I returned home to wade through plenty of my own personal baggage that I encountered during my time at Standing Rock. It's been heavy and not at all comfortable witnessing this unfolding of events. I went there with questions, seeking answers--and came back with more questions. I have a few more posts that I am working on which will extrapolate the details of the time I spent there and show you the images I made--but right now, I want to share something seemingly unrelated that has helped me find my center in the midst of all this tension: gratitude for film photography.
My emotional baggage wasn't the only thing that was waiting for me when I arrived home. I had sent a years worth of film in to be developed before I left for North Dakota and just as I had done while shooting it--I let it slip from my mind. As I was in the process of unpacking my bags and cleaning up my camera gear I got an email with a link to the scanned negatives. Clicking through these "lost" moments from the preceding months was like a reprieve from the inexorable passage of time. It filled me with gratitude for everything I've been able to experience and share--and that feeling of gratitude lifted the burden of baggage. It's enough of a privilege to live my life enjoying technology and travel--adventure and photography--it's even more of a gift to have the opportunity to create little time capsules that distill the journey. It's also a complete privilege to have you reading this because as I've said before, no one is entitled to an audience.
As I clicked through, I found pictures of my friends Rob and Chris--just being themselves. I found pictures of Lilo from when she was much smaller. I found pictures of Stefanie from little moments that had held no great significance other than the fact that they'd never come again. I found the last photographs of my friend Pittman before he took his life. Looking at each image I was taken back to a moment in the past that I felt something worth capturing--usually a sense of tension and finality as I pushed the shutter button. I didn't know what I'd make or how the photograph would turn out. Once you push that button it's too late to edit or second guess. It's done. I was afraid of trying to capture something intangible and just barely missing it--tasting the success just enough to make the failure that much more sour.
I know that people are afraid of a lot of things in these uncertain days. I am too, I guess. Regardless of your social or political views, things are pretty dark out there. That's something we can all agree on. I don't know that pointing a camera at things will make anything better objectively. I don't even know what is better objectively. I do know that I have a lot to be thankful for and that fear and ignorance are not good enough reasons to stop creating and exploring. Diabetes taught me over the years that life is what we make it and that creation is the opposite of destruction. That is, and will always be the truth that drives me to keep creating even if I miss the mark by miles. It's not the mark that matters in the end--goals, targets and objectives always change. It's the willingness to take aim and try that I'm thankful for.
Film photography isn't about perfection. It's simply not the best way to make the most technically precise photographs. There is too much left to chance and variables that are difficult, if not impossible to predict with regularity. Still, the process of letting go and eventually getting a return is incredibly satisfying. Maybe it's because there are no guarantees or do-overs. You get one chance to get it right and when you do, it feels that much better.
by Steve Richert
As a photographer it's my job not just to re-create what I see in the world around me but to take some responsibility for my interpretation of it. This fact made the task of remaining unbiased while photographing at Standing Rock--exceedingly difficult. The inherent tension between accuracy and interpretation is something that thrills and terrifies me. It's a tenuous balance of being entrusted with a sensitive story--wanting to do it justice while avoiding being swept away by my own raw emotion gathered through the experience.
If you have no idea what is going on at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation or why I went there, I urge you to do a little digging to find sources who have reported on this conflict and its background context. The story is almost invisible in the mainstream media and I am not a reporter as such. My hope is that my sliver of shared experience and photographs from the Oceti Sakowin camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation this past week will help create enough tension that you may look into the facts and form your own opinions. It's an historic moment in our history, with over 200 tribes from all over the United States represented--the largest such gathering in modern times, catalyzed in response to the Dakota Access oil pipeline (DAPL) which is slated to run through treaty land, just upstream from the reservation water supply. The pipeline also will run through sacred native burial sites. These are the facts--not my opinion about them.
Speaking of opinions.
I hadn't really encountered a situation in my photography where I was pointing my camera at something so socially charged without the security of knowing how and why I felt about it. My previous work in diabetes advocacy is something I live daily so my work was my opinion in that context. I knew where I fit in.
