It’s only the second afternoon of my trip and already I have no idea where the hell I am. I’m sure it won’t be the last time.
I crawl out of the sleeping bag in the back of my car, peek out of the window, and eventually I remember: West Yellowstone!
The previous night I watched Great Fountain Geyser erupt at 11 PM, all by myself, lit only by the light of the stars. It was the sound, not the sight, that alerted me to its presence, and I really hoped that I was outside the spray zone, and I was (but it was in mine, Yellowstone indeed!). The night before that I was racing from Seattle to make sunrise, and did, with five minutes to spare and no speeding tickets.
I’m in Yellowstone, the sixth time in two years, for a single purpose: to photograph fall colors in Colorado. While there aren’t a lot of Colorado fall colors in Wyoming (even in peak years) it’s only a few hours from Yellowstone to Colorado, and a natural stopping point on the way from Seattle.
All my non-photographer friends told me I should go to New England for fall colors. I told them New England can suck it, I’m going to Colorado. Where in Colorado? I didn’t know, but I knew John Denver wasn’t full of shit and was going to prove him right.
The colors are late this year, but I don’t really care when they peak, I just want to be there when they do. It should only take a few weeks. I have all the time in the world, and while that’s still not enough, it’s as close as I’m going to get.
Now it’s eight weeks and 12,000 miles later and I’m back at home with a handful of photos, a head full of memories and wondering what the hell just happened. I’m hoping it won’t be the last time.
From that foggy afternoon in Yellowstone until my return home, I would visit Grand Teton NP, Rocky Mountain NP, Western Colorado (Aspen, Ridgway, Crested Butte, Telluride, and points in between), Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, Great Sand Dunes NP, Mesa Verde NP, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Shiprock in New Mexico, The Bisti Badlands Wilderness, White Sands National Monument, Saguaro NP and the Sonoran Desert near Tuscon, Red Rock country in Sedona, Grand Canyon NP (south rim), Havasu Falls, Zion NP, Bryce Canyon NP, Arches NP, Canyonlands NP, House on Fire and Fallen Roof ruins near Cedar Mesa, Monument Valley in Arizona, Lower and Upper Antelope slot canyons near Page, Horseshoe Bend, slot canyons near Escalante (Utah), Death Valley, and the Columbia River Gorge.
I said my main goal was to photograph the fall colors in Colorado. That’s actually not true. My main goal was to be flexible and go wherever I felt like going. Colorado was the start, but not the end. There is no end.
I drove on pavement, gravel, dirt, sand (red, brown, and white gypsum), snow, ice, and mud. Well I didn’t actually drive on mud, but I slid on it pretty damn good. I didn’t get stuck once and I’m going to attribute that to skill even though luck deserves all the credit.
I only got lost when following my GPS.
I was 12,000 feet above sea level in Colorado and almost 300 feet below it in California. I experienced temperatures ranging from 0F to 105F, and dressed so that I would be uncomfortable in any temperature.
I slept in motels (a few nights), a tent (many nights), and my car (most nights). I had no reservations, anywhere.
I showered. Rarely.
I had cold food and hot food but mostly bad food. Except for the free food, free food is always good food.
I met many old friends, made a few new ones, and didn’t lose any that I’m aware of.
I had weeks of complete solitude and peace and weeks with friends, laughter, and a different kind of peace.
I made a few jokes, some happened to be funny, most happened to be vulgar.
I saw uncountable crimes against photography and only a few of them were mine.
I had one lens spontaneously break, at Havasu Falls, ten miles down canyon. I had one tripod break. Somewhere. I fucking hate tripods. All of them.
I had bison surround my car when I was 200 feet away from it.
I herded cows with my car, more than once, and I also heard cows in the act, more than once.
I saw geysers, mountains, rivers, sand dunes, ruins, sandstone (rocks, arches, canyons, slot canyons, and hoodoos), forests of aspen and saguaro, salt flats, playas, waterfalls, the milky way, a couple full moons, and not a single ocean. I saw beauty both spectacular and subtle and it was everywhere.
But mostly I realized that experiences are the only possessions worth keeping and time the only price to pay.
Townes Van Zandt said that living on the road will keep you free and clean. He was only half right, but got the part that matters.