For whatever reason I’m drawn to the the less popular; the rag-tag, rumpled, untucked misfits of the world. Not as some sort of contrarian act – but more in a search for intrinsic worth. In all things. Acknowledgement of life’s many, many dimensions.
One of my favorite things to do is head East, towards the less notable portions of this glorious state of Colorado. I don’t know if it’s out of some sort of escape mentality; wanting to get away from the usual surroundings into a different environment.
I suppose it’s one reason I love to drive places rather than fly. I’m OK with flying when necessary. I just prefer passing through places – touching them – rather than over them.
Time… who cares. Really. Save time here, spend time there. It’s all the same. Where do we choose to spend time? What’s valuable?
Stories unfold when you take time to stop, listen, look.
Imagining what others do, see, think, feel… nicely grouped pens in a mug on a clean desk late Friday before knocking off for the weekend.
There’s no conclusion; repeating itself again and again, feeding the soul, constituting life’s experience. So blessed to live in such a rich, beautiful state as Colorado.
I realized something of great importance this past Saturday while traveling Iron Mountain Road in Wyoming: I love Wyoming. I love it the way you love something you didn’t realize you loved at first. The way some things kinda sneak up on you when you’re not looking then bam – there they are and you wonder how long this has been going on.
I love Colorado too, but Colorado’s easy to love. Everyone loves Colorado. Wyoming’s different; it’s the less-polished version of Colorado – where wild still lives.
I love the people of Wyoming too.
I’d pulled over on the side of the dirt road, loading film and making some notes, when next to me appeared a Laramie County Sheriff. “You OK?” he asked, rolling down his window, towering above me in his heavy-duty truck. “I never see anyone on this road,” he said. We chatted a bit, I thanked him for stopping and assured him I was fine.
There is literally no end to the maze of wild dirt roads running through Wyoming. My Delorme Atlases travel with me everywhere I go. Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. I have one plastic sleeve that I slip which ever one I’m using most heavily at the time into; hoping to postpone the inevitable. Scouring these maps with a headlamp in a dark car in the middle of nowhere trying to figure out just where on earth you are… one runs into another and another and another – then you look at the time, and you look at the fuel gauge and you make hard decisions to turn around and save that next turn for the next time. The inside of my car smells like a dirt road. The cabin filter has been changed so many times the service center knows me by name.
I climb out of the car and scamper up an embankment looking for a view. Prickly pear tries to stick in my boot soul and I’m glad I’m not wearing sandals. The smell of sage is heavy in the air. In the distance the railroad cuts south through the broad, flat center of the valley. Miles and miles of barbed wire note ranch boundaries punctuated with “No Trespassing” signs. I never, ever trespass. Not only because it says ‘No Trespassing,’ but because a lot of these guys are pretty good shots, practiced at picking off coyotes or prairie dogs.
Just before the sheriff stopped I’d been tracking antelope. Not on foot, but following small herds in the car. They’re wary of vehicles; rifles emerging from rolled down windows. If their sharp eyes or ears pick up any sudden motion from the road they’re gone. And they’re fast. I slow, they lift their heads. I stop, they stop. I open the door and have three, maybe four steps – and they’re off. Getting one to sit still long enough for a portrait is never going to happen.
Late in the day the light came out for just a bit. There was a rolling, gorgeous anticline bisected by the road, running to the south. Greens were sage and junipers; muted and soft, mixed with ochers and other no-name earthen colors difficult to describe. There was no wind. I pulled over for the twentieth or thirtieth or fortieth time and approached the fence line to watch. As the light hit, the internal debate whether it would last long enough to set up the tripod ensued. Deciding to try, a few frames of color slide film clicked off before clouds once more swallowed up the sun. One of the sweetest parts of the day followed. Sometimes there’s no clear indication when it’s over. There’s this transition as the sun takes a final bow. Sometimes dramatic and flamboyant; sometimes simply drifting behind distant clouds unobtrusively disappearing. You stand and wait, wondering if it’ll come back. Hoping it will, but OK if it doesn’t.
I found some water and an unopened bag of Beer Nuts Bar Mix buried in the car’s long term storage and stood on the road side in the peaceful dim, happy. A quarter mile away a small herd of mule deer stood silhouetted against a gray sky, in the middle of the dirt road, unafraid.
After a bit I packed up and headed south, tired of being in the car but deeply in love with the country I was in.
