I'm in Los Angeles. A place I called home for nearly five years and life couldn't be sweeter. More accurately, I'm at LAX preparing to fly back to Houston to spend Christmas with my family. After battling lots of rain and overcast days in the past month, the pristine SoCal weather feels like an early Christmas present from the road.
Post Washington, I made my way south to Portland, Oregon. Coming from Austin, Portland is a town that I was very excited to see. The two are sometimes referred to as sister cities due to the off-beat characters who live there and their attraction for all things "weird." Mostly, though, I was looking forward to seeing my good friend Tierra. Tierra and I met through our acting class in LA and have been good friends ever since. She recently moved back to Portland and when I told her I'd be coming through she insisted that I stay with her and her new puppy, Kairo.
Tierra is a native of Portland and having her as a tour guide was great. One thing I didn't know about Portland is how many incredible waterfalls surround the city. Just driving on the outskirts of the city limits you'll find numerous hundred-foot falls just dying to be photographed. I ended up staying in Portland for only two days, but I wish I could have stayed longer. Even with a great tour guide like Tierra, I left feeling like there was so much more to discover about this great city.
A thought occurred to me while I was in Portland that it's entirely possible that deep down inside a big motivation for this trip was my desire to see and shoot the Pacific coast again. So after saying goodbye to Tierra and driving back to the coastline, I decided that I would throw my itinerary out the window and let my camera dictate my schedule for a bit. My first stop was a little area called Cannon Beach, home to the monumental Haystack Rock. The photo I captured doesn't do it justice. This thing was huge! Measuring at 235 feet in height, you might recognize Haystack Rock. Back in 1985, it played a key role in helping a group of ragtag adventurers known as The Goonies find the infamous pirate One-Eyed-Willy's treasure.
That night, I slept in my car near Cannon Beach. In order to compensate financially for the extra days in Oregon, I had to get a little creative with places I slept. There aren't many Walmarts near the coast and campgrounds can be expensive (relatively). Most nights, I didn't even know where I'd be sleeping until well after nightfall. Fortunately, there are numerous resources online to aid in this dilemma such as FreeCampsites.net . My homes for the night ended up ranging from discreet side streets, motel parking lots, and even a couple of Native American casinos that allowed overnight parking. It was absolutely unorthodox, even by this trip's standards, but the challenge and uncertainty added a new and welcome level of excitement to the trip.
My next big stop was Crater Lake National Park in south central Oregon. Crater Lake formed over 7,500 years ago when a volcano blew its top. In the millenniums since, it has filled with water. At it's deepest, it measures close to 1,950 feet with an average depth of around 1,150 feet making it not only the deepest lake in America, but also one of the cleanest.
In planning this trip, Crater Lake was a park that I was very eager to see. However, due to the heavy snowfall it receives in the winter, the possibility of this was a question mark. All the campgrounds close in the fall and the roads are often impassable due to heavy snow. I didn't even know if I'd be able to get a photo until I made it to the top
As I made my way up, the roads slowly turned from concrete to dirt. Soon I began to see snow on the sides of the road and before long I was driving up steep, uphill roads that were completely blanketed in white powder. I'm from Texas. Snow is foreign territory for me. To say I was nervous as I drove to the top of this peak is an understatement. Any moment I expected my tires to give out underneath the slippery terrain beneath me and to feel the pull of gravity send me back down the mountain. Thankfully, that didn't happen and I made it to the top in one piece. Despite the risk, the view from above was well worth it. The deep shades of blue were complimented by the white snow surrounding the water making Crater Lake one of the most incredible places I've ever laid eyes upon.
I wanted to stay and shoot Crater Lake much more, but the snow made most of the park inaccessible. If there's one thing I've learned on this trip, it's that weather in the mountainous regions can change in an instant and I'd already encountered plenty of rain the day before. Therefore, I opted not to push my luck and try to shoot it at sunrise or sunset when the temperatures were lower and the risk of ice on the roads increased. In spite of that, I am very happy with the shots I got and if anything I now have a great excuse to visit Oregon again soon.
My next stop was an area relatively close by and one that holds a very special place in my heart. In January 2015, after living in Los Angeles for five years, I decided to leave California and move back to Texas. But before I did, I made a weeklong road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway to the Oregon border and back. My most northernmost stop on that trip was a little place called Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park about 20-miles south of Oregon.
Jedediah Smith lies in the heart of Redwoods National Park. I discovered it by accident and immediately fell in love with the place. I knew when I set out on my current trip that I had to stay there again. Last time, I was able to get a great shot of the turquoise Smith River that runs alongside the park, but unfortunately, months later I suffered a hard drive crash and lost every photo from that trip. When I arrived this time, I was determined to shoot that same scene again, but heavy rains and two years of vegetation growth prevented me from getting my shot. Regardless, it was a treat being back here. I even stayed at the exact same campsite just a short walk from the river.
All in all, I wasn't able to get many shots here due to bad weather, but it was a treat being back. If you can ever make it, you'll be treated to beautiful blue river water and towering redwood trees. I recommend driving down the Howland Hill Road. You won't regret it.
The last time I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway I was blessed with pure blue skies and perfect weather every single day. This time around, not so much. As I made my way down the coast towards San Francisco I was flooded with constant rain and overcast skies. A road trip down the PCH is always going to be stunning, but the bad weather made the incredible photos I saw in my head impossible to capture. With no sunshine on the foreseeable horizon, I opted to forego camping at Redwood National Park and simply spend a day driving through it gazing at the enormous trees.
After camping in a pull off on the PCH, I made my way to Fort Bragg, home to the famous Sea Glass Beach. Starting in 1906, Fort Bragg established various dump sites along the coast to discard anything from glass to car parts. They remained active until the mid-sixties and the community has since made considerable efforts to clean up the beach. What remains, however, is soft, smooth sea glass produced by decades of ocean erosion. The colorful beads mix in flawlessly with the sand, hence the name: Sea Glass Beach.
