My second great teacher was the western landscape itself. It took a while for the lesson to sink in, because I was seeing so much incredible foreign scenery that it felt like my brain couldn’t process all the stimuli quickly enough. In just a week we went from the flat plains of east Texas, to the irregular plateaus and red earth of Arizona, to the endless Martian like landscape of the desert, and then the great green and blue Pacific ocean crashing against the jagged cliffs of the California coast. By the time we got to Yosemite I finally understood what was drawing me so to these western lands: the rugged, raw beauty. As I stood in the valley of Yosemite, tall green grass rippling around my legs, breeze chilling my skin and playing with my hair, tears came to my eyes. I took my camera away from my face in awe, it was almost too beautiful and grand to capture in a photo. I couldn’t stop staring at the sheer wall of mountainous stone before me. I was captivated by the cliffs, so rough, carved sharp by thousands of years of wind and snow and waterfalls. Something spoke within me as I stood in the shadow of the mountain: “this is what real beauty is.” This is what beauty was created to look like, something raw, something real, something rugged.
Maybe the words beautiful and rugged wouldn’t be paired together in our society, but here it was so obvious. So much beauty in our world is manufactured, overly polished, an imposter trying desperately to look like the real thing. But I don’t want that. I don’t want to chase a beauty that is manmade and fake. I want the real thing. I couldn’t help but admire those cliffs, their faded layers of black, grey, and tan, like watercolor paint that had stained their weathered faces centuries ago. Real beauty is not flawless. It is not something that can be bought or made by our hands. It is honest and raw and it’s edges might be sharp. Real beauty comes from standing tall in the midst of strong winds. It comes from braving the elements. I saw this truth in the land and fell in love with it. The western landscape showed me a beauty that is rugged and raw. I knew that this could be found the human spirit as well, and I wanted to let it grow in my own heart.
I met my final teacher on one of the last stops of our journey. Our trip was originally built around this vision: going to see the wild buffalo that inhabit Antelope Island. The island holds one of the largest population of free roaming bison that exist anywhere on earth. We had decided that we must see them. We wanted to see what the country looked like when the land was still young and unbroken. When we arrived at Antelope Island I began to do some research on the creatures. I was determined to capture them in a perfect photo, but I needed to know more about them. I was shocked to find out that my mission might not be so simple. Buffalo are one of the most aggressive animals indigenous to North America. They can run up to 40 miles per hour, and they charge at anything that appears threatening. I read that even making eye contact with a buffalo might be enough to provoke an attack. When the sun began to lower and the heat of the day finally began to burn off, we set out on our pursuit of the buffalo. We started by driving along the edge of the island, and spotted some big brown dots down by the beach. We tried parking and scuttling down the grassy hills, but the herd seemed to be walking away from us. Slightly discouraged, we decided to get back into the car and head in the same direction.
We were driving the winding road along the coast of the island, took a blind turn around a sharp corner, and were immediately stopped in our tracks by the grandest sight my eyes had ever seen. Buffalo. Hundreds of them, coming up the side of the coast, standing in the middle of the road, spreading out across the hill on our opposite side. I knew that the buffalo were going to be big, but I was not prepared for this. They were massive, maybe the largest animal I’ve ever seen in the wild. And we were just a few yards from them, our entire car shocked into silence. I hopped out of the car, camera in hand, and quietly closed the door behind me. Before I knew it I was walking slowly, cautiously, towards the great beasts. There was a line of bison steadily crossing the road, but there was one large bull standing in between the herd and myself. He was looking right at me. I raised my camera to my face, trembling, and began to take photos. I faintly heard Andrew telling me to be careful from the car, but I was transfixed. I stepped closer, and the bull let out a deep guttural roar, so loud and powerful that I felt the sound rattle in my chest. I was amazed. He looked at me a little longer, then passed on. The line of buffalo continued crossing the road, the former bull replaced by others even larger and more intimidating. And there I was, shaking for joy and fear, half dancing around these beasts and taking photos of them in the dying golden light of the day. I don’t know if we spoke any words, we just followed the buffalo a while, glancing every now and then at one another with awe spread wide across our faces.
Those buffalo were one of the most beautiful sights I have ever beheld. I felt like I was in another time, another world, listening to them calling to one another, feeling their heavy hooves rumble across the earth. It may seem strange to call a buffalo beautiful. They are sort of asymmetrical creatures, all heavy heads,pointed horns, and dark matted fur. But the bison taught me that true beauty is wild and dangerous. It is something you must approach with caution. It causes awe. It is not something that can be produced and packaged and sold to the masses. It does not fit politely into a mold. Real beauty is fiery and fierce and unbroken. It is untamed, it is inspiring, it calls to mind times and worlds past. I saw that beauty in the buffalo, and I wanted to see that same wild and dangerous spirit in myself.
See, what I saw in the West was a different kind of beauty than the one my eating disorder wants from me. My eating disorder wants me subdued, it wants me enslaved to its impossible demands. It wants to make me small. It wants to make me just a body that is only worth its physical appearance. But I am so much more than a body. I thank God for the gift I have been given, to see a deeper beauty in the people and the world around me. Through my photographer’s eye I saw how beautiful Taylor is with her playful and free spirit. I saw the raw, rugged splendor of the mountains. And I saw the wild and dangerous beauty of the buffalo. What I found out West can save my life. I want to find a way to take it with me- all the rugged beauty, the daring wild spirit of the landscape- I want to have it as my own and make it a part of who I am. That is the beauty I must look for and celebrate in my own heart.
Written and loved on by Katherine Dalton