Localite: Modern-Day Pioneer

There are all sorts of people doing cool things in Nashville. People are making music and making bags, brewing beer and writing biographies. They are running health care companies and nonprofits and banks and everything in between. Many of them are pioneers in their field. Not many of them are actual pioneers.

John Guider is.

John is a photographer, one of the most soft-spoken folks I know. When I first met him, I was a teenager looking for an internship. He took me in and gave me small assignments, helping style shoots and scout location sites. He taught me the basics of photography and had me asking my parents if we could transform our laundry room into a darkroom. At that point in his career, John was doing commercial work, and he was extremely good at it. But his voice alone revealed a soul more complex and curious. Not a wild man at all, nevertheless it was as if he belonged in the wilderness — far away from drop-cloths and deadlines.

Indeed, John has spent the past 17 years undertaking months-long solo photographic journeys, traveling by river in boats he himself has crafted. Did you catch all that? By himself, by boats made by him, for months, for miles. I can barely get my kids to school on time! His is a story very much worth sharing.

John’s adventures started in late summer of 2003 when he walked out the back door of his home in Franklin, climbed into a canoe in the creek behind his house and started paddling. Within three months, he had made it all the way to New Orleans. The book that emerged from that experience is called The River Inside, and it is wondrous. From there, John completed a 6,500-mile watercourse across the eastern United States and Canada known as the Great Loop. His vessel? A sailboat he made by hand. Most recently, John completed a 1,000-mile journey that hits closer to home. He retraced the journey John Donelson undertook 240 years ago when he founded this particular settlement we call Nashville. There is a documentary of his trip called Voyage of Adventure: Retracing Donelson’s Journey, which aired on Nashville Public Television and was recently recognized at the regional Emmys.

If you know the history of Nashville even cursorily, you will know that it was John Robertson and John Donelson who settled the area. Robertson came by land, Donelson by river. Donelson and 100 fellow travelers traversed the Holston, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, trusting currents to guide them to a home they had never seen. John Guider navigated those same ageless waters, revealing anew the modern frontier. I love that John shares the first name of the two pioneers who settled this special place. I love knowing what our fellow humans and Nashville neighbors are capable of. It inspires me, and I hope it inspires you. Google the documentary, support local artists, paddle the river inside.