Deep Water

I heard it said a long time ago that our souls are like deep water and that those who truly seek understanding will do whatever it takes to experience our soul. People who desire to experience the depths of their soul will initiate and draw out necessary experiences. Rather than turn from the discomfort they'll welcome it into their homes and lives. They'll wrap themselves in risk and intentionally set themselves up to be challenged.

For me, this came to a head about four years ago. My life was changing in every way - health, job, location, relationship, friends - it was all turned over like soil to grow an unknown crop. All my decisions until that point had been about becoming a person I wanted to be. My focus was young; it was set on burning bridges to places I didn't want to influence my future and building bridges to the areas I wanted to go and the man I wanted to be.

We can do a lot that points towards our potential without looking for who we are. We show accomplishments rather experience our worth. While accolades speak towards the world and create a social validation, our soul speaks outside of the world, outside of our life even, towards something greater. I'm finding what I do does allow me to converse and get along well with many people, but who I am is what connects me to them.

All this is the idea behind deep water, behind the work of our souls. We have to go to the places we don't naturally go to - have conversations, take risks, share how we feel, leave money to gain time, say what matters to us even when it doesn't match up to what the world thinks would be smart. We can even say what we believe matters most without living our lives like those beliefs matter at all. And if you live your whole life merely saying it would be good to go jump off a pier and sit under the surface to experience deep water, it gets you no closer to the shore. And if you wade waist deep, you are still too close to the safety - you haven't gone completely to the depths. You may suffice to say ankle deep is quite the experience and walk away. No one would blame you, but still, you'd look over your shoulder as you walk away. Worse yet is to come years later, or maybe weeks later, in a doctors office hearing terrible news and wish you had kept going.

What I am trying to say and trying to understand continually in my own life, is that our souls aren't geared towards safety. Sometimes the closer we come to pursuing our soul, the less safe our life appears. The less safe our life appears, the more doubt we feel. The more doubt we feel, the less likely we are to think that the most important work is the work we ought to be doing. After all, we should give our money and time to help innocent children, we should care for people unconditionally, our careers shouldn't get in the way of our families, and we should mean our vows... but when it becomes serious business, giving up our ideals for a "life is what it is" mentality becomes attractive.

The point is not to live dangerously or irrationally, as this can also be a way blanket the souls work with a lifestyle that says "Tada! Look what a beautiful thing I've made" without pointing towards the beauty we already are deep inside. The goal is merely to move intentionally and with the quiet purpose of one life mattering to the one next to it. The problem is until you've proven yourself time and again, people can see intentional and purposeful movements as irrational - especially during times when risk catches up to you - and our mental gauge credits others doubt to be right more than it is (a very human thing to do). The trickiest part is what is right and proper in a moment (such as saving finances or protecting yourself) does not necessarily set us up well for what we believe matters most or what we would like to teach our children over a lifetime (such as being generous and loving unconditionally).

All this is to say our souls don't ask us never to make mistakes. Our souls ask us to have grace when risk catches us off guard. Our souls teach us to persevere through difficult seasons - to do whatever it takes to draw out the depths of our soul. Our souls look at our lives and find the little adventurous idea we have, it tears the idea out from our mind and hands it to us like a good friend would hand over a map.

Same Skies by Travis Wild - Chapter 3

This is the third chapter from the book I’m pushing towards publication. The book is titled “Same Skies” and chronicles the summer I spent living intentionally homeless in Denver, CO. This chapter talks about considering adventure, risk, and going after what you want most in life.

DEEP WATER

( Lessons from Lake Michigan )

“Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable.”

– Plato

Spring in Southwest Michigan brings the sun back to cold air and life back to the Big Lake. Pier jumping into Lake Michigan is, despite or perhaps because of the danger, perfectly inviting for the youthful heart. Most of us were born and bred Michiganders. If you can point to the left side of your right palm to show people where home is, it means you are more likely than not a water oriented person - well aware and taking into account the risks of cold temperatures and rip currents, but even with these dangers it feels built into your souls from a young age to jump.

I enjoy the anticipation on the pier, but most of all I love the moment after leaving the cement when there is nothing below but empty air, the laws of gravity, and a floor of ice cold water ten feet down. I love the feeling of being deep under the water, so alive. I wish I could go to school to study that feeling, reading about it in textbooks, highlighting the good parts and writing papers on why we should chase after deep water.

