I first visited the northern region of the Escalante Staircase area years ago after reading an article on the Burr Trail -but that’s another story. More recently (back in 2007) I hit it from the south, having come up one night from Flagstaff and checked into a hotel in Page, Arizona just off Hwy 89. There was a large canvas hanging on the wall of the lobby and I asked the woman behind the desk where it was from. “Just up the road,” she said, “about 20 miles. It’s not marked or anything, you just pull over the start walking.” So that next day we did just that and what do you know – we found it.
This past trip to Page we thought we’d try to find it again. One late afternoon we set out armed with just a memory and full tank of gas. Soon the land began to change into what I vaguely remembered from 10 years prior and I was hopeful. Then, there on the right hand side of the road was the parking area and it all came back to me. It’s more developed now; a half dozen cars at the trail head and a sign informing would-be hikers what they’re about to see. It’s the Grand Staircase, part of the enormous Escalante National Monument.
Different than a National Park, National Monuments have different structures, different protocols. The Escalante National Monument is a truly vast, wild expanse of land sweeping through central Utah. There’s no single entry point per say, but numerous portals from which to enter. Camping is allowed and exploration is encouraged. It is a able-bodied photographer’s dream come true.
So what does this have to do with the F6? Nothing, really – other than it’s just another place it was with me to record. Ten years ago before purchasing the F6 I was shooting a D2oo. The difference between the two cameras is startling. My friend Dan looked through the F6’s super bright, clear viewfinder and – in comparison to the D750 he was shooting – commented how he wished the D750 had that viewfinder. Funny how we grow accustomed to things and can take them for granted. The viewfinder is one of the features of the F6 I’ve come to rely on most. I’m actually able to see well enough for tasks such as manually focusing and low-light shooting. And compared to the F5, because the focus points light up in red instead of remaining a monotone gray when activated makes everything easier and less distracting when shooting. Yet another reason to love the F6.
To read more about Utah’s Escalante National Monument and Grand Staircase, visit the VisitUtah web site.
One of the things I’ve looked forward to each year since – forever – is my fall trip. This year it was down to the Four Corners area of the US and covered territory in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah then back in Colorado. We visited a handful of awe-inspiring destinations – some for the first time, others back for another go.
You can do your best to plan a trip well but at the end of the day the ability to roll with whatever is presented yields a better overall experience. Weather, light, crowds and other unforeseen circumstances like car trouble can either crater your objective – or – present opportunities to rise and meet challenges.
When it comes to putting time, money and energy into visiting a specific place with specific goals, there’s one clear choice for me and that’s the F6. In the past I’ve shot a good bit of color at some of these destinations. This year I felt like switching it up a bit and decided to shoot black and white film between rolls of Velvia. Velvia is great stuff – but bright, sun-lit days are not what I’d consider ideal conditions to get the most from it, even with a warming filter.
The first destination on our stop was the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in north western New Mexico. There are two primary washes, or drainages in the Bisti; a north and a south. The northern wash is referred to as Hunter Wash, the southern as the Gateway or Alamo Wash. The main, visible (but primitive) parking area is adjacent to the southern wash. The northern wash takes a little route finding to access but nothing too arduous. Both are fascinating and provide explorers plenty to see with minimal elevation gain. The area is pretty flat – which is a new (and welcome) difference compared to so many other areas requiring a lot of strenuous climbing. It’s almost as if you’re simply going for a walk once you cross the Wilderness Area boundary. To scamper up the hills and ravines is a relatively easy task.
One of the things I realized in my research of the area was how difficult it was to attain a sense of scale while viewing images. I’d see a geological feature and wonder if it were 10 feet tall or a hundred. I’ll leave the mystery to you as well as you view the images. I will say that despite ominous warnings and perceptions that accompany such a remote, designated wilderness such as the Bisti I was pleasantly surprised how accessible and friendly it felt.