Often times when you head out for the day along Colorado’s Front Range you simply don’t know what the day holds. That’s one of the reasons it’s such fun: that unexpected surprise emerging when you think you’re looking for one thing – and another takes you completely off guard. Such was the case on this day.
Fort Collins was shrouded in cold, gray fog. There was really no hint of redemption – just unrelenting grayness. Sometimes the cloud base is low along the front range that you can literally climb above it by heading to the hills. This wasn’t the intention, but is exactly what happened as I made my way out of Lyons towards Estes Park.
With the newly repaired 645 in hand and I was eager to try it out – not feeling much like hiking, but just wanting to cover some ground and see if anything interesting popped up along the way. Estes Park was gorgeous – sunny blue skies, fresh snow, and warm. Unfortunately no photographs emerged, so on I pressed.
The Peak to Peak Highway took me back to Ward and from there, down Left Hand Canyon. I’d re-entered the fog descending the canyon making my way slowly through the same cold gray I’d left in Fort Collins earlier. Towards the bottom of Left Hand is Lee Hill Road, which takes you south along the ridge line, depositing you in North Boulder. I’ve noticed a reoccurring theme I’m beginning to pay more attention to; along the edges of any transition is where the most interesting activity tends to be. The edges of the day, the edges of a storm, the edges of dark and light… you get the idea.
The scene atop the page was a brief moment seen coming around a bend as North Boulder came into view. Late afternoon light was partially obstructed by ice fog – just before disappearing behind higher mountains to the west. What struck me was the pronounced difference between the cold, blue, snowy trees blocked from the warmth of light – and the glowing, warm winter pinks produced by the last light of the day from the west.
I pulled over in a wide shouldered turn out on the tight road hoping I could quickly squeeze off a frame before other cars came. No such luck. As the fog wafted in and out producing holes in the distance – more light was allowed through and warm pinks intensified and I stood mesmerized. The quiet was broken by the sound of a down-shifting engine and I looked up the road to see a school bus making its way down the hill towards me. The car was safely off the road and though it was tight, I knew he could get by. I hopped the guard rail and scrambled down the embankment for a cleaner view – just enough for snow to make its way up over my socks and onto bare ankles.
The beauty of the scene was most uncommon. Snow adds a unique dimension to any landscape. No matter how many times I’d seen this same ridge line before, this day the snow made it uniquely beautiful. Especially the snow tucked in the crags and cracks of rock.
As I finished up and hopped the guard rail back onto pavement a young man in a knit cap heading up the hill slowed, rolled down his window and wagged his finger at me. I could only smile, knowing I’d not put anyone else at risk by taking the time to see something truly beautiful that day.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After a rather lengthy silence, finally… lots more to come.
I have had the privilege of living in Colorado since 1981 when I moved to Fort Collins to attend Colorado State University. Having moved from Illinois, I’d literally do anything to get into the mountains. At first a poor college student with no car, I once borrowed a friend’s bike – two sizes too large – to pedal up Thompson Canyon from Fort Collins, backpack with ice axe and all. I remember a sleek, streamlined peloton of cyclists in fancy gear and even fancier bikes whizzing by up the canyon, looking at me and smiling. Like they knew… ‘yeh, I’m new here and I’m not going to let anything stop me from getting up into those hills.’
All these years later that same drive hasn’t diminished one bit. Living along Colorado’s Front Range, any opportunity to get deeper into the mountains usually involves at least one trip over Trail Ridge Road. For those unfamiliar with it, Trail Ridge Road (also known as U.S. 34) is a 48 mile stretch of road connecting Estes Park, Colorado with Grand Lake, Colorado by traversing Rocky Mountain National Park at a elevation high point of 12,183. If I can’t get up there for sunrise (leaving Fort Collins by 4am usually) – then I try to time the return trip with late afternoon/evening light. Many times I’ve gone up and just spent the night on the road, sleeping in the back of the truck. Coffee on the tail gate in the morning at 12,000 watching the sun rise over the Mummy Range, Gore Range, and the Medicine Bow’s is pretty tough to beat with a hot cup of french roast.
The above view is accessible to anyone who has made the journey up Trail Ridge to the Alpine Visitor Center. This view looks down what I call the Fall River Valley – the prior route up to the Visitor Center years ago. There is a one way, dirt road buried in the trees at left that winds up from the valley floor – an alternative to the paved Trail Ridge. A common route is to go up Old Fall River Road, then down Trail Ridge Road. Often time elk may be seen grazing in this valley, high above treeline. If I were an elk I’d sure elect to eat dinner here.
