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Boulder native Ryan Van Duzer is known for his enthusiasm. Whether he’s bike-packing the Colorado Trail for his 140,000 subscribers on YouTube or motivating young people with inspirational school talks across the state, the charismatic 43-year-old outdoor adventurer brings a certain joie de vivre to all his public endeavors.
But earlier this month, Van Duzer hit a wall. He was preparing to leave for a trip to Baja, Mexico — his bike and gear at the ready — when he found himself debilitated by a deep sense of dread.
It was the kind of trip that would usually have the cycling advocate thrumming with excitement. But something was different. A voice was telling him not to go. So, in a move that cut against Van Duzer’s spirit of adventure, he stayed home.
In a Jan. 7 video uploaded to his YouTube channel, Van Duzer spoke candidly to viewers about the experience, which he says was the result of overwhelming burnout. It came after his 15th year of intense travel — averaging about 150 travel days a year — to film video content for his YouTube channel, Van Duzer’s primary source of income, while working through personal hardships like watching his grandmother succumb to dementia.
On top of that, Van Duzer said the pain in his beloved home community over the past year was taking a toll on his mental health.
“Tragedy struck my home town in March, when a killer walked into a grocery store and murdered 10 people. And just this past week, a raging firestorm burned down a thousand homes in my beloved Boulder County,” he told viewers. “The pandemic has been a huge bummer. Climate change is scaring me. And the division in my country is heartbreaking.”
Van Duzer said the overwhelm doesn’t spell the end of his channel, but it does mean taking more time to work on himself. And in keeping with the online content creator’s spirit of community uplift, he’s using the experience to build awareness around emotional struggles in the wake of personal and collective pain.
The Boulder Reporting Lab sat down with Van Duzer to talk about his advice for others dealing with similar feelings of burnout and anxiety. The outdoors enthusiast also spoke about his path to making content on his own terms, his undeniable affection for his hometown and the hurt that has coursed throughout the community over the past 12 months.
The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Can you tell readers a little about your background?
I grew up in a family with a single mom. My dad was a janitor. So, I didn’t have the same upbringing as a lot of my friends. My parents got divorced when I was six, and so my mom had to have a full-time job. She worked in hospice for many years and then worked doing essentially accounting-type stuff for the City of Boulder in the parking services department.
I was born in Boulder Community Hospital. I went to Columbine Elementary, then Centennial Middle School, then Boulder High. I’ve been north side all the way. I got into the affordable housing program up here about 11 years ago. Before that, I got my degree in journalism from CU, but I didn’t do the typical route afterward.
What route was that, and how did it lead to your current career?
I joined the Peace Corps after college and lived in Honduras for two years. When I came home, I rode my bike back to Boulder. I was scared. Being on an adventure like that, it’s like, “OK. I have no idea how this is gonna go. I don’t even know my route. I know it’s north. I’m just gonna go that way.”
And that’s kind of how it all happened. I traded in my plane ticket and used the money to buy a bike. I gave away all my stuff to my neighbors on my street in Honduras, and I just took off. That’s when I started my career as an adventure journalist and realized this is what I wanted to do. I want to tell stories, but not just to be like “Look how cool I am!” I really hope to inspire people to challenge themselves in their own way.
And then the YouTube channel comes pretty shortly after that?
Kind of. I got home in late 2005 — this was before YouTube — and I started working at the public access TV station in Boulder, Channel 54. I was 25 at the time, running around Boulder with a little Sony handycam, filming everyday adventures.
Then I started cutting those down to make reels to send to places like the Travel Channel, trying to get jobs in TV. It took a long time and I was like, “How am I going to do this? I’m not making any money.” All my friends have real jobs and are buying houses and stuff, and here I am in mom’s basement, wondering what I’m doing with my life. But I loved it.
Did you ever make headway in the TV world?
I finally got my foot in the door at Travel Channel. But the entertainment world is very hard to navigate. It’s very fickle. To make a long story very short, I gave up on the TV industry after 10 years of grinding at it. Then I wanted to go back to my roots of just telling the stories that I want to tell, like the public access show, with a very simple goal of inspiring people to get off their couches.
