“You get monsoons in the desert?”
While I was staying with my new friends in Mesa Verde, our friend John mentioned that Monsoon Season was finally here. The county had been under a fire ban for the past few weeks and everything was bone dry. Everyone in WOBville was hoping for some rain so they would finally lift the fire ban. I never imagined the desert would have a monsoon season. Little did I know that Monsoon would become the theme of my life for the next 4 days. It seems my life has become a novel. Little conversations turn into foreshadowing more times than I want to admit.
After having a late dinner in Telluride, I drove up Last Dollar Road into the mountains; my App for backcountry campsites said there was a free spot in the hills outside town. It was pitch black out there, except for the lightning bolts flashing continuously in the southern mountains. After what seemed like hours I arrived at an overlook. I decided to park the car and enjoy the lightning. Since it was too dangerous to sleep outside, I tried to get comfortable inside the car. It was like being at a drive-in-theater, except the movie was a powerful storm with tons of lightning. I watched the lightning crash onto distant peaks for over an hour, until I passed out.
I awoke the next morning and continued up Last Dollar Road. The muddy road was now very slick and there were massive puddles every quarter mile or so. My Chevy Malibu wasn’t looking too promising. However, it held up just fine. We survived everything Last Dollar Road threw at us. That little car has survived some crazy backcountry roads on this trip.
While driving around, I was blown away by the scenery. The morning light made the rolling hills glow bright green and the mountain peaks looked imposing as they rose over the soft landscape. While at the Telluride Library, I learned that they filmed "The Hateful Eight" off Last Dollar road, probably somewhere in this image I took.
I eventually made it back to Telluride and set out to find Little Hawaii, a hidden gem in the mountains nearby. Thanks to a local guide, who I met through my new friends in Mesa Verde, I was able to find it (after making a few wrong turns in the forest). The trees were thick with Old Man’s beard and the canyon walls glowed in the morning sunlight. I couldn’t believe this place existed just 70 miles from barren desert.
As the sun set, I returned to my overlook campsite on Last Dollar Road. When I arrived, 2 firefighters were looking with binoculars down at a glowing ember. Apparently a lightning bolt had hit a tree earlier in the day and some campers had called the fire department. Their binoculars weren’t good enough to see the fire though. The burning tree was probably a mile away. Thankfully I had my Tamron 150-600mm in the trunk. I set it up on my tripod and focused in on the burning tree. The firefighters asked if they could take a look. With the ISO cranked up to max, we were able to get a good look at the fire. We saw two burning spots on the tree, but the situation appeared stable. It was too dangerous to send a crew in at night, especially considering more storms were on their way. As I was camping at the overlook, they made me an honorary fireman for the night watch.
So I sat in my car for another night , watching as the storms lashed out onto the landscape.
Three nights in a row spent sleeping in my car, I’m starting to get used to it. At first light I woke up and looked out to check on the burning tree. Shortly afterwards one of the firefighters showed up. We sat and talked for a bit while the rising sun turned the morning clouds bright pink. The mountain peaks slowly began to light up.
With sunrise over, I started the drive back to town. On my way, I saw three more firetrucks making their way up to the overlook.
My goal for today was Blue Lake, roughly 5 miles away and thousands of feet of elevation above. The hike up was relatively uneventful, until I was just 1 mile away from Blue Lake. Dark clouds began to slip over the mountains and were headed my way! I had to make a call. Continue on and see Blue Lake, or turn around. Having seen the intense storms around Telluride, I decided to play it safe. Of course, by the time I reached a safe elevation, the clouds broke up and the blue sky was back.
This gave me an idea…Long Exposures. I hadn’t done many at all in the whole month I’ve been on the road. Each photo takes between 12-18 minutes to capture.
While shooting one of my long exposures I met a couple from Colorado. As we started talking about the storms, he mentioned a magnificent one a few days ago. Rainbows and lightning. I smiled and laughed when I realized we had seen the same storm and I had managed to capture the epic view.
Unfortunately I lingered a bit too long and the storm clouds returned, and this time they weren’t leaving without a show. With a blinding flash and rumble of thunder, it started to pour. I felt like Theodon in LOTR. I still had quite a ways to hike back down to my car. I managed to find a small, dense cluster of aspen trees and huddled there to wait out the worst of the downpour. Times like these make you really feel alive! When the rain slowed down a bit, I scrambled down the switchbacks as quickly as possible, lightning kept flashing brightly just overhead, striking the mountain tops all around. Eventually I made it back to the car, soaking wet of course. At least I didn't need a shower anymore.
For sunset I wanted to get to Dallas Divide. As I left Telluride I saw more lightning to the West, and my route took me straight into the storm. The hills around me were blood red, caused by the high iron content. The road was covered in red clay for miles. I remembered hearing the firefighters talking about mudslides, now I saw what they meant.
I looked down at the river, it was raging red! "And the rivers... ran red and were as blood" The rain got worse, a small mudslide was already starting to flow across the highway. As I drove up towards Dallas Divide the storm mellowed out. I arrived at the Dallas Divide overlook just in time for sunset. A red glow light up the mountains for an instant before fading to darkness. As I turned to put away my camera gear, a flash to the north meant I still had work to do. I spent the next hour photographing lightning.
This will be my 4th night in a row spent sleeping in my car, as the lightning flashes all around me. “Monsoon season?! Here?”
Thankfully I was able to sleep at the Dallas Divide overlook and I woke up at first light. The view was wonderful and I had it all to myself.
Click here to see all the photos from my trip to Telluride