On the Path Less Traveled By

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As an English major and a writer, I find metaphors in just about everything I do.  Just as I referenced the metaphor of Kemper on the path in yesterday’s post, this photograph of divergent paths struck me when I came upon it during a solo hike in Garrapata.  Kemper had decided that three days of strenuous hiking in a row was enough daddy-son time, and he sat that morning out—with the express condition that I bring a cinnamon (pronounced “cimminum”) roll for him on my way back through the village.

I love this photograph, not for the intrinsic compositional value of it, but because it is the literal embodiment of Frost’s poem (sans the yellow wood).  I took the one less traveled by, and indeed it did make all the difference.  It has, quite probably, scarred me for life.  Not exactly the effect that it had on Frost, but this is reality and Frost’s poem was a metaphor.

You can see in the bottom right corner, if you zoom in on the photograph, the incipient bunch of tripartite leaves of what, it turns out, is poison oak.  It was so prevalent along the paths, that certainly no one in their right mind would have traipsed through virulent shrubbery, and so I paid it no further thought until a few days post-hike.  Further, I am used to poison ivy, which grows on a vine rather than a bush of regret and sadness.  Sadly, some of the evils of the West Coast are disguised as hedgerows.

The path was, at the time, a fun little adventure.  It meandered closer to the edge of the cliffs’ edges, while keeping a respectful distance from the precipice in most spots.  There was a dodgy stretch, but some travelers, as disinclined to stride along a hare’s-breath of path juxtaposed against a sixty-foot plummet, had cut a secondary looping jaunt (through the damnable undergrowth) that avoided the cliff’s edge and certain death.  This was acceptable to me, and quite lovely, on account of the omnipresent, verdant, and then-innocuous shrub of despair.

When Anna, Nora, Kemper and I came to Garrapata later that day, I took Kemper on a small section of the secondary trail.  He was reticent to follow, but, ultimately, he did.  I told him only “big kids” could come on the path, and this was enough to carry the day.  Luckily it was chilly, and he was wearing jeans and a jacket – fully armored against the chaparral of anguish.

By Kemper’s age (6.5 years) I had already broken both of my wrists, sliced my thumb to the bone with a utility knife, and cracked a few toes; but he has, heretofore, not suffered any major bodily injuries.  He is cautious of the unbeaten paths, for which I am grateful.  In Frost’s poem, the narrator does not rush headlong down the path less traveled by.  Instead, “long I stood / and looked down one as far as I could / to where it bent in the undergrowth.”  As impulsive as he can be, this is Kemper’s general approach to life choices.  It will serve him well.

On the Journey Ahead

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I am sure that in a few years (e.g., when he hits puberty) the allure of Kemper walking away from me on a wooded path will have gone the way of Old Yeller, but for now, I cannot stop taking pictures of him doing just that.  If I ever work up the gumption to have a gallery show at my in-laws’ art gallery, I will have material for a whole wall of “Minion Marching” photos.

I love photographs of paths, and I love photographing Kemper.  Although he has the memory of an eidetic elephant, I hope that he will be able to remember the trips we took when he was younger through the pictures that I have taken.  He is walking through the path of life (sorry, I’m not sorry…I was an English major), and these photographs are as much about his journey as anything.

For now, I will walk behind making sure that he does not stray too far.  In the not so distant future, these photos of him walking in front of me will take on new, different significance.

 

Reunion

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We leave for Carmel on Saturday morning.  Although I am usually one who goes with the proverbial flow, I created an itinerary for the whole week.  I loathed the idea of sitting around for forty-five minutes pondering what we were going to do that day, and so I sat down in my office at 2:13 AM (as I am increasingly wont to do) and plotted out a schedule for what may prove to be our last trip out west for a while.

I sent the itinerary to Anna on Friday, and she glanced over it with approbation.  We are going to visit Rocky Point, Big Sur, Big Basin Redwoods state park, and the Monterey Aquarium to name but a few.  The trip was planned, the minivan rented, and the camera batteries charging when I got a text from an old college friend of ours.  She had happened across a movie that the three of us watched together for the first time years ago, and she realized we had not talked in a while.  She lives in DC, and, though Anna has seen her more recently, I have not seen her since law school in Richmond.

She was scheduled to fly out to San Francisco on Saturday, but she managed to change her plans and will be joining us Thursday and Friday in Carmel.  We could not be more excited.  EmGood has a joie-de-vivre that is insurmountable, and she has been down rocky paths (like the one that heads this post) only to come out even better on the other side.  She needs a vacation, and we need a shot of EmGood in our life.  We just didn’t know it at the time.