How could I form a valid opinion on the Standing Rock situation? It's barely a hiccup in the mainstream media and furthermore it has deep racial implications. I'm on the outside. I'm white. I've never lived on a reservation. I don't know what it's like living in a community with 80% unemployment where the Dollar Store is literally the only grocery store for miles around. Growing up, colonization to me, simply meant the process through which we got here. To many indigenous people it means an ongoing process through which their culture was largely decimated and the lever by which they were displaced from their homeland.
There is an obvious chasm between my world, which is largely insulated from this struggle, and the perspectives I encountered at the Oceti Sakowin camp. I will be wrestling with this disparity for a long time to come--possibly without any clear resolution. Not looking away from difficult realities is where I can begin. I don't make apologies for who I was born or where my ancestors originated. During my time at Standing Rock I didn't feel as though I was expected to do that. I was accepted as a guest and often greeted kindly as a non-native relative. Receiving respect in the face of so many generations of sadness and injustice made me want to find a way to just make it all better. Staunch the bleeding. It also made me more determined to not let my feelings interfere with my photographs. Still, those feelings are what drove me to travel from Massachusetts to North Dakota over 3 days to make those photographs.
Clear as mud, yes?
I've had some people take offense at the fact that I've even been willing to look at this story in the first place--as if recognizing that the situation exists is tantamount to taking sides. There are certainly others who feel as if anything other than explicit activism for the NoDAPL cause is irresponsible or exploitative. I don't share either of those views--but still, they aren't wrong.
The presentation of lethal force against peaceful, prayerful demonstrations that I experienced is not business as usual. I learned as a child that you never point a loaded weapon at something (or someone) unless you fully intended to pull the trigger. Yet, at one point, I stood at the police blockade with two other journalists and a Marine combat veteran--only four people armed with questions and cameras--who asked respectfully to speak with the commanding officer. We were met with mockery, a drone hovering overhead and more than 10 heavily armored men watching us through the scopes on their weapons. I still don't know if they were police or military. No one would identify the agency under whose authority they were operating. I made their photograph as I am certain they made mine. I would have greatly appreciated a chance to tell the other side of the story, but all I saw of the other side was armored vehicles and the business end of a lot of big guns. I wouldn't say I took sides in that moment--more like I was forcibly relegated to a side.
I was walking back into camp after this incident took place and I was confronted by a young woman with a camera of her own. She asked me who I was reporting for and I explained to her that I ran my own website and was out there on a self-directed project to document the situation. I shared that a lot of this was a learning experience for me because I felt strangely trapped between two worlds. It didn't take her a long time to explain that unless I had plans to report on every oil pipeline on native lands--not just the one that was trending on Twitter that I was just a looky loo. Part of the problem. Another tourist out on a camping trip taking snapshots. Perpetuating genocide, she said. Maybe she was just being overly sensitive towards a competing photographer.
I still worry that somehow I was actually taking more from the native community than I could give back despite my best efforts and she unwittingly put her finger on the truth.
Hello, uncomfortable tension.
I went to Standing Rock without a fully formed opinion, knowing that I would begin to assemble one through my experience--which would ultimately not even scratch the surface. I went there and saw things. I felt things that impacted my views. I'm human, flawed and willing to empathize with people I don't agree with or understand. I don't know if it's possible to look at people suffering with dignity and feel nothing. My purpose in breaking up these posts on the blog is to compartmentalize some of these competing reactions that I had internally. I don't intend for the sum of my opinions to be the ultimate takeaway so it's important to give my feelings some outlet that is distinctly separate from the photographs themselves. Dealing with this tension through the creative process--that's the takeaway.
If all this duality makes you uncomfortable--I assure you it only gets worse from here. Or better.
I'm not political but I'll give it a whirl for a moment.
