Field Trip: Taos, New Mexico – A Photography Road Trip

Back in the 60s and 70s, my family would drive endlessly around the desert Southwest, sometimes enroute to Southern California to visit relatives. Though I probably didn’t realize it at the time, those trips were likely the gateway drug to my insatiable craving for road trips today. The white sands in New Mexico, Saguaro cactus and ghost towns in Arizona, cafes along Route 66, the beaches of Southern California…my youthful eyes and mind eagerly devoured these types of things.  

Today, there are of course a few differences. For instance, now I’m in the driver’s seat instead of the backseat and instead of packing a shoebox full of 8-tracks or cassette tapes, I’ll freshen up my Spotify library and podcast playlists. Those minor differences aside, the essence remains the same…a blank slate of possibilities, endless stories and potential adventures. 

Recently, needing to get out of the snow and cold for a few days, we took a little mini road trip to Santa Fe to visit friends. Santa Fe, and New Mexico in general, has always been our “go-to” when we need a mini reset and a little art inspiration. While there, our friends unexpectedly gifted me a set of film cameras, all of which were once used by his father. The camera that immediately caught my attention was a Kodak Retina IIIC Rangefinder. 

According to the serial numbers, it was manufactured circa 1957 by Kodak AG in Berlin, Germany. I love old cameras and to me that camera, working or not, was a piece of art. The Retina series of cameras was the vision of George Eastman and German camera designer, Dr. August Nagel (also co-founder of Zeiss). This collaboratively built camera was envisioned to be a competitor to the photographic icons of Leica, Voigtlander and Hasselblad and though it never attained the longstanding gravitas of those legacy names, the Retina was still considered a viable contender for the time. 

Upon returning to Colorado, I immediately began trying to figure out if the camera worked and if so, how to operate it. Not surprisingly, before I ever loaded the first roll of film, I knew I’d have to take it on a road trip, partly to pay homage to its history, but also to introduce it to a new life and make it a part of my perpetual longing for simple, analog ways. It seemed only natural we should go back to New Mexico to take the first photos with the camera, or at least try.

I’ve been around photography my entire life, early on from my father’s Agfa cameras and mysterious garage darkroom, to my first real camera, a 1980s Canon AE-1, and all the iterations thereafter up to my current Nikon Z digital systems. However, drifting back into film has planted a creative seed I haven’t had in quite some time. To that end, I ordered the necessary equipment to develop my own film at home as well as a 35mm film scanner. I know the full commitment would have been to set up my own darkroom and that idea certainly hasn’t been dismissed.

Our trip back down to Taos had all the elements of a classic road trip. What should have taken us four hours easily took us double that. We stopped at unassuming places along the way to take a photo, to explore, to dine at a local cafe and to learn a little history of places we’ve typically cruised through at highway speeds — slow and steady, taking in every detail.

We also experienced some dreadful weather in the form of ferocious winds and snow squalls which made travel challenging and unpredictable, the exact weather we were hoping to escape. Additionally, places we had hoped to visit were closed for cultural ceremonies or simply lack of employees. But in classic road trip fashion, closed doors and unanticipated roadblocks led to unexpected adventures and extraordinary discoveries. It was of course, “imperfectly perfect”. 

As for the film photography efforts, I’ll offer that it was as challenging as it was rewarding. Shifting back to the totally analog process from my familiar digital work flow took measured thought and deliberate patience, sometimes practiced in driving snow. Loading film or threading a cable release with frozen fingers was sometimes an ambitious effort. Interpreting an analog light meter, calculating exposure values, making aperture and shutter speed decisions without the convenience of chimping all forced me to slow down and thinkrethinkthen just cross my fingers before activating the shutter. Daunting and exhilarating. 

The photos themselves certainly can’t or won’t be considered earth-shattering or avant-garde in photography circles, but the amount of work I put into them gave me an appreciation for the process I rarely get from my digital work. No instant gratification, just learning something new, practicing patience, embracing the unexpected and anticipating the promise of what might be — the exact same elements I pursue when setting off on a classic American road trip.   

Climb high, ski fast, pedal hard, live simply. 


Field Notes: Map My World

I love maps, the real fold out ones, and have for as long as I remember. When my parents would take us on holiday it was always on a road trip out here in the west, usually pulling a camper. For the weeks leading up to the actual departure date, I would study the old Rand McNally fold out maps or a bound atlas of all places we were going. 

There was no Google or Siri back then to give me every detail of the route so I had to find the starting and ending point on the map then fill in the blanks myself. I’d carefully follow the lines from point to point, noting every town, every named forest or park and commit every highway number and every turn to memory. Once we’d leave, I would l follow along the map as we drove letting my mind sync what I was physically seeing with the corresponding place on the map. 

Of course every new town we’d come to was an adventure. Without Google, Yelp or Siri, we’d roll into some random small town and have no idea what the most recommended place to have lunch was, where the best coffee was or where to find the cheapest gas. Basically, we’d just drive around until we’d find a service station, then drive around some more until we found a café that looked “open”. If there was some sort of establishment promising a three headed snake farm or the world’s largest foil ball, well, then all the better. As a bonus, those mom-and-pop cafes always had free “local” maps in those cluttered information stands near the entrance so I would happily leave with a library of new materials to pour over as we continued our travels. 

