Small Joys

| February 26, 2012

I left home on Saturday. I remember looking forward to long road trips when living in other places. These days, there is a certain bitter-sweetness in leaving my little house and the beloved views of my home. A light winter storm drifted over the Great Basin, providing a dramatic backdrop of clouds. On occasion, shafts of sunlight filtered through the velvety gray, like slow-moving searchlights sweeping the landscape. The spectacle lasted for many hours and miles as I made my way down the long empty roads into the wild heart of Nevada.

By early afternoon, I set up camp among the Joshua trees on the slopes of a small mountain range overlooking a vast dry valley. A steep but short hike got me to the craggy top of a prominent summit and I sat down for a snack and a few minutes of meditation. There’s a distinct flavor of happiness that accompanies such experiences that is hard to describe to those not already familiar with it: a subtle, sweet, and somewhat melancholy version of euphoria that can only be experienced in quiet solitude, in magnificent settings. It is a strange mix of elation, humility, and overwhelming gratitude, making it hard to draw a deep breath without experiencing a slight burning sensation behind the eyelids, telling you that tears may not be far behind if you allow your mind to wander and become too overwhelmed with the grandeur.

I began my descent in the warm afternoon light, not wanting to hike back in the dark. From the summit, I could see a deep wash on the opposite side of my camp. I decided to hike down it, then back up the slope where I parked. At the bottom of the wash, crumbly layers of shale told the story of an ancient sea bed. One small slab showed the crushed remains of an ancient crustacean and I collected a few promising rock samples to examine later. Back at camp, I carefully tapped them with a hammer, separating the layers like the pages of an ancient book, exposing several tiny trilobite fossils to the last light of the day – and the first light they had seen in more than half a billion years.

A few sips of tequila and gentle notes from Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to Cinema Paradiso made for an evening of deep contemplation and dreams I know I had but cannot remember.

I woke up to cold darkness, about an hour before dawn. The warmth and rich aroma of fresh coffee eased the chill, and I was on my way again. I waited by a grove of large Joshua trees for the first light, listening to a distant owl hooting as darkness faded.

The previous day’s light show continued. I stopped here and there along the lonesome roads until arriving at my next destination. I wanted to soak in a natural hot spring I knew of that evening, and spent the afternoon looking for a nearby camp site. To my delight, I followed an old mining road to discover a beautiful section of high desert, dotted with cedar and pine trees, mine shafts, and small mining camps, many still containing various mementos of the lives of hardy folks who were here so many years ago.

I spent the rest of the afternoon reading, taking occasional breaks to climb some of the nearby hills for views of the area. After the sun set, I drove the few miles to the hot spring for a naked soak in its steamy sulphury warmth. So wonderful was the feeling that I almost considered falling asleep right there in the water. By the time I drove back to my camp, I could barely keep my eyes open.

So ended the solitary part of my trip. I left camp before dawn to meet Michael and Steve in Death Valley, and a new kind of adventure ensued. Our first hike found us huddled below a rock arch as flurries of snow began to blow. A perfect setting for catching up with old friends.

The next couple of days saw us hiking through desert canyons, shivering on lofty viewpoints above the desert, savoring every moment of beauty in the daytime, and laughing around the campfire and poker table at night.

On Wednesday, Michael and I checked into our hotel room to clean up and prepare before meeting our workshop clients. To our delight, we had an amazing group of participants, each with a passion for making images and interesting life stories to share. The week flew by.

In so many ways, this was a typical outing, but I still find it hard to relate to such things in terms like “normal” or “usual.” There is nothing mundane about these small chapters in the unfolding story of a life I marvel at every day and that I could never take for granted. These are my other kind of retirement savings – the moments and memories I will some day look back upon with the same bitter-sweet joy and immense gratitude as I did when experiencing them.

In the end, it’s not about photography; it’s about living the life. I tried to convey these thoughts in conversations with some of our workshop participants. My greatest hope is that they, too, may strive to find balance, beauty, and fulfillment in their own lives, by whatever means best fit them. Photography is the thin thread that bound us together during these few days, but I was glad to have gained small glimpses into their worlds as well, as we practiced making images.

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

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  1. Guy Tal’s Small Joys | February 26, 2012
  1. Jack Johnson says:

    The expression is overused, Guy, but you and your work inspire me. I take something away with me from each reading and viewing. Many thanks!

