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?