No one who has gone on an adventure, even dangerous ones, ever tells much of the story with regret or shame. I do not at all intend to die on any of my adventures, but even those who don’t make it through leave their loved ones being able to say, although they would greatly regret dying, they would never regret how they had lived. Conventional thoughts on safety are rational in terms of not dying but can be conversely irrational when it comes to living in the quality sense. I’ve seen people stop living for the sake of not going into what they don't know. I've seen people sacrifice what they want the most in their years of life for what they want in a single solitary moment. I don't want that. I want the adventures that draw me in. I want to stay captivated. Deep water has its risks, but I'm quite sure the moments following the risk have saved far many more lives than they have taken. I want to experience the deep water of my soul.

This all feels like a good thing, but at the same time, I do fear. I fear dying. I fear getting too depressed. I fear what other people think about me if I'm depressed at all. I fear I'm going to be too weird, or overthink, or be too obsessed with the idea that I just annoy people. I fear the idea most adventures are not taken by people who are accompanied by the insecurities I have.

My ideas often feel like things anyone other than me should be doing. I don't feel good enough to see them through but would never put the burden on anyone else to do so. In the end, it will be impossible to feel only precisely how I would like to. Most of the time it seems I would not take a risk, go on an adventure, or might choose the wrong thing over the right one not because I am incapable, but because I have yet to learn how capable I really am. A good life will take getting past a lot of unattractive emotions to go out and do, experience the attractive emotions in life which most often come just past adversity. The other, more capable, person who I imagine would do fine with all my worry is a person I have made up, a myth of impossible qualities. People putting themselves in a situation despite how they feel trumps being brave or good or perfect enough. Given this I have decided when it comes to my wish and my story, I must believe people are built to last, not fail. I have to trust the same is true with me.

All this is unraveling because I have finally left Chris' place and an adventure is becoming my adventure. All the insecurities and looming feelings of failure I struggle with are rising to the surface. Focusing mainly on the confident parts, highlighting heroics and such, is pointless. I grew up in a small town with a split up family and a lot of unsolved problems. I have no personal right to confidence. I feel nothing like I imagine the people I look up to feel. I believe everyone at some time in their life will be tempted to believe the worst about themselves, some more than others. We need to choose to see the best in ourselves because while everyone has great doubt we also have great potential. Even the people I look up to had both parts, so it seems people who do extraordinary things are merely ordinary people who find some way to get past worry or merely live in it without it affecting their decisions negatively.

In all this, I remember the edge of the pier. I remember how great things push back not and cause me to worry not because they should be avoided, but precisely because they carry weight and it matters what happens. In the end, I can't always pick and choose how I want to feel, only how I want to live.

I have to be okay with all the insecurities now, because the rays of sunlight carry weight as they fall heavy from the sky, pressing heat into my skin and shaggy hair. I'm walking to the city, and I'm not sure of what I want to do; shut my eyes and block everything out or take it all in. It’s easy for me to block out details. I called it “mind off” when I was a kid – a practiced attempt block out being yelled and screamed at and shaken to the point of tears in my bed. It helped me get through those hard times, but this is a choice - a jump over deep water and I want to remember the snapshots; the plane overhead carrying people to God-knows-where, the cars shooting people by on the street, the scrape of gravel underneath my feet the same as it sounded walking to my bus stop when I was a kid. Focusing on how most of today's worries turn out to be a small matter next week, gone in a month, and next year barely a memory helps. I don't know where I will sleep tonight, where I'll eat, what I will eat, if I will eat, where I will go, who I will meet, or what I will do. I merely trust I will be ok. I will walk to town, find a place to sleep, find food, and come back to Chris’ once or twice a week to write on a blog so people know a bit of what is going on. There is also a girl, Amber. I met her at the summer camp I just took the Dale House kids to and may give myself the luxury of trying to call. In six weeks, I will walk back one last time, end the adventure right where it started. It will be good and done, and I will go to friends weddings at the end of the summer. All this will be many memories which positively shape me. This is how I rationalize everything. Life would be easier if my faith in life took away worry and fear and a lack of confidence, but faith has a lot to do with remembering emotion will come and go. Faith does not feel like the Christian struggle of who is wrong and right or what laws should be made or who is to blame for things but is a reminder of what not take root in and keep moving through because of a belief in good, a belief that things can get better. This faith requires more than merely not avoiding my fears. If I'm ever going to overcome my demons, I've got to invite them to dinner, play host, ask them to stay for dessert, intellectually listen to them pleading their case and, finally, realize they won't kill me.

