Spontaneity Wins Again

A friend from Salt Lake and I recently met out in Fruita, Colorado with hopes of shooting some landscapes around Colorado National Monument. For the couple of weeks leading up to the trip we scoured photography sights and Google Earth searching for potential photo locations. In addition to that, we’d kept a close eye on the weather hoping for interesting storm clouds to make for those gigantic and dramatic skies common to the desert. We even plotted our tentative photo locations on the Photographer’s Ephemeris just so we’d be sure to have unobstructed lines to the sunrises and sunsets. We made note of sunrise and sunset times and quasi laid out each day so we’d have plenty of time to get where we wanted, find a composition and get our cameras set up. This is so unlike both of us since we’re both kind of laissez faire when it comes to trip planning, but again, with limited time, we thought it might be a good idea.

All that planning and naturally it didn’t even come close to what we thought.

In short, it was way hotter than the forecast predicted and was actually quite miserable. There wasn’t a “dramatic” cloud to be had anywhere for three days. The places we thought we could get the best shots were mediocre at best and always left us scrambling for alternate compositions. And those exploding sunset colours common to the desert sky? Yeah, never materialized.

We eventually got a few sunrise exposures in the Monument we thought were acceptable, but certainly nothing “portfolio” worthy. However, by total accident, I got one photo that I’ve become quite fond of. Not an award winner for sure, but it’s grown on me and taught me a bit of a lesson.

On the very first evening we were out near the Kokopelli Trail in Loma (CO) hoping to get the classic desert sunset shot of the surrounding mesas using the Colorado River as the obvious leading line into what we hoped was going to be an amazing, colour vomiting sunset. My buddy eventually found a composition he thought would work and I too flailed around for about an hour until I thought I had something myself. Again, nothing revolutionary or all that unique, but it was something. It was honestly one of those obvious shots probably millions of mountain bikers had made millions of times before…but damn it, we were going to shoot it anyhow.

While we waited for the light, with cameras mounted on our tripods ready to go, we’d chat with passing mountain bikers and try desperately not to lose the incessant battle against some ferocious mosquitoes. As I alluded to before, the light stunk, no clouds for background interest, no brilliant colours and my composition was average at best, but I took the shot anyhow. I then looked at the back of my camera, said “meh” to myself, then began packing my stuff away. I wasn’t really all that disappointed because the elements just weren’t there.

As I was leaning over my backpack to put my camera away, a mountain biker was approaching rather quickly. For some reason I quickly lifted my camera (it was literally just inches from being completely in my bag), pointed it at her and activated the shutter. I hadn’t made any adjustments to the “landscape” settings from my sunset attempt so I figured they’d be all wrong. Also, I had the camera in the single frame mode instead of rapid fire mode so I figured my chances were probably nil for even getting her in the frame in a single shot. It was a total reactionary move to point the camera her direction so I had ZERO expectations at all. I honestly didn’t even look at the screen to see if it worked and just crammed it into my bag and kept packing away for the dark hike out.

When I got home and downloaded everything into Lightroom, I immediately deleted about 75% of everything “landscape-esque” I’d done. The majority  of them simply weren’t all that interesting. I might even say “boring”. The one that surprised me though…you guessed it…the random reactionary shot of the mountain biker. Award winner? Not even close. Portfolio worthy? Probably not. Fine art? A laughable thought. But I liked it, a lot.

For days I’d glance at it and the more I did, the more I liked it. Not sure why, but it became one of my favourite photos of the weekend.

I think the unintended consequence of the photo was that it reminded me to never try and control the situation but adjust my creativity to the moment at hand. Yes, I can plan a trip, look at weather forecasts and even line up my compositions with the Ephemeris, but that in no way will ever guarantee it will work the way I think it will. I don’t live my life that way so I shouldn’t expect my photos to work that way.

My favourite photos always come from spontaneous situations where the moment came to me, not me going to the moment.

Climb high. Ski fast. Live simply.

Liberating Crabs

One of my favourite books of all time is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. If you haven’t read it, it’s a fantastic book about the metaphysics of quality. I think what resonates most with me is Mr. Pirsig’s discussion of how people learn and why some people excel and some will struggle with conventional education methods. Reflecting on my own education (formal and “life” education), I clearly see how and why I do better at some things and struggle with others.

