The Mountains are Calling - And I Must Go!

Road Tripping in the COVID-19 Era.

March 13th, 2020. Friday the 13th. I'll remember that day forever. Was working the Minneapolis Auto Show. We were about a week in the show. There were two and half days left. In the span of the days leading up to Friday the 13th, all hell broke loose in the United States. We went from causally joking about this "beer-virus", to "hey, maybe there is something to be concerned about", to "HOLY CRAP WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE". The show was sparsely attended at this point. A far cry from the show in Milwaukee - less than 10 days ago.


What now?


The fear and anxiety in the air was thick as the humidity on a typical Midwestern summer day. The Governor of Minnesota held a press conference at noon that Friday. I turned it on for us to watch, as I had a feeling we were going to be shut down. Something I would have never considered a mere 48 hours ago. That's just how fast this whole ordeal evolved.


We all gathered around the phone, like that scene from the movie "Armegeddon", awaiting the news. Within 15 minutes, the Minnesota government shut the show down by stating "no groups over 20 allowed". I wasn't surprised, honestly, as that was the trend in the days leading up to this. I called my boss, who then diligently worked to get us all on flights home that night or the next day at the latest. After all, we were concerned that airports were next on the shutdown list! That was the most awkward flight home. I also nervously spent the next two weeks wondering if that random stray cough was something more dire.


Busting out of Quarantine



Fast forward to May. I have spent a solid 2.5 months at home. Going no where except for a daily walk about the block. Amazon become my best friend, and I never use Amazon. Luckily I qualified for the unemployment benefits, so that kept me afloat. Naturally, we were furloughed due to the fact we could no longer work large events. However, much like the rest of the country, I began to feel restless. At this point in time, some states started to loosen restrictions. The Nightscaper Conference, which was supposed to happen at the end of May, gave me an idea. Despite a postponement, I didn't cancel the hotel reservation. Called the hotel and asked if they were allowing out-of-state visitors yet. She said that they were! That's all I needed to hear. However, this was now a road trip adventure since I never booked flights.


Old Car Risk or Rental Risk?


Anyone who knows me also knows I tend to drive rather old or beat-up cars. Minus the race car. That one gets more attention and money than it really should. Even though the trusty 'ol 2006 Eclipse is super reliable, it has never been on a cross county trip through the mountains. The decision was made to rent a car. I do not regret this decision. In fact, having air conditioning and satellite radio, as well as a built in inverter, would prove to be blessings. Plus, there are some great deals on rental cars right now due to the pandemic! I ended up with a 2020 Jeep Compass Trailhawk. The extra goodies, like the factory lift, proved beneficial on some of the "roads" out west.


Packing for a Pandemic


Packing for this trip was different for two reasons. One, I never drove across the country before, and two, there's an ongoing Pandemic. The latter makes this a tad more complicated. To simplify the packing process, I thought of the trip in this way:

"What would I need in the event you cannot go to a store?" Assuming that gas pumps would be left on, just no access to the inside.

This ideology kept focus on specific items such as plenty of hand sanitizer, soap, paper towels, and trash bags. Think camping plus more sanitizing items. I also loaded the car up with food, water, and the much-needed Monster energy drinks. I wanted the car to be as self-sufficient as possible. This helped limit contact to just the fuel pumps. Masks were required in various states, as well. So kept a few on hand.


On the Road!


Around Noon, May 20th, 2020, I was officially on the way out west. Had two days to get to Kanab and meet up with Eric and Bryony for their workshop. Plenty of time to stop and rest as needed! After all, the half way point from Chicago is Denver. Yes, Denver. I often forget just how large those western states actually are!


Hoping to stop for a Milky Way photography fix along the way, scouted some locations in Nebraska, and Kirk gave me the location to a lonely church outside of Denver. The clouds were thick and relentless the entire drive though Iowa and Nebraska. Chose to focus on the little church. However, the clouds turned into pouring rain as soon as I crossed into Colorado. Not loosing faith, I mustered on to the church. Sixteen hours into the drive I made it to the first stop - and thus the first of many Milky Way sessions! Did have to wait about an hour for clouds to clear. They eventually parted, reveling the Milky Way in its full glory. I gazed up in awe, as it has been a while since seeing Bortle 2 skies. Knocked off a few shots before falling asleep as the coyotes howled in the distance.



