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The Climb

Sometimes the goal isn’t to win, but simply to finish

Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll confirm that I’m pretty much of a pre-pubescent teenybopper stuck in the body of a middle-aged woman. On most days I wear tie-died shoes, jeans, and a t-shirt; carry a backpack instead of a purse; have my hair pulled back in a bandana hairband; and love to jam out to teenybopper mainstays including Taylor Swift and Hannah Montana aka Miley Cyrus. Speaking of Hannah/Miley, based on my year to date, I’ve pretty much decided that her song, The Climb, is my theme song for 2021.

Let me back up…

In 2017, while photographing birds during spring migration in Port Aransas, I struck up a conversation with another photographer, who told me about a photography contest she was participating in called Wildlife in Focus (WIF). The more she told me about it, the more I decided that this was something I really wanted to do. In a nutshell, WIF is a 5 month (running January-June), bi-annual Texas photography competition where a photographer partners with a landowner, spending the contest period photographing the wildlife on the landowner’s property. It’s a big commitment, and some of the best photographers in the state and country participate making it one of the most prestigious competitions in the wildlife photography community. In 2019 I was fortunate enough to have Dr. John Beck, owner of the Beck Ranch, agree to let me have the run of his ranch for the 2021 contest. This really was a match made in heaven. Not only is Dr. Beck one of the kindest people I know, but his ranch is amazing and only a few miles from my house, allowing me to manage the time commitment of the competition, my family, and my business.

I spent almost a year prowling around the ranch, getting to know it and formulating my game plan. 4 months before the contest started, I built a bird blind with feeding areas and a water drip to help attract wildlife to an area where I could control the angles, lighting, and perches. Then I spent the next four months camped out in my blind getting a feel for what was coming in, arranging and rearranging perches, and trying out different foods. On January 8, 2021, the contest kicked off, and I was in my blind snapping away.

Two weeks later, my life and carefully laid plans completely went off the rails when I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. I called John in tears to tell him the news. He suggested we cancel this year and try again in 2023. I told him that I appreciated the offer, but I wanted to keep going. He happily agreed. However, my “best laid plans” continued in their “off the rails” trajectory. A few weeks after my diagnosis, Texas experienced “Snowageddon”, an unprecedented weeklong freeze that literally shut down the state as everything froze up, the power grid collapsed, and we basically hunkered down in clusters trying to stay warm. I, unfortunately, decided to add to the general mayhem by breaking my wrist when I slipped on an icy street walking my dog. Luckily, it was a clean break and wouldn’t require surgery, but I was in a removable cast for the next 8 weeks and for much of that time I couldn’t even hold a pen to sign my name let alone hold a camera to take pictures. Sitting in the ER with my husband, I cried in frustration, and, yes, dropped a few F-Bombs. What can I say, grace under pressure just isn’t my jam.

Getting back to my main challenge, the cancer was discovered early, and my entire course of treatment lasted a total of 11 weeks, but I did have surgery in March to remove the tumor which meant that I had limits on what I could lift for 4-6 weeks after surgery making it impossible to shoot with my wildlife camera and big lens… as if I could lift it anyway with a broken wrist.

Continuing the “off the rails” trend… Not long after I was finally released to lift things heavier than a loaf of bread, my favorite wildlife camera body completely cratered and died on me. Then we had an incredibly rainy spring and the rains washed out my birding area and made navigating into the interior of the ranch nearly impossible for my two-wheel drive car. And, for good measure, the rains led to Godzilla-sized mosquitos that thought my industrial strength mosquito repellent smelled like Axe Body Wash.

Not surprisingly, in June, when the contest wrapped up, I found myself finishing in a place completely different then where I had planned on finishing. But, through all the chaos and mayhem, however, an amazing thing happened… I had fun!

Before the contest started, I was fretting about EVERYTHING! Did I set up my blind in the right place? How should I organize my time to cover so many categories and so much property? Should I set up a second blind on the back half of the property? Am I going to make Dr. Beck proud? Am I going to make me proud? Really, is this a good spot for my blind? But after the cancer diagnosis, I had a mental realignment where suddenly the goal shifted from exceeding expectations to simply finishing. And guess what? I did, indeed, finish! And when I stopped worrying about making this period of my life fit into the box that I had created for it, I stepped back and just enjoyed watching it unfold. And what a true joy the experience was!

Isn’t that the way life should be lived, though? Shouldn’t we spend more time enjoying and less time planning and fretting? As I look back on the last six months, I am truly struck with the reality that life is the ultimate adventure, best lived enjoying the moment and not worrying so much about the “shoulda, coulda, wouldas.”

In a few months I’ll find out how well I did in the contest. I don’t know if any of my photos will win anything. I think I care about the outcome… I’m honestly not sure if I do or not. I have a lot of photos to submit that I’m truly proud of and I think they’ll do well, but the bigger picture, and the aspect that I’m most proud of is that I climbed the mountain and made it to the other side. I finished!

So in the “sage” words of Hannah Montana:

There's always gonna be another mountain
I'm always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes you're gonna have to lose
Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb

About the author

Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson has developed quite a following as a wildlife photographer working under the pseudonym “Backyard Bird Nerd.” Her photos have been featured in magazines, websites, and art galleries. As the owner of an advertising agency, writing has always been a part of her life and career. Her literary work has included producing text for websites, brochures, television and radio commercials, and a variety of magazines articles. Delving into the world of children's literature has been an exciting and challenging adventure, and pairing these books with her love of photography has proven to be the perfect outlet for her passions and talents. When not prowling around in nature looking for something to “fly” by her lens, she lives in South Texas with her husband, two daughters, and dog.

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Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson

P.O. Box 3926
Victoria, Texas 77903

If you would like to see my books or art, please stop by my offices Monday-Friday from 8am-5pm
Outburst Advertising
5003 John Stockbauer, Suite J
Victoria, Texas 77904


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