A cool forest air rolls through the windows of my Ford Escape as it slowly eases to a stop. The soft breeze continues on, caressing the treetops of Allegheny National Forest in western Pennsylvania and offering a brief respite from the heavy heat of summer humidity. Several cars rest idly by in the parking lot, waiting in suspended patience for their wandering owners to return.
With a stretch toward the mid-morning sky just beyond the canopy, I shuffle to the back and lift open the trunk. Pulling out my gear, I squeeze into my hiking boots and tie the laces tight.
Several feet away, a dirt trail starts where the parking lot ends. The soft, foot-worn path disappears deep into an unknown void, beckoning something of a promise inside.
After a quick gear check, we’re off and almost immediately, my brother Tom and I are engulfed in a labyrinth of green. The vibrancy of its color is loud, bright, all-consuming.
There’s a familiar peace to it; a comfort.
The occasional twig snaps underfoot, rendering an abrupt break from the soft and steady sound of my footsteps along the mossy path. Birds chirp and chatter from their perches in the treetops, an invisible but guiding presence from above. Meanwhile, thick underbrush bristles my shins as I navigate the winding maze of foliage and ferns.
Before long, the terrain slopes sharply downward. Massive boulders suddenly appear, scattered along the hillside and interspersed amongst the trees. Coats of moss cling to their surface, desperate to preserve the life its host has already seemed to relinquish.
A small stream breaks across the trail, snaking hundreds of feet down toward the reservoir that has yet to be seen. The stream cascades along its downward track, evoking pondering thoughts of how many times a tributary such as this has offered a path not only to refreshment and relief, but to salvation.
Following its allure, I trudge along the stream and its enticing promise. But the ground around the stream is unsteady at best, my footing unreliable, on the leaf-covered forest floor.
Nonetheless I press on, delicately grasping every rock and tree within arm’s reach to keep balance. My momentum still carries me forward, however, as I start stumbling and sliding under the weight of my pack.
Until at last, the ground levels off as the stream vanishes into a rocky outcrop ahead.
Just beyond the outcrop, a tree leans laboriously over the vast stillness that is Morrison Reservoir. Curiously, a stack of rocks and stones tower precariously at the water’s edge. Above it, a worn and weathered rope lingers aimlessly from the tree, as if to tease each passerby to test its strength.
Succumbing to this temptation, I scamper to the top and give a hard tug on the rope. Although weathered and worn, it’s grip felt sturdy and strong.
“Good enough,” I thought to myself.
Sunlight shimmers across the water’s olive green surface, illuminating the silt and sediment-rich reservoir below. I inhale deeply.
“Three. Two. One!”
Lifting my feet from its wobbling stone perch, my weight careens under the rope and out over the water. As my momentum peaks, I let go of the rope and plummet into the cool repose of the reservoir.
Thrilled and enlivened by the endeavor, I swung off the rope and into the reservoir again and again. There is a telling beauty in such a simple, childhood pastime. A task that requires an undeserving and almost blind faith, all in return for just a brief moment of blissful release.
Refreshed and satisfied, I emerged from the water and we hiked onward to make camp at our intended destination another quarter of a mile away.
Hiking along the water’s edge, we arrived at our campsite that was concealed away in a quiet cove. We set down our gear and embarked quickly on setting camp as the sun began its rapid descent.
As we did this, we had a front row seat to experience this fleeting, yet glorious stretch of time each day that many refer to as “Golden Hour.” In this last hour of a waning day, the sun casts its effervescent glow from its dwindling spot on the horizon.
From a photography perspective, there’s nothing quite like this period of time when the world lights aglow. Elongated shadows are cast, while others are lifted, in a seeming dichotomy of contrasts.
Shadows provide a unique set of challenges when trying to capture the essence of your subject and their character in a given moment.
Personally, while the majority of photos I take are landscapes of whatever environment I find myself in, often on hikes and backpacking trips like this one, I occasionally incorporate subjects into these shots.
Rarely, however, is the subject ever me.
This isn’t for any particular reason. In some ways, maybe it’s grounded in a guarded concern of appearing too self-centered or as some form of ‘look at me’ self-aggrandizement.
In other, more practical ways, I’ve never really had someone equipped or able to take shots of my profile before.
But during this golden hour, I organically became the subject. Besides, Tom needed practice with his new camera anyway.
