My Dad put food on the table for four kids and then sent us all through school on his own. He then retired at 51. Boom. Solved the puzzle in record time on genius level and then dropped the mic with a golden handshake from the public service. He’s been retired for half of my life. You could say he has his ducks in order. He sensibly encouraged me to get an education and get a good job in the government. But he actually inspired me in the things that I saw give him enjoyment in life when I was young – slow travel and photography. Going and seeing.
I grew up in Ottawa, but my Dad’s family is from out west in British Columbia. For those who are unfamiliar with Canadian geography, a journey via 1979 Honda Accord (hatchback) from Ottawa to central BC is almost 4,000 km. For Europeans, this is a trip from Lisbon to Minsk and from where I am in Thailand it would be the equivalent of traveling west from Chiang Mai to somewhere northwest of New Delhi. This is a long car ride.
But I learned to love slow travel on these trips. We would take five or six days, camping unless it rained, and sometimes even when it did. Two and a half days of Canadian Shield and Great Lakes then into the Prairies and the great big empty. But not empty, full of grain and the biggest skies I’ve ever seen; I still overemphasize the sky on photographs because of these prairie trips. Then the blue rim of the Rockies would appear on the horizon and we’d be into canyons and passes, up and up and up days after leaving home.
I learned to love the landscape because there was little else to look at in those days; comic books and hockey cards could only wile away so many miles. A lot of the time was spent unintentionally learning what we would call mindfulness these days in the West. On a 4,000 km trip, to think about arriving is to invite madness. So, as the future is off limits to think about and what you drove past looks a lot like what you’re looking at right now, the present view out the window became the focus; the now.
The now of trees and signposts and small towns with weird names wizzing by; lakes and cliffs and then oceans of grain – for hours and hours and day after day watching the landscape change minutely, mile by mile, reading the road atlas, battered and stained, wondering what the next town might be like, what the people who lived there were like, what were down the roads that crossed ours? These are the essential seeds of thought that produce someone who loves to travel and they were planted in me on these epic, annual journeys my Dad took us on.
My Dad would smoke his pipe, we would listen to one of three or four cassettes we had, but usually nothing. Conversations would spark up and flame out but no one felt too much pressure to fill the time with chatter. And occasionally we would stop, my Dad seeing something he liked in the landscape and arranging us in front of a mountain or in front of a lake. He would just take the landscapes as well and, later after we’d return home there would be a slide show on the wall in the living room.
People always complain about slide shows but I used to pull the projector out to look at pictures out of boredom sometimes as a kid; I love slides. My Dad has a good eye and had invested in good gear in the era prior to the instant gratification that modern phones and digital cameras can provide us with. It would sometimes be months between taking the picture and seeing it developed on the wall. But it was worth it. To see an image in the bright, vivid clarity that only a good film exposure developed into a slide can provide and projected on a wall is, to me, the best way to experience photography. The gear helped but Dad is also a very good photographer.
I realised, after I started to really invest time into taking pictures, how much I was trying to recreate the look of the slides from those evenings in the living room as a kid. They were my inspiration when I was shooting landscapes. My Dad’s pictures were my first exposure to what a good image looked like. Thirty years after watching those slideshows, I found that I was subconsciously trying to recreate his style; the clarity and vividness and depth of focus I was going for was to achieve the look he used to get on those shots on those trips out west. Not Ansel Adams or Galen Rowell – my biggest inspiration for the pictures I was taking was my Dad.
This was a big revelation for me. In traveling away from home, I actually got closer to my Dad. In trying to recreate his images maybe we were seeing the world in the same way. My Dad retired at 51 and I currently don’t even own a driver’s license. What he wanted to encourage me to do in life, though eminently reasonable, wasn’t what ended up sticking with me. But what I saw give him joy in life did stick and in pursuing that which he inspired in me I have had the best years of my life.
Happy birthday Dad.