When we arrived in Oswiecim, Poland, on December 1, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to breathe. Americans take good air quality for granted, but in southern Poland, where residents burn coal, trash and various other things in their furnaces for heat in the cold, dark winters, smoke hangs in the air, forming halos over the street lamps. Towns smell like blacksmith shops, and lungs burn in the acrid pall.Read More
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I grew up in suburban Charleston, South Carolina, on James Island in a neighborhood called Lawton Bluff, where I lived until I was 23. What I didn't know then was that the neighborhood was named after the Lawton Plantation, and that beneath the Kentucky bluegrass of our average American front yards was the sweat of countless slaves who picked cotton here as the first shot of the Civil War rang out from Fort Johnson, only a few miles away.
The Lawton Plantation was adjacent to the McLeod Plantation, whose slave quarters only a few feet from Folly Road formed the backdrop of my commute to school and work, and even our grocery shopping for many years. The McLeod Plantation was closed to the public until just two years ago, when Charleston County opened it as a historic site meant to tell the stories of the slaves who worked these fields and lived in these shacks visible to the tens of thousands who drive Folly Road every day.
I visited the plantation for the first time today, and learned that this plantation is unique because the direct descendants of the slaves who worked the fields here lived in these shacks until 1990, when the last member of the McLeod family, Willie McLeod, who attended the church I went to as a kid, died at the age of 104.
Think about that: The McLeod Plantation slaves remained here after emancipation, and their families lived in these shacks without running water or plumbing of any kind, using only nearby outhouses, until just 27 years ago. And they lived here as my friends and I and rode by in our parents' minivans every day, hardly noticing the history beneath us, as if the vestiges of America's Original Sin were the wallpaper of Charleston's suburbs.
Today, you can eat lunch at a taco joint in a strip mall across the street and look out at the slave quarters and easily think this is just an average Southern suburban scene. But the reality is that slavery is baked into the land beneath the trappings of corporate suburbia — James Island's bustling Harris Teeters, CVS pharmacies and tract housing — which go far to annihilate a sense of place and history. The suburbanites who are flocking to Charleston would do well to learn and appreciate the power of its past and the ghosts of toil and struggle beneath their feet.
Slow travel on the California Zephyr really is an antidote to the accumulated stress and strain of numerous recent trips and work deadlines. You’re forced to socialize with your fellow travelers, and see the country in ways you can’t see it if you’re flying over it or driving 80 mph on a freeway across it.Read More
As the main tourist attraction in Sydney and one of the most iconic symbols of Australia, the Sydney Opera House speaks for itself. During our Australia trip last month, Jacob and I mostly avoided major tourist attractions in favor of seeing Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra on their own terms.
But, just like a first visit to New York City in incomplete without at least a brief visit to the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center or the World Trade Center, a first visit to Sydney would be incomplete without at least a stroll by the Opera House if for no other reason than to admire the geometry of the building's roof. These images are the best I could muster with my iPhone SE:
Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado is a photographer's dream in one of the West's most surreal landscapes. I spent Saturday night and Sunday morning at the dunes, where the best light occurs at sunset and within about 30 minutes after the sun peeks above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains not long after sunrise. My best images have been added to my National Park Series on my Restless West Photography website.
The campground at Wind Cave National Park, which is just as much about wildlife-rich rolling mixed-grass prairie as it is about the cave itself, hasn't filled up in 30 years. It's a special place at the foot of the Black Hills in South Dakota, certainly one of the most peaceful places I've been. See my entire photo album from Wind Cave and the rest of our Black Hills trip here.
Deep within the Black Elk Wilderness in Black Hills National Forest is the highest point east of the Rockies — Harney Peak. The mountain, which once served as a fire lookout over the South Dakota's most rugged terrain, is a massive rock promontory from which you can see the whole of the Black Hills.