I don't rant incessantly about who is ruining the country or who should fix it. I'm pretty sure that's what voting is for--a place to contribute a meaningful impact (as opposed to berating people on social media who disagree with you for seeing the world differently). The truth is that your opinion doesn't matter--only your actions do. This wildly unpopular view is the only hope have we have as a society of self-rescue--because the worst leadership wouldn't be able to capsize a nation of people who were humble enough to link arms across various lines of race, ethnicity and politics.
Ok, now that's out of my system:
A few days ago I felt like I should go to Standing Rock in North Dakota to do a photo-project documenting the protest about the Dakota Access Pipeline there. I don't have an axe to grind. I'm not a protester. I'm a photographer who believes that pretty images aren't necessarily the most important. For those of you joining me in the Ugly Camera Challenge I wrote about recently--I absolutely will be continuing to participate in that (and I hope you will too!) It feels as though something deep and significant is under way in the Standing Rock conflict right now and for the last few weeks we've heard almost nothing about it in the media. Nothing from our political leaders who are selectively concerned about the dire implications of climate change but refuse to even acknowledge this debacle that is unfolding on our own soil.
You may agree or disagree with my decision to go to Standing Rock, North Dakota and point my camera at something that no one seems to want to deal with. I'm writing this to articulate my purpose in going. I'm not attempting to shame others who can't or won't join in this journey. I have the privilege of time and opportunity to travel. I have the freedom (risk) of no allegiance to a commercial sponsor or assignment other than my own self direction and those of you who are supporting me on Patreon (thank you!!!). I have a supportive family who is making it possible for me to step out and do this. I'm thankful for those gifts and I don't deserve them any more than anyone else does. I don't believe we are given gifts in life to squirrel the benefits away away while turmoil engulfs others who have drawn a different card.
I have no idea what I will find out at Standing Rock. I'm not going with any opinion other than this: my opinion doesn't matter. What matters is that there is not a public and transparent discussion of a militaristic-type of force being used on civilians who are peacefully protesting corporate development that directly impacts their land. I suspect that as with most conflicts in life there is a combination of people doing the right things for the wrong reasons--and people doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.
One of the cop-outs of the photographer is that the camera doesn't have an opinion. It's not biased. It accepts us as we are--the good and the bad. The humanity. I'd like to think that I will return with some images that may make us think about this conflict from a more personal standpoint. Because that's all any of us are, after all. We're just people. If we can only use our technology to start arguments rather than conversations then we have already failed, utterly. On some level that's the hurdle that I now have to clear as I go out to photograph.
I feel a lot of creative tension around this. I don't know the outcome and I am fairly certain that this choice will alienate more than a few people who I consider important in my life. I feel real risk. Some fear. I don't know that I can do this without making an ass of myself or getting in the way of a cause that isn't my own. I know that this might not work.
I know that it still feels right to go and try.
I'm not sure what will come from this effort in terms of deliverables. My primary goal is still images. Interviews, stories, video assets and the like will be a bonus that I hope to capture as well. I'll update via LivingVertical social media channels as I can. Cell and data service are reputed to be lacking within a 20 mile radius of the reservation so I may be quiet for (the first time in my life) a while. If you'd like to support this work I'm doing, you can contribute via my Patreon page. If you'd like to tell me to go _______ myself, sound off in the comments below--or better yet do it in person.
It's nearly that time of year when all of our camera gear suddenly becomes too limited and obsolete--usually as a result of proximity to Black Friday sales. I've watched the #OptOutside initiative grow over the last year or so--with the goal of encouraging people to redefine the day after Thanksgiving in a less materialistic light by scheduling outdoor adventures in place of shopping. Being a bit of a skeptic, I think that this is likely just clever marketing meant to snag sales in early December but despite that, I appreciate the idea of doing more with less. The Ugly Camera Challenge is geared towards applying that same minimalism to our adventure and photography!
