Firebear

The Sonoran Desert is ruthless.  Every plant, every rock, every bug, everything is out to get me.  Jumping Cholla and Teddy Bear Cholla literally leap through the air to attach themselves to me as I walk by.  Ocotilla stand tall and patient with inch-long-spines hidden in soft furry leaves.   Prickly Pear carpet the ground ready attack while I paranoidly stare skywards watching out for 15-foot-tall angry Saguaro.

The 105 degree September heat steals my sweat and energy.  A three-hour hike and I’ve downed almost two gallons of water.  Rocks shift while I scramble around a thorny Ocotilla branch and I sprain my ankle.

As I crouch to set up a couple shots I am mauled on the knee by the ridiculously named Teddy Bear Cholla.  A less cuddly plant I have never seen.  The “pups” are engineered to detach with the slightest touch.  It’s spines are reverse scaled so they slide easily into flesh then expand and form barbs that thwart removal.

The “Teddy Bear pup” stretches my skin as I pull it out.  It releases my knee only to impale my fingers.  I pull it with my other hand and it too is comically captured.  The more I work, the deeper the Teddy Bear bites.

Eventually, I have to rip my hands apart, screaming all the way.  This solves the problem of one of the hands, but it has now dug under my fingernails on the first.  Tears coat my eyes.

A lens cap finally comes to my rescue enabling me to pull it out without touching it.

The irony is that they are one of the most beautiful of cacti in their shape and how they hold light.  So rather than avoid them, I must get closer.

Around six p.m. the temp drops from 105 to 95, which should be good, but it just allows the mesquites and no-see-ems to hunt.

The whole scenario is a lose-lose.   Afraid of the tall cacti, I am open to attack from bellow and visa-versa.  Afraid of the bugs, I can wear long sleeves, but then the heat kills.  To avoid all things that stab I can stay still, but then I’m a bug feast.  I become demented in my insecurity.

I frame a shot, the light explodes, everything goes great, but I am too defeated to be excited.

After sunset, things just get worse. Of course I want to shoot a night shoot, so now I have to negotiate this wonderland of misery in the dark.

More Teddy Bears, more Prickly Pears, and more bugs.

Adding insult to injury I pick a shot that requires I lay on the ground, in a circle of discarded Cholla pups.  With the adrenaline of setting up, I don’t notice three groping my leg.

I make the shot [a 30s exposure double light painted with a 5500 degree CT light and then the same light with a red filter] and drag ass back to my truck.

A friend of mine, we’ll call him Saguaro, in Fountain Hills, a suburb of Phoenix, wants to grab a few drinks, so in my exhausted and bleeding state, I go.

It is karaoke night at the bowling alley.  We wish for earplugs.  A 250 lb heifer hits on Sauargo while her drunken Indian boyfriend spits on the counter through a grin missing three teeth.

We laugh and are polite until things go wrong.

“Did you fart?” Saguaro asks me.

“Nope, but I smell it.”

“It was me!  Ya like it?!” yells the Heifer.

Saguaro shoots me a look like just drank some ones dip spit.

Splash, goes the Indian’s full pitcher of beer, all over the bar.  The bartender just throws him a rag.

“My boy friend is crazy!” announces the Heifer.

“Really?” Saguaro asks looking shocked.

“We were at a party a few months ago and some one said he just acted crazy to get attention,” bragged the Heifer.  “My boyfriend showed him!  He pulled out his own tooth with pliers right then and there!”

Shock and horror descend like a person who would pull out their own tooth.

“He wasn’t done!  He pulled out another, then another and threw ‘em at the other guy!”

The night went downhill from there.

‘Nuff said about this trip.

[Disclaimer: Events in this story may or may not have happened in the way depicted.]

Posted in Photography

CoyoteLand

The dusk before morning whispers across my face. Stars spin and evaporate in murkiness.  The sun is coming.

It’s so cruel, the early hours being so comfortable but so promising for photography.  Cotton clouds dance anew in the waning stars.  Then I see it, the dying moon, running futile over the horizon, a singing crescent, soon to be eaten in light.

I’m up!

No shoes, no shirt, no water. Only camera and tripod.  I run, over the dunes, between cactus spines and lizard tracks.  The sand is moist and cold.  I set up, compose, focus and fire.

There’s the moon, faintly flying over the inky black custodians of an ancient sea.  It is the moment that lasts forever, and then is gone and was never there.

In the next second, the past is eaten.  Dawn breaks in the desert like a Tiger.  It leaps on me with its thirsty eyes and hot teeth and I awake, ripped from the dream.  But it is brilliant and purifying and godly, and maybe just another dream.

