The Traveling Cure
Rest and relaxation are the prescription for almost any injury. But not for Neill Drake. When the discs between the veteran’s vertebrae began to collapse and depression seized him, the only treatment that worked was travel. He sold everything, grabbed his camera, and left his home in San Diego. Now he’s circumnavigating the globe, trying to let others who suffer know that there’s a way out.
“I found my cure in my passion,” he says. “My passion is traveling, but everyone has their own passion. I want people to see that there’s a way to heal themselves, to find their passion and follow it.”
Drake is sharing photos of the people and places he encounters on Instagram (everydayadventuring). He plans to be on the road indefinitely, winding his way through South and Central America, Asia, Europe, and Antarctica.
Being on the move as a form of therapy is not new for Drake, who joined the Coast Guard at 23 after his mother’s death. “My mom always told me I should join the Coast Guard to find myself. I was a high school drop out, kind of a troublemaker. I was a good person, just not responsible. My mother thought the military would help me grow up, which it did,” he says.
Drake was also adventurous, an avid surfer and snowboarder, a thrill seeker and all-around active guy. In the Coast Guard, he patrolled the waters on a search-and-rescue ship.
“The waters were really rough and I spent a lot of time on smaller boats,” he says. “Over time, the constant pounding from the boat crashing on the waves started to take its toll on my back.” First there was discomfort, then numbness in his limbs, and then debilitating pain. The discs of cartilage between several of his vertebrae were compressed and pressing into his spinal cord. He was relieved of his patrol duties and confined to a desk. He had to give up any and all outdoor activities for fear of further injuring his back. For Drake, it was purgatory. “When the surf was good or the powder was fresh on the mountain, I was stuck at my desk or at home in bed,” he says. “The inactivity was killing me.”
Eventually the pain grew so great that Drake was unable to work at all. He was confined to a bed for much of the day. He enrolled in the University of San Diego to study industrial and systems engineering and resigned himself to a sedentary life. Depression gripped him, and he lost all motivation. “I just didn’t feel like myself,” he says. “I had no desire to do any of the things I loved and I felt myself sinking lower and lower. When my friends were doing fun adventures, the thought of pain was literally haunting me. The expectation of pain was worse than the actual pain.”
Drake needed a change of scenery. Late one night while recuperating in bed and aimlessly drifting through the Internet, he stumbled on a last-minute bargain trip to Belize. “I thought that if I was going to be bed-ridden, it might as well be on a beach in Belize,” he says. He booked the trip at 4 a.m. and was on a plane two hours later.
That first trip was followed by a handful of other last-minute travel deals. He spent his days recuperating from his injuries on beaches far from home. It worked. He started to feel more like himself again and pain stopped ruling his life. Drake decided to liquidate his life. He sold all of his belongings; then he packed a bag and bought a one-way ticket.
Now everything Drake owns fits in a medium-size pack: laptop, camera, and some board shorts. “I just had to get away from my situation,” he says. “I found my passion and was lucky enough to be able to have the funds to travel for a while, to meet new people and see new places, to experience new cultures.”
During his years at sea and on the mountain, Drake had dabbled in photography and had even earned money on the side as an engagement and wedding photographer. He had learned about light and composition and became proficient in digital processing with Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. These skills have served him well in his new roving lifestyle.
Drake had traveled with a full-frame DSLR and arsenal of lenses before and knew that the weight would be too much for his healing back. He also had a budget to consider. The compact and lightweight APS-C Sony A6000 was perfect. Coupled with inexpensive yet high-quality used Minolta lenses, the lightweight kit could deliver stunning images. “I’ve shot with expensive pro gear and it’s fantastic,” he says. “But really for me it’s about having the freedom of movement and a camera that’s unobtrusive and small. It lets me connect more with the people I’m photographing and go more places.”
Drake has experienced a transformation in his photography since heading out on his travels. Like many new photographers, he initially focused on technical accuracy: perfectly lit subjects and stunning landscapes. Now he focuses on the story behind his images, the moments that make them great. Capturing those moments now outweighs technical accuracy. He applies the same philosophy when processing photos, modifying his images to reflect his own emotions and feelings the moment he took them. “Some say I may be heavy handed with my processing and maybe I am, but I’m trying to tell stories the way I experienced them,” he says.
One of Drake’s first stops in Brazil was Iguazu Falls, a spectacular natural landscape of waterfalls on the border of Argentina. He planned to be there for three days but ended up staying for more than a month in the Tetris Container Hostel. (It’s the largest structure in the world built exclusively with shipping containers.) Drake became good friends with the owners and was featured in a documentary about the hostel. “Tetris was a great home base for my world journey. I met hundreds of backpackers and learned a lot about long-term travel. I left Iguazu feeling much more prepared for what lays ahead.”
And now Drake is sharing what he’s learned about those communities. His first video documentary will explore the life of a dive instructor in Natal, Brazil. The instructor, Paul, teaches scuba diving techniques at a secluded lake a few hours from the city. The forest surrounding the lake is home to several stray dogs, and Paul feeds and treats them.
“He cares for the dogs and makes regular trips to the lake to check on them,” says Drake. “I want to tell his story, show more people who he is and what he’s doing. He really inspired me and I want to help him as much as I can.”
Drake will venture into Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Patagonia, Easter Island, the Galapagos Islands, and on to Central America before heading to somewhere in Southeast Asia. “I really don’t plan more than a few days in advance,” he says. “I keep my options open. To me it doesn’t really matter where I go as long as I have time to connect with the people there and to share my experiences. I want to show people that there are lots of ways to live and to be happy in the world.”
Where would you like to go with your camera? Let us know in the Comments below.
November 18, 2015
Images: Neill Drake