Four Corners Region: Fun under Sun, Moon & Stars

“I shall sit here, on and off, for days and days.”  – Queen’s Footman in Alice in Wonderland

I started my spring 2018 photo-blog later than usual.  During the three weeks I was on the road I didn’t write anything until the day before I hit the road for home, actually wondering if I’d write a blog at all this time.   I normally write an entry in my draft blog each day and identify a theme appropriate to the adventure.  But this time the weather and a backlog of reading material conspired to change my routine for the first ten days, and I never recovered my momentum.  And this time my blog has been whittled down almost to the skeleton, the photos being the bones, and the narrative serving only as a thin skin, as if the arid climate of the desert landscapes dried up or sanded down everything else.

I’d been to each of these latest venues before, but my previous visits over the past three years left a lingering desire to capture more of the essence of the unique landscapes.  First on my agenda was the Bisti Badlands wilderness in New Mexico, the farthest from home; second was the White Pocket area of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona; third was Capitol Reef National Park in south-central Utah, which is closest to home, and which I saved for last to allow the weather to warm before shooting in the higher elevations.

I was prepared to maximize the chances of getting good shots by allowing at least four days in each of the three locations, in case the weather didn’t cooperate, with a few additional days to deal with emergencies or an unplanned shooting location.  Even with good weather, it would mean hanging out each day in the camper between sunrise and sunset, and maybe the whole day in case of rain, prohibitive wind or cloud cover during those “magic hour” shooting times.  Aside from satellite radio and my laptop, I brought my magazines (The New Yorker and The Week), which I’d been saving up for several weeks, and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin.  I would spend an hour or two each day on foot to scout the best positions to shoot for upcoming magic hours, but the vast majority of time would be spent in the comfort of my camper.

My priority in Bisti was to visit the hoodoos that are accessible via the north entrance, which I’d never seen, and to take photographic advantage of the new moon over four nights, and to shoot the “egg hatchery” formation again, which is best accessed from the south entrance; I then wanted to thoroughly explore White Pocket for four days, a relatively small area that is chock full of photo ops, truly a photographer’s paradise; and then shoot a different perspective of Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef before wrapping up with shots of Temple of the Moon and Temple of the Sun, which I figured would take four days to capture the full moon, or near-full moon, the way I wanted.

My old friend John accompanied me to Bisti, which is only a couple of hours from his home in Dolores, Colorado.  Spring in the Four Corners area is known for wind, and a “red flag” weather report had issued a high wind warning, with gusts up to 50 mph, and we came prepared with dust masks and goggles, looking like Luke Skywalker on the ice planet Hoth.  After parking in the north parking lot we set off in the blowing sand for the mile-long hike to the so-called “capped hoodoos” for the best light for photos at sunset.  This was more like a scouting trip, as the wind was often too high for taking photos.  Wind-borne sand and dust never help.

We hiked back to the camper after sunset and endured the high winds throughout the night.  The next day we played chess until late afternoon, when we hiked to the hoodoos again, thankfully in much lighter winds.  John hiked back to the camper shortly after sunset, and I slept in my solo tent among the hoodoos, so I could shoot the Milky Way and be there for the sunrise without having to hike a mile each way in the dark.  The morning shoot was a bust due to clouds blocking the sunrise colors, but I did manage to get some interesting photos the previous evening:

John left for home in late afternoon, just as the wind picked up with a vengence.  Punting another hike to the hoodoos, I hunkered down for the night, pulling the front of my camper roof down for a lower, more aerodynamic profile against the high wind.  Within a half-hour the wind actually caught under the edge of the roof and lifted it all the way up, so I blew off Bisti in favor of waiting out the storm at John’s house.  No sense in trying to take photos in this weather.

About half-way to his house from Bisti I heard an ominous noise on the camper’s roof and pulled over to inspect it.  I discovered that a latch had vibrated loose, and the wind had flipped the front solar panel backwards on its hinges, breaking the gas strut used to tilt the panel to a low sun, bending the aluminum cross-beam that supports the panel’s hinges, and smashing the front panel onto the fixed middle panel.  I was surprised that neither of the panels’ glass surface was damaged, but the aluminum frames of both panels showed slight marks from the impact.  I used some wire to secure the latch and keep the panel flat to the roof for the trip to John’s house.

John was surprised to see me pulling into his driveway while he was unpacking his vehicle, and I told him the wind storm was too much.  I borrowed his electric drill to make a more secure repair on the panel, enough of a fix to last the rest of my trip, but the front panel could no longer be raised to catch a low sun like the rear panel can.  This was only a minor setback, as the three panels produce plenty of power without tilting the front one.  (Are you getting all this?  You’ll be tested.)