I was never really all that big on buying a bunch of crappy souvenirs but instead chose to anchor my memories to points on the map. Okay, maybe there would be the ocassional leather chaps from Mexico or “must have” bag of polished rocks from a truck stop in Arizona, but those were one-of-a-kind treasures not to be passed up. When we’d get back home, I’d retrace our entire route on a map, and along with the associated brochures I’d picked up, could vividly reconstruct the details of every town, café, National Park, historical marker and point of interest (like the three headed snake farm!). I could spend days dissecting each section of the trip and put it all back together like a jigsaw puzzle. I would take all those experiences, lay them across a map and have a visual story I could commit to memory, ones that in most cases have lasted a lifetime. 

I’m not saying that I don’t use a GPS from time to time when I’m in skiing the backcountry or out mountain biking, because I do. I have a pretty fancy Garmin watch that tracks my route, measures calories burned, keeps me abreast of the barometric pressure changes, tracks my elevation gained, etc., and yes, I love studying the output and data when I get home. But even for the places I’ve been hundreds of times, I still love looking at a physical map before I go. If I’m going somewhere new, I’ll always take a physical map and compass with me just in case the electronics fail, and they will if you use them enough. I figure it’s like sailing across the ocean, you may have all the state-of-the-art electronic navigation systems available, but if they fail hundreds or thousands of miles from land, you damn sure better know how to use a sextant and a map or the results may be quite unsavoury. 

Today, decades since those family road trips with my parents, nothing has changed — I still love maps. Wherever we go, domestic or abroad, I still love buying a genuine hold-in-your-hand, fold out map and will spend hours and hours studying it before we leave. And yes, I still pick up those free maps and brochures in the information stands at service stations and cafes.

I love the tactile feel of a map, even the sound of the paper when I’m unfolding it (and trying to re-fold it). But more importantly, there is something that makes me feel connected to a place if I can actually see a paper map of it, use my finger to trace the places I might want to go, become familiar with the town names or see the graphic contours of the landscape and how trails intersect with them. Once I finally get there, all the experiences will begin to fill in the blanks on the map…the languages, the people, actually seeing the landscape, seeing the landmarks, eating the local food and all the other experiences hiding in the fabric of a physical map. To me, a map is nothing more than a story waiting to be told or another adventure to be had. 

Climb high, ski fast, pedal hard, live simply.

Field Trip: Invisibility Cloak

At this very moment, I’m camped somewhere in Utah. It’s well below freezing outside but I’m comfortably burrowed in my little off-road teardrop camper, tapping away at this keyboard. 

We ordered this camper back in the spring of 2020 in anticipation of being able to hit the ground running once I jumped into an early retirement in the spring of this year (2021). Well, that was the plan, but the pandemic hit and all the global supply issues meant our little camper would be stuck in the build queue for almost 17 months. As frustrating as it was, I can say with all honesty it’s been well worth the wait.

We finally picked it up in late August and as of tonight, it’s night 17 on my way to a goal of 20 nights for 2021. With the snow falling in the high country back home in Colorado, I decided to come west where it’s at least a little drier. However, as I’m figuring out it’s only marginally warmer. 

In the roughly seven months since I’ve retired, I’ve come to some realizations about how I want to spend my time and who I want to spend it with going forward. That’s a nice way of saying I’m starting to realize just how much I love having time to myself AND how much I like doing whatever I want, whenever I want. I guess I never realized how accustomed to “noise” I’d become working in an office for all those years. Maybe it’s similar to living in a large city and not noticing the honking and sirens after a while. Some people find comfort in the noise of life and constant interactions with people. I do not. Sometimes I just need space to think and chase creative ideas around. 

I think one of the harshest realities of this whole COVID thing has been its actually forced people to be by themselves. For a world so connected to everyone else, I’m sure that’s probably put a large part of our society in a very uncomfortable place. I’m also pretty sure there are people who aren’t liking what they see when they are forced to look inward instead of only outward. 

I for one was built for this isolation. As a matter of fact, I tell people all the time that I’ve been training for this very thing since 1961. I’ve always loved having time to myself, even as a kid. I could occupy my time for hours by simply throwing a stick in a creek and following its journey downriver. I could sit in the desert and stare into the distance for hours, trying to pick up as many details in the vastness as possible. Part of becoming an Eagle Scout required I spend a couple of nights all alone in a tent out in the desert. For some kids in my troop, that was a traumatic experience! For me, it was utopia and I never wanted it to end. I knew the Troop leaders knew exactly where I was, but it was fun to pretend I was completely off the map and not a sole on earth could find me. 

Since getting the camper, I’ve humourously started thinking of it as an invisibility cloak. I can hitch this thing up and simply disappear for a few days. No internet, no social media, no news, no stupid politics, no calls, no texts, you know, just like being invisible. Other than my wife, I didn’t tell a single person I was leaving town, much less where I was going and how long I’d be gone. I quietly hitched the invisibility cloak to my Tacoma under the cover of darkness and drove away. I’m sure once I get back home I’ll have lots of emails and texts to delete, but until then, I’ll bask in the joy of being invisible.

So, now that I’ve sufficiently disappeared, my only plans for the next few days are to shoot some desert photography, explore some new trails and roads, sip a little whisky by a campfire and catch up on some reading. My only regret being off the grid at the moment is I can’t connect to my Spotify account without cell service, but at least I have my old iPod Nano for just such an emergency! I guess that’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being under “the cloak”.  

And now I hear the pitter patter of light rain hitting the roof…just as my laptop battery is dying.

Invisibility cloak…yeah, thanks Harry Potter and Hiker Trailers, I’m totally diggin’ it. 

Time for some sleep.