And finally, the Monarch of Colorado’s northern Front Range, Longs Peak and Keyboard of the Winds on the upper left horizon recedes into the east flank of Glacier Gorge, surrounded by high, wild country in beautiful light. The views on Trail Ridge Road are constantly changing, largely driven by weather and of course time of day. Storms move in fast – and often are gone just as fast. If you’re not prepared you’ll be soaked and freezing – for a time. Then the sun will come out and the high altitude mountain air will whisk away the water and leave you dry and chilly.
We recently had family from North Carolina visit who had not yet been up Trail Ridge. I was excited for them with anticipation knowing what a thrill that first trip over can be. Several times since moving to Colorado, when I’ve found myself temporarily living in other places, the realization that I can’t hop in the car and – in an hour be up in Rocky Mountain National Park – is a cold smack in the face. I’m humbled to realize that others save their vacation time all year just to spend a week’s vacation in Colorado. And I wake up here every morning. Even after all these years I will never take living in Colorado for granted.
At first it looked like a dead animal – a brownish, furry lump in the middle of the dirt 320. The wind blew and late morning sun peeked in and out of an active sky. Through a dirty windshield it was tough to make out. As the car slowly rolled closer, the profile of a small head emerged from the fur, then turned a few times trying to get her bearings and let out a cry. As she began struggling to rise my first thought was she’d been hit by a car . Once erect I could see new, young legs, thin and delicate wobbling as they tried to support her tiny mass. She couldn’t have been more than a few days old. The baby antelope took a few steps then stumbled, her front knees dropping to the dirt road. I wondered if she’d have bruises or abrasions on her bony, new skin. She struggled to get up again, now in a panic. “I’m not gonna hurt you… just calm down” I said to no one.
Out of the corner of my eye to the left I picked up a flash moving fast across the sage. I turned to watch momma hurtling towards us full tilt. She was strong and powerful, leaping 8 foot spans each stride until she appeared heroically 10 yards in front of the car – between baby and me. She turned and looked squarely at me, then swiveled her tan and white head towards baby who was continuing to stumble in a panic down the road.
She stood for a moment – which itself is remarkable – out here antelope have learned to fear vehicles; rifles emerging from a slowed truck’s rolled down window. After a moment she took off for baby who had continued to run. Momma took the lead, baby trying to keep up, her head turning this way and that attempting to assess the threat. Momma led the way until they both crossed the road again and bounded up the hill.
In the distance they stopped; baby nowhere to be seen, having dropped in the sage somewhere. Mom and dad stood together 200 yards away watching the car slowly drive off.
I wonder how many things we intently search for, training every last bit of energy focusing our gaze – only to be met with darkness. Then I think about the times peripheral vision catches a glimpse of something unintended, and off we go alit, into the beautiful, dim blue.
“…the present is the most difficult period to apprehend; only with distance does the value of certain forms of photography and photo objects become clear.” – Joel Smith, curator of photography at the Morgan Library & Museum,
If only I were a poet. Or at least eloquent enough to convey thoughts and feelings regarding a photograph. There are some who feel to say anything at all about a photograph means it failed to visually convey a message. Others believe a photograph isn’t completely realized unless a snippet of information provides a point at which to enter and begin exploration. Then there are those who simply don’t care.
If it’s possible to exist between these categories, that’s where I find myself.
“The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
The other night I let the dog out in the back yard. The porch light switch was broken and I listened as she ambled down the deck’s wooden stairs and stepped onto the lawn beneath a quasi-full moon. As I stood on the deck attempting to locate a brown dog against green grass with no light – I was unable to see her dim, hunched form when looking directly at her. As I looked off to the side, however, my peripheral vision was able to identity she was indeed there, and was indeed fulfilling the mission. I tried again, peering intently, concentrating my direct gaze at where I last saw her. Again I saw only blackness. Averting my eyes to the side confirmed she was there, now finished, and sniffing about as dogs do.
I wonder how many things we intently search for, training every last bit of energy focusing our gaze – only to be met with darkness. Then I think about the times peripheral vision catches a glimpse of something unintended, and off we go alit, into the beautiful, dim blue.
