From Ashes to Adventure, One Year in this Big Giant Life

April 22, 2015



April 22, Earth Day, will always hold a significant memory for me. It was on this day in 2013 that my path was forever changed, the day I tragically lost my home, possessions and beloved pet in a house fire. A strong reminder of how quickly life can change and resonant with symbolism, it was a moment that I could not allow to define me. Despite the devastating loss, I was determined to count my blessings, move forward, and somehow grow from the whole experience. The support I received, both financial and emotional, was simply overwhelming. In my opinion, true wealth can only be measured by the quality of one’s life and personal relationships. Throughout the following summer, as I was cleaning and salvaging what few items survived the fire, I took a series of photographs to see the destruction in a creative light and face the pain head-on. The image here, the blooming iris in front of the burned out structure, served to remind me that beauty abounds even in the darkest of times.

Among the many ensuing life lessons, I learned that material possessions are just that - nothing more than dispensable material, which, ironically end up possessing you. The toughest part was, and still is, losing my cat. As I tribute to my best friend, I had his paw print tattooed on my shoulder and left his ashes in India where we saw our first tiger. In a sense, he set me free to explore and follow my life’s purpose, the least I could do was set his spirit free in the land of the big cats.

You might say I had to lose everything in order to discover my true self. Once I began to accept the fact that the home and life I once knew were gone, I opened up to the idea of traveling. Over the next year I spent five months overseas, exploring and creating. Life became a series of new adventures and photographic pursuits. The worst experience I’ve ever gone through, in the long run, may prove to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.

I wrote the following piece in 2014, while I was finishing my three-month journey in New Zealand. Give it a read if you are inclined, you might find a bit of inspiration in what I have to say. On that note, I am going out on the trails, this seems like a good day to explore, create, and reflect on the intrinsic beauty that surrounds us every day.

From Ashes to Adventure, One Year in this Big Giant Life:

Once again, I find myself crossing the Pacific and reflecting on a recent adventure that has opened my eyes and altered my course going forward, and I am struggling to organize my thoughts into some sort of articulate passage. Over the past week, as I was contemplating my final days in New Zealand and looking back on this last year, it occurred to me that I was lacking emotion, which left me at a loss for words. My creative energy is driven by emotions - good or bad, happy or sad, I express myself through creativity. When I am emotionally flat I do not create. Even in solitude I couldn’t find my voice, though I had much to say. Quite often the most difficult part of writing is just getting the first line, once that has been laid down it seems to flow.

Weighing most heavily on my mind in recent days was the anniversary of a fateful event that changed everything. April 22, Earth Day, marked one year since I awoke to smoke alarms and narrowly escaped a fire that destroyed my home and life, as I knew it. I do not intend to write a heartbreaking account here; I only wish to reflect on a significant event in my life and the year that followed. Beyond the initial shock of losing my home, possessions and beloved cat Spike, I soon realized that I no longer had my own personal space. I am a social being but I also need solitude and time to check in with myself, deal with myself, and be myself. I had grown accustomed to living alone in the woods where I could listen to music at any volume or take time to stretch and meditate when I felt the need. In summertime I had a garden that I tended to every day, wildflowers and strawberries grew outside my windows, and a creek flowed through the back of the property. It was nothing luxurious, but Spike and I had a quality of life that many dream of and others couldn’t comprehend. Our culture is so focused on obtaining financial wealth that it has become the only measure of success, rather than quality of relationships, health, or personal wellbeing. When I could step out my back door, play my guitar and listen to the stream flowing past, I didn’t need anything more; I was the luckiest person alive and filled with gratitude. Suddenly it was all gone, reduced to a pile of smoldering ash and rubble. Once the blaze was more or less extinguished, firefighters searched the basement only to return with my lifeless companion wrapped in a towel.

We all experience loss throughout our lives; defining moments where we are faced with the choice to either grow, thereby gaining wisdom and strength, or to regress. For me there was no question, I had to move forward, continue to count my blessings and find meaning in the tragedy, though it was, and still is, difficult. Fortunately, I have wonderful friends who opened their homes to me, donated money, clothing and other necessities (I had four guitars given to me within the first week) and did whatever they could to help get me back on my feet. But finding physical space just to stretch my body, let alone solitude to meditate or play guitar, became a challenge. With time and effort, I began to find my personal space in various places and came to realize that finding solitude and peace, like happiness, is a conscious choice. Not only was I able to achieve peaceful states of mind, but my creativity was reinvigorated as well.

Already in the midst of seeking employment and now without a home (though not homeless in the true sense as I always had friends who would take me in), it occurred just how quickly things can change. Change, after all, is the only true constant in life and after examining the situation from a different angle, it became clear that I no longer had anything tying me down. I was for better or worse free, free from paying rent or living a daily grind. Sometimes the universe gives us a less-than-subtle sign that we are meant to follow a different path - a swift kick in the ass, if you will. It took time, but I began to see this loss as an opportunity to travel, seek new experience and reinvent myself. I suppose the logical thing to do would have been to pool my resources, find a new place to rent and continue my job search, but that sort of logic left me long ago. Instead, I opted to move my newly acquired (donated) furniture and other items into storage, live out of my tent for much of the summer, and join a friend on a seven week photographic expedition throughout Asia beginning in October. I would return in December - not the best time of year to search for employment or a place to live in Alaska. Then it struck me: Why not leave again, this time for the winter? Having family ties in New Zealand, it was the logical choice. This, and the fact that it is a widely sought destination by varieties of travelers - thrill seekers and tour bus types alike. Throughout the rest of the summer and into autumn I worked whenever I could, dealt with the long and arduous insurance claim process, and planned my travels.

