The Mountains are Calling and I Must Go – A Road Trip to the West

A Photography Road Trip in the COVID-19 Era.

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March 13th, 2020– Friday the 13th. I’ll remember that day forever – I was working at the Minneapolis Auto Show. We were about a week into the show with two and a half days left. Leading up to Friday the 13th, all hell broke loose in the United States. We went from casually joking about this “beer-virus,” to “hey, maybe there is something to be concerned about,” to “HOLY CRAP WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.” The show, sparsely attended at this point, was a far cry from the show in Milwaukee less than ten days ago.

What now?

The fear and anxiety in the air were as thick as the humidity on a typical Midwestern summer day. The Governor of Minnesota held a press conference at noon that Friday. I turned it on for us to watch, as I had a feeling we were going to be shut down, something I would have never considered a mere 48 hours ago. That’s just how fast this whole ordeal evolved.

We all gathered around the phone, like that scene from the movie “Armageddon,” awaiting the news. Within 15 minutes, the Minnesota government shut the show down by stating, “no groups over 20 allowed.” I wasn’t surprised, honestly, as that was the trend in the days leading up to this. I called my boss, who then diligently worked to get us all on flights home that night or the next day at the latest. After all, we were concerned that airports were next on the shutdown list! That was the most awkward flight home. I also nervously spent the next two weeks wondering if that random stray cough was something dire.

Busting out of Quarantine

I love the sense of humor people have when dealing with adversity.  This cowboy is taking no chances in Kanab! Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
I love the sense of humor people have when dealing with adversity. This cowboy is taking no chances in Kanab! Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Fast forward to May. I had spent a solid 2.5 months at home, going nowhere except for a daily walk about the block. Amazon became my best friend, and I never use Amazon. Luckily I qualified for the unemployment benefits, so that kept me afloat. Naturally, we were furloughed due to the fact we could no longer work large events. However, much like the rest of the country, I began to feel restless.

At this point, some states started to loosen restrictions. The Nightscaper Conference, which was supposed to happen at the end of May, gave me an idea –

“The mountains are calling & I must go & I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” – John Muir, 1873

Despite a postponement, I didn’t cancel my hotel reservation. I called the hotel and asked if they were allowing out-of-state visitors yet, and much to my delight, they were! That’s all I needed to hear. However, this was strictly a road trip adventure since I never booked flights.

Old Car Risk or Rental Risk?

Anyone who knows me also knows I tend to drive old or beat-up cars, minus the race car. That one gets more attention and money than it really should. Even though my trusty ole 2006 Eclipse is super reliable, it has never been on a cross-country road trip through the mountains. I, possibly wisely, decided to rent a car, which I didn’t regret. What it cost me in money, it made up for by giving me air conditioning, a satellite radio, general peace of mind, and a built-in inverter, all of which would prove to be blessings. Plus, there are some great deals on rental cars right now due to the pandemic!

I ended up with a 2020 Jeep Compass Trailhawk, which has all kinds of extra goodies! The factory lift, in particular, proved beneficial on some of those paths they call roads out west.

Packing for a Pandemic

Packing for this trip was different for two reasons. One, I had never driven across the country before, and two, there’s an ongoing pandemic. The latter makes this a tad more complicated.

To simplify the packing process, I thought of the trip in this way: “What would I need in the event you cannot go to a store?” Of course, that was assuming that gas pumps would be on, just without access to the convenience stores.

This ideology made me focus on specific items such as plenty of hand sanitizer, soap, paper towels, and trash bags. Think your average camping trip, but with considerably more sanitizing items. I also loaded the car up with other necessities like food, water, and the much-needed Monster energy drinks. I wanted the car to be as self-sufficient as possible to limit my contact with human-made structures to just the fuel pumps.

Masks were required in various states, as well, so I kept a few on hand.

On the Road!

At about Noon on May 20th, 2020, I was officially on my way out west. I had two days to get to Kanab, Utah to shoot with Eric Benedetti and Bryony Richards. I had what I thought was plenty of time to stop and rest as needed. As it turns out, I had less time to rest than expected as the halfway point between Kanab and Chicago is Denver. Yes, Denver. I often forget just how large those western states actually are!

Hoping to stop for a Milky Way photography fix along the way, I was scouting some locations in Nebraska, and MWP Web Editor, Kirk Keyes, gave me the direction to a lonely church just outside of Denver.

