Winter Train

The echoes of “All Aboard!” hadn’t even faded as I clambered into the coach car, looking for my seat. I was ready, and this being the railroad, leaving on time is always a certainty. And sure enough, right on time, the winter train left the depot and headed into adventure and the wonderland ahead of me.

It’s been a few years since I last rode the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad winter photography tour. Yet, I instantly settled into the comfortable rhythm of being on the train. There’s something, a hard-to-describe something, about pulling out of the station, through the town of Durango, then into the mountains, which is exhilarating and comforting, both simultaneously. I settled into my seat, at least for the moment, and enjoyed the buildings, then later the forest, rolling by as we headed toward our first destination.

Sure, it was cold. It was deep winter, after all, and winters are cold. That’s OK. I am more than prepared for it, bundled up in layers, topped off by my arctic gear last used near the arctic circle in Alaska. It would be colder soon, anyway, when I stood in the snow, but that was yet to come and would not be an issue.

The Durango & SIlverton Narrow Gauge Railroad transforms itself

The Durango & Silverton sponsors a photography tour a couple of times a year, once in the fall and once in the winter. These are fantastic events. We head toward great vantage points, and then leave the train. The train backs up for a “run by,” providing an opportunity for an extraordinary photograph. I’ve been on many of these, and I always enjoy them.

Although I primarily focus on landscape and nature photography, something about a steam engine calls to my soul. I can’t quite put my finger on why this is, exactly, but that’s OK. It is within me, and it just “is.” To me, a steam engine chugging through a landscape feels precisely correct, and how can I not photograph it?

This year the Durango & Silverton line decided to roll back the clock to the 1970s. Instead of the usual livery of “Durango & Silverton,” the engine was sporting “Rio Grande,” and the coaches re-lettered to “Denver & Rio Grande Western,” just as they did in that period. Engine 476, today’s steam engine, once again sported the “diamond stack,” which was last seen in the 1980s. To be fair, this combination would not have been seen in winter, but we’ll let that be for the sake of returning to the 1970s.

Making the photographs

The winter train chugged as it encountered the first grade up into the San Juan Mountains, but these mountains were no match for the K-28 engine. The snow began to pile up the higher we climbed, and soon enough, the train glided to a gentle stop. We weren’t at a depot, of course, but instead stopped in a clearing. Gathering my gear, I hopped off the coach and into the snow. I trudged a few feet away from the tracks, found my best vantage point, and waited.

With its customary toot-toot, the train backed up down the tracks and out of sight down the track.

Immediately, although I knew better, I felt a little odd. After all, when you are standing in a snowpack in the middle of winter in the middle of nowhere, and the train that brought you there is now leaving you, that gets your attention. It is too easy to imagine what it might be like if the train kept going, without me, back to the station. I would be alone without the winter train, left to my own devices to fend for myself. My thoughts, now their own runaway train, gathered steam.

Here comes the winter train

The merry “Toot! Toot! Toot!” of the engine’s whistle broke through my thoughts, though, and here comes the train! Hooray! I am saved! And also, I can make the photograph I have been waiting for.

476's Mountains

Engine 476 roared past me as I created 476’s Winter. The rumble, deep, throaty, and powerful, shook the ground as the train passed me by, reinforcing how mighty these engines are. Smoke billowed from the diamond stack and now and then created smoke rings. The Turtle and Pigeon mountains stood mute in the background, observing a site they hadn’t seen in fifty years. I would like to think they approved of what they saw.

The train roared down the track past me, but I had no fear I would be stranded this time. The winter train glided to another gentle stop and waited for me to trudge through the snow and board it. It is downright fun to get on and off the train at these different places; it just adds to the sense of adventure!

Onward to Tefft Bridge

Once again, I settled into my seat and watched the scenery roll by to the next stop: Tefft Bridge.

I’ve photographed this scene before but was glad for another chance. The first time, many years ago, I knew how I wanted the photograph to turn out, and it did. This time, I was looking for a similar scene, but better. 

As usual, I jumped out of the train and into the snow. I scrambled up a small hill since I wanted a high vantage point. I found the perfect spot and watched as the train backed out of sight. “Toot! Toot! Toot!” Three whistles told me the train was coming, and I made ready.

Tefft Bridge

The bridge, while wonderfully photogenic, also makes for a complex composition. By its very nature, it blocks some of the train, so the timing of making Tefft Bridge is crucial. I needed to have just the right amount of train through the bridge. Too little, and the engine is blocked. Too much, and it looks like I was too late. My experience from here before paid off, though, and the final result was exactly as I envisioned. 