Full disclosure: I struggle with G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome) as much as anyone else and my goal here is not to bare my soul to the world and repent of my love of cameras. I've accepted that it's part of who I am. Aesthetics of new gear entices and inspires new adventures. On the other hand, limitations are an absolute key to creativity. Thus, the Ugly Camera Challenge which can help us selectively limit ourselves while getting more mileage out of gear we might otherwise neglect.
The rules of the challenge are pretty simple:
A few notes about the challenge:
Buy a used camera from a person (ebay, yardsale, craigslist, barter) that is deplorably cheap. Let's say $50 or less. They are out there! Film or digital--let your mind wander a bit!
Give your ugly camera away to someone who doesn't have one-this could be a young person who only knows cell phones and has never gotten to experience simply shooting photographs, someone who is interested in photography but can't afford a "better" camera--you get the idea.
Get a friend, a child or a spouse involved--these kinds of things are more fun with group participation! This could easily create a pathway to mentorship. I'd love to see us getting more mileage out of gear that we would normally not even bother to pick out of a trash bin--and then passing it on to someone else along with whatever lessons taken from participating in this challenge!
This could easily be integrated with the OptOutside initiative--and I think it shares a lot of the same ideals of minimalism and prioritizing experience. Having a camera imposes the need to go somewhere, do something and shoot it. Plan adventures outside--small, local or whatever to document through this month!
Photography is a gift and the simpler we make the experience, the richer it becomes--to borrow the words of Steve House. I want to point out that this initiative was inspired by Ted Forbes from The Art of Photography--his video may help inspire you further!
Our identity is the first to suffer the complications of diabetes. It changes how we see ourselves--normalcy and belonging grow distant. Limitations germinate quietly like mold beneath the occluded layers of personality we create every day in order to just survive. It's the hairline fracture in the foundation of who we are. The deeper it goes the worse it gets.
I started LivingVertical to share Project365--my goal was to change the story of diabetes and show that we don't have to accept the narrative of a predetermined outcome of victimhood. I still believe in that same message, but I don't think the best way to communicate it involves creating content about diabetes anymore. I'll always have diabetes and I'll always be happy to answer questions about my experience with it--if I can help, I will do so gladly. Where it's relevant, diabetes will still be visible but it's not going to be the focus of what LivingVertical is creating. It will always be in the picture but it won't be the focus. I believe it's more important to demonstrate that life with diabetes is about LIFE. This is the most powerful advocacy I can offer. It's also a choice I am making because I'm frankly tired of trying to pack my world into the topic of diabetes. I'd much prefer to make diabetes fit into the world I'm choosing to explore.
I've always had a hard time gaining a foothold in the diabetes online community. I suspect that's because my approach has been to encourage people to detach their identity from their diagnosis--because that's what worked for me. It's a tough sell though. A diabetes-free mentality is why I never stopped to think that I couldn't climb mountains as a teenager. It's why I thought it was perfectly acceptable to spend a month hiking the Appalachian Trail and take on solo adventures without trepidation in college. It's why I've driven across North America more than a dozen times (half of them solo) and I don't fret about changing my lancets daily. I didn't have olympic athletes and professional spokespersons with diabetes to assure me that I could do anything. I didn't see myself as a diabetic who climbed or who hiked. I didn't see myself as a person with diabetes. My identity had ZERO inclusion of diabetes--so why wouldn't I be able to do anything I put my mind to?
I wasn't in denial about my diabetes--no more than I've been in denial about brushing my teeth daily. I just never placed that task inside of my identity. Diabetes was a task--one that I realized was incredibly significant. I detached from it emotionally and executed it to the best of my ability so that I could have the freedom to pursue what I loved. Others might call this unhealthy, compartmentalization or repression. I call it freedom through discipline. I have staked my life on this philosophy repeatedly in the mountains and elsewhere. It's not a perfect science but it's been able to give me a winning average. I believe that it's the greatest value I have been able to share here.
Why is this all written in the past tense?