Are We There Yet?


Upon waking a few hours later, I punched in "Kanab" on the GPS. Come to find out, Denver is only a little OVER half way there. Score! Alas, this was an adventure and the road trip was just as much a part of it as the destinations. That mindset helps immensely with these long drives.

Denver is where the scenery starts to change from flatland and farms to rugged and wild. The distant Rocky Mountains become much more imposing rather quickly. I found myself getting distracted by their awesome beauty. This is a feeling you don't experience from an airplane. Those "tiny" mountains that you fly over are now all up in your face. I-70 though Colorado is one of the most beautiful and scenic drives. Also, driving though the Eisenhower Tunnel is awesome! When you think about the effort that went into creating a tunnel though a mountain at 11,000ft in elevation, it truly is an engineering marvel. Often we take these rather ubiquitous things for granted.


Rocky Mountain Beauty



The Rocky Mountain glory wasn't quite over yet! Took a pit stop over in Dillon to check out the Dillon Reservoir. Despite being at 9,000ft, this flat-lander did fine hiking around in the thinner air. I thoroughly enjoyed the lake flanked by mountains. This is a spot I'd love to return to one day for some night shooting. For now, though, had plans on meeting some friends in Zion, so had to mosey.



As the Front and Sawatch Ranges of the Colorado Rockies faded in to rear view, a new rocky and mountainous terrain emerged. The La Sal Mountains near Moab, and to the distance - the Wasatch Range. In-between lies a swath of land with some of the most incredible landscapes on earth. This area is known as the San Rafael Swell. Part of the Colorado Plateau, this area encompasses three of Utah's "big five" parks - Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. Not to mention numerous states parks like Dead Horse Point. It's hard to put into words how glorious this area is. "Otherworldly", and "Mars" comes to mind. Will circle back here a few days later in the trip. For now, Zion National Park was calling!


Zion


Throughout the years of travel and a few trips to Utah, I had yet to visit this incredible park. Perhaps it was the sheer popularity that kept me away. Well, not this time. Let me tell you - this park is everything people say it is. If you are short on time, just driving the main road through the park is breathtaking. How could something this beautiful exist? Well it does. And its name is Zion. Now, most of the park was closed at this time due to the ongoing pandemic. Popular hikes such as Angel's Landing were closed, as was the Kolob Canyon area. Even the scenic drive was closed at times if crowds persisted. Let me remind you - this is a park experiencing maybe a 1/3rd of its usual traffic, and it still was busy! I honestly couldn't imagine this on a "normal" Memorial Day Weekend!


Found a place to park near Checkerboard Mesa as the sun set, and waited for Eric and Bryony from Utah Astrophotography to arrive. Prior to embarking on this adventure, they were kind enough to invite me along for a night of shooting before their actual workshop on Friday. They are wonderful people, and I was thrilled to be able to hang out and shoot with them.



Eric and Bryony were kind enough to let me park and camp at their campsite. We had this absolutely quaint spot near Zion, hidden in the woods. Couldn't have asked for anything better. I would end up returning here a few days later. By now I've been accustomed to the car camping. If there's only one small complaint about the Compass, it needs a few more inches to stretch out. A Cherokee would have fit that bill!


The One and Only Hotel Stay of the Trip



Around 10AM, we parted ways - for the time being. Eric and Bry were going to go scope out Coral Pink Sand Dunes for the workshop later that night. I chose to head to Kanab - as I did actually have a hotel there for the next two nights!


This was my first time staying in a hotel since the Minneapolis Auto Show was cancelled suddenly. It was a bit surreal. The southern Utah area is more remote and does not have the medical infrastructure that the larger cities have. As such, they are a bit more vigilant in terms of precautions. Mandatory face masks, signs on the door warning that if you have ANY slight symptom to not enter, no continental breakfast, and limited housekeeping services are all the new reality. But in all actuality, its minor things and not that big of deal to abide by.