Which, I guess, brings me to the underlying inspiration to this story.
As I look back at these photos today, I feel like I’m finally on the cusp of reclaiming the core of myself while getting closer and closer with each passing day.
Admittedly, this moment is a culminating point in a process that began when I first returned to America in the summer of 2019, after two years of living abroad. Until recently, as I’d go through old photos or videos from college, high school, or even earlier, I would hardly recognize who I had been.
“Who was he? What did he think about? Why did he feel this way or that?” I might have asked myself.
Looking back now, I know those answers.
Simply put, he knew who he was.
He knew what he wanted and if he didn’t have all the answers, he’d at least pretend he did. He knew he was meant for something big, something different, a path less traveled. He was an open book, ready to embrace the world and all it had to offer.
But the burden of experience has a way of wearing down the fervor of youth.
While my Peace Corps experience was the culmination of a dream come true, the end of my service meant that my whole world, and the identity I devoted the young years of my life cultivating, had all come crashing down. It was all I had ever envisioned for myself and all I had ever wanted to be.
Frankly, I never considered my life beyond that goal.
So not only did I come back to America dispirited, but also with a lost sense of identity. Then add the culture shock and reintegration into a world and society I had once known but no longer recognized, I was coerced into not only deliberating on a deep reckoning within myself, but of the New World I was re-discovering all around me.
One thing that I picked back up seamlessly and unconsciously, however, was that American culture places an overwhelming emphasis on careers as an integral part of your identity. In America, your career is the measuring stick for your social standing in society. Just think, how many times have you asked or been asked, “So what do you do?” by someone you just met?
It happens more often than you might think.
So by the American standards I inherently and unwittingly internalized upon my return, my previously conscious and calculated decision to put off full-time employment by pursuing a graduate degree in Reno, meant the prolongation of my American identity as a successful, contributing, and functioning member of society.
And despite knowing full-well that pursuing a graduate degree was the perfect decision for me at the time, my own self-worth still seemed to denigrate and I subsequently felt at a loss.
But what my graduate education experience in Reno did do, however, was give me the literal time and space I needed to craft a new identity that was grounded in a set of values, persona, and most importantly, a true understanding of my American world around me.
During this time, I admit that I tried and tried to bury my Peace Corps experience deep into the confines of the back of my mind. The emotional wounds from its inevitable ending still had just felt raw. So oftentimes, I avoided those conversations, even neglecting to mention my service altogether when meeting someone new.
But my decision to join the Peace Corps and the subsequent graduate experience in Reno that followed, didn’t only become an integral part of who I am; it did exactly what it was supposed to do. It put me on the path to becoming who I was always meant to be.
It lead me to befriending a community in Reno of impoverished and homeless individuals with an immense appreciation for the few things they had, a simple wish withstanding to at least have their humanity be recognized, if nothing else, by a society that all too easily seemed to designate them as unworthy.
It also lead me to an incredible summer of road-tripping across the beautiful mountains, deserts, and coastlines of the great American West, a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience many can only envision in their dreams.
And about two months ago, it lead me to Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC, and the capital of the free world. I moved here after accepting a position as a Communications Specialist, creating digital content for the Air Force Association and diving head-first into the military world.
Having moved now for the fifth time in the past two years, I have finally reached the point where all the time and effort I put into myself, sometimes at the expense of others and also myself, has finally paid off. I now have the stability that I have craved ever since I boarded my return flight home to America in the summer of 2019.
So as I look at these photos now, I not only feel a sense of nostalgia for what once was, but a sense of relief for what now can be.
As autumn now approaches, the leaves have already began changing to their broad array of reds, oranges, and yellows. But for me, it will be that overwhelming sense of green I experienced that June weekend in the Allegheny National Forest, that while temporarily gone for the season, will not be forgotten.
It’s the beauty of the four-season cycle we all know, but don’t always take the time to appreciate.
Because with every changing season, there’s an opportunity to reflect, recover, let go.
However, I’m already looking forward to the green coming back again next spring and summer. For in color psychology, the color green is said to represent nature, balance, and tranquility.
A reminder that no matter how many changes you go through, you can always rediscover the best parts of yourself, recover the core of who you are, and reclaim your identity.
A yearly recipe that takes one part release, one part fresh start, and one part triumphant return.
An Evergreen Reclamation.