Part 1 - Exploration's Roots
I've spent my career exploring some of the most difficult to access places in the world; life changing experiences in remarkable places with remarkable people in the most intimate of ways - I've witnessed history and photographed the plight of the marginalized and their daily struggle to survive.
In pursuing my work and getting access to these locations has meant exploration is a fundamental process. It has taken me to countless blazing deserts, along long dusty roads in the back of pick-up trucks and through canyons and along ancient trade routes that traverse contested land with military roadblocks resisting entry and the way back home. Bushwacked through dense jungles with 400 lb. gorillas peering through dripping ferns with steaming prehistoric volcanoes silhouetting the horizon and hiked jagged granite peaks and glaciers, with racks of climbing gear and a week's rations on my back, beckoning me further in spite of the conditions. Even travel on cobblestone labyrinths of ancient walled cities, the smell of fresh baked flat bread or boiling mint tea being my only markers to recall knowing whether to turn left or right, has been exploration for me. The dust on hair, in my ears and nose, the sunburns, the disease and sickness, the humidity, the never-ending border crossings, the planes, trains and autos and yes the camels, are all signs that I'm doing it right.
I'm forever drawn to the golden age of exploration and tea stained maps not yet complete with gaping swaths of land with no place-names, just rumor, wonder and mystique - the intrepid nature of those explorers and the grit it must have taken to go deeper and deeper when the conditions got bad, the destination vague and the safety of home was months away maybe years.
I grew up in a place that some apologize for on my behalf, full of sympathy and wanting to commiserate with me. Although I know my farm town wasn't a destination for anyone, I do know it is a place I am proud of. Hot summers required grit and creativity. We got outside; we played in piles of dirt that, in my imagination, were Mount Everest or K2. We were encouraged to explore the world on our terms; to ride bikes, climb trees, bareback horse ride, swim in questionable water, make stuff and get a little bit hurt - and do it all over the next day. Free range parenting, they call that today. It involved relationships with hard working farmers and ranchers and folks with integrity that could be counted on. And none of us forgot that we were providing the Nation with its fruits and vegetables.
My small farm town provided me the space to cultivate love of exploration and wonder lust. I remember as a kid just wanting to begin and end the day outside – to be still within in the pace of nature and be encompassed by the cultivated land that surrounded our house.
Not living in proximity to any one trophy destination gave me the perspective that I lived in the center of them all. Backpacking, climbing and surfing have come to define my early years and served as a foundation of confidence and sense of wonder lust to carry me through life. I'll always attribute to my early days exploring with my family in America's National Parks, wilderness areas, deserts and remote beaches and reefs of Baja.
Part 2 - Kids in Exploration
Just like we were all born artists, a lot of us lose that inherent nature to create, we were also all born explorers - I believe this will all my being. Exploration, in its simplest form, is the very nature of how we learn. When you’re a kid, absolutely everything is exploration, new and unknown. Kids can be as immersed in the micro just as the legends of our time were engrossed and driven in the macro, those gaps in that map.
Exploring requires us to get out of our comfort zones and do new things. Learning at its core, is the fruit of exploration. We learn from experience and we experience by exploring.
I'm obsessed to cultivate my own childlike nature and thirst for wanting to know what is around the corner or how far I can push myself or when my breaking point is, but then as a father, I'm driven to pass down to my kids what I've been taught and what I've learned along the way. But even more, I want their infectious spirit and outlook to rub off on me. What they will never know is how much their zest and enthusiasm sharpens me.
I think the bold are free and kids are bold.
Part 3 - Don't make decisions based on not being comfortable
I've said for a long time that the best images I've ever taken have been when I'm the most uncomfortable. I don't know a good photojournalist who would disagree. If you are not uncomfortable, you are doing it wrong. I live by this rule, although not as often as I'd like or proclaim to. It's hard. Being uncomfortable requires practice and knowledge that you, we, I can handle way more than we think we can. That the pain and or discomfort is temporary.