Kanab



Kanab is a cool little town. It has been featured in many movies, and the town displays plenty of placards to remind you! It's very "old west" feeling, and quite enjoyable. During the day, I hiked up the Squaw Trailhead. This led to some fantastic views of the city below. Highly recommend! Golden light of the afternoon signaled time to look for a sunset location. After some debating, settled on Coral Pink Sand Dunes. For some reason, I love the dunes, even though they are NEVER nice to me. Read on...


Coral Pink Sand Dunes


One aspect of nature that always strikes me is how the weather can change drastically, even within a few miles. While it was relatively calm in Kanab, the wind at the sand dunes was, well, not. Every time I end up at some dunes, it is always windy to the point where mother nature provides you with a courtesy skin scrub.


I walked along the sand and up one of the tallest dunes. If you've ever walked on sand, you know what a pain in the butt this is. Upon reaching the top, the temperature started to drop. However, I was NOT going to walk back to the car. Sat there taking the sand blasting and shivering. The sand was relentless, so I dug though my backpack for anything to help cover my face. Found a bandanna wedged in there. Score! Though this would not keep all of it out, it was a blessing.


Waiting for Sunset


The golden late afternoon light drew more people out. Another solo traveler joined me. I had my gear setup for the sunset, enjoying the view, when he takes a seat right in front of the camera. I kind of giggled to myself. Gave it about ten minutes and asked if he could move behind me. He was cool about it, and we actually got to talking for a while about anything and everything. Ended up being quite a nice experience - and helped keep my mind off the chilly temperatures and wind. The sunset was a beautiful palate of pinks and purples. Not going to lie though, was relieved when it was over. Frozen and sand lasted, I sprinted to the car to get some warmer clothes! Additionally, spent about a half hour removing sand out of absolutely everything. Which will continue until I get a new backpack.



Zion Take Two


Shortly after leaving the dunes, I noticed that my sinuses were stuffed accompanied with quite a bit of post-nasal drip and sneezing. My mind went racing - what if this was the dreaded Coronavirus? Didn't take long to figure out the 3+ hours in the wind and sand was the culprit. After all, every nose blowing yielded sand. Moral of the story - Don't underestimate sand.


A small group of us met up with Eric and Bry for another adventure in Zion. Originally we were going to Coral Pink, but agreed that the miserable winds there were not favorable for long exposure shots. Since Zion was relatively quiet due to the pandemic, we chose to head there. This time we went to a different area near Checkerboard Mesa to set up for some Panoramic shots. These two are excellent workshop leaders, and I always learn a thing or two! That night it was how temperature effects focus. In the desert areas, this is especially important because the temperature swings can be so dramatic! We all had a great time telling stories, and learning how to make the most from tracked panoramic shots. The winds were so calm, too! What a welcomed relief from only a few hours earlier.


Arizona and White Pocket



Once again, it was nap time for a few hours. I hate to admit this, but I may be loosing the "Mega Rally" edge. For those who don't know, I earned the title "Mega Rally" last year at the Nightscaper Conference because I stayed up all night to snag sunset, milky way and sunrise shots. Then attend the conference. This lasted all 10 days I was out there. However, this night, I felt it was time to skip the sunrise and catch up on some sleep. There's plenty of time to Mega Rally again on this trip.


What day is this? I think three. My good friend, Laurel, who I met on an epic Canadian trip in January, drove up from Arizona to adventure with me in White Pocket. Located in the Vermilion Cliffs, this is a wild and remote area near the infamous Wave and Coyote Buttes area. However, you do not need a permit to go to White Pocket. Laurel brought her Ford Raptor for this adventure, as the maps all say that the roads can be tricky, technical, or even impassable at times.


Sand, Sand and more Sand


What we found was that they were mostly sand - and lots of sand. Glad she has experience with sand! There were a few times on the drive where we had to use the truck's lift to drive over some debris/brush due to cars coming the other way on the narrow path. Neither of us wanted to stop on the soft surface. No one wants to spend the evening digging out a vehicle!