Previously, I'd stood atop four other state high points: Wheeler Peak in New Mexico, Black Mesa in Oklahoma, Clingman's Dome in Tennessee and Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina. Next up: Panorama Point in Nebraska and, of course, Mt. Elbert in Colorado.
There's a certain peacefulness in one of the most popular corners of Rocky Mountain National Park when all the peak baggers aren't around. I spent about an hour solo hiking up the Longs Peak/Chasm Lake trail today with hardly anyone else around to break the silence. Or the monotony. The goal was turn around at timberline because I really just wanted to see how high the snow line is right now in this abysmal snowpack year. But the hike to timberline on the Longs Peak trail is a relentless trudge through a monotonous lodgepole pine forest miraculously disturbed only minimally by bark beetles. After just under a mile and a half, I got bored, turned around and decided to head down to Rocky's Wild Basin area for some midday river photography on St. Vrain Creek.
The National Park Service still has the last mile or two of the gravel Wild Basin road closed for the winter. The parking area behind the seasonal closure gate was completely packed, suggesting big crowds and gaggles of screaming kids. But I only saw four people over the hour or so I was hiking in the area, proving once again that solitude and silence can be abundant even in the busiest and most famous national parks in the country.
The Colorado Plateau — redrock canyon country, that is — is replete with national parks and monuments: Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Cedar Breaks, Chaco Culture, Arches, Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge, Glen Canyon, and many more. Most are destinations unto themselves. But my experience is a bit different with Capitol Reef. Back in 2006, when a backpack into Dark Canyon looked like it would be rained out (don't get stuck in the rain at the Sundance Trailhead with a Toyota Corolla), my friends and I spent a night backpacking in Capitol Reef. In 2010, when the heat at the place we were camping beneath the Henry Mountains climbed to 103 degrees, Jacob and I moved to Capitol Reef where things were only slightly cooler. Last month, when my friends and I were annoyed that our chosen camping spots were either packed with people, full of blowing dust or were frenetic with screaming kids, we spent the next two days in Capitol Reef, the alternative we head to when our original plans fall through.
But Capitol Reef deserves more than that. One of the lesser visited national parks in Utah, it has all the accommodations people unprepared for backcountry travel need: easy trails, green grass, locally-made ice cream and root beer and other stuff tourists like, except that nearly the entire park, much to its credit, is out of Facebook and cell phone range. Most of Capitol Reef is far out of reach of casual tourists, and that's why the park rocks. "The Land of Tilted Rocks" is a slanted redrock badland riddled with slots and grottoes, arches and narrows, and, of course, Cathedral Vallley, a remote icon of the park I have yet to visit. It's a 100 mile-long spear-shaped park that encapsulates all the greatest things about canyon country. One of my favorite protected places in Utah, Capitol Reef is unique among the national parks: In the summer, visitors can pick fresh fruit from the peach, apricot, cherry, pear and apple trees planted by the Mormon settlers more than a century ago.
I'm still working out my technique on by-the-seat-of-the-pants astrophotography, as seen here from my attempt last week at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. My friends and I were camped at the Capitol Reef campground, which sits below the mouth of Cohab Canyon. Capitol Reef has one of the darkest night skies in southern Utah, and we had a new moon, which is the perfect combination for stargazing. The cliffs are lit only by the ambient light in the campground. This is what it looks like before the sun goes down:
I set up my tripod behind the picnic table, aimed above the park's scenic drive, which was just below the frame and over the fence from the campsite, and opened the shutter for 25 minutes, hoping the occasional breeze wasn't enough to blur the image. One problem with the camera I used here is that it takes longer to transfer data and write the image to the CF card than it does to take the image. So, a 25 minute shot becomes a 50 minute shot. I'm using a high-speed 16 GB card in my Canon 50D, and I'm a bit perplexed as to why the process takes so frustratingly long. Oftentimes, I'll shoot an image, and by the time the camera is done transferring the data, I'm either too tired or too frozen to spend another hour taking a single image.