Now clouds of angels and tracks of coyotes dance in fire.  The custodial giants smolder then ignite.  The temperature rises 20 degrees and I’m sweating.

Damn!  What a pair of moments.  A straight shot of adrenaline.

Winding down, up above at Monument Valley’s fantastic breakfast buffet at 7 am, I relive the experience a couple times then set above planning the day.  Flags start a slow wave in a rising breeze.

There is another figure in the Valley, well …many, but one that I am especially taken with.  It is called The Totem Pole.  A woman at the counter says I need a guide and she tells me where to find one.

“Sure you want to go today?”  she asks.

“Why?”

“It’s gonna be windy, really windy.”

“Perfect.”

She wasn’t lying.  The sky goes from blue to orange in the half hour after breakfast.

The winds are at 50 mph at 4 pm when my brother and mother, eager to share the adventure, arrive.  The guide, J.D., shows up ten minutes later on foot and drunk with blazing blood-red eyes, but friendly and extremely knowledgeable.

J.D. has obviously worked with many photographers because he knows how to compose and has a million great vantage points – arches with eyelashes, a butte of E.T. laying on his back, nooks and crannies only a person of the Valley could know.  Some I had seen and did not want to re-plagiarize, but others I will go back to when the weather is right for them.

The orange road is rutted and rough.  Each bounce adds gallons of dust to the sandpaper air.  The truck spasms with each gust.

Arriving at the Totem Pole, I start composing through sliver eyes, which everyone knows will take a while.  Tango wants to stay, but J.D. has other places that he wants to show Mom so they leave saying they’ll be back.

After an hour, sitting high atop a crumbling boulder, I have my composition.  The now 60-mph-winds scrape the land ripping the red dust into the sky. My teeth are covered, my eyes, scraped and dry, scream from the grit. The blood sun sends his minions at me, but I am sheltered by the Totem.

Tango and I wait an hour with no sign of Mom and J.D.  The sun has set, but it is a straight shot back to the main road.  Cold and thirsty we start across the dunes, our red headlamps catching yucca and snakes.  The Milky Way watches over our shoulders.

Single light beams make for poor depth perception so a gentle three-foot drop elongates to ten as I fall.

“Don’t come this way,” I yell crumpled on the bottom, picking spines from my leg.

Finally we emerge from the desert night and find Mom waiting in the parking lot with a confused J.D.  He can’t seem to remember that he is our guide and is perturbed that we were out in the dark.

Bit by bit, as we list details, he remembers the things he showed us that only he could have.  Relenting, he asks us to leave him at the visitor center.

After a long battle and satisfied that we are leaving, the wind calms, slowly releasing it’s dirty plunder back on to the land.

[Disclaimer: Events in this story may or may not have happened in the way depicted.]

Posted in Photography

Cerulean

Broch Lesner just spanked Shane Corrwin in the best UFC fight in ages and I met some lovely ladies and a sweet old man who looks just like Marlon Brando circa Don Juan DeMarco.  Selling photos at art faires sucks, but it has its perks.

The show ends for the day, the bar opens its doors and we open our throats.  One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.  We laugh and discuss the town we’re in with its BIG trucks and BIG belt buckles and BIGGER hate of taxes, government and helping people.

Every bumper sticker reads, “Tea Party!”

We guess that’s why Arizona’s roads are trashed, its education system is ranked near last, its property value has plummeted and it is in debt up to its eyeballs.  It’s not my responsibility and someone else can pay for it all.

Unfortunately both of the girls have to return to their parents’ house to celebrate a birthday so the laughter ends and with it, the day.

The next day is another day at the fair, another round of selling, and another round of the same questions and comments: Did you take these? Are these real photographs?  Are these all from Arizona? What do you shoot with?  And my personal favorite: Honey look, you just took this picture.

It just gets repetitive.

“This is god’s Country!” explodes from the Fourth of July parade behind me.  “God bless America!”

Whose god? I ask.  Christian?  Baptist?  Catholic?  Muslim?  Jewish?

And why America?  I love my country, but don’t many parts of the world have it much worse than us?  How about, god bless Africa.  I think they need some help right now.

The shouts go on and on.  Another day of this would kill me so I leave the show early for the Escalante.

—————————————————————————————————–

Down the dunes and past what I call the Elephant, canyon walls rise around me.  Lizard tracks race from here to there waiting to blow away.

In the canyon, the calming waters of the Escalante run like time.

With no clouds it is soon over a hundred, but the Escalante river winds back on itself at every turn, carving alcoves of shade and breeze.  Naptime.

Despite the shade, a body print of sweat lounges on my mat when I get up.

Off to the shot and I know it is going to be a winner.

