The Desert

January 16, 2018

A New Beginning

I've now spent 6 months living on the road.  I love having the absolute freedom to go where I want, for as long as I want, with nothing holding me back.  It's how I am able to do my best work.  With my time in Colorado nearing an end, and my journey into Utah rapidly approaching, I was actually getting bored and lonely.  It didn't help that I was stuck in Durango for one week, waiting for a 70-200mm lens to arrive.  After moving around so often, a week in the same city felt like a lifetime.

Each day I would go to the Durango Library, spend all day editing, then sleep in the parking lot overnight.  I felt very out of place in the city, considering I had spent the past 2 months living out in the mountains.  For the past few weeks I had been trying to convince some friends to come out and join me for a while.  I knew my friend Sierra might actually do it, seeing as how she's lived on the road for a while too.  Next thing I know, I'm picking her up at the quaint Durango Airport.  We spent the following day hanging around Durango, it was nice to have company for a change.  The next morning, I got an email saying that the 70-200mm lens had finally arrived!  With nothing holding us back, we began our adventure into the desert!

Our first stop was Shiprock, New Mexico.  I had been here on my 2016 roadtrip, a day before meeting Sierra for the first time.  That was an incredible experience, out under the full moon, alone in the desert.  It was also one of the most dangerous portions of the trip.  I ended up getting lost driving through a maze of backcountry ATV roads in my Chevy Malibu.  I was lucky to make it back out to a major road without getting stuck!

This trip to Shiprock was quite different.  It was a beautiful, sunny day in the desert and we pulled off the road for lunch.  As we were eating some PB&J sandwiches, 2 dogs approached from the north.  At first, we were wary of them; for all we knew they were going to attack us.  Thankfully they were very friendly, and hungry too!  We gave them some food and water while they relaxed in the shade of the car. 

With that being said, Hello all it's Sierra! With the new year approaching, and in spirit of our grand adventure, we decided to collaborate both perspectives of our time with one another. As Peter stated, we had met in 2016, during my time working at Mesa Verde National Park.  After meeting Peter for the first time I was immediately drawn to his passion for photography and I had to know more, especially if this guy is even real. I thank the stars above every day to be able to say that one of my biggest inspirations is now one of my greatest friends. We met around July and by December of that year he had successfully convinced me to try and live life on the road myself, it's been one heck of a ride since!  During our friendship we had met up on both sides of the country and had always talked about the possibility of working with one another.  When it came to joining him this time, I had about a two day notice... I honestly had no idea what to expect other than I was going!

After traveling 9 months on the road from December 2016 to August 2017, I felt pretty experienced.  Little did I know how much really goes into the life of a pro photographer.  Shiprock was a great first lesson to begin the journey.  I had my mind set on peanut butter and with desert dogs approaching us I had no idea how to react...which brings me to Lesson #1: Always have your camera ready. I still wish to this day we were able to load these guys in the CR-V, to me it was definitely a test from not only Peter but, the Universe... I can say confidently we did the best we could.

Once the dogs left, we packed up and started the drive to Canyon De Chelly.  A few years ago, I was amazed by a photo taken by Ansel Adams, where the towering cliffs provide a stunning backdrop to a group of men on horseback.  Once I saw that photo, I added Canyon De Chelly to my "must see" list.  (Oddly enough, I couldn't find this image online, I was hoping to post it here.)

I was somewhat disappointed to learn the park requires the use of Native guides to actually do any real exploration.  There are a few overlooks and small hikes open to the public, but most of the park is closed off.  On one hand, that's great!  I hate seeing our National Parks completely overrun with tourists.  Still, I wish we could've seen more in our short time there.  We did hike down to the famous White House ruins, a small cliff-dwelling reminiscent of Mesa Verde.

One question... (Can-Yon Deh Chilly or Can-Yon Deh SHAY?) Here's to the park that made me find my lungs real quick. I had just flown out from Virginia where I was not very high above sea level and our first mission was hiking down into the canyons. I was amazed to see Peter going down barefoot with about 40 lbs of gear in his pack like it was nothing. This park may have not given us the complete "WOW" factor but it was a good opportunity for Peter to introduce me to what it's like to be behind the scenes. Which brings me to Lesson #2: Having the right gear isn't just what's on your back.  By the time we started making our way up and out, the soles on my old faithful hiking boots completely fell off!  These boots weren't made for just walking, but story tellin'.  Thankfully they held up with the almighty Gorilla Glue, but they surely gave me a run for my money. Peter of course couldn't help himself but to cackle at my misfortune...  With everything said and done I will say I was thankful we started the journey with some ruins, just like we did a year ago. - S 