The clouds were thick and relentless the entire drive through Iowa and Nebraska, so I chose to focus on the little church. However, the clouds turned into pouring rain as soon as I crossed into Colorado. Undeterred, I mustered on to the church. Sixteen hours into the drive, I made it to the first stop – and thus the first of many Milky Way sessions!

I did have to wait about an hour for clouds to clear. But when they eventually parted, they revealed the Milky Way in its full glory. I gazed up in awe, as it felt like ages since the last time I experienced Bortle 2 skies.

I fired off my first few shots of the trip before falling asleep as the coyotes howled in the distance.

Alton Church - Outside of Denver, CO.  Nikon Z6/Nikkor 14-24mm. Tracked/Untracked shot. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Alton Church – Outside of Denver, CO. Nikon Z6/Nikkor 14-24mm. Tracked/Untracked shot. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Are We There Yet?

Upon waking a few hours later, I punched in “Kanab” on the GPS. As it turns out, Denver is a little OVER halfway there. Score! I was unintentionally ahead of schedule, which gave me a little more time to enjoy the scenery. Besides, this was an adventure, and the journey was just as much a part of it as the destinations. That mindset helps immensely with these long drives.

As you leave Denver heading west, the scenery starts to change from flatland and farms to rugged and wild. The distant Rocky Mountains become much more imposing rather quickly, and I found myself getting distracted by their awesome beauty. Their snowy peaks rising thousands of feet above the horizon aren’t something you can experience from above in an airplane. Those “tiny” mountains that you fly over are now all up in your face.

I-70 through Colorado is one of the most beautiful and scenic drives I’ve ever experienced. Also, driving through the Eisenhower Tunnel is awesome! When you think about the effort that went into creating a tunnel through a mountain at 11,000ft in elevation, it truly is an engineering marvel. Often we take these rather ubiquitous things for granted.

Rocky Mountain Beauty

Crystal clear blue skies at the Dillon Reservoir in Colorado.  Nikon D850 - Nikon 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Crystal clear blue skies at the Dillon Reservoir in Colorado. Nikon D850 – Nikon 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

The Rocky Mountain glory wasn’t quite over yet! I made a pit stop in Dillon to check out the Dillon Reservoir. Despite being at 9,000 ft, this flat-lander did just fine hiking around in the thinner air. I thoroughly enjoyed the lake flanked by mountains. That is a spot I’d love to return to one day for some night shooting. For now, I had plans to meet some friends in Zion, so I had to keep driving.

Don't mind me - just being a tourist. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Don’t mind me – just being a tourist. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

As the Front and Sawatch Ranges of the Colorado Rockies faded into my rearview, a new rocky and mountainous terrain emerged. The La Sal Mountains near Moab, and in the distance – the Wasatch Range. In-between lies a swath of land with some of the most incredible landscapes on earth. This area is known as the San Rafael Swell, which is part of the Colorado Plateau. This area encompasses three of Utah’s “big five” parks – Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. Also included in the area are numerous state parks, like Dead Horse Point. It’s hard to put into words how glorious this area is, but the words “Otherworldly” and “Mars” come to mind. I did circle back here a few days later on the trip, but for now, Zion National Park is calling!

Zion National Park, Utah

Despite the years I had spent traveling across the continent, which included a few trips to Utah, I had yet to visit this incredible park. Perhaps it was the sheer popularity that kept me away. Well, not this time. Let me tell you – this park is everything people say it is. If you are short on time, driving the main road through the park alone is breathtaking.

How could a place this beautiful exist? Well, it does and its name is Zion. Unfortunately, most of the park was closed at this time due to the ongoing pandemic. Popular hikes such as Angel’s Landing were closed, as was the Kolob Canyon area. Even the scenic drive was closed at times if crowds persisted. Let me remind you – this is a park experiencing maybe a 1/3rd of its usual traffic, and it still was busy! I honestly couldn’t imagine this on a “normal” Memorial Day Weekend!

I found a place to park near Checkerboard Mesa as the sun began to set, and waited for Eric and Bryony from Utah Astrophotography to arrive. Before embarking on this adventure, they were kind enough to invite me along for a night of shooting before their actual workshop on Friday. They are wonderful people, and I was thrilled to be able to hang out and shoot with them.

Checkerboard Mesa and some wild airglow!  Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 14-24mm.  Tracked/Untracked shot. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Checkerboard Mesa and some wild airglow! Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 14-24mm. Tracked/Untracked shot. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Eric and Bryony were kind enough to let me park and camp at their campsite. We had this absolutely quaint spot near Zion, hidden in the woods. I couldn’t have asked for anything better, and I would end up returning here a few days later. By now, I’ve become accustomed to car camping. If I had to name one small issue with the Compass, it’s that it needs a few more inches to stretch out. A Cherokee would have fit that bill!

