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:

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: 

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:

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