Barefoot WonderSierra Worthington



Monument Valley

Ever since I played Red Dead Redemption, I've wanted to explore the desert.  Monument Valley, home to the famous Mitten Buttes, is easily one of the most iconic desert landscapes in the world.  I was so excited to finally see it in person, we even watched a few Western movies the night before.  Once we arrived though, things weren't quite what I expected.  Monument Valley too was controlled by the local Natives.  At the main overlook they had built a large hotel.  Down in the valley, visitors are limited to driving on a bumpy loop road, which takes about 30 minutes to complete.  Just like Canyon de Chelly, most of the park is closed off unless you are in a tour group with a guide.  At every parking area along the desert loop road, local people had setup their jewelry stands.  The views were incredible though, especially as the sun began to set.

I was really looking forward to doing some astrophotography here!  The dark sky combined with the unique rock formations would make for excellent photos!  To my disappointment, the park officially closed by 8pm.  No one was allowed to go back down in the valley after dark.  I was really starting to get tired of these restrictive policies.  To make matters worse, the hotel put out a hideous orange light that filled the valley below.  These people claim they value their natural land, yet they pollute the nighttime view with garish light.  It seems disrespectful to me.

As for myself, I had quite a different experience.  This was the first park I finally was able to see Peter truly in his environment.  I had minimal knowledge when it came to taking a "Good Shot" and I had never dabbled with astrophotography before.  I was a bit overwhelmed by how much could actually go into the luck of the shot, but happily surprised by how much info is accessible today.  There were a couple apps I quickly became associated with Stellarium and TPE (The Photographers Ephemeris) which, if you haven't heard of, I highly recommend checking out.  They give you everything from topographical maps, to showing you exactly what the sun and moon's path across the sky is, plus the sun/moon rise and set times, a complete guide of the surrounding constellations and when they can be viewed best. What an incredible tool!  I was absolutely tickled over the fact that I could even zoom in and focus on a star at this point. As for the park itself, the light pollution was a bit disappointing but for me the daylight views made up for it.  Monument Valley is known for being one of the only complete tribal run parks in the nation, having native background myself there was a certain connection I felt to the surrounding area and monuments. We were truly on sacred lands and I believe in respecting it as so, being engulfed by the monuments and knowing they used many of these sites for ritual practices it brings a sense of well-being and strong energy to oneself. One of my fondest memories of this trip is once we completed the loop we had set out a few spots we'd like to come back for sunset/sunrise, one of them being the "three sisters" which you can see photographed above. Peter was able to capture that flare only after parking in a nearby lot and full on sprinting down the road for just the right angle to even see the sun slipping behind, if we had waited another two minutes if that he would've completely missed the shot.   - S

Due to the restrictions, I decided to move on the next morning.  Our next destination was Canyonlands National Park, a few hours north of Monument Valley.  As we drove through the desert we came upon an iconic spot known as "Forrest Gump Point".  It was fun to watch people dodging cars while attempting to capture a selfie.

I'm coming for you JENNAAAAYYYYYYY! xoxo, S



Canyonlands - Needles District

After a string of disappointments, Canyonlands turned out to be an incredible adventure!  The drive to the Needles District was beautiful too!  The road followed a small creek as it cut a valley out from the rolling hills.  Newspaper Rock, a stunning petroglyph site, can be found along the way.  Once the road opened up into the desert valley, the views were magnificent!  Unfortunately, I was driving, so I didn't capture any photos along the way.

Since it was getting dark, we needed to find a campsite.  Thankfully we were on BLM land and there were a couple options.  The nearby Hamburger Rock Campground looked like the perfect spot!  While we were driving through this unique landscape, we couldn't help but be reminded of 'The Hills Have Eyes'.  It was a popular spot though, as every developed campsite was filled up.  So we kept on driving, deeper and deeper into the desert canyons.  At one point the road was so sketchy I wanted to turn around.  Thankfully Sierra convinced me to keep going.  We soon found a perfect campsite!

Now that I had the Tamron 70-200mm lens, I was excited to try some deep-space astrophotography.  Normally, I use a 100mm macro lens, which works well enough.  The 200mm made a huge difference though!  Using my star tracker, I was able to capture a ton of detail in the Orion Nebula.  

