Tolin, a Self-Portrait

“I wouldn’t say I was depressed before the journey, but it was during that time where I felt truly grateful to be alive, more so than any other time.”

I used to spend a lot of time thinking that there had to be more to life than going to school, working through my prime, and retiring when I’m old and gray. Growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey with this defined path ahead of me, I felt like my life wasn’t mine to live. I craved adventure and the freedom to do my own thing, to live how I’d like. It wasn’t until I spent six months hiking across the Appalachian Mountain range that I found that freedom.

The idea to hike the Appalachian Trail got a hold of me after working in an office for a few years straight out of college. I simply couldn’t stand the thought of submitting to that lifestyle forever, especially when there was so much of the country I had yet to see. I wanted to experience America’s eastern mountains—and not through the window of a car, but through the soles of my feet. My then-girlfriend and I decided to quit our jobs and hit the trail with nothing but heavy-ass backpacks on our backs.

That trek proved to be a life-changing experience. I wouldn’t say I was depressed before the journey, but it was during that time where I felt truly grateful to be alive, more so than any other time. I felt purpose by slowly making progress towards the monumental goal of hiking 2,186 miles from Georgia to Maine. I felt healthy and clear-minded by spending all my time outside; I woke up with the sun, retired under the stars, and used my body as a tool, growing stronger with passing time. A sense of community permeated the trail, and I felt a real camaraderie with my fellow thru-hikers.

It was hard to transition back to a domestic lifestyle after the journey came to an end. Plus, I was broke. I ended up moving to Philly after landing an environmental engineering job where I could work towards improving the local natural environment. I thought I could create a healthy work-life balance with a fulfilling job and by escaping to the outdoors on weekends.

Although I made a few good friends while living there, I somehow felt more alone in a city surrounded by people than along the narrow path of the Appalachian Trail. The monotony of working over 40 hours a week in front of a computer got the better of me, and I found that the work was more fulfilling in theory than in practice. It was at my work desk where I started dreaming of an endless road trip crossing the country, where I could meet new people, see new places, and spend each day exploring the outdoors.

One day I decided that if I wanted to create meaning in my life and pursue happiness, I couldn’t let my dreams be just that. I spent the next year saving up and getting my shit together, and bought a van with a plan to turn it into a tiny home. I taught myself what I needed to put it together and toiled in my apartment-turned-workshop for the next eight months over weekends and weeknights. In September of 2018 I quit my job, said goodbye to my friends and family, and hit the road.

After living on the road for nine months, I found that travelling alone forces me to leave my comfort zone and I end up meeting a lot of people I otherwise wouldn’t get to know. Many of them share my love for the outdoors; many made sacrifices to pursue similar dreams. They all have a unique story and view life and the outdoors a little differently. I created People of the American Outdoors as a platform to showcase these people and to share what drives their passion for an outdoor lifestyle through photography and interviews.

In my interviews I always end with the question ‘what do you love about the outdoors?’ Although I feel more at home within the mountains than in concrete and brick buildings, I find it difficult to answer the question myself. I’ve often wondered if it’s something innate that stems back to our ancestors, if it’s the presence of raw animalism, or the absence of the egocentric human touch. There’s an indefinable beauty that exists in the outdoors, and everyone identifies with it in a different way.

I find joy in hearing other people describe their own love for the outdoors, especially when it’s something I’ve felt but had never put into words myself. Listening to a new friend describe their passions, feelings, and thoughts on the outdoors allows me to feel more connected to them. The goal of this project is to share that feeling of connection with others. My only hope is that promoting this feeling can allow others to feel a little less alone.

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