Aussie Beau Miles is many things, including a quirky, infectious filmmaker with compelling things to say about the potential of backyard adventure. Sam couldn't think of a better person to speak with for our Backyard Celebration Edition.
I knew Beau Miles would be a fantastic person to speak with about backyard adventure. What I didn’t realise is that Beau published his first book the day before we spoke - a book that got me wondering whether I was speaking with the world’s most appropriate person. Its title? The Backyard Adventurer.
The Backyard Adventurer tells the story of Beau’s offbeat evolution from an outdoor sprog into a chipper man of many hats: outdoor educator, adventurer, endurance athlete, handyman, filmmaker and father, to name a few. Or, in Beau’s own words, into a “polyjobist” and “oddball”. “I'm not sure what I am,” admits Beau. “I kind of struggle with that sometimes, depending on my mood: whether I am something, or I'm just some dude who’s got an identity crisis and I do all this stuff to try and figure out what I am.”
This existential openness reflects Beau’s long-standing interest in the relationship, historic and contemporary, between adventure and self-identity. This was the topic of his doctoral thesis, explored through the medium of a sea-kayaking expedition he undertook across the Bass Strait, which connects the Australian mainland with Tasmania. “In many respects, that's what my form of adventure has been,” says Beau - “to go and look for Beau in these places that I've never been before.”
Beau isn’t talking here about finding his limits through dangerous exploits. He sees his longer trips as challenging but skills-based, and well within his comfort zone. In any case, his adventures, as his book title implies, are decreasingly far-flung. Neither does he see his adventurous identity as remotely exceptional. “I’m as letterboxable as anyone,” he says. “I’m just a dude trying to find my way in life and not quite sure what I enjoy the most, because I enjoy a lot of things.”
This appraisal strikes me as not only more relatable, but more accurate and powerful than often grandiose perceptions of adventurers. Because large or small, Beau’s escapades reject the idea that adventure is separate from, above or somehow an escape from everyday life or identity. He instead embraces adventure as an expression of who we are - and, by extension, the places that have shaped us.
Over the past couple of years, in a move that seems to dive headlong into this view of adventure, Beau’s filmmaking has become much more localised. Covid has of course been a driver here. Beau was also made redundant when the outdoor-education course he taught at Monash University (a course he once studied) was discontinued. Most important of all, though, he became a father. “My life has got these two nuclei that I'm revolving around more,” Beau says of his wife, Helen, and his baby daughter, May. “And yet, I still have the burning desire to be physical and to be challenged and to be curious. So I want to go and make these stories - that's where the local stuff comes in.”
'I’m as letterboxable as anyone. I’m just a dude trying to find my way in life and not quite sure what I enjoy the most, because I enjoy a lot of things.'
Beau’s resourcefulness made committing to filmmaking full time less daunting. He can make much of what he needs, isn’t exactly the designer-labels type and can easily find practical work if needed. Not that there isn’t financial pressure. Beau’s aim is to release one film per month and sustainably support a small crew, with one million YouTube views (his primary outlet) equating to between €3,000 AUD and €5,000 AUD.
Developing his storytelling craft is also an ongoing education. Being organic on film while refining the production process and creating films that resonate with people doesn’t just happen. “I have to open my mouth and say the very things I'm feeling or thinking, and I've got to try and be articulate about it - otherwise I'm wasting people's time,” says Beau. “So that's the craft. Sometimes it is harder [than just going out adventures without filming], because I'm having to force the issue or force this internal monologue out. But that doesn't make it a bad experience; it just makes it one where I have to work a bit harder sometimes.”
Beau seems happy with progress so far, including the opportunities that sprout around the films. The Commute: Walking 90kms to Work, for example, led to a photographer shooting a spread for a national newspaper. It “got more views and more clicks than Malcolm Turnbull, our Prime Minister, being ousted by his government,” says Beau. As well as affirming the demand for Beau’s offbeat stories, this led directly to publishers enquiring about a book deal.
The Backyard Adventurer’s cover depicts Beau inspecting a junk-crafted paddle in a homemade workshop festooned with tools, outdoor gear and useful (or maybe useless - who knows?) loot. This workshop is at home: a small farm near Melbourne, where he lives with his wife, Helen, and baby daughter, May. The image distils Beau’s recent films, which follow him bustling and building and pondering about this HQ. Jogging the block, climbing a tree, wheelbarrowing through a field, rummaging under the house, tinkering at the workbench and eating beans in the family kitchen: Beau’s adventures bushwhack directly through, not away from, the thickets of daily life.
