A few years ago, a typical photography trip for us looked like this… Ron leaves Colorado, driving toward the Canadian Rockies. A few days later, he stops by the Edmonton, Alberta airport to pick up me and our friend Koveh. In a day, we are heading out on a 40-mile, 4-night backpacking trip into the heart of the Canadian Rockies (with Ron and Koveh both recovering from illnesses on the day we depart for the hike). After returning from our backpack, we spend two days driving all around the Canadian Rockies, chasing the light, following the weather, and seeing as many places as we can. Ron and I drop Koveh off at the Calgary Airport and drive to Vermont (yes, Vermont – 2,411 miles away), intent on chasing fall colors and foggy conditions.
We end up spending about a week in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire before clear skies come into the forecast. Following the clouds, we end up at Rickett’s Glen in Pennsylvania (383 miles away) for less than 24 hours, hiking along the 6-mile trail featuring 20+ waterfalls twice in one day, and leaving at an absurd time early the next morning so that Ron can drop me off at the Boston Airport for my flight home. Ron drives down to West Virginia and with clear skies in the long-term forecast, heads home as well after about three and a half weeks away.
Chasing the light… Chasing the weather… This is just what landscape photographers do.
Or maybe not. To make a long story short, we bought an Airstream travel trailer last fall. After some extended time off (full-time for Ron, part-time for me), we were back to working full-time and wanted to travel more. We can both work from anywhere as long as I am home for short stretches here and there. The Airstream would allow us to work from the road, meaning that we could travel and photograph far more while still maintaining our ability to earn a living. And, we could bring our cats along and months-long trips would be possible.
This mode of travel comes with constraints. With our cats along, leaving them alone while we go on extended backpacking trips is unrealistic (maybe one night, but we have not tried yet). And, pulling your home around is more complicated than dropping a three-pound tent and a sleeping bag in the back of the car. While it takes us less time to set up camp with our Airstream than when traveling with a tent, the driving is slow, the gas station visits are complicated, and we need a certain amount of space to set up. Since photography is a primary motivator for our travel, we want to be close to scenic places and many scenic places fill up far in advance or require extensive research when towing along a trailer. All this makes planning a requirement, which is quite a shift for two people who wouldn’t know where we were headed until we had to choose a highway exit (“Should we go to Zion or Death Valley!? We need to decide – now!” represents a sample decision for our old mode of travel, with the decision made near the last possible exit for Zion).
In thinking about all this planning and extended stays in places, I imagined that our photography would suffer quite a bit. While a few voices out there encourage exploring places with more depth, “chasing the light” is a mantra in the landscape photography community for a reason. It is the practice that many photographers follow to varying degrees, and at least among our peers, often plays out as a frantic ritual that involves checking weather apps relentlessly, discussing a wide variety of possible scenarios, choosing to chase the potential for the “best” light over a grand landscape, driving an insane amount of miles, foregoing sleep, and then telling tales about it all on the internet.
Since last November, we have been away from home for four months split into three trips. One of our early lessons learned through traveling with our Airstream is that staying in one place actually brings a lot of joy and hidden opportunities. Staying put can be pleasurable and interesting for photography, even when the weather forecast doesn’t look that promising. Constraints can breed creativity. Staying in one place allows for the serendipity that disappears with the over-analyzation of weather forecasts and a slower pace allows time for experimentation. Now, we spend more time exploring, hiking, walking and photographing and a lot less time driving. The debate about weather scenarios and driving distances is gone. I get to know places much better than I ever have and I have photographs I would have never taken had we still been on the endless treadmill that “chasing the light” can become.
The photos in this post are from Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California. Even though the park is quite extensive, varied in landscape, and close to San Diego, its main attraction for photography seems to be the brief period of time that wildflowers bloom in spring. With more time to explore, we found that the park offers so much more than the one trick pony of seasonal wildflowers (playas, endless badlands, interesting plants, hillsides of agaves, chollas and ocotillos, slot canyons, and more).
Under our previous mode of travel, we would have probably spent a night or two, visited the one or two places than interested us most, ate at a restaurant with decent Yelp reviews, and then moved on to the next place. With our trailer along for the journey, we found a free wild camping spot and stayed for almost two weeks. With established plans, we could ignore the forecast for clear skies and make the best of it, instead of always departing in search of something “better.” While driving around, we found a little “drop your money in the box” fruit stand and had fresh local citrus to eat for our full trip. We visited the local farmers market twice, watched the Super Bowl in a local bar, and drove around to see the metal sculptures scattered around the town of Borrego Springs. I bonded with a few fellow RVers in the town’s laundromat over an over-flowing washing machine. And, we photographed what nature offered.
While I do not have regrets about our former travel style, I do have to say that I like this new mode a lot better. Photography is more fun when we are not sleep-deprived zombies. Eating food other than Mountain House is pleasurable. And, doing things like camping right along the ocean or in a redwood forest for two weeks is a special experience. Always passing through and thinking about what is next was fun for what it was and we both were able to significantly diversify our photography porfolios but this new-to-us kind of travel is much more interesting, fulfilling, and meaningful. And, in looking at my photos from the last four months, my work is becoming more diverse and varied. I am spending more time just playing around, without the self-induced pressure of always trying to get to the “best” spot.
Chasing the light from place to place is not the only way and it sometimes is not the best way, either. At least for us, chasing the light is a phase that we are happy to leave in our past for now, trading it for a more immersive, less intense experience like the one we had during our visit to Anza Borrego. Yes, I may be losing my dirtbag photographer credibility and reducing the number of crazy stories we have to tell but I am gaining a new degree of joy in both travel and photography. So far, the tradeoff feels worthwhile.