Orion NebulaOrion NebulaUsing a Tamron 70-200mm lens and an iOptron Skytracker Pro I was able to capture the Orion Nebula

We woke up early the following morning and made our way back to The Needles District.  Neither of us had done much desert hiking yet and it was radically different from anything in Ohio!  I'm used to seeing blazes painted on trees and well-defined dirt trails.  The desert has neither.  It was very disorienting trying to follow the trail out of the canyon and up onto the slickrock.  As I was hiking barefoot, I needed to be especially careful of any cacti.  We soon found our way to the top of the slick rock and had a lot of fun traversing this new environment.  I highly recommend anyone try to walk on this slick rock surface barefoot, it feels incredible!

Can you say WOW! If you're looking for a park that will take your breath away, look no further. This is just 1/3 of the districts you can explore here, I had no idea how incredibly vast Canyonlands truly is and I have to say it fits the name.  With very little trail control I was like a little kid in the candy store getting to run around this natural playground.  There were giant mushroom rocks you could skip across and they were all you could see for miles, Peter was thinking Red Dead redemption while I was more like Super Mario Bros. By this point of the trip I was finally starting to understand what Life would be like as Peter's assistant and the special lingo and tricks began to make more sense.  I always imagined Peter waving a magic wand and I want to clarify that he is in fact a descendant of Houdini but also a genius when it comes to the science of capturing light.  Peter walked me through each step of the process and I'm still baffled by his results. I'm thankful to say though with a little determination and desire to learn I finally began the process of fitting in with the pros. - S




Now that we had seen The Needles District of Canyonlands, our next destination was the Island in the Sky District.  First things first though, we needed some food!  After driving through the desert for a while, a paradise lay in front of us - Moab.  Lush, green, a stark contrast from the red rocks and dry desert scrub brush we had grown accustomed to.  After getting dinner at a crowded mexican restaurant, we headed into the desert above town to find a campsite for the night.  To my surprise, every campsite was filled here too!  We eventually found a spot alongside the dirt road and called it a night.

The following morning, we had a few top priorities.  First, find the library and get Wi-Fi.  Second, find a hostel and take a shower!  Thankfully Sierra had a line on a hostel which was popular with travelers - the Lazy Lizard.  After we had spent a few hours editing photos in the library, we headed over to the Lazy Lizard.  It turned out to be a really cool spot!  We met a ton of climbers, who were spending their days climbing the cliffs outside Moab.  One of Sierra's friends from Colorado even drove out to join us for a day!  I was just happy to finally have a shower and a comfy bed to sleep in.  While I was relaxing, Sierra was making friends with the climbers, she even got us an invite to join them the next morning.

I'm not much of a climber myself, I like keep my feet firmly planted on the ground....but I needed to get some shots for Tamron.  That meant I was climbing.  From my perch at the top of the rock wall, I was able to get some cool shots of the climbers heading up.  They made it look so easy.

Lesson #3: Sometimes you have to be willing to take risks. My mom always likes to say I've never met a stranger and in a lot of ways I think she's right. The only way I've been able to make it as far I have in life is because of the incredible beings that surround me, one of those being my special friend Joella who joined us and I have to pass along a lot of the credit to her as well for being presented this opportunity.  Peter was still adjusting to being around people again full time, and she definitely helped me with the persuasion.  With all my new excitement built up from the trip I couldn't stop blabbering to anyone who would listen.  Thank you, Audel & Jack, for inviting us to try something new. I had never been to a hostel before, surprisingly, and after this one I would consider it more often.  One of the best tips I was given when I first began on the road is to make friends with the locals and fellow travelers.  I have been shown more love and incredible sights within doing so than I ever thought possible. - S

Tied Up, Clipped InSierra Worthington




Canyonlands - Island in the Sky

Island in the Sky, an interesting name for sure.  This portion of the park sits atop a large mesa, high above the rest of the desert.  As you travel to any of the overlooks, you are treated to a stunning view of the desert canyons below.  This was easily my favorite part of the Utah trip so far!  It felt like Star Wars to me!

While there aren't many hikes in this district of the park, there is a small one to Upheaval Dome.  This unique formation was actually caused by a meteorite impact millions of years ago!  This is just one more reminder that our planet is not as safe as we like to think, every so often we are hit by cosmic debris that can radically change the course of evolution and civilization.

