Mike (Chasing Dreams from Chicago to the Rainforest)

Written by Mike Talladen

What is your El Dorado?

Long ago, tales of a place called El Dorado lured so many into the jungles of South America in search of a city of gold and its king. Some of these explorers paid the toll of that pilgrimage with their lives and as terrible as that may be, I’ve always thought of this as a beautiful sort of outlook on our individual lives in general. After all, each of us is chasing after our own El Dorado, whether we know what it is or not.

For as long as I can remember, the Amazon rainforest has always been mine, yet I grew up telling myself I’d only ever see it through books, movies, photos, and dreams. I convinced myself it would never be a possibility for me to go there. But a few years ago I went, I saw, and I brought home new possibilities for myself. Since then my idea of El Dorado has evolved.

Dreams evolve like anything else, and we are often left wondering “what now?” when we are fortunate enough to see our dreams come to fruition. When you’ve been chasing something for so long, it can be easy to lose sight of the reasons why. Our dreams do not define us – what defines us is what we do to achieve our dreams and what we do with those dreams after we’ve obtained them.

Before I even left the Amazon I knew I wanted to come back, to visit other jungles, to photograph these precious places and species that face so many challenges, to do everything I can with the skills I have to help spread messages of hope and add a voice to the growing cries for help. Upon my return to the states in late 2015 there was no ignoring the news of raging fires across Indonesia. Seemingly every paper, every television, and everyone on social media was sharing footage and stories of a burning country, people fleeing their homes, and orangutans stranded in forests no longer standing. Like so many others, it was the first time I heard about palm oil. For all the research I did on it, questions kept mounting, and I quickly realised the answers I sought after could only be found in person. I had to go to Sumatra to see it for myself. That’s how I met my friend and fellow Lonely Conservationist, Nayla. Just like my departure of the Amazon, I left Sumatra knowing I wanted to come back. It fanned the flames of a burning desire to keep doing more.

Sharing the images and stories of my travels has always been filled with the hope that they might inspire others to do good; to appreciate the wilderness more and offer insights and perspectives of both the beauty and decay of this planet we all call home. But my mission goes beyond that, my dreams keep evolving. Providing financial aid and images to grass roots organisations who work in conservation and education has always been a part of my business model, and I continue to chase the dreams and ideas born from that pursuit.

Going to the Amazon was a childhood dream come true. Every adventure, every job, every mission since then that I’ve been able to be part of as a photographer – the one skill I’ve managed to really grasp over the years – has been a chaotic mix of immense gratitude and feeling perpetually lost. As a full time wedding photographer in Chicago, I often feel especially disconnected from lifestyles and places that resonate with my core. There are days where I’m in disbelief of the opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to grasp, but what my mind has a knack of focusing on is all the opportunities I’ve missed because of XYZ.

My online presence certainly creates the notion that I’m on the road more often than I actually am, but the reality is I’m home a lot. I miss out on lots of trips because I’m booked almost every weekend of the year and once I’m booked, I can’t exactly request off or switch shifts. In a sense, my main source of income can make me feel like I’m trapped. Never in a million years did I think I’d be photographing weddings when I first picked up a camera. In fact, I always said wedding photography was something I’d never do, yet here I am. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy what I do, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful because I am not – but I do often wonder what else I could be doing, or could have done if I was on a different path. Sharing these kinds of thoughts have notoriously ended with statements like, “it’s not too late!” but sometimes things really are easier said than done.

On a deeper, more serious level, opportunities of all kinds slip through my hands like grains of sand due to a long list of life-long mental and physical challenges I’ve faced and continue to endure. I’ve suffered from migraines ever since grade school, had several accidents leaving me with injuries that plague me to this day and leave me wondering how long my body will even be up to the task of being “in the field.” Impostor syndrome plays tricks on my mind as frequently as the passing sun. And as the world burns, drowns, and crumbles, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness sinks deep into my consciousness on a continuous and growing rate.

And then there is the debilitating depression, which, just like my dreams, have managed to evolve over the years, adapting to every technique I’ve had to learn along the road, seeping back into my life one way or another. Days can turn into weeks, weeks into months, months into years. My brain becomes consumed in the deafening noise or crippling silence that lets simple daily tasks hit the back-burner, emails go unanswered, missed deadlines begin to pile up, and the sense of giving up pummels against my mind and my heart in waves. This year hasn’t been easy, either. Even now as I write this I am still reeling myself in from some heavy personal losses that have played a huge role in my mental state of mind. I lost my dog, Riley, to cancer in August after thirteen years of companionship, and more recently I’ve realised I might have to let go of some people I love so profoundly it hurts.

