Below the knee, Greg Wilson looks like a cowboy. From the waist up, he could be an urban hipster: patterned scarf around his neck, an orange Penguin softcover tucked into his coat pocket. He drives a red pickup and didn’t own a camera until his early 20’s.
Wilson is the sort of American I love to meet abroad. The type who let travel expand their identity, softening them into something undefinable, beyond national stereotypes.
The kind you could meet in any bar in the world and wonder, Where are they from?
Wilson and I catch up over ciders at Flanagan’s Irish Pub in Spearfish, South Dakota. Originally from the state, Wilson currently lives and works as a windsmith in Wyoming. He’s back in town to arrange a photography exhibit at Black Hills State University.
“All photography is, in essence, trying to capture a moment,” he explains. “Something that can encompass everything, bring you back to a moment in time.”
Like an image of Cairns, Australia – where Wilson spent a year working on scuba boats – brings back the smell of mud flats, a brilliant sun, the cheers of kids in a nearby pool…
Perhaps a picture of Alaska, where Wilson says he learned to backpack. Or maybe a shot of some small-town USA, any of the places he biked through during the summer of 2010.
The cross-country trip exemplifies Wilson’s mix of respect and disenchantment with Uncle Sam. He does not hold back describing the ignorant and spiteful folks out there. Halfway through a quote, Wilson stops and asks me to cross out the words I’ve been scribbling.
“But,” he adds after a pause, “it’s absolutely amazing how many incredible individuals you meet in the same society.” Strangers who bought him meals, offered him shelter or simply a cold drink. “Travel’s changed my perspective on America.”
And photography, he insists, is all about perspective.
One of Wilson”s favorite pictures catches a sunset over Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Forest, a scene he’d explored 1,000 times before: hunting, camping and cutting down Christmas trees.
Showing a friend to the area, on the 1,0001 time, Wilson found something he’d never seen before. Luckily, he had his camera – a 5-year-old Pentax – in his backpack.
Before relocating to Wyoming, Wilson spent a long time roaming. But the plane ticket to Laramie drained his bank account and left him stationary for the unforeseeable future.
Though he loves living near friends and family – “They transcend miles and time,” – like all nomads, he’s dreaming of his next departure.
“Photography has taken over my passion. There’s a distinct lack of beauty in my life: an 8-5 job, coworkers with missing teeth…compared to the glories of the open road, I’m stuck in the middle of Wyoming with people who don’t understand the Traveller’s Way.”
It’s easy for Wilson to feel constricted back here, at home. Being surrounded by Americans, Wilson admits, can sometimes be the worst part of this short-term settlement. “Anyone who’s traveled alone knows that feeling.”
But again, it all comes down to perspective.
“Use your time wisely,” he mused, when I asked what advice he’d give to other Yanks who feel trapped. “Find that new perspective and learn from it.”
Teaching himself the art of photography; appreciating Tolkein’s wisdom that “Not all who wander are lost”; trying to turn travel into a lifestyle and not a holiday; this young gun in boots is doing just that.
“Through my lens I try to catch that glimpse of eternal, of that singular image of enchanted ecstasy my weary legs managed to lead me to. It is here, with tired feet and a sore body that I realize that it is not the road behind me, nor the horizon ahead of me, but the peace within me that I set out to find.”
So, where to next?
“My lease is up in May, and I’ll shoot from there…”
Greg Wilson’s photography – The Art of Being Lost – is on display in Meier Hall, Black Hills State University, Spearfish South Dakota, USA, through August. Admission is free.
For photographs, a travel blog and more information on Wilson’s art, visit The Art of Being Lost.