Dark Skies in New Mexico

Looks like I’m going to have another go at the Bisti this weekend. It’ll be the first real road trip of 2017 and I’m excited. After recently getting the 645 dialed in I’m feeling ready for whatever happens.

Dark Sky is a great weather app for the iPhone. At first glance it’s simple, easy to use and understand. But there’s a lot more power under the hood, like the satellite tracking map at far right.

I’ve been watching the weather and depending on how you see things, it looks great. When we were down in October we had – by most accounts – fabulous weather. Clear, sunny days, no clouds, warm temps. Who but a photographer would complain about such weather?

Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico, February 2017

Researching the Bisti before our October 2016 trip I came across a variety of images, many of which seemed to be made under the same conditions. It’s easy to see why. Most people target nice weather (who can blame them?) and therefore come away with the same pictures. This trip I’m hoping for something a little different: rolling, dramatic, billowing skies, maybe even some frost, a little snow, and that gorgeous earthen color only emerging in the soft, diffused light of blue hour beneath overcast skies.

To hit such weather patterns means skirting the edges of the habitable. In my research I found a great web site, weatherspark.com plotting annual average temperature, cloud cover, precipitation, snow, humidity, dew points, wind… you get the idea. It’s a gold mine for determining the most statistically probable time of year to experience one weather pattern instead of another. Not surprisingly, October is one of the highest probable times of year to experience perfect, blue bird weather. Not such great news if you’re looking for the drama fringe weather provides.

Dreaming of the Bisti, Fort Collins, Colorado (2017). It’s one thing to plan a trip in the warm comfort of home with a good cup of coffee. Quite another to be out there in the elements.

I began looking for those times of year in the transitions where things happen. Early in the year (January/February) is one of those times. The down side is, it’s cold and possibly rainy – which unfortunately means mud. Mud is no friend of a car, or hiking boots. Getting stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere isn’t a best case scenario. Hopefully it’ll get cold enough the mud will freeze, allowing firm footing – which will present its own challenges. My sleeping bag is rated to 0 degrees and if worse comes to worse the heater in the car has brought cold appendages back to life more than once already. As I write this the wind howls outside my window in northern Colorado. Weather-wise I can take just about anything – except the wind.

At the moment it appears Friday night and Saturday morning are my highest probability of success. Looks by noon Saturday things begin to get wet and stay wet through Sunday night. I can work with that, as long as I’m on gravel roads. I have 15+ rolls of Chrome film and more C-41, as well as plenty of Pan F and Delta 100. I’m ready to go. Oh and I almost forgot: this Friday night is a full moon. So ideally what I’m hoping for is brightly moon-lit badlands beneath dramatic skies before the rain makes everything too muddy to get out. When all is said and done you just have to roll the dice and hope for the best. It’s impossile to know what the weather will do. Be there and f8, right? But if you’re not there – you’ll certainly get nothing.

Picked up a new headlamp earlier this week in preparation, a Black Diamond Storm. A good headlamp is worth its weight in gold. Late last year Tecla dismembered the old Petzl I’ve had for years, along with my favorite, tattered Lowe Pro gloves. I guess she was after the salt soaked into each of those items. These gloves are thin and therefore not that warm – but highly usable with the fine controls of something like a camera. After checking around, they’re no longer made. Fortunately my wife had a spare pair I’d given her years ago but she never used. The Storm headlamp is a significant step up in terms of Lumens and will more than light my way on long returns from shooting sunset deep in the badlands.

More to come.

 

Southwest Color

Milky Way over the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, San Juan County, New Mexico (2016)
A moonless, cold night in early October proved an excellent time to hunt for the Milky Way in southwestern skies. Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, San Juan County, New Mexico (2016).
The San Juan mountain range from Geologic Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado (2016)
Last light overlooking Cortez and the San Juan range from Geologic Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado (2016).
Morning vista, Valley of the Gods National Monument, Southern Utah (2016)
Southern morning vista with Monument Valley in the distance, Valley of the Gods National Monument, Southern Utah (2016)
First light in Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico (2016)
First light in Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico (2016)

 

2016 Autumn Walkabout: Monument Valley, Utah

We’ve just returned from the annual fall walkabout, this time to the American Southwest in search of perfect light. We found it in Monument Valley, Utah one morning. This first of a series of entries won’t be a linear description of the trip, but instead snippets surrounding given images, memories or thoughts.

