August 18 through September 21

When did my rumspringa officially begin? It’s hard to say. I left my home in SF on September 18 to head out to Black Rock City, Nevada to build a large interactive fire sculpture with the Flaming Lotus Girls. Does Burning Man count as the jumping off point? After that I headed out to Wyoming with two friends for a week of camping, where every place we visited was completely foreign to me. Afterwards I returned to SF to say many goodbyes (or “see you later”s as I was saying) and drove north to Eugene to kick off a week of backpacking in Eastern Oregon.

In the weeks leading up to the mysterious “beginning,” I was dealing with a lot of stress. Lots of fear, and guilt, and a general worry that I was entirely unprepared for what I was about to do. Sometimes getting what you want is a terrifying reality to grapple with. Here was this massive amount of time, and enough funds to do what I love. I was massively afraid.

I’m not sure at which point I really began my project in earnest, but I’m writing to you from the other side. It’s all happening!

In the first four weeks, I…

-shot 1754 photographs
-visited 5 states
-camped 31 nights, and slept on couches for 8
-hiked 25 miles and backpacked for 4 of them

At this point, I am feeling inspired, confident, prepared and excited. All of the intensity that I was dealing with in the time before I began departed with such speed. It’s like someone flipped a switch, and in that moment, I was able to step into my role as a photographer in ways I haven’t felt in years. I don’t want to say it was so easy, because obviously the getting-there involved so much time, effort, and support from all of you. But with all that accomplished, I’m ready now, and it feels amazing.

Here are some stories from the first month.

My time in Wyoming and Montana was spent with two friends, Rachel and Brian, traveling around in Rachel’s old 1963 camper, “Betty.” We drove all around the Western part of the state, and spent lots of time around bison, deer, elk, and tourists.

Yellowstone was full of crazy mineral formations, sulfur smells, and volcanic activity. Everything seemed very foreign, and I was glad to share the uniqueness of the experience with good friends.

I joined the trip after Rachel had done pretty much all of the planning, so it was also an awesome respite from the planning I’d been doing for this project for the past year.

Yellowstone Highlight #1: swimming in a pool near the 45th parallel, where a boiling river meets the freezing Yellowstone River. Elks swimming 10 feet away. Lots of gratitude. Life is good.

A nice moment where tourists shh-ed each other while waiting for Old Faithful.

By the end of our week, I felt that my patterns of photographing had settled into a fluid, comfortable way of experiencing things. What I mean to say is, it became instinctual to capture each moment, and rarely did I walk away from an experience feeling like I hadn’t done enough.

During our last night in the park, we listened to elks bugling and packs of wolves howling. I’m not sure I can communicate how intense and fascinating this was. I feel really grateful I got to hear it.

The drive home through the deserts of Nevada.

Back in San Francisco, I did some intense organizing, packing and cleaning of all my things. Said “see you later” to so many dear friends, and got a send-off that was full of love and sincere support. Felt so grateful for my community.

The drive up to Eugene, Oregon.

Next phase, meeting up with an old friend from college, Sarah Kate, her friend Marielle, and Marielle’s dog Taz for a week of backpacking in Eastern Oregon. First night: Gearhart Mountain Wilderness.

From the start, Sarah Kate made it very clear that photography was the most important part of the trip, and it felt great to be traveling with folks who were happy to stop for that reason. Many turnouts were explored, and hikes were frequently paused.

The environments we drove through after Gearhart were en route to the Alvord Desert. Our path took us briefly through Northern Nevada and then back up into Oregon.

I have always felt such a strong emotional connection to the desert. Around 1000 of the 1754 photos I took since August were from this portion of the trip. It feels like such an appropriate backdrop for my introspection and feelings, and I was elated to be back in the environment I love.

Everything we came across felt significant. There were rolling clouds, and incredible early evening weather patterns and light. Sage brush, birds, buttes and hillsides. Everything unfolded before us with such grandeur, and I barely had time to think in between shots.

Little selfie, of the emotional focus point of all my efforts. Check this excerpt from John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” if you’re interested in the meaning.

No wings to pilfer. Oh well.

Sadly for Taz, (the dog) we didn’t come across any sage grouses either.

Next up, two nights spent on the playa of the Alvord Desert, down the road from natural hot springs, and land sailers galore.

An epic lightning storm overtook us soon after I snapped this image. (The first of two distinct moments on our trip when we were in undeniable danger.) We got through the storm a little shaken, but intact.

The lightning started hillside forest fires all around the Steens Mountains, and we had to change our plans for the following few days. From all the locals we spoke to, it sounded like their resources to fight the fires were incredibly limited, and it was only on the second day that we saw efforts to contain the blazes.

My favorite place for my feet to be!

