By the time you read this, John Guider will be on the water, likely in the middle of nowhere, on the biggest journey of his life. Every summer for more than a decade, the 65-year-old East Nashville photographer has packed his life onto a small boat and traveled hundreds of miles, documenting the entire experience along the way. There is no motor; sometimes there are no people. His worries focus on the weather, finding a place to sleep, and getting the shot. Oh and sharks.
This extraordinary story begins in a rather ordinary way; after 30 years working as an award-winning, nationally recognized commercial photographer in advertising, Guider started to feel burned out. "I found the demands of running the business were such that I couldn't concentrate," he says. "I dreamt of having long periods of time where I could do my own thing." Who hasn't? But Guider decided to do something about it, albeit in a Forrest Gump-ish fashion. He set off in a canoe behind his home in Franklin, leaving his career by the side of the creek. When the Harpeth River turned into the Cumberland, he kept going. He didn't stop when he reached the Ohio River, or the mighty Mississippi. He just kept paddling. Three months after leaving Williamson County, he reached New Orleans.
"I'd never really paddled before, I'd never really camped before. I just wanted to learn about life, and I wanted to enjoy the world in a macro-type of perspective: going three miles an hour, and just see things the first settlers saw, and get a sense of, 'Why are we here?'" Guider says. "I guess what I did was somewhat dangerous, but I had an out: I could always raise my hand and walk to the interstate if it ever got to be unbearable but the early settlers didn't have that."
Nor did they have really nice cameras. Guider documented his canoe trip and decided he had enough good pictures to make a book out of it. "The River Inside," published in 2008, features 75 prints, all developed using platinum printing. It's an old method, popular in the late 1800s, now used for its ability to enhance a black and white photograph with richer shadows. The pictures capture the characters of people Guider met on the river, the cities and structures looming on its banks, and deserted landscapes at once murky and brilliant: water lapping and birds flying, everything spotlighted by sunlight.
"Rivers are an obstacle, they're just something to cross over. We don't see them as the life force they are," Guider says. "It was a very cathartic experience, too; just being on the river I'd go days and not see anybody, but when I did, the first person was my very best friend."
The photographs, along with journal entries and items collected on the trip are now part of a national touring exhibition, recently wrapping up at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum.
Guider's familiarity with the water started at an early age. Growing up in what he describes as a "country club atmosphere" about an hour north of Philadelphia, he learned to sail at camp as a child. He followed his father's suggestion to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering from Vanderbilt University despite knowing, he says, "I always wanted to be an artist." After graduation in 1973, Guider stuck around Nashville, knocking on doors until someone gave him a job processing film. Soon he was taking the pictures, and he never stopped. By the time he was 25, he had his own business.
Within a few years of getting out of commercial photography, he opened Studio East on Woodland and 16th Streets. He sold the property two years ago, and it's now home to the restaurant Lockeland Table. But that first major canoe trip altered the course of Guider's life, and he kept going back for more, in subsequent years canoeing the entirety of the Mississippi River, beginning from its source in Minnesota back down to the Gulf of Mexico.
"It's obviously dangerous in some respects; I've been in so many electrical storms I really don't know why I haven't been hit by lightning. I've been in a lot of tornado warnings," Guider says. His journey is controlled by the weather, and when he sets out he doesn't know where he will end up, just that the end of the day will go one of three ways: He'll land and set up the tent; if there's no place to land, he'll throw the anchor over and sleep in the boat; or he'll ask a stranger if he can camp in their yard. "Most of the time they'll not only say yes, but they'll invite me in their homes. If there's a reason I'm alive, it's through that kind of generosity."
Of course, he's also run into a few unsavory types. In the middle of the night, he once listened to some guys in a Jeep debate for five minutes whether or not they wanted to rob him something Guider describes as being "almost an out-of-body experience" until he poked his head out of the tent and gave them the disappointing news that he lacked the one thing they were interested in stealing: beer.
Guider now has a 120-pound, 14 1/2-foot rowboat-meets-sailboat that he built himself from a kit he had custom-designed for his current adventure: a 5,500 mile odyssey known simply as the "Great Loop." He is circumnavigating the waters of Eastern North America, two months a year, one thousand miles at a time. This journey aboard the "Adventure II" has taken him from the boat ramp at Shelby Park where he launched in 2009, back down the Mississippi River, through the Gulf of Mexico and straight into a real-life scene out of Jaws.
"I was going to Key West from the tip of Florida, it's a 35-mile crossing. I left at about 10 o'clock in the morning and got caught in the current and the tide, so by midnight I still had 18 miles to go. It was pitch black, clouds covered the sky. I stopped to rest, and a shark I guess it was a shark, I couldn't see it but it came and it grabbed the oar, and shook it so hard that it wrenched my shoulder. I guess once it figured it wasn't edible, it let go," Guider says, showing me the gnawed oar he keeps in his Historic Edgefield home as a souvenir. "About an hour later, I had to stop again, and this time, I kept the oars out of the water. And something came and hit the rudder so hard it spun the boat around, and I realized I was being stalked. I've never wanted to run so bad in my life. But I was just stuck."
Most of the time the journey is peaceful, aside from the more mundane mishaps (according to Guider, "Anything that could break on that boat, has," including his mast and rudder). The boat can only carry about two weeks of food and water: almonds, energy bars, things that can be boiled. To cut down on time spent preparing food, the only meal he usually cooks is a big breakfast, followed by quiet time spent journaling while the tent dries. He does keep a cell phone, but it's hard enough to find a signal let alone keep everything charged. "It becomes an exercise of doing without, so it's sort of a paradox of American living, where you try to get as much as you can."
Over the years, Guider eventually made it up the East Coast, through the Hudson River to the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. This summer, the adventure begins where it left off in 2013 at Trenton, Ontario. One thing is different: This time, he'll be headed for home, finding his way to the Illinois River at Chicago, and then back into the Mississippi River. "I've got about 1,500 miles to go. I usually make a thousand, so I'd like to finish this year, but I'm not sure."
It's not just about miles logged, or getting away from it all. "I want to improve myself as a writer," Guider says of his plans to produce another book, drawing from the 20,000 images he estimates he's taken along the Great Loop. "When I started writing the first book, I'd write 15 minutes a day and get headaches … I'd never written before I was 50, a lot of it had to do with my dyslexia — it was just too hard — but now with computers and spell-check and everything it's more reasonable." Though still a work in progress, Guider says he's considering the apropos book title, "A View From A Small Boat." And after the book comes out? "There's another journey in me somewhere."