Sometime in 2012 I found that I had to include diabetes in my identity in order to reach others living with diabetes. I had to create space for it where it none existed before. I became the "diabetic guy who climbs things". I'd introduce myself to people that way. It changed the way I saw myself. It changed the subtext of the story I told myself about who I was. It wasn't healthy--literally. I know that many people have found value and connection through an inclusion of diabetes as part of their identity--and I don't begrudge them.
For all the value, impact and success that came with my diabetes advocacy, my own independence from diabetes atrophied. Spending 7-12 hours a day for the last 5 years writing, filming, posting, blogging, emailing, pitching, podcasting, publishing--all through the lens of diabetes--multiplied the weight of diabetes in my life. I wasn't just living with it--I was living IN it.
So what's the point?
Photography and adventure will be the focus of LivingVertical content moving forward. I believe this is the greatest value I have to give--unpacking the tools that have given me my life back. I think this is less a change of priorities and more of a return to them. There's a reason LivingVertical doesn't have "diabetes" in the name. It never occurred to me to put diabetes in the name of my endeavor when I arrived on the scene 5 years ago because it wasn't meant to focus on the problem but rather the solution. Walk the walk--even if it interferes with talking the talk.
I'm grateful for your readership up till this point. I hope you'll join me for this next chapter. I suspect that many of you who actually read my posts all the way to the end aren't here because of factual information I share as much as my interpretation of what I see in the world around me. If that accurately describes you then it's a good bet you'll enjoy what comes next!
I want to thank specifically Blake McCord, Ashika Parsad, Sysy Morales, Maria Qadri, Fatima Shahzad, Ryan Little, Matt Spohn, Andres Arriaga, David DuChemin, Rob Muller, Tyler Smith, Joel Livesey, Mark Yaeger, Carter Clark, Christine Frost and Nate Duray for inspiring me to have the courage to return to a diabetes-free mentality. There are many others who have contributed to my liberation--knowing or otherwise. Far too many to list here--but these folks have listened and shared in the deliberative process over a long time and I want them to know how much I appreciate their example and wisdom.
A little over a year ago I was bored. I was working in an office environment and not able to get out climbing. I wanted to try something to shake up my routine despite the obvious constraints. I decided to do an experiment with a vegan diet, which ultimately led me to try the complete opposite--a ketogenic diet. This bit of skylarking wound up taking off and got this humble blog ranked #1 in Google for the search terms "type 1 diabetes and the ketogenic diet". This happy accident has brought many of you here no doubt although it's left me with a burden of continuing to write about a topic that I feel has been wrapped up (at least in my life). The notable exception is the modified Ketogenic diet which I am currently following.
There is one loose end, however--and that is the issue of high cholesterol. I also have the dubious honor of ranking very highly in Google searches for ketogenic diet and high cholesterol--a pleasure that I'd prefer to postpone indefinitely. I am still working on sorting out the details on my high cholesterol and what it means for my adherence to a low carb, high fat ketogenic diet. There is a dearth of information available that gives simple, clear insight into the topic of cholesterol--and much less still when you add type 1 diabetes into the mix. Half of the discussion resembles this: "Cholesterol is not a problem! Eat more butter and stop listening to the man!" The other half resembles this: "Cholesterol is a HUGE problem! Eating that butter is going to kill you!" I would like to believe that a modified ketogenic diet could win the middle ground between these two viewpoints.
The ketogenic diet stabilizes and controls my blood sugar without technology. This fact alone makes it an asset that could revolutionize the impact of diabetes if given the chance--especially significant for the millions of people who can't afford higher tech solutions. It gives me the simplicity and freedom that allows me to live out from under the burden of diabetes about 90% of the time. Still, living with the cholesterol monkey on my back is a concern.
I feel as though I can choose to either optimize cholesterol or blood sugar--but not both.
I choose to optimize blood sugar because there is no lack of conclusive clinical evidence showing what uncontrolled blood sugar does. There is also no shortage of anecdotal evidence showing how much harder it is to be active, creative, happy and productive while riding the glucoaster. Without getting all morose, let me just say that I have chosen my priority. It's not an easy choice and it gives me a lot of stress and grief--but it's the best I know to do and I am prepared to live or die with the consequences.