An arch, 200 ft wide and 1000 ft from the ground stares its blank stare.  Surrounding it, rock, stained black in lines like lashes, curls towards the heavens to meet the stars I envision.

The water is warm as I wade around looking for my composition.  One foot deep, two feet, three – there is the shot.

Young fish swim between my legs and around my arms as I submerge up to my shoulders to look through the viewfinder.  The water is soft and warm, almost hypnotic, but I can’t shake the feeling of being bitten.

A nibble on my back, a nibble on my side, then my ankle, inside my pants, aahhhhhh! Looking down, those sweet little Utah Sucker babies are going to town, fifty of ‘em nibbling at whatever nutrients I have on my skin.  Ah, says my sigh of relief.

After the fishy cleaning, dinner is eaten, equipment is checked, a book is read, and I wait for the night.

My alarm taps my shoulder at two a.m.  Moonlight hangs in the east, but the moon itself has meandered below the canyon walls.

Out of the gurgling river rises my camera like Darth Vader.  As I slip in behind it, red light bouncing from my headlamp off the river, the insomniac cleaning service restarts its nibbles.

The framing hasn’t changed so I depress the timer, reset my alarm and return to bed.

“Click, Click,” remarks the camera every three minutes.  It would be a good time to sleep, but I can’t while I’m mid-shot.

Another tap on my should at 4:15am.  A few stratocumulus undulatus streak the southern sky.  Hopefully they will propagate long enough to reach the north.  Before I can tell, the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher chirps the eminent dawn.

Just in time, as a sliver of moonlight still perches in the nook of the arch, the clouds race northward in the first hint of dawn.  I change the camera’s exposure to compensate for the increased light, though my eyes still see almost total night.  There’s the final expsure

(28 three-minute exposures combined using PS>load scripts>smart object>stack mode max.)

With the canyon walls close together, the sun will not hit me for a few more hours, so as the world awakes, I fall blissfully asleep.

Posted in Photography

El Corazon


Was it luck? Right place at the right time?  Am I deluding myself about my real potential?  To quote Almost famous, a mid-level photographer “struggling with (his) own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.”  Should I go back to shoveling files in a warehouse?  Or shoveling plates in a dining room?  Am I, dare I say it, unoriginal?

Three trips in as many months and I haven’t produced anything I like.

Today, standing atop a canyon in Arizona, it is the worst it has been.  I can’t “see.”  There are no lines in my head, no compositions battling for exposure.  The land is flat and my camera hangs limp in my hand.

Uninspired, The sun hovers in an obscuring haze then it sets.  Wind picks up from the south.  I’m alone for a few minutes before the two other photographers I’m meeting arrive.

In the morning I watch them compose.  I look with pride when I see them follow the same roundabout wanderings that I did the evening before, and I think, “maybe I do have some skill.  After all, these ‘pros,’ whose work I judge as the gold standard, look like me when I work.”  But then I am jealous as they find inspiration in those same formations that I did not.

Maybe I have simply reached a point where I am trying to learn accepted methods, rather than do what I feel is right.  Maybe I am spending too much time examining the work of others.

As the day blooms, it is clear there will be no clouds.  It is a slot canyon day.

The unnamed canyon, patiently passing time in a remote corner of Arizona, devours us as we walk.  Its fibrous textures lead downward like that of a throat frozen mid-swallow.  On the hundred-degree-day, the stone is cold against my arms.

Oh to see it happen – that moment of violent change, both creation and destruction, when the rains fall and coalesce into screaming orange blood.  Ripping through the soft sandstone, it thinks only of gravity’s bottomless lure that beckons movement at any cost.

Now, though, it is just time’s monument.

Blazing light from above is filtered and reflected a thousand times into a softness like a warm bed.  Deep shadows collect only the sky’s resounding blue.  Higher up sunny orange leaps from one face to another.

I am inspired, I shoot, but I can’t tell if I like my vision.  I used to know that my shot was exactly what I wanted.  Now I start to think I am so caught up in the picture in my head that I can’t see what’s in front of me.

After four hours in-canyon my shirtsleeves are gone, the victims of sandpaper walls.

My camera balances on a tripod, pointing up.  A patch of the ceiling reminds me of a ventricle.

(El Corazon.  Six shots at different focal points because the depth-of-field is so great. I then merge them in Photoshop using the “auto-align” function in the Edit menu and blend them with basic masking.)

A different feeling settles me after the last shot.  It spoke to me.  I hadn’t thought of it ahead of time so it wasn’t spoiled by my over analysis.  The moment had its way.  The worry isn’t completely gone, but I know must keep trying.

