Part 2: Not Just Mountains and Seas (It's also Everything Between)
Last August I had the incredible privilege to join Baylor Ingram for a few days on his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. For those of you not from Athens, Baylor graduated in May of 2017 and hit the AT the very next morning after graduating – embarking on a dream he had been planning for since he was twelve or thirteen. As a student leader in our youth ministry, Baylor and I had spent quite a bit of time together during his senior year and we had a lot of conversations about the details he was finalizing for the journey.
When we got closer to the summer, I asked him if it’d be cool to join up with him for a week at some point when I had the time to get away. He tried to caution me that it’d probably be best to start with a few days and to let him know when so he could plan to slow up some during the days I’d be on trail. Slow up? Nah. “I got this, just go your pace bro.” “Ok! As long as you’re up for 20-mile days – I’m guessing you have some experi-“ “[SPEWING OUT MY PEPSI] Whaaaat?”. And it was at that point that I realized I am not as hard core as I think sometimes!
He indeed slowed up for me and the most we did was ONLY (ha) a 13 mile day. The journey turned out to be one of the most challenging and meaningful things I've done, but not just for physical difficulty or the things you might think of first. It opened my eyes to what adventures often are... monotonous. You may be thinking "Wow, that's the epiphany? And btw monotony sounds like the opposite of adventure..." To which I'd say, "I know, right?" Here's the cool thing though: IT'S NOT A BAD THING. It just is what it is sometimes. A vast part of the Appalachian Trail is coined the "Green Tunnel" because you almost always seem to be surrounded by the same vegetation over and over, on a pathway that is most always only one hiker's width wide. There are plenty of side trips, some closer than others, that you can take off of the A.T., but they will cost you time and distance that adds up when you're talking fitting 2,200 miles of trail into 6-7months. Granted there are many beautiful spots right on the AT as well. For stretches, however, the Southern Appalachian side of the trail gives you green tunnel, yields you a walk in the woods that goes on, and on, and on. With a decently heavy pack. (Oh and did I mention while you're eating some of the same packable, high protein, lighter foods over and over? I'm never touching a peanut butter tortilla again!) I did three days of this in the Shenandoah NP in Virginia with Baylor, and if I had done a couple days more, I'd probably have lost my mind haha. Not to mention my legs and back, but seriously the mental part was a large portion of the endurance.
Knowing you are without some of the common creature comforts you're used to can also weigh on you after time goes on, as well as being away from a lot of people you love. Thru-hikers are often excited about the progress they've made and believe strongly in what they are doing, but aren't usually "happy" to be without the things I just mentioned - they just make due. If for no other reason, this leaves me amazed at those taking on all 2,200 miles of it. In the end, however, it's an adventure, it's a noble challenge people take on and learn a lot about themselves in the process. Everyone who's completed it would most likely say it's sooo worth doing, but not only is it physically difficult, you also have to practice endurance of mind and emotion as the journey drags on a lot of the time.
So why all this talk about the Appalachian Trail?
It was yet another thing that helped me understand adventure in a different way, and by way of that understand some of the difficulties I have in pursuing my own dreams at times.
To quote the end of the last blog entry (Redefining Adventure Part 1), adventure is not what it is without some adversity, some uncomfortability. Sometimes this difficulty/uncomfortability is monotony, or just detail work that must be done so we can reach the view or what have you that yields the beautiful moment. Well intentioned folks say "it's not about the destination but the journey," but that's not entirely true. It's about both, and I'd argue sometimes it's ok that the destination is more important. We wouldn't be on the journey if we didn't think where we were going was worth the trip. I think it's OK if part or a lot of a journey is just not all that fun. As long as we realize it's worth it, and we can pause in the midst of it to take in the simple wonder of what we are actually doing. There are breathtaking moments to breathe in, and the details are worth it.
Again as I said in Part 1, if we like to use the word "adventure" to describe our pursuits, we would do well to realize they are sometimes going to be just like what I just mentioned. If we're aware that sometimes pursuing our dreams is going to bring some dry, monotonous stretches, we can persevere those knowing that's normal. If we expect that everything's going to be fun, or even that everything is going to be fast paced (good or bad) all the time, we might give up in the wilderness and figure that what we're aiming to do is never going to happen because that's all we can see. We need to stick to our plan, and keep moving forward.