Four days later, the wind storm finally dissipated, and I returned to Bisti to pick up where I’d left off.  I shot the northern hoodoos again that afternoon and stayed the night…

… and then transferred to the south parking lot for a night, hiking the two miles to familiar rock formations for sunset shots, for which the clouds and weather cooperated:

I then drove all the next day and arrived at White Pocket in time to get sunset shots.  The hour of rough road in 4×4 mode to the parking lot jarred the connections of my DIY camera battery recharging system and blew the fuse to the truck’s 12-volt accessory outlets, which cut power to my laptop, iPad, spare camera batteries, and my GPS, so I was driving from memory.  But I found the way, and the weather was good, and I spent three nights there, shooting at dawn and dusk each day.  I used my camper’s solar power to recharge my various batteries, until I could replace the blown fuse in a few days.

As usual, the place was crawling with shutterbugs, and I expected a fair amount of photoshopping them out of the images.  I covered most of the area, and scrambling over the hilly wonderland for a couple of hours on each shooting was great exercise as well as great fun.  The landscape is spectacular.

The parking lot was busy, even being so remote and difficult to access.  I befriended a pair of Chinese photographers, one of whom spoke English, the other being an international award-winner, and we shared techniques and favorite shooting subjects in the area, which at least benefitted me, if not them.  They’d rented an all-wheel-drive vehicle that got stuck in the sand, and it cost them $500 to get a tow truck from Kanab, AZ, two hours away, to pull them out.  The tow service is called to White Pocket fairly often, they say.  I’d noticed a sign at the entrance to this wilderness, warning drivers of the difference between all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive.  My 4WD with fairly new, all-terrain, heavy-duty tires had no trouble, even without deflating them at all for driving in sand.  Several other pop-up truck-campers also made it there, with 4WD, of course.  But I do remember when I was here last time, a year ago, another pair of visitors had to be towed, and they had a Jeep, so having 4WD helps, but is no guarantee.

My latest White Pocket photographs:

The next day I drove from White Pocket to Torrey, Utah, relying totally on the Rand McNally map instead of the GPS, until I could replace the blown fuse at a gas station in Kanab.  I believe Hwy. 12 through Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, from Bryce Canyon to Torrey, is one of the must-see routes in the U.S.

I was due for a shower and laundry, so I stopped at Thousand Island RV Park and plugged in for the night, an extravagance I grudgingly accept only after a week on the road, given the expense for the small space and time mostly spent sleeping.  The next morning I got my latte at a local espresso shop and was first in line at the Capitol Reef National Park visitors center to get updates on road conditions and the weather forecast.

My first stop in the park was to shoot at Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook at sunset.  I got there at lunch time and spent the afternoon reading in my hammock, waiting for the best light:


The sky was clear all day and made for good light in late afternoon:


At about 8 PM I headed back to the “Temples” to camp at a pullout on BLM land just outside the park boundary.  I got up at dawn and drove about a mile to a position where I could capture the Temple of the Moon, Temple of the Sun, and “Glass Mountain” (really just an unusual, natural, but modest mound of quartz crystals) in one shot at sunrise:

Sunrise at The Temples

I stayed at the Temples for the next three nights, shooting mostly at sunrise because afternoons were always mostly cloudy and the western plateau above the valley is too high to get the best light on the Temples before the sun is obscured.  Nevertheless, I did get a shot of the rising moon almost at sunset:

Moonrise at the Temples

Mornings were always clear, and I arose each dawn to gauge the path and position of the setting, waxing moon and shoot the Temples in good light.  Especially given the rough roads and my previous familiarity with the park, I had little incentive to drive elsewhere, and all but two hours in every twenty-four were spent reading and sleeping in my camper, waiting for good light and good moon.  It’s downtime like this when one notices problems in one’s lounge area:  Many washboard roads had rattled my satellite radio, loosening it from its plastic, under-dash housing, working the FM antenna out of its socket in the back of the radio, and loosening the removable faceplate, which pops out now with little provocation.  The satellite antenna connection also easily worked loose, requiring repeated adjustment.

But during a few of those magic hours I was able to capture the setting full moon, appearing a lot smaller on the high horizon than I prefer, but it was fun, anyway.

My shots at the Temples:

And so went my Spring 2018 photo shoot.  I’ve since made several repairs to Blue Meanie, including (for your cheat sheet):  Replaced the bent aluminum crossbar with one of a heavier gauge to support the hinges for the front solar panel; installed two new gas struts and two new, locking latches; sealed the faceplate and the FM antenna to the radio; clamped the satellite antenna connection tight; and sealed the radio itself to its housing to keep it from rattling on washboard roads.  Silicone is one of those miracle fixes.

Now it’s time to spend summer at the gym before my fall photo shoot.  I have no idea where that will be, but chances are good it will involve another wonderland.

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