FARGO - In 1977, at the age of 30, Pat Gerlach walked away from the office world he'd known as a printer, journalist and editor and declared that the outdoors was his new workspace.
For 40 years, the Moorhead, Minn., native traveled the country, taking photographs of the landscape and the animals that roamed them. Gerlach's travels ended Thursday, Oct. 11. Surrounded by family and friends, he succumbed to the terminal cancer that had been diagnosed three years earlier.
Though he trekked across America, he was perhaps best known and celebrated in North Dakota, where he settled down in Wing in 1999.
His photographs of the Badlands and wild horses, bison and birds gained him an audience not just in the Peace Garden State, but around the country.
"You have these intense moments where it's just you and them," he explained to a reporter in July. "Those moments are so powerful, when they're done you feel drained. It's a humbling experience to be out there with wild creatures in their domain."
A regular at regional art and street fairs, Gerlach booked a series of shows this past summer knowing they'd likely be his last. The first was scheduled for Mandan, N.D., but before he could open, a storm whipped through and destroyed his tent and $30,000 worth of prints.
He considered scrapping the rest of the dates, but his family rallied and convinced him to make it to the Downtown Fargo Street Fair, where he had first set up shop in 1978.
"It's pretty fitting for this to be the last one," he said from his tent on the first day.
The three-day show turned into a reunion for the artist as friends stopped by to catch up.
The first day was rainy, but Gerlach still had a sunny disposition.
"The rain pretty much summarizes what it's been like for 40 years, always at the mercy of the weather," he said at the Street Fair, surrounded by his art. "I actually kind of dread the perfect day. I've found on a perfect day, a sun-shining, 70-degree day, all of my people, the people who like what I do, they're all out doing something. They're not going to canoe today or go hiking."
Perhaps fittingly, Gerlach died on a day when much of North Dakota was blanketed in snow.
"My favorite time of the year is that first snow," he said in July. "The early winter stuff. Animals are at their prime. To me, it's a very exciting time to be out there. You can feel the change of the seasons."
Even as the changing of the seasons meant he was getting closer to the end, he looked back with appreciation.
"The last three and a half years have been the best and happiest time of my life," he said. "It's been gratifying and humbling and so many different things watching it all grinding to a slow-motion halt," he said. "I'm sad to see it come to an end. I wish I could keep doing it for years and years. But I'm so grateful for the time I have had. It's been just a wonderful trip."
There will be no funeral as Gerlach and his wife, Berni, hosted a celebration with friends and family in June.
The family has asked that instead of gifts or flowers to consider donations to the National Park Foundation directly or through Pat's memorial campaign at gofundme.com/patgerlach.