My Green Tunnel
For me, the "Green Tunnel" is what lies in between the trips, in between the shooting and the creativity, in between being on a breathtaking mountain and walking the shoreline of a beautiful sea. It's the "Now that I'm home, how do I make this work?" times. "Now that I've got the shots/caught the dream/been inspired, what do I do with it?" (With these questions, also "Will I even succeed in getting it seen and recognized?") It's the image processing, tweaking of my website, staying in touch with leads I get, promoting myself, and continuously wrestling with the insecurities I have on whether my work will really stand out in an increasingly saturated niche. Adding to the difficulty of these in-between days is the time constraint I'm under, which began mostly a couple years ago when our beautiful daughter Isabella was born (something I obviously wouldn't trade for anything - just stating the fact that no matter how ambitious I was, being a daddy takes time away from everything if you're doing it right ;) ). The doubts about whether I'll ever have time for this definitely creeped in a time or a few over recent years.
It has also been complicated by my own failures, mishaps and perceived missed opportunities. With less time over the last few years, I haven't kept up with the blog like I had originally hoped. I've tweaked and re-tweaked my website only to find at times the overall look is lost some on certain devices. I've taken time out in the middle of the night to drive a couple hours away for a meteor shower in the darker part of a national forest, only to leave a lens cap on all night while enjoying conversation with other photographers (not kidding). I've mistimed trips, shown up with equipment glitches, forgotten SD cards. I've been downright lazy at times or managed my time awfully.
It's during these in-between times that I'm most tempted to believe that I'm failing or not meant for this. That the failures are the reality, that it's not worth doing and that maybe I heard my own heart wrong. If you will bear with me, I'll tell you that's where my faith comes into play: I have to believe that as long as I keep giving what time I can give to this - keep putting my heart back in every time I feel like I'm failing - that it will work out. I preach this in the ministry I serve (we call it "Grace," bc yeah it depends more on a gift you don't deserve than anything you earn), so I have to live like I believe it in everything, including my endeavor to connect with people through photography. The Green Tunnel may be a part of the journey, but it's not true that you have to stay stuck there. Keep moving, it's not all there is.
Toward the end of our 13-mile day I laid flat on the ground and had to take a really long breather. I was absolutely exhausted, in large part because I had squandered my remaining water about 7 miles earlier. (No kidding, I just decided to down it all at lunch - figured we had streams ahead.) Both the AT and the Green Tunnel were new to me, and I felt like an unprepared, posing adventurer making rookie but cardinal mistakes. There was no way of knowing whether water would even be available the rest of the way (every other source all day had been dry). That's what the reality looked like. The only thing I could do was get back up, trust when Baylor said we'd figure something out, and remember I had already come a pretty long way. With this in mind, we pushed on, actually enjoying the last couple miles in spite of things. Then, by a miracle we discovered that eminent drought wasn't our reality at all, a spring ran a few minutes before the shelter (and I've never tasted something so clean and delicious my whole life)!
As Isabella has gotten older and our understanding of the schedule we have/don't have at times has kind of come together, I'm finding myself more able to get my nature/scenic work in, and I'm finding time to get words from my personal journal to readable (hopefully helpful) blog posts. The time-crunch wasn't a forever thing (not in the way it was during the newborn phase ha) and I've been able to find more consistency. I'm excited that I'm getting in a more fluid rhythm of exploring/shooting/sharing/writing and being able to bring you all in on this journey is yet another part of my dream being realized. (In case you didn't know, it really does mean a lot to me that you read these, share feedback on my work or most certainly if I get to fill a photography need you have.)
The last thing about the AT experience I will share is that I was reminded once again that we are meant to be people of community, at least in some way or fashion. It was evident to me that Baylor least enjoyed any long stretch he may have had without people to journey along with. Too long I have taken so many of my trips by myself, and gotten to something beautiful and thought "Man, why didn't I bring someone with me?" I LOVE solitude, but sometimes on these longer trips, too much of that is not a good thing. Maybe you disagree, and that's ok. In my experience though, it is better to have some company at times, to journey together. If in some small part something has resonated with you in reading these posts or browsing any of my work, I'd love to know, because that means in some way you are a part of the journey too. In that case, the trip might just be as great as the destination, after all.