had remained unsolved—so Sullivan talked to the neighbors in an attempt to uncover who the guilty party was. There were only six families living in the area, and each had a motive and each blamed somebody else. The mystery lasted for a quarter of a century, until a missing witness turned up, allowing Sullivan to complete the puzzle and figure out “whodunit.”
Murder mystery solved, the cabin has since been enlarged from its original one room to accommodate the couple’s two children, and William and Janell still return there each summer, where the author writes his novels and updates his hiking guides on an old typewriter.
“It’s a lot the same,” Sullivan said. “You still have to hike in a mile and a half, no electricity, no cellphone coverage, no postal service.”
Each year, Sullivan leads a short fundraising hike through old-growth spruce to the cabin, where people can enjoy a champagne lunch and cookies freshly baked on Janell’s woodstove, and receive a free autographed book. For $100, people can enjoy William and Janell’s hospitality, learn the secret location of the cabin, and help Oregon Wild, the conservation group which receives the money from the hike and of which he is a board member.
Though known as “the hiking guy,” Sullivan, who grew up hiking with his family and reading the Hardy Boys series of books, sees himself as more writer than hiker, and spends just a few weeks each summer hiking and the rest of the time writing—including the update of one “100 Hikes” book each year.
If you would like to hike with William Sullivan to his cabin, to hear the ghost stories and drink champagne, you can find the information here.