Welcome to my life with diabetes and climbing. These types of decisions are par for the course.
What I have learned with the help of my doctor (he is an amazing endocrinologist who is supporting my blood sugar management despite its unorthodox approach) is that I am most likely a hyper-responder to saturated fat. This is a genetic anomaly that causes my body to produce exponentially more cholesterol in the presence of saturated fats. The detriment of that cholesterol is still undetermined--along with the possibility or being able to reduce it.
Thanks, genes! The diabetes was a sweet offer--but wait, there's more...
In light of this hypothesis, I am not abandoning a low carb, high fat diet but I am following a modified ketogenic diet. I believe that most people have to modify whatever diet they follow in order to accommodate their specific needs. A modified ketogenic diet can, of course, mean many different things--it is not imply any one specific modification. I am trying to add more unsaturated fats in place of saturated fats. In simplest terms that means that I am eating more olive oil, macadamia nuts and fish. I am eating less red meat, eggs and coconut oil. In a lot of ways it's closer to hybrid mediterranean diet. It's really hard to sell this approach since it doesn't fit with the self congratulatory memes of the vegan "path" nor the devil-may-care tropes of the ketogenic community. Oh well.
My cheese intake is still predictably unaltered. I will be buried with my block of Coastal Cheddar and a paring knife if need be. Nuff said there.
I recently started swapping out olive oil in my coffee rather than coconut oil. Before you gag and click away, I have to tell you that it's actually delicious if you put it in a blender. I'm still putting heavy cream in my coffee with the olive oil. Additionally I am eating more leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables (red cabbage, brussel sprouts) as vehicles for more olive oil and more fiber. I've cut out a lot of red meat--not to complete exclusion but I'll eat a steak or some lamb once a week rather than twice or three times weekly. Meat ends and deli meats which I love--have been largely replaced with macadamia and Brazil nuts. I am also increasing fiber intake through the vegetables and adding chia seeds to just about everything I can.
I'm not on statins currently--but I am taking fish oil, vitamin D and Berberine as part of my normal supplement routine of magnesium and potassium.
I don't have any solid numbers yet to indicate the effectiveness of the modified ketogenic diet on my cholesterol. In terms of its impact on my blood sugar and energy, I feel like it takes a little more olive oil to get into ketosis. It's lower caliber--but it still seems to be getting the job done. I've been taking more insulin recently--but I am not sure if this is because I am back living in Massachusetts or because of the dietary modifications. I have always found a dramatic decrease in my insulin dosage when I am out west (10-15% consistently). On the flip side, I have more time and space to focus on my diet and supplementation here than I did when we were living on the road.
With smartphone technology constantly improving, it may seem odd to say that 'you should carry a camera'. The camera, as a standalone device may soon become a relic in the world of unprofessional photography. The iPhone 7 recently came into our household and while I don't begrudge Stefanie's enthusiasm for her new toy--I have felt less desire to upgrade for the "benefit" of a better camera. I explained to her that I feel the value of the iPhone has plateaued and is now offering minor tweaks to incentivize upgrading. I don't need a better camera in my phone. I like having a separate device dedicated to creating.
Technology is a relationship. It has two sides. Inward facing and outward facing. What we see, hold, touch and lust after is almost entirely the outward facing side. It's the new operating system that lets you draw handwritten messages, the new camera that lets you choose the focal point of your image after shooting it--we can all imagine sending more clever messages or taking better photographs and how that will somehow make our life better. We want that and will do whatever it takes to get it.
Do we take an equal amount of time to consider how this technology changes us as we use it?
Conversely, do we stop to think about how the deliberate process of creating with a dedicated device may be preserving something special and rare? Simply put, I will always carry a camera not because I couldn't get good photos without it--but because I value the change that it brings about in my thinking. It changes the story that I'm telling myself as soon as it's in my hands.
