Changing Nature

For more than three decades photographer John Fielder has focused his lens on the outdoors. Now, the Colorado icon is beginning to recognize the value of getting people into the frame.

September 2009

At J.T.'s funeral, Fielder delivered a 10-minute eulogy that included slides and video of his son, all while revealing little emotion. Ralston and Klingelheber were among those in attendance who were amazed at Fielder's composure. "I think a lot of people were surprised, because most parents in that situation wouldn't be able to talk," Klingelheber says. "It was almost like he was giving a normal slide show up there."

A month after J.T.'s death, Fielder still seemed removed from the tragedy as he led a three-week rafting trip through the Grand Canyon—a trip that J.T. and his best friend, Byron Jones, had planned to attend. Even though such trips have years-long waiting lists, Jones couldn't bring himself to go. Citing the five boats full of expectant rafters, including Ralston, Fielder followed through.

Toward the end of the trip, Ralston and Fielder drifted downriver in the lead boat, rapt in conversation. Ralston was angry with J.T. He couldn't reconcile why he, Ralston, had chosen life while J.T. didn't. To Ralston, it felt like a slap in the face, though he came to see it as a gift, a revelation he shared with Fielder on the water. Ralston was of the mind that "wanting life to be easy is the wrong goal to have, because just trying to eliminate difficulties won't help you succeed or grow." And Fielder agreed. They had become so engrossed that they drifted far beyond the planned campsite and were forced to spend the night on a sandbar. In time, Ralston interpreted J.T.'s suicide differently: "We both had come to remote settings with the same tools, yet made polar opposite decisions. But it really was the same thing; it was to free himself. And that was how I came to peace with it."

Fielder is still sorting through what meaning there is in J.T.'s loss, and in so doing, he's sorting through the meaning of everything. He sought counseling for the first time, a humbling step for any self-made man. "One of the great things in life is figuring out solutions to your own problems, but this one was more than I could handle," he says. "Gigi's death was predictable, and you could emotionally plan for it, but J.T.'s was a shocker."

It's an only-in-Colorado summer day, with cloudless skies, and the 80-degree temperatures are melting the last remnants of snow atop the Gore Range. Fielder glances around the living room of his home, a gorgeously rustic and cozy retreat just outside Silverthorne, as he reflects on J.T.'s eulogy. Everything that's ever mattered to Fielder is right before his eyes: the distant mountains he's worked so hard to nurture and protect; the awards he's won for those labors, along with mementos of past trips, all papering the walls of his dream house. On one side of his living room, there is a sideboard cluttered with a few dozen personal photos of friends and family. The freeze-and-squeeze pictures are posed, stilted, and trite, unworthy of publication in a fancy coffee-table book. And yet the way they're arranged, so carefully placed in disjointed, almost messy, rows—a stark contrast to the spotless order of the rest of the house—leaves the impression that they're now among Fielder's most treasured possessions.

Fielder can discuss both nature and work with striking fluency. "Even when it's a regular conversation I sometimes get the feeling he's rehearsing his marketing speak for how he'll pitch things," Ralston says. "He's genuine and real, but he's working all the time." But sitting here now, Fielder's words are halting. "It wasn't eloquent," he says, referring to the eulogy, his throat growing hoarse. "I wanted to celebrate J.T.'s life, so I gave a brief history and showed some photos of family trips, father-son trips, whatever. I tried to be as stoic as I could. I don't get emotional. My dad was that way, too; we've never been big fans of burdening people with our problems."

His visits with the psychologist came just in time. "I got very close to the place J.T. probably was. I didn't consider taking my life because I couldn't leave two daughters alone in the world after everything they'd already lost. But maybe there was a reason for me getting to that place," he says with a glance toward the sideboard. Displayed prominently toward the front is a Fielder family portrait, taken in front of their Greenwood Village home. Gigi and the girls stand arm in arm, and J.T. cradles the family cat, all smiling broadly; in the photo, John has placed himself stiffly to one side, on the outer edge of his family. As his gaze meets the picture, he lowers his head and begins to cry. "Maybe somebody wanted me to know where J.T. was."

Fielder doesn't believe in the stereotypical white-bearded God. Redemption, however, is another story. To his environmental and Alzheimer's crusades, he's now added suicide prevention. He's more engaging and less preoccupied with himself. Everyone around him claims to see the difference. Ralston's once stoic and guarded mentor now possesses an empathetic softness. Klingelheber now sees J.T.'s father, once so coolly detached, hugging people hello and good-bye. "Our relationship with him has changed completely," daughter Katy says. "He's become more emotional and sensitive to us, which has brought us closer together." Fielder ends conversations with "I love you," and is keenly interested in his daughters' emotional health.

Fielder's friends and colleagues have watched him vigorously dive back into his work and suspect Ranches of Colorado might be his best project ever. As always, it has the striking vistas and earnest text, but it finally includes pictures of homes, animals, and people—ranchers and cowboys riding, roping, and working, surviving and thriving with dignity and diligence, as crucial to their landscape as any snowcapped peak or bursting columbine. "I have a lot more compassion now for people and their problems," Fielder says. "I think a lot more about how I'm coming across to friends or acquaintances—knowing how deeply distressing life can be and that they may be experiencing something like I did. I think about how can I make their life a little bit better by mitigating that."

He's made his own life a little better with a new relationship. After Gigi died, Fielder dated, but he never got serious until he met a woman named Alena. She's blonde and stunning, and she captured Fielder much like Gigi did: with a love-at-first-sight thunderbolt. She also handles Fielder's public relations and lives with him in his hideaway. Alena is about the same age J.T. would have been, but Fielder deflects whatever tension that causes within the family by reminding his girls, as their mother once might have, that "there's no limit on love."

On each anniversary of J.T.'s suicide, the Fielder family visits the peak above Butler Gulch. (The Powder Factory also prints an annual ski calendar as a tribute to J.T., with the proceeds going to suicide prevention.) A new world view—spurred on by intense reading about cosmology and the origins of the universe—helps Fielder get beyond what he might have done differently. It's taught him, or rather is teaching him, to recognize the beauty, energy, and light Gigi and J.T. brought to every day of their tragically abbreviated lives. The memories are more small miracles of convergence—much like the pink-orange alpenglow from his favorite moment of light so many years ago—only now Fielder doesn't have to wait for them; they arrive every hour of every day.

The relentless, gritty adventurer gazes out his picture window toward the Gore Range. His reflection stares back at him, putting him into the frame, where he's finally comfortable inviting people to join him. "My life was always focused less on humanity and more on the natural world, and there really has to be a bit of both in everyone's life," he says. "I would hope that my children and their descendants figure out the value of humanitarianism more quickly than I did."

Luc Hatlestad is a senior editor of 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].