It was a little before five am when I finally slid out of bed and slipped my running shoes on. I dressed in the dark and then shut the door behind me, softly so as not to wake up my #FindYourPark Expedition roommate, Faith Briggs. I was about a mile into the run, when the full-weight of the last couple day’s finally hit me: I was living out a dream.

In July of 2015 I was hiking in Mount Rainier National Park for a few days. I hadn’t had a cell signal for a few days and when I finally did, I realized my Instagram account was going haywire with activity. I thought someone had hacked my account and almost deleted it when I realized I was chosen as “someone to follow.” Almost instantly I gained 27K Instagram followers! Then just this past September I was selected to participate in the 2nd Editon of The National Park Foundation’s #FindYourParkExpedition, (#FYPX).  The #FYPX program brought together eight millennial social media and online influencers from diverse backgrounds on a one week photographic adventure this year to Yosemite National Park, and select national parks in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Mario Villanueva of Austin, Texas, one of the 8 #FindYourParkExpedition finalists. He is the founder of UNICO, an online LGBTQ journal focused on the real lives of individuals within the LGBTQ community. Taken in an abandoned building on Alcatraz Island.
Alcatraz Island. The penitentiary closed on March 21, 1963 and over time has fallen into ruin.
Jacob Fu of Portland, Oregon, another of the #FYPx finalists. He is the co-founder of one of the top 50 travel blogs, Local Adventurer. Their claim to fame? Moving to a new city each year!
Alcatraz, graffiti made during the Indians of All Tribes Occupation - 1969-1971

I was taking photographs and writing stories all the while travelling to incredible places creating digital content for the National Park Foundation and it’s partners REI, Subaru, Aramark and Columbia Sportswear. After three days in San Francisco exploring urban parks and then a half-day’s drive eastward, I was running in Yosemite National Park under a blanket of stars! It was surreal.

Half Dome, lit up in beautiful alpenglow in Yosemite National Park.
Bouldering at the famous Columbia Boulder in Camp 4, Yosemite National Park.
A climber’s hands, an extension of his heart.
The climb is rated at V8 on the Vermin scale of difficulty.

A few days ago, I wouldn’t been able to admit to myself that this is what I wanted to do with my life but there, on the road, alone, with the sun still hidden behind the mountain, I could finally admit to myself, THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO WITH MY LIFE. I want to travel and make photographic impressions and reflections of what I see and feel for the rest of my life.

I had felt the call and pull of this dream before but it never felt possible. I had created a nice life for myself through teaching. I had a steady paycheck and felt purpose in the work and the fear of losing both kept me from quitting my job and trying to make a go of it with my camera. But big changes happened late last spring. Love called and I wanted to be with her all the time. So, I finished out the school year and moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I knew before moving that it was pretty likely I wouldn’t land a teaching job but I didn’t realize how hard it would be to find meaningful work.

So, this #FindYourParkExpedition trip couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s taught me that maybe there is another way for me to make my way through this world. That maybe I can go a little off the well-trodden career path…

Faith Briggs of Brooklyn, New York, running the Four Mile Trail in Yosemite National Park. Actual trail distance? 4.8 miles!
Victoria Gonzalez of Hackensack, New Jersey is a Colombia-American who goes by the names Tacocat on the Roller-Derby circuit.
Elizabeth McKay, Columbia Sportswear Rep in Yosemite National Park.
I spent a lot of time with Victoria Ramos of Austin, Texas on this trip. She was so open and willing to share what she had learned in art school as well as what she had taught herself.

The days on expedition were long but I was driven by an invisible energy to create and to succeed.

I rolled up my sleeves and got down in the dirt to get shots. I hiked trails, rode bikes and stayed up late to learn astro photography. I felt incredibly alive and I was learning all the time. I watched the other seven finalists work; noticed how they interacted with the subjects they were shooting, watched how they introduced themselves to important people, took notes on how they prepared for a shoot. And I asked questions all day long. I learned so much from the group and came home on fire, ready to go to work at extending this experience and making my dream a reality.

Adventure Dog!

For the first time in a long time, I am right where I am supposed to be and I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing.

Where will all this lead? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that I found myself, a better, braver version of my old self, inside Yosemite. When I got home I told my girlfriend about my run and I whispered my dream in her ear. She looked at me with the steadiest of eyes and told me to go for it. And so I have. If ever there was a time for me to try my hand at shooting and writing for a living, this is it. I hope the next time you are reading something from me it is on the road, with my Caroline and our two pups.

The 2016, National Park Foundation’s #FindYourParkExpedition Finalists, from left to right: Mario Villneuva, Victoria Ramos, Victoria Gonzalez, Edgar Woo, Juan Flores, Jacob Fu, Faith Briggs and me, Erin McGrady. PHOTO BY EDGAR WOO, Cover/Lead Photo of Erin McGrady, by EDGAR WOO

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