The following post originates from my October 22 newsletter, and ties in as a continuation of a review of my 2021 season, and my focus for the future. To view that newsletter, click HERE.
-I went out a couple days recently to photograph the fall color. It was something I had to force more than a photographer should have to admit. Leaving Iowa a few weeks ago really hit me hard. It always does. There are some things I’ll never be able to let go of- they’re just too entwined in the fabric of my heart. Yet life can be very unforgiving sometimes in not allowing us the chance to go back and change course, no matter how bad we wish we could. So I carry that weight, and carry on the best I can, knowing right now this is where I’m called to be. And frankly, I don’t know what else to do. In that struggle though, between cycles of depression and a host of a million different things, most of the time out here I just go numb and indifferent toward much of the world around me. I feel guilty saying that, but it’s still my honest truth.
I know this is something I need to work on, so I packed up my camera gear early one morning and drove out into the mountains of Cache National Forest. The scenery really is nice here, although I still haven’t explored the area much, and with dappled light piercing the overcast sky, and colors near their peak, conditions were just about perfect. I turned off on a bumpy forest service road with no idea where it led, and just kept driving. The road slowly climbed out of a canyon, crisscrossing gentle slopes and passing aspen groves bursting in brilliant yellow. I pulled over frequently, sometimes working a single scene for a half hour or more. One of my goals moving forward is to simply continue to improve in my craft, and I’m trying to become a lot more observant and intentional in the photos that I pursue. While I recognized that my surroundings really were gorgeous, I was also aware that this still wasn’t eliciting the same spark that photographing such scenes would have in the past. Again, being someone who has spent most of his life enamored with, and committed to a career of documenting the world’s natural beauty, such admissions make me feel extremely guilty. I don’t feel like I’m capable of appreciating the blessings of life, as I know I should. Not in the way that they deserve to be appreciated. But I’ve also come to understand how this mindset- and those concurrent feelings of unworthiness and guilt- play into a depressive feedback loop that just leads further down that spiral. So on this day I instead just tried really hard to focus on presence in the moment, and allowed myself the grace to simply feel whatever it was I needed to feel.
Continuing higher into the mountains I came to a wide bald covered in golden grass and an incredible 360-degree view. The light was amazing- breakthrough beams illuminating patches of mountainside and blue sky tracing through wind-torn clouds; skeleton-like white aspen trunks standing in bold contrast to patterned hues of orange and gold. I stepped out of my vehicle and just stood there for a long time, taking it all in; so absorbed in the scenery that it almost caught me off guard to hear the sound of my own voice whisper an audible “Wow...”
Eventually I took out my camera and got to work. I honestly don’t know how long I was up there for. Minutes… hours… I don’t know. Time just seemed to stop, as everywhere I looked was a new composition in waiting, and muscle memory took over as I stepped further inside of myself. Like often in such circumstances, when I’m out photographing and am able to get into a zone like this, I fell pretty deep in contemplation. I started thinking more about photography- and in it, through the years, where I have found the most meaning.
Of course I love nature, and my soul constantly yearns to get out, explore, and experience its wonders. I love to go back, time and again, to locations that through my life I have known intimately; each return like a visit with an old friend. I also love to see new places, get to know landscapes, plants and animals that I’ve never encountered before. Photography offers me a deeper connection in these instances- the chance to slow down, appreciate the subtleties, and pay tribute to the beauty that I find. It’s in this preservation though, and both the chance to hold onto these special moments for myself, and share them with others, that I take equally to heart.
My journey through life has been somewhat non-traditional, but that path has blessed me with some incredible experiences, and I’ve seen some amazing things. These gifts have often come in remote and wild places, and I’ve always understood that many people might not get to experience some of the things that I do. In that, I’ve always enjoyed sharing my stories and photos- through conversations with loved ones, blogs and online journals, social media to some extent, and I suppose exhibiting at art shows is also an extension of that. I don’t do it, or say this, in any way to be boastful. The grass is always greener, and there’s plenty I would give up just to know things in life that others enjoy. I’d even take that a step further and suspect that if the full story were known, much of the time people wouldn’t really want to be in my shoes. Some of my greatest adventures- hiking the Appalachian Trail, the PCT, long-distance bike trips- have also coincided with some of the hardest, loneliest times of my life. Being lost (sometimes both figuratively and literally) has long been an impetus for my wandering. That’s a side of things I don’t often talk about, but again, it’s my raw and honest truth.
So anyway, be it in a grand adventure or a morning’s excursion, in nature I find the “oh wow” moments that fulfill me in ways that bring me wonder and return a sense of peace to my soul. And these encounters always feel so much bigger than something meant for me alone. Photography is one conveyance that allows me to preserve this magic and share it with others, especially those who perhaps couldn’t, or haven’t yet, experienced these sights for themselves. It brings me solace, joy, and meaning- and this is further enhanced by the anticipation of sharing, and eventual connection, with like-hearts capable of feeling this depth of reverence and amazement for our natural world too.
Sorting through all of this in my mind I realized that these are also things that I really need to focus on. Not just getting out to shoot more, but understanding how and why photography has brought me such fulfillment throughout my life, and being intentional in pursuing that as well. My hope is this might help me find strength, purpose, healing, something to offer to others, and ultimately maybe even a way back to myself. Or at least help me to feel a spark again. With that I temporarily set my camera down and began shooting some video clips on my phone. A couple of years ago I started making recordings while out in the field, the plan being to share my stories through a multi-media approach (writing, photos, and video.) So far it’s basically left me sitting on a mountain of never seen footage, but I do hope to catch up to these intentions yet. In the middle of this latest recording, I noticed that a bluebird had landed on an old signpost about twenty yards away.
