Breakthrough Photography

One of my sponsors on this trip was a great company out of San Francisco called Breakthrough Photography They specialize in lens filters and kindly sent me 4 different filters to use on the trip. They were a great asset and helped me capture some stunning photos.

One of my favorite photos from the trip. Taken in Shenandoah National Park with a 6-stop Neutral Density filter from Breakthrough Photography

One of my favorite photos from the trip. Taken in Shenandoah National Park with a 6-stop Neutral Density filter from Breakthrough Photography

Unfortunately, I lost one early on in Georgia. Apparently I'm not as good at traversing over wet rocks as I thought. Months later, in Big Sur, I broke my favorite lens (this time not my fault) and had to replace it. The replacement was an upgrade, but too my dismay I found that this new lens had a wider diameter and my remaining filters were now too small to fit; essentially rendering them useless.

Earlier this week, I sent Breakthrough Photography an email thanking them for their support on this journey and mentioned what had happened on the road. Without a moments hesitation, them emailed me back and sent me 4 replacement lenses plus 1 new one!

This company is amazing and their filters are top notch as well. If you find yourself in the market for some lens filters, I can't speak highly enough about these guys. Great business!

SleekLens.com Starburst Overlay Review

SleekLens.com Photoshop Overlays

SleekLens.com Photoshop Overlays

SleekLens.com is a photography company that specializes in presets and overlays for both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. They recently asked if I would be interested in reviewing some of their Photoshop overlays. I have to admit, I've never made much use of overlays in my workflow. The photographer side of me believes that everything should be captured in camera and that adding foreign elements to an image after the fact crosses the line from photography to graphic design. However, the business side of me understands that at the end of the day, if you're shooting for a client, the end product is the most important thing. In that light, I believe overlays are an invaluable tool to have at your disposal and may be the thing that saves your butt when you book your first big client and something goes wrong during the shoot. 

From light rays to snow and rain, SleekLens has overlays that can really give your photos that extra layer of atmosphere and make them stand out. I spent a few minutes comparing them before eventually settling on their starburst package. 

Starbursts as you may know, are the star-like effect created by light diffracting as it hits your lens. They should not be confused with light rays, which are caused by light traveling through air that is filled with visible artifacts and particles (smoke, mist, dust, etc). Starbursts can be created naturally in camera by shooting directly into a light source, but in my own experience, this process can by somewhat hit-or-miss. 

Natural Starburst captured in-camera over the Greenbelt in Austin, Texas

Sample Gallery Front Page

After downloading the package, I opened the folder to find 16 Black & White starbursts and 8 colored ones as well as a PDF with sample images to help show how to best utilize your new overlays. I was surprised that there were no written instructions included to inform me of how to seamlessly add these starbursts to my images. I consider myself a pretty capable Photoshop user but still had no idea what blending mode I needed or if that was even Sleek Lens' preferred method of application. After a quick search on their website, I came upon some simple instructions here: https://sleeklens.com/how-to-use-lighting-photoshop-overlays/

included sample image with overlay

included sample image with overlay

Adding a starburst overlay is pretty simple and straightforward and SleekLens breaks it down into 5 basic steps.

  1. Resizing
  2. Choosing Blend Mode
  3. Coloring
  4. Changing Opacity
  5. Applying Layer Mask (If Necessary)

Before you do anything, though, you need an image to add a starburst to. As luck would have it, when SleekLens contacted me I was just finishing up a 6-month road trip to photograph America (AKA I had a ton of unused photos to choose from). 

Backlit tree in Oregon

The first photo came from Oregon. I had loved this shot of a backlit tree when I was there, and loved the way it looked in my camera, but I was having trouble in my post-production workflow. When enlarged on my Macbook Pro, the energy of the shot seemed to dissipate and I couldn't figure out how to remedy this. If any photo could use something to give it a little more punch, it was this one.

I opened my folder of starburst overlays and tried a few out. Something I quickly learned is that not every starburst works in every photo and I encourage you to try out a few for each image until you're satisfied. I ultimately went with Starburst-12, as I wanted something that complemented the golden mist in the air.

Folder of various starburst overlays

Starburst-12

1. RESIZE

After opening Starburst-12 in Photoshop, the next step was pasting it onto my image so I could resize and reposition it (*I actually found it easier to change the blend mode first, but for the sake of simplicity I will go in the order suggested by SleekLens). 

Starburst image pasted on top of my photo

To resize your starburst, first make sure your starburst layer is selected, then from the top menu, choose - Edit>Transform>Scale

Grab a corner and drag until your image is resized to your satisfaction. To maintain your starburst's original dimensions, press and hold SHIFT before clicking.

Select - Edit>Transform>Scale to resize your starburst

Resized and repositioned starburst

2. CHANGE BLEND MODE

Our next step is to change the blending mode. SleekLens recommends trying SCREEN, COLOR DODGE, and/or LINEAR DODGE. I found that SCREEN was my preferred choice in most cases, but by all means try out various other ones and see what happens. 

To change your blend mode, click on the pulldown menu labeled "NORMAL" in your layers pallette and choose SCREEN.

Changing your blend more in the layers pallette

Image with blend mode changed to SCREEN

3. COLORIZING

Next, we need to change the color of our starburst effect. The easiest way to do this is by adding a HUE/SATURATION ADJUSTMENT LAYER. You can do this by selecting from your top menu bar - LAYER>NEW ADJUSTMENT LAYER>HUE/SATURATION or by selecting the new adjustment layer button at the bottom of our layers palette. 

