A Photo Is Worth A Thousand Miles

Trail running in open grasslands

My friends Dan and Janine have made lots of outdoor photos all over the world. You’ve probably seen them in Backpacker, Trail Runner, on your REI Visa card, Climbing, Rock & Ice, and a bajillion other places. If they do their job right, you see one of their photos and say Wow. If you’re a little curious, after you say Wow, you ask,

Where is that?

Most of the time that happens with one of their photos, Dan and Janine don’t know about it. But back in 2008, they got an e-mail from a woman named Lyra, whom they’d never met. Lyra had grown up in California, but was studying abroad for a year in Annecy, France. She had seen one of Dan and Janine’s photos blown up poster-size in a retail store in Annecy—a runner passing through a golden meadow somewhere—and was taken. She wrote the company an e-mail, and then forwarded the e-mail to Dan. She wrote what happened when she saw the poster:

“I imagined such exotic places as Africa, perhaps Kilimanjaro, and I promised myself wherever that place was, I had to go. I looked at the caption: Owens Valley, California. I could not believe it. Here I was halfway across the world from home, in a place so beautiful, so different to me, ready to imagine my next grand adventure to a foreign place, and that place was home.  I was dumbfounded, humbled, but mostly proud to come from a place that could rank, in my then-slightly-jaded mind, with the wonders of Africa.”

But despite growing up in California, Lyra had never been to the Owens Valley. As soon as she returned to California in July, she started trying to convince her climbing friends to plan a trip to Bishop. In November, they went, and she fell in love with it. Three months later, she applied for a job there, and moved. She wrote Dan:

“I smile every time I think of the peculiar strain of mini-events which turned my life in a direction I had only promised my subconscious I would take.”

I’ve gone dozens of places based on a photo I saw, or a story someone told me—Vestal Peak in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, the 101 all the way down the Oregon coast, a valley of giant granite slabs in the middle of nowhere in Norway. I’ve still got a mental list of things I want to do in places I’ve only seen in photos, or heard about in stories—watching the sun set in Terlingua, climbing in Cochise Stronghold, or doing a long route on Big Rock Candy Mountain in the South Platte. Every time I think about taking a big trip or making a big plan, I navigate my way over to this page on Jim Harris’s website to scroll through his photos and try to start a brainstorm of something that scope for myself.

What is it about a photo that’s not quite enough to just look at it? We cut it out of a magazine, or save it and use it for a computer desktop, with the idea that maybe maybe maybe we might just get ourselves there someday?

Lyra ended up writing a story for Mammoth Sierra Magazine in 2012 about her eventual move to Bishop. Her first time ever in the Owens Valley, after returning from her year in France, she writes about her realization: “There I was. In the poster.”

Maybe that’s what we’re thinking about when we see all those great places in photos: How to get ourselves there. How often have you pulled the trigger and worked to get yourself to the mountain in that retail store poster, or in front of the sunset in the magazine article?

-Brendan

Semi-Rad is brought to you by Outdoor Research.

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14 Comments

  1. Erin
    September 19, 2013

    This totally rings true with me. Back in highschool, someone bought me a poster showing Spirit Island on Maligne Lake in Japser national park (Canada) thinking my outdoorsy self would like it. They were right. That poster hung above my desk, mesmerizing me, for 4 and a half years until I managed to secure the summer job of a lifetime working in Jasper Park. Finally seeing Spirit Island for myself was pretty unreal, to say the least.

    Reply
  2. E
    September 19, 2013

    I’ve had two photos on my work computer for more than a year — one of El Chalten, and the other of Torres del Paine, both in Patagonia. In November I’m finally quitting my job to go see these places in person. It’s gonna be rad.

    Reply
  3. September 19, 2013

    I’m not sure how he ended up with it, but when I was about 10 my Dad brought home a hefty photo book filled with adventure travel destinations. Pictures of safaris and North Pole skiing and sailing in the Maldives were interspersed with less exotic stuff like climbing Devil’s Tower. Unlike a National Geographic mag, each set of glossy photos was followed by a blurb about the company that would take you there. It was advertorial, but there was a “And you can too!” tilt to it and I guess I believed it. I think I even stuck post-it bookmarks to a bunch of pages.

    Our family vacations were to state parks in Indiana and to visit relatives in Maine during those years, but that book made exotic travel feel attainable. Five years later I cashed in years worth of lawn-mowing and snow-shoveling revenue for a NOLS backpacking trip in Idaho. NOLS was listed among the last pages in that book and, for me, that was the first time a photo was a worth a thousand miles.

    Reply
  4. Kevin Simons
    September 19, 2013

    Nice piece. I love a great photo, but mostly I just live the story…a description, anecdote, or memory will get me in the car 9 times out if 10.

    Reply
  5. TM
    September 19, 2013

    A fantastic story well told. Images, both written and pictorial are great food for thought. I have a collection of someday, today and always. A few come to sea with me, to remind me of home and those the I love, some to keep me going – the cliffs of West Penwith, the day BB became my wife, a farther and his son in a little red boat and the James Caird being pulled across the ice by F Hurley. Some of the places I will get to and some will remain just a photo. All of them – along with this story, inspire. Thank you Lyra and thank you Brendan.

    Reply
  6. September 19, 2013

    When I first saw pictures of the San Juan Mountains of the 2006 Hardrock, my thought was “that” is my dream race. I got to run there last year. :)

    Reply
  7. September 19, 2013

    People say California is overrated, even some lifelong Californians.

    I laugh and laugh.

    Reply
  8. Adam
    September 20, 2013

    Hah! I’m 98% certain this Lyra was my Avy 1 instructor this past winter. And I used to save pages of magazines or save images from the web so I’d always have a trip idea.

    Reply
  9. Steve
    September 20, 2013

    I’ve joked several times before that I probably have more pictures of Janine than my wife around our home.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who eagerly awaits the new Patagonia catalog and the beautiful photography. I just wish there weren’t so many pictures of clothes.

    Reply
  10. Justin
    September 21, 2013

    Dude, well written. And spot-on. I definitely am guilty (proudly) of staring at photos and just wondering. I use them as motivation on my FB page when I am getting ready for big trips to somewhere, many times inspired by someone else’s photograph. I am fortunate to call Denali NP home during the summers… All because of the wonderment formed by seeing Denali reflected in the reflection pond near Wonder Lake. Beauty…

    And it’s funny that you link to the southern spiral trip from PW… Our mutual friend Elizabeth sent me that link a few years ago, when I was getting ready to head to AK myself. And spawned a definite moment of living vicariously through photos. Awesome trip!

    Reply
    • September 23, 2013

      Glad to hear that trip resonated with you! I’ve been continually surprised at how the photos from our Southern Spiral trip have been appreciated and I’m grateful that people like you were entertained/enriched/inspired/mildly amused.

      Reply
  11. AaronF
    September 23, 2013

    Agreed!! My desktop pictures are full of dreams/aspirations of places I want to go, or want to go back to. There are pictures of mountains I didn’t quite summit but often remind myself that I must try again, bike rides that changed my life & will do again to see if it has the same effect.

    The day I stop dreaming of places to visit will hopefully be the day I expire.

    Reply
  12. September 28, 2013

    Oh yea, the screen saver is full of them ‘someday places’.
    I found myself attracted to photos with a trail in them- that meant I could I could go there. Spending the last decade riding mountain bike Ive been taking quite a few of them trail photos myself, seems its a fascination that keeps evolving.

    Reply

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