There’s a quote that says, “We are the sum of all the people we have ever met; you change the tribe and the tribe changes you.” I have found that to be accurate. Over the course of the 34 (almost 35, yikes!) years I have walked this earth, I have encountered many people that have had an impact on the way I live my life. Below, I chronicled a few of the folks that have most changed the way I know myself, the way I travel, and how I experience the world.
My ex-wife spent a year of her college experience as an exchange student in Japan. It was a formative experience for her and is where she traded her given name in for the nickname that everyone knows her by. During our relationship, she often expressed a desire to see Japan again and travel more of the world. In fact, I’d only known her a few weeks when she wrote me a letter stating that one day she would just up and leave — and it would be up to me whether or not I followed. Years later, follow I did…and because of those ten months abroad, living out of a backpack my life was forever changed. I discovered my passion for photography, developed my love for writing, and had the opportunity to completely rebuild myself.
It was during this journey that I learned who I really was and how to be comfortable with my own company. Although that rebuilding came at a cost, it was highly worth it. I gained a mind that was more open and questioning as well as a thirst for adventure. I don’t know who I’d be today if I hadn’t circled the globe. I returned home in early 2010 a new man with a different perspective.
The winter of 2010/2011 was a dark time in my life. Indi and I split up in November, my grandmother succumbed to lymphoma in December after a long battle, and then in January my father died. His passing was sudden and unexpected; it shattered my entire world and I felt very alone. It was in this time I met DeeDee, a woman with an enormous heart that had also experienced loss. We bonded during a time when I was rebuilding myself yet again. Whereas my world travel allowed me to figure out who I WAS, this period in my life helped me determine who I WANTED to be. DeeDee was there with me, encouraging me to lean into my photography and tagged along as I went on my first road trips in the US. She was unendingly positive and helped pull me out of my funk. We connected at a time when I didn’t think that would ever be possible again.
It was at her recommendation that we rented a car and took a 3,000 mile trip to Salt Lake City and back, which is when I saw Monument Valley for the first time. When we went to the Grand Canyon, I remember the fear that ran through my body as she crept closer to the cliff’s edge, seemingly serene in the face of certain doom. Although I didn’t venture as close as she did, it was encouraging enough that the hurricane of anxiety in my soul lessened to a tropical storm. That trip was also the first time I paid attention to Route 66; even though it’d run through my home town my whole life, I hadn’t paid it much mind. My time in Williams AZ and Shamrock TX made me want to see MORE of the Mother Road and inspired me to start taking Route 66-specific trips in late 2013.
Without DeeDee’s support, energy, and spontaneity I don’t know how long I would have stayed in the catacomb of grief I had fallen into. She showed me that it was all going to be okay and continues to be a source of great encouragement. I know I can talk about my emotions or share my excitement for a new road trip destination and get the same level of enthusiasm from her.
Kristi Shreve & Maggie Cooper
I met Kristi just after Christmas in 2012 and Maggie through her the following January. We quickly formed a trio that holds strong today, so much so that they were my dual “Best Mans” for my wedding in October.
Kristi and I bonded first, once again over mutual loss, and found ourselves to be very similar emotional beings. I was in a period of self-doubt (as I often am) and she encouraged me to believe in myself. I remember her early enthusiasm for my work as my photography passion grew; she pushed me to follow my dreams and supported me every step of the way. When she tells me I can do something, I believe her. She also has a habit of asking questions that really make me think and ANALYZE myself. I usually grumble, but always come out the other side with a better idea of myself. It was a natural continuation of the self-awareness process I’d gone through while backpacking Asia and Europe, only this was right in my home town. Kristi was the first person I walked through the Greenwood District with in remembrance of the Tulsa Race Riot. It made me want to dig deeper into my hometown history.
Maggie has a photography hobby, and through her passion I really began to pay attention to what I was doing with MY camera. Maggie and I took a road trip through Osage County together one summer afternoon, stopping and capturing sights I’d seen my whole life. Through her lens, I was able to see them anew. Maggie also has a way of pushing me past my comfort zone when I’m dead-set against it, such as when we went to see the Blue Whale of Catoosa in 2013. She climbed up on the tail and beckoned for me to follow in such a way that made me feel simultaneously silly for feeling anxious and determined to beat it. It seems like a small thing, but getting me to climb up there was a big deal. She continues to push me to grow and stay in learning mode, rather than resting on my laurels.
The two of them bring two very different forms of support, but the pair of them have worked in tandem over the past few years to make me a better person. I absolutely would not be where I am with my photography without them, nor would I have been in the place emotionally to take the next big step in my life, which happened when I met Sam.
There’s so much I could write here, and none of it does her justice. Taking nothing away from the other people already mentioned in this post, she is the most supportive, loving, generous, and kind soul I have ever encountered. Because of her encouragement, each year since that first date in 2013 has been stronger both personally and professionally. She has had to literally take my face in her hands and tell me that I am worth more than I think, and to believe in myself. Because of her direct encouragement, I found myself showcasing dozens of my photographs this December in a public space for the first time. Every time I thank her for the things she does, she looks at me incredulously. “Of course,” she says as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to be unselfish.
When I flew to Los Angeles last summer to drive Route 66 to New Mexico and back, Sam was unable to join me. After I arrived and started to unpack, I found a little note hidden in my luggage. Among other things, it read: “Remember to turn around & get the shot – it’ll haunt you if you don’t.” I cannot possibly describe how impactful that statement was to me. That advice came from a place of knowing me SO WELL, and using that knowledge to build me up rather than tear me down. And it was good advice; I’ve turned around many times since then because she told me to. And she was right.
She introduced me to New York City. We traveled to Albuquerque on a whim for a weekend. We’ve been throughout Oklahoma together, and I have found that my perspective is changing once again. Samantha has a mind for details, and now I find myself caught up in the historical detail of a place in addition to their current significance. A big indicator of that shifting perspective comes in the end-of-year videos I just completed: I spent a lot more time talking about background and history as opposed to photo composition. She teaches me things every day; I want to be able to teach her about the things I experience, too.
Every time I’m on the road, I know she is right there with me…even when she isn’t sitting in the passenger seat. That kind of support is still so unreal to me. I hope I never take it for granted.
Over the years, I’ve met a lot of fellow travelers that have had a positive influence on me. Richard Higgs and his road-weary wisdom, Dr Nick Gerlich and his love for neon signs, Jim Hinkley and his penchant for historical footnotes, Jim Ross and his passion for Route 66, and countless others. None of this even touches on the influence my parents had on my traveling tendencies, of which there were many. These are the relationships that inspire growth and encourage us to reach into tomorrow for what we want. If you have anyone in your life that encourages you, inspires you, supports you, or just goes along with your special brand of crazy…tell them what they mean to you. For they are all a part of you.