Southwest Journal of Events
In July of 2007, work had me attending the national College Board convention in Las Vegas, Nevada. As could be expected, I had mixed feelings about the whole endeavor as I don’t gamble and had kind of “been there and done that” long ago.
Though thrilled at the chance to able to attend, I was still hopeful that with some planning it might be possible to explore some of the southwestern landscape beyond the glitz of the over the top hotels and gluttony of the all you can eat buffets. Fortunately for me, also attending was a co-worker of exceptional photographic prowess and he had invited me to join him on a tour of various state and national parks throughout California, Nevada and Arizona.
Barely had the last session ended when we piled into a rented SUV, loaded it with assorted camera gear and supplies and were cruising through the desert heading for a Death Valley sunset. Now since I mentioned “gear” let me take a moment to mention the extremely wide divide between camera equipment that is used by “professionals” and that of “amateurs”. While David carried an impressive Cannon (Type??) with an array of lens, polarizing filters, remote shutter activator, tripods, etc. filling up much of the back seat, in comparison my Sony “Cybershot” DSC-W5 (5.1 MP) fit snugly in my shirt pocket. Thus armed, I was challenged to take at least one photo from the trip that would be a genuine “wall hanger”.
With online research and an intimate knowledge of Death Valley, David knew how to use the magical light of sunrise and sunset to maximize the most scenic areas. Temperatures approaching 120 F did little to deter us from our intended mission. I watched in a state of amazement as tourists actually fried eggs on the parking lot pavement at Badwater, the world’s lowest point. From the very first day, shooting at Zabriskie Point, the Devils Golf Course and Badwater, I was able to capture several outstanding shots and my excitement started to build knowing that ahead in our journey were yet even more impressive areas.
Over night, found us staying at the only park hotel open during the summer months. I had to laugh knowing that I had first seen the hotel on the travel channel several months previous and thinking “who would ever be stupid enough to stay in that blast furnace?”.
After an early morning wake-up by my over anxious friend, we were racing through the pre-dawn to catch the first rays of morning light. Within a few miles we arrived at a place simply called “Stovepipe Dunes”. I was quickly given my “assignment”. It appeared that during our morning endeavor, we would both choose separate areas to explore and as a team attempt to digitally document the enormity of this impressive place. Now beginning to feel energized, despite the lack of caffeine assistance, I began trekking toward the largest of the dunes. With sneakers loaded with fine desert sand, I managed to arrive on the top of the mammoth distant dune just as the sun was cresting the horizon. The sight was awe-inspiring but unfortunately, in my attempt to reach the summit, I had forgotten my intended purpose on this trip was not the conquering of peaks but rather furthering the development of a keen eye. As the flaming ball of hydrogen gas rose higher in the sky, I frantically began scanning the arid landscape for a shot. Panic began to over take me, as I feared I had squandered my chance at this truly great local. As I traipsed back toward the vehicle I caught a point of interest out of the corner of my eye and decided to stop and take a few shots. I spent the next half an hour in this spot taking shots at different angles and maximizing the limited aperture functions available on my camera. My hopes soared at the thought of maybe getting lucky and capturing something worth framing. Walking slowly back to the vehicle, the Fahrenheit started to rapidly rise and I attempted to walk back in the shadow of the dunes just to find glimmers of relief. I left the dunes feeling fairly confident that I had managed to display at least a beginner’s level of artistic talent.
Of all of the places on earth the “Race Track” in Death Valley is one of the strangest. Large boulders haphazardly strewn across a dried lake bed called the plia appear to move under their on volition. While some argue that these erratic movements are linked to strong winds and heavy seasonal rains other (like David) believe that it is magic. Several other opportunities were noted and documented; however, the real story was in a leaking rear tire and a short cut that lead nowhere. Using what amounted to a worthless map of the area David and I attempted to save time by using an “unimproved” road to cut directly across the desert. While the landscape was beautiful and we did get to tour some lovely Borax mines ultimately a steep incline in the road and a near death experience on a cliff face meant we had to backtrack an hour a half to our original starting point.
After a lengthy discussion on where our path should lead us next, we decided to follow the flow of the Colorado River to impressive Arches National Park in Utah. Of the multitude of photographic choices available, limited time meant we needed to choose only one or two locations. After a brief discussion, we decided to attempt an evening shoot at “Delicate Arch”. Morning and evening light is best for photography and I have even heard tell of certain artistic individuals spending years studying its interaction with the vibrant shades of reds throughout the southwestern landscape. It was therefore no surprise to me that these locations were packed with professional and amateur photographers looking to expand their portfolios. I managed to steal away with a few images from my time spent at Delicate Arch . . . and the moon lit trek back to the vehicle through rattle snake country with a dying headlamp will always hold a special place in my heart.
The next morning found us at Mesa Arch located in Canyonlands NP. Though I really did try to capture an acceptable shot it seemed to be beyond the limits of my equipment and my untrained eye. In another area of the park, I was able to scale some rock cliffs to get a shot of Turret arch through the large opening of the Window arch. At first I was disappointed at not able to get a shot free of people, however, after further consideration I realized that having the people in the shot allowed for an element of scale.
Feeling physically exhausted from the heat, pre-dawn mornings, late evenings and long car rides with my bad back I was pleased that our final day shooting was to be spent in locations easily accessible from the vehicle. Canyonlands National Park is filled with spectacular monoliths of rock and stretch to the heavens in monumental proportions. My first view of the area was called “Park Place” and it made me think I was looking into an impressive picture. I had some challenges shooting in this location and had to resort to taking two photographs to get what I needed. In the first photo, I exposed for the sky and in the second for the ground. Later in Photoshop I was able to overlap the two photos and come out with an acceptable middle ground.
Dead Horse State Park treats visitors to expansive views of the Green river. In a previous trip, David had photographed in this area and already knew of a couple shots that were well worth exploring. With our limited time we were able to take several photos that highlighted the canyon and to increase the balance included a couple ravaged bristle cone pines in the foreground.
The ride back to Vegas for our flight was a very long drive but I was able to sleep some and work on my photos. I was very fortunate that David seems to actually like driving and has a tolerance for these tasks well beyond mine. Upon reflection, I feel strongly that I would return to this area of the United States. The wild beauty of the southwest is so impressive that it ranks well above most f the other areas of the world I have been fortunate enough to visit.