After a long battle, Sophie and I are finally together again and finding home in every sunrise and vista.
I came home in the summer of 2019 for a family reunion and to enjoy an Oregon summer. Meanwhile, Sophie went back to the UK to work as a nanny assisting families with children with special needs. Money had run out and it was time to go to our respective homes while we worked out what would come next.
The plan was to find some work for a few months and reunite in the fall. We would fly Sophie into the Northeast to chase some autumn leaves and then road trip back to Oregon to spend the holidays with family. She had already spent the past two Christmas’s with us and it had become tradition. After the holiday season, we would assess our finances and situation and figure out what to do next, together.
What we never anticipated was that a girl from the UK, our closest ally, with a spotless travel history, over 50 stamps in her passport without an overstayed visa, no criminal record, and no debt would have trouble obtaining a visitor visa to enter the US.
I will never forget the phone call I received at 5am with a sobbing girlfriend informing me that she was denied entry. The reason they cited was a “lack of significant ties to her country of origin”. Because we travel full time and do not have a life in England, they felt she was too big a risk to stay illegally in the US – a premise that makes no sense whatsoever as she could have just as easily come with a visa waiver as she has each prior year. In fact, we only applied for the visitor visa to give her extra time in the US and to avoid booking an exit ticket prior to arrival. The idea that this changed any risk of her illegally immigrating seemed, and continues to seem, absolutely ludicrous.
Regardless of our feelings, this visa denial set off a domino effect that would hang over every decision we would make for the next 2 years. Because she was denied for a visitor visa, her ability to come on the ESTA (visa waiver) was also voided. Suddenly, we had no way to get her into the country and no idea what to do next.
We contacted immigration lawyers and were making progress when Covid hit. Now the entire world was shut down and we were still a proverbial world apart.
After 2+ years of trying to figure out what we were going to do, when and how she would see her nieces again and meet her nephews for the first time and spend another Christmas with her Oregon family, we finally got the news we were waiting for. It had been a struggle, but it looked like she was finally free to return and just in time for the second half of the Michelob ULTRA journey. Her flight was due to land on June 30. It was finally over.
On June 29, I had a phone call at 6am. I knew it was going to be bad news as soon as I saw who was calling. Sophie knew I would be sleeping still and she only calls so early when it’s news she can’t keep to herself.
Despite being vaccinated months prior, Sophie had contracted Covid-19 and would not be able to board her flight. All of our plans to spend 4th of July with friends in Portland, to drive to Oregon to surprise the family, to meet her nephews and see her nieces again for the first time in years, to make the van a home for two and complete this assignment together, were scrapped. Being on contract, I had a schedule I was obligated to and was not sure when or how to arrange another pick up.
We knew it was temporary, but it still felt gutting. The heavy weight and feeling of powerlessness that had been slumped onto our shoulders for over 2 years felt heavier than ever. We felt helpless, stuck in a battle against invisible forces wondering when it would just be over… Wondering when we could make a true plan that involved the future again.
Our amount of contact diminished a bit over the next week. I decided to go home anyway to be with friends and family and get out of the incredibly hot van for a bit. I buried myself in work, writing as many blogs as I could and processing all the photos I had left. Anything not to dwell.
The state of Oregon was in the grip of a heatwave, even reaching a record-breaking temperature of 115°F (46°c) in my hometown just days prior. It was midnight and finally cooling down as I sat in my old room of my parents’ house, shirt off, slouched at a laptop writing another blog.
I heard my mom’s knock at the door despite it being open. Being immersed in my writing, I didn’t even look up to acknowledge her. I asked what she wanted, trying not to break concentration, when she knocked again and called my name. Irritated, I looked up.
You may be wondering why I wasn’t jumping for joy or shouting or boisterous. The truth is, I don’t think I had ever been in more shock in my life. When I looked up and saw Sophie, I didn’t know who she was. My brain did not recognize this person in our house because it was not a possibility. You know when you wake up from a dream and have to do a “system analysis” of sorts, determining what is real and what isn’t? That is what occurred in this very real moment.