On this trip, a friend of mine brought along an ancient Canon Rebel XT that he was borrowing from a friend. The camera used a cheap CF card, and when I took an image with a 30 minute exposure, I was shocked that the data transfer process was instantaneous despite the large RAW file size.
The next night, I decided to do an hour-long exposure on my camera and then go to bed after I closed the shutter so it could write to the card while I was sleeping. This is what I got:
It's a little blurrier, probably thanks to my low-end-ish Manfrotto tripod and a bit of a breeze. Look closely, though, and you'll see the image is full of dead pixels and grain despite shooting at the same ISO as the top image:
Incidentally, I discovered that nearly every image I took on this trip was marred by several "stuck" pixels, an errant bright red, white, green or black pixel. I think I found a fix for that, and I'm hoping I solved the above problem, too.
I also brought along my 35mm film camera on the trip, too, and the same evening I shot a similar night sky image using Fuji Provia 400X slide film. It'll probably take me a year to go through the roll, so we'll see how this shot turns out then.
If you've ever driven I-70 from Colorado to Moab, Utah, you've been by Thompson Springs. It's the exit with the Shell station just before the U.S. 191-Moab interchange. If you get off the interstate there, you'll discover a dusty little town long ago bypassed by the freeway now existing as a forlorn reminder of slightly more prosperous days in this lonely quarter of Utah. U.S. 6 & 50, which once formed the main drag through town, now follows the interstate, but the old highway remains in the middle of town, crumbling with age.
Thompson Springs is still hanging on as a settlement (barely), but the derelict old cafe and motels that surely served as a stopping point on the way from Salt Lake to Denver back in the day have become works of art unto themselves, thanks to some creative graffiti artists and, in the office of the Thompson Motel, a massive pile of tumbleweeds.
A week ago, on our way from Capitol Reef to Grand Junction, my somewhat perplexed friends ("How did you learn about this place?" "Why would you ever want to stop here?" they said.) and I pulled off the freeway in Thompson Springs for a 10 minute look around town.
Some look like aliens. Others look screaming phantoms. One, called the Holy Ghost, looks like a crowned king. Last weekend, my friends and I finally visited the Great Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon after many years of putting the trip on the calendar and either getting rained out (the road is impassible when extremely wet) or snowed out.
Perhaps 3,000 years old, the pictographs that compose the 200 foot wide Great Gallery embue Horseshoe Canyon with a sense of history nearly unparalelled anywhere north of the Mexican border. Visiting the canyon is an incredible experience as long as you bring an appreciation of history along with you on the hike.
Several things to know about Horseshoe Canyon: It's way the hell far from everywhere and 32 miles from the nearest asphalt. It has signs of possibly more than 11,000 years of human habitation (and visitation). It was once called Barrier Canyon, and its pictographs are some of the most extraordinary examples of their kind anywhere. It was Aaron Ralston's escape route after he cut off his arm in Blue John Canyon, which spills into Horseshoe. It's a satellite unit of Canyonlands National Park. And, its rim is inexplicably within cell phone and Facebook range, likely because it's within a long-distance view of Green River, Utah. Its position strategically within Facebook is much to the region's discredit, which means it's not nearly as remote as it seems. But that's another issue.
The hike is short, about seven miles round trip. It's sandy, so if you go, be prepared to hike uphill on sand on an old oil and gas exploration road and at the sandy bottom of a wash.
"crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. ... May your rivers flow without end, meandering through ... miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs across the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls."
Perhaps no place is that more possible than in Mee Canyon, an obscure sandstone gorge near Grand Junction where the wash at the bottom of the canyon inserts itself about 300 feet into the canyon wall, creating a cavern the size of a 747 hangar. I've been to the Mee Canyon Alcove before, but this time I came with better camera equipment.