    — Jack

  2. Marty Knapp says:

    Dear Guy,
    I am deeply touched and moved by your narrative. It’s richly sensitive to your inner self, the heart that feels. Your writing made me feel as though I was sitting on the overlook, alone in my own thoughts and feelings, which seem so close to your own. However, I could not express these thoughts and feelings as masterfully as the way you have. I feel grateful that I read your essay.
    Best,
    Marty

  3. Russ Bishop says:

    Thank you Guy for expressing so eloquently the feeling I think so many of us have when we’re “out there” in the stillness and beauty.

    I’m glad the workshop was a success – sounds like you made some great connections.

  4. Excellent read to start my Monday morning here in the East. The way you log even the small joy is fascinating. Thanks for sharing those moments that you experienced..

  5. Roberta says:

    I loved reading this. I know that feeling you talked about earlier on…..the melancholic euphoria. Your workshop participants are an enviable bunch.

  6. Jim Heywood says:

    “There’s a distinct flavor of happiness that accompanies such experiences that is hard to describe to those not already familiar with it: a subtle, sweet, and somewhat melancholy version of euphoria that can only be experienced in quiet solitude, in magnificent settings. It is a strange mix of elation, humility, and overwhelming gratitude, making it hard to draw a deep breath without experiencing a slight burning sensation behind your eyelids telling you that tears may not be far behind if you allow your mind to wander and become too overwhelmed with the grandeur.”

    Indeed. It has been such moments that inspire my attempts share with others these very feelings. Alas, no matter how great the photo I may produce, the intended sharing always falls short of your description. But I keep trying anyway.

    Thank you for putting into words what I could not.

  7. Seldom read more appropriate words describing the feeling I have from time to time when sitting somewhere in the mountains and watching a sunset. This lines remember me on great moments I had and reminded me looking for new ones again, thanks Guy!

  8. Joe Becker says:

    Thanks for sharing your small joys and inner feelings Guy.

  9. “These are my other kind of retirement savings – the moments and memories I will some day look back upon with the same bitter-sweet joy and immense gratitude as I did when experiencing them.”

    It seems there is always a hidden treasure in your writing Guy ; ) I am glad you had a safe and productive trip. Looking forward to seeing your accompanying images.

  10. ” These are my other kind of retirement savings – the moments and memories I will some day look back upon… ”

    Your words pulled me in like I was there.

  11. I’m happy to have spent those days with you on our respective and amazing journeys, Guy!

  12. A very touching and accurate commentary of how so many of us feel about our time in the wilderness. There’s no feeling like it that I know of, and it’s very hard to express that feeling (unless you’re Guy Tal). Thanks for putting it into words.

  13. Mark Bailey says:

    Made my evening reading this. Thanks, Guy.

  14. Another well-written post. I greatly enjoy your theoretical philosophical psychological pieces, Guy, and also there’s nothing like the easy flow of a good personal experience essay that moves the reader like no other form of writing can, especially when you’re preaching landscape to the converted. In many ways it makes your point at the end stronger. During college, oh say some 25 plus years ago now, I thought that slight burning sensation behind the eyes came from being high on mushrooms.

  15. nate parker says:

    Oh that was a Great read! Thanks Guy!

  16. Rafael Rojas says:

    Not only a great read, but a great ode to that flame which should be kept alive inside of each of us.

    This post really resonates inside of me…I see photography as a tool, and the truth is I will never be able to say that photography is THE passion for me. Curiosity, eagerness to discover, the search of the beauty of the banal, the thoughts about our existence, the will to share with others, the process of self-discovery, the spur to go out there and live the life…All that is the real purpose of it all for me, and the very reasons why photography fit it as a way to connect and provide a linking thread to all those feelings… From time to time, when the “need” to photograph “great” images becomes too strong, I remind myself of the real reasons to go out there. When I am able to do so, photography comes later as a logical side effect of the joys which are offered to those who know where to seek…If there is a big monster waiting for us, that is photography itself, trying to lure us with wrong purposes and goals, trying to steal from us a big part of the experience…Who wins the battle, the artist or the tool, just depends on us and our vision and motivations…

    Thanks Guy for reminding again where the true North is…

    Reading this post, it reminded me of the great book “The Wild Places”, from Robert McFarlane. I strongly recommended, if you did not read it yet…