Sophie had tested negative and orchestrated an entire surprise arrival.
It was finally over.
The alarm goes off at 4:45am. Without speaking a word to each other, I crawl out of bed and turn the kettle on to make coffee. A series of grunts and groans are all either of us can manage in the morning, particularly when we had been out photographing the starry night skies until 1am already and had barely slept in between.
We put on some clothes laid out the night prior, grab our tripods and backpacks, and head out to Glacier Point to watch the sunrise over Half Dome.
While it may not sound particularly romantic, this was a beautiful moment. It felt NORMAL again, for the first time in years. We know to keep words to a minimum in the morning until coffee has been consumed. Fortunately, when you are waking up in places as beautiful as Yosemite National Park, few words are needed.
We were the first people on-site and set up our tripods in two separate locations. The light grew brighter as the world woke up between each sip of coffee. After what seemed like an eternity, the sun began to creep out from behind Half Dome and the sound of camera shutters filled the air.
That sound is like some kind of fix. It entered the ears and traveled to the heart and stomach, filling each. I looked to my right and saw Sophie frantically adjusting her composition and settings, collecting frames to capture a perfect moment. In a wave, everything felt right again.
We often fail to cherish moments in the present, but this was not one of those times. Not only were we verbally grateful for it, but we took the time to capture some moments for, and of, us. It was obvious even in the moment that someday, this would be “the good old days”.
For three straight days we photographed the incredible natural beauty of Yosemite. Every day the alarm would go off at 4:45am for sunrise, and every night our heads would not find the pillow until after we had shot sunset and some star-filled skies. Every day, we were reminded of how special it was to have found someone who shares our passions; someone willing to give up sleep and comfort and meals to “get the shot”.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it makes the mind grow fonder as well. Appreciation is manifested in deprivation, and it was impossible to take any of this for granted after so much time and distance.
As I write this, it has only been two weeks since Sophie surprised me by appearing in my room at midnight on a Friday. With all that we have seen and done and photographed together already, it is hard to believe it has only been two weeks.
It is also amazing how quickly things felt normal. The cadence of this crazy travel lifestyle feels immediately back in tempo, as if no time passed at all.
On a personal level, I get excited to see how much better the photos have immediately become with the assistance of a partner. More than that though, I get excited to talk about the future with certainty, rather than hypotheticals. It is hard to describe the subconscious stress and mental toll that the years of “when” and “if” have taken.
Sophie and I are currently sitting in a Starbucks in Mammoth Lakes, California. We have fallen in love with this region, for better and for worse! Rather than catching up on all the photos we took in Yosemite, we can’t help but get ourselves further behind constantly taking more in this beautiful place.
Yesterday, we saw a bear casually walk through the village. We photographed it mischievously pawing at food through someone’s window, dumpster diving, and eventually walking off into the mountains. We have soaked in 6 different hot springs with 2 more to go, watching the sun set from naturally-heated thermal pools. Most importantly, we’ve managed to escape the heat and get some sleep in the cool climate of the Mammoth mountains.
The “dream job”, as it was touted, is finally starting to feel more like dream and less like job, though there is lots of work to be done!
Next stop: Death Valley National Park!
Enjoy these additional photos taken in the month of July from Yosemite National Park.
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Made from 30 light frames by Starry Landscape Stacker 1.8.0. Algorithm: Min Horizon Noise
You may have noticed a return to normal in the social media posts; this is not only because Sophie has arrived, but because I was able to come to terms with the National Park Foundation and Michelob UTLRA and bypass the approval process that was log-jamming and censoring my natural narrative. Hopefully, we can all enjoy a return to “the ways things were.”
Our next stop is Death Valley, briefly, followed by an extended stay in Vegas.
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WE TRULY HOPE YOU’VE ENJOYED A BEHIND-THE-SCENES, GENUINE LOOK AT THE LIFE OF TWO FULL-TIME TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHERS.
Where to Next?
The Michelob ULTRA journey and the big gold van rolls on to Death Valley National Park for the weekend, then 10-14 days in the Las Vegas area before heading to Utah for the month of September.