The general layout of the area is these large primary washes run southwest, with many of the interesting features residing in the off-shoot canyons and drainages feeding the main washes. We were a little nervous about getting lost, having read several accounts of people doing so resulting in cold nights spent in the badlands. I found, however, that with basic navigation and orienteering skills getting lost wouldn’t be a problem. We did use the GPS feature of our iPhones as a back up. There’s no cell signal but the GPS functionality of the device works perfectly without it. Yet another reason to love smart phones.
It was cold that first night and the next morning before dawn we woke at 5am, donned head lamps and headed into the unknown Alamo Wash in the dark looking for a good place to catch first light. The light is the most difficult part of visiting the Bisti, or other badlands areas blessed (?) with so much sun. Harsh bright light and harsh shadows have the photographer praying for cloud cover. Alas – sometimes there’s simply none to be found.
There were nearly a dozen cars at the trail head by the time we returned from the morning hike. After grabbing a quick bite and watering up we headed into the northern wash searching for the Wings. More to come…
Post Scrip: after this first trip I found a great weather resource that will help plan additional trips. The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a unique and special place worthy of more time and attention.
Sometimes returning to your roots is a good thing. When we lived in Santa Fe from the mid 90’s ’til 2000 I was in a different phase of photography. In recent years I’ve enjoyed returning to this beautiful country with a better understanding of light – and how to coax more out of a frame of film with subtle adjustments here and there. Below are a few recent images from our last visit to Santa Fe, the F6 loaded with Velvia. The meter in the F6 is a perfect companion to the narrow exposure latitude of this sometimes tempermental emulsion. A good 2-stop Neutral Density Gradient and occasional use of a 81A warming filter can help coax light into cooperating with Velvia, producing very pleasing results.
A big thanks to Richard Photo Lab in California for their excellent work developing all the film from this trip. It was the first time I’ve used Richard but not the last. They handled a large, complex order well and all the films were properly labeled and processed.
A few weeks ago I needed to get out – as in far away from the computer – in a big way. The weather wasn’t good along the Front Range and checking the iPhone confirmed pretty much any place within easy driving distance was experiencing the same. It looked like the only thing to do was out drive the front. I fueled up, stopped for the requisite Americano and headed into the rain not knowing what the day held. Not knowing what lie ahead isn’t just part of the fun – it’s the reason I go.
There are a number of different ways to connect with my favorite haunts – North Park/Southern Wyoming. Memorial Day this year marked the opening of Trail Ridge Road, which connects the front range with the deeper mountains through Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a bit circuitous route, but any day beginning on Trail Ridge Road is a good day no matter what happens next. I headed up to the Park, bought the annual pass and wasted no time getting high. That’s a eyebrow-raising phrase here in Colorado these days… what I mean is quickly gaining elevation. On a week day there was little traffic – one of the wonderful benefits of being able to take off in the middle of the week instead of waiting for the weekend.
At the bottom of Trail Ridge you wind up in Grandby T-boning at the intersection of Highway 40. A right takes you towards Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling. I stopped at the market in Kremmling for a break, the weather already improving, and considered my route. I only had the day, needing to be back that night – so was somewhat limited by daylight. The western edge of North Park is unofficially bound by 40 as it winds up over Muddy Pass. From there I picked up 14 and headed east towards Walden.
A great thing about being open to the day is a willingness to detour onto new roads. There are roads I’ve driven by many times making a mental note to return someday to explore as time allows. Nearing Walden I came upon one of those roads; a dirt road peeling off across the pasture lands to the east. With plenty of fuel and a cooler full of fruit and water this was the perfect opportunity and I didn’t hesitate.
I have and shoot a lot of cameras – many of which I was carrying on this day – all loaded with different films. I think back to a story once read about Robert Frank (The Americans) who was one day detained in a small town by a police officer who noticed he had an unusually large number of cameras visibly scattered about in the car. I smile as I think about the packed Pelican crate tucked safely in the back of the Subaru, beneath a foil space blanket to keep it cooler in the high-altitude sun shining through the rear window. I also make a note to check the cooler containing extra film brought along at the next stop.
