When I traded thirty damp summer dollars for my used film camera a few months ago, I had no idea it was going to become so important to me. I had always known that film photography was an addictive habit; that anyone who got their grubby hands onto a roll of 35 millimeter would develop a sort of addiction to its grainy novelty. In fact, I’d witnessed it once before, with a friend from the past.
But this time, I was at the helm of that mechanical ship. I was about to set off for a weekend adventure with three of my favorite people in the world to find myself, Walt Whitman-style. “If you want me again,” I imagined telling acquaintances back in the city, “look for me under your boot soles.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant for my own fast-paced city lifestyle, but I liked the poetry in it.
We set off in a red Buick convertible, making Crossroads references and cranking the volume up on the playlist we’d been curating for weeks.
We were heading to the mountains and not looking back — well, at least until Monday. After spending two hours in Friday night New York City traffic, we finally made it into New Jersey. I spent about half of my roll of film just on the drive there.
That weekend would mark the first official outing I’d had with my now-trusty Nikon N65. I spent a night reading over the manual for it that I’d found online, and felt prepared. I remembered my friend loading his film into the body of his camera, much nicer than mine. I remembered the zipping noise the camera made as the film scrolled into place. I remembered the sense of adventure he accessed from some undeveloped corner of him. He was revving up for something that I didn’t quite understand at the time.
The trip, I’d promised myself, would be a spiritual one. I wanted to forget the things that hadn’t gone quite how I’d planned. The pieces of the puzzle of my summer that hadn’t quite made it into the final picture. Promises I had counted on that were tossed aside with the Brooklyn breeze. At least my friends were on the same page. We’d all had long, desperately hot summers. The New York City summer had trapped us in like subway rats. The biggest, freest city in the world had become a stifling cell. We needed to escape, and we would.
Upon arriving at our secluded AirBnb, we discovered that we would be without cell data and WiFi for the weekend. I was elated. I’d been caught in a web of feeds, read receipts, and unreturned calls, and I was ready to let go. “Let’s embrace it, we need to detox,” I pleaded to my appalled friends. They didn’t really have a choice, but after a very long and Instagram-free evening, they were happily off the grid.
The weekend was perfect. We spent a long, cool evening trying to remember the name of the Quidditch announcer in the Harry Potter series (“LEE JORDAN” I screamed after nearly an hour, as his name appeared in the pixelated credits of the VHS we’d found in our AirBnb). We debated over the alluring Marxist messaging of Fergie’s “Labels or Love.” We spent a solid hour trying to figure out how to light an outdoor grill — a skill we came and left without. We played Scrabble, waded in ice-cold river water, read our books, and let ourselves breathe. Hair was braided, hammocks were pitched.
We were four rustled leaves who’d finally floated down to the ground.
On our last day, we drove out onto the open mountain road, blasting The Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces.”
A small parking lot atop a roadside hill beckoned us. We had been half-heartedly searching for a sunset spot, and this perch seemed like just the place. We excitedly hopped out of the car and I observed a lick of rain on the air. My friends took turns rolling down the hill and running back up like kids. The four of us picked dandelions; I placed one carefully behind a blonde, sun-kissed ear.
Looking back, these moments were photogenic, but I wasn’t worrying about what they looked like. I was focusing on how they felt. To me, that is the magic of a camera that doesn’t let you peek. I had no idea how my photos from the weekend would turn out until after it was all over. So instead of photographing the moments, I felt them.
We lingered on that hill together for a long time, taking in the full panorama of the Catskill Mountains. We felt the imminence of our weekend in that moment. The pull of the city was stronger than us and soon we would return to its grasp, to our history. Something bubbled over inside me and I howled at the top of my lungs. Startled, three faces turned toward me. And then one screamed. And another, and the third.