Laurel is a portrait photographer by trade. (Check her out - https://www.eternalimagery.us/ ) She brought along some dresses and talked me into taking some environmental portraits. Even though I felt quite awkward, the images she made were amazing and enchanting. She's really great at what she does! We also scouted around for sunset and milky way locations. The best part about White Pocket is the endless composition opportunities!


Astrophotography in Bortle 1 Glory


Sunset always draws a large crowd, even in remote locations during a pandemic. That afternoon was no different. That spot we scouted easier in the day became inundated with people. We now has to re-work our compositions in order to "hide" the people. As a result we found a new spot that ended up more unique anyway. Silver linings!


Once the sun said adios for the day, Laurel and I went back to her truck to regroup and switch into Astro mode. As she hung out in the truck, I decided to try my hand at a "deepscape" with her Raptor. This is a shot I've been dreaming about for a while, so it was a fun one. For once, the I managed to strike the balance on the tracker just right and was able to pull off some incredible 4-minute exposure of the Rho Ophiuchus area! I usually never get that lucky with nailing the polar alignment and weight balance!



Bortle class 1 skies are truly a sight to behold. It feels like you can reach up and grab them right out of the sky! We had a task on hand, though. There was plenty of stargazing time as the camera rolled. We gathered our gear and trekked back out to the spot we marked on Google maps for some Milky Way action. The first few images kicked back on the camera showed an intense green cast. We were treated to some of the most intense airglow I've seen in a while! I swear, the desert southwest, with its pristine light-pollution free skies and low humidity, have the most awesome airglow!



Joshua Trees, Mountains and Fire - Oh My!


Laurel dropped me off in the late morning hours at the hotel. Time to catch some much needed z's from an epic night of shooting the alien landscapes of White Pocket. A quick few hours past, and was up again. I'd be by myself this time and needed to figure out the day's plan. Drove back to the campsite from a few nights prior near Zion. This spot is great because it secluded and has signal! So I relaxed, listening to the breeze, as I scoured google maps for a place to shoot sunset and milky way. Decided on Snow Canyon. I packed up and headed west. Not long into the drive, Kirk suggested that shoot the Joshua Trees near I-15 and the Arizona/Utah/Nevada border. Didn't know Joshua Trees were found this far north, so the inquisitive me switched plans. Plus Kirk never leads me astray!


Beautiful is an understatement for this Joshua Tree forest. This unique area located on the other side of the Pine Valley Mountains, treated me to one of the most vibrant sunsets I've seen on this trip! With the gnarly silhouettes of the Joshua Trees, it was a landscape photographer's playground. As such, I wanted to shoot milky way here with the trees. Scouted around for a good tree and spot, then began to wait. I also shot the crescent moon and Venus while waiting.



Then I saw smoke. Now, this is BLM land, and camping is allowed. As first it seemed like a simple camp fire. But then it grew... and grew.. and grew... VERY quickly. I knew that this was not a campfire or a controlled burn. This was a brush fire. I threw all gear into the Jeep and high-tailed it out of there. Stopped by the fire department on the way out to let them know. They were already on it, as I saw a fire truck speeding out in that direction. Later learned that this was a natural-caused fire, and brought under control rather quick. Gave me a newfound respect for these wildfires and the speed at which they can travel and burn. Quite scary!



Zion - Take 3!


With the Joshua Tree idea squashed, needed a plan B. Knowing I had to drive to Escalante the next day, headed back east. There's this iconic location in Zion that I've been reluctant to shoot because of the popularity. That quintessential bridge overlooking the Virgin river and the Watchman scene. Well, there's no time like the present! Plus with the park not running at capacity, seemed like a solid Plan B. Of course I arrived there entirely to early. The non-existent winds and cool temperatures created ideal conditions shooting conditions. Decided to experiment a little with some REALLY long exposures. Fifteen-minute ones to be exact. Spent the next 3.5 hours shooting this quaint and iconic location. Upon processing the images, I was glad to have made the stop.



Bryce Canyon Area


Time to head to another one of my favorite places in Utah - Escalante. The plan was to meet up with Aaron (Photog Adventures Aaron) and Milky Way Mike for Breakfast/Lunch and discuss the day's.. er night's plan. The drive from Zion winded though the Bryce Canyon area and then up into the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument. This is another one of those unforgettable drives. From the soaring red rocks, which are absolutely striking against the blue skies, to the arch ways, and overlooks - it's sensory overload. Utah, you are incredible! Stopped and hiked a nearby trail to stretch the 'ol legs and admire the scenery.