Adding a HUE/SATURATION ADJUSTMENT LAYER from the top menu bar

Adding a HUE/SATURATION ADJUSTMENT LAYER from the layers pallette

To ensure that our adjustment layer only effects our starburst and not the rest of the photo, simply Option-Click (for Mac Users) or Alt-Click (PC) on the line dividing our adjustment layer and our starburst layer. This will lock the two layers together, ensuring that only our starburst is colorized by our Hue/Saturation Layer. 

Starburst with HUE/SATURATION ADJUSTMENT LAYER added and locked together. *Blend mode set to NORMAL to highlight effect

By double clicking on our hue/saturation adjustment layer, we can open the hue/saturation menu and adjust the color. Simply click on the box marked COLORIZE and adjust the hue, saturation, and lightness until you are satisfied. 

Hue/Saturation menu 

Starburst with HUE/SATURATION ADJUSTMENT LAYER added and blend mode set to SCREEN

4. ADJUST OPACITY (IF NECESSARY)

SleekLens recommends adjusting the opacity. I found this to be necessary on a photo-by-photo basis only and opted to leave my opacity at 100% for this shot. However, if you do wish to change your opacity, simply select your starburst layer and click the drop-down arrow marked opacity in the top-right of your layers palette. Move the slider to the right or left to adjust opacity, you can also type in an exact percentage by clicking in the box marked 100%.

Adjusting the Opacity in the layers palette 

5. ADD LAYER MASK (IF NECESSARY)

Our final step is to add a LAYER MASK to better integrate our sunburst into our image. Layer masks are an invaluable tool in Photoshop's arsenal. They use values of grey to assign different levels of transparency to your images with white being opaque and black being completely transparent. To put it more simply, if I have a layer with a white layer mask assigned to it and paint half of it black, the side that is painted black will reveal the image below it. If I grabbed my paint bucket tool and filled the black portion with white, we would only see the layer with the layer mask attached and none of the layer below it. 

With your starburst layer selected, simply click the LAYER MASK button at the bottom of your layers palette. You will see a white box appear to the right of your starburst layer. Because, our layer mask is white, nothing will appear to change. However, if we select a black paint brush and paint over our starburst, it will begin to disappear as the black reveals the layer below it. 

Image with white layer mask added

ABOVE - The Layer Mask button (circled) at the bottom of your layers panel. RIGHT - The layer's panel with a layer mask (circled) applied to the starburst layer

By selecting our tree layer and using the MAGIC WAND TOOL [W], We can easily make a selection around the outside of the tree. Hit Command-Shift-I (Control-Shift-I for PCs) to inverse our selection and with a black brush paint in the tree area. You can check your work by Option (Alt) Clicking on the layer mask. This will reveal our mask represented by only values of Grey (or in this case, black-and-white). You can also hit the \ key to see the non-white parts of your mask represented in values of red. 

By painting the tree selection in with black on your layer mask, you are essentially erasing the light rays from the areas you don't want them in and creating a much more visually impressive and cohesive image. 

Option (ALT) Click your Layer Mask to see it in values of grey

With Layer Mask Disabled

Hit the \ Key to black values of your mask in shades of red

With Layer Mask Enabled

Once my starburst was adequately masked in, I finished the image by adjusting the contrast and overall warmth a bit more.

Original Image

Final Image

Cade's Cove - Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cade's Cove - Great Smoky Mountains National Park w/ Starburst

The photo and the starburst need to work in conjunction with one another.

Sometimes, a starburst is better used to complement what is already there, as is the case with this photo of Mesa Arch in Utah. If you look closely you'll see that the image already has a natural starburst that was captured in camera, however it's very weak and almost blends in to the point of being nonexistent (this was more due to my post processing workflow than a problem with my camera). However, by very quickly cloning out the original starburst and adding one from SleekLens on top of it, I am able to revive this photo and give it the starburst it deserves. 

Mesa Arch - Canyonlands National Park, Utah

All in all, I was very pleased with the starburst package from SleekLens. Overlays are something that were previously not in my photographic toolbox and it was fun getting to learn how to utilize them. All of the photos I played with were landscape shots, but I could see myself using these starbursts in everything from architectural photography to portraiture. The possibilities are endless.

You can find out more about SleekLens' overlays here:

or check out their main site here: https://sleeklens.com/

I hope this review was informative and helped open some eyes to the creative value of adding overlays to your workflow. 

The Mountains, the Badlands, and the Border

“It's a dangerous business...going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
-Bilbo Baggins

Well, that’s a wrap, folks.  Four days ago I pulled back into the same gravel driveway in Houston that I left from almost six months ago.  Crazy to think this trip was originally supposed to last only half of that time. All in all, I spent about 177 days on the road and put about 28K miles on my car! It feels strange to be finished. I don’t think it’s fully set in yet. From conception to finish, this project consumed my life for two years! Now it’s done, and I’m back. Strange.

Two weeks ago, I woke up in my car at Yellowstone National Park surrounded by snow and sub-zero temperatures. This morning I woke up in a bed in a house with air conditioning and it’s 80 degrees outside. Strange. Ironically, I think I got a better night’s sleep in the former.

The last time you heard from me on here, I had just gotten back from a surprise trip to Europe and was in Breckenridge, Colorado. Since then, I’ve visited Rocky Mountain National Park, Badlands National Park in South Dakota, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons National Park (Wyoming) Great Sand Dunes National Park, and Big Bend National Park. In that time, I experienced some of my highest highs and lowest lows of the entire trip including a very scary day on my way out of Wyoming.

I left Breckenridge, CO on February 16th and arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park later that day. I was surprised at how in spite of the snow and cold temperatures, the park was very crowded. Parking at the most popular trailheads was often completely filled by 9am! To compensate, I opted to get off the beaten path and explore the icy fields that preceded the Rockies in the distance. 

