“You know, I was just thinking that three bumper stickers changed my life,” Dan said as we tromped down the trail a couple weeks ago.
I laughed because I knew what he was talking about. Not “Obama/Romney/McCain/Bush for …” or “Nuke a Gay Whale For Christ,” but the time someone says something and you hear it. Because you need it.
In fall 2001, Dan and his wife and business partner, Janine, were battling to get their photography business started, living in their Volkswagen Westfalia around Bishop, California. They had spent three days on the trail in the Sierras, shooting their first-ever assignment for Backpacker, which would get them their first big paycheck as photographers. They had less than $1,000 in the bank and had invested $150 in film for the trip.
On the drive up to the North Lake trailhead, the van’s engine blew up. They nursed it to the trailhead, just to get to the shoot, finish the work and deal with the engine later.
After three days of hiking and shooting, they hiked back to the trailhead and their wounded van, which at the time, was their home. The curtains were closed, and everything looked perfectly normal. “In the Sierra, you always approach your vehicle hoping all the windows are intact,” Dan says. Because bears often rip off car doors like they’re opening a tuna can, to get to the food inside.
Dan saw a piece of fiberglass on the ground. Figuring a bear had shredded someone’s truck camper shell, he flipped it over with his foot. Then,
The fiberglass was a piece of their van’s roof, the skylight. They jumped up to see a crater in the top of the van. The bear had pried open the skylight, then crashed through the roof into the van. Dan opened the door to see their home destroyed. The bear had done what bears do, digging through everything to find every scrap of food.
They started the van, rolling back down to Bishop, hoping the engine would make it. The wind pulled anything loose out of the holes in the roof and sides of the van. Things were grim. No money, no engine, no roof. No home.
They took the van to a repair shop, and started to walk to a friend’s house down Main Street in Bishop. They had hit bottom. Then, a car pulled up to a stoplight, and Dan and Janine, sullen, both read a sticker on its bumper:
TOUGH TIMES DON’T LAST
TOUGH PEOPLE DO
They looked at each other and laughed.
And then, they lasted. They fixed the van, getting a new top for free from a guy who’d just hit a cow and totaled his Westfalia. Work started coming in, contracts from Marmot, MSR, and other companies. Things got better.
Then their work took off: Climbing, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Backpacker, Patagonia, Trail Runner, and other magazines. Your REI credit card has PatitucciPhoto’s image on it. They recently moved from the Dolomites to Interlaken, Switzerland, and spend most of their lives working in some of the world’s most beautiful places.
Most of the time, we’re so overwhelmed with media, it’s hard to know what to pay attention to: Billboards, noise, signs, bumper stickers, lights, music, Twitter, Facebook, television, magazines, news feed readers, Kindles, dozens of floating icons on our phones and computer screens that can open up even more words words words to pour into the alphabet soup already overflowing in our heads.
I don’t know what exactly is the right way to make big decisions—I supposed spreadsheets, lists of pros and cons, and maybe even math are helpful. But I like people who find the turning points in their lives with bumper stickers, song lyrics, single sentences from long talks with friends, and other “signs.” Something in the mail on the right day, a story in an airline magazine, a conversation with a stranger, bad weather, missed connections, what we sometimes call serendipity. Life is more poetic that way, isn’t it?
For the record, the other two bumper stickers that turned Dan’s life were: ONLY DEAD FISH GO WITH THE FLOW and CHEVYS ARE LIKE TAMPONS: EVERY _____ HAS ONE. I think that last one is a completely different story.
(Photo by Janine Patitucci/PatitucciPhoto.com)