His fused knees, this nature photographer says, make him walk like a penguin. Yet walk he does...
- Posted on Dec 20, 2010
I sat on the porch staring into the backyard. I wanted to walk out there but I couldn’t. My legs hung from the edge of my wheelchair. I wasn’t paralyzed but I might as well have been. After years of pain and swelling in my knees my doctors had run out of options. A few weeks earlier they’d fused the second of my knee joints straight. The first had already been fused. I could walk, sort of, waddling like a penguin. But it was arduous. And there was no hope of improvement.
I raised my eyes to the horizon. I live in the Central Valley of California and on a clear winter day like this one you can see the Sierra Nevada Mountains in all their glory from my yard. For as long as we’d been married my wife, Stacy, and I had hiked deep into those mountains. We felt so close to God up there by the clear blue lakes and the windswept passes. It was holy ground for us.
Was. The doctors couldn’t tell me exactly what had gone wrong with my legs. Some sort of autoimmune disorder attacking my joints. I’d tried medication, physical therapy, even knee replacement. My body rejected the new knee. After years of joyously exploring the backcountry it was all suddenly and inexplicably over.
I gazed at the peaks shimmering in the distance. I thought back to our first hikes to the Chain Lakes in Yosemite, a trio of granite-bottomed lakes nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. We’d barely known what we were doing. We packed too much stuff and slept in a rickety discount-store tent. But we didn’t care. The mountains were a revelation. It seemed there was more sunshine up there, air so pure it made you want to stop and just breathe. At night the world became dark and silent. Stars blanketed the sky. You know that passage in the Bible about God moving over the face of the waters? Well, hike to a remote mountain lake and you’ll know exactly what that Scripture means.
I looked down and noticed that my knuckles were white gripping the wheelchair. I’ll admit it, I was angry. At the universe. At God. Why would such a good and holy thing be taken away from me? A few years back I’d even tried selling some of my nature photos at a craft fair. I worked in electronics at a research lab but I had a vague notion of maybe one day becoming a nature photographer. Not anymore. I felt estranged from God. I’d stopped going to church with Stacy and our two girls, Hannah and Sarah.
I was about to head back inside the house when something caught my eye. A sparrow darted down from the sky and landed on our bird feeder. A finch joined him. I’d never paid much attention to that feeder but I couldn’t help noticing how still the birds were as they perched there. On a whim I wheeled inside, got my camera and returned to the porch. I aimed the camera and pressed the shutter button. Hey, I thought, looking at the screen, not bad. I took a few more shots, then the birds flew away.
The next day I returned to the porch and watched. That bird feeder was popular! The Central Valley lies along a major flight path for birds migrating from the Arctic to Mexico. All sorts of exotic and beautiful birds passed through our backyard. Some were warier than others. I realized I couldn’t just sit there in plain sight. I draped the canvas cover from our grill over a walker and crouched down. The birds pecked away happily and I spent the afternoon taking photos. If I adjusted the lens right you couldn’t even tell the pictures were taken in someone’s backyard.
I looked up some of the birds online. There were gorgeously colored hummingbirds, a Nuttall’s woodpecker and something called a dark-eyed junco, which looked like it wore a tiny black hood. Not the same as hawks soaring over a remote mountain lake. But at least I hadn’t spent the last 24 hours feeling sorry for myself.
A few days later I took the girls to gymnastics (even though walking was difficult I could still drive). Not far from their gym was the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, a huge preserve for migratory birds. I had nothing else to do, so I went to the refuge. I’d been there before but with my new awareness of birds it seemed utterly different. I drove along a scenic road, and seemingly every few feet I saw a new species. There were sandhill cranes, geese, owls. I snapped pictures until my fingers ached.
When I got home I showed the photos to Stacy. “Mike,” she said, “these are beautiful. They kind of remind me of the pictures you used to take in the mountains.”
Really? I looked at the pictures again. There was one of a great blue heron taking off from an inlet. The heron’s wings curved down, almost touching their own reflection in the water. The inlet receded into the background, flanked by bright green foliage. Stacy was right. It wasn’t just a picture of a bird. It was an entire landscape. It looked wild, wondrous. You’d never know it was taken from the driver’s seat of a car.
The pictures you used to take in the mountains. What if I drove to the Sierras and tried taking a few pictures? Could I find beautiful landscapes from the road? Or would I spend the whole trip mourning the backcountry hikes I’d never be able to take again? Well, there was only one way to find out. “What do you think about all of us going to Yosemite this weekend?” I asked Stacy. “Sure,” she answered casually, but her eyes seemed to say, About time!
On Saturday we hit the highway. Flat farmland yielded to oak-dotted foothills. The peaks rose higher and higher. Suddenly, like a vision, there was Yosemite Valley. I couldn’t help remembering past times Stacy and I had made that drive—then hiked into the high country. Maybe she recognized the clouds gathering in my expression. “Want to go to Badger Pass?” she asked Hannah and Sarah. Badger Pass is a ski area in Yosemite where kids can play in the snow. “Yeah!” cried the girls. We spent the next few hours horsing around there. I even managed to throw some snowballs. Then we started home. I still hadn’t taken any pictures.
The car was quiet when we rounded a curve and entered a long tunnel carved into the mountainside. We emerged from the tunnel and everyone caught their breath. We’d all seen this view before but still we couldn’t help being awed. It’s called Tunnel View, a majestic panorama of Yosemite Valley. There was the looming granite face of El Capitan. Half Dome slicing into the sky. Bridalveil Fall cascading hundreds of feet to the valley floor. I pulled over into a parking lot. Something deep inside me, soul-deep, stirred.
It was early evening, that time of thick, luminous light photographers call “magic hour.” El Capitan’s upper reaches glowed orange in the setting sun. Distant snow-capped peaks shone against a darkening sky. Mist formed in the trees below.
Immediately my camera was in my hand. I knew that the sunset glow on El Capitan would only last a few minutes. I squeezed off shot after shot. It was all so beautiful, so—suddenly I lowered the camera. A strange feeling came over me. It was so familiar…. And then I knew. It was that feeling Stacy and I had cherished on our hikes. A feeling of holiness in God’s great outdoors. Only now that feeling had come in a parking lot, not beside a remote mountain lake. Was there a difference? Sure, I was in a car with my walker crammed into the trunk. But God was right where he’d always been. Where he’d always be.
Today, if you want, you can buy that Tunnel View picture and hang it on your wall. That’s because I’m a professional nature photographer, selling my work online. In the years since my knee operations I’ve traveled all over California, to most of the national parks where I used to hike and beyond. I still walk like a penguin, but now I walk with purpose. The God who seemed so far away feels closer than ever. I still gripe sometimes, I have to admit. But I’ve returned to church. And I’ve heard from many people. “Your pictures take me places I could never go myself,” they tell me. Those pictures take me there as well.