The Mee Canyon Alcove is said to be the deepest canyon alcove anywhere on the Colorado Plateau, and it's not easy to get to. At the heart of the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, Mee Canyon is at the bottom of a sometimes-feint trail descending from the top of Black Ridge overlooking Fruita and Grand Junction. It's a nearly unbelievable sight, one that's well worth the scramble to the bottom of the canyon.
This is what awaits you at the bottom:
The Denver Post on Saturday did a story about unlocking the mysteries of the Hanging Flume, a 19th Century wooden structure clinging to the sandstone walls of the Dolores River Canyon in far-western Colorado along Colo. Highway 141. Colorado tourism boosters call the region "Hanging Flume Country," a historic mining district amid Colorado Plateau red rock canyon country nearly spitting distance from the Utah state line. It's one of my favorite parts of Colorado, and certainly one of the least-known regions of the state. Here's what the Hanging Flume looks like from above:
A closer view:
The Hanging Flume was built between 1888 and 1891 as a means to send water to a gold mine in the Mesa Creek Flats area. The mine went bust, and the flume was left derelict on the canyon walls, where it remains, in a somewhat tattered state, today.
Highway 141 runs from Grand Junction to U.S. 491 northwest of Dove Creek, about 165 of the most stunning highway mileage in Colorado. It's far from everywhere, threading through some of the most amazing geology in the state: Unaweep Canyon, Gateway, the Dolores River Gorge, Big Gypsum Valley, Disappointment Valley and much more. If you've never driven the highway, it's a highlight of any western Colorado road trip.
If you're driving into Fort Collins on U.S. 287 from Wyoming, you know you're close to the beer, bikes, bands and CSU Rams of Fort Fun when you see the giant sandstone wedge of the Bellvue Dome. Sloping sharply westward, the hogback, part of the same ridge that forms the eastern flank of Horsetooth Reservoir, ends abruptly at a cliff and drops directly down to the Poudre River hundreds of feet below at Watson Lake. The dome will come into view as you head south at about the same time you pass Highway 14 leading into the mountains and U.S. 287 opens up into four lanes heading into the Fort.
Go ahead, do a Google search. You'll find a gazillion images of the Bellvue Dome from afar, but there aren't many out there taken from its summit.
There are no trails to the top of Bellvue Dome, and in fact, it's difficult to access because it's surrounded by private land. But what's unique about the dome, besides its geology, is that its summit is on a 44 acre parcel of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM land is abundant throughout the West, but it's a true rarity in the northern Front Range region. Most of our federal public land up here is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, or it's part of Rocky Mountain National Park. But BLM land is scattered about here and there, and the summit of Bellvue Dome is one of those places.
There's a hell of a view of the Poudre River from the top, but the the problem, of course, is access. Bordered by private land to the east, city of Fort Collins utility property on the southeast and precipitous cliffs on Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife land to the west, access to the top is almost exclusively on private land.
After work today, however, Jacob and I decided to test how penetrable the private land bordering the dome really is. Fortunately, one of the landowners nearby greeted us as we approached the access road to the city of Fort Collins water tank, and he allowed us to cross his property to reach the summit. Despite my legs being ripped to shreds by thick thickets of mountain mahogany, the reward for the trouble of reaching a rarely-visited parcel of public land was well worth the scratches and scars.
If you're interested what else is on BLM land in eastern Larimer County (much of the Laramie River Valley in western Larimer County is managed by the BLM out of Kremmling), there are some interesting things to find on that land if you can get there. About 80 acres of BLM land just west of Livermore hosts an incredible view of the canyons and foothills west of U.S. 287. Another parcel is atop the hogback overlooking U.S. 287 and what could one day be Glade Reservoir north of Fort Collins. All these BLM parcels are managed by the Front Range BLM office way down in Cañon City under a management plan written in 1986. That plan, too ancient and probably too insignificant for BLM officials to digitize, is unavailable online.
Chances are, if you've ever been to Moab, Utah, you've encountered Potash Road, Utah Highway 279. It's an extraordinary highway running long the Colorado River west of Moab, a ribbon of redrock-flanked chipseal popular with climbers who scale the sheer cliffs above the road. The road ends at a potash mine below Canyonlands National Park.