I’m definitely an experiential learner. Instead of someone just telling me something is fact and accepting it as such, I prefer chasing things down random paths to see where it’ll take me. Maybe that’s my curious nature, but I personally feel like I need to do that so I’ll have a complete understanding of the situation. I even refuse to use that driving app thing (Siri?) because I need to look at a real map and feel like I have a relational connection to where I am. I may take a wrong street every now and again, but that also helps me learn for future reference.

An artist friend of mine turned me on to another great book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. The book is a discussion of how our society doesn’t nurture creative thinking, but instead migrates toward conformity. In one example, he equates the creative process to crabs in a bucket. If you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, it’s more than likely one or two could easily get out. However, before they can liberate themselves, the others will inevitably pull the non-conformists back in. Same with creatives. If someone thinks outside the norms, maybe doesn’t adhere to the Rule of Thirds in a photograph for instance, it makes the majority all twitchy and they will do their best to drag them back into conformity. This says more about the insecurities of those pulling the creatives back in than it does about the creatives themselves, right?

I follow a couple of photographers on YouTube and noticed they’ll sometimes set up their tripod in a crowded place and start shooting. I have to admit the thought of that makes my skin crawl. All I can see are those armchair experts (crabs) coming over to give their two cents on composition, lighting or whatever.

I’m pretty confident overall with my skill and vision, but there again, I need my clear, unfettered space to think through things in my own way, wander around aimlessly when necessary, make mistakes and grow my understanding of things without the distraction of crabs trying to pull me back in the bucket. I already think my creative time and space is extremely limited so having that time altered tends to make me less than happy.

Yesterday saw some impressive storm clouds building to the west so I decided to go out to shoot a couple of compositions I’d spotted over the past couple of weeks. This was unfortunately near a well-used hiking and biking trail. Before I could talk myself out of it though, I loaded up my camera backpack, jumped on my mountain bike and headed over to the mountain parks adjacent to my house.

Naturally, at the very place I wanted to set up, I noticed a few trail runners, mountain bikers and hikers in the area. I hesitated for a second, thinking I’d come back another time, but got to setting up my tripod and went about my business of composing the shot I wanted. Fortunately, nobody stopped for anything longer than to reiterate what a beautiful day it was. I have to admit, once I got going in my thought processes, I didn’t even notice any additional people who may have come by.

I admittedly made a couple of silly mistakes using some new gear I’d just acquired, but I stayed the course while sorting out the whys and why nots of what was happening and eventually got what I wanted. With that said, the next time out I’m confident I’ll be better for learning the way I do best, even in a crab bucket.

Climb high. Ski fast. Pedal far. Live simply.

A Few Days Under Big Skies

With spring fully at hand, we loaded up last week and headed to the desert for a few days of camping, big vistas, sleeping under the stars and mountain biking.

We knew the wind was supposed to be “gusty”, but what we didn’t expect was near hurricane force speeds. I was literally fighting to maintain 55 mph on the interstate because of the screaming headwinds! Near Crescent Junction we even came upon a semi laying on its side as a victim of what we suspect was a huge crosswind blast. Fortunately no one appeared to be seriously injured.

Despite the annoying wind for the first couple of days, we accomplished our goal of escaping the hustle and bustle of daily life and found those absurdly wide open spaces and explored some parts of Utah that had long been on our wish list.

The rugged backcountry area north and west of Goblin Valley exposed us to some incredibly high (scary) winds, but when that much dust starts flying around, it makes for some exceptionally stunning skies. Our primary focus was finding something leeward of the blasting wind where we could safely pitch our little tent, however, experimenting with some HDR photography was certainly worth a few minutes pause.

After bouncing around the San Rafael Swell and Capitol Reef area for a couple of days, we worked our way back east near Moab where we wanted to re-explore some of the lesser traveled tracks south of Canyonlands National Park. It’s hard to believe any area around Moab isn’t overrun with people, but you can find near complete isolation if you’re willing to go just a tad further afield.

The immense skies of the Desert Southwest get a lot of play, and rightfully so, but the spring foliage definitely rewarded us as slow travelers with an incredible pageant of colour.

 

We eventually continued our way back east on Road 128 which is arguably one of our favourite drives anywhere in the US. However, the popularity of Moab in recent years has made this road anything but an isolated cruise. Additionally, riverside camping in any of the campgrounds along the Colorado River is almost impossible for a person who can’t get there before a Thursday, and sometimes even that isn’t adequate. Every time we come this way we feel lucky for having explored this area 25 years ago when BLM campsites were rarely more than half full even on the weekends. Nevertheless, the stunning beauty of this valley speaks for itself.

