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The Woolly Mammoths Roadtrip 2009

February 19 – Post 1 of 4

I had never seen a sky like that.

Never.

Not even in the outback of Brazil miles from a paved road with no electricity to power any light polluting illumination.

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Star-filled sky framed by canyon walls in Zion National Park.

“I think there is a big, like, cliff or something next to us” came a voice from the back seat tinged with a heavy dose of Australian twang.

I slowed the car, rolled down my window and stuck my head out. Sure enough, an enormous bluff was silhouetted against the night sky staring down at us like a great gentle giant. It was so large I had to crane my neck up to see it. Otherwise I was just peering into the blackness of the wall.

I pulled the car over as quickly as I could and killed the lights. Overhead was a magnificent star filled sky, the likes of which I have never seen. I popped out the $15 Walmart tripod I had purchased just a few hours earlier, gleefully attached the camera, and made a series of 30 second exposures. Unfortunately the only tripod Walmart had left was a short 24″ one, so I spent most of the time laying on my belly on the cold dirt shoulder. Certainly not very glamorous, but well worth the effort.

    Nearly 1000 miles traveled in 3 days by 5 grown men in a Ford Expedition.

Nearly 1000 miles traveled in 3 days by 5 grown men in a Ford Expedition.

So began this fun little adventure that shall henceforth be known as “The Woolly Mammoths Roadtrip 2009.” We chose “Woolly” because, well, we’re a little older than those *other* Mammoth Men. No worries, however, there won’t be any pictures of us cavorting in our underwear.

The trip was born innocently enough back in January with a short email from my friend Australian photographer Marcus Bell. The note said something about his not being able to get a flight back to Australia from WPPI until 3 days after the show ended and was I interested in doing a road trip to go “shoot something”.

Well, of course I was interested in doing a road trip with Marcus. Besides being a great friend, Marcus is also one of the best wedding photographers in the world.  He has a fantastic sense of the moment and he has built a fabulous body of imagery brimming with emotion, beauty and personal connection. His work is one of the greatest sources of inspiration for me and represents many of the same things I strive for in my own work.

A few days later I received a follow-up email from Marcus letting me know that another good friend, Parker Pfister, would be joining us on the trip along with a couple of Australian friends. Mostly likely, he said, we would just “go out in the desert and shoot some landscapes.”

“Landscapes!!! Uh-oh” I thought. Well, landscapes ain’t really my bag, you see. Give me some cowboys, horses and crocodiles in the Brazilian outback any day, heck, give me a woman in a white dress, but landscapes…hmmm. Not only that, but both Marcus and Parker cut their teeth on landscape photography when they were first starting out. Both of them have fabulous portfolios of landscape imagery. I was a little nervous, but what the heck, it was a great opportunity to get out and have some fun with a couple of guys I really respect and admire.

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J-Starr gettin' his redneck on.

Other than simply confirming that we were all definitely doing the trip, that was pretty much all the pre-trip communication. We agreed we would figure out the logistics once we got to Vegas.

Needless to say we spent 8 days in Vegas without really talking about the trip in any detail. It wasn’t until Wednesday, the night before we were supposed to leave, that a small triangle of chairs was formed amidst the crowd in the back of the ballroom after the WPPI awards dinner and reasonably serious discussion began.

Joining us on the trip would be a couple of Australian photographers, Adam Finch and Jason Starr. Adam works with Marcus at Studio Impressions as an associate photographer and shooting assistant. He’s a smart, young guy with a great eye for images. Jason has his own studio, Studio 60 in Brisbane and produces some outstanding imagery of his own. In fact, he was featured in a nice article in the February 2009 issue of Rangefinder Magazine.

It was decided that Adam and I would head to the airport the following morning to secure a rental car. Marcus and Parker had an obligation to help Joe Photo with his Thursday morning presentation. Adam and I would snag a car, and by the time we got back to the hotel, everyone would be ready to go.

Just where we were going was still a mystery. Maybe Death Valley, maybe Salton Sea, maybe somewhere else. Just get a GPS with the car and we’ll figure it out in the morning we decided.

Let me just say that showing up at the airport without a reservation is never a good idea, particularly when you are traveling with five photographers. Each of us had quite a bit of gear and luggage, so we needed a really big vehicle, like a large SUV. Finding a large SUV in Las Vegas, wasn’t particularly easy, especially since we were departing from Los Angeles and needed a one way rental. A few places that had them in stock wouldn’t let us return them at LAX. Not only was it difficult to find the specific type of vehicle we needed, but there must have been 50 people in each line at the rental car agencies. In fact, some of the car companies didn’t have ANY vehicles available. I’m not sure what was going on in Las Vegas after WPPI, but whatever it was it must have required some driving!

Adam and I were finally able to obtain an Ford Expedition, albeit at a highly inflated price that fully took advantage of our desperate situation.

We returned to the hotel, grabbed a quick lunch, got everything loaded, and were finally ready to depart, although several hours later than originally planned. Of course, we didn’t know where we were going yet so that still had to be determined.

After a little deliberation it was decided that we would go to Bryce Canyon. Another photographer had mentioned to us that it was a beautiful place to visit, was only 3 hours from Las Vegas, and was a can’t miss for pictures. Perfect! We punched the location into the GPS and off we went.