These things can't be experienced unless actions are taken: a drive to the beach, walking the pier, working up some guts, and jumping in the water. The other option would be to have the idea of jumping but stop from getting in the car, or never get out of the car, or stop just short of making the leap at the edge, or just watch as other people jumped without actually understanding the experience for myself.

A Greek Stoic philosopher named Epictetus addressed a lot of these thoughts when he said, “Suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power.” I don't want to live a suffering life, but the mystery is bound up in what is uncontrollable and what is within my power. There is no way I could wrap my mind around everything, take in all the external factors and plug in the decisions of other people. I'm coming to terms with this is all being unmanageable.

In the middle of all this thinking, the trees have started to duck away. The highway divides the line of suburbia and the city is revealed in the quiet grandeur only a city can have when seen from a distant hilltop. Everything heads downhill into the city, the landscape hinting this is a good way to go; down the hill, past the suburbs and comfort, to a good place to reach out and learn. My feet scrape the pavement, I find a pebble to kick, and kick it again and again. I follow it down the sidewalk towards Denver.

Life is unmanageable. I'm unmanageable. The things I have always tried to get better at or figure out, like confidence or loving or reasoning or merely being good at whatever thing I choose to do, are all quite the opposite of manageable. My only responsibility is to know these things, expect not to be ready, and try not to manage an unmanageable life. Instead, I hope to appropriately soak life up like cold and silence ten feet under water. I'm not asked to be well put together. I'm not asked or told to stop thinking or limit myself or my thoughts to those which are appeasing. Ultimately, being a complete mess is quite fine.

This is deep water. I hope it lasts forever.

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Audrey and Kevin's Medecine Bow Mountain Top Wedding

When Kevin and Audrey asked me to come to Wyoming to photograph their weddings I was excited. I love the state, wanted to explore its mountains more, and they seemed adventurous, kind, and outdoorsy - my kind of people.

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The opportunity to shoot the Stelzer+VanderBoon wedding proved to be a perfect and encouraging transition dedicating myself to photography as I turned down an opportunity to travel with another company. It was interesting because I'd never met Audrey and Kevin, but we are from the same hometown of Plainwell, MI. Audrey's sister Jess had attended a wedding I'd shot the summer before in Glacier National Park. The small world shrunk even more when I found out Audrey's family lives one street away from my mom's house. Audrey was a few years behind me in school so I didn't know her, and Kevin went to a different high school but they both assured told me they wanted to treat me like family - inviting me for the whole weekend, to the cabin they rented, and even on the river float the day after the wedding.

The weekend contained a successful moose-search, many games of euchre, great food, the world's best coffee, an adventurously fun/stormy river float, and was highlighted by one of the most beautiful weddings I've ever been to.

These two are the epitome of love in motion. The big day started with Audrey taking her bridesmaids into town for a workout before getting ready while Kevin led the men up to a peak over the cabin for a kettle bell workout. By 11:30 am everyone was back at the cabin. The guys were wrapping up brunch while Audrey snuck up into the bird's nest suite. She opened Kevin's gift to her - a bright green climbing rope she'd wanted for a while along with a note from her fiancé.

The men were ready and left to decorate the venue by noon. I've stood in seven weddings, officiated three, and filmed a few and can say Kevin was excited, but also one of the calmest and sure grooms I've ever seen. He only moved to Wyoming a few weeks prior but pulled off the cowboy hat and mountain man persona already. The men left while the girls wrapped up in the bird's nest. Audrey's twin sister Megan was in charge of makeup and the bridesmaids laughed while listening to music before the father of the bride came in for a first look. Sun fell into the room for perfect light. Everyone was beaming as we loaded up the bouquets into cars and left for the hour long drive up to the hillside chapel.