Snow covered path

I ended up spending three nights in Rocky Mountain NP. The sky was either overcast or cloudless most of that time which is good for exploring, but not so much for landscape photography. However, on my final morning I was treated to a brilliant sunrise that more than compensated for the previous few days. 

In Los Angeles, a friend asked me if I would be going to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. When I told him I was undecided, he insisted that I check it out. One of my favorite stints on the trip had been my time spent in North Dakota at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the idea of revisiting the Dakotas was very tempting. So after saying goodbye to the Rocky Mountains, I consulted my map and decided to be impulsive and drive to South Dakota. This would ultimately prove to be the last stretch where the weather consistently worked in my favor and resulted in some of the strongest photos from the trip yet. Along the way, I drove through Nebraska and past the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee where I met some Native Americans on their way to join the protest further north at Standing Rock. 

Taken in Nebraska en route to South Dakota

Site of Wounded Knee Massacre

The history of Wounded Knee

When I arrived at Badlands National Park a feeling of excitement rushed over me as if I were in the presence of an old friend. Three months prior, I had spent 4 days in North Dakota at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and it ended up being one of the highlights of my trip.  Many people have asked me in these last few weeks what my favorite places were. A question that I consistently find impossible to answer. What I usually tell them is that I can't pick a favorite, but that I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved the Dakotas. Between the unique landscape, the abundance of wildlife, and the history of the region, it captured my heart and imagination like few other places on the trip. 

Ironically, compared to North Dakota, I barely saw any bison in South Dakota

Sunset over Badlands National Park

The stunning landscape of the Badlands

Few things are more terrifying than looking up and seeing a stampede of mountains goats heading straight for you!

Mountain Goat in Badlands National Park

Sunrise in the Badlands

Sunset in the Badlands

After my third night in South Dakota, a snow storm descended upon the region and I woke up to white skies and icy roads. I took this as my cue to depart the region and head west for Wyoming. Even in the early planning phases of this trip, there was a certain amount of uncertainty and hesitation that hovered around Wyoming. The average temperature in February is bitterly cold and many roads close down due to ice and snow. Going to Wyoming right now was a gamble. I could walk away with some great photos, or I could leave empty handed. I could be blessed with the most pristine weather conditions, or I could be caught in a snowstorm in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't leave without trying, though, so even as conditions worsened on the road, I pressed on. 

Icy roads in South Dakota

Graves for Custer's men. Each tombstone is laid in the location where it's owner's body was found

Monument marking the location where General Custer and his men were found dead

As I made my way westward out of South Dakota, I saw a sign indicating that I was nearing the location of the Battle of Little Bighorn or as it's more commonly called Custer's Last Stand. As you may know, Custer's Last Stand is a cautionary tale of hubris and overconfidence. In 1876, fed up with the U. S. Army's broken promises and ever present encroachment, members of the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes began to abandon their reservations and congregate in Eastern Montana at Little Big Horn. Simultaneously, three columns of U. S. Soldiers were also approaching Little Big Horn. On June 22, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer was ordered to scout ahead for Indians. When Custer's scouts returned, they reported that a massive gathering of Indians numbering over 10,000 laid waiting near Little Big Horn. Custer dismissed these reports believing them to be greatly exaggerated. Custer's overconfidence was so misguided, his biggest fear was that the Indians would scatter before he could defeat them all! With 215 men at his side, Custer foolishly decided to advance and stage a mid-afternoon attack. Three-thousand Indians, led by Crazy Horse, rode up to meet them and within an hour Custer and each of his men were dead. 

It was the U. S. Army's worst defeat and the Natives greatest victory in America's war against the Indians.

Wild Horses near Little Big horn

Wild Horses near Little Big horn

Not wanting to deal with the snow after dark, I opted to spend the night in Billings, Montana which ironically is where I spent the night after leaving North Dakota back in November. The next day I turned south heading for Yellowstone. A few days before this, I had invited some friends to meet me in Big Bend once I arrived back in Texas on the weekend of March 3rd. As I approached Yellowstone, I checked my calendar and realized that I had severely lost track of time and that March 3rd was a week away! Knowing that less than a quarter of Yellowstone was open in the winter, I decided to only stay there for one day and hope for the best. 

It ended up being an incredibly prosperous day. I saw Bison trudging through the snow, two foxes, a moose, elk, and coyotes. Oh yeah, and the wolves. Did I mention the wolves? 

The story of what happened when the wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone. Here's a great video going into more depth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysa5OBhXz-Q

As I entered the park, I visited the ranger station for advice on what I should try and see. I told him I'd love to get a photo of a wolf and he showed me on the map where I'd have the most luck. The gray wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and in the decade since they've thrived as a species. Their reemergence has even had a profoundly unexpected and positive effect on the ecosystem of the park. As I drove to the spot, I contemplated the fact that I was about to go hike through the snow in 15-degree weather, looking for a pack of large, carnivorous canines. "Normal people don't do this," I thought to myself. Fortunately, when I arrived, I found the hike to be much shorter than anticipated and a few groups of people were already out there for the same reason.

I began conversing with a nice couple from Seattle who told me I had just missed the wolves. They said that they came down here every winter and they had seen the wolves try to take down an elk earlier that day. As our conversation trailed off into silence, I was unexpectedly struck by the calm, quiet of winter. Staring down into the valley, not even the wind could be heard. Suddenly, in the distance, a low hum began to trickle down from the hills. As I listened more intently, it dawned on me that the sound wasn't a hum but the howl of a lone wolf. It was soon joined by another howl coming from the mountains behind us. My friends from Seattle told me that it was most likely just one wolf alerting the pack to his whereabouts. It was spooky, but not frightening and it then dawned on me that the park no longer belonged to the grizzlies, but to the wolves: the new kings of Yellowstone. 