It had also been determined that I would drive. Parker would ride shotgun since he had a pinched nerve in his ankle and needed the room, and the 3 Australians would ride in the back seat. Parker and I both were a little nervous about having our Australian friends do any driving, since in Australia they drive on the opposite side of the road! We didn’t want any inadvertent head on collisions.

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Adam and Jason load the car outside Walmart. Parker fits his new designer hiking boots.

As we left Vegas, I had no idea if we were driving north, east, south or west. That’s the beauty of a GPS. Just turn left and right like the lady tells you. I had heard of Bryce Canyon and was enthusiastic about going, but I had no idea where it actually was. I certainly didn’t know it was in Utah and in the exact opposite direction of the airport we were departing from on Saturday .

About 20 minutes into the trip we realized that since it was February and we were heading into some elevation, there might be snow on the ground. None of us had any cold weather clothes, and really not much in the way of proper shoes for hiking rough terrain.

About an hour outside of Vegas we found a Walmart and stopped for provisions. In addition to some munchies and water, I picked up a $5 long sleeved wool shirt, a $5 sweatshirt, a $25 pair of boots and the above mentioned $15 tripod. Unfortunately I let Parker beat me to the last 54” tripod, which was a mere $5 more than the 24”. That’s only .16 cents per additional inch! What a bargain.

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Marcus grabbed this shot of Jason rapid firing from the window at 65mph.

Anytime we hit any scenery, it sounded like machine gun fire coming from the back seat. In fact, it usually didn’t matter whether there was scenery or not. Marcus, Jason and Adam were shooting rapid fire out the windows of the truck at just about anything. Road signs, warehouses, gas stations…you name it, they shot it.

We were hoping to get to Bryce before nightfall but our late departure and impromptu shopping trip had put an end to that. We had entered Zion National Park in complete darkness. Zion was on the way to Bryce and our GPS was taking us right through the heart of the massive canyon walls that form the National Park there. We had no idea what to expect and this is where we came across the brilliant, starry sky pictured above and below.

After a 30 minute stop to make pictures we decided to head back to the little town of Springdale, UT to spend the night. This little town is just outside the park boundaries at Zion and we had passed several lodges and restaurants there.

Marcus and Parker seemed to have some strange desire to find the cheapest and nastiest looking hotel possible to stay in. We found one great bargain for $39/night but ended up having to pass because the hotel had no wireless Internet. We ended up getting a great deal at the Pioneer Lodge, which was thankfully NOT a dive hotel. We paid about $50 for each room, plus they had a nice coffee shop, restaurant and free wireless. Actually, the lodge was a really nice place to stay. Unfortunately they roll up the streets in Springdale around 9pm in the winter and we got in too late to get dinner anywhere. We ended up making dinner out of our Walmart munchies.

After everyone got settled we reconvened in Parker’s room to download cards, compare images and dine on some fine pepperoni and cheese crackers.

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Marcus shooting roadside scene at dusk in Utah.

Parker Pfister is someone I have known for several years but have never had the opportunity to really get out and spend time with him. This first night out on the road with him proved to be quite an eye-opening experience. First he showed us a slideshow of wedding images that was simply mind blowing. One jaw-dropping image after another. Then he showed us a slideshow of personal work, that again, was nothing short of amazing. To finish it off, he showed a slideshow of portrait work that was also phenomenal. Over the past few years Parker has amassed one of the best bodies of photographic imagery that I have ever seen. It has been fun to watch his progress and quite humbling to see the result.

One of the things I admire most about both Marcus and Parker is that I consider them to be true photographic “craftsmen”. That is, not only do they have the ability to capture great images with their cameras, but they have the talent to complete their vision with the way they finish the images in post-production. They are “master printers” in every sense of the word, as we would have said back in the film days. Their images not only have great content but the content is enhanced to convey exactly how they envisioned the image in their minds at capture. Many photographers have a tendency to be too heavy-handed in post-production, leaving their images looking fake or manipulated. These guys seem to have the knack of doing just enough bring out every subtle nuance.

We had a lot of fun that first night. At some point someone looked at their watch and noticed it was 3am. We had planned a 545am wakeup call so that we could be out in the canyon at first light. We decided a couple hours of sleep were definitely in order, particularly after a week in Vegas where none of us got much sleep anyway. Funny how time flies when you’re having fun.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about our first full day’s adventure and post some of the images I made.

Marcus has posted images from this trip on his Studio Impressions blog. Adam Finch has also posted about the trip on the Studio Impressions blog here.

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Roadside scene near Springdale, Utah at dusk without Marcus.

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Another view of the night sky at Zion National Park.

  • March 17, 2009 - 8:14 pm

    ruby rideout - sounds you like you had a wonderful time with your woolly mammoth men friends! i love shooting landscapes and traveling. That sky is ahhhhmazing! I’ve seen clean crisp dark skies with stars beaming BUT never like that one! Just gorgeous!

  • March 18, 2009 - 7:43 am

    britney - I love reading about this trip. Far more interesting hearing about your lack of plans and how it all came about. 🙂

  • March 19, 2009 - 9:39 am

    Joe Milton - Great stuff Greg. I would have LOVED to have seen that night sky!

  • March 20, 2009 - 1:35 am

    Charlotte Geary - Greg, that night sky is pure magic!

  • February 10, 2013 - 1:59 am

    Focus Films - fantastic photography.

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