If I had to choose one example to use as a summary, to capture in a nutshell what it is like to travel and hunt down shots with me, it would be my time at the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon was certainly not the most difficult site to reach, not by a long shot, but the events surrounding my trip to this natural wonder are what really make it an ideal embodiment of my time spent as a woefully amateur nature photographer.
Initially I learned that I was going to be put on active duty orders to attend a course in California beginning in the summer of 2014, and with that news in mind I set about plotting a course from one coast to the other. My wife had not really traveled much of the US, and I had never been able to spend much time in the Southwest US, so this seemed like a remarkable chance to turn a professional relocation into a weeks-long adventure. We would stop in New Orleans for two days to soak up the music and the soul of the city, then push on to San Antonio, where we would spend a day or two touring the old Catholic missions. Then we would drive to Albuquerque, and do whatever kind of New Mexico shit we could find in Albuquerque, and pick up old Route 66 heading west. Then on to the Grand Canyon… I had, in my mind, the image I wanted to capture. A wide-angle panoramic-stitch landscape shot of the canyon at night under a full moon, with a sky full of stars. This was not meant to be the highlight of the trip, but I was looking forward to it, nonetheless. From there we would finish the trip into Monterey with plenty of time to get settled into our new house and scope the place out a bit.
We didn’t make it one day through the trip before it all turned to crap.
I’m going to leave out the misery that was our experience with the moving company; suffice to say that they were total dicks and, unbeknownst to us at the time, would be delivering all of our stuff to California damaged and broken, with additional fees tacked on to boot (never mind the stuff we had to throw away or leave behind because they decided they would not have enough room in the truck for a second job… so they just didn’t pack it). Those guys are crooks, and if I ever get the opportunity to see them again I will, without hesitation, punch them each in the throat.
That part aside, the real shit transpired on our first night in New Orleans. We stopped to stay downtown at the La Quinta in the Business District. We had a large car, a Nissan Armada, and were towing a 12 foot Uhaul trailer behind us, so we were directed to park in the hotel’s secure parking lot, off-site. Not sure if you are familiar with New Orleans, but this “secure” parking lot was actually a completely unsecured lot under the Pontchartrain Bridge. A parking lot that during the day might look all right, but at night is teeming with the homeless and the drug-addled. Cars routinely get stolen from or vandalized in this lot. People probably do, too. It was FAR from secure.
Less than 12 hours passed before our car was stolen, along with the Uhaul. The trailer that was full of everything that we did not trust to the movers, like sentimental stuff, all of my military gear, and a gun safe with 9 firearms in it, ammo, and some bullet-proof plates. You’d figure that when the cops heard this they’d be rushing to recover it, but nope. Maybe they’re overworked, maybe they’re underpaid, but they were certainly not at all eager to recover these guns (or the rest our valuables).
We’re pretty sure that the parking attendant that showed us where to park was instrumental in this theft. He chatted us up on where we were going, my job, etc. Looking back I can visualize him practically licking his lips while his beady little eyes widened behind his blue-tinted glasses. What a little bitch.
But that’s neither here nor there. The point of injecting this experience into the story of the Grand Canyon is not to say that our moods were destroyed beyond the point of being able to appreciate the beauty of the canyon, not at all. It’s to point out that instead of taking a nice family trip across the country, we got stranded in New Orleans for two weeks, in a hotel room with our three dogs, while we tried to get everything sorted, insurance figured out, and a ride out to California. Etcetera etcetera etcetera, we left New Orleans for California with only enough time to drive, straight through, until we reached our destination. My wife and I swapped on and off between driving and sleeping, stopping only to eat disgusting food and pee on the side of the road.
And to let our dogs pee, too. We’re not savages.
So that opportunity at the canyon, planned to coincide with beautiful weather and a crisp, clear full moon, vanished.
We passed our time in California, had a blast, and prepared to move back east once the course was complete. That’s when we had our beautiful baby girl. A week after my course ended, and about two weeks before we were going to try and move back across the country, we added a third family member (and a whole host of new travel considerations).
Not to bore you with details, but my wife took our kiddo and went on ahead via plane to Georgia while I stuck around in California to pack up, clean up, and get our stuff across the country (hopefully without loss this time).
I added a little stop to my return trip. I was determined to hit the Grand Canyon this time, and get it right.
I left on Christmas Eve and started driving. I made it into Arizona, maybe an hour from the Grand Canyon, before I needed to stop and sleep. I slept fitfully, as one who has once lost his car and trailer from a hotel parking lot might be expected to sleep, but woke up recharged and energized. I had two of our dogs with me, as the third had been taken east by my wife’s mother-in-law (who ended up being incredibly helpful, not only with the relocation, but with our new little family in the days and weeks following the birth of our little angel. I am ridiculously grateful for my wife’s huge, awesome Cuban family).