Bison in Yellowstone

Coyote or wolf?

Only one road in Yellowstone is open during the winter. It lies on the northern edge of the park and moves east to west. I decided to drive the length of it then turn around and come back, stopping to shoot along the way. On my return journey, I saw two wildlife photographers on the side of the road with their cameras out. I quietly pulled up behind them to see what they were shooting and saw a large canine approaching the road from the woods. I was able to get a quick shot of him as he crossed in front of me, but to this day I'm unsure if it was a wolf or a coyote. 

He quickly disappeared from sight and I continued on. Not long after, I saw a large group of wildlife viewers on the side of the road. They all had their spotting scopes out and were pointing at something way off on the ridgeline. I parked and approached them and saw my friends from Seattle. "You just missed it," they said, "The wolves brought down an elk!" They told me that they had watched for forty-minutes while the wolves slowly and methodically brought down an adult elk. The wolves were about a quarter of a mile away and even with my zoom lens, I could make out nothing but dark moving spots on the ridgeline. A woman next to me invited to look through her scope and instantly I could see the pack as if they were only ten feet away. The elk was still alive and laying in a pool of blood, but wolves merely sat nearby, resting from the hunt and waiting for it to expire. It was truly one of the most incredible and humbling experiences I've ever come across.

Wildlife viewers watching the elk-hunt

Traffic Jam

The weather in Yellowstone had been overcast most of the day, but by evening it had cleared up just enough to give me a nice sunset and a perfect cap on an exciting day in America's most famous national park. 

Sunset at Yellowstone, had to stand on ice to get this shot

Maddie German. Singer/songwriter extraordinaire!

After Yellowstone, I continued south to Grand Tetons National Park. I'd been looking forward to coming here since the day I began planning this trip and specifically, there were a couple of landmarks here that I had dying to shoot. The Tetons are a very unique looking mountain range and I couldn't wait to see them for the first time. To my utter disappointment, the weather took a turn for the worse and when I arrived the fog was so thick that the mountains were nowhere to be found. Even worse, it was supposed to be like this for a full week! I ended up staying for two days hoping that something might change, but unlike Yellowstone, luck was not with me at the Tetons. On the positive side, I befriended a local musician named Madelaine Germany and ended up spending the day hanging out with her and her friends. She's an incredible singer and you can check out her stuff here: http://www.madelainegerman.com/ 

Feeling disappointed, I resolved to visit the Tetons again in August and got in the car and began the journey back south. Little did I know that this would end up being the most frightening and unsettling day of my journey.

My next destination was Great Sand Dunes National Park about 12-hours south near the Colorado/New Mexico border and I was going to attempt getting there in one day. About two hours after departing the Tetons, it became apparent that wasn't going to happen. As I made my way down the two-lane highway, the snow began to fall. Then it began to fall harder. It wasn't long before the once plowed roads became covered in white powder and it became ever more difficult to maintain traction. Many months ago before I departed, I told a friend my biggest concern on this trip was getting caught in a freak snowstorm in the middle of nowhere, and now that fear was becoming more of a reality with each passing moment. Anytime, I came up on a car in front of me, my windshield would be covered in a spray of sludge and ice which immediately froze to my windshield. I tried my defroster but to no avail, then turned to my windshield wipers which unbeknownst to me were covered in a thick layer of ice and to my horror only resulted in severely worsening my already limited visibility. Every 15 minutes I needed to pull over and wipe my windshield down, but with the snow so thick, it was impossible to find a safe spot to do so. I could feel my heart rate increasing and my palms began to sweat. Like a holy mantra, I began repating to myself, "Calm people live, panicky people die. Calm people live. Panicky people die." A phrase that I had heard for the first time just days before, but today found myself desperately clinging to for support. 

After what felt like an eternity, the speed limit finally began to drop and I arrived in the small town of Craig, Colorado. I pulled into the first motel I saw and got a room for the night. Through my window, I could see the snow continuing to fall. It wouldn't let up till after midnight. I paced around the room for about an hour trying to calm my nerves before finally falling asleep. 

My car the morning after the snow storm

When I woke up my car was covered in a thick layer of snow and my windows were frozen solid. I was nervous to get back on the road after the previous day's ordeal. There was less snow in the weather forecast, but unlike the previous day, today, I'd be driving up and down through the Rockies. I contemplated waiting a few days for the weather to clear up but eventually concluded that I wanted to get away from the snow as quickly as possible. So at 10 am, I got back on the road and very slowly and very carefully navigated my way through the Rocky Mountains and the snow. Six hours later, I arrived at Great Sand Dunes National Park and to my delight, there was barely a trace of snow on the ground!

Road leading to Great Sand Dunes National Park

Into the Dunes

Great Sand Dunes National Park is a unique place in America. Imagine a 19,000-acre slice of the Sahara Desert placed squarely in front of the snow-tipped Sangre de Cristo mountain range and you'll have an idea. There are no trails leading to the dunes, just a quarter mile walk across flat sand. I had an amazing time here but quickly realized that I'd have more luck shooting here in the summer. The cold temperatures froze the moisture in the sand, giving the dunes a dark, lifeless look which didn't match the shot I had envisioned before arriving. 

