I am a lone photographer.
I am happiest when there are no other people around. Throw my kit in the car, take off for parts only dimly known and shoot my brains out until my memory card is full and my battery is dead. Then it's home to deprive myself of sleep (and a shower) until the editing is done and I have spread my goodies out on Facebook. It's about freedom. The freedom to take your time to get the shot, to wait for the perfect light, to search for the perfect angles, the perfect composition and not worry that you are wasting someone's time while they wait for your fit of photographic OCD to pass or for the aforementioned memory cards to fill or batteries to die.
I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to take a 16-day trip to Utah with my dad. My dad is not only not a photographer, he has explicitly expressed disdain for the entire concept of photography. I knew this was not going to be a photo trip, which was a shame, because Utah is a photographer's paradise. I had to strategize my approach to maximize my potential for sneaking some quality shots of opportunity out of stolen moments, knowing that my dad was going to walk on while I fumbled for the shot.
I took my first steps in this direction back in January with a visit to B&H in Manhattan. I had two camera systems at the time, my full-frame Canon 5D Mark III ("Big Dog")and a Fujifilm X-T1 ("LIttle Dog"). My X-T1 had been languishing, being taken out only when I shot in locations where I wanted to be discreet and not have a huge honking camera in everyone's face. I was trying to decide between the two systems when I came across the PacSafe CamSafe V5 waist pack. It would fit my X-T1 with the 10-24 lens attached with room for the 18-55 kit lens and 55-200 telephoto along with batteries, cards and cleaning supplies. That decided me, Little Dog would accompany me on my Utah expedition.
So I put aside Big Dog for a few months and focused on shooting only Little Dog so I could get used to it prior to the trip. I love the X-T1, its manual controls are a delight. Never having to dive into menus was amazing and, even though the camera had its limitations, it gave up very little to its full-frame brother.
Then disaster struck, which changed everything about the way I shoot.
I was doing a day out at Equine Advocates, which is a horse rescue facility in the Hudson Valley. I went to change out my kit lens and, horror of horrors, I dropped it. It hit the soft dirt ground and my stomach twisted in knots. I picked it up, cleaned it off and at first the camera didn't want to recognize it, but then I got it to work. I shot most of the rest of the day with that lens. When I got home, the damage became apparent as I edited the photos. Every one taken with the dropped lens was unusable. The internal lens arrangement had been shifted to the point where the lens could not be used anymore.
What to do? To replace the kit lens would have cost me $700. Sure, it's included at a $300 premium when buying the camera body but as a standalone it is very expensive to replace. So, did I spend the money on it or did I upgrade instead to the 16-55 f/2.8? It was a $1300 lens and I really did not want to spend the money on it. The reviews of that lens were glowing, so I took a chance and bought it. But spending that kind of money unexpectedly really stung. At that point I had not shot with my Canon gear in months and had just listened to Jim Harmer's "Improve Photography" podcast story of how he ditched all of his full frame gear and made the jump to Fuji. So I put my entire Canon suite of gear up for sale on eBay and within three days, Big Dog had found a new home and all of his lenses were scattered far and wide around the United States. Little Dog reigned supreme. I used some of the money from the sale to buy the 100-400 lens with the 1.4X teleconverter, paid off the 16-55 (which had gone on sale for $1000, B&H was kind enough to refund me the difference) and reserved the rest to buy the eventual X-T2 when it was released.
As the day of the trip arrived, I tried all different methods of packing my gear but I settled on using the PacSafe waist pack. I could fit the X-T1 body with the 10-24 attached and the 16-55 in the second compartment I had created using dividers. I will never be able to sell off a camera bag because I use dividers interchangeably between bags and have lost all recollection as to which dividers belong to which bags. I had room enough to keep two spare batteries, a spare memory card, remote trigger, cleaning solution, LensPens and PecPads in the pack and still maintain a slim enough profile to make it practical for hiking with. I used a tactical model CamelBak H.A.W.G. hydration pack to carry water and hold other sundry items including my filters while on the trail. I tested this arrangement out on a hike up Breakneck Ridge in Cold Spring and it worked perfectly, allowing me to scramble up rocks and cliffs while safely holding my gear,
The day of the trip arrived and my dad and I drove down to Newark to get a hotel room for the night. It included 16 days of parking. I arranged it through BuyReservations.com. The hotel messed up the reservation, insisting that it had been for the night before but the company I made the reservation through cleared it up. It would not be the last issue we had with lodging on this trip. Our flight out as at 5 AM the next morning so we woke up at about 2 AM and took the shuttle to the airport and waited for the security line to open. For some reason we were both pre-selected for Pre-Check, even though I never signed up for it. Going through airport security without having to take my shoes off was luxury! My CamelBak was flagged for hand inspection as I had forgotten to detach the Zagg keyboard from my iPad and it looked like a laptop to the scanner. The subsequent hours and flight were uneventful and we landed in Salt Lake City in the late morning.
Day 1: Mars Desert Research Station, Caineville
The Jeep Grand Cherokee we had reserved was waiting for us at Rugged Rental, just outside the airport. We got shuttle transportation to the agency and they even threw in a nice Coleman cooler on wheels and a small shovel in case we got trapped and needed to dig our way out. We stopped at Dollar Tree and WalMart to get sundry items, including PowerAde, bottled water, energy bars, canned tuna and chicken (which we would both later come to regret) and other non-perishable food items. We then drove south, stopping off in Green River to top off our tank and then headed down Utah-24. It was raining in the San Rafael Swell, which was not swell as we were scheduled to hike a slot canyon there on the next day.