The opposite of destruction is creation. I live every day with a body that is trying to destroy me. That's my resting state with type 1 diabetes. Being able to shift into the creative mindset allows me to directly challenge this disease--whether it's with a rope and harness or a camera. I'm particularly focused on using a camera these days because photography is much more available to me than climbing--and because the barrier of entry is so incredibly low. It's incredible therapy that has almost no downside.
My ultimate goal in the work I do here is to change the story of diabetes through adventure. That means that I'm constantly examining the process of storytelling. I first picked up a camera because I wanted to tell a story--not necessarily take attractive photographs. I learned by doing--poorly at first. If you want to unleash some creativity and change your perspective there is no need to spend thousands of dollars or wait for someone to give you permission to be a photographer. Find your reason why and then go take photographs.
In case my most recent posts about life on the road have been too dark or self indulgent here is something different. This post is a collection of photographs and frozen moments that I believe to be priceless. These are treasures that I was privileged to witness and collect along the way. I didn't set out looking for them, which makes their occurrence along my path a much greater of a gift.
As we drove countless miles across North America, many hours were spent listening to podcasts and music. Lilo became incredibly fond of John Prine's music--a fact that was a gift in itself--and this shared appreciation eased the tension of being strapped into a car seat on many a long day. One of his songs in particular really spoke to me as I've been thinking back on the incredible trove of experiential plunder that I gained from our year on the road. I'd love it if you'd let the music video below play while you look at the photos and read the captions in the remainder of this post. Incidentally, I have linked each photo with any blog posts or podcasts that give more detail about each moment--where relevant.
These photos are not the apex of my professional work, nor my personal work. They are flawed, imperfect and beautiful. If they develop holographic headstones in the future, I'd bet that you'd see some of these images as the ellipses punctuating the end of my days.
Memories, they can't be boughten
They can't be won at carnivals for free
Well it took me years to get those souvenirs...
John Prine, "Souvenirs"
Memories, they can't be boughten
They can't be won at carnivals for free
Well it took me years to get those souvenirs...
John Prine, "Souvenirs"
On to the next adventure. I'm thankful for those of you who follow, support and appreciate the work I do. The people who don't actually read these posts fully won't mind that I don't really care if they like my work or not--because it's not for them, it's for us.
If the project I'm doing is guaranteed to work then it's probably not worth doing.
I appreciate the tolerance shown by my readers over the last week as I have been unpacking the failure of the full time RVing experiment. I'm legitimately not discouraged by it. If anything I feel much better for having made a decision and being able to cross something off my list. This enables me to focus on the next project. It too, might fail. This fills me with excitement and yes, hope.
Risk and suffering are key ingredients in the process of creating art. I know that running and hiding from these inevitabilities is the fastest way to stop creating something that can change the world. Note my use of the word can in the preceding sentence. It might not work.
The important question is what is worth the risk, the likelihood of failure?
That is where my current struggle is taking place. I have things to say, things to share and show--but there is fear. Fear that a removal of the filter could destroy so much that I and many of you have labored to create through this community. Conversely, there is an intense curiosity about what change--what impact could be generated from no longer caring what people think? Better yet, what could come from challenging what people think with intention?
I know deep down what is worth doing. Waiting for permission is not a characteristic of something worth doing.
I feel as though what I do here is a lot like spinach. If you give it to Popeye it gets things done. Leads to action. Stirs things up. Alternately, if it sits in the fridge just a little too long it gets watery, soggy and limp. There's a really narrow edge I am walking between impact and drivel. The reality is that the world isn't changed by climbing.
The onus is upon me to make sure I am saying something that needs to be heard or the climbing just becomes fluff instead of a vehicle for an important message of change. Visibility for it's own sake is useless. What is on the billboard and is it worth reading?
This is a game of pursuing failure with intention. If I start playing my hardest, I just may win that game. That's partly what I'm afraid of.
