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!