I spent a couple hours last Sunday morning killing time before meeting friends in Grand Junction before heading home. It's easy to kill time here.
So, one summer about six years ago when I trekked out to Delicate Arch to get my own sunset shot at the height of the tourist season, I joined a gaggle of 10 other photographers gathered at the top of the bowl below the arch, each shooter wielding a massive digital SLR camera decked out with a lens about a foot long and four inches in diameter.
Tourists, few of whom spoke English, swarmed the place, each taking turns rushing up to the famous arch to have someone snap a photo of them smiling beneath one of the most iconic natural features in the West. The crowd began to clear out as golden hour — the hour before sunset or after sunrise when the light on the red rocks of canyon country is most brilliant — approached, but as the pros rushed to their cameras to snap the perfect light, a few straggling tourists took advantage of the best moment of the day to have some one-on-one time with Delicate Arch.
“Hey lady!” one photog yelled across the bowl. “Get out the way! Get out of our shot!”
The woman and her kids stayed put, smiling for a quick snapshot and traded places and cameras with another couple.
“We said get out of the way!” another pro yelled. “You’re ruining our shot!”
“We have a right to be here, too,” one of the women snapped back, her words echoing off the sandstone.
Golden hour came and went, and she and some other tourists stayed beneath the arch until the sun had dipped beneath canyons to the west. Perhaps in spite of the idiots behind the big lenses, perhaps just because it was beautiful. The pros, fuming and cursing, opened and closed their shutters with the tourists in every frame.
I remained silent through the whole thing, but when photographers’ egos and sense of possessiveness over public lands begin to match the size of their $5,000 lenses, I get just as pissed as the woman commanded to get out of the shot.
This morning, I decided to get my own shot of another million-dollar scene at Arches, the famous sunrise shot of one of the Windows framing Turret Arch in the distance. I drove out to the Windows at 6 a.m. and, shivering in the 25 degree air, set up my camera (using an 17-85mm kit lens, mind you) at the optimum spot, where I met a retired guy named Mike from Salt Lake who’d taken the weekend to shoot arches and sandstone, apparently as an excuse to get away from his wife.
As he teetered on a ledge, we chatted about cameras and near-death experiences while on photo expeditions and why we haul heavy cameras into remote places.
“It’s addictive,” he said.
“And you come back with a great story to tell of how you got the image you shot, even if the photo isn’t any good,” I said.
Finally, the sun peeked above the La Sal Mountains behind us and began to light up the Windows like a firestorm, and right at the perfect moment, a lone tourist appeared at the base of Window, staring into the sun and occupying both of our frames.
“If you were a real photographer, you’d ask her to move,” Mike said.
“Are you kidding?” I said.
“They always get in the way,” he said, clearly debating with himself whether he should ask her to move.
Hardly a minute later, the tourist disappeared.
The one fail-safe method for capturing spectacular images un-decorated with the unwashed masses: Shoot pretty pictures where the unwashed masses don't go. If you're going to complain, why not use your camera to make the case for another of the park's arches to become iconic?
People come from all over the world to visit Arches and all our other national parks to see all the famous places the parks are iconic for. This morning could have been that tourist’s once chance in a lifetime to see the Windows at sunrise. I can come to Arches nearly any long weekend I choose to get the shot I want. People should be encouraged to visit these places on their public lands at the most spectacular times of day. These are their parks. When people are unjustly shooed away by photographers angry that stray tourists are going to mar their image that somehow represents some faux sense of wildness (Arches isn’t truly unsullied by mankind, is it?), the moment for which tourists most value a national park may very likely be remembered only for an encounter with the arrogance of a gaggle of egomaniacal photographers who deserve whatever remorse they feel about losing a money-generating image in one of the most beautiful places in America.
The joke is on the complaining idiot with his finger on the shutter release button.