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The ceremony was officiated by Kevin's grandfather inside a slightly slanted stone, mortar, and log open faced chapel with 30 or so friends and family on the rows of log benches. Nearly 360 views of mountains, a bright blue sky, and a grassy field made for amazing pictures right after the ceremony before we left for alpine lakes, perfect golden light, and a portrait shoot that could not have been imagined up any better.

Kevin and Audrey were amazingly easy to shoot. They were so comfortable with each other and in their natural environment. The day before we visited this spot and Audrey and Kevin raced each other up opposite sides of the riverbed. They needed no extra encouragement to jump out on rocks along the lake and out on ridges. We found an amazing spot where sun peaked through the trees lit up Audrey's gown. I had to be conscious about moving on because every bit of light, stream, waterfall, and reflection was perfect.

This is so cool. These two are so cool. Kept running through my mind. My favorite moments as a photographer come when it feels like the photos are just happening, I do not have to try too hard, and I realize I'm witnessing something rather than making shots happen. This was one of those days.

We stopped off at one more pull off on the way to the reception. One last moment before friends and family, along a ridge that gave way to the expansive views and big sky Wyoming has to offer. I took a moment for myself there to think about what this day meant for these two, about their future, the adventures, the families, and felt pretty humbled to be a witness to such a thing. These two amazing people I'm lucky to now call friends joined each other and epitomized the reason why people call love an adventure. I'm just happy I was allowed to capture some of the beauty.

Hannah and Michael's Downtown San Diego Wedding

The Marks' wedding capped off a whirlwind of on the go shooting across the western United States. Before that whirlwind we'd met at a coffee shop to see if I was a good fit for their day, get a feel of the wedding, and get to know each other. We talked for an hour about hiking, the pacific northwest, their honeymoon in Seattle and Vancouver, only after that did we get to photos and the wedding day. They were easy going with quiet smiles and sneaked glances at each other every time the conversation circled back to them.

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Unlike most, photography didn't seem to be a huge concern for them on their wedding day. Not that it wasn't important to capture the memories for looking back on, but the importance of the photos being a true depiction of the day seemed more important than getting the most amazing shot. Michael didn't want a lot of pictures of himself, didn't necessarily want any video, and his reason was the best I'd ever heard. "I want to remember it my way. I don't want to look back and see something and not see it as perfect as I'll remember it." As a photographer, I'm obviously an advocate of capturing moments, but my background is in photojournalism, action, and landscape. I understood Michael's want to capture the scene that's happening rather than create one that might skew the actual moment into something else.

I told them what I've been repeating to myself since early high school "My goal with photography is to make people feel what it was like to be there." We ended up decided against a first look before the ceremony, bridal party sessions, and limiting poses to family shots. I'd capture pictures of just Hannah and Michael in motion, and the only bride and groom "session" would be right after the ceremony during a short time for them to be alone.

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I've always said I love shooting mountains and nature because you can't direct them, nor do you need to as they are already beautiful. The same is true for weddings - we as photographers can be tempted to try and create the visual emotion of a love that's already there. Sometimes it comes beautifully from staged portraits and styling a shot, but I loved having the freedom on this day to capture love in motion, unobstructed from my own influence.

Those months after that conversation and coffee flew by. The Marks got ready for their big day, and I traveled on a tour of deserts and mountains through Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, and Northern California before returning to San Diego. The weekend was a busy one, shooting both their wedding and Kaboo (a music festival 20 miles north of their wedding), filling up memory cards and strategically backing everything up. It was exciting and new, a rush for me, and a challenge. I loved it.

The wedding day ended up fitting Hannah and Michael's personality well. The ceremony took place in the courtyard of The Horton Grand Hotel. It was small, with only close friends and family in attendance, which meant a slower, more relaxed pace. Michael hung out with his best man as Hannah and her bridesmaids got ready. Michael's dog Henry was in attendance, walking by his side down the aisle, watching as they exchanged vows, and had kisses waiting for his newly joined family.

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Cocktail hour was held in a tall alley strung with lights behind The Horton as the ceremony venue was flipped to the reception, giving the same room two entirely different feels. The sun dipped behind the buildings just before golden hour, creating perfect light. Hannah and Michael made sure I got a beer in between shots before we moved inside for dinner, toasts, and dancing. The rest of the night was a packed dance floor and amazing desserts (this photographers' favorite) capped off with a late night churro man.

