A visual storyteller
My background is in photography and I would like to see myself as a visual storyteller. I’m constantly taking photos of my outdoor adventures. It’s who I am and what I do. Words, on the other hand, do not come easily. I absolutely have to work on that, even after years of experience in technical editing. I mostly use words to support images and not the other way around.
Earlier this year I backpacked a section of the AT from Deep Gap to Newfound Gap. It was spring in the southern Appalachians and the scenery was spectacular. The photographic possibilities were endless. So there I was, doing my thing and taking tons of photos to document the trip. At night I sat in my tent and selected some of the better pictures to post on social media. It was good practice blogging here on the trek.
There were also times when I snapped a photo and wanted to share the grandeur of the moment right away, rather than waiting until the end of the day. After the long climb from Fontana to the top of Shuckstack, I snapped several photos of the sharp, clear mountain scenery. The view was breathtaking from the top of the rickety fire tower!
At this elevation, I had good cell phone signal for the first time in days, so I texted a photo to my hiking friend, Susan. She had lived and hiked in this area a few years ago and I thought she would really appreciate the view. She soon responded, commenting on the splendor of the mountain scenery.
But a short time later, she followed up with a second text that included this unsolicited challenge: “Smell the air. Enjoy the view. On such a beauty stop, I urge you not to take photos and instead write about them. Ready to go”
I love challenges but don’t take photos? This was the perfect time and place to take MORE photos. I was in the Smokies and the weather was perfect. The group I had hiked with the previous week split up and I was now on my own for the rest of the trip. I had no other schedule but to get my car at Newfound Gap in a couple of days. There would be ample opportunity to take photos without slowing down a group or struggling to keep up with them.
But as it turns out, the timing of this challenge turned out to be even better. My legs felt great but after several hours of climbing that morning I had a slight tension in my lower back. The mental exercise of the challenge distracted me from the discomfort and seemed to spur my feet on. I drove along the top of the ridge, stopping occasionally to observe. I took notes instead of pictures.
Which iconic feature should I choose?
What spectacular scene should I write about? What was my favorite? There were enough candidates. A mountain panorama? A waterfall? The veil of blue-grey haze that seemed to emanate from the Smokey Mountains themselves?
As it turned out, my mind kept coming back to the same subject. It wasn’t Siler’s Bald, Rocky Top or Clingman’s Dome, it was the path leading through these iconic features. Yes that’s it. I decided to write about the path itself.
This choice seemed to make the challenge even more difficult. How do you describe the way? Where are you going? what is the distance Is it up or down? Which direction? Guidebooks and hikers typically use numbers to describe a trail, including statistics like mileage and elevation.
Sometimes a path is seen as a means to get from point A to point B. He connects places. As a photographer, I often use a trail just to get to places I want to photograph.
But the path is much more than just the numbers or a goal. The challenge of describing what the trail really looks like or what it means to you proved that to me. Here are my observations (no photos) from a few days on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Looking down at my feet, I observed brilliant green and black bugs, bear droppings, centipedes, roots on the trail mimicking snakes, and the rare snake mimicking a root. Walking sometimes required carefully negotiating a wooden hurdle, a jumble of boulders, or a stone stairway. It required squeezing through narrow cliff faces or ducking under fallen trees, each time hoping your pack didn’t get caught on the obstacles.
One section involved traversing a narrow section of trail that brushed against a dripping, moss-covered rock face on one side, while on the other side a steep drop-off overlooked the mountain gap. Navigating here required good balance and careful attention to each step.
But when you come across a section of trail that allows for a steady pace and rhythm, you can look up from your feet, keep your gaze down the trail, and really observe.
The view changed with every step, a different perspective around every corner. Altitude and sunshine play a major role in the character of the trail. Leaves began to bud on the sun-drenched south sides of a hill, while branches remained bare on the shaded north side. In a few days that view would certainly change.
At times the trail was dry and dry. Others were dripping with moisture, giving it a dark, damp, almost primeval atmosphere. In the early spring transition, the path was often a brown ribbon of dirt and worn rock, winding through a sea of wildflowers. Navigation was easy with wildflowers lining the trail like blue and white runway lights.
I was constantly fascinated by the infinite variations of the color green, including the waves of ferns that seemed to breathe the breeze rolling down the hollow. Sometimes it was the green tunnels of rhododendrons that offered a cool break from the midday sun, or the lush micro-landscapes where mountain springs crossed the footpath. Lichens looked like splashes of pale green paint on rocks and tree trunks. Old Man’s Beard lichens dangled like ornaments from the branches along the trail.
There was a time or two on the trail when I was sure I was being watched by a hidden forest animal – maybe a deer, a bear, an owl, or a coyote. It wasn’t a feeling of fear or creepiness, just the “knowing” that I was being watched as I moved along the path. I was probably seen as an intruder walking through their world. Somehow that seemed satisfying.
The boundaries of the trail were also fascinating. Wildflowers stretched along the edge of the trail, seeking more sunlight. There were crooked trees along the way that looked like avant-garde sculptures. And an unusual sight that took me a few moments to process: large swaths of lush, dark soil being worked in a random pattern, presumably guided by the snouts of wild boar. It was an impressive sight, but also a great example of a scene that just couldn’t be captured in a photograph. It was better to just observe and think about how to put it into words. I started to really enjoy this exercise and as a result I have never felt so “present” in a place.
see more clearly
After a few days of challenging myself, I realized that the trail is much more than a trail through the wilderness. It’s an experience. One that is ever-changing and difficult to put into words, especially with my limited writing skills. I hope this verbal snapshot hints at what a truly amazing experience it can be.
Thank you Susan for motivating me to get out of my comfort zone and put the camera away. The challenge of “smelling the air and taking in the view” was really eye opening for me… And I think I might actually be a better photographer at it.
Others have no doubt expressed this feeling more eloquently than I have, but the path is a journey in itself. I feel very comfortable there. That’s what keeps pulling me back.
time for a walk. I’m ready for my big hike.