A little over a week ago I sat behind the wheel of my Toyota 4Runner watching the endless miles of red desert that border I-70 disappear behind our little 13 foot trailer. This our home--once our dream of freedom, now our albatross. Lightning flickered ahead in the distance and I braced for one last desert thunderstorm as we crossed from Utah into Colorado. I couldn't begin to guess when I'd be back out west of the Rocky Mountains to witness another one like it.
Today I'm literally right back where I started a year ago--in Massachusetts. Fewer dollars in my pocket--and fewer options to explore. It would be more cathartic to say that we went big and failed big--crashed and burned--but fizzled out is really more honest. The logistics of life on the road are all about trade-offs. Being able to negotiate those exchanges is a delicate process that requires a certain independence that we don't have. Financial independence was the main culprit, looking back. Also looking forward.
Making a living is nearly impossible without time, resources and focus to create something valuable. After struggling to make enough money to pay for the trailer, gas and pay for RV sites to park where some semblance of work could still happen--with power and wifi--I tired of the tail wagging the dog. We were running ourselves ragged trying to make the lifestyle work but it just wasn't giving back.
Instead of climbing, shooting photographs and hosting meetups I was doing cubicle style work to pay the bills at hot, gritty picnic tables where I couldn't even see my computer screen because of the suns glare. It took me twice as long (and was half as enjoyable) to do the same work. This struggle came to a crux at the realization that our sacrifices to live this way were not building LivingVertical into a more authentic message. Somewhere in southern Idaho I woke up one morning and realized that I suddenly wanted to have a home where I could print and hang my own photographs. I have a smartphone and computer filled with digital images that have never lived in the real world. I wanted to have a desk where I could sit and edit and record. I wanted a place where I belong. A place to adventure from and return to.
Adventure is great medicine when it helps you return home as a better person. Trailer life became the child-proof cap on the medicine bottle and when I finally got it open I found it had been empty all along. I had been cramming all of the worst parts of a 9-5 job into the worst parts of living like a transient. Climbing had become an afterthought, a distraction wedged in between worrying about paying the next months credit card and deciding how to go down the road another piece. This, I realized, was not the plan we had set out to execute.
It wasn't long after that that we decided to bail and start all over. Again.
Another cross-country retreat. Another series of blogs and Facebook posts trying to explain how and why failure set in again when I don't even have answers for myself. I guess the simplest explanation for this repeated pattern is the fact that we tried--again. Failure is always the risk of trying and we knew this from the beginning.
Now I'm sitting in my mother-in-laws kitchen in the Boston suburbs which we are calling home for the foreseeable future. It's a bit comical to be writing about potential next steps in my life at this point. I've become a millennial caricature. I'm 34 with a child, trying to set the world on fire from my smartphone--but I'm incrementally selling off my camera gear on eBay to keep that work (and my family) alive. I don't know how to make ends meet and do the work that matters--the work that started all of this off in the first place.
Despite my choice not to sugarcoat the consequences of my situation I'm not despondent. The trailer has sold of course--and I'm playing hangman with the remnants of my future. I got some good advice about my situation from a good friend as we drove east: "Love it for what it is, don't hate it for what it's not".
The choice to try something I'd dreamed about for years was still a good one. It's a choice I'm thankful I had the opportunity to make. I still don't know where it will lead me and what it has taught me--those are longer term investments that may take some time to mature. Being broke and out of options isn't too far from being hungry and focused depending on how you look at it--and that's how I'm choosing to look at it.
Full-time life on the road was an amazing experience. Seeing incredible places with my family--watching Lilo grow and adapt through that journey has been a wild ride. I've gotten more time with her than most parents get and that is worth all of the hassle and uncertainty that has come with it. I haven't soured on adventure--I am learning to grow with it and live with the changes of life. There was a time in my life when living in the dirt was a great adventure that enabled me to do good work that mattered. Trying to go back down that road 5 years later is much different--and now it's a vexing dead end. Adventure today isn't adventure yesterday--and it wouldn't be adventurous if it was.