Posted in Photography

Chasing Pink

Tango, my brother, and I pull into Furnace Creek, Death Valley at 10:30pm.  Chairs are unloaded and unfolded, beers are opened.  We cheers the success of our ten hour journey and await the third musketeer, El Gato, my best friend since 7th grade.

It is winter.  We sit in shorts.

An old green station wagon shakes toward us, stops, spasms, and settles.

“Hey!”  yells El Gato.

We hug, joke, and are right at home, but it is late.  Bedtime.

In the morning a boring clear blue sky mocks my desire for stormy drama.  But we head to Zabriskie Point, where I don’t need a compelling sky to shoot.

Even in winter, tourists abound – 20-ton RV’s, Mercedes convertibles, rose tinted glasses under lace hats.

We musketeers leave the road, and with it, the people.  The neuroma in my foot stings.  Rocks like ball-bearings roll under our feet as we climb and descend each slope.  Half our climb is spent on hands and butts.

From the top of a ridge, the Earth bares it innards, its scars.  The ground screams gold.  Sherbet green peeks shyly from the shadows.  I hand-hold the four-pound tank-of-a-lens I’m trying out.  Click.

(Click image to view full-size with true color.)

Two days later we find water in Panamint Valley – water and wild burrows (donkey type animals).

An old guy on a remembering-the-passion-of-my-youth journey across America stops and talks to Tango and El Gato.  From his ravenous need for company comes a story of jealousy, love, betrayal,… and burrows.

“Did you observe the black patch of fur on the burrow’s backs?” proudly asks the man.

“Eh, nope,” says El Gato.

“It is in the shape of a cross.  Jesus rode a burrow out of the desert after his forty days.  That was his angel.”

“Ah…”

In our bags we try to sleep, but the holy burrows HEEEE HAAAA all night like they’re passing kidney stones.  Coyotes howl from the periphery.

About five am the HEEE HAAAing turns panicked.  Hoof stomps collide with barks and growls.  Dust rises in the violet moonlight.  Tango rolls over and snores.

Finally, dawn explodes across the sky.  Purple veins pulse through the pink.  The air is tangible it carries so much light.  All the other dawns where clear though, so I am unprepared to shoot.  I try, but the light is gone by the time my shoes are tied.

“How do girls respond when you tell them your job is ‘chasing the color pink’?” jabs El Gato.

Out of gas and water after breakfast, we drive to Trona, CA.  The supporting business is a soda ash processing plant.  The air is sticky with the smell of old eggs.  The world’s only sand golf course erodes in the distance.  We shiver in the 80 degree air.

“Hey, what ya need?” spits a man outside the grocery store.  Three teeth are missing and his left arm shakes.  A woman sits next to him clutching his pant leg and smiling at nothing.

In the store, only a few bulbs work, and they flicker.  Nicely, the few-toothed man helps us navigate it.  We leave in a hurry.

“That’s what the end of the world looks like,” sighs Tango.

Back at camp we pound beer to wash out the experience.  With no wind the egg-death smell clings becoming the fourth musketeer.  We name it, “Fartanion.”

At dusk we stand high atop Aguereberry Point.  The whole valley is laid bare from North to South.  I hope for a shimmer of the morning’s pink soul… and I get it.

(Click image to view full-size with true color.)

Under a slow overcast sky, the Devil’s Golf Course finishes the trip.  It is the lowest place in the U.S (elevation wise).  It is a pasture of angry salt.

At some point in time, the basin was wet and the salt hung comfortably in solution.  But then away flew the water leaving the salt callous and rejected. It expanded with frantic crystallization trying to follow and there it stays, reaching a few inches into the air.

The snow white salt crunches under foot as we tip-toe through the fossil sculpture.  Seams in hexagons show cleaner, whiter salt that was pushed from below.

I have two shots in mind, neither of which work out due to the weather, but that’s photography.

The stove sputters and coughs.  The fuel is gone.  Tango vigorously pumps it to keep a small flame going.  We eat our cold last meal on the dark flats then say good-bye.

Posted in Photography

Furnace

“Click, click, cl, cl, cl, Click,” groans my truck.

“You’re screwed,” is my loose translation.  And yep, my battery is dead.

So I look around and relax watching the clouds.  I breathe the cold air in, then out.  And I hit the steering wheel and yell and rant and open the door and get out and it’s too cold so I get back in and yell some more!

Cars glide by on highway 666, 20 miles away, as silent as my truck.   Shiprock looms dark and crooked.

I’ve been here two days, not one of those cars has turned in my direction.  But for only the second time this year – first when my truck was stuck in four feet of snow outside of Taos – my phone works in the wilderness.  Call it luck.  My options are pretty simple: tow truck, wait for someone to come, call mom.