With sunset rapidly approaching I wanted to find the perfect overlook to enjoy it.  There was a small pull-off along the main road that looked promising.  I quickly scouted out the overlook and calculated where the sun would go down, this would be perfect!  We grabbed my Jetboil cooking stove and 2 dehydrated meals, then hiked back to the overlook.  Sierra even had downloaded some Star Wars music while we were at the visitor center, so we had some cool music to go with dinner at the overlook.  

After an epic sunset dinner, we decided to head to another overlook and wait for darkness.  I wanted to show Sierra some Milky Way photography techniques, but that all depended on the weather.  As we sat in the parking lot, waiting for Astronomical Twilight, the sky began to cloud up.  We were also surprised to see another vehicle in the parking lot, most people would have headed home by now.  Turns out, it was a fellow photographer.  He was interested in doing some Milky Way photography on this night too.  Sierra mentioned that I was a great astrophotographer and I offered to give him some tips.  After talking for a while, we realized he was also living on the road.  We had a lot more in common then I realized!

Unfortunately, the clouds kept rolling in, obscuring the galactic core.  However, the Andromeda Galaxy was still visible in the northwestern sky.  Now that I had the 70-200mm, I really wanted to get a nice photo of it.  This would also be a good time to explain Star Trackers to both Rick and Sierra.  I setup my camera to take multiple 20 second photos, which would capture a lot of detail in the galaxy.  After stacking and blending those exposures, the results were very impressive!

Andromeda GalaxyAndromeda GalaxyUsing a Tamron 70-200mm and iOptron Skytracker Pro I was able to capture the Andromeda Galaxy



Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch is arguably one of the most photographed spots in Utah.  Every morning, dozens of people crowd in front of the arch to photograph the sunrise. 

Our first attempt to photograph the sunrise did not go as planned.  We arrived at the arch about 20 minutes before sunrise, only to find a wall of people already staked out in front of the arch.  To make matters worse, there's only enough room for about 5 photographers to get "the shot".  If you aren't here super early, you're not gonna get the shot!  Disappointed, we snapped a few pics and headed back to the car. I wasn't about to give up though.  I needed to get this shot, even if that meant I was gonna sit and wait in the dark for two hours!

The next morning, I arrived at the Mesa Arch trailhead by 5am, two hours and twenty minutes before sunrise.  Of course, there was already two cars here!  Sierra wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of heading out into the cold, so I let her stay in the Honda and catch some sleep while I headed out into the night.  The trail to Mesa Arch is actually a loop; if you miss the spur trail for the arch, you'll wind up back at the parking lot.  As I was nearing the turn-off, I saw an older guy headed my way.  He said "you're already coming back from Mesa Arch?"  to which I replied, "No, I'm just leaving the parking lot".  Turns out he had missed the turn-off and gotten confused.  I tried to convince him to follow me to the arch, but he didn't believe me.  So I continued on, happy to be alone under the stars again.

After stumbling around on the rocks for a while, with just the faint starlight illuminating my path, I finally found Mesa Arch.  I saw two shadowy figures huddled next to a large bush and two tripods already setup.  After saying hello to the fellow photographers, who turned out to be very friendly, I set up my gear.  Once I had established my spot, I slowly walked around near the cliff to find a stargazing spot.

This was the first time I had been alone under the stars in quite a while.  It felt very liberating.  Since this was the autumn night sky, things had changed considerably from the start of the roadtrip.  Now Orion was high in the southern sky, and the Milky Way was falling over in the western sky.  As I stared up at Orion, Sirius kept flashing at me.  It almost seemed like it was trying to send a message.  I couldn't help but remember all the interesting things I had learned about the stars while on the road.  For example, the Great Pyramids are likely aligned to the Orion constellation.  "As above, so below."

Just as I was getting lost in thought, another headlamp approached from the west.  Apparently the old guy had finally found his way down here, nearly an hour later.  As I turned my attention back to the stars, I noticed a faint light in the east.  After doing some research, it turns out this was the Zodiacal Light.  I'd never noticed this phenomenon before, despite all of my time out in the wilderness at night.  Soon enough, more photographers started to arrive at the arch as faint light slowly started to wash out the stars.

Now it was time to get back to my camera, before someone knocked it over or tried to steal my spot.  Thankfully everyone here today was really chill and we had a nice time waiting for sunrise.  By 7am, more and more people started to show up.  There were a lot more kids than I expected to see, considering it was a Friday morning.  Turns out, Utah had given all schools this Thursday and Friday off, which explained a lot.  Perfect timing...