Escalante



Our favorite place in Escalante, The Outfittters, had THE best oatmeal on the planet. We were soon notified that due to the pandemic, they were only serving a limited menu. Bummer. We ended up at another restaurant nearby that was allowing dine-in on the patio only. The food was really great here, too. That could be because all I had to eat up until now were things like Clif Bars. Nothing against Clif Bars, I love them - but sometimes you need a solid meal! As we ate, we discussed the weather and locations. We stuck to the original Dance Hall Rock plan, as the weather looked amazing.


Mike and his girlfriend then took off to get some sleep and explore the town. Aaron and I embarked on a scenic drive up to Homestead Overlook. We sat there and contemplated life for a while. The challenges, both past and present, while the sweeping views of the Grand Staircase and Capitol Reef area refueled the soul. Aaron pointed towards an area and mentioned we would be down that way in a few hours. I love overlooks for this reason. They really give you a sense of the grandeur this place has.


Dance Hall Rock



Aaron and I head back to town to pick up Milky Way Mike and to repack Aaron's truck for the trek to Dance Hall Rock. This drive requires some preparation, as its not a easygoing ride out there. Tires need to be in good shape, important items need to be secured, and need to make sure the spare is in good working order. Not far along the dirt road, we came across a car changing a flat. I hoped this wasn't an omen!


Aaron always laughs because I manage to fall asleep on this horrible, horrible road. This trip wasn't any different. Perhaps it is from the days of milky way chasing leading up to Escalante. Or there really is something about a jarring, bumpy road that has a lullaby effect. Regardless, it felt like we were there in no time. Imagine that!


Redemption


What's in a name? Dancehall rock is a large sandstone amphitheater. It made a wonderful campsite for weary pioneers. Accompanied by the music of violins, Mormons entertained themselves and danced away their worries. We certainly danced our way up the trail - well as best as one can with 50 pounds of gear strapped to your back!

Patience pays off! The sunset shaped up to be quite the stunner. Mike, Aaron and I had a blast watching the colorful oranges fade in to pinks and red followed by violets and blues. Soon the twinkling of the first bright stars adorned the sky. About this time some clouds also made their appearance. Not many, but the placement was precarious. These pesky clouds camped out right along the milky way core for almost an hour. We all laughed, as it looked like someone masked the milky way out in Photoshop! The clouds eventually fizzled out. After getting skunked here last year, we were relieved. Almost lost that Redemption shot!

The "Accidental" 7-mile Hike


Aaron suggested I head over to this overlook in the Capitol Reef area. Since it's relatively unknown yet accessible, I was willing to head over there. Due to lack of sleep, I had a ton of time to kill. Aaron also mentioned something about Lower Calf-creek Falls. Waterfalls, you say? I'm in. The area is heavily trafficked, so I figured this was an easy and quick out and back. Never bothered to look it up.

About 20-30 mins into the hike, started to wonder about the decision to hike this. It was hot and sandy. I was wearing sandals, as the plan was to go into the water once there. So I stop and break out the phone. Mind you, I don't have signal , but downloaded all the off-line google maps. Hovering over the little dotted line on the map, and thought to myself. "hmm, well then!" This wasn't a quick, short hike. It was a 7 mile out and back hike, and I was about half way in. I'd kick myself if I didn't finish it, so mustered on with all the camera gear and only a 16-oz bottle of water - and sandals. Which was a ton of fun on the hot sand.

Lower Calf Creek Falls - Finally!



Continuing on though the sand and woods, I could hear voices and laughter echoing off the canyon walls. Couldn't be far now! The reward came when the trees reveled a stunning 214-ft waterfall cascading down into the gorge. It was incredible. The thundering water fell into crystal clear pools of water at the basin. Perfect for jumping in and making a splash! The cool water on my feet quickly lowered my body temperature and made me feel 100 times better. Relaxed here for while before making the three and a half mile trek back. My only regret was not bringing a hammock!