The time I steal from myself weighs heavily on my mind, and everything becomes a vicious cycle of trying to stay above water, relearning how to stay afloat every now and then. I know I am not alone in feeling this way, I know others have it far worse than I, but that doesn’t make it easier. Sometimes I feel like the only driving force I have left in me is the burning desire to somehow make a positive difference in this world. But what exactly is that difference? When will I feel accomplished? I’ve spoken to audiences old and young, opening eyes to the plight of deforestation in various regions and the magnitude of problems associated, changing peoples perspectives and empowering them to act in their own ways. I’ve held numerous fundraisers and put aside a percentage of all my print sales and bookings that has allowed me to donate to programs involved in conservation, community education, reforestation, and wildlife rescue. I’ve helped purchase pristine rainforest land and left it in the care of local responsible NGOs. But the world still burns, greed seems to prevail day in and day out, and this battle I believe so strongly in often feels like I’m on the losing side. So when will I feel like I’ve “made it?” When will I feel accomplished? When will I feel like I’ve really made a difference or an impact?

The thing is, our brains can be our own worst enemy, turning many little victories into things that might seem like we are failures, like we’re not enough, like it’s pointless. I have a strong belief that anyone who truly cares about the world, about the well being of ALL others now and down the road, will never feel completely accomplished because there is no end. There will always be something or someone to fight against, always something or someone to fight for. One of the biggest challenges that faces the growing obstacles of the world is that to some degree, we have all been lead to believe we’ve gotta do this alone. In the realm of conservation I can’t help but feel like there is a lack of connection between all the various forces at play who are all fighting for the same thing. That’s something I deeply appreciate about Lonely Conservationists. Bridges are being built, alliances are growing stronger, and minds of all kinds are joining forces to aid so many admirable causes.

I’ve spent so much of my life trying to do things solo because I hate asking for help – I still do – but I’ve slowly come to realise the reality is we can’t always get to where we want to go, or achieve what we want to accomplish without support. And we certainly can’t get anywhere if we don’t even bother to try. Like anything worth chasing, it’s going to take time, a lot of hard work, help and support from others, and maybe even a little luck to get where we want our dreams to take us.

We are all isolated stars in our own little solar systems, trying to break free from the gravity of our norm and make a name for ourselves out there in the universe; to find an identity, a purpose – to figure out who or what we are. We’re always searching for El Dorado. The truth is, space is infinite, and we’ll very likely never be content with where we are in the vastness of darkness and light. I at least take solace in knowing there are so many other stars out there – all of you – and we share the cosmos, swirling around together, helping each other shine.

Know this – If you have a dream that seems impossible to achieve and it’s something possible for others to do, you can do it, too. It might take you a hell of a lot longer, require a lot more help, cost more money than others, or demand more blood, sweat, and tears, but you can still do it. And if you don’t yet know what that dream is, what your own slice of El Dorado might look like, that’s okay, too. Another decade is coming to a close, more and more people are waking up to the reality of the climate crisis we face. More and more people are opening their eyes to the economic and social injustices so many have been and continue to face. And while more and more places and lives are lost, there are still more and more helping hands and voices joining the ranks of a growing resistance that is fighting for a better future; a future of equality, of a healthy natural world, of thriving populations across all species – a future some of us may never live long enough to see but one I know in my heart is still worth fighting for.

I’ve got plenty of ambitions and dreams yet to be realised, and while I may not yet know what I’m really doing in life, or while I may never know where I’m going or how I’m going to get there, doing what I can with what I have to help create positive change in this world alongside others like you while I’m here is the least I can do. It is simultaneously what keeps me up at night and what keeps pushing me forward. Ultimately that’s what my El Dorado is, and I will continue to chase after it until my dying breath.

I’ll leave this off with two questions for you; What is your El Dorado, and how can we help each other help save the fuckin’ world?

For more of Mike, check out @hiraethdiaries on Instagram

Jessie Panazzolo

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Hi! I am the founder of Lonely Conservationists and have been lonely in conservation projects spanning seven equatorial countries. My brain is 99% random animal facts 🦕

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