The One and Only Hotel Stay of the Trip

Hard to believe this was Memorial Day Weekend!  Kanab is usually packed as it serves as a gateway town to several National Parks. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Hard to believe this was Memorial Day Weekend! Kanab is usually packed as it serves as a gateway town to several National Parks. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

At around 10 AM, we parted ways – for the time being. Eric and Bry were going to go scope out Coral Pink Sand Dunes for their workshop later that night while I chose to head to Kanab – as I did actually have a hotel there for the next two nights!

This was my first time staying in a hotel since the Minneapolis Auto Show was canceled suddenly. It was a bit surreal. The southern Utah area is more remote and does not have the medical infrastructure that the larger cities have. As such, they are a bit more vigilant in terms of precautions. Face masks were mandatory, and signs were on the door with a warning that if you have ANY slight symptom, do not enter, no continental breakfast and limited housekeeping services are all the new reality. In all actuality, they are all minor inconveniences that are not that big of a deal to abide by.

Kanab, Utah

Squaw Trail offers some nice views of Kanab.  Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 14-24mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Squaw Trail offers some nice views of Kanab. Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 14-24mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Kanab is a cool, little town. After being featured in many movies, the town displays plenty of placards to remind you! It’s very “old west” feeling, and quite enjoyable. During the day, I hiked up the Squaw Trail, which leads to some fantastic views of the city below. Highly recommend! The golden light of the afternoon signaled time to look for a sunset location. After some debating, I settled on the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. For some reason, I love the dunes, even though they are NEVER nice to me. Read on…

Coral Pink Sand Dunes

One aspect of nature that always strikes me is how the weather can change drastically, even within a few miles. While it was relatively calm in Kanab, the wind at the dunes was, well, not. Every time I end up at some dunes, it always feels like mother nature is giving me a courtesy skin scrub.

The wind was absolutely relentless as I walked along the sand and up onto one of the tallest dunes. If you’ve ever walked on sand, you know what a pain in the butt this is. Upon reaching the top, the temperature started to drop. However, I was NOT going to walk back to the car. I sat there, taking the sandblasting and shivering. At one point, I had to dig through my backpack for something to help cover my face. All I could come up with was a bandana, and though this would not keep all of the sand and cold out, it was a blessing.

Waiting for Sunset

The golden late afternoon light drew more people out, including another solo traveler who joined me. I had my gear set up for the sunset, enjoying the view, when he takes a seat right in front of the camera. I kind of giggled to myself and gave him about ten minutes before asking if he could move behind me. He was cool about it, and we actually got to talking for a while about anything and everything. It ended up being quite a pleasant experience – and it helped keep my mind off the chilly temperatures and wind.

The sunset was a beautiful palette of pinks and purples. I’m not going to lie; I was relieved when it was finally over. Frozen and sandblasted, I sprinted to the car to get into some warmer clothes! Additionally, I spent about a half-hour removing sand out of absolutely everything. Unfortunately, the only way to get all of the sand out of my backpack is to get a new backpack.

The "coral pink" in the sand dunes start to show as the sun sinks below the horizon. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
The “coral pink” in the sand dunes start to show as the sun sinks below the horizon. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Shortly after leaving the dunes, I noticed that my sinuses were stuffed and were accompanied by quite a bit of post-nasal drip and sneezing. My mind went racing – what if this was the dreaded Coronavirus? It didn’t take long to figure out the 3+ hours I spent in the cold wind and blowing sand was the culprit. After all, every nose-blowing yielded sand. Moral of the story – don’t underestimate sand.

Zion National Park– Take Two

That night, a small group of us met up with Eric and Bry for another adventure in Zion. Originally we were going to the Coral Pink Dunes but agreed that the miserable winds there were not favorable for long exposure shots. Since Zion was relatively quiet due to the pandemic, we chose to head there. This time we went to a different area near Checkerboard Mesa to set up for some Panoramic shots. These two are excellent workshop leaders, and I always learn a thing or two! The lesson of the night was on how temperature affects focus. In the desert areas, this is especially important because the temperature swings can be so dramatic! We all had a great time telling stories and learning how to make the most from tracked panoramic shots. The winds were so calm, too! What a welcomed relief from only a few hours earlier.