Going to Mars and Back



Day whatever we are on's campsite ended up on the edge of a mesa. This overlooked the San Rafael Swell near Hanksville, UT. This place, made rather famous by Brad Goldpaint, is surreal in every sense of the word. From rumors about this place, and the lack of traffic heading out, thought I'd have this place to myself. Well, turns out this secret location is not-so-secret anymore! I arrived to a group of 5 overland trucks camped out. They were quite cool, though. We had some fun conversions before they called it a night. My concern was not waking them up as I gallivanted around the cliff edge looking for compositions.



The Jeep panorama was the last set of images before calling it a night. It was already past 3AM, and astro twilight was near. Crawled into the Compass, and promptly passed out. Morning comes around very quickly when you stay up virtually all night! The warm oranges and pink glow painted the rocks and clouds, as I forced my eyes open. Groggy and full of mind fog, my brain slowly woke up. I quickly saw how vibrant the sky was turning. Sprung into action and grabbed the gear. The stage was set for a burner!


Until it wasn't. Sunrises and sunsets are fickle things. The cloud cover, which was setting up the sky for magic, grew into to many clouds, and squashed the sunrise. However, managed to click off a few shots that were decently vibrant.




Monument Valley



Cue the familiar story line. Vibrant red sandstone. Blazing blue skies. Epic overlooks and grand vistas. Moki Dugway. Wait, what's the last part? One exhilarating ride, that's what! I was so busy paying attention to the gorgeous scenery along UT-95 and UT-261, that I missed the bright yellow sign warning "10% Grade. 5MPH switchbacks. Narrow Gravel Road". I swear, this beautiful paved road ended rather abrupt, and things got real. Now, I am not afraid of heights, but this still proved quite the adrenaline rush! There's no guardrails on this very narrow, winding road down into the valley. However, the views were out of this world. This was my favorite leg of the trip by far.

The road leads into the valley, where the ancient monoliths jut out of the landscape towering into the sky. The most famous of these scenes is "Forrest Gump Hill". Yes, that is actually a label on Google Maps. This iconic scene is a view you'll never forget. Promise!


On to New Mexico


Didn't spend an awful lot of time in Monument alley, as the Navajo Nation was - and still is - reeling in from the devastating blow COVID-19 had on the community there. I was mindful of their area by limiting contact and keeping to the car. After snapping the iconic Forrest Gump view, started the journey back east. The plan was to meet up with another good photographer friend, Rhonda, at a ranch she was staying at. However, it was still a good 7-8 hr drive from Monument Valley over to Cimeron, NM. Remember how I said these states are deceivingly huge?


Crossing into the north west corner of the state, you'll come across this impressive volcanic plug called Shiprock (Navajo: Tsé Bitʼaʼí, "rock with wings" or "winged rock"). Imposing and unmistakable, as it stands alone against a rather flat landscape. This gnarly looking mountain is actually the inside of a long-extinct volcano in which the mountain eroded away around it. The Navajo consider it sacred. Climbing is strictly prohibited. I usually like to stop here, but with the whole COVID thing, did a quick fly-by.



The clear blue skies welcomed in puffy, pillowy clouds as I moved further east. The continued to grow and morph into many shapes as they filled with moisture. My imagination went wild watching the moody skies. If its one thing mountains are great at - its creating weather! I stopped along the way a few times to capture this heavenly show.


Back in the Mountains - New Mexico Style



Arrived at the ranch around 10PM. Rhonda showed me around, and we discussed the plan. Or lack of plan due to heavy cloud cover. We decided that the night was a loss and chose to catch some of that elusive sleep. The following morning, we took our time getting up. I was not upset, though. This is the first time in a week where I got over 8 hours of sleep. Felt like a new person. The ranch owner took us over to meet a few of his bulls. Such imposing creatures! Also, the sand-induced allergies from days prior finally cleared! I was no longer blowing out sand from my nose.


