Southwest Roadtrip: Spring '17

In late March I spent a week photographing and traveling though southern Utah and northern Arizona. After a miserably wet and cold Portland winter the opportunity to experience sunshine, wide open spaces, and relative warmth was beyond welcome. Along for the trip were my good friends Brian Kibbons, Paul Bowman, as well as Paul's son. Dustin Gent met us for a few days as well. There is no way to communicate just how much we laughed or the how many pranks we pulled on each other. Just picture five dudes in the desert acting on little sleep and emboldened by a few evening beers and you get the picture.  Good times with good friends in stunning locations -- that's what makes a great road trip. Anyway, on to the photography!

"Exile in Guyville" -- A line of strong rain and wind moves though a section of otherworldly badlands. 

Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 14mm

Utah Badlands

We left Portland at 9pm and drove nineteen hours through the night until we reached our first destination -- the badlands of the southern San Rafael Swell. The Swell's popularity within the landscape photography world has increased in recent years -- for good reason. Even a brief exposure to the region's graphically striking eroded buttes, mesas, and channels is enough to instantly understand the area's vast potential. What's more, the location doesn't necessarily rely on classic landscape weather. Clear skies work just as well as clouds with gaps. A full range of lenses will serve you well. Intimates and smaller scenes are everywhere. If you feel the need to shoot grand landscapes, the area will gladly scratch that itch as well. 

The first two images in this post were taken from an overlook which I will always equate with Guy Tal. His body of work from the area is thoughtful, comprehensive, and stunning. If you haven't already, spend time familiarizing yourself with his images. 

"Cross Channel" 

Nikon D800e, Nikon 24-85mm @85mm

"Silent Sea" -- erosion at work along the North Caineville mesa.

 Nikon D800e, Nikon 70-200mm f/4 @ 112mm

After a LONG day trip to shoot a remote slot canyon along the Dirty Devil river we headed toward that little slice of geo-heaven which is the borderland between Utah and Arizona. We based ourselves at the Little Wave just outside Page, Arizona and spent the next couple days shooting slots. On the way down we passed the Paria badlands just as a storm cleared creating a superbly dynamic scene. 

"Paria Flareup" -- dramatic storm clouds soar over the colorful Chinle formations of Paria .

Nikon D800e,  Nikon 24-85mm @ 28mm, five image panoramic stitch

The most impressive slot canyon we visited was Canyon X.  I'd heard about Canyon X on a previous visit to the area and, even though it wasn't at the top of our tick list for the trip, I found myself pretty excited for the experience. Canyon X holds many similarities with Upper and Lower Antelope except for the crowds. Although there were a few other people in the canyon that day there was never a feeling of needing to rush or having to wait for a long time while others finished up. 

"Navajo Spirit" -- swirling sandstone patterns carved by centuries of flash floods frame a daylight opening in Canyon X

Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24 @ 16mm.  Multiple exposures for depth of field and to reduce glare

The Pocket

The final destination of the trip was White Pocket, a place which has loomed large in my mind over the years.  As it was my first visit I didn't really know what to expect. I was pretty pumped to be finally visiting the area, but can admit to feeling another less familiar feeling -- pressure. Normally, I try to stay as relaxed about finding a compelling composition or the need to bring home a solid image. Any pressure I place on myself work against that outcome so it gets forced from my mind. Having said that, the potential for a strong image at White Pocket is high but my ability to make multiple visits to capture it is pretty much zero.  We budgeted just shy of two days. In the end I found the place so inspiring that any added pressure dissipated rather quickly. After shooting sunrise the first morning I spent quite a while exploring and walked back to camp with enough image ideas to fill a week or more. Mother nature had other plans....

"Desert Striations" -- the otherworldly geology and colors of White Pocket 

Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24 @ 14mm.  Four image blend for depth of field and to control dynamic range.  Moon = Nikon 70-200 f/4 @ 98mm.  Yes, the moon was very nearly in that exact spot.




The turn off for White Pocket lies 20 miles or so down House Rock Valley Road.  On our drive we found the road to be scoured with deep ruts formed when a previous vehicle plowed through rain soaked dirt road to avoid becoming stuck.  We joked how whoever carved them was probably white-knuckling it, not sure if they were going to make it out or not.  For our trip, the forecast called for extremely high winds for a twelve hour period accompanied by the chance for a couple hundredths of an inch of rain -- nothing too alarming.  In the end this forecast turned out to be optimistic.

By mid-afternoon of the second day the winds, as forecasted, began to crank. Grit and sand blasted into our eyes as we roamed the Pocket. Even though the sky was now filled with clouds we wore glasses to shield ourselves from these airborne projectiles. In the distance the distinct tails of localized downpours reached toward the ground. I'm sure we each privately wondered how far to push our luck. We needed to leave early the following morning to make it back to Portland in time for obligations. Getting stranded by weather this far out wasn't an option. I kept at it, selecting a composition which offered moderate protection from the wind as the storm continued to wind up. I squatted over my camera consumed by the process of making micro-adjustments to my camera's position, a little higher, zoom in a bit, pull the tripod back a tad, etc.  A phenomenal wind gust came through followed in short order by a sudden, bone-rattling BOOM of thunder. OUT! The plug was about to be pulled. We all packed it in and headed back to Paul's rig.  A brief discussion ensued then we tore down tents and were on the road within fifteen minutes.

The rain began soon after we left and continued for the next several hours. The sandy road leading to House Rock Valley Rd would be no problem but House Rock Valley Road itself was a major concern. Getting bogged down and stuck was a real threat. I thought back to how we laughed at the poor fool plowing down the road in a torrential downpour only to find ourselves in exactly the same situation.  We turned on to House Rock Valley Road, opting to head south to AZ 89-A instead of back north the way we came. This would shave ten miles off our drive along House Rock Rd, but cause us to loop all the way back to Page, AZ. The rain poured yet Paul's FJ kept cranking over every rise it encountered. Finally we reached pavement and safe passage on to Page. Felt really good to be out. The rain pounded the rest of the way to Page.  We were pretty fortunate to get out. 

The next day we began the 1,150 mile drive from Page back to Portland. Twenty-two caffeine fueled hours later we were home.



White Pocket, wind, and an approaching storm

"Stones of Silence" -- brain rocks glow under a star filled sky

Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm @ 18mm, f/ 11 for the land.  Second exposure at f/2.8 for 20 seconds for sky.  Exposures taken several hours apart but from same position