Arizona and White Pocket

Sunrise at White Pocket.  This place is a landscape photographer's playground. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Sunrise at White Pocket. This place is a landscape photographer’s playground. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Once again, it was nap time for a few hours. I hate to admit this, but I may be losing my “Mega Rally” edge. For those who don’t know, I earned the title “Mega Rally” last year at the Nightscaper Conference because I stayed up all night to snag sunset, the Milky Way, sunrise shots, and then attend the conference for ten days. However, this night, I felt it was time to skip the sunrise and catch up on some sleep. There would be plenty of time to Mega Rally again on this trip.

What day is this? I think three. My good friend, Laurel, who I met on an epic Canadian trip in January, drove up from Arizona to adventure with me in White Pocket. Located in the Vermilion Cliffs, this is a wild and remote area near the infamous Wave and Coyote Buttes area. However, you do not need a permit to go to White Pocket. Laurel brought her Ford Raptor for this adventure, as the maps all say that the roads can be tricky, technical, or even impassable at times.

Sand, Sand and more Sand

What we found was that they were mostly sand – and lots of it. Thankfully Laurel has experience with sand! There were a few times on the drive where we had to use the truck’s lift to drive over some debris/brush due to cars coming the other way on the narrow path. Neither of us wanted to stop on the soft surface. No one wants to spend the evening digging out a vehicle!

Laurel is a portrait photographer by trade. She brought along some dresses and talked me into taking some environmental portraits. Even though I felt quite awkward, the images she made were amazing and enchanting. She’s really great at what she does! We also scouted around for sunset and milky way locations. The best part about White Pocket is the endless composition opportunities!

Laurel is awesome at matching clothing to the environment.  See more of her work here: https://www.eternalimagery.us/ Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Laurel is awesome at matching clothing to the environment. See more of her work here: https://www.eternalimagery.us/ Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Astrophotography in Bortle 1 Glory

Sunset always draws a large crowd, even in remote locations during a pandemic. That afternoon was no different. That spot we scouted earlier in the day became inundated with people. We now had to re-work our compositions to “hide” the people. As a result, we found a new spot that ended up more unique anyway. Silver linings!

Not-so socially distant. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Not-so socially distant. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Once the sun said “adios” for the day, Laurel and I went back to her truck to regroup and switch into Astro mode. As she hung out in it, I decided to try my hand at a “deepscape” with her Raptor. That is a shot I’ve been dreaming about for a while, so it was a fun one. For once, I managed to strike a balance on the tracker just right and was able to pull off some incredible 4-minute exposure of the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud Complex! I usually never get that lucky with nailing the polar alignment and weight balance!

Laurel's Raptor "DeepScape" with Rho Ophiuchi.  Nikon Z6 + Nikkor 70-200mm. Tracked/Untracked and focus stacked shot. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Laurel’s Raptor “DeepScape” with Rho Ophiuchi. Nikon Z6 + Nikkor 70-200mm. Tracked/Untracked and focus stacked shot. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

It is almost heartbreaking to know that the majority of the country doesn’t understand that Bortle Class 1 skies are truly a magnificent sight to behold. It feels as if you could reach up and grab the stars right out of the sky! We had a task on hand, though. There was plenty of stargazing time as the camera rolled. We gathered our gear and trekked back out to the spot we marked on Google maps for some Milky Way action. The first few images kicked back on the camera showed an intense green cast. We were treated to some of the most intense airglow I’ve seen in a while! I swear, the desert southwest, with its pristine light-pollution free skies and low humidity, has the most awesome airglow!

Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter looking bright over the rugged landscape of White Pocket, AZ.  Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 14-24mm.  Tracked/Untracked. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter looking bright over the rugged landscape of White Pocket, AZ. Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 14-24mm. Tracked/Untracked. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Joshua Trees, Mountains and Fire – Oh My!

Laurel dropped me off in the late morning hours at the hotel to catch some much-needed z’s from an epic night of shooting the alien landscapes of White Pocket. A quick few hours passed, and I was up again. I’d be by myself this time and needed to figure out the day’s plan. I started by driving back to the campsite from a few nights prior, near Zion. That spot is great because it is secluded and has a cell signal!

So I relaxed and listening to the breeze as I scoured google maps for a place to shoot sunset and the Milky Way. I ended up picking Snow Canyon, so I packed up and headed west. Not long into the drive, Kirk suggested that I shoot the Joshua Trees near I-15 and the Arizona/Utah/Nevada border. I had no idea Joshua Trees could be found this far north, so the inquisitive me switched plans. Plus, Kirk never leads me astray!

