Russ Taylor, who contributed his dazzling photography and several conversations from the road to help create this week’s story about the Outward Bound program in the Ten Thousand Islands, characterizes at least one quality shared by all Outward Bound instructors, including him: hardy curiosity.
Chatting with him reminded me distinctly of Arthur Aylen, my own instructor at Colorado Outward Bound during a 26-day course in 1969, the month before I turned 17.
A rock climber and widely experienced mountaineer from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Mr. Aylen had also served in the British SAS, if I remember correctly. He was cheerful, determined, unsentimental, impossible to fluster and perfectly happy to suffer a bit, if he could learn from it. Especially in a beautiful place.
For such men or women, discomfort and deprivation — leaving the “certainties of the harbor,” as the expression “outward bound” once meant to mariners — cannot distract them from looking deeply into the world, and into themselves.
At 49, Mr. Taylor has had plenty of time to show his stripes, and they are those. The website reflecting his work as an international photographer, www.nomadruss.com, is aptly named, although the word “nomad” Russ Taylor doesn’t quite do him justice. He doesn’t wander merely for the sake of it, as far as I can tell.
Instead, he wanders to understand, and perhaps to share that understanding with other curious souls.
After all, nothing can match travel as an antidote to stuffy pretention or worse — to prejudice, to jingoism, to arrogance, to myopia.
Often it can strip away illusions, creating one of the greatest paradoxes, in my mind: The best way to understand your home — the best way to love it — is first to leave it, for a day, a week, a month, a year, or a decade or two.
Displayed online, the photographic record of Mr. Taylor’s leaving includes images from India and the Indian Himalaya, Laos and Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, Moroccan North Africa, Easter Island (almost 2,200 miles west of Chile, lying remote and solitary in the Pacific) and South America.
At home, he’s also used the camera to explore the American South and Appalachia, Florida, and the eastern Sierra of the far west.
But that geographic lineage doesn’t tell his whole story. Although Mr. Taylor has been an instructor in wilderness schools for 20 years, he also found time to earn two master’s degrees, one in theology and the other in intercultural studies.
Before earning them, he served for two years in the Peace Corps in New Guinea. Sent in to help create a banking system, he decided instead to help build rainwater catchment systems, a hands-on contribution that suited his temperament and instincts.
What it takes to make such a person is hard to tell. Certainly not any single environment or place, because Outward Bound instructors come from many places.
In Mr. Taylor’s case, he was born and raised in Alabama, where his father was an accountant and his mother a teacher, he told me. He became a Boy Scout, learning early how to sleep on the ground. Every Sunday after church, the family would go fishing. Following high school, he attended the University of Alabama, graduating to become a young banker for two long years.
Then one morning, he went down to the crossroads. Returning from a week-long camping trip, Mr. Taylor recalls, he looked out the window into a beautiful day and thought, “I’m not going to waste 52 weeks again. I don’t want to wake up when I’m 60 and say, ‘I was a banker.’”
Many go down to the crossroads, it seems, but many turn around and go back.
Not Mr. Taylor.
Perhaps the lesson he offers all of us is really as simple as it seems: If you want to do something, go do it. You, alone, are the greatest obstacle to exploring the world, not the world itself.
While traveling, Mr. Taylor spent six years living in northern India and working at the International Mountaineering Leadership Institute, even training porters for Himalayan expeditions to K-2 and such 8,000-meter peaks in Pakistan as the Gasherbrums and Masherbrum.
He has also taught first aid to nomads on the Tibetan plateau, where the nearest hospital was a two-day ride on horseback.
As an Outward Bound instructor (and much like Arthur Aylen before him), Mr. Taylor has likely discovered a way to mainline joy and get paid for it — get paid “to help people realize they’re capable of doing more than they thought they were capable of doing,” as he puts it.
Take it from the man himself, then: “You can’t go after comfort, if you want to feel joy. You have to rough it. You have to sleep on the ground. There were years when I slept on the ground more than 200 nights a year.”
And there may be yet. Mr. Taylor was then, and he remains now, outward bound.
That may prove instructive for all of us. ¦