4th of July Reflection: Freedom, Relief, and Peace Out on the Trail

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The 4th of July is about many things—independence, revolution, origins, reflection—but if nothing else, it’s about freedom. A commemoration of America’s original freedom, but also a celebration of the very idea of freedom, as a principle, as a lifestyle, as a goal. We’re proud as expeditionary outfitters to be a part of that in our own way: as ever, we firmly believe that connecting with wild places does you immeasurable good, and so we’re dedicated to providing you the means—the freedom—to adventure, live wildly, and go beyond. We’re also proud to work with and highlight those that share our perspective and passion. People like trail pro, all-star photographer, Veteran, and all-around badass Ben Altenes.

Ben is a good friend of BEYOND, providing some of the photos you see on the site and most recently, our 4th of July video featuring Old Glory waving atop a mighty, conquered climb. He also shares our affinity for outdoor adventuring, in particular trail running. It began as a unique fitness opportunity during his deployment in the Middle East, where he served for 10 years. “We had to do PT to keep up with the rest of the rugrats in the team. I wasn’t really a gym rat, but we had this big mountain range that we could basically play on. You could trail run and find these little terrorist paths. It was just completely cool.” The seed was planted, and it only grew from there. Upon returning home, Ben sought new chances to run and challenge himself. “I think I did a half-marathon trail race at first; absolutely loved it, it was a great little distance. Then I was like, ‘I think I can do a 50-miler.’ So I did a 50-miler. And I completed it! But it put me in check.”

Setting and meeting new goals was fun, but continually running through the long and winding paths of mountains came to have a deeper meaning. “It wasn’t about ‘the race’ the whole time for me,” Ben reflects. “I think it was just the adventure of being on the trail and seeing something new with every step. And not having the trees talk back to me, but just listen. The trails took all my tears when I needed to let those out.” 10 years of service had not passed without challenges, and what had begun as an alternative workout had become something more. “Trail running was a way to cope with PTSD. To get away from the city, the crowds, electronics, the news, the politics. The trail, mountains, and backcountry became my church, my Disneyland, and my therapist. It was a way for me to get my heart rate up, be physically fit, be alone, and be totally exposed to nobody else but myself.” Ben’s trail runs became weekly sessions (at a minimum). Once the runner’s high kicked in, things would shift. “There are some strange emotions that just come out. I’ll start running and be happy as hell listening to a song, and the next thing you know I’m crying. And I’m like, ‘What the…?’ But it feels good! It’s like, ‘Yeah, those are sad thoughts, but I’m so happy that I’m doing them out here.’ No one’s judging me. It’s okay.”

The trails, gear, tunes, and other details of a run vary, but one thing he is rarely without is a camera. As with trail running, photography began on the side during deployment. Ben wanted to have a visual journal of his travels, and found he had something of a gift for snapping quality pictures. On one occasion, he and his interpreter were in Kabul picking up black market beer and a pizza when he noticed a mother with her child. “It was the colors, the black backdrop of the sheet hanging up, and there was a ceiling light coming through… I asked my interpreter if I could take her picture.” Ben gave her $10 for her time, snapped his picture, and grabbed his pizza. Some time later, the State Department issued an invitation for photo submissions; Ben assumed it was for a simple digital library regarding deployment, and sent along a handful of photos. Little did he know it was for a contest. Fast forward a bit, and Ben found himself one of 12 entrants flown out to Washington DC for the Art in Embassies 50th anniversary. His photo, “A Mother's Embrace,” is currently hanging in two embassies, the Pentagon, and was featured for a time in the Smithsonian. “Oh,” Ben remembers thinking, “I guess I got a little knack for this.”

Art in Embassies: BENJAMIN ALTENES

Ben kept up with the photography and demonstrated that the contest hadn’t been a fluke, as he began working with more and more brands to showcase their products. It proved an ideal blend with trail running: his excursions through the outdoors offered ample opportunity for memorable shots, and the brands he chose to work with asked him to feature the sort of gear he’d have taken on a run anyway. “I’d go up with a camera,” Ben chuckles, “and I’d have six companies in my backpack.” Trail running and photography, two things that began as hobbies, share a fundamental element: the unique relief of wild places. And that’s still where Ben is most at ease. “I’m more comfortable on a ridge line with 800-foot drop-offs than I am in a lot of other situations. I feel so comfortable, and open, and clear. I know exactly what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I know the dangers.” And if nothing else—despite long hours on the trail, sore muscles, exhaustion, and the mental fatigue of nailing mile after mile—Ben returns to a personal philosophy: “Being outdoors and trail running and hiking,” he muses, “is kinda like sex: you’re never really THAT sad that you did it. The outcome’s usually pretty good, for the most part.”


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