I recently completed a 4,000-mile road trip across eight western states. I've traveled often throughout my life, but this route took me through some of the most gorgeous terrain I've ever seen.
I rolled along the rugged and rocky mountains of Utah, across Star Valley, Wyoming and into northern Idaho. I saw the Columbia River Gorge at sunset and snaked through the stunning Snoqualmie Pass into Seattle. I drove south along I-5 to Portland before diving into the Shasta National Forest toward Susanville, California.
Eventually I hit Reno and turned back to the west to Sacramento over Donner’s Pass on I-80. I saw views so magnificent, I had to keep reminding myself they weren't photoshopped.
I saw the classic yellow "beware of wildlife" signs for more animals than I knew existed. I can't be sure, but I think I saw one for a mongoose. (Though it’s unclear what Jamaican geese are doing in California.)
Because I hadn’t seen so much wildlife since a trip to the National Zoo, I took plenty of photos to share on social media. Because that's what we do, right?
As I sped along on a rural highway near Susanville, California, a fawn jumped out in front of me and I slammed on the brakes. She scurried off to my left and I noticed her mother (well, I don't know for sure, but they sure looked alike) had stopped at the right edge of the road and was staring at her baby from the high weeds. She had that angry look that suggested her little one was going to be grounded for a fortnight.
The scene was gorgeous. The air was so clear and crisp. It looked like a scratch-and-sniff postcard that might've smelled like S’mores and hope.
I looked in my rearview mirror and saw no one. I reached for my iPhone and tapped the camera app. I rolled down the passenger’s window for a reflection-free pic, leaned over and raised the camera.
Then, whether the result of fatigue, road loneliness or something more divine, I felt prompted to drop the phone back in the passenger's seat.
The photo couldn’t possibly capture this, I thought. And this time, this once, I want to save it just for me.
As I pulled away, I remembered countless trips like this one. As a child in Germany, we spent five years traveling all corners of Europe. We have a couple hundred slides to show for it. But I have a thousand memories.
In a sleepy Chicago suburb, I played at the park down the street from my house and built bike ramps that either sent me soaring successfully through the air or tumbling over the handlebars when the particle board broke. I don’t have a photo or cell phone video of those daredevil antics. I don’t need them.
As a young Mormon missionary in Brazil, I walked through beautiful cities, jungles and small villages in between. I panned for gold in a river with a toothless man who panned not for riches, but for tradition. I have 150 photos from two years in the country and not a single one from that day near the town of Ouro Preto. Trust me, I don’t need them to remember that man’s face.
On those trips and many others before cell phones came with cameras, I don’t recall pausing when someone yelled, "Wait! Let me grab the Polaroid!”
Yes, technology is wonderful and on that same western states trip I took many photos of people in the dozens of bookstores I visited. I'm grateful for the innovations that allow me to connect with people and record history in ways our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.
But it’s tragic when digital moments take over for memories, for privacy, for intimacy, for that single moment when it’s you, a deer and a backdrop only God could create.
Next time you have a nice meal, or see something extraordinary or travel to a beautiful spot, consider leaving the camera dark.
And when you unpack at the end of the adventure, you might end up with the best photo you never took.
Just once, trust your mind’s eye, and you just might see a mongoose.
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