As the sun begin to inch over the horizon, camera shutters started clacking! 

In the heat of the shoot-out I realized that I made 2 big mistakes.  My battery was about to die and my SD card was full!  These are amateur mistakes!  I suddenly found myself rapidly deleting old photos that I didn't need, all the while realizing my battery could die at any second.  Thankfully I managed to get "the shot!"  

Mesa Arch - SunriseMesa Arch - Sunrise

Lesson #4: You have to be willing to do whatever it takes.  That is a special kind of attitude and skill set in itself. The pro's do not mess around, I may have not made it out as early as Peter but I was shocked to come down the trail and find a completely blocked off wall of photographers. I started a new fascination of taking photos of tourists and photographers in their "natural habitat."  Still intimidated and startled I might get growled at, I backed off a bit and was able to see Peter work his magic once again. He forgot to mention it was a cloudy day and the sun emerged from the clouds for about 15 seconds to capture this moment.  2 hours early, for 15 seconds. I realized quickly I had to step up my game quite a bit and find some true grit. - S



Shafer Trail

The Shafer Trail is one of the coolest backcountry roads I've ever seen!  It's a winding, narrow dirt road that takes you from the top of the mesa down into the canyon below.  After a few miles you come to a fork in the road.  One path heads further into the desert, beneath Dead Horse Point, eventually ending at a paved road outside Moab.  The other route turns into the White Rim Trail, which follows a 100 mile loop road around Canyonlands.  This is not for the faint of heart!  It can take up to 5 days to finish the whole circuit, and a high-clearance Jeep is required.  We opted to take the road back to Moab.

To our surprise, our new friend Rick joined us!  We had met Rick the night before, waiting to photograph the Milky Way.  He drove a Honda Odyssey named "Bella" and was a fellow road warrior.  I wasn't exactly sure what the road had in store for us, but I was confident the Honda CR-V could handle whatever we encountered.  The first few miles were nice and easy!  Once we took the turn for Moab though, everything changed.

The once smooth, dirt road quickly turned into a true 4wheeling road!  I was happy to have Sierra along, I always get nervous in these scenarios.  The road conditions kept getting worse and worse, at times I wasn't sure how we were going to get through without damaging something.  At least the views were nice!

Buckle up, this was so much fun!  I blared "The Final Countdown" as Peter was overly hesitant and we crawled our way down. I always knew I'd thank my parents at some point for growing up in the country with four wheelers and dirt bikes.  It was almost as if I was preparing for this moment my whole life.  This is a drive that probably 10% or less of the people that visit Canyonlands will ever witness. It was such a bizarre moment to think of standing up on top of the overlooks at the beginning staring down into the canyon to actually being down in it.  I remember making our way down and being stunned that there was actually a beautiful wide running river below us, I never would've thought. - S

Eventually we reached a calm stretch of road, with a stunning view all around.  The cracked and broken landscape stretched out before us, like it had split apart in some violent earthquake. 

Just as we were about to continue on towards Moab, Rick appeared on the horizon!  We were amazed that he had managed to get through the 4wheeling section of the road in his minivan!  We cheered him on as he pulled over next to us.  Continuing on, we occasionally stopped at some more overlooks.  At one point, Rick got ahead of us and kept on driving.  A while later we saw him headed back, we weren't sure why though.  Turns out, some people up ahead had warned him to turn back, as the road got much worse.  He didn't want to risk damaging his vehicle, so he had to make the hard choice and turn around.  We were disappointed to see him go, but we pressed on.

I was loving all the unique views out here, and more importantly, the lack of people!  4wheeling in the desert was becoming my new favorite activity on this trip!  Still, I was worried we would hit that supposedly bad stretch of road and get stuck.  After about 4 hours driving through the desert we ended up back on a paved road!  Rick could have easily handled the remainder of that desert road, especially considering he had made it through much worse at the start of the drive.  Soon enough we were back in Moab, and my next goal was Arches National Park. 



Arches National Park

Arches National Park wasn't quite what I expected.  Just like Bryce Canyon, there's a few overlooks alongside the road, and a couple small hikes.  The main attraction is definitely Delicate Arch.  I've seen so many Milky Way photos taken here, I needed to see it for myself!  Unfortunately there were a ton of tourists here, even on the off-season.  I was really getting tired of dealing with moronic tourists by now.  At least the hike up to Delicate Arch was beautiful!