In what seemed the blink of an eye, I was back on the train, pondering the upcoming location and the last one for this series. I had a good idea of what to expect and pre-planned it as much as possible.

The Treacherous San Juan Mountains

High above the Animas river, Engine 476 slowed down and crept through a series of sharp turns with sheer, steep drop-offs just inches from the outer rail. Areas like this convinced the early route planners that a standard gauge railroad could not be put through the San Juan Mountains, and it would have to be narrow gauge, if at all. Although some considered it impossible, the designers did put in the railroad. Still, even traveling down it today, I wonder how they did the unthinkable. Somehow, they did, with, quite literally, inches to spare.

As we snaked around Horseshoe Bend, I got off the train for the last time. As before, I stood waiting, ready, and determined. The train backed up out of sight, and all was ready.

The train streamed around the bend, blowing off steam as it did so. Perfect! I love how the thick black smoke and white steam billowing out over the sheer cliff complement each other in Steaming Bend. A scrap of snow lets us know it’s winter, and this scene perfectly illustrates the power of a steam engine in the rugged mountains.

Steaming Bend

Alas, it was time to board the time one final time for the trip back into town. Elated, the remainder of the journey flew by. I departed, now at a proper station, with beautiful photographs and memories. 

Even though I was just on it, it is time to plan another trip aboard the winter train!

Bring 476 Home

You can purchase 476’s Mountains here. What better way to celebrate the glory of a steam engine?

Horseshoe Canyon

As adventures go, this one didn’t start off very auspiciously. Long planned, constantly delayed, it seemed I would never make it into Horseshoe Canyon of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. And today, of all days, yet another roadblock loomed before me. But today, I would have none of that and pressed forward. I’m glad I did. It all worked out. Let’s back up and start more at the beginning.

Looking at Horseshoe Canyon
Horseshoe Canyon and where we’re heading for our adventure

Horseshoe Canyon is home to one of the, if not the, most significant rock art panels in the Southwest: the Great Gallery. Significantly, its sixty figures are six feet tall, and the gallery stretches almost three hundred feet long. It is impressive, to say the least. This panel contains both pictographs and petroglyphs. Pictographs are painted on the walls, while petroglyphs are carved or etched. The panel called to me across the years.

I’ve photographed many rock art sites over the year. However, this one, in particular, was always in the back of my mind. I knew I had to visit it, and the need to do so became more urgent as time passed.

Rock Art and the Barrier Canyon Style

The rock art of the Great Gallery is in the Barrier Canyon style. This style is exemplified by long panels with heroic figures. These figures are life-size or larger and feature several variations, particularly among the figures we consider sprit-like. And the Great Gallery is regarded as the prime example of the Barrier Canyon style.

The panel is relatively accessible, although it does require a seven-mile round-trip hike, the last part of which is straight up. However, I also wanted to be at the panel by myself, as I often do, to be alone and silent without interruption. This meant going in the offseason to lessen the likelihood of seeing other people. Also, the hot summers make the strenuous hike all the more challenging. Winter is ideal, but the snows also increase the difficulty, if not making getting there impossible. For me, spring and fall are my best bets.

I planned the trip several times, but a scheduling issue would arise each time, usually at the last moment. I was beginning to think that I should not make this journey. Finally, this fall, a window of opportunity popped up, and I went to Utah without a second thought. My thought was to get there while I could. I put my backpack together, gathered my gear, and was gone in a flash. No one could stop me now!

Except myself.

Previously, and I am unsure how I did this, I managed to twist my knee. The injury wasn’t enough to stop me from walking on it. Well, no, that’s not true. It was enough to stop me from walking normally. For weeks it had been bothering me, on and off. Some days it was OK, more or less, and other days it was decidedly not OK. Each morning was a little different, and I knew it would be fine sooner or later.

The Journey Begins

I drove to Green River, Utah, and stayed at a hotel there, providing a comfortable night before my hike. I woke up bright and early, and I do mean bright early. Not even the alarm clock was awake before me. I sprang out of bed and immediately discovered that my knee had decided that today was a good day to not bear any weight on it. This was a dilemma. The sensible option was to head back home.

Yeah, we both know that didn’t happen.

