The following was taken from a daily handwritten journal I kept while on a recent photography trip from Iowa to California and back. It is meant to provide insight and dismiss suspicions that this is a carefree occupation of no work and all play. (Click here for the introductory post.) I’ll be the first to admit that I am still learning, and the last to claim I have it all figured out. This is simply the story of my experiences, a day by day account of what it’s like to be a nature photographer out on the road…
September 21, 2014-
Since yesterday began with my usual Saturday morning pre-dawn trip to the farmers market, and ended almost twenty two hours later packing into the night, I knew today wouldn’t bring an early departure. I only needed to make it to Central Nebraska on what would entirely be a travel day anyhow, so I allowed myself to sleep in a bit with hopes of being on the road by ten. And as so often is the case, my ten o’clock plans were finally brought to fruition when the tires hit the highway around noon.
Still, I really couldn’t complain. It was a gorgeous autumn day and I noticed the leaves were just starting to change as I pulled out of Cedar County, with the vast rolling fields of corn and soybeans following suit. I adjusted the cruise control and tried to settle in for the long haul ahead, but my mind still raced in the aftermath of chaotic preparation. For weeks I have been pouring over details- looking for potential photo spots, researching sunrise and sunset times, and identifying the closest camping options. While it’s certainly possible to stumble upon great photo ops by just hitting the road and seeing where it takes you, in a professional sense you don’t want to leave too many things to chance. At the same time, you need to allow yourself the freedom to explore and discover unique scenes for yourself. It’s a fine balance and each trip, every adventure I try to build on skills and lessons learned from the last. I want to be on top of my game to make the most out of every second of this opportunity.
Confident that I have a solid plan in place, I next started reviewing my mental checklists; trying to account for everything that I would need, and hoping more importantly that it is now with me in the car. There’s lots of photography gear, even some which is brand new; bought specifically for this trip. I might not yet know how to use it all, but I know that it’s there. I have clothing to cover every scenario from Indian summer to arctic winter. I have all of my camping gear, which is strategic in both a financial and photographic sense. While I have budgeted for a handful of nights in motels, I plan to camp the majority of the time. This will save me anywhere from $40-$80 a night, plus put me right in the field for early morning shoots. Besides that, camping’s just more my style.
In my trunk, split between a large Rubbermaid tub and an Igloo cooler, is about a hundred dollars’ worth of food. I hope to survive off of this for the majority of my 18 day trip. It has been said that during the workshop participants will be encouraged to spend meal times together, and I certainly want to network and make friends. With that in mind I’ll avoid eating in too many restaurants on the way out there and back; opting for instant breakfast mix and granola bars while I’m on my own so I can afford more than bread and water when I’m with the group. (What the heck, I could probably stand to lose a few pounds anyhow…)
Drifting along Interstate 80 through the Iowa countryside, fields lined with bright yellow compass plants swaying in the breeze and a sky of cotton candy clouds floating overhead, my heart and mind were also consumed with reflections of goodbyes. Even when going for a short trip like this farewells still bring shared moments of heightened significance; there is still emotion involved. I have a tradition of paying a visit to my grandparents the day before I leave; sitting around their dining room table, telling of my plans and listening to stories of travels they’d taken long ago. So many of my grand adventures have started out just like this- moves to Montana, hikes of the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, long bicycle trips and more. At some point in the conversation Grandpa invariably cracks a joke about coming along, so it choked me up a bit when this time he just gazed longingly out the window and said he wished he could see the mountains, “one last time.” Age continues to take its toll and neither Grandma nor Grandpa are fit for travel these days. I didn’t know how to respond to this, so I just smiled like always and told him to go get in the car.
Saying goodbye to my wife and dog was also rough. Cris and I don’t have any “human children” yet, but we love our cocker spaniel Lulu like one and she definitely plays the part. All night Lulu had been at my feet, fretting and moping as she watched me sort my gear. Packing is always a guilt ridden affair; she could tell by the volume of bags and probably by my own level of anxiety and concentration that this time I’ll be away for a while. This carried on right up to the moment I pulled out of the driveway, with both of my girls waving at me out the window. At times like this it’s pretty certain I’m going to feel one last tinge of remorse; an instant of hesitation and thoughts of how much easier it would just be to stay. But as with all of those travels and all of the goodbyes that have come before, I know that I’ll be a better person for chasing my dreams; for myself and for them. And so sometimes I must go.
By 4:30 I crossed the Missouri River and had pretty much shaken off any lingering doubts and fallen into the groove of the road. I stopped for gas just outside of Omaha, and upon leaving the pump thought I heard a squeaking noise coming from my car. It was definitely an unwelcome development. There are few things that might derail this trip faster than car troubles. I am by no stretch of the imagination a car guy. All it would take is one malfunctioning chassis pulley adapter- which to the best of my knowledge is exactly what that noise is- and my mechanical ineptitude might be exposed by some roadside grease monkey and my bank account (i.e. trip funds) completely decimated. I was already a bit paranoid about a clicking noise coming from the transmission when the car shifts gears; a noise Cris claims has been there all along but which to me has become more pronounced. I didn’t need this.
After a lap around the gas station parking lot, however, the sound seemed to go away. I shrugged it off as maybe a rock in my brake, or better yet, somebody else’s car. I mean for karma’s sake I hoped it was somebody who understood basic automotive functioning and rather enjoyed the arrival of such clandestine noises as a fun way to spend an upcoming weekend; but regardless, better them than me.
I drove on to witness a beautiful high plains sunset and decided to stop for the night at a place called Johnson Lake State Park. Coming and going over the years I’ve camped at several of these Nebraska State Parks along the I-80 corridor, but couldn’t remember ever stopping here. I used the GPS on my iPhone to try and find the park entrance, but was misled to an area choked with lakeside private cabins and no campground in sight. For the next 45 minutes I bumbled along washed out gravel back roads, circumnavigating the lake in the dark. Even more enjoyable was the resurrection of that mystery squeaking noise, louder now than it had been before. A complimentary tension headache followed close behind.
Eventually I found the campground, and an eighteen dollar tent site that leaves much to be desired, but it’s home for the night. I called Cris to tell her that I’d made it… somewhere. I didn’t mention the car issues; with that we’ll just wait and see what tomorrow brings. Still a little annoyed over the whole getting lost debacle, I set up my tent and pulled out my trusty old backpacking stove to cook a healthy fixing of ramen.
Overhead a billion stars shimmered through the night and as I waited for my water to boil I could see my breath in the cool evening air. This calmed me immensely. It feels good to be back out here, back on the road.
I’m anxious to see what this trip will bring.