Thoughts on Wilderness and Repentance. Part 2
By Andrew R. Slaton—
I started calling creeks, “cricks” when Mike, a new-found Wyoming-born friend, accompanied me as I drove us around western part of the state when I first arrived here in 2005. Mike taught me everything, nearly; the topography, the flora and fauna—he would have hated me saying “flora and fauna.”
I could just imagine him thinking, “You sound like one of those smart people who spent a bunch of money to go to college to get brainwashed and come out with a load of debt.” Especially when I mangled the names of cricks. He named every crick we crossed, as well as the hidden ones you couldn’t see as we flew by them on the highway or dirt road as we explored together.
Knowing the drainages, and where they flow in the mountains is the key to unlocking the topography and being able to navigate properly. It’s also how you have conversations with locals. It can be your lifeline if lost; a source of food and water, and a way back to civilization, or at least a road, even if dirt.
We used to drive into Grand Teton National Park every few weeks together, just an hour and a half north of our little town. Mostly we were looking for bears, but what I didn’t realize is that he was also training the next generation. Not even sure he ever realized it or gave it a second thought, but he treated and recognized me as a son, passing his sensible western knowledge to me, in a directly patriarchal manner. He was hard on me, but on occasion showed me a soft side too. He was Wyoming through and through. Tough and prickly as a porcupine, yet soft and mushy as a high alpine meadow.
It’s almost time to leave Wyoming and Ellen says every year the state feels more and more like home. We are quickly (re)building our photography business here, as well as in Naples, Florida. We have grown to love that place too, but it’s different for me.
These days we are hanging on to everything we can. Maybe that’s a reaction to all of the change and movement we’ve experienced over our time traveling. Or maybe it’s a realization that there are some constants, and we need to litter our lives with as many as possible, to try to offset the nomadic shifting between two states.
But let’s face it, even that we can’t control. We humans are grasping at the falling leaves. On occasion, we are granted permission to hold on for a moment to something truly important. We learn to be grateful for those moments. But they never last too long. That is the wilderness in which we live. Sometimes wilderness presents itself as a terrifying storm that we cannot yet see past, or the unexpected passing of a close friend.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my attitude of ownership over places. It has become obvious to me that I am desperately trying to hold on to the feeling I had when I “discovered” them, like a drug addict chasing that initial bliss.
It is an apparition. It only exists in memory– in the fiery tantrums I ignite inside my own head. Repentance is the balm that cures the burns. Wilderness is a mirage, a state of mind. Repentance is the future.
A blustery wind blows salty spray mist on my face and body, momentarily cooling me from the high, hot sun. My small, cheap kayak shudders as I push the water on the right back with force to propel myself forward. Then on the left. Back and forth.
It feels as if 30 lb. weights have been added to each of my arms. White caps break over the bow of my small craft. I question myself, “Why I am doing this?” “Why not?” I answer back. The deep water markers are visible ahead. Just past them, turquoise, clear waters cloak a fertile fishery.
Ellen and I talk all the time about our particular “happy places.” Mine is the mountains, hers is the sea. How we each feel completely at home and at peace in our respective ecosystems. The ocean is somewhat terrifying to me. I do not generally feel secure or at peace in it, especially now, as I am heading toward deep water in a tiny craft.
The immensity, the vastness of it. My insignificance, vulnerability. It’s scary, and I don’t like it. But my risk tolerance and sense of adventure have grown greater than my fears. I feel the pull to the deep in more ways than one right now.
The sky lightens. On the horizon, light orange and pinks, but in photography terms, nothing to speak of. In some ways, photography has ruined me. Maybe spoiled is a better word. I have the immense privilege to experience immeasurable beauty on a day-to-day basis, and yet I find myself measuring the aesthetics more often than simply marveling at the light of the moment. That’s my photographic eye objectively judging the scene and its photo worthiness.
I’m close enough to the ocean to taste the salt in the air. The Everglades is a special place for me. I was only 19 when I set out on an epic solo adventure there that would set my life in a trajectory that I had always imagined. I brought 23 rolls of film, and filled every frame.
This is what my life has actually become. For me, photography was only ever a vehicle to get me there but I did fall in love with the medium along the way. In the past two years, I’ve fished more hours than I’ve spent shooting. I’m fairly certain that there is a deeper reason as to why I have lost myself in a hobby at this point in my journey. Though I’m not sure I’ve found the answer.
Our life has been pretty uncertain for a while now. I think about our original goal when we set off in Hoss and Gertie nearly seven years ago. To live life to the fullest, and to see all of the national parks. We’ve certainly accomplished the former, but the latter… not quite. Things changed along the way. Two places, Western Wyoming and South Florida, have become far too magnetic for us to sacrifice enough time to see the rest. And for that, I have no regrets.
Deep ruts have formed in my psyche. Almost callused. The ebb and flow of our seasonal migration is now ingrained in our bodies and spirits. I don’t yet know the consequences of this lifestyle. It would be naive to think that there aren’t any negatives. I’m old enough to know that unbridled idealism is a sidewalk next to a road that leads to hell.
The life of adventure we’ve chosen for ourselves, brings with it gain and loss. The gain is obvious…wonder, adventure, newness, the joy of returning. But the loss is real too.
We will likely never be a real “locals” anywhere. We will almost certainly never have deep community, although with technology, we can have a slice of that pie, just never the whole thing. We will not have the rhythm of changing seasons– nor will our physical bodies know naturally when to slow down, and when to go hard.
The Everglades have given me encounters with giant Burmese pythons, other various snakes, glimpses at alligators, amazingly unexpected orchids and bromeliads. I have no camera gear with me. This is my day off. I just finished leading a four day, intensive photo workshop in the area, and I’m drained.
It could be the exhaustion, but I’m feeling a pull in another direction lately. Nature photography, at this moment in time for me has lost some of its joy. The market is saturated with nature/ adventure photographers and I’ve never much liked being one in a crowd. It’s a sad admission, but it’s true. I always liked being unique, not least in my vocation, and these days, it feels like I’m just one of way-too-many out there. The economy has changed, and frankly, so have I. Will my passion for capturing the art of nature be resurrected or is there another path for me?
Perhaps my full immersion into my hobby, fly fishing, is a cleansing. A kind of ritual baptism. I have grown too jaded toward nature and all the beauty around me. My senses need a renewing. So I step back momentarily from trying to document nature’s grandeur to participate in it. Perhaps after this interlude, I’ll emerge with a keener awareness.
There is a storm brewing to the south, and I feel uneasy. But the call to the deep is stronger than my anxiety. This pull feels tidal, lunar. I slip into the calm water, knowing that the peace of this moment is short-lived. The storm is inevitable. It will not pass by this time. It is electric. It is terrifying. It is exhilarating. But it is our destiny.
How will we survive this storm? How will I survive the deep waters ahead? Life is one continual change after another. Weather, seasons, thoughts, passions, desires. Life, death, and change are inescapable. How we react to them is what matters. Sometimes we are drawn out to the deep. Not knowing why. Out past the markers, where the uncertainty and terror lives. I trust the last seven years has been adequate preparation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.
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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