Limping around the hotel room, I gathered my backpack and ensured it was ready to go. I miraculously found a hot cup of coffee in the lobby. With that one discovery, the day was brighter already. I crawled into my SUV, started it up, and realized that even pressing the accelerator was painful. This was really not a good idea. I have had many adventures that were not a good idea, so why should this one be any different?

Ignoring my discomfort, I headed down the road to Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery! I had reasonable directions, but it was dark out, meaning the world beyond my headlights wouldn’t exist for many more hours. That’s OK. I figured I knew where I was going. All I had to do was make one critical turn onto a sketchy dirt road, and I would be fine.

Once I missed the turn onto the dirt road I was expecting but didn’t see, I realized that my plan could have been more foolproof than it was. I thought there was a sign, but the darkness hid it if it was even there. I’m not admitting that I drove in circles for a few minutes hunting for that road, but I did turn around several times. I eventually found a likely candidate and decided this was the right road. Time to find out if my hunch was correct.

I was expecting a long, slow ride to the trailhead, and I wasn’t expecting the road to be marked. Meaning it would work out and I found the road, or it wouldn’t, and I took an aimless drive in the pre-dawn desert. I would know in about an hour. Either way, I headed off into the darkness and possibly into oblivion.

The road was rutted, bumpy, full of washboards, sandy, and everything a desert dirt road is supposed to be. Unexpectedly, after about a half hour, I found a sign and knew I was on the right road. My knee was no better, but neither was it any worse. I pressed on, now enjoying the ride and thinking about the hike ahead.

I made it to the trailhead as the sun was beginning to rise. So, parts of my plan were working out quite well. I was pleased as I wanted to be on the trail at first light. I stepped out of the SUV, realizing my knee would still not fully bear weight and would be a problem. But hey, what’s a strenuous seven-mile hike on a bad knee?

I changed into my hiking shoes, slugged my pack onto my shoulders, drank the last of my coffee, and locked the SUV.

Off I went into Horseshoe Canyon. I was committed now to seeing this journey through.

Into Horseshoe Canyon

I was worried that I might be unable to find my way, but that was an unfounded fear. It was easy to locate the trail, and I began my descent into the canyon, every step reminding me this was not ideal. I’ve done worse, although this one is right up there. Quickly, I made a beeline toward the Great Gallery. I knew there were other panels in the canyon, but I wanted to make my primary goal, then slowly work my way back.

I also worried that there might be others, but that did not come to pass. Although there were other cars already at the trailhead, they were camping and not on the trail. I was alone in the canyon, which was a magical experience. Although it was painful to walk and the descent into the canyon was difficult, I was also keenly aware of this incredible experience. The significance was not lost on me.

I enjoy hiking in the wilderness. There is something about having your pack on your back, a trail or even no trail, before you as you trek onward. Hiking in the early morning is even more enjoyable as I wander through the land as it is just waking up.

As I continued, the sun was still low on the horizon, and the autumn morning crisp. Eventually, the sun’s rays began to light up the top of the sheer sandstone walls of the canyon, and I enjoyed watching the sun slowly make its way down toward the canyon floor.

Sometimes I enjoy companionship on my adventures. But for others, I prefer to be alone with my thoughts to go deeper into the experience. To me, Horseshoe Canyon is one of those times best experienced without companionship.

I continued on the trail, wending through the canyon, drawing closer to the Great Gallery. I saw the other panels I needed to visit along the way and noted their location for exploration on the way back.

Eventually, there it was! The Great Gallery! It was everything I hoped it would be, and the moment I saw it, I simply stopped and stared. How could I not? I don’t know how long I stood there. My watch also stopped, and the moment was timeless.

Once I could breathe and time flowed again, I shrugged off my backpack and marveled at the panel. I examined it from left to right, then back again. I looked at every figure and then looked again, wondering what the message was. But I knew that the answer was not mine to understand. That’s OK. Some answers will never come.

I made the photograph I longed for all these years: the Great Gallery.

Great Gallery
The Great Gallery. Click/tap for a larger view

The left side of the panel is colloquially known as the Holy Ghost. I spent a lot of time staring at this section and made Holy Ghost, another photograph I had dreamed of. I could not be more pleased with how it came out. There are more details about this section, too, in the link.

Holy Ghost

My goal was accomplished; I journeyed into the past and marveled that the figures have survived until today. The experience remains etched into my mind. The photographs turned out even better than I had hoped, and I am beyond pleased. The reward was well worth the effort, and I breathed a sigh of relief at accomplishing this photograph.