Needless to say, the itinerary is shot to hell, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  For someone who hates change and loathes planning (and understands the inherent contradiction), I am wonderfully at peace with this.  So now I will retire from this post to rearrange the days so that EmGood can see all of the highlights of Carmel while she is there, and we can enjoy them together.

Moments

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There is something so genuine about a little boy being outside, skinning his knees, sloshing in mud puddles, and engaging with nature.  I used to be that little boy.  Now I have one.

The week before Father’s Day, I woke Kemper up at midnight and we hopped in the car for a surprise trip up to Brevard, North Carolina, where my parents and sister were on vacation.  It was a spur of the minute surprise for Father’s Day for my dad, and when we walked into the cabin while he was eating his breakfast, it was clear that it had the intended effect.

I had worked a couple of long months (hence the dearth of posts), and I had mentally burned the candle at both ends until it was nearly extinguished.  I needed to check out for a couple of days, and so with Anna’s blessing, and This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby on audiobook (I’m on a Fitzgerald kick, what can I say), Kemp and I made the 7.5 hour trek to North Carolina in the dead of night.

Initially, my only thought was that it would be a great surprise for my dad.  Bringing along Kemper was secondary, and my own enjoyment of the trip was a distant tertiary consideration.  My dad was thrilled.  Kemper enjoyed himself.  But the effect the four days I spent with them in North Carolina had on me was more powerful than I could have ever anticipated.

I am, by most metrics, a very good son.  I call my mother often; I have lunch with my dad at least once a month; and we visit (though not as often as we, perhaps, should).  I thought the trip would be a nice surprise, and little more.  My dad had texted me when they arrived the week prior that he really wished that I would have been able to come up.  My mom echoed this sentiment to me on a phone call later that day.  This planted the seed, but I was too busy to even think about pulling myself away from my desk.

I cannot say precisely what it was that made me realize that surprising my dad was more important than two days of billables.  I do not remember the tipping point.  It may have been at 1:00 AM, sitting at my desk at work, having not been able to fall asleep that night because I was thinking about all that needed to be done.  Perhaps.  At some point I had an epiphanic realization that my life over the last two months had been, quite literally, all work and no play.

Fitzgerald always inspires me to imagine that there is more to the world that what I have done so far—whether this is writing the next Gatsby, or simply stepping outside my comfort zone to see what comes of it.  Shipping up to North Carolina on a whim was completely out of character for me, who needs to plan his major life choices with spreadsheets and agony.  I have not made a better personal decision in a very long time.

We are going to California, Anna, the kids, and I, in July before my in-laws sell their house in Carmel-by-the-Sea.  I am selling all of my earthly possessions including my trusty Nikon D7100 to buy a new camera so that I can take the best photos of what might be my last trip out there for quite a while.  (The D7100’s still for sale, if you’re interested!)  I have planned out an itinerary to maximize my photographic opportunities.  I am resolute about capturing every sunset while we are there.

The trip to North Carolina helped to readjust my perspective on life.  It is short.  Work is an important part of my life at this point, but providing for my family means more than just a paycheck and a bonus.  I saw that in Kemper as we took the hike along the Davidson River, where he stopped and sat for a minute on a fallen elm tree just looking over the river flowing before him.  For a moment, he understood what it took me 30+ years to understand.  (In fairness, it will have escaped him as quickly as the twigs that he threw in the quickly flowing current…)

Life is about moments, and moments are about what you make of them.

I’m going to try my very best not to forget that.  Maybe I will keep Fitzgerald on repeat to remind me.

Paths

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The depth of Robert Frost’s most famous poem, The Road not Taken, is often overlooked.  The poem is remembered by the lines “two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by.”  The poem, though, is tinged with regret (“And sorry I could not travel both”), and it reflects the difficult choices life presents us when we come to a metaphorical fork in the road.  (Yogi Berra’s sage advice to “take it,” notwithstanding.)

Even when I had lost the lion’s share of my faith, I still believed that everything happened for a reason.  Having since regained the better part and more, I hold firm to the belief that the paths I have taken were not trodden in vain.  They have made me who I am today.

Last August, Anna, the kids and I took a trip to England with her parents.  I wanted to take photographs of the moors, and so I agreed to an evening walk with her mother and uncle, both of whom it turns out are rotten liars and sadists.  I love my mother-in-law beyond measure, but I learned a valuable lesson that evening: never trust an Englishman (or woman), who tells you that a walk is “quite pleasant” or “easy.”  This is the same woman, who once told Anna’s sister that the cure for disliking walking was more walking, which probably should’ve been my first clue.

