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Jen Magnuson Photography - Visual Stories of Outdoor Adventure

Commercial and Editorial Photographer

Following the White Blazes

How the Appalachian Trail Guides my Business

A year ago, My husband, Jeff, and I were dropped off by friends at the lodge at Amicalola Falls State Park in the mountains of northern Georgia.  We watched the tail lights of our car disappear from the parking lot and wind out of sight down the mountain and set a southbound course towards Atlanta.  We stood on the sidewalk with two backpacks containing just the very basics of what we would need for a six-month, 2189.2 mile backpacking trip, over mountains, along streams, through tiny towns, and within reach of large cities.  We were setting out to hike a dream that had been in my heart for 26 years, Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Trail.

The mileage is different in the photo, because trail reroutes change the mileage every year.

The mileage is different in the photo, because trail reroutes change the mileage every year.

We woke in the comfort of the lodge the morning we would set our feet upon the trail.  Fog hung in thick wisps between the ridges, and rain ran down the windows in heavy drops.  I stood in one of my two sets of hiking clothes, staring out at the weather, contemplating with apprehension and excitement the fact that the windows, walls, and roof, that made the rain an abstract experience would fall away behind us, and we would transition into a very direct and literal experience with the weather. . . all of the weather.

The view from our room at the lodge on the day we hiked out

The view from our room at the lodge on the day we hiked out

Driving wind, steady rain, and a few fat soggy snowflakes accompanied us along the approach trail to Springer Mountain, where I attempted to scrawl something meaningful into the first register, inhibited by the wet paper, my frozen hands, and the tears rolling from my eyes.  I smiled so hard my face hurt as tears spilled on the earth, mixing with the rain.  I knelt on the slick wet rock, and I kissed that first stripe of white paint, whose identical siblings would guide our steps north to Maine.

The Springer Mountain Trail Register

The Springer Mountain Trail Register

Freezing, but elated on Springer Mountain!

Freezing, but elated on Springer Mountain!

The first white blaze!

The first white blaze!

Welcome to the adventure of a lifetime!

Welcome to the adventure of a lifetime!

Within 24 hours, I was ready to go home.  My feet were so swollen that they didn't fit in boots I'd been backpacking in for 11 years.  I was wet.  I was cold.  I was muddy.  I felt like an idiot for starting something so daunting.

Our third day out, we "took a zero," which is a hiker term for a zero mile day.  We dried our gear in the sun.  I soaked my feet in the icy stream.  We met some great new people.  We decided to press on to Woody Gap, the first major road, and decide from there whether to hitchhike out or dive back into the woods.

That fourth morning, the grey skies had returned, and I felt the clouds of doubt and disappointment closing in around my heart again.  I was sure I couldn't do this.  BUT. . .  I unzipped my side of the tent, and I took a deep breath through my nose.  I looked out at the grey sky, the grey, leafless trees, and the colorful dots of the tents and hammocks.  The air smelled so PERFECT.  I held it in my lungs.  I felt the chill of it on my face.  I tasted it.

Tents at Hawk Mountain Shelter in Georgia

Tents at Hawk Mountain Shelter in Georgia

For some reason, that breath, that smell, that feeling of oneness with the woods, changed my mind.  An image of waking on just such a morning in a cabin with a porch and hot coffee entered my mind, and I admitted that I'd prefer that to waking in a tent with a damp chill all around and the all too harsh knowledge that in all of our preparations, we had failed to add instant coffee to our grocery list.  Still, something magical happened in that breath.

I fashioned "rain covers" for our packs out of some plastic gas station ponchos and duct tape, and we vowed that we were doing this.

From that point forward, there were days when the air was perfect, the sun shined, and the mountains presented their majesty to us at every turn.  There were days when it seemed like it would never stop raining.  We slogged through mud with ice in it, and I forgot what it was like to be dry and warm.  There were days when the sun beat down relentlessly, and the humidity made breathing feel like drowning.  There were days when there was nothing to see but the long green monotonous tunnel, and walking north was dull and difficult.  There were days when the entire adventure was a dream come true, a rolling party of all of the best things I could imagine!

In case you were wondering, it all ended too soon.  Jeff suffered from severe tendonitis that set in sometime after the 500 mile mark, and we made the decision to end the hike on June 10, at mile 662.

Here in the real world though, I often think of the Appalachian Trail.  I think of how much like life it is.  Ups and downs, difficult sections, and smooth easy parts, unexpected events, and wonderful serendipitous surprises. . .  Sometimes though, especially in business, I wish for the easy navigation of the trail.  Whenever I felt lost on the Appalachian Trial, I could look up and find an ever-reliable white blaze on a tree or a rock or on the path itself.

On a particularly frustrating day a couple of weeks ago, I found myself wishing, as I often do, that I could scrap the real world and dive back into the woods again.  I wished that life and business at least had some white blazes, so I could know for sure if I was off on a side trail or if I was actually hiking north towards my goal.

That was a moment like that breath of early morning mountain air that somehow saved my hike in northern Georgia, just 8 miles into the trail.

There's a song by my favorite artist, Chris Pureka, called "Compass Rose," and one of the lyrics is this: "Well, I'm lost today; I won't deny it.  I'm gonna lay down and wait for the compass rose under my skin to start to glow."

White blazes; compass rose.  They exist inside of me in the form of dreams, goals, and ideas.  Just like hiking the Appalachian Trail, I have to look up and find that next white blaze or I could end up down a side trail, miles from where I want to be.  In life and business, I have to decide where I ultimately want to go, and I have to look in and feel that "compass rose under my skin start to glow."  I have to have the courage to follow the signs, even when they lead me up and over a steep, rocky, wet, foggy, hand over hand climb.

So, all of that is to say that I'm tuned in.  I'm looking for the white blazes on the trail to doing commercial advertising photos for outdoor gear manufacturers and retailers.  I'm confident that the white blazes in my heart won't lead me astray.

Follow YOUR white blazes!  Go get your dreams!

Read more about our Appalachian Trail LASH (long ass section hike) here!