Eventually, it was time to leave. That was not easy, both mentally and physically. My knee reminded me this was still not a good idea, and I knew the remaining three and a half miles would not be comfortable. I put my backpack on again, felt its weight on my knee, and headed back to the other panels.

High Gallery is another spectacle panel. Named for its location—high up on the canyon wall—it contains figures in the same style as the Great Gallery. As before, its message remains unclear and unknown to me. In this photograph, I stepped back to include the cottonwood tree in peak fall color, which I think adds to the scene.

High Gallery

There is a question of why this panel is so high up the wall. At a guess, it is a good fifty feet off the canyon floor. It could not have been easy to create this, leaving us to wonder why there, of all places? Why not put it closer to the canyon floor, just as all the other panels are?

And High Gallery contains a secret, too! Look very closely at the left side just above the cottonwood. Do you recognize the woman’s face in relief? And do you see what she is looking at?

Now the placement makes perfect sense. The woman is looking directly at the gallery, and now more of the meaning becomes clear. Not to rain on my own parade here, though, this is only one interpretation, and it may be sheer coincidence. However, it is the interpretation that I choose to go with.

I want to highlight another panel that I particularly like. The Horseshoe Gallery has similar enigmatic figures in the same Barrier Canyon style. As with the other panels, the meaning is not mine to know, yet I still enjoy the experience of staring deep into the past.

This was the last panel I photographed, and I carefully repacked my backpack for the hike out. I knew I had a steep ascent ahead of me, and it would not be easy, given my knee. I also knew there was nothing for it, so I set out, slowly aching step by slow step.

No sooner had I left the last panel than I heard voices coming from further up the canyon, and soon enough, I saw the hikers attached to them. We exchanged hellos, and they headed off searching for their own adventure. I soon encountered a larger group and then a small one. It’s as if the canyon knew I met my goal and deigned to let the rest of the world in.

I silently gave thanks for my solitude and wished my fellow hikers well.

The Final Ascent

I approached the steep ascent with trepidation, yet met it as I always do—via a single step forward, followed by all the rest. My knee did not appreciate the extra effort, and let me know that. But, I have, quite literally, crawled out of a canyon before, and this time I would walk on two feet, so I counted it as a victory. It was only a seven hundred feet ascent, but it took me a while.

I exited Horseshoe Canyon and returned to the SUV, grateful for the opportunity to sit down and rest. Eventually, I readied myself for the trip home, and the trailhead receded in my rearview mirror. It was past midday, and easy to find my way back to pavement and civilization and then home.

Today, as I write this just over a month later, my knee still hurts off and on, although it is slowly healing. The pain will eventually fade to nothing, but this experience will always be bright inside me.

Bring home Holy Ghost

You can learn more about the Holy Ghost panel, and even bring it home for yourself!

Sandia Mountains

I know how Captain Ahab felt while searching for his white whale. The passion, the drive, the commitment that transcends all else to achieve, at all costs, a singular aim. Unlike Ahab, however, reaching my goal didn’t cost me a leg or anything else; instead, it was quite the opposite. I was not chasing an elusive whale. I was stalking the Sandia Mountains, which were right there in front of me every day, taunting me. Defying me to create a fantastic photograph of them.

Let’s back up a moment to add context. And we’ll see how this scene went from this so-so photograph to something extraordinary.

This modest scene would soon turn into an incredible one.

Here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there is a picturesque mountain chain to the immediate east of the city—the Sandia Mountains. These mountains, reaching 10,678 feet tall, might not be the tallest, but they dominate the skyline all the same. We all, every day, look up at the mountains and enjoy the view.

The Sandias have a nifty trick up their sleeve, too. If the conditions are just right at sunset, they will light up and glow a beautiful red color—watermelon red. Some days it will be intense, others subtle, but this variation gives the mountains their character. And “Sandia” means “Watermelon,” so the glow truly is the mountain’s namesake.

Naturally, this is a prime topic for any local photographer, myself included. How could it not be?

And therein lies the rub. The mountains are there every day, impossible to miss. It is easy to photograph them. Simply point your camera to the east, and there you go. Wait until sunset, wait until the glow appears, and you can’t go wrong. But there is far more to it than that, of course. Far, far more.

I wanted a different photograph of the Sandias and far from an ordinary snapshot. I wanted it to be unique and genuinely capture the essence and glory of the mountains. Those moments and those days don’t come along very often. And they are impossible to predict. So many conditions have to come together, and, for me, at least, the window of opportunity is relatively narrow for the photograph I pictured in my mind.

