The concept of chucking it all to follow your dream may seem unthinkable for most of us — the stuff of Hollywood films and Dr. Phil episodes — but for John Guider, it was a calling he couldn't ignore. Though he'd never really canoed or camped before, the successful commercial photographer put a canoe in the creek that ran through his backyard — the Harpeth River — and headed off to New Orleans.
With 30 pounds of photography equipment and no more than a beginner's knowledge of camping, he followed the Harpeth to the Cumberland, paddled through Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, down the Tennessee to the Mississippi, and three months later, arrived in the Crescent City. Along the way, he battled the elements, dragged his canoe for mile-long portages, got engaged, was tail-walloped by an alligator and was nearly toppled by a dam.
The resulting journal and photographs — gorgeous black-and-white images rendered by Guider in the expensive and laborious platinum printing process — formed the basis of a Tennessee State Museum exhibit and accompanying coffee-table book, A River Inside. (The exhibit has since traveled to other museums and galleries across the country.)
And Guider's adventuring spirit has yet to be dampened — figuratively, anyway. In 2009, he began a mammoth quest to row and sail the entire Great Loop, a 5,000-plus-mile journey down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida and up the East Coast, then up the Hudson, through the Great Lakes to the Illinois River, and back down the Mississippi, in a vessel he built with his own hands, a 14-and-a-half-foot row boat with a sail.
He's completed two legs so far, and made it as far as Sarasota. He'll start another two-month leg there in March. Which all raises the question: What keeps him going? At 62, he says, he's in the best shape of his life, no longer dependent on $400 worth of medication a month.
"Not only do I immerse myself in the art and the beauty of the landscape and people I see, but it's a spiritual retreat," Guider says. "I've reversed my asthma, my allergies, arthritis that was forming in my toes."
And he's pleasantly surprised by the kindness he's encountered. Strangers helped him carry his canoe, put him up for a night, bought him a meal and pulled him out of danger. "It was overwhelming to see people's generosity," he says.
Guider's photographs are for sale and can be seen at Studio East Nashville, a gallery he owns and shares with artist Stacey Irvin. Visit johnguider.com to set up an appointment.