The last two nights of our trip were spent in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. Farther north, and a complete change of pace.

Even though I’m an “avid” camper, I realized that the last time I backpacked was likely when I was about 8 years old. Sarah Kate and Marielle has the appropriate gear to share, so we headed off on a short jaunt into Strawberry Lake.

Here’s my pack:

Having been blessed (read: cursed) with a very active imagination, the deep woods is not really my favorite place to be. I was excited to be in such a remote area, but I was trying to keep my thoughts on task, instead of letting them run wild towards disaster scenarios involving the local wildlife.

Throughout the trip, we tried to be safe. Tied up food and smelly things from trees at night, and did our best not to burn down the wilderness with untended campfires.

During the next day in the wilderness, we went on a 6 mile hike to Slide Lake. 1400 feet of elevation gain. Somehow I made it, but it was tough going keeping up with those women!

Along the way we came across a few unfamiliar signs, whose significance was soon to be revealed to us. Scratches on trees, and coyote-sized (we thought) scat with fur in it. Didn’t immediately seem worrisome, according to what we had read about animals in the area. Wasn’t really bear country, and no real warnings about anything else.

This was the last image I had of this leg of the trip, but a lot more happened after this moment.

Fair warning: this a long story.

After our epic hike, we returned to camp to make dinner. Strawberry Lake is a popular spot for backpackers in the summer, but it seemed like we were out late in the season, because it was the second day, and we were still the only ones around the lake.

Dinner and a campfire, and hours of conversation later, it was time to head to bed. Here’s a layout of our camping area, to better inform the insanity that followed.

Marielle’s dog, Taz, had been sleeping by the tent for about an hour. He was a ways apart from our fire, probably the furthest from us he’d been the whole trip.

By this time, around 8pm, it was pitch black at the lake. We tromped up towards the rope I hung earlier in the day to hang our food. Immediately, Sarah Kate spotted glowing eyes where the X is on the map. Close to the rope, to us, and to where Taz had been sleeping. Sarah Kate alerted us to the danger, and we started clapping and retreated slowly to the tent.

Conference time. Both Sarah Kate and Marielle have done an extensive amount of backpacking, and I had a lot of trust in their abilities. We all got together to figure out what we thought was going on, based on little evidence. We were all physically shaking, and putting together the facts. Here’s what we decided:

Based on the distance between the eyes, and their distance from the ground, we were either dealing with a bear, or a mountain lion. We made lots of noise in the tent, with the help of Marielle’s rescue whistle, and sat it out for 30 minutes or so. Called Sarah Kate’s boyfriend to alert him of the situation, and he suggested we hang the bear bag, as the animal had likely left by then.

In an act of bravery that I honestly never thought I’d be capable of, I ventured out to investigate more with my light, and Marielle accompanied me.

After all the commotion, the yelling, and the insane pitch of the rescue whistle, when we poked our heads out, the animal was in the exact same spot, staring at us.

At this point, it became clear that we were in actual danger, not perceived danger, and we returned to the “safety” of the tent.

It feels important to note that this was my actual worst fear. From all my knowledge of mountain lions and their behavior, this was an incredibly uncommon experience. Needless to say we spent the remainder of the night (it being 9pm at that point) awake until dawn. Lots of stories were shared, along with the worst possible synopsis of 50 Shades of Gray I could remember (we were pretty limited on reading material) and I caught a few hours of sleep.

Marielle saw clear mountain lion tracks in the mud nearby the next day. We hiked out early, and didn’t die, and no one had to battle a mountain lion, but it was a terrifying close call, and we were more than happy to get out.

Based on what we could find on .gov sites and outdoors resources the next day, we came to a few conclusions. Likely the mountain lion was after Taz and not us. We had probably been stalked for a few hours prior. Based on its close proximity to Taz when we happened to head back with our food, something was probably about to happen.

It was likely not going to come into the tent for Taz, but it did venture closer during the night, according to its tracks.

FUTURE ESSENTIAL MATERIALS FOR BACKWOODS CAMPING:

bear mace
an air horn (low noises work betetr than a whistle)
a good bodice ripper (romance novel) to read aloud in case of emergencies
Weirdly, I left this experience feeling much more confident about camping in the woods, based on my willingness to leave the tent. It felt good to LEAVE, but now I have more information, and would be far more prepared in the future.

(A timely experience seeing as how I am about to spend a good chunk of time camping in Northern Montana.)



NOTE: While my blog posts will always be accompanied by snapshots, I have chosen not to edit or share the project photographs until the completion of my rumspringa book. For me, editing a project while still in the shooting stage is simply not the way to remain open to new ways of seeing. You can still see some of what happens here or on my instagram @kimberlysikora.