Raleigh engineer hits the road in search of inspiration

sbarr@newsobserver.comSeptember 23, 2013 

— Brian Owen remembers flipping through issues of National Geographic as a kid, captivated by photographs of the jagged rocks and vast expanses of the desert.

He grew up loving the desert, relishing vacations to the American West and painting desert landscapes while working as a mechanical engineer in North Carolina.

So when Owen, 29, headed off on a cross-country journey two months ago, hoping to find some inspiration, he knew the desert would be an important stop.

“When you go to the desert, you can better hear what’s already inside of you,” he said.

Owen left his job after realizing he felt unmotivated and dissatisfied there. He’s hoping the trip will give him a new sense of direction.

An N.C. State graduate who has lived in Raleigh for the past 15 years, Owen plans to stay on the road until the end of the year, traveling in the Honda Element he converted into a home on wheels, complete with a sleeping area and storage.

Since beginning his trip, Owen has been up the East Coast all the way to Maine, into parts of Canada and through the western states before landing in Utah several weeks ago.

There, he’s stationed at Bryce Canyon, working with the park’s astronomy program. It’s a dry, high-altitude place where on a moonless night you can see your shadow by the light of the Milky Way alone, he said. He wants to help preserve that darkness, to protect the health of humans and wildlife but also so that everyone can be inspired by the night sky.

Owen, who was a regular volunteer at Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, is hoping that the images he creates while in Utah will help park officials find funding to build an observatory for public education and research.

And he thinks he’s also discovering hints of what was missing in his life before. He loves his daily interaction with visitors, the feeling of connection to them. He wants whatever he does next to provide the same opportunity to help people, and he has his eye on a teaching job in Raleigh that he hopes would be the right fit.

Owen knows he’ll be back out West again. But he’s also looking forward to coming home when the time is right.

“I do miss North Carolina,” he said. “As much as I love it (in the Utah desert), I miss our landscape.”

Barr: 919-836-4952

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