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The Ukulele: Collaboration on the John Muir Trail - Explore

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The Ukulele: Collaboration on the John Muir Trail

Mt Whitney Summit by Jen SerenaJohn Muir once advised, "Wander a whole summer if you can. . . give a month at least. The time will not be taken from the sum of life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal."

Last July, with Muir's advice in mind, a crew of multi-media artists walked the eponymous 222-mile California trail. They captured their experiences through photographs, audio recordings, paintings, video, and music. Now, after sifting through the seemingly endless footage, they've created The Muir Project, a collection of artistic interpretations of the John Muir Trail (JMT).

"We want it to be a celebration of the wilderness," said Ric Serena, co-director and camera operator for The Muir Project.

Unlike most adventure documentaries, the celebration wouldn't come at the end of the trail. It would instead be found in the delicate moments between the trailheads: the sweet strumming of a ukulele by a campfire, thousands of streaked stars above a glowing tent, the roar of a swollen creek, or the minute gurgle of water between granite boulders. Each recorded moment would be a celebratory gesture.

"The moments we released are minor to what we experienced," Serena said.

The idea for the project emerged from co-director Jason Fitzpatrick's passions for backpacking and filmmaking. After backpacking with Ric and his wife Jen Serena — who happens to be a talented photographer — the project started to gain creative momentum. They decided Ric and Fitzpatrick would document the moving images and Jen would provide still photos of the landscapes.

To create the celebration, however, Ric knew that the project needed more.

Guitar Lake. Photo - Jen Serena"I felt like we needed some kind of angle that separated us from other trail docs."

Fortunately, Ric happened to work with someone who could provide that unique perspective. Durand Trench came on board to capture the sights and sounds of the trail as a sound recordist and additional camera operator. Trench was drawn to the project because as he sees cities growing and encroaching on wild lands, he fears wild sounds will also disappear. 

"My goal was, and always is, to capture sounds from undeveloped areas that might soon become nonexistent," he said.

Through Trench, two more backpackers and sound artists were introduced to the project — musicians and composers Paul Bessenbacher and Bernie Chadwick. Fitzpatrick's idea to document the JMT had turned into a layered artistic adventure.

"I realized, 'this is going to be a bigger project than just hiking with friends,'" Bessenbacher said.

After almost seven years of planning, The Muir Project crew left Yosemite Valley on July 10 and headed south to Mt. Whitney. Throughout the twenty-five day trek, each artist surrendered to the inspiration of the wilderness. Jen created engrossing panoramic photographs. Chadwick and Bessenbacher hiked with light instruments — a ukulele and a glockenspiel — and often used sticks and rocks to tap out a beat, allowing the natural surroundings to compose and influence the notes.

Squaw Lake. Photo - Jen Serena

"A lot of people go out to the woods to get away or find solitude and the irony is the community you find out there," Bessenbacher said.

Now, the artists' trail-inspired epiphanies will be shared through The Muir Project's documentary. Fitzpatrick and Ric hope to finish the film by late summer; meanwhile, they are releasing featurettes and stills from the trail. 

There was a buzz throughout the group when asked about hopes for the project.

"We were really blessed to have so many creative people with us," Jen said. "I'm excited to see how many more people can see it."

JMT Campfire Performance from The Muir Project on Vimeo.

They've already received numerous allcolades on their Vimeo channel and Ric was so happy with his experience that he is even thinking of going back.

"My wife and I made a difficult decision to be away from our four-year-old daughter for 35 days to make this possible," he said. "The whole time I kept thinking 'I can't wait to do this with her.'"

Ultimately, everyone shares the hope that The Muir Project will encourage more folks to explore the backcountry.

"Inspiring others would be my greatest hope for it," said Fitzpatrick.

To learn more and watch other featurettes, go to The Muir Project's webpage and Vimeo site.   

--Lauren Pope / photos courtesy of Jen Serena

This post is part of a three-part series, which profiles adventurers who traveled along iconic long-distance hiking trails in North America, documenting their experiences through unique and extraordinary means.

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