In Mile an Hour, Beau completes more projects (or, as some would call them, chores) in 24 hours than mortals would undertake in a year, all while running a marathon in between. Helen and May are involved, as they often are, sometimes as protagonists. A Mile With May, for instance, depicts Beau walking a mile around the farm with May in a wheelbarrow, fiddling with scavenged items as Beau tends trees, clears hedgerows and fixes a neighbour’s letterbox. And Junk Cabin follows Beau conspiring with May to build Helen a Covid work cabin made of scrap materials.
These films capture the childlike spirit of discovery and wonder required to explore familiar places anew - the essence of backyard adventure. Beau refers to this fresh perspective as “the placebo effect,” which he says is alive and well, even in the adventurous realm. “I want to be in a weird place that isn’t far from home and yet could be very far from home,” he says.
Here Beau draws an instructive distinction between backyard adventures and microadventures, a term popularised by Alastair Humphreys in the UK. With the caveat that the terms microadventure and backyard adventure are rightly open to interpretation, it seems fair to say that they share some similarities: both propose smaller, more accessible adventures, for example, and neither require grand objectives or flashy kit.
But it also seems fair - without implying superiority or a sense of competition - that backyard adventuring goes further in deconstructing, or broadening, what adventure can look like. Where microadventures tend to “offer a realistic escape to wilderness,” as Alastair writes on his website, backyard adventures propose an expedition into the heart of the humdrum. Where microadventures tend to work around normality, backyard adventures tend to work through it. Backyard adventures, in other words, utilise a wider range of raw material to build adventures.
“The adventure world, or the adventure industry, is becoming more and more commodified,” says Beau. “You know, you have to go to deep nature, or you have to have a beautiful coffee in a particular space, to feel the sense that you’ve achieved something that’s different to your everyday or whatnot. But maybe going without coffee and without any gear - sleeping in the stairwell of your workplace for the night and reading a book that you've been meaning to read for twenty years - could be exactly your form of adventure.”
'Maybe going without coffee and without any gear - sleeping in the stairwell of your workplace for the night and reading a book that you've been meaning to read for twenty years - could be exactly your form of adventure.'
There is provocation in this image. “I like the idea of just challenging these things we do each day, and this idea of leisure and adventure,” Beau continues. Without wanting to cause harm or alarm, Beau embraces the value of coming across as a bit odd. Whether walking 90km to work, eating discarded roadside food and working as a swagman to find bedding materials, or running along an abandoned railway line dressed as a dubious train driver, Beau enjoys experimenting with the seemingly uncomfortable.
At the heart of these backyard adventures is curiosity - not just about unfamiliar places (that’s easy), but also the places we take for granted. “You've got to be curious with the macro and the micro,” says Beau. “I don't know where that comes from, to be honest. I don't know how you breed curiosity in people, other than being positive about things. So I'm a new parent, and I'm just trying to be as positive about cow shit as much as it being sunny.”
'I don't know how you breed curiosity in people, other than being positive about things. So I'm a new parent, and I'm just trying to be as positive about cow shit as much as it being sunny.'
This doesn’t mean travel farther afield is off the cards. Indeed, Beau is actively working on projects beyond his backyard. “In many respects backyard adventure is a metaphor,” he says. “Yes, you have to be super curious about your backyard. But sometimes it's about comparing and contrasting your backyard to other places in the world too, or having that perspective to know that it's special or know that it's sick.” Even longer trips, Beau emphasises, are rooted in home. He is fascinated, for instance, by the fact that most phases of an expedition - indeed most of the expedition process - takes place at home.
We don’t all possess Beau’s boundless energy, resourcefulness or positivity. Neither do we all have farms to tinker on and gum trees to sleep in. But that doesn’t matter. Beau would be the first to point out that we all have many things he doesn’t, all of which provide ample different terrain for backyard adventure of some sort. Beau’s infectious call, ultimately, is for us to know and appreciate our local patches, wherever we are and however far we sometimes stray.
- Brian Wattchow - An outdoor educator, author, guide and Beau’s academic supervisor. Beau specifically referenced Songs of the Wounded River,
- The work of Robert McFarlane.
- Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel - a philosophical meditation on the meaning (and frequent disappointments) of travel.