I know some people think you should only only shoot one film, getting used to its characteristics in certain light, the look it produces etc. I understand the reasoning behind this – but toss it out the window. Different films are for different light, different applications, different scenes, different subjects. A film camera loaded with roll film can only practically shoot one roll at a time. Having different cameras loaded with different films allows greater flexibility for an image that may be better suited for a chrome (slide) film, or C41 (color negative) or black and white.
There has been a great deal of rain in Colorado this year; a wonderful break from the high and dry monotony pestering ranchers, farmers and other ag-centric folks over recent past. All this rain has turned browns into greens; refilled drainage ditches, draws and ponds, and contributed to an overall pleasant aroma to the high prairie. Standing water also means lots of bugs.
After Rand I picked up 125 North towards Cowdrey, veered left at the Dean Peak Junction and was on my way North into Wyoming.
I was eager to shoot my new F5 for the first time and had both it and the F6 on the seat next to me just in case. Sometimes things catch your eye and digging a camera out of the crate takes time. Only a few frames had been made thus far in the trip. Light during mid-day isn’t ideal, which is why that time is spent moving between places – to be in position for the edges of the day. Often times I’ll think I see a shot and head down a dirt road looking for the right vantage point. More often then not things don’t line up, or the light’s wrong, or there’s too much mud (which has happened a lot this year), or I’m met with a “No Trespassing” sign (I always respect No Trespassing signs) and the detour is chalked up to a learning experience as I head back to the main road. As I’m driving down a double track or dirt road I’m always considering my exit plan. Once while trying to turn around on a double track in Sweetwater County the car became stuck – high-centered in the middle of no where. I try to avoid this.
About the time I rolled into southern Wyoming it was later in the day and the light had improved considerably. I’d left rainy skies far behind and was enjoying fresh air, brilliant bluebird skies punctuated by dramatic, enormous cloud masses as the edge of the front just passed through quietly lumbered its way east.
Riverside, Wyoming is a quiet town just north of the Colorado/Wyoming state line. I pass through Riverside often, en route to other destinations. This day it marked the point I was to turn east and head home. The Trading Post sits on the corner of Wyoming 230 and 70. The tired me planned on rolling right on by – until I saw the clouds, and what the light was doing. Thanks to the high pressure system chasing the front east, the air was freshly scrubbed and crystal clear. Brilliant light screamed across a fresh atmosphere and slammed into the wood siding, red roof and white accent signage. I suppose I’ve spent enough time cruising around to notice a gas station or two – and this was spectacular.
No tripod, no filters, no nothing other than f8 and be there. 2 frames clicked off the F5 loaded with Ektar and on I went. My real goal was trying to hit peak light on Snowy Range Road and I knew I’d be cutting it close.
Snowy Range Road – like Trail Ridge Road – is closed during winters. Signs along the approach alert the traveler well in advance whether it’s open or closed. Even with all the snow the mountains received this year I knew I was safe and car churned its way up the steep grade. I spent an hour milling about looking for a good composition vantage point based on what the light was doing – but wasn’t able to line up what I’d hoped. I used to become anxious during these moments, but now I’m relaxed. If the world aligns and an image is presented – wonderful. If not – you’re up in the mountains watching this etherial scene unfold. Where else would you rather be? A scene doesn’t need to result in an image. Just relax and enjoy not being parked in front of the computer.
Undiscouraged, I packed up and headed further up the road towards Libby Flats to catch last light on the Overlook. Almost immediately after making the one frame, shadows swept up and over, engulfing the stone structure until morning. It was time to head home. I put in 440 miles that day (and I wonder why I’m chewing through tires so fast). Driving home in the dark I was satisfied; happy to have been out wandering in the west with no agenda and plenty of cameras loaded with film. The net result was, I felt rested and ready to face another day tomorrow – at my best thanks to the break.