I recently took a remote camping trip with my 2 and 5-year-old kids to one of my favorite places in the Eastern Sierras. An unseasonal cold snap hit us. My daughter was having a bit of a tough time dealing with the cold and snow. Here she was, a snowstorm sweeping down the mountain, darkness overcoming way faster than she's used to, our small fire providing only ambience at this point, and her dad running around prepping for the fast-approaching night and cold.
Tough, especially for a 5 year old, but I told her to look around and tell me what she could see and what she could not see. She described the stark 14,000 ft. peaks and the snow blowing off the mountains and the smell of the desert sage; perhaps more difficult to see, what wasn't there - people. I said to her, "if it were easy and comfortable, everyone would be out here, everyone would be doing this." I ensured her that she'd be incredibly warm through the night in her minus 20 degree sleeping bag and that the sun would, again, come up in the morning.
With her cute little nose sticking out of her purple sleeping bag, she slept through the night. The sun came up in the morning and we were rewarded with maybe the second most amazing sunrise I've experienced in this spot. Both kids were speechless as they woke and looked out the window of our tent and saw what only sleeping through discomfort can bring - first light on wilderness, the sound of coyotes and delicate footprints of unknown soft animals nearby (I really should know what they are) through the lightest snow, and distant wind howling through the peaks. All these years I've been coming here, specifically for the morning view, now, I'd rather sit back, and watch them silenced by grandeur.
Part 4 - The importance of micro adventures
I believe that our kids can learn more about how to navigate life, the hard parts that require problem solving and staying calm, based on how they see us parents, handle the same; by doing and living, not by telling.
You know, I don't know what we are supposed to do as parents, I'm figuring this out as I go and much of what I've said to this point is easier said than done, but isn't a giant part, equipping them to be way more than well-educated citizens and part of the local economy? Or to know right from wrong? Is that what will quantify my efforts as a father?
I hope there is more. I believe that as fathers and mothers, we want our kids to flourish; we want them to suck the nectar of life and know that it is good. But listen to me. Your well-planned, tropical beach vacation will be tough to communicate any of what I'm saying here. And no, a delayed flight or lost luggage, doesn't count. But don't get me wrong. There are seasons that I need that kind of trip more than anything; to park in one spot and not move for a few days. I get it. But don't make this your everything. Please strive for more!
Enter micro adventures and my challenge to you.
I wish my kids could have seen me navigate, successfully and otherwise, getting held under a two or three-set wave in some remote winter Mexico surf spot. Or that time a rocket landed in the building next to mine in Yemen. When I got thrown into a white van in Egypt during the Arab Spring to be "questioned". Or when I got hit on the back of the head with a 2x4 in East Africa. These will be just stories to my kids; myths that their crazy dad did.
My challenge to you is, this. As you carve out time, months in advance, vacation style, also whittle-out spontaneous unpredictable time with you kids. Stop it with the family Costco trip on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon! Forgo the Internet and 'reserving' your camping spot with a million other people. Just go and find some epic spot on BLM land and just figure it out. Let you kids see you navigate, struggle, laugh, wonder, get frustrated and negotiate; awe in the unknown; let yourself be free in that process too and at the end of the day, crack a well-earned beer, make some hot chocolate and cheers your family for being part of the process and laugh at the times that you made a jackass out of yourself, celebrate new scars and smile through cracked wind-chapped lips.
I promise, it'll be worth it.
Your kids will learn more watching your scars heal than you will ever know.
Micah is a documentary photographer represented by Redux Pictures photo agency.
His most recent work in Southern Algeria captured the intensity of the deserted area, the insecurity in the region, as well as the role of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s rebels in one of the most dangers axes in the world.
Micah is a grantee from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to work in Africa’s largest dumpsite, Dandora.
Micah lives in Northern California with his wife Lindsey, daughter Norah and son Ethan.