It’s not like John Fielder to stay put. And yet here he’s been since March, when the pandemic forced him and everyone else to stay put. Here he’s been at his Summit County home, jumping from one Zoom call to the next, promoting his new book, showing photos to virtual audiences and praising his beloved state as he’s done for the better part of 40 years.
Yes, Colorado’s most famous nature photographer is still in high demand.
It’s just now he’s not traveling and meeting face-to-face with admirers. Which is more than fine by him. “I’d rather be home,” he says on this Zoom call.
For someone so public, someone so outspoken, someone whose acquaintances — fans, fellow environmentalists, politicians — speak so highly of his charm and charisma, it’s a surprise Fielder does not count himself as a people person. “I hate people,” he once said. He was kidding, mostly.
“I enjoy people,” he says now, “but I enjoy being alone, too.”
So he’s been fine indeed during the Great Isolation of 2020. Fine here at home near 9,500 feet, where celebratory streamers from months ago still hang for his 70th birthday, where it’s as silent as the surrounding woods but for a ticking clock.
Importantly, Fielder has had a project. He has always needed a project.
“I call him the bionic man,” says his daughter Ashley. She calls him that for his physical composition — a pair of titanium knees and a titanium hip, the result of a lifetime of hoofing it through Colorado’s most remote, wild sectors to capture the photos displayed on walls everywhere. (When Fielder says he’s hiked, driven, skied or rafted almost all of the state’s 66 million acres with map, compass and sometimes pack llamas on hand, he’s not exaggerating.)
But Ashley also calls her dad that for his mental fortitude. “He just keeps going.”
As he is with “Colorado’s Highest: The History of Naming the 14,000-Foot Peaks.” It’s the latest of 50-plus books he’s published featuring his pictures. He puts it in the same, lofty category as “Colorado: 1820-2000,” another academic project that saw Fielder photograph the same places William Henry Jackson did a century earlier. That went on to become the bestselling book in state history.
It marked the height of Fielder’s career, which started in the 1970s. He began by selling calendars. Then came books out of his publishing house, similarly displaying Rocky Mountain majesty and similarly quick to sell out.
A businessman by trade, Fielder came to realize he could turn his hobby into his livelihood. Long before social media influencers of today, he came to realize the state’s beauty as a brand. He also realized the perils of that.
The 1990s marked a staggering population boom in Colorado, the unblemished land that Fielder knew rapidly consumed by subdivisions and shopping centers.
“All of those books and calendars did not slow people down,” he says. “I realized that I was part of the problem.”
And so he went about becoming part of the solution. His days- and weeks-long photographic missions were now for the sake of stewardship — notably when he ventured 750,000 acres that he wanted protected as federal wilderness. He took photos that were shown to members of Congress, and thus were born parts of Indian Peaks Wilderness.
Also notably, Fielder was a key lobbyist for Great Outdoors Colorado, the lottery-funded arm that has helped preserve 1.2 million acres since approved by voters in 1992. Fielder continues to serve on conservation-dedicated boards, donating money from publications and seminars to various nonprofits, fighting mines and influencing clean air and water initiatives where he can.
“Who’s the most impactful conservationist in Colorado history?” asks Gary Wockner, a longtime leading advocate and director of Colorado River nonprofit Save the Colorado. “I think John Fielder would have to be in the top 10, if not near the very top.”
All of this a first-time author knew when she nervously approached Fielder about the “Colorado’s Highest” concept.
“He’s unbelievably accomplished and, when I thought about that part of it, it kind of took me aback,” says Jeri Norgren, a Colorado native. “But it was like, no, he’s just a person.”
A person who has known joy along with sadness. Fielder has known unimaginable sorrow. Sorrow that no man should have to face in the silence of his home.
But here he’s been, alone with his books and photos and thoughts.
“The favorite word of my life is perspective, both professionally as a photographer and personally as a human being,” he says.
“Without difficult times, you can’t appreciate good times. ... Perspective is critical.”
• • •
Perspective is what he seeks when he dives into such history projects as “Colorado: 1820-2000” and “Colorado’s Highest.” It’s what he seeks when he spends afternoons reading reports from men who surveyed the territory that became Colorado: Hayden, Fremont, Long, Pike — their old, romantic descriptions painting Fielder’s mountainous world in a new light.
Recently, he’s gained perspective from a voluminous book on World War II. That stark period is a passion of Fielder’s. As is outer space, the galaxy, the cosmos, the universe or multiverse, as Fielder believes it to be.
“The size and mystery,” he notes in his biography, “allow me to better appreciate our earthly existence.”
Fielder struggles to align spiritually. But “as much as I am an accountant and practical,” he says, “I’m not totally convinced something or somebody is not watching out for us and steering us.”
How else to describe his fateful encounter with Mrs. Hickman? She was the middle school teacher who inspired his appreciation for the planet.
There in Charlotte, N.C., every summer, she’d haul young Fielder and others in a station wagon from coast to coast, north to peaks of Canada and south to ancient cities of Mexico, stopping at every geological, biological, archaeological and paleontological intrigue along the way.
They’d camp in forests, canyons and deserts. That’s how Fielder fell in love with nature. And not only the grand visuals of it all, but the “sensuousness,” as he puts it. “The sounds, the smells, the tastes.”
He couldn’t be satiated. Not since 1963, when on a trip with Mrs. Hickman to Estes Park, he looked to the mountains and told his teacher he’d live in Colorado one day. He’d work summer jobs in the state through high school and college.
He studied accounting at Duke University. Days after graduation, he drove to Denver, where eventually, by age 29, he was managing more than 100 employees. It was what the men in his family had always done: business.
