Words and photos by Abi Lafleur-Shaffer.
I’m from the West. It’s a never-ending playground of wilderness, with views that twist your insides and terrain that challenges the mind and the body. As a photographer, my backyard is where I play, where I work, and where I find rest. It offers constant inspiration and breathtaking beauty.
All that to say…it’s been easy to avoid the Midwest.
The Midwest is a part of the world I’d only heard rumors about. (“There’s nothing to do there!” “That’s fly-over country.” “Want to see endless cornfields?”) I can’t tell you what it was that drew me here, to be honest. Maybe the desire to show my dogs, Kodi and Kuma, a part of the world they’d never seen before. Maybe the challenge of a month-long road trip, just me and two dogs living in a Subaru. Maybe it was the desire to be something beyond That Girl on Instagram — the one who camps and travels with her dogs.
“Mile 368.3. A rain storm I can see for miles. I get it (the charm). I will forever long to peek out my window and see a magnificent peak, but this. . .this is special too.” Abi wears the Teva Women’s Arrowood 2 Mid WP in Desert Sand, a waterproof sneakerboot with grip for rugged and wet terrain.
Around the same time I decided to head to the Midwest, I was reminded of a quote from Mark Jenkins I read while on a road trip from Alaska to Colorado years ago: “Adventure is a path. Real adventure — self-determined, self-motivated, often risky — forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black and white.”
The beginning of this year marked my own “real” adventure, as I experienced a deep loss. I collided with the earth, with myself, and knew it was time to get comfortable with living in the gray area of life. On every trip I took, and in every moment close to home, I had firsthand encounters with the world that left me breathless: standing on top of Dog Mountain with Kodi and Kuma and coming to peace with my new family structure; finding healing in Hawaii swimming with giant manta rays; magical encounters with strangers on the shores of Oregon. Moments of rest as I sat in patches of wildflowers at the base of jagged peaks, feeling the breeze of honey bees flying by. It was easy to collide with earth in this way, when the views are epic and the air gets thinner near the summit. It was time to do something different, and so Kodi, Kuma and I left for Minnesota, and I decided to donate my time and photograph adoptable shelter dogs along the way.
“Mile 1378. I want to give up.”
“Mile 3223. Canoeing: no cell service, the lake under the canoe, dense forest, looneys flapping their wings, water skippers gliding across the water surface, Simon catching us dinner, sunshine, fog/mist, swimming, Kodi’s and Kuma’s paws thumping against the forest floor, bright orange mushrooms growing out of any crevice they can find. Life, you’re a trip.” Abi wears the Teva Women’s Hurricane XLT2 sandal in Boysenberry, our iconic sandal silhouette with improved traction and comfort.
The Midwest is subtle. It’s quiet. There’s no epic mountain view behind the rain. It’s only rain. There’s no turquoise alpine lake next to the wildflowers. There’s only wildflowers. I’m not catching my breath as I grapple with every step up a mountain. It’s only me grappling with myself, as I am in that moment, breathing. Suddenly I’m not distracted by my mind convincing my body to “keep going,” it’s only me: soaking in the light hitting the trees just right, observing spiders tossing their webs from plant to plant, seeing Kuma sneeze after sniffing a caterpillar with spikes.
Like the quote above, this was real adventure — I came face-to-face with my surroundings the way they were, not the way I imagined them or wanted them to be. Not everything is black and white. Not one thing is life changing and the other not.
“Mile 3098. I feel Kodi pressed against my back sleeping in Subie, he sighs, and I feel safe.” Abi wears the Women’s Ember Moc in Amber, which is the ultimate car camping shoe with its collapsible heel.
“Mile 3114. I’m sitting at our campsite, folks walking by as I’m eating and sharing popcorn with (and having a full conversation with) Kodi and Kuma. I realize I’ve had a real conversation with only three humans in a week. Shit, I’m lonely. What the hell am I doing here?”
“Mile 3000. Subie is cramped, dogs are restless, I’m restless, and all I want is to do laundry with a margarita in hand. Arrived at a shelter, I meet Howard, Azalea, and Marley, suddenly laundry and cramped Subie doesn’t matter much.”
I believed this trip would change my life and the lives of the dogs, and it did — but not in the ways I expected. So far, two out of the three dogs I photographed in Minnesota were adopted within a week. And me? As I learned to love parts of the world I didn’t know I could love, the same happened for me: I learned to love parts of myself I didn’t think I could.
“Mile 3532. The umpteenth time I’ve heard someone say, ‘You’re really far from home,’ and the first time I thought, ‘But am I?’ Home is where I wander, with two pups by my side, doing our best to give back with what we have, just as much as the world has given to us.” Abi wears the Abi wears the Teva Women’s Arrowood 2 Mid WP in Desert Sand.
I am changed, one stroll through the forest at a time, one mile of road at a time, one shelter dog’s wet nose in my lens at a time. And every shade closer to the grey of life I get, I find that my wild self can be just as at home in the quiet forest of these astounding Great Lakes as it is the wilderness of the west.