The tow company wants seven hundred dollars, and three hours of waiting doesn’t bring any free help.  Not sure what to do.

Cloud-softened-sun warms the ground. Shiprock starts to pulse orange and yellow in some stray rays. My stomach twists knowing my light is coming tonight, but my shot is on the opposite side of the Rock six miles away.  I would walk if I weren’t in a boot with a broken foot.  One mile, ok, but not six.  Must call mom.

Ring, ring, “hello,” says mom, again, the greatest in the world.

“Well, your truck died,” I announce, trying to pass on some of the blame since I am driving her vehicle (I can’t push my truck’s clutch with my broken foot).

The only solution is for her to drive four hours and jump me.  Somehow she agrees.

“Please hurry,” I plead, adding insult to injury.  “I need you here by 5:30 to get my shot.”

“I’ll try, but I have errands to run.”

Some cold lentil soup and turkey, crunchy with ice crystals, fill my stomach.  The truck’s thermostat says 24 degrees, warm enough for a hike.

Shiprock is a violent form like the last gasp of a dying hand, twisted.  It seems to fall on me as clouds fly over.  Colors grow from its trunk, reverberating with the light.  I’m still angry I’m not where I want to be, but I relax.

Minutes, then hours, blow off in the wind.  The sun goes from high to low in the sky.  Cotton clouds play in Shiprock’s towers.

Mom does not make it in time.

Framed in gold the Rock casts a thousand-foot-high blue shadow on the virga of the storm passing behind it.  I think of taking a snapshot for memory’s sake, and for a blog it would be useful, but I am trapped in the pain of what could have been.  And photography is hard.  Just because I can see something, does not mean I can translate it with a camera.

Lucky photos happen once or twice for everyone.  Intentionally creating a masterpiece takes foresight, planning and patience… and luck.  Shiprock’s shadow, though one of the most incredible things I’ve seen, catches me by surprise and in the three minutes it lasts, I cannot get to a vantage point to do it justice.  The moment is a memory.

An hour after the show, in the dark, headlights tumble over the gray rutted plain.  With my battery dead I use a headlamp to  answer.

Mom tries one road, then another, then another, then another, then finally she finds mine.  Rescued at last after a day that will nag me.

The next morning mom says goodbye and I’m back in action.  A few hours of aimless driving while I wait for sunset, then I head to my location.

To avoid a repeat of yesterday, I’ll leave the car running.  Two pairs of long underwear, sweatshirt, jacket and snow pants, a beanie, two pairs of gloves, and two garbage bags over the end of my walking boot to keep the wind out.  Ready to rock.

My boot won’t let me extend my foot so I limp up the volcanic ridge like a drunken duck.  Wind whistles under my hood calling me an idiot.

In the distance fingers of snow touch the ground, green bushes and dirty sand go white.  I’m standing in the sun, but not for long I hope.

Snow hits me and my heart pounds and my face smiles.  Shiprock is eaten while blue sky cowers behind it.  I am the Hobbit at the base of Mt. Doom and I think I am dreaming.  I could fly away.  It is why I am here: to touch a fantasy.

In a flash, it’s over – the hills are painted white.  This must be an apology for keeping me from yesterday’s show.

Excited, I hope for sunset glow on the Rock, but clouds are blocking the horizon behind me.  I focus all my attention, “please break up.  Let just a little light through, PLEASE.”

Granting my wish in opposite, as life often does, clouds part in front and out comes the moon.  Normally I plan for this sort of thing, but not this time.  My breath catches and the dry wind makes my eyes water.

Then, as fast as the snow fell, a bright red eye peeks through the hole I wished for.  The sky bubbles and flashes.  White rocks burst in red.  Snow glows magenta.  Shiprock, no longer ominous, ignites like a soft furnace.  Click.  Click.  Two exposures for proper dynamic range.

Click Image to view full-size

On the way home at 6 the next morning, I pick up a Navajo hitchhiker, booze stink fills the truck.  He has ice in his mustache and says he has been walking since 4:30am.  I would be drunk too.

“You up by Shiprock?” he mumbles.

“Yeah.”

“Tse’Bit’Ai… Rock with Wings,” he says.

Posted in Photography

Dusk to Dawn

Rounding the turn our truck swings into oncoming traffic.

“COLIN!!!” screams everyone I am driving.

I look back to the road and away from the shear glowing peaks of Glacier National Park.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive?” pleads my mom.

“No.”

Of course the last thing I want to do is drive, being in Glacier and all, but if I don’t, we won’t go where I want to go, for this is a family reunion, and, as it is with all families I’m sure, mine all wants to lead and all wants something different and wastes hours in argument.