Joshua Tree Natural Area

Beautiful is an understatement for this Joshua Tree forest. This unique area located on the other side of the Pine Valley Mountains treated me to one of the most vibrant sunsets I’ve seen on this trip! With the gnarly silhouettes of the Joshua Trees, it was a landscape photographer’s playground. As such, I wanted to shoot milky way here with the trees, so I scouted around for a good tree and spot, then began to wait. I also shot the crescent moon and Venus while waiting.

Joshua Trees under the Cresent Moon.  Single Shot.  Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Joshua Trees under the Cresent Moon. Single Shot. Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

That’s when I saw smoke. Now, this is BLM land, and camping is allowed, so at first, it seemed like a simple campfire. But then it grew, and grew, and grew, VERY quickly! I knew that this was not a campfire nor a controlled burn. This was a brush fire. I haphazardly threw all my gear into the Jeep and high-tailed it out of there. Then I stopped by the fire department on the way out to let them know. They were already on it, as I saw a fire truck speeding out in that direction. I later learned that this was a natural-caused fire and brought under control rather quickly. It definitely gave me a newfound respect for these wildfires and the speed at which they can travel and burn. Quite scary!

Joshua Trees under siege from flames.  Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Joshua Trees under siege from flames. Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Zion National Park – Take 3!

With the Joshua Tree idea squashed, I needed a Plan B. Knowing I had to drive to Escalante the next day, my ventures took me back east. There is an iconic location in Zion that I’ve been reluctant to shoot because of the popularity – that quintessential bridge overlooking the Virgin River and the Watchman scene. Well, there’s no time like the present! Plus, with the park not running at capacity, it seemed like a solid Plan B. I made it to the location entirely too early. The non-existent winds and cool temperatures created ideal conditions, so I decided to experiment a little with some REALLY long exposures – fifteen-minute ones, to be exact. I spent the next 3.5 hours shooting this quaint and iconic location. Upon processing the images, I was glad to have made the stop.

Joshua Trees under siege from flames.  Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
The Watchman. 4-image “Pano”. Nikon D850 + Sigma ART 35mm. Tracked/Untracked. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Bryce Canyon Area

Time to head to another one of my favorite places in Utah – Escalante. The plan was to meet up with Aaron King (Photog Adventures Aaron) and Milky Way Mike Ver Sprill for Breakfast/Lunch and discuss the day’s (actually night’s) plan. The drive from Zion winded through the Bryce Canyon area and then up into the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. That was another one of those unforgettable drives. From the soaring red rocks, which are absolutely striking against the blue skies, to the archways, and overlooks – it is complete sensory overload. Utah, you are incredible! While on this drive, we stopped and hiked a nearby trail to stretch the ‘ole legs and admire the scenery.

Escalante

First real meal in about a week!  Heck, this was the first time being back in a restaurant in months.  Good times with even better company!  Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
First real meal in about a week! Heck, this was the first time being back in a restaurant in months. Good times with even better company! Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Our favorite place to eat, Escalante Outfitters, has THE best oatmeal on the planet. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, they were only serving a limited menu. No, oatmeal was not on the list. Bummer. We ended up at another restaurant nearby that was allowing dine-in on the patio only. The food was really great there, too, but that could be because all I had to eat up until that point were things like Clif Bars. Nothing against Clif Bars, I love them, but sometimes you need a substantial meal! As we ate, we discussed the weather and locations. We stuck to the original Dance Hall Rock plan, as the weather looked amazing.

Mike and his girlfriend then took off to get some sleep and then explore the town. Aaron and I embarked on a scenic drive up to Homestead Overlook. We sat there and contemplated life for a while. The challenges, both past, and present, while the sweeping views of the Grand Staircase and Capitol Reef area refueled the soul. Aaron pointed towards an area and mentioned we would be down that way in a few hours. I love overlooks for this reason. They really give you a sense of the grandeur of this place.

Dance Hall Rock

Dancehall Rock Sunset. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Dancehall Rock Sunset. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Aaron and I head back to town to pick up Milky Way Mike and to repack Aaron’s truck for the trek to Dance Hall Rock. This drive requires some preparation, as it is anything but a smooth path. Tires need to be in good shape, essential items need to be secured, and you need to make sure the spare is in good working order. Not far into the drive down the narrow dirt road, we came across a car changing a flat. I hoped this wasn’t an omen!

Aaron always laughs because I manage to fall asleep on horrible, horrible roads. This trip wasn’t any different. Perhaps it was from the days of Milky Way chasing leading up to Escalante, or maybe there really is just something about a jarring, bumpy road that has a lullaby effect. Regardless, it felt like we were there in no time. Imagine that!