Before I knew it, summer had passed and I was on a flight to Thailand. There were a number of issues leaving California and a minor glitch in Tokyo, causing me to arrive a couple days late but that’s another story. I chalked it up to being part of the adventure and before long, being in a foreign culture and living on the road began to feel like home. There I was, going places I never thought I’d go, seeing things I’d always wanted to see, and immersing myself in creativity. I explored ancient temples, savored local cuisines and swam on beautiful beaches but the pinnacle of all this was, without a doubt, photographing and exploring India. With its radiant culture and exotic wildlife, the creative possibilities were endless and I left with a collection of timeless images of people, architecture, wild Bengal tigers and more.

Returning from Asia in the dead of winter, I felt out of place. I had become comfortable traveling and longed to be back out there, exploring and creating. I had six weeks stateside to reorganize and finalize my plans for New Zealand between freelance work and visiting family over the holidays. Time flew by and once again, I was heading south, crossing the equator for the first time in my life and bound for adventure in far away places. Determined to stay as long as I was allowed with a tourist visa – 90 days, I enrolled in the WWOOF program (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), where I would live with host families and work on farms, vineyards and organic gardens in exchange for room and board. I was going to truly experience this mythical island nation by living with locals and spending three months of my life there, saving time for my own adventures between farm gigs.

New Zealand was a different type of journey, more physically demanding yet not as exotic as Asia in the cultural sense. I found that most of the people I met were generally like-minded, and though we live in opposite hemispheres, our lifestyles aren’t all that different. What the Kiwis do cherish is an amazing quality of life and respect for their land, unmatched anywhere else I have been aside from Norway. For me, New Zealand was a chance to let go of beliefs that stood in the way of my moving forward on this new path. So, three months later, suntanned and clothes fitting a bit more loosely, I am on my way home from New Zealand with a renewed sense of adventure and enthusiasm. It seems all I lost along the way were some deep seeded fears and a few extra pounds. To live in the moment and be spontaneous, to travel without being impeded by preconceived notions of what my physical or mental strength will allow, is all I truly sought and I will continue to explore the earth, sharing my experiences as I go. I would rather live hand to mouth, creating images that live on longer than I will than earn a living producing mediocrity. I don’t claim to be the greatest or most innovative photographer, just one of the luckiest. Quite often the universe shines on me, presenting unique and wonderful opportunities. My gift, you might say, lies in conveying the mood, which I feel is the most important element in photography. Without mood, all you have is a nice picture, not an artful photograph. Art is fluid, art does not stand still, the moments I capture are presented to me and I do not own them. When I create, I do not think of myself as the primary audience, I want to share my work in the hopes that it might evoke an emotion in somebody or make some small difference in their day.

I feel I didn’t do enough exploring in my younger years, something I used to regret. I never backpacked across Europe or studied overseas. Looking back, I am glad I waited until my 40’s; I see the world through different eyes now. I accept, own and love all the ups and downs in life, the challenges I’ve faced, everything that has made me into the person I am today and gotten me to where I am right now, right here in this moment. In order to truly open up to new experiences, I had to let go of long held beliefs regarding my physical tolerance of extensive traveling, such as sitting for long periods on airplanes, trains and busses, constantly being on the move and toting luggage and camera gear everywhere. A back injury I acquired fifteen years ago left me with years of chronic discomfort and ensuing surgery; and muscles and nerves filled with painful memories. If you’ve ever experienced long-term injury or chronic pain, you will understand how it consumes your thoughts and overshadows your entire life. After years of intense focus, routine stretching and strengthening, acupuncture and body work, I have been able to break through knotted muscles and release much of what was stored in my tissues, replacing those painful memories with a renewed sense of adventure, excitement and openness. As with any type of trauma, physical or emotional, healing is a journey, not a destination. It is an ongoing process that requires perseverance, and it has brought me to the realization that the only limitations I faced were those I had put on myself, those that I chose to believe.

Returning to Alaska, this time in the middle of spring, I face a lot of uncertainty. At times I revel in the unknown and the freedom it holds, other days it is less appealing. Currently, I have no long-term plans - such a drastic change from the college bound, focused and logical person I was twenty years ago. At some point I suppose I was led astray, or shown the light, depending on how you look at it. In either case, despite earlier attempts at building a professional career, I somehow chose to think outside the box and pursue a life that was more meaningful, thus foregoing the financial stability of having a “real job.” Now at age 41, I think I finally am what I’m going to be when I grow up, whatever that means.

And there you have it, from ashes to adventure, opportunity borne out of tragedy, one year in this big giant life. A year of loss, sorrow and heartache followed by adventure, growth, enlightenment and magic. For those of you who don't believe that magic is real, I will tell you that it is, in fact, the only thing that is real.

Colin Tyler Bogucki