One of my favorite photos of myself was taken by a kind, Southern stranger outside of the Alamo.
I was on a cross-country road trip that led me to an album full of photographic pit stops. By the afternoon I landed in San Antonio, I had been wearing the same outfit for four days and was still two days away from a shower.
My hair was tied up in a messy ponytail and I couldn’t stop sweating, but just like Pee-wee, I was on a big adventure and wanted to indulge my vanity with a photo of myself in front of the Alamo. Instead, I now have a photo of me, beaming in the plaza out in front of the historic building with a kind, Southern stranger’s finger blocking most of the facade.
I was traveling solo and for the first couple hundred miles of my trip, all of my photos looked the same. It was one pristine Pennsylvanian field after another.
Rolling through Oklahoma, I realized that I didn’t have a single photo of myself. When I pulled over to eat a peanut butter sandwich, I grabbed my phone, stretched my arms out far in front of me and snapped a selfie next to the Blue Whale of Catoosa, a giant sea creature that lives in a landlocked lake off of Route 66 and serves as an oddball’s love letter to a wife who collected whale figurines.
It’s a great picture too, I think, of me on a whale in Oklahoma at the onset of my longest and most explorative solo adventure. I look at it now and can remember how I felt in that moment, after eating one of the first of too many peanut butter sandwiches during the trip. I remember how I channeled my inner Jonah and climbed the length of the whale’s back, from center to land, finding a full view, set against an Okie landscape, of one man’s reminder to his wife that he loved her.
When I look at that photo now, I’m reminded of how real the smile that selfie captured was, how excited I was to explore the country.
From that point on, I threw all landscape photography out my car window. I wanted photos of me on my trip, not just my trip. While running along the fence of a cow pen in Missouri, I held my phone out in front of me to capture the speed and joy I felt in that moment, in a nondescript field I couldn’t lead myself to again if I tried.
At the Grand Canyon, I hustled back and forth from my camera as it sat precariously on a log with the self-timer counting down, hoping to catch a snapshot of myself while the sun set across the red rocks behind me. I did, and then left my phone on the log while I sat and stared until dark.
By the time I looped through California and back down toward San Antonio, I had perfected the art of the selfie. It was a sweltering day in Texas and I had just driven from San Diego to San Antonio with a quick nap in the backseat of my forest green Subaru somewhere along the highway.
I stood with uncertainty in front of the chapel turned fort thinking of the best way I could set up a self-portrait. My arms weren’t long enough to get both me and the Alamo in one frame. There weren’t any logs to lean my phone against and no vast open fields to give myself distance from my subject of choice. I was in a crowded plaza, my selfie skills failing me, when a man and his wife walked up to me and asked, “Would you mind taking a photo of us?”
Who wants a picture of just the Alamo anyway? A photo of the building will prove you were there, but will it remind you of how you felt? Gobsmacked by the beautiful history so neatly tucked away in a bustling downtown and exhausted after two weeks of driving and exploring and driving and exploring and stopping at another McDonald’s because you ate all the peanut butter sandwiches.
After I framed their smiling faces against the historic backdrop, I asked for the same favor in return. I handed them my phone and smiled my cheesiest smile. The man fumbled with the iPhone in his hand, made a quip about technology and snapped the best photo of my trip, before hurrying off onto a tour bus.
I took a second to look over the photo after he had left. You can see me, smiling, and behind me stood the Alamo in all its glory, but the photographer didn’t seem to know that. Instead of a photo of me at the Alamo, it’s a photo of me and this man’s finger.
I don’t know what the couple remember when they see the photo I took of them, but when I see my photo I’m reminded of the trip and can’t help but laugh.
I wanted a photo of myself at the Alamo, so I asked a fellow tourist to take a photo of me in front of the iconic stronghold. What I got was a photo of me, exhausted but happy and ready for the final stretch of road to take me home with a trip full of adventure behind me.
So, when you’re on your next adventure and you’re feeling elation, excitement, fatigue — anything! — take a second to embrace the selfie, or ask a stranger to compose your shot. Either way, you’ll end up with a memory of your trip, the places you’ve been and how you felt when you were there.
That way you’ll remember more than the Alamo.