I arrived in San Francisco later that day and found to my joy a rest stop allowing overnight parking right next to the Golden Gate Bridge. Now, I know, car camping isn't for everyone, but it's hard to argue with a view like this as you fall asleep at night.
The weather in San Francisco was rainy and would be for a few days, so after spending one night there, I pointed the car back east and drove to Yosemite National Park in the Upper Sierra Nevada Mountains. Everybody knows Yosemite National Park. If you've ever been to an Apple store or used an Apple computer, you've probably seen a photo of the magnificent El Capitan or the glacier-carved Half Dome. It is one of the most visited national parks and with good reason. What I discovered as I pulled my car into Yosemite Valley is that no photo can do this place justice. It truly is a place you have to see to fully appreciate.
Yosemite National Park is full of surprises. It is a very large park, but most of the sights it's known for lie in a small region called Yosemite Valley. Here is where you'll find such formations as El Capitan, Half-Dome, and Cathedral Rocks. As you pull in, they tower over you like waves at their peak just moments from breaking. They shoot straight up for hundreds of feet and are so magnificent one can't help but wonder what cosmic or geological event took place to create such titanic formations.
Like so many other spots on this leg of the trip, I had to work around the weather. When I arrived in Yosemite, it was raining and the valley was covered in fog. One thing I hadn't anticipated was how commercialised Yosemite would feel. Yosemite is on of the most well known and most visited national parks and despite the snow and dreary weather, the park was still more crowded than I expected. Throughout the valley were numerous lodges, hotels, and convenience stores. There was a constant rotation of buses circulating through the park, transporting tourists to and from various hot spots and even driving through the campground while I tried to sleep. At times, it felt more like a theme park.
By the second day, the weather had cleared up considerably, giving me the opportunity to shoot some of these iconic natural monuments. However, come nightfall the rain had returned and would continue for the entirety of the following day. As I sat in my car contemplating what to do, I checked the forecast in San Francisco and saw that the next two days had great weather on the horizon. Knowing I already had some great photos from Yosemite under my belt, I made a quick decision to leave Yosemite early and take advantage of the clear skies in San Francisco.
When I arrived back in San Francisco, I was a man on a mission. I was determined to get a great shot of the Golden Gate Bridge having failed to do so the last time I was here. I've wanted a solid photo of this bridge in my portfolio for a while and was resolved not to leave until I got it.
I quickly found out a great place to shoot the bridge called Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. During WWII, Marin Headlands was the sight of numerous military bunkers that you can still see and explore today although now they're mainly used as a canvas for graffiti artists.
Following San Francisco, I began the journey to my favorite place in the whole country: Big Sur. I first visited Big Sur two years ago on my road trip up the California coast. In a nutshell, Big Sur is a place where the forest meets the ocean. But to me, it is so much more than that. It's hard to explain, but one can't help but feel at peace in a place like this. There is little cell phone service and it's easy to get lost in the quiet energy of the coast. Not surprisingly, it lies home to the Esalen Institute, a famous non-profit retreat center (think Mad Men finale) and the New Camildoli Hermitage Monastery where I met a monk named Tim.
Having been here before, I knew I wanted to camp at Kirk Creek Campground which lies right on a cliff over the ocean. Last time I was here, I got a good spot. This time, I got the absolute best campsite on the whole grounds. I was able to pitch my tent about five feet from the edge of the cliff and every night fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing below me.
As wonderful as Big Sur was, things weren't exactly smooth sailing this time around. On my second day there, it rained non-stop from morning to night. Not only did this make shooting near impossible, but it also made the PCH too dangerous to drive on. As you looked down the road, you could actually see huge rocks falling down the hills and onto the freeway. I ended up spending almost my entire day watching movies in my car until it was time for bed. The next day the weather was better, but the PCH was closed down all day as construction crews cleared the road of fallen rocks making it impossible for me to get back to my campground until nightfall.
About 40-miles north of Kirk Creek is Big Sur's most famous man-made landmark: Bixby Bridge. Since I couldn't get back to my campground, I figured this would be the perfect night to venture further out and get some great shots of it - unfortunately, this would end up coming at a price.
While the rain had dissipated, the heavy winds that came with it persisted throughout the day. As I shot the Bixby Bridge, an RV pulled up behind me and the driver began to ask me a few questions about what I was doing. Suddenly, as we conversed, he shouted and I turned around to see my tripod and camera falling over having been knocked over by the wind. Keep in mind, the camera and lens probably weigh a combined 10 pounds and the tripod isn't exactly light either. I've shot in rougher and windier conditions and have never once had the camera even come close to blowing over so all I can do is chalk this up to a freak accident. But the lens took the brunt of the impact and ended up breaking in half. Good thing I got it insured before I left.
On the plus side, though, the photo turned out great!
South of Big Sur, near San Simeon, lies Elephant Seal Beach. Now, I'm no marine biologist, but based on what I saw, I can only assume it was mating season. Hormones were raging, love was in the air, and let's just say there was a lot of elephant seal coitus going on.
I arrived in Los Angeles on the 19th, but not before grabbing a burrito from one of my favorite places in Malibu: Lily's. I was finally able to speak to my insurance company yesterday about the camera lens and it looks like I'm going to end up being in LA till early January while I wait for everything to get resolved. It'll feel weird being off the road for so long, but it will also give me a chance to see lots of old friends while I'm here.
Once I get back on the road, I will resume the final leg of the trip, going through Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado and finally back into Texas sometime in early February.
Until then, Happy Festivus everyone!