We spent our last couple of days camping near Fruita (Colorado) where we got in some fun, albeit crowded mountain biking. Just like Moab, the popularity of Fruita has exploded in recent years and finding reasonably uncrowded trails is likely reserved for the Tuesday through Thursday time slot. However, we undeniably savour the big, open spaces of the North Fruita Desert and of course no trip to Fruita would be complete without eating what could possibly be the best pizza in the Rocky Mountain Region at The Hot Tomato.

These quick hit jaunts are never, and will never be, long enough for my liking, but it’s still good for the soul to get away for a few days to clear the mind and hit the proverbial reset button.

Climb high. Ski fast. Pedal far. Live simply.

Patience.

Our patience this winter for waiting on any significant storm cycle hasn’t come easy, but the effort finally paid off over the last few days with the appearance of heavy spring snow across our part of the state. With almost three feet of snow in the last 72 hours, a few of us got together and hit the backcountry to lay down some fresh, deep tracks.

Other than “climb, ski, repeat”, our only proviso for the day was to constantly evaluate the increased avalanche danger, choose our routes wisely and keep the egos in check to make sure the day stayed on the positive side. Seriously, if you can’t tailgate with a beer at the end of the day it’s not really worth it, right?

Here’s a little peak into one of our best days of the season (so far).

This actually required a little digging to get Kelly safely extracted. Fifteen minutes later it was all smiles again!

Climb, ski, repeat…then have good beers with good friends. A benchmark ski day doesn’t get much simpler than that.

Climb high. Ski fast. Pedal far. Live simply.

Achtung! Langsames Fahrzeug (Slow Moving Vehicle)

A month or so ago I finally reached the end of my tether with the constant outside tugging at my time and decided I had to get away. I needed time to think and dream freely without the constant filters of daily life, see friends who I haven’t spent enough time with lately and hopefully flex some creative muscles which I’d neglected for far too long. To do that, I decided I’d go find and explore the thinnest red lines in my Rand McNally Road Atlas…and some places that it didn’t identify at all.

When I started thinking about the trip, I read through a few overlanding blogs and found some “roads” that had long been forgotten by the mainstream. I thought by finding and following these little known tracks, it might be just what I needed to have some mini adventures and hopefully get me back to my customary slow and low key pace. Once I had my ideas in mind, I contacted a couple of friends to let them know I’d be in the area then proceeded to operate under radio silence until it was time to roll out.

I’ve done a fair amount of roaming the Southwest in a VW van (1987 Westfalia campervan) and needless to say, road tripping in that thing was the pinnacle of slow travel. It’s a way of life that I loved then and appreciate even more now. Even though I drive a Toyota Tacoma and can easily maintain modern interstate speeds, I decided for this trip I’d channel that VW way of life and wouldn’t drive over 60 mph for the entire trip. I figured at that speed I could still move on down the road and cover some ground, but like traveling in the Westy, I’d also see more and be more prone to pulling over and getting my camera out. I also resolved to forgo tech assistance and only use printed maps or get beta from locals to find my way around.

My first stop was to see a couple of friends over in Summit County, just 45 minutes from home. I hadn’t seen my good friend Kellyn in far too long and we had a laundry list of things to catch up on so I arranged to have an early breakfast with her. After that, I’d meet up with Lu, my regular backcountry skiing partner, to do some climbing and skiing near Mt Baldy down near Breckenridge.

Skiing in the backcountry with Lu is always good for my soul because we both honestly appreciate the lost art of using our time in the backcountry to actually talk to each other, not be out there to prove anything (but she skis really, really well!). With 14” of surprise new snow overnight, let’s just say it was well worth the exhausting second lap and surely one of the best days of climbing and skiing of the season.

From Summit County I drove north to Steamboat Springs where I wanted to catch up with some other friends (Cindi, Greer and Nate), all great friends who I regrettably haven’t been able to catch up face-to-face with in quite a while. Seriously, I have some absolutely amazing friends and having a day like this where I could see lots of them immediately reminded me how lucky I really am.

The drive to Steamboat isn’t all that long, a couple of hours with good roads, but I managed to stretch it out to almost three and a half by holding to my “must drive under 60 mph rule” and stopping to look around when something caught my eye. It’s almost startling when you’re not consumed with the omnipresent “buzz” of city life how you can actually slow to a natural pace and enjoy your surroundings.