As we climbed up to the Delicate Arch view, I was shocked.  In the bowl beneath us were dozens of people!  This was going to be a nightmare!  I quickly found a good vantage point, alongside about 20 other photographers.  To our dismay, every 10 seconds someone would run in the middle of Delicate Arch to get their picture taken.  There was no way we could get our sunset photos like this!  One guy got so fed up with the tourists that he started yelling!  To make matters worse, it was surprisingly cold!  We spent the next hour staked out in the "photographers' corner", waiting for the right light.  The results were mediocre.

As the temperature continued to drop, I wasn't sure what to do.  I really wanted to get the "Milky Way in the arch" shot, but I was sick of all these people.  Plus, we were both freezing and hungry.  Sierra had more fortitude than I realized, and she convinced me to wait it out and take the shot.

Unfortunately, there were still over 20 people sitting around Delicate Arch, this was going to make things difficult.  I needed 4 minutes of complete darkness to capture a detailed foreground at night.  There was no way I could achieve that with so many people randomly turning on their headlamps.  To make matters worse, there was only one spot that provided "the shot", where the Milky Way was inside the arch.  Four photographers were already perched in that spot, and I didn't want to bother them.  As soon as one of them got up and left, I stumbled down in the dark and setup.  After about 2 minutes I had taken a few different compositions I liked, so I called it a night.  Sierra and I then hiked back in the dark, trying to find our way to the car.  At least in Ohio, you can follow a trail easily enough in the dark.  Here in the desert though, it was all just rock.  No trail was visible.  We managed to find our way without too much trouble though.

Delicate Arch - MidnightDelicate Arch - MidnightThe Milky Way peaks through Delicate Arch on a beautiful October night

The next morning, we stopped at Double Arch, one of the most unique arches in Utah.  We had a lot of fun climbing around beneath the arches, while I tried to find an interesting composition.  I'll be headed back to Utah in 2018, and I look forward to seeing Double Arch again!

Double ArchDouble ArchThe impressive Double Arch in Arches National Park, Utah.



Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is another one that's not for the faint of heart.  The most beautiful locations here are very hard to reach, requiring 4wheel drive and good weather conditions.  My main goal was to check out the Temple of the Moon, in the remote northern area of the park.  According to the park map, there's a 60 mile loop through the desert; about 20 miles in lies the Temple of the Moon.  Once we filled up our water bottles at the Visitor Center we headed for a nearby petroglyph site.  After a brief look at the ancient markings, we made our way back out into the desert, hoping to find the backcountry road that would take us to the Temple of the Moon.  

This wasn't as easy as I expected.  We couldn't actually find the dirt road, there was no clear sign indicating when to turn off the main highway.  Eventually we found a random dirt road heading off into the desert.  Looking at the park map, this was probably it.  To make things even more confusing, the road quickly came to a fork.  There were no signs to help with our decision.  I figured the fork heading due north was our best bet, so we pressed on.

Having spent 6 months living on the road, traveling down all kinds of rough backcountry roads, I was used to washboards.  This was a whole new level though!  The washboard road was so much worse than anything I had encountered before, so I was stuck going 10 miles an hour for quite a while.  I was not looking forward to driving back out of here...

Just as the golden hour began we saw the Temple of the Sun in the distance!  Upon arriving at the desert monoliths, our first goal was to capture some cool photos.  As more color filled the sky we got started on cooking dinner.  Today we were having spaghetti, with 'marinara sauce', which tasted more like ketchup.  Still, it was really good!

Lesson #5: Utilize the amenities presented.  Whether the Visitor Center or local library, make sure you fill up your water before and utilize the park maps.  Also talking to a Ranger for 5 mins. can make a world of difference, remember that's what they are there for. - S

Since we were at the Temple of the Moon, I had to take some nightscapes here!  However, the galactic core was now too far below the horizon to do any Milky Way photos, so I had to try something different.  My new technique for Milky Way images is to take a 4 minute exposure for the foreground, and a 4 minute exposure of the sky.  When I take the sky photo, I mount the camera on a star tracker.  This device moves the camera around at the same speed as the stars, allowing me to take a much longer photo without star trails.  Then, I blend the two exposures to create one high-quality image.  The alternative is to take one 20 second photo and call it a night.  While easier and quicker, this results in grainy photos. 