On top of the dunes

As I was shooting that night, it suddenly dawned on me that in a way this was the end of the trip. Technically, I still had 5-6 days before I got home, but tonight would be the last night I'd spend on my own. All at once, a wave of emotions washed over me. On one hand, I felt a great sadness that this incredible thing was coming to an end, but at the same time there a deep sense of joy and pride for having come so far and reaching the finish line. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Rocks we found near the Rio Grande

On Friday, March 3rd, I crossed the border into my home state of Texas en route to my last national park: Big Bend! I had forgotten just how big this park is! Coming south from Marathon, it's about a 60-mile drive from the park entrance to Rio Grande Village where we were camping. My good friends, Scott and Ellery, were already waiting for me when I arrived. After a quick reunion and a celebratory beer, we went on a quick hike along the Rio Grande. I've been to Big Bend twice now and I still find it strange to look across the river and think about how there's a completely different country on the other side. I didn't' end up shooting at much as I should have here (Ryan Pigg, I owe you some Big Bend photos). I think I felt like treating myself and relaxing a bit. After all, I had just spent 5.5 months on the road! 

Watching Donkeys across the river in Mexico. Photo courtesy of Scott Mise

We spent the next day enjoying Big Bend's natural hot springs on the river (no photos due to heavy rain), and hiking about 8-9 miles, first on the Lost Mine Trail and later down to The Window. Both hikes are pretty moderate in difficulty but reward you with the most stunning views!

Atop the Lost Mine Trail

Ellery at the top of the Lost Mine Trail

Scott looking deep at camp

Watching the sunset from The Window in Big Bend

I departed Big Bend on March 5th, but instead of going straight to Houston I opted to do a sort of victory lap around Texas to see a few people. My first stop was Abilene, Texas, home of my alma mater: Abilene Christian University. My awesome aunt and one of my biggest fans, Paula Jones, lives there and I hadn't been back since graduating in 2010. I spent three days visiting with her and catching up with some old professors before continuing on to Fort Worth where I stayed with one of my old college roommates and one of the best people I know: James Woodroof!

My old college English teacher, the famous Stephen Moore. He recently published a children's book about bullying called Theodore Thumbs. You can check it out and/or buy it here: https://www.clearforkpublishing.com/our-store/theodore-thumbs/

The wild man - my old college roommate James

I've been in Houston now for four days and tomorrow I'll head back to Austin for a photo gig and to begin the process of moving back into my old place. I still can't believe that this incredible, two-year chapter in my life is done. I've been dreaming of doing something like this since I was a teenager. Recently, my best friend asked me what was the most intangible thing I learned from my six months on the road and I found it hard to respond. Not because I didn't have an answer, but because I had too many. I feel a deep, renewed sense of confidence in myself. I have such a greater appreciation for the absolutely incredible people in my life and for the wonderfully fortunate life that I've been blessed with. In my time away, I often wondered if I'd feel like a different person when I got back and I do, in all the best ways. I could ramble on and on for days about this, but the bottom line is that this is truly the greatest thing I've ever done in my life and I am so incredibly thankful for everyone who believed in me and helped me make this dream a reality. Truly, from the bottom of my heart, I love you all. To everyone who made a donation, I owe you some photo prints. Please bare with me in the next few weeks, as I settle back into regular life. I will be getting in touch with all of you as soon as possible to ensure that you get the photos you want and deserve. 

Until the next adventure, never forget:

"There is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon. For each day to have a new and different sun." -Chris McCandless

Day 1 - Sept. 15, 2016

Day 177 - March 9, 2017

The Cold of the Desert

This blog post is LONG overdue. I had meant to get it out almost two weeks ago around the time of my thirtieth birthday (Feb. 3rd), but when a friend calls you and offers you a free plane ticket to Europe, certain commitments fall by the wayside. But more on that later.

I'm currently in Breckenridge, Colorado. I arrived back in the states on Monday and have been feverishly working on this post ever since.  The last time you heard from me, I was stuck in Los Angeles waiting to replace a broken camera lens. It feels good to be back on the road. So much has happened since I left LA that it almost seems like too much to fit into one post, but I'm going to try. Brace yourselves, this is going to be long. 

My cousin Amanda and I

I departed LA on January 13th and continued south along the coast to San Diego. I've been to this laid-back city many times and originally hadn't included it in my itinerary, but for the sake of hitting all four corners of the US on this trip, I gave into temptation and pointed my car towards the border. It would also give me a chance to catch up with my cool cousin Amanda. She and her husband Seth live there and offered to let me stay as long as I needed. But after being in LA for so long, I was eager to get back in the swing of things and only ended up staying one night. Knowing that after this, I'd be heading back north towards colder and colder temperatures, I spent most of my time in San Diego walking around soaking in the perfect southern California weather and watching surfers from the pier. 

The next day, I left and headed east towards the California desert. My destination: a special little place just east of the Salton Sea called Slab City. 

In 1942, the US military began construction on a Marine Corp training base called Camp Dunlap, However, by the end of the war, military operations had been greatly reduced and in 1956 the base was completely dismantled. The only proof the base ever existed are the concrete foundations - or slabs - that the military left behind. In 1961, the land was given back to the state of California who had no use for it. In the decades that followed, vagabonds, lost souls, and people from all other walks of life began congregating in the area where Camp Dunlap once stood. Eventually a community emerged with no fees and no rules. Today it's called Slab City or as it's also known, "the last free place in America."                              

Salvation Mountain

Perhaps Slab City's most famous attraction is a monument just south of town called Salvation Mountain. The creation of long time Slab City resident, the late Leonard Knight, Salvation Mountain stands three stories tall at it's highest point. Construction on the mountain first began in 1984. After a failed attempt with a hot air balloon, Knight was looking for a bold way to spread the message of God's love. One-hundred thousand gallons of paint and lots of adobe clay later, Salvation Mountain today stands as a colorful beacon of hope amongst the harsh desert landscape.

Truck at Salvation Mountain

Car at Salvation Mountain

World War II era gun turret now serves as a welcome sign to visitors

As I drove down the dirt road, I passed a red gun turret informing me that I was almost there. Like a giant debris field, I began to see scattered car parts, abandoned RV's, and all other forms of junk on the side of the road - all welcoming me to Slab City. 