Leaving Steamboat the next morning is where I knew the drive would start to get more interesting. I’d follow Highway 40 as far as Dinosaur, CO then leave the pavement and start following some of those obscure  roads and tracks I’d found in the overlanding blogs.

One thing I love about living in the west is the wide open spaces. I love seeing for miles and driving without seeing but one or two cars per hour. Leaving lightly traveled Highway 40 meant seeing even less people and isolating myself even more. Having grown up in the Desert Southwest I’ve always loved those big open places and crave getting back in them every once in a while.

So I ducked the paved roads and started tracking my way across dirt roads and eventually onto vague two track trails that seemed to terminate at the very end of the earth. I crossed over the 40 a couple of times, but I think I got about 70 miles of remote dirt before getting to the Green River near Jenson, UT.

The drive on these remote, rough and sometimes tiny tracks was everything I hoped for…no cell service and I saw nothing and everything at the same time. Dare I say I even saw myself? I even came across a sheep camp where the herder, Don, lived far from anyone in a covered wagon. Super interesting to think that way of life can survive in the world we now live in.

Eventually I made my way over to Park City to visit my good friend Jason, who I’ve shared plenty of backcountry and travel adventures with over the years. He guides in the St Elias Mountains up in Alaska during the summers so I wanted to catch up with him before he headed out.

We spent a couple of days skiing, one day at Deer Valley where he works in the winter and one incredibly nasty day in the Wasatch backcountry. Mostly though, we just spent some quality time catching up, laughing until our sides hurt and we might have squeezed a couple of local beers into the mix here and there.

From Park City I headed down through Provo Canyon and made my way onto the 191 though Price Canyon towards Moab.

I had hoped the 191 would be a casual drive all the way into Moab, but what I found was that it’s a preferred shortcut from Interstate 70 into Salt Lake City and was equivalent to driving a NASCAR circuit. My resolve to drive 60 mph or under was put to the test and found myself pulling to the hard shoulder pretty often to let cars and semis blast by me at 80+ mph, but I stuck to it.

Some of our oldest friends, Scott and Janet have a place in Moab and as they were fortunately in town, it seemed a natural place to post up for a night. Not only are they incredibly fun to be around and any time spent with them winds up being a laugh-a-thon, but Janet is known for throwing down some seriously tasty food and Scott has the science of the margarita mastered, of which I may have partaken in one too many, just sayin’.

 

I won’t lie and say I didn’t wake up the next morning in a bit of tequila haze. I had planned to get out fairly early because I wanted to explore some backroads on the way back to Colorado, but that didn’t exactly go to plan. Instead, I stuck around to gorge myself with the breakfast Janet had prepared. With  “a few” cups of coffee downed to clear the cobwebs, I finally headed out to Road 128 just north of Moab. I’ve driven this road dozens and dozens of times and I never, ever get tired of it. Such an amazing valley.

However, what I hadn’t done in a while is take the La Sal Loop or driven some of the four wheel drive accessible sections of the Kokopelli Trail, or any of the Cisco Wash trails.

The La Sal Loop is a stunningly beautiful drive that leaves the desert floor and climbs up into the Manti La Sal Mountain Range. Spectacular ALL THE WAY but as I climbed through the aspen groves still bare from the winter, I vowed to come back in the autumn to see the colour changes!

The Kokopelli Trail and Cisco Wash system were full on desert driving with lots of rocks and sandy arroyos to cross. I chose carefully where I drove because I don’t have a winch (yet) and I didn’t want to risk getting myself into too big of a jam and have to make the walk of shame out to get help. All in all it was a remote, rough and an amazingly beautiful crawl through the high desert.

When I made my way back out to I-70 around Westwater, I knew it’d be pretty much interstate driving all the way back to Evergreen. Still, once I got out there, I set the cruise control on 60 mph and cowered in the right lane as the posted 80 mph speed limit seemed to be only a suggestion instead of a law.

When I approached to town of Fruita, just across the border into Colorado, I spotted what may be the the highlight of my trip. It may have also been THE ONLY vehicle I passed in five days. This van was definitely an oldie and the dude driving it seemed about as legit as it gets, but it was the sticker across the back that made me smile and reminded me why I originally set out to be a right lane and dirt road dweller for 1,136 miles.

Old friends, new friends, wide open spaces, slow travel, big skiing, new beers, strong margaritas…couldn’t ask for more.

Climb high, ski hard, pedal far, drive slow, be a good friend and live simply.