Some things didn't change from the meeting in the coffee shop with Hannah and Michael. Wedding days can be easy to get caught up in grandeur, raising glasses, talking to everyone, focusing on pictures rather than moments. Their day was amazing too with all the things that make a wedding special, but between the great moments, there were a few nerves along with hundreds of quiet smiles and stolen glances. There's a challenge there as a photographer, to get it as close to the perfection the bride and groom are experiencing. And I hope I was able to come close for Hannah and Michael, to candidly capture what it was to be fully present on one of the most amazing days of your life.

Make-A-Wish: We were just photographers

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Sarah looks through her viewfinder, framing a flower in the Rose Garden at Balboa Park. Plants are her favorite subject. She’s focused so methodically on each individual detail that we could spend ten minutes on a single rose and yet another ten on a cactus just a few feet away. Her eyes get big when I tell her we're not going to shoot out auto anymore and she twists the wheel on her camera to manual.

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On day two, we hike Torrey Pines, kayak in La Jolla with GoPros, shoot product for Bradley Mountain Backpack with our stylist (and model friend) Kelsie, fly a drone, watch the light change on the beach, and learn long exposure techniques around a bonfire.

Sarah is goofy and witty. She has a sharp mind that’s quick to learn. So when we walk into some odd lighting and I ask her to look at the light around her and tell me the settings, I’m not surprised when she nails it. Just 30 hours before, words like aperture, ISO, and shutter speed were new to her. Now, she understands lighting.

I wasn’t surprised by Sarah’s ability. I’ve always talked to kids the same as I would adults and trusted them to do their best when given a chance. I was, however, astonished by Sarah’s natural eye for a shot. By the third day, we were just two photographers out shooting.

My travels take me to remote places in a lot of undesirable temperatures and even less desirable times, so I rarely shoot with other photographers. Shooting with another photographer is a fun experience – to share a common bond in the pursuit of capturing something special is in itself special.

For most of our trip, that was the only thing on my mind – getting to hang out with a young person passionate about photography and trying to capture something special.

STAY AVAILABLE TO GOOD

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Some of the best advice I ever got came from Bob Goff a couple years ago. At the time, we were both speaking at a high school event. I told him a little about me and some more of what I wanted to do in the world. Naturally, I asked him for any advice. His response was simple. Stay available to do good things and have good things happen to your life.

I strongly believe good attracts good and opportunities come when we stop saying no, when we stop making excuses that we’re too busy, and when we stop focusing on only the things that bring us money.

This mentality helped connect me with Make-A-Wish and become part of granting Sarah’s wish.

A month before meeting Sarah, I was preparing to film a video for the Make-A-Wish Trailblaze Challenge Fundraiser when Ashley (in my phone as Ashley Wish-Granter, although her actual title is Wish-Coordinator) asked me to help grant Sarah’s wish. Immediately, I thought of the wall I filmed with all the granted wishes and the wishes I saw online – wishes to meet celebrities, wishes to sail boats with captains, wishes to meet Justin Beiber, and even wishes to meet the Pope!

I figured if Make-A-Wish could arrange a meeting with the Pope, they should go get Chris Burkard, Jimmy Chin, Aaron Chang, or any other photography superstar to shoot with Sarah. I told this to Ashley, and she thought I was a good fit since it was in San Diego. I reasoned Make-A-Wish could get a bigger, more talented name than me but also reasoned that, if anything, that person could only match caring as much as me. With that reasoning, I set out to do my best and make our experience amazing.

While I didn't face such a severe illness as a kid, I had grown up as a frequent guest of hospitals. My fascination of the outdoors started as a little kid. This, paired with being a moderately clumsy risk taker constantly involved in sports, led to me frequenting the ER more than twice as many times as both of my older brothers combined. In my defense, my hospital visits started before I could even be clumsy – as a baby with jaundice (note: born on Halloween with orange skin… I’ve always been very festive). Since those early visits, I kept coming back. I jumped out my crib twice in the first two years of my life and got four sets of stitches on my chin in return. Emergency room visits became routine for the next 18 years: getting stitches while potty training, falling out of trees, off rope swings, down the stairs, and accidentally smashing my fingers between rocks. I went to the hospital at the same rate other kids got new shoes or even haircuts.