A few observations from the road:
When there are no other options for gluten-free eats on the freeway, especially late at night, Waffle House's omelets are really damn tasty. Likewise, Taco Cabana is Texas' gift to late night highway eating. They make the best posole you can get at midnight in Albuquerque.
Hiking into Carlsbad Caverns through its natural entrance at 8:30 a.m. on a fall weekday is a great cheap thrill because you're likely going to be the only tourist in the whole damn cavern. The eerie silence with the dim and distant glow of the trail lights with no one else around is worth the $6 entrance fee.
New Mexico and Louisiana certainly have the worst highways in the country. You need binoculars to read many of New Mexico's highway signs. Driving the freeways in Louisiana is like taking a virtual ride through a highway engineer's 1950s urban freeway utopia on a vibrating bed. Raised high above the city and communities they fracture, the long-obsolete Interstates 10 and 610 in New Orleans embody the worst of America's urban freeways.
It's still amazing to me that it's more affordable to visit a national park for a week than it is a state park for an hour.
Always consider plans to visit a Communist country with no diplomatic relations with the United States soft... until you've actually arrived and are smoking a Cuban cigar on the streets of Havana.
Here's the final trip tally:
States visited: Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico.
Major cities visited: Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Hagerstown, Charlottesville, Asheville, Atlanta, Charleston (SC), Savannah, Jacksonville, Miami, Miami Beach, St. Petersburg, Pensacola, New Orleans, Galveston, San Antonio, Midland, Odessa, Roswell, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Colorado Springs, and Denver.
National Parks visited: Shenandoah NP, Harper's Ferry NHP, Great Smoky Mountains NP, Everglades, NP, Biscayne NP, Big Cypress National Preserve, New Orleans Jazz NHP, Jean Lafitte NHP, Guadalupe Mountains NP, Carlsbad Caverns NP.
Total cost for both of us (excluding the Society of Environmental Journalists' conference): $2,200.
Earlier today, somewhere between the southern edge of the Texas Hill Country and San Antonio, my car's trip meter turned over to 6,300 miles — the mileage we've accumulated since we left Colorado on October 7. Still, I have more than 1,000 miles to go before returning to Colorado.
The Society of Environmental Journalists conference ended a week ago in Miami, and we learned from the conference's concluding sessions that Cuba (from whence I had planned to return today) plans to begin drilling oil in the Strait of Florida sometime in the next six weeks, and anthropogenic climate change-induced sea level rise threatens the very existence of South Florida over the coming century. The conference was full of such fun-filled news, including: USFS Chief Tom Tidwell: Drought-stricken Texas now has a 12-month fire season. NPS Chief Jon Jarvis: National parks are places where visitors can witness for themselves how anthropogenic climate change is affecting the environment and our national treasures.
The value of SEJ is immense, providing fodder for stories and freelance pitches for many months.
Since we left Miami about a week ago — on long trips, the significance of dates and days of the week diminishes, and I often forget what day it is — we hit Everglades National Park again, camped north of Tampa and followed the Gulf Coast from its lush, green shores in Florida to its hurricane-battered beaches in Texas. We passed through Tampa, Apalachicola, Panama City, the redneck resort hell hole of Destin, Pensacola, Biloxi, New Orleans, Morgan City, the oil-industrial shit pit of Port Arthur, the hurricane-battered Galveston Island and finally, San Antonio, where my parents live.
When most people think of the Grand Canyon, they think of the South Rim area, where the Bright Angel Trail drops into the depths of North America’s greatest gorge. But to the west of there, on the North Rim, the Toroweap area, also known as Tuweep, exists 60 miles from the nearest pavement and boasts the canyon’s most sheer cliff — 3,000 feet from rim to river.
Toroweap Point is also at the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, where the piñon-juniper redrock canyon country abruptly transitions to the Mojave Desert.
My partner, Jacob, and I trekked out to Toroweap in January 2008.