Redemption

What’s in a name? Dancehall Rock is a large sandstone amphitheater. It made a wonderful campsite for weary pioneers. Accompanied by the music of violins, Mormon pioneers entertained themselves and danced away their worries. We certainly danced our way up the trail as best as we could with 50 pounds of gear strapped to our back! Once we reached our destination, we had nothing left to do but wait.

Patience pays off! The sunset shaped up to be quite the stunner. Mike, Aaron, and I had a blast watching the colorful oranges fade into pinks and red, followed by violets and blues. Soon the twinkling of the first bright stars adorned the sky. About this time, some clouds also made their appearance. Not many, but the placement was precarious. These pesky clouds camped out right along with the Milky Way Core for almost an hour. We all laughed, as it looked like someone masked the milky way out in Photoshop! The clouds eventually fizzled out, and after getting skunked here last year, we were relieved. I almost lost that Redemption Shot!

The “Accidental” 7-mile Hike

Aaron suggested I head over to this overlook in the Capitol Reef area. Since it’s relatively unknown, yet accessible, I was willing. Because of my general stubbornness, in particular, my refusal to sleep, I had a ton of time to kill. Aaron also mentioned something about Lower Calf Creek Falls. Waterfalls, you say? I’m in. Because of the heavy traffic in this area, I figured this was an easy and quick out and back hike, and I never bothered to look it up.

About half an hour into the hike, I started to ponder my decision to hike this. I stopped and broke out the phone. Mind you, I don’t have any signal, but I had downloaded all the off-line Google maps. I hovered over the little dotted line on the map and thought to myself. “hmm, well then!” That was not a quick, short hike. It was a 7-mile out and back hike, and I was about halfway in. I’d kick myself if I didn’t finish it. So mustered on with all the camera gear and only a 16-oz bottle of water – and sandals, which was a ton of fun on the hot sand!

Lower Calf Creek Falls – Finally!

Lower Calf Creek Falls.  Nikon D850 - Sigma ART 35mm.  Focus stacked. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Lower Calf Creek Falls. Nikon D850 – Sigma ART 35mm. Focus stacked. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Continuing through the sand and woods, I could hear voices and laughter echoing off the canyon walls. It couldn’t be much further now! The trees finally parted and revealed a stunning 214-ft waterfall cascading down into the gorge. It was incredible. The thundering falls cascaded into crystal clear pools of water, which were now right at my feet. Perfect for jumping in and making a splash! The cool water on my feet quickly lowered my body temperature and made me feel 100 times better! I relaxed here for a while before making the three and a half-mile trek back. My only regret was not bringing a hammock!

To Mars and Back

Going to Mars. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Going to Mars. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Day “whatever we are on’s” campsite was on the edge of a mesa. It overlooked the San Rafael Swell near Hanksville, UT. This place, made rather famous by Brad Goldpaint, is surreal in every sense of the word. From rumors about this place, and the lack of traffic heading out, I thought I’d have this place to myself. As it turns out, this secret location is not-so-secret anymore! I arrived to see a group of 5 overland trucks camped out. They were quite cool, though, and we had some fun conversions before they called it a night. My concern was not waking them up as I gallivanted around the cliff edge, looking for compositions.

Little Jeep and the Milky Way Rainbow. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Little Jeep and the Milky Way Rainbow. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

The above Jeep panorama is made up of the last set of images I took before calling it a night. It was already past 3 AM, and astro twilight was near. I crawled into the Compass and promptly passed out. Morning comes around very quickly when you stay up all night! Just a couple of hours later, as I forced my eyes open, groggy, and full of mind fog – my brain slowly woke up as I forced my eyes open. I woke to a warm orange and pink glow painting the rocks and clouds. I quickly saw how vibrant the sky was getting, sprung into action, and grabbed my gear. The stage was set for a burner!

Daybreak over Mars.  Nikon D850 - Nikkor 14-24mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Daybreak over Mars. Nikon D850 – Nikkor 14-24mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Until it wasn’t. Sunrises and sunsets are fickle things. The cloud cover, which was setting up the sky for magic, grew into too many clouds and squashed the sunrise. However, I managed to click off a few shots that were decently vibrant. With my hopes for a fiery sunset squashed, it was time to part ways with the great state of Utah.