The Brits have a word for what we did up and down the moors.  They called the steep climbs and rapid descents “scrambling.”  I call it attempted murder.  My heart has never beat as hard, nor have my legs ever felt as weak.  Yet the photographs that I was able to take, once we reached the top, were spectacular.  The irony of all ironies was that at the pinnacle of our “scramble,” there were no paths, only heather and ferns and potential.  The photograph below was taken on that hike.

Frost may have taken the road less traveled by, but we forged our own.  I reflected on the symbolism of this hike only afterwards when we were safely on the journey home.  I didn’t have the capacity (mental or lung) to contemplate it in the moment.

The above photograph was taken in Alaska, on a much more “pleasant” hike.  We were younger then, without kids, and without the concomitant cares.  I don’t know what I would’ve done differently had I known what lay ahead.  I don’t regret the paths that I’ve taken, because I am grateful and content where they have led me.  But I took the less traveled path, and that has made all the difference.

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Ode

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Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.
Isaiah 57:2

I have met many men who could quote the Bible and many men who preached for a living.  Yet, I have never met a man more learned in the Bible and its teachings than Anna’s great-uncle Michael, who passed away yesterday.  Michael was a lay preacher, and he dedicated his life in an uncommon way to God.  Michael was Anna’s grandfather’s brother, and he was predeceased by his wife auntie Pat.  David, or Ardy as Anna and her sisters called him, was wise beyond measure, and was a strong student of religion.  As successful as he was with his mill, his business, and his family, even David would admit that he could not hold a candle to Michael’s vast ecclesiastical knowledge.

I regret not seeing Michael the last time I was in England.  I hadn’t seen him since David’s death nine years ago, where he spoke so eloquently about death and the afterlife.  His death leaves a void in our family—I say “our” because Anna’s British family has adopted me as one of their own.  It also leaves a void in the community, because a gift and a dedication like Michael’s is almost unheard of these days.  Very few laypeople dedicated their lives to the study of God’s words like Michael did, and even fewer such people exist today.

We will go to church this weekend, and I will think fondly of Michael finally being home.  His belief was absolute, and I know that he did not mourn his passing but instead embraced it with the knowledge that his “light and momentary troubles” in this life achieved for him “an eternal glory that far outweighed them all.”  Corinthians 4:17.

I rarely quote from the Bible, mostly because I know so few verses, but also because my faith has been tested so much over the past ten years.  With faith restored, I do not feel as hypocritical drawing from the knowledge that has been set down by generations of believers.  And so I close with a quote, as Michael would have done.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
2 Corinthians 5:6-8

The Anecdote of the Jar

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Boneyard Beach on Big Talbot Island is one of my absolute favorite places to photograph in Northeast Florida.  I often lament how uninspiring North Florida is for photography, because there are very few changes in topography.  I think my feelings on the subject are driven in large part due to the mosquitoes and ever-present danger of an alligator or water moccasin deciding that this is the day to make me a statistic or a cautionary tale.  Although I have seen an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake in the surf before, he was as confused (if not more) than I was as to how he found himself there, and though he was quite large, he posed no threat to me.  Thus, the beach is safe.

Having grown up near the beach, I take it for granted.  I also take for granted the incredible wildlife we have from wild roseate spoonbills and butterflies of every variation, to even the bobcat and Florida panther.  (I have seen my share of bobcats, but thankfully I have never had a run-in with panther.)  Yet there is something so unique about walking through scrub oak woods, hearing the crash of waves, and finding yourself not on an empty beach, but on a beach filled with old, weathered live oaks lying there like skeletons strewn about by hurricanes.

Ironically, this photograph of a driftwood oak, still tethered by its roots to the beach, was taken in Jekyll Island—another barrier island about an hour north of Big Talbot in Georgia.  This photo captures a bit of what struck me so emphatically when I came upon the tree.  Unlike Big Talbot, this was the only driftwood feature on the entire beach.  But for this tree, it would have been a perfectly ordinary, flat, featureless Florida beach, and I would not have given it a second thought.  Because of this tree, however, the beach took on meaning.

Wallace Stephen once wrote a poem about the universe taking shape around a jar he placed on a hill in rural Tennessee.  It is a perfectly beautiful little poem that has always resonated with me.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.  
It made the slovenly wilderness  
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.  
The jar was round upon the ground  
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.  
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,  
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Around the jar the world gained meaning.  What was once a wilderness was now not so wild, as it found order in relation to this jar.  In the same way, this featureless beach took shape around this tree.  The beach that was perfectly ordinary became extraordinary because of this tree, just as the wilderness became forever commended to words by Stevens and became a part of American literature because of that simple little jar.  This tree is a testament to how some otherwise ordinary object can bring meaning to an otherwise ordinary, pedestrian setting.