Jimmie - a resident of Slab City

I first heard about this place when I read Jon Krakauer's Into The Wild and I've wanted to come here ever since. A general rule when you arrive is that any open, unclaimed space is free for the taking. So I quickly found a good spot to call my own and set out on foot. I'll be the first to admit, a place like Slab City is definitely not for everybody. It's hard to describe it without using terms like, "post-apocalyptic," and "wasteland." But like so many other places I've explored, all misconceptions usually tend to fade away once you get to know the locals and Slab City was no different. The people here were SO friendly! I could barely walk past a person without them coming over to say hi and ask how I was doing. I was told that I picked a good night to stay here. Turns out, every Saturday, they hold a free concert at Slab City's own music venue: The Range. I couldn't believe my luck. When I asked what time it started, I was simply told, "at dark."    

Slab City

Waiting for the rain to stop at Slab City

Out exploring Slab City

 

I continued exploring with my camera, but heavy rains blew in forcing me back to my car. As I waited for the rain to let up, the sun began to set. The golden hour light from the sun combined with the dark storm clouds in the background illuminated everything brilliantly. The contrast was more crisp and every color more vibrant. I quickly put the car in gear and sped off to Salvation Mountain. When I arrived, it looked absolutely unreal.  It's rare for so many things to work in your favor when out shooting in natural light. I consider this the most "once-in-a-lifetime" shot I've ever taken.

Salvation Mountain at sunset

I continued shooting until the light had faded away. I couldn't wait to look at some of these shots on my computer.

Red RV in beautiful golden hour light

But first...I had a free concert in the desert to go to. 

Free concert at The Range

Packed house

Getting a burger during the show

The show at The Range was wild! The seats were a combination of wet couches and moldy chairs. The guitars were out of tune and some of the performers I don't think had ever played a note of music in their life. Despite this, it was a packed house! People were dancing and good vibes were flowing. I conversed with people sitting around me and greeted those who I'd met earlier in the day. One guy, who asked me not to print his name, told me he'd been hitchhiking around the world for 30 years! Some of the performers were local, some had arrived just hours prior. I looked around at the vast diversity of people around me and wished that I could ask each of them what road in life led them to this special place. As I walked back to my car after the concert, I couldn't help but think of the one thing we all had in common. Tonight, we were all residents of Slab City. 

On the road to Joshua Tree

Boulder in Joshua Tree

I lived in southern California for five years and never once went to Joshua Tree National Park. So when I saw that it was only about a 2-hour drive from Slab City, I decided to go check it out. What I found out, is that Joshua Tree is practically a playground of a park. The wide-open desert landscape ensures that no spot is beyond reach and the smooth rocks are easy to climb. The park actually encompasses two deserts: the Colorado Desert in the east and the Mojave Desert in the west. As you drive west and increase in elevation, giant, egg-like boulders begin to decorate the landscape. If you're just getting into landscape photography, Joshua Tree is a perfect place to hone your skills. From the cactus to the boulders, to the Joshua trees themselves; it is a park teeming with possibility. I barely spent a day there, but I left with probably a week's worth of photos. 

Cactus in Joshua Tree

Cactus and rocks in Joshua Tree

Mike and Kailey

When I first announced this trip on Facebook, an old friend from high school named Mike Cano messaged me and told me that if I were to pass through Phoenix, I'd have a place to stay. I had already stayed with Mike's sister, Emily, months ago in Boston, so I figured this would be a cool way to bookend the trip. On January 16th, I departed Joshua Tree and drove to Phoenix. Emily had told me that Mike and his wife, Kailey, were really into rock climbing. Sure enough, within moments of greeting me, Mike invited me to go climb with them that night. I had gotten into rock climbing a couple of times in my early twenties but hadn't done it in ages. Here's a lesson: when you're pushing 30, it's best to ease back into something like this. Not wanting to look like an amateur, I didn't shy from taking on routes far beyond my strength and skill level; and my body would pay for it over the next few days. Despite my aches, I had a great time. It was awesome catching up with Mike and I left Pheonix wondering why I had ever given up rock climbing in the first place.  

Mike and Kailey had invited me to stay for longer, but my next stop was the Grand Canyon and there was snow on the horizon so I wanted to get there as quickly as possible. I arrived late on January 17th and had just enough time to set up camp and take a quick drive around the park. Sitting around the campfire that night, I checked the weather forecast. twenty-four hours from now it would start snowing and wouldn't stop for a week! If I wanted to get a great photo here, I was going to have to make the next day count. 

Desert View Watchtower at the Grand Canyon

I woke up the following morning and immediately began exploring the park by car and foot. My plan was to get a great shot at sunset, then switch to a wider lens and shoot the stars over the canyon. But first I had to find a spot that looked promising. Knowing that the snow would be here soon and I'd be out late, I needed to make sure I'd be able to get back to camp safely as well. I eventually settled on a spot about a 1.5-mile hike from the visitor's center.

When I arrived that evening, I was joined by about twenty other people all there to watch the sun go down; but within an hour, they were all gone and I found myself standing alone in the dark on the edge of the Grand Canyon. For the first time, I felt like I had the whole place to myself. Above me, more and more stars were beginning to appear and far below, I could make out the campfire lights of those who had made the long journey to the bottom. In just a few hours, the snow would be falling so fiercely that all visibility from the canyon rim would be lost. 

Grand Canyon at Sunset

Stars over the Grand Canyon

When I crawled into my tent that night, the sky was still clear. Nothing indicated that 20-inches of snow were heading my way. I checked the forecast one last time to see if by some miracle the snow might miss me. It wouldn't. One-hundred percent chance of snow starting soon. I zipped up my sleeping bag and wondered what the world would look like in the morning. 