The sight of a bluebird always feels really special to me. My Grandma was a bird lover- she absolutely adored them- and bluebirds were her favorite of all. She used to have bluebird houses on almost every fence post all the way down their long farm lane. From the time I was the age my son is now, I remember walking with her, hand in hand from one to the next; Grandma opening each little side door and lifting me to peek inside and check for nests. I don’t think one ever crossed her path without notice, or making her smile. And so now, even though she’s gone, that’s a trait I still carry- and I know the rest of our family does as well.
I’d never been able to successfully photograph a bluebird. They’re pretty skittish, and when I see them it’s usually for just a quick glance. I remember spotting one once in the Tetons, which also happened to be my Grandma’s favorite national park. It was the summer after my Grandpa had passed, and I tried so hard to capture a photo of that bird with those iconic mountains in the background, hoping to gift her a print that might help lift her spirits. The subject wasn’t at all cooperative, though, and my attempts all turned out blurry- which always seemed to be the case. So in this latest encounter, especially with my camera having a wide angle lens attached, and sitting in my car thirty feet away, I didn’t think I’d probably be able to even get it in hand without scaring the bird off. But I decided to try.
My Grandma and I shared a really special bond. She was always so encouraging of my photography and writing, and we spent hours and hours sitting together at her dining room table; looking at photos, discussing travels I’d just returned from, or plans for those to come. Sometimes she’d just shake her head in disbelief, but her smile, and the approving look in her eye, was always the same. She was one of my greatest supporters in life, and also one of my greatest motivators. I don’t think it can be understated- the importance of having someone see something special in you, especially when the larger world seems intent on telling you there’s not. In many ways, my Grandma’s interest and enthusiasm was also a grant of permission. There’s a lot of strength in having someone encourage your journey, and I never doubted the potential she saw, or belief she had, in me.
I mentioned the Appalachian Trail earlier- that was actually something that came at a really, really hard time in my life. It was a period when I felt very alone and directionless, and the weight of this was amplified, not discarded, during that hike. It ended up being an incredible experience and I have so many awesome stories from that journey- but the moments leading into it, and the struggles of the day to day during, were honestly pretty dark. Through all of it though, I knew that back in Iowa my Grandma was waiting. I’d given her a wall map of the trail prior to setting off, and would send a post card from each town. Every time she’d receive one- and carry it back from her mailbox at the end of that long birdhouse lined lane- she’d put another pin in the map, and trace the route with a Sharpie to celebrate my progress. I don’t know that she ever realized how often my anticipation of coming home to show her more photos, or wanting to have something to write about in the next postcard, kept me from quitting. Or in that, how much she was a part of my journey- giving me the strength to rise from the loneliness and darkness, and still seek beauty in the experience to share.
My Grandma passed away three years ago this coming January. My last visit with her had been a few weeks prior, when I took Caden to see her in the nursing home and delivered some calendars I’d made for the upcoming year. As I flipped the pages for her, telling the story behind each photo, we got sidetracked talking about my hike on the AT. Grandma laughed just like old times, and said she’d never forget when I returned from that trip and walked through her door. (I’d ended my hike early and spent 22 hours on a Greyhound to come home and surprise my family for Thanksgiving. Grandma was in the kitchen prepping the meal, and it took her a minute to recognize the wild-eyed vagrant standing behind that bushy beard.) We reminisced and I retold my stories, and then admitted that in reality, that hike had been really hard. Nothing had gone as I’d hoped, and so often I just wanted to give up.
“But you kept going…” Grandma said, taking my hand and giving it a little squeeze.
“You always found a way to keep going.”
This time the bluebird didn’t fly immediately away. It stayed there, sitting on the post, for what felt like a profoundly long time. I quietly walked back to the car, got my camera and changed the lens, and took several photos. My camera was acting really strange- I couldn’t get it to focus on the bird itself, it kept zooming in and out, trying instead to bring the mountains behind into view. I disabled the autofocus, and took the time to manually hone in on the bird. It sat there patiently, even let me walk a little closer, until I was confident I’d gotten a good shot. Then it gave one long last look back at me, chirped, and skitted away.
So where do I go from here?
Truthfully… I don’t know. Even with epiphanies, things don’t always get easier. But right now my heart keeps insisting that no matter how dark times feel, I must continue to believe in the magic of life. Even when it seems so distant to me. Even when life doesn’t have me where I feel I want to be, I need to have faith in the journey, be open to the lessons it has to teach, and remember that the road has always led me home. And with belief in that, I also need to continue to share my experiences; in hope that these stories and photos might touch the lives of others- even if in a small or distant way. To share these glimpses of the world that I discover; so others can see it too, and for the purpose and connections I cherish so much. That’s always been one of my greatest drives, and such a big part of what makes photography so personally fulfilling. So it’s something I’m going to continue to work on, and keep fighting not to lose sight of. I’m going to keep looking for the beauty in this world, wherever I am, and try to make it a better place if I can.
The bluebird was a beautiful reminder that despite my struggles before, I've never given up on my dreams; or on my greater journey, even when it feels like it's gone awry. A gentle nudge, telling me to find a way to keep going.
I will. And I am grateful.