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Later in childhood, there were genetic problems: surgery at 12 to remove some benign tissue, hip surgery at 13, and reconstructive nose surgery at 17. In total, I’ve had ten broken bones, three dislocated joints, multiple concussions, one massive muscle contusion / blood clot, four surgeries, one partially torn Achilles, a torn plantar fascia, three immobile vertebrae, one bent tailbone, crutches for a year, 15 or 16 sets of stitches, and one memorable doctor visit for being bitten by a bird. (Update: smashed my finger between two boulders while editing this, which should have required stitches but I stubbornly closed it with surgical steri-strips because I hate going to the hospital). Most recently, my mid-twenties included by a couple broken hands from snowboarding, a fractured elbow, and a cancer diagnosis at 26.

Healing

What I learned from all of this is what it’s like spending so much of life in recovery – being on the mend and having the “get better” mentality. I remember a lot about the people around me, mainly my mom since she took care of me during my youth. I remember hockey players and Santa visiting me in the hospital. I remember they brought me a teddy bear from an event where people threw stuffed animals onto the ice rink between periods, which would be given to sick kids like me at the hospital. Later during that same hospital stay, a different Santa walked into my room with a big red bag. I had an adverse reaction to a dose of morphine so the room was spinning, but I tried to be friendly and thankful. Unfortunately for Santa, I ended up puking all over his shiny black boots. God bless you, hospital Santa.

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I’ve had talks about possibly not being able to run ever again, not being able to scuba dive (weird chemo side effect but thankfully we opted for different treatment), losing my leg (possible bone cancer), never being able to have kids, and a very odd talk with a confused nurse when (true story) I tested positive for pregnancy.

I’ve been a kid whose world revolved around sports but whose doctor talked to him about possibly never playing again. I’ve also been a young adult whose life revolved around living but whose doctor talked to him about the odds of living and not living.

My friend Adam and I were diagnosed with the same cancer around the same time. He would call and share encouraging words, calling us cancer buddies. His cancer spread. Mine did not. He passed away two Christmases ago. Then my little brother from my fraternity and a friend’s husband were both diagnosed with this same cancer. Through it all, I’ve seen how illness affects our friends, families, and communities – the look in a father’s, mother’s, husband’s, wife’s, or child’s eyes after the person they love leaves the waiting room for their vitals, CT scan, blood work, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, or surgery. I’ve seen the same eyes of struggle in the mirror.

Sometimes, strong people get tired. At these times, strength takes on a new meaning. It means you’ve got the mental fiber to keep going, regardless of the struggles.

The thing you have to learn about being nearly constantly injured or sick yourself or loving someone who is injured or sick is that you have to learn to heal and mend – both yourself and others. Mental and physical healing takes focus. You have to keep countless appointments, treatments, and bills in order while still keeping the rest of life moving forward. You have to live with a smaller margin for error than most other people. You have to repeat the same conversations with friends, family, doctors, and teachers – with everyone. You should talk to a therapist to help get your mind right, but you hate repeating yourself yet again. It’s the elephant in the room at every event, wedding or funeral. It’s as if you need to introduce your illness along with your name but with a little joke to soften the blow.

The hardest conversations are with yourself – convincing your mind to stop thinking about the illness or the next possible thing to go wrong. At some point, healing means you learn to embrace that life doesn't revolve around being sick, injured or recovering. Then you learn that it’s okay that it stops crossing your mind. Some day, the hope is it will let go of you and you’ll let go of it.

I think this type of healing is the point for Make-A-Wish kids and families.

I forgot we were on a Wish. I forgot the whole point was a step in healing. For three days, we didn't speak one sentence about Sarah being sick. We weren’t worrying. For three days, I taught a girl who loves photography and got to be as enthusiastic as I ever wanted to be about it.

Ultimately, healing sneaks up on you and works the sickness from your mind. Those three days did a little of that for me, and I hope it did for Sarah too. We were just two photographers out capturing some of the beauty life has to offer.