With only one night in the park, I have no time to waste. St. Mary’s Lake calls like a siren and I must comply. But I do pay more attention to the road. Killing my whole family doesn’t suit my gentle nature.

Our truck slides to a stop in the St. Mary’s parking lot, my family exhales, my equipment is unloaded, Tango – my brother – and I wave good-bye, and it is time to work.

Glacier’s weather can be anything from easy blue skies to chomping blizzards this time of year, or so I hear. Today is in between. The sky’s few clouds let ample sun through, but 40 mph winds make walking too close to any edge problematic. But for me, it is bliss. The light clouds mean interesting skies with speckled illumination on the ground, and the wind is kicking up ravenous surf on the lake that adds bravado.

I decide on a spot, but we need permits for overnight camping. The rangers are nice enough for people who think their civilized rules are the only thing keeping their park from digressing into something unwieldy and dangerous and … what’s the word? Natural.

A fifteen-minute video explaining said rules is forced upon us. It says three things; yell “BEAR” while walking on the trail so you don’t accidentally scare one; avoid your food so as not to attract bears; and if a bear attacks lay on your stomach. If he is not satisfied with attacking your back and tries to role you over, go with the roll so your back is again on top for his easy consumption.

Properly frightened and confused we head back to our spot on the lakeshore.

Wind claws the lake spraying its blue blood high into the air. Droplets attack my lens.

A water funnel twists on the surface a thousand feet off, eight hundred feet off, five hundred, one hundred – “that’s gonna hit us!” Tango rejoices.

And it does. I spin left. Tango, right. We go from dry to drenched in .02 seconds, and it’s over.

I’m sitting now, sideways, madly grasping my camera. Tango, still standing, with his hair twirled up into a point, simply smiles at me with a glazed giddiness like a reformed drunk just baptized.

“That was wild,” he states.

As the sun drops, the clouds dwindle. My shot is framed and ready. To add motion and shape to the foreground waves I set my shutter speed to 1/20 of a second. Then I open the shutter for three minutes to capture the first stars of the night, trailing towards the setting sun. An orange remnant of the day clings to the last clouds.

Wind, still ferocious, growls and rips at our clothes as we search for a campsite above the shore, but a line of three bent trees further along the edge tricks the wind up and over. A calm alcove huddles beneath, and so do we.

The Pleiades meteor shower scrapes rubies and emeralds across the atmosphere as we stare up. Some streaks hang for 30 seconds or more. It is hard to tell if they are really there, or if it is an impression burned in my retina.

Then Glacier’s peaks turn pink. A full moon rises behind us.

This too I try to photograph, but I’m too tired and forget half the necessary steps. Tango smokes to my right; wind blows his red ash across the camera frame.

On three hours of sleep, I’m up before dawn. Wind lessens his fury seeing we made it through the night, but his waves still paw the shore.

Three boulders sit in the surf asking to be my dawn shot’s foreground. I balance them with my favorite peak in the top right of the frame. Trailing off to the left are some more mountains I do not know the names of.

The sun rises like the moon, but now I am ready. Clouds above bounce light onto my foreground evening the scene’s lighting.

Gentle yellow paints the peaks and the tips of trees. Water plays in the boulders. Click.

 

 

(Legal Disclaimer: The events in this story may or may not have happened in the way described)

Posted in Photography

O’ Christmas Tree

 

In blackness, complete silent blackness, everything blends. The body and mind and surroundings evaporate. Hands drift off with rocks. Feet spread into places above and beyond and inside. Thoughts are now and gone and later. I am a boy reaching and falling, and I am an old gasp. I have yet to live and I am always.

And … I turn my headlamp back on, kiss the rock next to me, remember I’m not the metaphysical type, and drop deeper into the cave I’m exploring.

+++++

“Lets go to Carlsbad Caverns,” Jared, my middle school chum, proposes. “I found a map that tells where the backcountry caves are.”

Well, I grew up claustrophobic to the point that I would walk twenty flights of stairs to avoid a confining elevator, so caves were never my forte. But, after watching the “Caves” episode ofPlanet Earth, I knew it was time to face the fear.

Jared picks me up in his girlfriend’s truck. Zeppelin screams, “Hangman, hangman, pray tell me that I’m free to ride,” through the dry falsetto air and we are off.

Three hours into the drive and my hiking boots have run off. For twenty-five dollars Wal-Mart equips me with the worst boots money can buy.

At 10 pm a hellish yellow Camp-on-Arrival (KOA) sign welcomes us to what Edward Abbey called Industrial Tourism.

KOA’s website describes their Carlsbad location as a place to, “Kick back and relax with family and friends at this eight year-old campground, which is truly an oasis. KOA will spoil you with its 2,000-square-foot community room, meals delivered to your site, a beautiful commercial laundry, outstanding restrooms, a fenced dog park, a heated pool and an adult hot tub.”