Being snowed on at the Grand Canyon

When I woke up, the whole world had been whitewashed. The roof of my tent was completely covered and a large pile of snow had begun accumulating at its base. I simply couldn't believe how this much snow could've fallen in such a short amount of time! And it was still snowing! I might as well have been caught in a blizzard! I quickly ran to my car and turned on the heater. I needed to collect my bearings. How accessible were the roads? Was it worth sticking around in the hopes the weather might let up enough to get out and shoot? I had already paid for one more night at the campground and didn't want to leave if I didn't have to.

I decided to drive to the visitor's center and consult a ranger. I pulled out of camp and began driving uphill on the main road. I could feel my tires struggling to maintain traction underneath me. After several tense minutes, I pulled into the parking lot. I half expected it to be closed due to the weather, but sure enough, there were people inside.

The ranger told me that they would do their best to keep the roads cleared, but couldn't promise they'd be clear 24/7. I drove back to camp still unsure of what to do. One thing I did know was that it would be wise to go ahead and break camp. With no end in sight for the snow, it would only get more difficult to take down my tent and I could always sleep in the car. Despite wearing gloves, handling the cold, metal tent poles quickly turned my hands from cold to numb. By the time I tossed the last bit of gear into the car, I had come to the conclusion that it was time to say an early goodbye to the Grand Canyon. 

Hoover Dam

I spent the next few days wandering through the desert of northern Arizona from Flagstaff to the Hoover Dam. I found places to sleep in the parking lots of various casinos. Next on my itinerary was Utah and it's five national parks. Starting with Zion in the southwest corner, they run in a general northeastern direction. My plan was to hit them one after the other in that order, but unfortunately, right now, every single one was being blanketed with the same snow that just chased me from the Grand Canyon.

I was beginning to grow snow-weary. I grabbed my atlas and began searching for any nearby place of interest and cross-referencing it with the weather. I needed temporary relief from the snow while I waited for things to clear up in Utah. Things didn't look good. Any place close had terrible weather, and any place with good weather was too far away. However, roughly 500 miles east, in Colorado's southwestern corner, lies Mesa Verde National Park. I had already planned to visit it in a few weeks when I headed back south and it was currently enjoying sunny skies. After investigating a bit more, I realized that if I drove there first and then explored Utah from east-to-west instead, I'd have a much better chance of beating the weather.  Ten hours later, I found myself in Cortez, Colorado - home of Mesa Verde National Park.

Near the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde is most known for the ancient cliff dwellings that can be found here. With over 600 sites, it is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. Unfortunately, I was not to see any of those. The park was off-limit without tire chains, and while I had some, they had become bitterly tangled and despite my best efforts, I had yet to install them in any manner that instilled confidence. My next stop, Arches National Park, was not far, so I decided not to push my luck and continued north to my first park in Utah. 

Entrance to Arches National Park

The weather was dreary as I pulled into Arches later that day. Snow covered the landscape and the sky was gray and overcast. I decided to get to work exploring the park. As you might have guessed, Arches National Park is so named for its stunning arches. Staring up at them, it's hard to understand what natural force could have possibly created them. Their scale alone is hard to grasp.

Path to the South Window Arch

Path to Turret Arch

Landscape Arch

Delicate Arch

The beautiful state of Utah. Taken while driving around Arches National Park

Near the Garden of Eden in Arches National Park

Sunrise over Arches National Park

It's impossible to adequately convey the scale of these arches without some point of reference. So the last photo I took before I left, I put the camera on a timer and sprinted to the base of the North Window Arch for an epic selfie. The final shot ended up being one of my favorites!

Under the North Window. I included myself to show scale, not to make myself look cool. I promise. 

After spending three nights at Arches, I decided to move on to Canyonlands National Park a little further north.

Overlook near my campsite at Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands reminded me very much of the Grand Canyon, just smaller in scale. Unlike the Grand Canyon, though, there were no crowds to be found here. I spent two nights camping for free and enjoying peace, quiet, and freezing temperatures. At night, my thermometer dropped down to about thirteen degrees, which is approximately how cold it was when I woke up to go photograph Canyonland's most famous attraction: Mesa Arch.

Mesa Arch lies on the north end of Canyonlands and is one of Utah's most photographed arches. Each morning, it perfectly frames the rising sun which in turn casts the belly of the arch in a brilliant, orange glow. It is with this in mind, that I found myself hiking through the snow, in the dark, in sub-freezing temperatures one cold, January morning. It was about 5:45am, and the sun didn't rise till 6:30. But I had done my research and had no reason to think I'd have the place to myself. Getting there first meant I'd have priority to shoot exactly where I wanted. As I trudged through the snow, I gave myself a mental pat-on-the-back for hiking out here twice the previous day. I figured it'd be good to familiarize myself with the path before setting out in the dark like this. I was the first to arrive at the arch, but, as expected, within twenty minutes there were over a dozen other photographers gathering around me. 

By the time the sun began to rise, my hands were throbbing from the cold. Despite wearing gloves, the constant contact with my metal tripod and camera body had quickly sapped them of any warmth. I continued to shoot for as long as I could, but eventually turned and high-tailed it back to my car. It took over 20-minutes in front of the car heater for the pain to subside at which point I finally grabbed my camera and looked through my shots feeling very pleased with myself.

Mesa Arch at Sunrise. Most painful photo I've ever taken

Horseshoe Bend

I departed Canyonlands on January 27th and spent the next two nights driving west towards Zion. Along the way I stopped at the famous Horseshoe Bend and felt woozy as I looked over the edge. I finally arrived at Zion National Park on the afternoon of the 28th and was blown away. Zion is a park very deserving of its name. As the sun rises and falls, it perfectly illuminates the valley below. Sadly, due to the snow, some of the parks most well known hikes and features were off-limits. However, I found the park so photogenic that this was an easy hurdle to overcome.  