“…the present is the most difficult period to apprehend; only with distance does the value of certain forms of photography and photo objects become clear.” – Joel Smith, curator of photography at the Morgan Library & Museum.
Sometimes when visiting a new place surrounded by such emptiness there’s a mild reservation about leaving the imagined security of whatever semblance of civilization there is – and striking alone into the void. With minimal maps and no idea what really lay out there I check the fuel gauge and tires, listen to the car carefully for any indication of malfunction and make sure a little food and water are close at hand.
For some reason Medicine Bow, Wyoming calls to me. In the late 1800’s Medicine Bow was a mildly prosperous stop along the transcontinental Railway due to its proximity to water provided by the Medicine Bow River. Later – it was a vibrant stock and cattle holding operation and a stop for auto travelers along the old Lincoln Highway. In the early 70’s Medicine Bow was effectively cut off when Interstate 80 was built 35 miles to the south. Medicine Bow is one of the windiest places in America, a fact I can attest to from my visits. Often times when opening the car door, the wind catches and violently cranks it against the hinges causing the car to lurch.
My first intentional trip to Medicine Bow was several years ago as I determined to follow 287 north as far as I practically could. Outside of Laramie there’s not much topographic relief as one travels along the bottom of the enormous Laramie River Valley, ringed with high, wild peaks in the distance. The car drifts sideways in ever present wind as you unconsciously pull to the left while heading straight North. All but empty enclaves like Bosler, Rock River and Como Bluffs distantly dot the highway – a mirage providing the hope of relief that vanish as you approach, then roll through with no visible sign of activity. For a large portion of the drive the highway parallels the railroad and trains pass in either direction, the smile of their headlights providing brief companionship. Beyond the tracks, hidden from site by the risen berm lies the Laramie River, winding its way down from Wheatland Reservoir, 30 miles to the north east.
It’s the very definition of solitary.
Upon arriving in Medicine Bow I was struck by its sparse, barren landscape, wind, and intense, western afternoon light. Long, coal and cattle-laden freight trains regularly tear through the town’s center at full speed as I prowl around the tracks. Sometimes when visiting a new place surrounded by such emptiness there’s a mild reservation about leaving the imagined security of whatever semblance of civilization there is – and striking out alone into the void. With minimal maps and no real idea what lay out there I check the fuel gauge and tires, listen to the car carefully for any indication of malfunction and make sure a little food and water are close at hand.
On this most recent trip the emptiness is tempered by the presence of our one year old chocolate lab Tecla. As the sun begins to sink I start the car. 4 mule deer amble across the dirt road in front of me. Tecla erupts in the back seat, bouncing back and forth from passenger to driver side angrily barking at these large, four-legged invaders. Though the windows are up they glance briefly at the car, assess the threat, then pick up the pace as the rail road crossing sounds yet again. I drop the car into drive and head into the late, windy afternoon.
Coming home that night, topping the snowy pass separating Wyoming from Colorado the headlights catch a large, still shape sprawled across the road. It’s a deer. She’s been hit and killed and lay still, alone in the night. I stop. At the top of the cold, foggy pass visibility is low and I sit for a moment in the dark car deliberating. If another car hits her it’ll surely create problems for everyone. Tecla wakes up in the front seat and looks at me as I open the door and step into the night.
I grab the doe by the front legs and drag her across the road. She’s heavier than anticipated. ‘I’m so sorry, sweetheart’ I say as her head arcs back and the friction of the blacktop tries to prevent us from our task. The hair on her legs above her hooves is wet and my bare hands slip, then grab tighter. Leather gloves are somewhere in the car but I couldn’t risk the time to find them. A trail of blood is left behind on the road pointing to where she lay, and a large, round organ the size of a small beach ball that’s been dislodged, sitting in the road like a rock cairn on a hiking trail.
When I climb back in the car Tecla is awake and smells the dead animals’ scent on my hands. She aggressively sniffs and licks as one arm shoes her away, while the other searches the console for something to clean up with. There’s nothing. I drive 20 minutes down the pass and stop at Ted’s Place for a $2 bottle of hand sanitizer, then wipe down the steering wheel. This is life in Colorado and Wyoming, I think to myself – knowing I can’t share the event with my wife. “How was your trip,” she’ll say as I walk in, hungry and tired of being in the car. “Good. Really good.” And leave it at that.