"America The Beautiful" - The song nailed it. Katherine Lee Bates' lyrics were spot on. As I drove west, leaving my home in Suwanee, Georgia on March 18th, I kept hearing those lyrics in my head (Ray Charles was singing them, of course). As each state line was crossed, I wondered what sights I would see along the way. My main goal for the journey was to photograph the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, as well as capturing abandoned items along historic Route 66 in New Mexico and Texas. I had originally planned to visit Moab, Utah as well, but the weather took a less-than-inviting turn, so I called an audible and opted to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Southern Colorado in its place (pictured above).
My camera got its first real workout as I drove across Kansas, after spending the night with a family friend in Lee's Summit, Missouri on March 18th (thanks, Steve!). Rolling hills quickly gave way to beautiful, flat desolation.
Many describe the I-70 trek across Kansas as a boring drive. I saw it as a welcomed departure from the never ending clutter that surrounds my life in the Metro Atlanta area. To look left and right out the car windows and see...nothing...was therapeutic. My mind began to clear almost immediately.
Then, rising from the horizon as I made it further west, were countless wind turbines, placed to harness the power of the winds that blow across the desolate landscape. They stood as imposing figures, their blades spinning in a mechanical harmony, sounding out a quiet symphony which can only be heard if you are standing in close proximity. Not only do they provide energy for many folks living in the region, they also make for great photography. Their presence provides a surreal backdrop to an otherwise empty environment. Some see them as eyesores...I see them as engineering art. Art, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
As I continued west, crossing into Colorado, my pulse began to quicken. I've long dreamed of a trip to wander the Rockies, and that dream was getting closer. I spent my first night in Colorado just east of Denver, sleeping at a KOA in my car. That was part of my plan from the beginning - using the car as transportation and a home-away-from-home. There were two reasons for this. The first was saving on the travel budget, and the second was adventure. Over the last year, I had looked for a reasonably priced VW camper van, with the goal of using it for such a journey, but I was unable to located one that I could afford. So I settled for a late model, quasi-replacement: a 2013 VW Jetta SportWagen. Surprisingly, it's quite a comfortable abode, when you configure the interior for camping out (or is it in?).
When I awoke the next morning, the real adventure began. The Rockies were a stone's throw away, and I was eager to immerse myself in them. Once I negotiated the morning traffic of Denver, the mountains stood tall in my windshield, and I began working my way into them. I started in the South St. Vrain Canyon, and worked my way out to Mount Meeker. This was my first, up-close-and-personal look at the glorious mountains that make up so much of the state. It was epic! I fired away with my Nikon D750, and captured some really great shots.
From there, I employed a "thumb-to-the-wind" strategy, and wound my way down to Center City, Colorado. There was another KOA in the area, so I checked in for the night. The next morning, I worked my way out to the Silverthorne area, where I photographed around the Dillon Reservoir, and then headed south along U.S. Hwy. 24. Not wanting to spend another night at a pay campground (no offense to KOA), I searched for a primitive spot - one where I'd encounter few, if any, people. My luck panned out, and I scored a spot at the west end of the Clear Creek Reservoir near the town of Granite. The reservoir was mostly frozen, except for the end nearest to my campsite. The quiet was fantastic! Well, almost. At one point, after securing my vehicle, at I headed out for a walk down to the water, hoping to photograph some birds. I was walking along a footpath when, out of some dense brush to my right, there was a low growl. I wasn't imaging it - something was in that brush, and I wanted no part
of it. Without making a fuss, I reversed course, and decided that I'd enjoy a beer back at camp. There'd be other bird opportunities, for sure.
The light began to quickly fade, and I started a campfire. Warmth was a benefit, but the main reason for the fire was to ward off any curious wildlife. As the light levels really began to fall off, I noticed a dark, four-legged silhouette, moving along the base of a nearby ridge, about 200 yards away. I scrambled to get my 150-600mm lens, so I could try and identify what exactly was wandering nearby, but by the time I got it ready, the silhouette was gone. One thing is certain when camping in that part of the country: Man is not alone, and he does not have the upper hand...whether he thinks he does or not.
After that chilly night at the reservoir, I continued south, with the goal of visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The dunes are absolutely epic! I had no idea they even existed, and had it not been for the weather change that caused me to abandon the Utah plan, I wouldn't have seen them on the map. Sometimes the weather steers you in the right direction, and this was such an occasion. As I approached the park, the scale of the dunes became evident. They are gigantic. The main dune field covers 30 square miles, and at their highest point of prominence, they reach 750 feet. The landscape is mesmerizing, and in contrast to the bordering Sangre de Cristo Mountains, they offer a treasure trove of photographic opportunity.
After trekking at the dunes, I wandered south into New Mexico, spending the night in Las Vegas (no, not that Vegas). From there, I turned back to the east, and explored the ruins of historic Route 66. I've always been a big fan of photographing decay, and this route offered many prime opportunities for that. I even got to see a real, live Road Runner (the meep meep kind, not the octane burning muscle car kind). He was very hard to capture on camera. I should have learned that lesson from Mr. Wile E. Coyote.
From there, I ventured across Texas, into Oklahoma, and then eventually back home to Suwanee. Having captured what I wanted in Colorado and New Mexico, I was eager to return to my family. Once I put myself on a mission to reach a particular destination, there's no distracting me. I'll have to photograph Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama another time. To borrow a line from Dorothy, there's no place like home. But man...the Western United States sure does provide some tempting options.
(Total miles driven: 3,585.7 over seven days)