Upon re-organizing for the trip up to the mountains, I discovered that the trusty ol Nikon 14-24mm lens failed. The zoom mechanism broke and locked the lens at 14mm. No idea how this happened, other than maybe for age, heavy use, and riding along on very crappy roads. Along with zooming capabilities, the auto focus also quit. Well, since this was primarily a night lens, the focus doesn't matter much. Now it is a heavy 14mm prime lens. Ha!


More Scouting and Clouds


The plan was to camp in the national forest that night and shoot an overlook and a river bend. I'm sworn to secrecy regarding this location. You'll have to use your google detective work on these! The weather was hit and miss. Clouds rolled in, as they typically do, in the afternoon. It started to rain. Rhonda and I both were looking kind of disappointed by this point. However, the night was young, so there's always hope.

Around midnight, that hope and patience paid off! The sky was clearing - and cleared at a quick rate! We high-tailed it over to the river bend and set up for our shots. Fired off a few 14mm shots. As the shutter collected the little pin points of light, I look up and admired the way the galaxy arm arched over the rocks. The scene begged for a panorama!



Ghost Towns and Old Cars



The following morning, Rhonda, her daughter, and I drove back to town and hung out at a gas station in Cimeron. There's cell signal here, so we could check the weather and formulate a game plan for the day. Clouds were still an issue, but if the same pattern holds like the previous two nights, they should clear out in time for some Milky Way action!


We settled on checking out a few ghost towns and churches. Then pick the ones we liked the most to return to later. The first spot we visited was incredible. This is what I envision when someone mentioned the words, "ghost town". Dilapidated buildings. Houses with furniture and such still in them. Cars in disarray. Gnarly trees. It throws your imagination into overdrive conjuring up the possible stories as to what happened here.



Johnson Mesa


The last stop was Johnson Mesa. This area located at 9,000ft in elevation, is quite unique. The drive up there was just as scenic. North-eastern New Mexico is mostly flat until you start to get closer to Raton. The green rolling hills highlighted with golden grass made my heart sing. These hills are punctuated with various old dormant Volcanoes to add flavor!


This particular afternoon was extra special thanks to the scattered thunderstorms in the area. The high contrast clouds, and sporadic rains created extremely dynamic lighting conditions and, of course, rainbows!



What I found enchanting and interesting were the influx of single buildings set against these sweeping landscapes. These buildings are small and simple. Which added to the intrigue. Evidence of a life lost in time. Found myself thinking about the people who braved the elements to try to make a life out here. Will get to that in the next paragraph!



Little Church on the Prairie


A railroad construction worker by the name of Marion Bell left his home in search for a safer and more predictable occupation. This was around 1887 - and he led a group to to this grassy, sprawling mesa known as Johnson Mesa. The people built homes, farmed the land and ranched cattle.


In 1899, St. John’s Methodist Episcopal church was built in Bell, NM. The area residents held annual celebrations on August 14, the date of the church dedication. Horse and foot races, as well as a Rodeo rounded out the 4th of July celebrations. A large hay barn welcomed huge summer dance parties. This vibrant little town had it all.


However, Life wasn't easy up on the 14-mile long mesa. The long and harsh winters left residents snowbound for weeks at a time. Water was also an issue in the rather dry climate. The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 would prove to be the final blow to the small town.


St. John's Methodist Church was registered with the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Other scattered buildings dot the mesa to this day - serving as a reminder of how life is forever changing and impermanent.



Capulin Volcano National Monument



The church marked the last planned stop on this 11-day excursion. After saying goodbye to Rhonda and her daughter, I plugged "Chicago" in the GPS. 17.5 hours of driving to go! In typical fashion, though, did not get far before another stop. There were some awesome clouds forming over top of Capulin Volcano. Pulled the Jeep over, and broke out the camera for one last shoot.



The Return to Chicago


All good things must come to an end - for real this time! Upon the final click of the shutter from the base of Capulin Volcano, I picked up the gear and headed east. This southern route took me thought Oklahoma panhandle and up through Kansas. The scenery morphed back into more familiar sights - Silos Windmills, and Farmland. The landscapes went from colorful shades of reds, oranges, and yellows, to green. The moisture in the air returned, I was home.


Video of the trip - Done in the "1-second a day" style.






© 2018 MaryBeth Kiczenski

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