So in 2016, I was like, “OK, I’m going to go for YouTube full on now. I’m going to actually have a channel and try to get subscribers and make a living from it.” I didn’t know if it would work. I put a ton of effort into all my videos, and I would get like 75 views. Maybe on the next video I would get 85. It was like, “Damn. Is this ever gonna go anywhere?”
And it did. How did you pull it off?
It did! I just stuck with it. I kept doing it. Every video had a few more views. People would tell friends to watch, and six years later my channel’s pretty big and it’s a dream come true. If somebody came to me today and said “You can either have a national TV show, or you can have your YouTube channel,” I would go with my channel all the way.
But the mission is what it always has been, from the days of the public access show: inspiring people to get outside.
You recently shared a video about feeling burned out and overwhelmed, which prompted you to cancel a cycling trip to Mexico. Can you talk about that?
I went to bed that night thinking I was going to wake up and go to the airport. But I woke up feeling really anxious and overwhelmed, and something inside me said not to go. After that, I started feeling a bit like a loser. I felt like I had to just push through this. I’ve done that all my life — pushing through hard things. But eventually I was like, “You know what? I’m gonna listen to myself this time. I’m going to chill out and take it easy for a bit.”
I’ve done a lot of hard adventures lately, so I think there was a little physical exhaustion, but it was also just the grind of life and the pandemic. The wildfires had also happened just a few days before. It was all just bumming me out.
A couple of my high school friends’ houses burned down, and two other friends lost their homes in the October [Whittier Place] fire. When you see natural disasters on TV, it feels so far away. You turn off the computer or TV and it’s done for you. But I could see the wildfire flames from my deck. You want to be a hero and help, but you really can’t do anything. So you feel kind of helpless, and then you just feel sad.
You sort of radiate energy and optimism. Has it been hard to maintain that?
It is hard, because people look to me for that spark. People write messages all the time, saying “Your videos got me through the pandemic,” or “I was recovering from cancer, and your videos kept me sane and happy.” So I feel like I owe it to my audience to keep on creating this really positive content that’s going to keep everybody going. I want to keep all my subscribers happy, which is a great thing and I’m honored to do it. I give my heart and soul to this channel. But this is the first time where I’m like, “I need a break. I’m toasted.”
What are you doing now to manage your anxiety?
I’ve been running a lot. It’s been good to be outside and not have a camera in my hand at all times. Because for the past six years, every single thing I do in life is documented. It’s been nice to just turn it all off. I feel more present.
And for the past two weeks, I’ve done pretty much nothing for the first time in my life. I haven’t really been responding to anything online. The video I made about burnout has something like 2,000 comments, and I glanced at a few of them. I’m just overwhelmed — I don’t even want to see this stuff. Right now I just want to sit outside and watch the clouds go by.
Do you think this experience will affect the kind of content you make going forward?
I want to see how I can tell stories in a different way that’s meaningful. I’ll definitely go back to the channel — it’s my job now. But I want to focus more on other people’s stories, not just me going on adventures.
I’ve met amazing people on my trips who have overcome cancer or lost hundreds of pounds through cycling, or whatever. I think people can see that and be inspired in a different way. They can watch me go up and down mountains all day long. And I have hard times when I do adventures, but I think it’s more relatable when I show the average person who’s overcome some serious stuff to get where they are.
What would you tell someone who’s struggling with the same kind of feelings you’ve been working through?
If you can take time off, do it. I’m in a very privileged situation, where I can just say, “I’m not doing anything for two weeks.” I was raised by a single mom with four kids. She tells me, “I could never do what you’re doing. I always had to be ‘Mom’ at all times — making money, going to work.”
Nature is where I always go for answers. Also, when you think of others, it takes you out of your own pity party. Maybe you can go volunteer, or do some work in the community that benefits other people. It definitely helps. We can all get into a dark hole and really beat ourselves up for whatever reason. If you can, take a step outside, breathe in the fresh air and appreciate what a beautiful community we live in.