We see a skunk under a floodlight, a white flash screams off its back. Glowing red coke machines buzz and burp consuming nature’s serenity. Deer eat from open dumpsters. Water spigots drip, drip, drip New Mexico’s water into dying grass. The lights erase the stars. TV’s advertise Oprah’s new weight loss program from the open windows of RVs.

But I am happy. The more people that call this camping, the less people there are in real wilderness.

Jared opens a beer and tosses me one. We pore out a little for the skunks stalking us in circles, and make bets on whether a drunk skunk is less or more likely to spray us. They scratch at our tent most of the night, but we don’t smell much worse in the morning.

We are on the trail by 8:00 am. It is 102 degrees. We have three gallons of water between us, plus 30 pounds of lenses, lights, tripods, and a camera. Sweat gushes from me faster than I can refill it. Heat snakes off the rocks.

Two miles and hundreds of feet up, we find a hole, the entrance. Jared’s map suggested the use of a repelling harness, but said the drop was only twenty feet and could be free climbed. We did not bring a harness.

I tie some webbing to a rock, grab hold, lean back and remember it has been ten years since I last repelled. But, hand over hand, arms shaking, I plunge.

Jared has never free climbed or repelled.

“I don’t think I can do this,” he stammers.

At the bottom my heart still pounds. “It is easy,” I lie.

He declines.

I turn from the entrance, look into the abyss, and take a step.

+++++

Rock-cicles stab from the ceiling. Goblins and goliaths, frozen, perch and hunker in shadows.Columns like twisting teeth bend in on me as I stare up.

Between each chamber is another squeeze. Once through is another cacophony of spines, orbs, ringed stumps and fluted spires. I am too excited to be claustrophobic.

A cave is two worlds. First it is natural, black, alone, a mind’s playground. Then, a light blinks on. A blue castle, sparkling, hangs upside down from the ceiling.

Another light, a ten-foot brain, red to orange, shimmers with its oblivious thoughts.

Light three ignites a petrified furnace of terraced teacups. Surrounding are shelves like tree fungus that cling to the walls and collect milky dust.

Out of the black flashes an emerald saber-tooth slashing the midnight from ceiling to cellar.

Then, from above, looms the cavern’s namesake, a Christmas tree – a two-story high dimpled rock pyramid that rests on a two-foot wide stone stump. I could spend days circling it, but Jared waits up top and I’ve spent 3 hours inside so I light it, frame it in my shot, and set the tripod.

Click, the camera is set for a two-minute exposure. The stationary lighting looks good, but I need a few flashes for the rest. I only have one.

I change the exposure to three minutes so there is time to move around for multiple flashings.The shutter opens and I stumble through the dark to the chosen locations.

I flash the ceiling; flash the foreground, flash to fill the gaps left by the fixed lights. Walking, the ground feels unstable.

Back at the camera the shot is blurred. Checking the lens, the focus is accurate. My movements must have shaken it. Is the floor solid? Deeper cavities often lurk under caverns thought fully explored. This level hasn’t collapsed yet I guess.

My last attempt I am a panther slithering over and between the formations with grace. After the last flash I try to hold my excitement from perturbing the ground and camera. I look, Success.

+++++

I start to collect my lights. My fear turns on as the lights go off. I remember where I am, in a deep confined space, my nemesis.

Shadow spreads its velvet cloak behind and above and around me. Trying to move faster my feet are like two of the three stooges. The goblins are back, but bigger now and their fingers rip at my clothes. I nearly run. I can’t breath. Taunting echoes reverberate through the air. Should I go left or right, up or down?

Then … Jared calls my name, light from the entrance squeezes though, he drops the rope, and I am out.

(Legal Disclaimer: The events in this story may or may not have happened in the way described)

Posted in Photography

Ute’s Kingdom

In January, 2009 I was hired for a photography assignment (shoot the Taos Gorge/Ute Mountain region). Here is the story:

In preparation for my trip, and because it is January, I check the weather – eighty percent chance of snow with temperatures dipping below -10. My kind of weather. I pack accordingly, or so I think, and head north, alone.

The first day is uneventful. I drive around for a while pissed off for no reason and scout possible shots.

At night I decide to camp. I do this for two reasons: one, I am broke; and two, I am a man and therefore not afraid of a little cold.

Unbeknownst to me, two kinds of people seem to live in the region surrounding Taos – old school hippies that live in strange round homes called Earthships that are built into the ground to save energy, and gun-toting crystal-meth-cookers. I camp in no man’s land between the two groups.