Zion at sunset

The cliff walls in Zion

Sunset in Zion

Sunrise in Zion

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

After camping in Zion for three nights, I got back on the road and drove to Bryce Canyon National Park. Whereas Arches National Park is known for its monumental gateways, Bryce Canyon is known for its tall spires that rise up in unison. They reminded me of massive stalagmites. Unfortunately, the park had received so much snow, that most paths and trails were completely impassable. Likewise, the campground, though open, was so frozen that it felt uninviting. I decided to stay and shoot until sunset, and then I would figure out where I'd sleep that night and decide if I wished to return and shoot again the next day. This decision ultimately led me on a two-hour nighttime excursion through the desert and almost got me stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere. I eventually pulled into a motel in a small town called Escalante and fell asleep in the parking lot.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Explorations in Capitol Reef. The echo in here was unreal! (also, I found mountain lion poop here)

The next day, I arrived at my fifth and final destination in Utah: Capitol Reef National Park. This place is the definition of the American west. Giant plateaus and canyon walls line the horizon under an endless blue sky. It easy to picture cowboys, gold prospectors, and train robberies against the backdrop of this place. Jackrabbits are everywhere. People are not. I practically had the park to myself; the perk of visiting in winter. To make things easier, I already had an idea of the shot I wanted to get while I was here. However, it was going to take a bit more work than your average photo. 

If you drive just a few miles south down the main park road, you'll be treated to a magnificent view of the park road winding its way into the beautiful wilderness of the west.  Like so many other places in Utah, this scene was too picturesque for me to pass up. However, I wanted to jazz it up a bit and add some light trails from my car. Now, under normal circumstances, you can usually count on enough thru-traffic to provide your light trails for you. But like I said, no one else was here. I would have to get in my car and provide the light myself.

In between shots

Single light trail shot

The strategy was simple: capture my base shot at sunset, wait until dark, capture my light trails shot, and combine them in Photoshop. This would essentially require me to stay out and shoot the exact same composition for 2-3 hours, but I knew the final shot would be welI worth it. I passed the time by taking selfies and dancing in the street like a fool. The intervolameter that I recently purchased would allow me to take the extra long exposures I needed to pull this shot off.

The plan was to set the camera on a 30-second timer, get in the car, and as the clock hit zero, zoom past the camera and down the road. The shutter on the camera would be open for 3-minutes. This would hopefully be enough time to drive all the way down and back up. If all went according to plan, I'd end up with 3-minutes worth of red and white light trails perfectly tracing the path of the road.

As I drove down the hill, I tried not to dwell on the fact that I'd just left a very expensive camera and lens sitting alone in the dark on the side of the road. I turned the car around at the bottom and drove as fast as I could back the way I'd come. I was relieved to see the camera still standing, and even more relieved to see that everything had gone off without a hitch! I had captured a long line of light running all the way down the road and back up. Just to be safe, I repeated the process about four more times until I was satisfied.

After combining everything in Photoshop, I was able to create the photo I had envisioned in my head which you can see below. 

Final shot of Capitol Reef with light trails added in

On February 2nd, I drove to Salt Lake City, sat down at a Starbucks and began working on this blog post. The next day would be my 30th birthday and I planned to spend it making my way into Wyoming. Instead, my friend Travis called me and told me that he had a free plane ticket to Europe if I was interested. We would be visiting Dublin, London, and Paris. The only catch was that we left in two days. After quickly weighing the pros and cons, I accepted his offer and spent the next day hightailing it to Denver. From Denver, I flew to New York where I met Travis and we departed for Ireland.

For the sake of getting this thing out already, I'm not including any photos from Europe in this post. I'll get them up eventually. I Hope everyone enjoys the shots. Definitely captured some of my favorites in this leg of the trip! I'm off to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and South Dakota after that! Godspeed! 

A little update

It's Friday, January 13th and I'm finally getting back on the road. As you may recall, I recently broke my 24-70mm lens while out shooting in Big Sur. In a freak accident, the wind blew over my tripod effectively breaking my lens in two. After screaming a few obscenities to no one, I took a little bit of comfort in the fact that the lens was insured and should be easily replaceable. However, this lens is by far my most versatile and without it I suddenly felt crippled. Knowing that I couldn't continue on without it, I opted to wait until the insurance was sorted out before continuing on.

My sister's and I

As luck would have it, both of my sister's live just a few hours south in Los Angeles. A place that, until recently, I had also called home. I naively expected to be there for a few days, fly home for Christmas, and be back on the road by New Year's. However, because all of this happened right before the holidays, things have taken a bit longer than expected and I've now been crashing on my older sister's couch for over three weeks. 

With all of this extra time, though, came time to see and catch up with lots of old friends. Reuniting with everyone was like stepping back into a former life. I lived in LA for almost five years, pursuing acting that whole time. And while I ultimately walked away from it, my time spent with these people will always be the highlight of my time living there. 

Class reunion

My next stop is San Diego where I had the lens overnighted to my cousin's house. From there I'll visit Slab City near the Salton Sea and then cross over into Arizona on my way to the Grand Canyon. I can't express enough how thankful I am to my older sister, Taylor, and her husband, Elliot, for letting me crash with them this whole time. In the weeks I've been here, a thought that keeps crossing my mind is how lucky I am. If that lens hadn't broken where it did, this could have ended up being a much more expensive delay. Instead, I had three relaxing weeks spent with family and friends.

But now, the road is calling me back and I have many places to see. Here's a photo from Olympic National Park to hold you off till then. 

-Zak

Olympic National Park in Washington