But Fielder looked forward to the days he wasn’t in the office. He’d drive through the midnight hours to some trailhead. And up he’d go with his Canon F-1 35-millimeter, hoping to master the kind of images he studied by Eliot Porter, those “intimate landscapes” that miraculously framed what the eye perceived: the light and shadow, the depth, the layers and intricacies of trees and crags and whole ranges that made nature so marvelous to Fielder.
It was a struggle. But Fielder kept at it, embarking into the backcountry every chance he got.
There was, however, one special day in the office. It came in 1975. Fielder heard a woman’s voice around the corner, and for whatever reason, he felt compelled to see who it was.
• • •
Her name was Virginia, Gigi for short. “The most beautiful woman I had ever seen,” Fielder recalls, and “humble and thoughtful.”
Three years later, in a church surrounded by his favorite Sangre de Cristo peaks, they were married. Gigi would tag along for his trips, and he’d be sure to photograph the most beautiful sight around: Gigi and her long, blond hair, her great, gleaming smile that would make her blue eyes squint.
Their first child would have eyes like her and grow tall like his father. John Thomas, JT, was born in 1980. Ashley was on the way a year later, and then Katy in 1985. The kids would load the back of the car, along with whatever equipment they needed for whatever adventure it was.
JT took a particular liking to skiing by the time he went off to college. Ashley was 16 and Katy 12 at that time in the 1990s, when Fielder was his busiest, his fame growing and advocacy work taking off.
Also at that time, something wasn’t right with Gigi.
She’d forget things. She seemed distant in conversation. Once, on a visit to see family in Chicago, Fielder called to find her at a loss for words, driving around aimlessly.
At 52, she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Fielder calls the next seven years “very focused.” These were the “peak of my organizational skills,” he says, a time when he had to work harder than ever — had to make money for JT’s college and for Gigi’s medical expenses — while also stepping up as a husband and father. These were teenage years when daughters needed their mothers most. Gigi could manage hugs and kisses, but language failed her.
The disease’s savagery was done in 2005. Gigi died in her bed.
For Fielder, there was strange relief. “Now, I didn’t have to manage taking care of her,” he says. “I could go on with my life as a photographer and father.”
He had time to prepare for that death, seven hard years.
“But losing a son to suicide,” he says, “there’s no preparation for that.”
• • •
On a blistering night in March 2006, Fielder rushed to the scene of JT’s car. It was parked at Butler Gulch, his boy’s favorite place to ski.
A text had been sent to Ashley and Katy, their brother saying he loved them, that he would always be with them.
Among first responders, there was a dreadful feeling that they were too late.
Trekking up that snowy mountainside, they came to the body. JT was 26.
Yet again, Fielder thought to take a businesslike approach. This, he tried to rationalize, was another matter to manage. He had to be strong for his grieving daughters.
“He was sort of able to shut the emotion off,” Ashley says.
But that was only for so long. The pain was crippling.
He had always found healing in the woods. “I tried that,” he says, “and I still felt completely empty.”
He got help. He started talking about his feelings. He was good at talking to audiences, so that’s what he did: He was a keynote speaker at suicide awareness events.
It helped. But the pain would always return, sharp as ever.
He sold his publishing company, left the city and moved to the mountains.
“Time,” he says. “Time, I found, is the only medicine. It can only get better, in whatever way it gets better, as time progresses.”
And so time went on here at his new home, the surrounding aspens turning lime-green to gold to barren. The mighty, gray faces of the Gore Range loomed in the distance, and then they’d shine with snow. The years and the weight of gear he carried into the mountains had taken their toll; Fielder decided to get his knees and hip fixed.
But he’d regain his strength. He’d get back out there. He’d start another publishing company. And again with his camera, he’d roam meadows of wildflowers and butterflies before the freeze, and he’d return to find the rivers alive again with snowmelt, and the animals would come and go with the seasons, too, and the sun would rise and set, casting everything in those warm colors he always knew and loved.
• • •
Age isn’t stopping Fielder.
Out in the middle of nowhere, “(stuff) happens,” he says. He’s calculated this happens to him on average three times a year.
In 2019, for example, he triggered his first avalanche and managed to outski it. The year before, deep within the Uncompahgre Wilderness, he had to evacuate himself, a sick llama and 200 pounds of luggage. A week later on the Colorado River, his raft flipped, thousands of dollars of equipment lost. “I still had a good time,” he told friends afterward.
This all makes Ashley worry. But she knows her father. “I don’t think he’s ever gonna be the person who retires and lays on the beach,” she says.
Though, he recently had the beach in mind. It’s something he misses about his childhood. Every summer, the whole family would vacation to the beach. He keeps a photo of them all there, all smiling from a lifetime ago.
The people in it have come and gone. That’s him, bespectacled and shaggy-haired, learning, thanks to Mrs. Hickman, just how big and beautiful the world was.
There was ugliness, too, he would learn. There was a whole universe and multiverse and way of things beyond our understanding.
“I wish those things had not happened in my life and my daughters’ lives,” Fielder says.
“You know, we always tried to use negatives to create positives, to learn from our losses, to learn from JT and Gigi and what they offered us, to appreciate the time we had. And in the end, it’s not a net gain. It’s still a net loss. But it’s far better with that attitude than it would be otherwise.”
Far better to keep seeking beauty, Fielder has learned. It’s always been there on the beach. “I gotta have the beach now and then,” he says.
So off he went for that sensuousness: the sun on his face, the sand on his feet, the fragrant breeze and the gentle, melodious waves of the ocean, vast and endless on the horizon.