Why would a 57-year-old professional photographer set out on a road trip from Maine to the Arctic Ocean with only her two dogs for company? Was she on a hunt for the perfect image? Or, in packing up her suburban dogs and driving off into the Alaskan wilderness, was she just impossibly naïve?
Linda Griffith’s journey to the north in 2008 with Hugger and Comfort might most accurately be called a spiritual migration, one that began long before the trip actually started and never really came to an end. After returning home in 2009, it took her five years to narrow down the 20,000 photographs she took to the 75 she would include in a book and exhibit she called The Secret Life of Light.
Even then, Griffith’s journey was not complete; she would come to find it unbearable to have her work viewed only as beautiful photos. Her passionate assertion that Arctic light itself is endowed with conscious awareness, caught through the lens of her camera, is as intriguing as her photographs.
But none of that was in play when Griffith was struck with the idea for the trip in 2003 following the unexpected deaths of her grandmother, mother and a long-time mentor. Though Griffith grieved, she had a focus, a way to deal with her sorrow.
Sixteen years earlier, she had occasion to meet a Lenni Lenape Clan Mother at an Allentown, Pa., museum when she took a bag full of oddly shaped stones that she thought might be Native American artifacts to be evaluated. The Clan Mother, respectfully titled “Grandmother,” took Griffith under her wing, teaching her the Lenni Lenape worldview in the same way she would teach a granddaughter.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t like my culture and wanted to try on somebody else’s,” Griffith said candidly. “It was that I picked up these rocks and they led me to this place, through a path that was uniquely mine.”
By the time the three matriarchs in Griffith’s life passed in 2003, she had developed a different sensitivity.
“I had an awareness of how directions [affect] my life,” she explained. In the medicine wheel, West is the place of dying and transformation, while North represents wisdom and clarity. “It just naturally occurred to me that I should be going North to integrate the loss of these people, and to understand where I am in my life now.”
Griffith spent four years getting ready for the trip. First, she purchased a used bus and hired a mechanic, who spent a year reconditioning and converting it to four-wheel drive. Over the next three years, she removed seats, laid carpet and installed insulation. She also coated its exterior with a special paint developed by NASA to help protect spacecraft from intense heat and cold. (As it turned out, during her August stay in Deadhorse, Alaska, the temperature was 15 degrees; the extra insulation turned out to be time and energy well spent.)
Then, there was the matter of communication. “The concern was, what do I do if I get in trouble? It’s not like you can walk back to town,” Griffith pointed out. She came up with an ingenious solution: a few days before departure, she had the bus outfitted with a military- grade satellite dish, theoretically providing access to the Internet. Upon seeing pictures of the bus before departure, friends dubbed it “Jaw-droppin’ Babe Lucille.”
“With the dish up, it looked like Border Patrol. Nobody ever messed with it,” Griffith said.
Griffith also had some soul-searching to do about her dogs. What would quality of life be like for them inside the bus, where living space had been whittled down to 7 by 14 feet? It would mean that they wouldn’t be able to run loose for a year. “I am not a believer in putting them at risk that way,” she stated emphatically.
Ironically, putting the dogs at risk by taking them with her into the wilderness was a prospect Griffith was more willing to entertain. In the end, her decision to take Hugger and Comfort was influenced by several factors. Not only were both deeply attached to her, Hugger—who at four had already had two cruciate repair surgeries—required regular medication for a kidney issue, and five-year-old Comfort had separation anxiety. Griffith knew she’d refuse to eat if left behind.