Every hour I am awoken by said meth-maniacs driving by my tent, stopping, yelling obscenities at me, completing their drug deals and speeding off. Between this and the ass-chapping cold, I sleep little.

Day two, I awake shivering and tired, but more or less alive. All my cooking water is frozen so I head to town for breakfast. A breakfast burrito full of fat and goodness gets me goin’, but now comes decision time.

A nature photographer, unlike most other artists who have a lot of control over what they create, is at the whim of Mother Nature. I cannot make up a compelling scene. I have to wait for clouds to form and the light to pop and for the drunken tourist wearing the, “My Bush Ate your Gore,” T-shirt to get out of the way. Because of this, I am constantly stressed about where I choose to shoot – will the light be best from the east or west? should I head into the mountains or stay in the valley? should I go for a basic shot I know I can get or gamble on a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece? and on and on.

After an hour of consternation, I choose the easy one. I was hired for this trip, so I figured I better come back with something.

I toss on my snowshoes and head up a hill for a view of the Taos Gorge. Pretty shot of the Gorge … check.

 

It is getting dark and I am hungry so I find a nice bar in town. After a couple margaritas, a beer, and a failed attempt at getting laid later, I drive off to try this winter camping again.

Despite being shot down by the Taos tart, I feel good. Themoon is shining while some sparse clouds dispense snow. I drive on past hippy-meth-land to a more isolated region.

I find a spot at the base of a volcanic rise and promptly sink my trunk in two feet of snow. The alcohol still in charge, I decide I can dig it out. No shovel, no problem. I’ll use a ski pole. Four hours, two broken ski poles, and a retreating ego later, my truck is now three feet deep. The wind is cruel and my hands look blue. I tie my tent into the bed of the truck to keep it from blowing away and call it a night.

Now I have found it to be true that when it rains it pours. In this instance I translated that to mean: when my truck is stuck in the snow it will keep snowing till I remove it. The night dumped another foot, which the wind turned into a house-size snowdrift over my truck.

I decide I need help. With my phone nearly dead, I called my mom. “Mom, ummmm, I’m stuck.Can you call AAA and get me a tow, please?” Mom, being one of the most awesome in the world, has a truck there in a couple hours.

Oh course, when they finally arrive, another foot has fallen. They don’t want to risk getting stuck themselves, but I offer another $100 and I’m out in 30 minutes.

Getting out took so long that I just find a better campsite and call it a day. This night is the coldest. Im’ not sure I am sleeping at all and my throat feels like a cactus.

The morning finds my left nostril frostbitten shut.

But this is it, the day I’ve been wait for. The clouds separate but hang around like rosy-cheeked drunks lingering after a party. The sun, blinking through the openings, separates each layer of the landscape into depths of complexity like a fractal.

The road to my location is, as my dad says, slicker than snot. I pass at least five cars that called the ditch home for the night. But I escape unscathed and arrive on the plains to the west of the Gorge.

Luckily it was too windy here for the snow to stick so it is only a foot deep. I apply my snowshoes and winter-warrior gear. My ski poles are a shadow of their former glory but I take them anyway.

I’m in a race now. The sun is my stopwatch. It is time to see the future. I must find my subjects and compose my shot all while imagining what the light will be later.

I pick Ute Mountain as my background focus. Most of the plain is barren, but a small grove of juniper trees congregates off to the south a few miles. They will be my foreground.

I move as fast as I can. Which is not very fast considering I’ve only snow shoed twice before.

The land elongates as I move across it. What I thought was 3 miles becomes 6. The sun drops like a bat carrying a cannon ball. My throat screams for water, but I press on. Photo possibilities abound, but I must ignore them to make it to the shot I’ve envisioned.

Then finally, I am here. I stand on a slight roll to get depth. I compose the shot and set the exposure. My heart beats and my hand shakes and … the sun goes behind a cloud. So I wait.

Clouds go from white to orange to red above my head, but I still have no foreground illumination. So I wait.

My hands tingle and my feet spasm in the cold. The wind picks up slicing across my face. Still I wait.

Then… Something moves behind me. A cloud is dislodged. The sun begins slowly exhaling orange across the plain. One by one the inch high crests of snow along the expanse start to ignite. Red waves follow, lapping at the junipers. I hold my breath and take hold of the camera’s trigger. Excitement cascades down my spine. A scream builds in my stomach.

Like just before imminent death, time stops, the stillness is tangible. Then … glory. The world explodes in emeralds and rubies. Sapphire skies frame clouds on fire. Ute Mountain presides over his kingdom. I snap the shutter and remember what it is to be alive.
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(Legal Disclaimer: The events in this story may or may not have happened in the way described)
Posted in Photography