We drove down the highway until we came to Cow Dung Road, which was a rough dirt road over crazy terrain. The wind was howling and sand was flying through the air. We drove to the entrance of the Mars Desert Research Station and parked at a distance. There was not much to see, just a small observatory and a cylindrical building that looked to be the habitat. Nothing really worth photographing, though my dad snapped away with his iPad Air. My mom was unable to go with us, so he eschewed his disdain for all things photography and documented the trip just to share with her in daily emails, using Google Photos to share his shots. Though he has no interest, I have to say he has an excellent eye for both subject and composition. He sees things most people miss and that is what really makes for a great photographer. I wish I could kindle his interest to take it further.
Day 1 ended with us taking our room in Caineville, a town that seems to exist for the sole purpose of holding the Rodeway Inn that we stayed at.
Day 2: Little Wild Horse Canyon and Goblin Valley State Park
Today we drove out to the San Rafael Swell to hike Little Wild Horse Canyon. This is a slot canyon carved by centuries of action by rain water draining off the Swell through the broken Navajo sandstone that encrusts the igneous upwelling that caused the Swell. We stopped along the way up to the canyon to photograph this butte.
There was rain evident in the Swell, but it looked like mostly virga, evaporating before reaching the ground. When we got to the parking lot for Little Wild Horse Canyon, just past the end of the paved section of Little Wild Horse Road, there were other cars in the parking lot and we were joined by a couple of groups of people. Since we were stopping to take photos along the way they quickly passed us, even coming back before we had gotten a third of the way through.
Little Wild Horse Canyon is a series of three main sets of narrow passages separated by wider areas with tall cliffs surrounding the canyon on both sides. After a rain there are frequently potholes filled with water that might be up to thigh depth but there was no evidence that it had rained into the canyon in months. If there is rain, flash flooding can pose immediate danger to the lives of anyone caught in it. Slot canyons should never be attempted when there is any rain in the forecast for up to 100 miles in any direction as these canyons are often drainage paths for higher terrain and floods can occur without warning.
The motion of water cuts sinuous passages and honeycombs into the sandstone, creating amazing patterns in the rock. There is a sense of order within chaos, or self-similarity of scale in every portion of the canyon.
The path in the middle is sand created by erosion of the canyon walls. There can be stones and other debris clogging this path and large "chokestones" that fall into the canyon can create deep pouroffs and obstacles for the canyoneer to negotiate.
My dad stopped after every photo to caption it and describe it in the email to my mom. He was very diligent in this task. When he stopped, I stopped. When I stopped, he kept going. He later told me that he didn't want me to be held up by him. We have different ideas about how to handle our reaction to what the other is doing but he kept walking when I shot and I stayed by his side when he shot. We had whistles with pre-arranged signals in case we got separated and only had to use them once and never in a slot canyon.
We exited the canyon after going up to the top, having lunch and back again. We then drove a short distance to Goblin Valley State Park. There was rain in the distance, pouring out its heart onto the Henry Mountains.
The rain was of concern to me but we did a canyon trail that we had missed the last time we were here, in 2012. All the time rain threatened to ruin our hike but it held off until after we got back.
We were both exhausted when we finished our hike and went back to the hotel in Caineville, only to find that there was someone else in our room even though some of our stuff was already in there. The guy who ran the front desk checked us out for some reason, even though we had reserved for two nights. We were able to regain our room and the poor woman and son who had to find new lodgings were not happy. The woman who runs the place was mortified and took up our breakfast the next morning apologizing.
Day 3: Cathedral Valley
We left early the next morning for what would mostly be a day of driving. We left Utah-12 at Hartnet Road, another unimproved dirt road. We quickly came upon the Fremont River and had to ford it. It was my first time doing anything like this and my dad helped guide me through the river and to the opposite shore through water that was 18 inches deep or more and flowing pretty well. We made it across and headed on.
We passed through the Bentonite Hills, which are composed of colorful clay layers eroded into smooth domes and mounds.
The road conditions were pretty good after this point and we were able to maintain 35 mph as we passed over flat grasslands. The eroded landscape of the Waterpocket Fold were visible from this road.
As the road neared Cathedral Valley, it got significantly worse. The round white-stained basalt boulders lining the road looked like skulls and the road was rough, pitted and filled with rocks. We bounced and jounced our way to the south overlook.
We drove to the north overlook next:
And then descended the rough switchbacks to the valley below. We parked and walked out to a historic cabin, were we were greeted by a new friend.
We drove through the valley, marveling at the pinnacles and making our way towards the Gypsum Sinkhole. This was a large chunk of gypsum that dissolved underground, creating a sinkhole 50 feet across and up to 300 feet deep.
We then drove to Glass Mountain, which is a large chunk of giant gypsum crystals exposed on the surface, with a view of the Temples of the Sun and Moon pinnacles.
We drove our way through the rest of the valley, making our way out and back to the main road just as the rain was starting to overspread the area.
We then drove past Caineville, past the Rodeway Inn and through Capitol Reef National Park, which would be the focus of our hiking efforts for the next several days. We stopped at the Red Rock Inn, a place I can highly recommend. We went to the Capitol Reef Inn and Cafe, where I had a great bunless burger and my dad had an enchilada. We had been living on canned tuna and chicken for dinners and granola bars and peanut butter-filled cheese crackers for lunches so this was a welcome change. My dad detests eating out and said his goal was to only eat five meals at restaurants for the whole 16-day trip. He pretty much made good on that promise and by the time we left I never wanted to see a can of tuna or chicken again for the rest of my life.
Coming up next is the tale of our time in Capitol Reef National Park, a frequently overlooked but utterly beautiful piece of torn-up land encompassing the Waterpocket Fold.