Milky Way, Artist's Point, Monument Valley, Utah
Milky Way, Artist’s Point, Monument Valley, Utah. The park doesn’t open until 7am, but we were able to get in earlier and set up for this.

After spending a windy night at The View Campground we rose at 5am and slowly bumped our way over rough, dirt roads for a half hour in the dark to Artist’s Point. After shooting a few star shots to dial in the cameras it was a matter of waiting.You’re never sure what’ll happen when the light arrives, especially when setting up and trying to compose in the dark. In the shot above you can see a hand rail to the lower left that wasn’t visible in the viewfinder when I made the frame. We’d been holding out for first light but the best shots came just before sun-up, producing no direct light source, instead a high level of warm, ambient light. But this was day 4. Or maybe 5… I don’t remember. These are just a few digital shots before I begin processing film.

 

Milky Way, Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico
Milky Way, Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico. One benefit of this moon cycle was how early the Milky Way appears low on the horizon of the western sky. Taking advantage of the extreme darkness of the region produced some nice Milky Way shots.

Back to the Bisti

Night one was spent in the Bisti Badlands, south of Farmington, New Mexico – and man let me tell you – it was cold. The car said 33° when I turned it on at 5am the next morning to get the heater going – but I’m sure it was colder durning the night. My Marmot Never Summer down bag is rated 0° and I was cold. We set up a quick lean-to using a tarp and the car’s cargo roof rack.

I’ve been reading up on the Bisti and been intrigued. Lots more to come regarding it – a unique, beautiful place for sure. I mostly shot film there and will begin processing shortly. Meanwhile I did make a few night shots with the digital camera. This is the Milky Way looking south west, taking advantage of the no moon cycle. As we arrived that a evening the cloud ceiling was low. But the sky parted revealing this slice of outer space later that night.

At the end of the day when the light is done it’s time to sleep. Setting up impromptu camps along the way or scoring a cheap hotel once in a while to freshen up is a great recipe. This happens to be one of the most popular times of year in the area and hotels are a premium. Finding a decent, reasonably priced place to stay for the night is difficult in the larger, hub towns like Durango, Moab, etc. In the smaller outlying towns it’s a different story. The world needs more places like the Mesa Verde Motel in Mancos, Colorado. Clean, simple, safe, well-provisioned and affordable are welcome features to weary travelers.

When the light's over it's time to sleep. We dream of finding that best-kept secret combination of clean, safe, well-appointed and affordable. The Mesa Verde Motel in Mancos, Colorado is one such place.
When the light’s over it’s time to sleep. We dream of finding that best-kept secret combination of clean, safe, well-appointed and affordable. The Mesa Verde Motel in Mancos, Colorado is one such place.

We didn’t take much in the way of perishable groceries, just a few staples so we could eat in the middle of nowhere if necessary. Bananas, sandwich fixings and Fritos, with lots of water and a couple beers in the cooler got us through. When we hit town we found food.

Oh yeh, that's right... we forgot to eat. Where's the closest plate of eggs?
Oh yeh, that’s right… we forgot to eat. Where’s the closest plate of eggs? Mexican Hat, Utah.

For the most part a very successful trip, covering 2,000 miles and crossing too many mountain ranges/passes to name, traveling through too many towns to remember, popping a few Aleve and drinking too much french roast between sun up and sun down to keep us going. I’m thankful for my good friend Dan. No one but another photographer, or my wife, would put up with all the stops along the way.

Shooting sunrise with 3 Besties, Monument Valley, Utah.
Shooting sunrise with 3 Besties, Monument Valley, Utah.

After a rather lengthy silence, finally… lots more to come.