*Side note: the dogs I had with me were my German Shepherd Kane and our little unidentifiable mutt, Sasha. I tried to make their trip as comfortable as possible by removing and shipping my back seat, and in its place I dropped in some plywood, which I covered in blankets and pillows. I turned the back seat of my truck into every little kid’s dream ride. So when we spent the day at the canyon, they were plenty comfortable, albeit crowded.*
I figured that the Grand Canyon, and any other national park, would be less packed on Christmas Day. I was horribly wrong in my estimate. The canyon was jam packed with tourists and tour buses. I drove around a bit, surveilling possible sites where I might be able to get a good shot. I would camp out in my car for the day, that was the plan, because I absolutely did not dress warmly enough to wait it out in the open. Jeans, leather boots, and a hoodie with a jacket seemed warm that morning, but by the time the sun set the temperature had dropped to 0 degrees.
I huddled in my car, with the heat on, awaiting moon rise. I knew at which degree it would rise, and at what time it would be over the canyon. I had done my damn homework, son, and I was parked in a prime location to get the shot that I wanted.
But I did not foresee or plan for the snow. It was wonderful to enjoy a white Christmas, but not so wonderful to see it come down in torrents from my 2-wheel drive truck towing a trailer. The snow prompted me to try and get some shots earlier than planned. It wasn’t quite moon-rise time yet, but I figured I may as well try anyway. But try as hard as I could, dressed like I was maybe gonna attend a barbecue in autumn instead of a snow-covered national treasure at night in the winter, I could not get a clear shot, even from my tripod. The wind was kicking my ass, and I just couldn’t seem to shelter the tripod enough to keep it steady. And with the thick clouds overhead I wasn’t going to get away with an exposure time any shorter than 2 minutes.
So, those shots sucked. Whatever. I thought maybe, just maybe, if the snow would clear up long enough to reveal the canyon, I could still get one or two decent pictures. So I waited.
Instead, the snow intensified. I called it quits and huddled back into my truck, with my two miserable dogs (which had been confined to the cab of my truck for at least the past 12 hours, with short breaks for walks), and made my way out of the park, determined to at least cover some ground on my way back east. I cursed and spit and felt sorry for myself, as I always do.
But then it DID happen. The snow cleared. I was only a half-hour down the road when the clouds broke, the wind was stilled, and the snow stopped falling. I did what any stubborn little shit would do, and I turned around and drove back into the park.
I drove right back to the spot I had left only a short time before, and I excitedly set about getting my rig all set up and ready for a few 5- to 10-minute exposures. The moon was up, the sky was clear, and the valley below was even brighter and more visible than usual, thanks to a blanket of fresh snow.
But then I saw my fatal flaw. The one mistake that I just could not afford to make. My wired remote had not made it all the way back into the truck on my initial retreat. In my rush to pack my gear and get back into the warm cab, I had left the remote hanging free. The remote itself was suspended out from underneath my rear door, with just enough cord to allow the controls to drag through the slush, the snow, the grit, and the mud of the roads. I had driven for over an hour like this. The battery compartment had been ripped off, with the batteries gone. I tried to replace them with fresh ones, but the damage was done. No remote.
There was no way I was going to get any exposures longer than 30 seconds using just my camera.
But did I let that stop me? Hell no. I should have, but hell no.
I stood in the cold, my finger on the shutter release, for as long as I could possibly stand the cold temperatures. By this point it had fallen by another 2 degrees. -4 fahrenheit. I was hoping to get at least 8 minutes per exposure, without losing my fingers to exposure.
This post is really dragging on, so I’m just gonna wrap it up. Obviously, my shivering hands and arms were not compatible with a still camera, and my photos turned out to be pure garbage. Furthermore, my attempt to get these photos set me back a full day of travel, a day that would have put me out in front of a huge blizzard that happened to be forming over the southwest. Huge blizzard in the desert, you say?
Yes. Huge blizzard in the desert. After leaving the Grand Canyon I didn’t even make it one day of driving before I had to seek shelter in a hotel, where I was promptly snowed in for three days with my pups. I had plenty of time to look over my pictures, stew over every mistake I had made, and plan for my triumphant return sometime in the future. I soothed my injured pride and disappointment with junk food off the shelves of a gas station nearby, since everything else was closed.
I did eventually return to the canyon. A month later I had to drive back to California to get my boat, which is itself a tremendous pain in the ass (that I love). After hitching up the boat I made the trip east yet again, this time managing to catch the canyon on a clear night with precious few clouds in the sky… and a new remote for my camera. The moon wasn’t full, and we didn’t stay in the park long enough for it to rise directly overhead, but the park was empty and this time I was dressed appropriately. It’s not going to win me any awards, but I’m glad to have finally captured this shot of the canyon:
It’s a small win, but at least I am not utterly defeated on this one.
And that about sums it up. No matter how meticulously I plan, things only seem to come together in their own timing.
Also- many thanks to my brother on that second trip out to California. He volunteered to travel with me, knowing full well how much of an ass I am on long drives. While we were in California we managed to spend some time up at Yosemite. Neither of us had ever skied before, but we let a friend convince us that going cross-country skiing through the backcountry would be fun. We both learned the basics one morning and dove right in. Despite sore knees, legs, asses, and egos, that was a pretty epic side-trip, with views of the snow-covered valley from a ledge higher than most helos fly, that scant few people ever get to see.