Our National Parks Odyssey: The Ultimate Challenge, Part 1

Image © Andrew Slaton

By Andrew Slaton—

It’s mid-May at American Horse Lake in Oklahoma as I sit down to write. Things are beginning to open back up, but the second wave of a global pandemic still looms as an inevitable possibility. So much has changed.

The Sooner state in the spring is awash with color. Newly budding branches green with rebirth. Skies of complex and ever-changing hues of blue, then textured white, then glowing pink and orange. Reflective water, mirroring the hue shifts of the sky.

The daily ebb and flow of wildflowers, constantly changing like the tides, indiscriminate, showcasing every color of the spectrum. And the deep, , red-orange earth infusing the vibrant grasses and sedges with renewed life. It’s fragrant out here.

Image © Andrew Slaton

The Christmas holidays in Dallas were what they were. Great to see friends and family, and communing with those we love dearly and don’t see nearly often enough. But the city wears both of us down. And this year in particular, we experienced  losses of beloved friends.

One of them, our cat, Colonel, Bubba passed away quietly under the bed in our guest room at Ellen’s folks. Ellen called him a dear friend for 16 years. The end of an era. We buried him in a secluded corner of their backyard with a lovely candlelight service, and said our tearful goodbyes to him…and to our family before leaving for Florida.

We spent the winter there again, soaking up the sun, sand, and salt water, solidifying, potentially, our new dream, or next step. More on that later. We filled our days with further exploration into new territory, as well as deeper into old favorites.

Image © Andrew Slaton

I started a solo  hike of a section of the Florida Trail,  a harrowing two-day, 32 mile ordeal through knee-deep, south Florida swamp which inspired me to create a new Big Cypress workshop for 2021.

Most people don’t think of Florida when they think of amazing hikes.  Florida is mostly at sea level, so there’s not a ton of elevation gain and loss, and the air is quite thick and rich with oxygen. And though, it boasts temperate weather most of the year, let me assure you, I completed the most difficult hike of my life in the Sunshine State.

This is prime alligator and snake country. And with temps reaching 87 degrees during the day, it ‘s not uncommon to come across reptiles in Big Cypress, even in February. Many dangerous and some venomous.

It is a truly haunting and beautiful landscape though. Vast cypress strands with bromeliads create hanging gardens to slosh beneath. Your eyes are constantly tilting down, watching the murky waters for danger, then glaring up to make sure you still see the orange blazes which, on many stretches, are the only indicators of your trail.

To top it off, there is almost no shade on the entire hike. Only a few miles in, and this realization hits… your exposure to the blazing sun is profound and inescapable. Even in winter.

Image © Andrew Slaton

I’m comfortable tackling 15-20 miles at high elevations, carrying 50 lbs on my back. Here, I was at sea level, carrying only 35-40 lbs. How was it that Florida was kicking my butt already?

Yet, I pressed on. One step at a time.

That’s the “mantra” I use when a hike seems too difficult for me…“one step at a time, Andrew. Just. One. Step. At. A. Time.” For me, it’s become a lovely metaphor for life. When trials come, disaster hits, despair takes hold… “one step at a time, Andrew. Just. One. Step. At. A. Time.”

Hiking/backpacking really is an uncanny metaphor for life. You have your mountaintops and moments where you are overwhelmed by all  the beauty, and then the long, seemingly never-ending uphill slog, when you feel like you can’t take it anymore. But all you have to do is put one proverbial foot in front of the other. And then again. And again. Until, eventually, you reach the mountaintop again and can take a rest.

Image © Andrew Slaton

So I’m sure you are asking yourself “why?” Rightfully so. Ellen asked me several times before and after. And I think the best answer I could  muster was that sometimes the hard things, the things that haunt our dreams and cause us to worry… the things that we fear, the unknown… these are the things we must confront.

Not only to gain confidence in ourselves and our abilities, but also to force ourselves to rely on God for strength and protection. Tasks that just seem overwhelming for us to take on are the best ones for us to dig deep within ourselves to find strength we didn’t know we even had. And more than this, to look outside ourselves for help when we realize we don’t actually have the strength to go on.

Little did I realize then, that the ultimate challenge was still to come.

[Part 2 will appear in the next blog.]

About Andrew Slaton

Andrew Slaton is an award-winning photographer who has done assignments for more than 50 clients and specializes in lifestyle and outdoor images.

He is a Red River Pro who outputs his National Parks prints in limited editions of ten each, printed on archival Red River Papers with fade-resistant pigment inks.

You can help Andrew and Ellen achieve their goal by adding one or more of Andrew’s beautiful prints to your collection. You can also subscribe to a collector’s edition of prints from each of the 59 National Parks he plans to photograph.

Contact Information
Visit Andrew’s web site, view his work, order prints and learn about his upcoming workshops.

Catch Andrew and Ellen’s videos at their blog.

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