Temple of the SunTemple of the SunThe Milky Way over the Temple of the Sun in Capitol Reef National Park

After trying a few different compositions, I figured a star trails image would look pretty cool!  Plus, I could set out my camera overnight and let it do all the work.  I had enough battery life to last maybe 3 hours, so I set my camera's intervalometer to take 500 photos, each 20 seconds long.  This would show the movement of the stars over the course of a few hours.  The final results were pretty cool!

This is definitely a park where half the show is at night!  This was by far the clearest sky I have ever witnessed, you were truly swimming in the stars. We even witnessed a GPS Satellite reflect the sun, which for those that have never seen it happen, looks almost like someone just took a flash photo of the world.  I was honestly startled by this, but thanks to Peter, he put that curiosity to rest and we were able to watch it happen a couple more times.  I'd call it one of the most magical nights of the trip, how could you not when swimming in the stars sleeping right next to the temple of the moon? - S

Temple of the Moon - Star TrailsTemple of the Moon - Star TrailsA colorful Star Trails image over the Temple of the Moon

The following morning we drove further into the desert.  There was a massive sinkhole a few miles further in, so we couldn't pass up the chance to see it.  While cool to see, there wasn't much to photograph.  At this point we had to make a decision.  Either turn around and drive 20 miles across the horrible, washboard road, or drive further into the desert.  That meant we would complete the entire 60 mile loop and see some more amazing views in the Cathedral Valley.  "Let's do it."

Just as we were nearing the main highway, our trip came to an unexpected halt!  A fast moving river lay ahead of us.  To make matters worse, we had to actually drive up the river to get to the other side of the road.  The Honda had survived everything I'd thrown at it, but this was on a whole new level.  My first step was to determine the depth of the river, so I got out of the car and started walking through it!  I wanted to see where the deepest parts were and what the bottom of the river was made of, sand or rock.  Thankfully it wasn't as deep as I feared and the river bottom was covered in rocks.  Still, this could end in disaster.

Of course, I couldn't pass up an opportunity to record this experience.  I grabbed my camera gear and walked to the far side of the river.  Either I would record us successfully fording the river, or I would have a hit YouTube video of a Honda CR-V being swept away.

Meanwhile a truck driver had already paused his lunch and had his tow straps getting ready...Honda you proved me wrong.  Here's to the #CosmicCruiser - S




Zion National Park

Zion was the final destination of our Utah adventure.  Frankly, I wasn't expecting much, but Sierra had been looking forward to seeing Zion for years.  Once I got the park map, I began planning out the next few days.  I was immediately shocked by how small the park actually is.  There's only one real road in the park, and it's a bus loop.  That was going to cause some problems.  I don't like to be restricted, especially when I need to be at a location for sunrise, sunset, or for Milky Way photos.  The only real place to park was the visitor center, at the southern entrance of the park.  I was shocked at just how crowded it was, the sprawling parking lot was nearly completely filled!

Eventually we found a parking spot and walked over to the visitor center to check on permits and hiking recommendations.  After talking with the rangers, we decided to do two hikes - The Narrows and Angel's Landing.  I was really looking forward to The Narrows hike, where you walk up a stream for miles through a stunning slot canyon.  Sierra was much more interested in the Angel's Landing hike, which takes you up one of the most dangerous trails in America.  

Since it was already too late in the afternoon to go on any real hikes, I drove us back up to the eastern side of the park.  From there, we did a short hike to the Canyon Overlook, a beautiful spot to watch the sunset.  While we sat and enjoyed the view, another photographer was there shooting some wedding portraits.

Lesson #6 Balance. Sometimes it's okay to put the camera down. I have been waiting for this very moment. Take a deep breath, we made it. -S

The next morning we caught an early bus shuttle to the start of the Angel's Landing hike.  It started off easy enough, along the shores of the Virgin River.  Within 15 minutes though, we found ourselves climbing up a staircase carved out from the rock walls.  I was glad we had started this hike early in the morning, this would be brutal in the middle of the day!  To my surprise, Sierra was actually a lot faster on the inclines than me, they didn't even seem to faze her!  She was bouncing up the steep hillside while I was huffing and puffing.  After about 30 minutes we came to Walter's Wiggles, where the trail turns into a series of short, steep switchbacks.  It turns out there's 21 switchbacks in this one spot!  As we reached the end of the last switchback we found ourselves at the top of the mountain.  Then I realized this was just the beginning!

With the easy portion of the hike concluded, we now had to face the iconic Angel's Landing hike.  This YouTube video does a pretty good job showing off just how scary the hike was.