Monument Valley

Iconic. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Iconic. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Cue the familiar storyline. Vibrant red sandstone. Blazing blue skies. Epic overlooks and grand vistas. Moki Dugway. Wait, what’s the last part? One exhilarating ride, that’s what! I was so busy paying attention to the gorgeous scenery along UT-95 and UT-261 that I missed the bright yellow sign warning “10% Grade. 5MPH switchbacks. Narrow Gravel Road.” I swear, this beautiful, paved road ended quite abruptly, and things got real. Now, I am not afraid of heights, but this still proved quite the adrenaline rush! There are no guardrails on this very narrow, winding road down into the valley. However, the views were out of this world. That was my favorite leg of the trip by far.

The road leads into the valley, where the ancient monoliths jut out of the landscape, towering into the sky. The most famous of these scenes is “Forrest Gump Hill.” Yes, that is actually a label on Google Maps. This iconic scene is a view you’ll never forget, I promise!

On to the Land of Enchantment

I didn’t spend much time in Monument alley, as the Navajo Nation was – and still is – recovering from the devastating effect COVID-19 had on the community there. I was mindful of their area by limiting contact and keeping to the car. After snapping the iconic Forrest Gump view, I started my journey back east. The plan was to meet up with another good photographer friend and fellow MWP writer, Rhonda Pierce, at a ranch where she was staying. However, it was still a good 7-8 hr drive from Monument Valley over to Cimmaron, NM. Remember how I said these states are deceivingly huge?

Crossing into the northwest corner of the state, you’ll come across this impressive volcanic plug called Shiprock. (Navajo: Tsé Bitʼaʼí – “rock with wings” or “winged rock”). It is imposing and completely unmistakable as it stands alone against a flat landscape. This gnarly-looking mountain is actually the inside of a long-extinct volcano in which the mountain eroded away around it. The Navajo consider it sacred, and climbing is strictly prohibited. I usually like to stop here, but with the whole COVID thing, I only did a quick fly-by.

Cattle with Shiprock looming in the background.  Nikon D850 - Sigma 150-600mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Cattle with Shiprock looming in the background. Nikon D850 – Sigma 150-600mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

The clear blue skies welcomed in puffy, pillowy clouds as I moved further east. The continued to grow and morph into many shapes as they filled with moisture. My imagination went wild, watching the moody skies. If there is one thing mountains are great at – it is creating exciting weather! I stopped along the way a few times just to capture this heavenly show.

Back in the Mountains – New Mexico Style

Riverbend and moonlit Milky Way - Nikon D850 - Nikkor 14-24mm - Tracked/Untracked. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Riverbend and moonlit Milky Way – Nikon D850 – Nikkor 14-24mm – Tracked/Untracked. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

I arrived at the ranch around 10 PM. Rhonda quickly showed me around while we discussed the night’s plan, or lack of a plan, due to heavy cloud cover. We decided that the night was a loss and chose to catch some of that very elusive sleep. The following morning, we took our sweet time getting up. I was not upset at all because it was the first time in a week that I got over 8 hours of sleep – I felt like a new person.

I got some much-needed sleep. The ranch owner took us over to meet a few of his bulls – such imposing creatures! Also, the sand-induced allergies from days prior finally cleared! I was no longer blowing sand out of my nose.

After our short tour, it was time to reorganize the vehicles in preparation for a night of photography. While organizing, I discovered that my trusty ole’ Nikon 14-24mm lens failed. The zoom mechanism broke, and it was stuck at 14mm. I still have no idea how this happened. Maybe it was from age, heavy use, or just riding along on very crappy roads. Along with zooming capabilities, the autofocus also quit. Since this was primarily a night lens, the focus doesn’t matter much. I just had to accept that it was now a very heavy 14mm prime lens. Ha!

More Scouting and Clouds

Our plan was to camp in a national forest that night and shoot an overlook and a river bend. I’m sworn to secrecy regarding this location, so you’ll have to use your Google detective work on these! The weather was hit and miss. Clouds rolled in in the afternoon, as they typically do, and it started to rain. Rhonda and I were feeling disappointed at this point, but the night was young, so there’s always hope.

Around midnight, that hope and patience paid off. The sky started clearing fast! We high-tailed it over to the river bend and set up for our shots. I first fired off a few 14mm shots. As the shutter collected the little pinpoints of light, I look up and admired the way the galaxy arched over the rocks. The scene begged for a panorama, which ended up being one of my favorite shots from the trip!