Once we finally reached the top of Angel's Landing, we were surrounded by an incredible view of the Zion valley.  One of the hikers up there with us had a drone, which captured some awesome footage.  Thanks to Alejandro Vizio for the great video!

The next morning we caught an early shuttle up to The Narrows.  The drive up was beautiful, and I could actually enjoy it for once!  The towering peaks around us were lit up in the early morning light.  After a 40 minute ride we arrived at the parking lot for The Narrows.  From here, it was a 10 minute walk to the actual 'real hike', where the trail enters the river.  Hopefully I wouldn't break my new tripod or destroy my gear this time...

The water was cold, but not as frigid as I expected!  I wore my Luna Sandals for this trip, which are perfect for river walking.  Most people choose to rent some special boots with gaters for this hike.  Sierra didn't seem too excited to get her only pair of boots completely soaked.

Sierra Worthington

Thankfully we had started the hike at the right time!  Beautiful golden light was falling into the canyon around us.  At one point, the entire wall next to us was shimmering gold!  We hiked for close to 3 hours up the river, with the light getting progressively more harsh.  I was super thankful to have my Mindshift rotation180 pro with me on this hike!  I got this pack earlier in 2017 and it's made a huge difference!  I can actually rotate the entire pack around, giving me a portable workstation even in the middle of a stream!  This is crucial for long exposure photography!  Plus, it holds all of my gear, even the 150-600mm!  If you're looking for a new backpack, definitely check out Mindshift!

The NarrowsThe NarrowsHiking through The Narrows in Zion National Park

Before leaving Zion, I had to get the iconic Watchman photo.  I was originally going to photograph it after the Angel's Landing hike, but I was surprised to see over a dozen people already there, waiting for sunset.  The viewpoint is actually on a narrow bridge over the Virgin River, with limited spots available for photographers to setup.  The following day, after hiking through the Narrows, we arrived at the bridge 3 hours before sunset.  Did I mention parking is extremely limited here?  We were lucky to find one open spot.

Peter was right, I have been waiting for this for years and the park was everything and more that I could of hoped for and I look forward to going back and exploring more. This was the hardest Junior Ranger Badge I have ever worked for and I was most definitely tested on what I could handle. This brings me to Lesson #7: Be Mindful, Always. 

With our trip coming to an end, I want to take a moment to say thank you. If you're open to learn and willing to put in some work you'd be surprised how much can happen in a month.  I thought I knew what life on the road was like but my time with Peter was so drastically different. Thank you for helping me gain a greater perspective, and to you, the reader, thank you for all your support along the way. We may not have it all together but together we have all.  Before making our way east we stopped at the Grand Canyon to hangout with some good friends that I had first began out on the road with.  I'm so overcome with gratitude that I was able to be with not only the person that inspired me to go out on the road but also the ones who made it happen.  Thank you all for the lessons and abundant amount of love always. Till we cross paths again! - S



The Journey Home

Before starting the long, boring drive back home, I wanted to make one last stop.  Great Sand Dunes National Park, in southern Colorado, is one of my favorite parks.  It's home to some of the darkest skies in the country and an otherworldly landscape.  Great Sand Dunes was actually the very first place I visited on my first backpacking trip out west, back in 2012.  My friend Joe and I spent a night camping and then hiking through the dunes.  I returned in 2014 and 2016 to photograph the Milky Way for a few nights.  Surprisingly, I was offered a spot at the Great Sand Dunes visitor center to hang one of my photos for the 2017 season.  I couldn't head back to Ohio without checking it out.

Since the visitor center was closed when we arrived, Sierra and I went for a quick hike in the sand dunes.  I was not prepared for how cold it was though.  Medano Creek was covered in ice and a bone-chilling wind was blowing across the dunes.  At least we warmed up quickly running through the sand.

After checking out the visitor center, it was time to begin the long drive back across America.  After 3 months living out of my car, traveling all over the Western US, I was ready to come home.  Thankfully I had my co-pilot Sierra this time around.

One last surprise from the roadtrip was being featured by Tamron in their e-news article.  I remembered reaching out to them while I was in Colorado using the 150-600mm lens a lot.  I really wanted to do a collaboration on a Telephoto Landscapes article.  Surprisingly, they contacted me back and offered to send me that loaner 70-200mm lens, which I used for the rest of the roadtrip.  

Join us on our adventure in the video below - 

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