The Riverbend - 14mm Panorama.  Nikon D850 - Nikkor 14-24mm - 12-image Pano. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
The Riverbend – 14mm Panorama. Nikon D850 – Nikkor 14-24mm – 12-image Pano. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Ghost Towns and Old Cars

The following morning, Rhonda, her daughter, and I drove back to town and hung out at a gas station in Cimmaron. There’s cell signal here, so we could check the weather and formulate a game plan for the day. Clouds were still an issue, but if the same pattern holds like the previous two nights, they should clear out in time for some Milky Way action!

Beautiful late afternoon light as we drove up to Johnson Mesa!  Storms are wonderful for that!  Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Beautiful late afternoon light as we drove up to Johnson Mesa! Storms are wonderful for that! Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

We settled on checking out a few ghost towns and churches and picking the ones we liked the most to return to later. The first spot we visited was incredible. This is what I envision when someone mentioned the words, “ghost town.” Dilapidated buildings. Houses with furniture and such still in them. Cars in disarray. Gnarly trees. It throws your imagination into overdrive conjuring up the possible stories as to what happened here.

Hidden in the plains of Eastern New Mexico.  A Ford Torino in distress!   Nikon D850 - Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Hidden in the plains of Eastern New Mexico. A Ford Torino in distress! Nikon D850 – Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Johnson Mesa

A scenic drive up the 9,000 feet in elevation took me to the last stop, which was Johnson Mesa. North-eastern New Mexico is mostly flat until you start to get closer to Raton. The green rolling hills highlighted with golden grass made my heart sing. These hills are punctuated with various old dormant Volcanoes to add flavor!

This particular afternoon was extra special thanks to the scattered thunderstorms in the area. The high contrast clouds and sporadic rains created extremely dynamic lighting conditions and, of course, rainbows!

Didn't know "train with rainbow" (trainbow?) was on my bucket list of shots, but here we are!   Nikon D850 - Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Didn’t know “train with rainbow” (trainbow?) was on my bucket list of shots, but here we are! Nikon D850 – Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

What I found most enchanting and exciting was the single buildings set against these sweeping landscapes. These buildings are small and simple, which added to the intrigue. Each one had evidence of a life lost in time. I regularly found myself thinking about the people who braved the elements to try to make a life out here.

Little Shack on the Prairie!  Nikon D850 - Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Little Shack on the Prairie! Nikon D850 – Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Little Church on the Prairie

In about 1887, a railroad construction worker by the name of Marion Bell left his home in search of a safer and more predictable occupation. He led a group to this grassy, sprawling mesa known as Johnson Mesa. The people built homes, farmed the land and ranched cattle.

In 1899, St. John’s Methodist Episcopal church was built in Bell, NM. The area residents held annual celebrations on August 14, the date of the church dedication. Horse and foot races, as well as a rodeo, rounded out the 4th of July celebrations. A large hay barn welcomed huge summer dance parties. This vibrant little town had it all.

However, Life wasn’t easy, upon the 14-mile long mesa. The long and harsh winters alone left residents snowbound for weeks at a time. Water was also a severe issue in the rather dry climate. The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 would prove to be the final blow to the small town.

St. John’s Methodist Church was registered with the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places in 1978. Other scattered buildings dot the mesa to this day – serving as a reminder of how life is forever changing and impermanent.

Johnson Mesa Church in the Moonlight. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Johnson Mesa Church in the Moonlight. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

Donkey with Capulin Volcano looming in the background.  Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Donkey with Capulin Volcano looming in the background. Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 70-200mm. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

The church marked the last planned stop on this 11-day excursion. After saying goodbye to Rhonda and her daughter, I plugged “Chicago” in the GPS. 17.5 hours of driving to go! In typical fashion, though, did not get far before stopping again. Some awesome clouds were forming over the top of Capulin Volcano, so I pulled the Jeep over and broke out the camera for one last shot.

Capulin Volcano with storm clouds. 35mm Panorama.  Nikon D850 - Sigma ART 35mm. Tracked/Untracked. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Capulin Volcano with storm clouds. 35mm Panorama. Nikon D850 – Sigma ART 35mm. Tracked/Untracked. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.

The Return to Chicago

All good things must come to an end – for real this time! After the final click of the shutter at the base of Capulin Volcano, I packed up my gear for the last time and was homeward bound. This southern route took me through the Oklahoma panhandle and up through Kansas. The scenery morphed back into more familiar sights – Silos, Windmills, and Farmland. The landscapes went from colorful shades of reds, oranges, and yellows, to green, the moisture in the air returned, and Chicago grew ever closer; I was home.

Little video I put together of the trip. Done in the “1-second a day” style. Copyright 2020 MaryBeth Kiczenski.