I knew I wanted dramatic clouds. Many days at sunset, whatever clouds are around the mountain will dissipate with the setting sun. The scene starts out beautiful, but as the sun slides toward the horizon, the clouds drift away, and what was magical becomes ordinary in the blink of an eye. I also wanted to showcase the fall colors. Why? I don’t know. It is just how I wanted it to look. I don’t want much, do I?

So, most days, I would look at the mountains, the sky, and the forecast and try to decide if the day would work out for me. I often gathered all my equipment and headed to one of my favorite viewpoints. Every day I would stand there and watch the mountains as the daylight began to fade. I was set up, ready to make the perfect photograph. And inevitably, the day would end with an average scene. It is here that I began to compare myself to Captain Ahab. He couldn’t catch his whale. I could not make my perfect photograph.

The next day I would start the process over again. And this went on for a very long time. I would have driven myself crazy if I wasn’t already there.

One day, though, I thought all the conditions would line up. The fall colors were at their peak in one spot in Rio Rancho. The golden colors were exactly the shade I was looking for; although some leaves had fallen, most remained. The day was also cloudy, and clouds in the sky were essential to my vision. But, working against me, it was a very windy day, and the clouds were becoming thicker throughout the day. This would prevent any sunset colors from appearing.

I visited my chosen spot in mid-afternoon to give it a good look—that’s the photograph at the beginning of this story. I wanted to be 100% certain of my viewpoint should the end of the day work out, so, like so many days before, I did my initial scouting earlier in the day.

So, I headed home and waited.

As the afternoon wore on, though, conditions worsened for me. The clouds continued to become thick and heavy. The wind picked up. The perfect conditions would not come together, and I would be disappointed again. Still, the eternal optimism in me won out. I once again packed up my gear and headed out. I made it to the location quickly enough, but as I suspected, it would be a bust. The mountains were now mostly in shadow—they would not light up tonight. The earlier breeze was now outright windy. The clouds were heavy. At least I would enjoy the mountains, all the same.

Sunset arrived. I stood there silent, grateful for the fact I was there but forlorn at seeing another opportunity slide by me.

Indeed, the most magical thing happened.

Right after sunset, the sun somehow found a way to slip through the heavy clouds. The right side of the Sandia Mountains began to glow their beautiful watermelon color. Huh. Didn’t that beat it all? The sunset was going to tease me; in any event, it was far too windy to create meaningful photographs.

Against all odds, the glow began to creep more to the left. Now, half the mountains looked really lovely. And the clouds started to light up, too. Still, the sun was now well below the horizon, and the scene would collapse at any moment.

Except it didn’t. It continued to get better.

In the blink of an eye, the mountains glowed with a vibrancy I didn’t see very often. The watermelon red was reflected in the Rio Grande River in front of me. And the clouds offered their own version of reds, providing a perfect counterpoint.

And miracles of all miracles, the wind dipped to a strong breeze. I had, quite literally, seconds to pull off catching my whale, er, make my photograph.

And I did.

Sandia Sunset

Sandia Sunset

The result is Sandia Sunset. Against all odds, I finally made the photograph I had pictured for so many years. I caught my whale. I achieved a photograph that, to me, captures the glory of the Sandia Mountains.

You can purchase Sandia Sunset here, and always enjoy the view!

Fishing Eagles

I stood at the water’s edge, alone, and long before the sun would even think about making an appearance. Being here was not an uncommon situation and one familiar to me. I knew the eagles would arrive shortly, and I hoped they would go fishing. The only question was would they beat the sun, or would the sun sneak out before they appeared?

The answer, surprisingly, was neither! Instead, the blue herons flew from nowhere, and before I knew it, they were there in front of me, foraging in the shallow water for breakfast. There wasn’t enough light to make any photographs, but there was enough for me to enjoy the scene, so I did.

They were quiet, intent on finding their meal, and kept to themselves. The morning was tranquil, and it was too easy to become enraptured in the scene before me, never moving again. I almost forgot about the eagles. Almost.

It wasn’t long before the eagles appeared. The sun rose simultaneously, and I wonder if this was by coincidence or design. Alas, I’ll never know. One moment, the herons were alone in the water, and the next, the sun bathed the eagles in its rays, and the birds soared high overhead, gazing intently at the water below them.

Eagle Catch

In the blink of an eye, an eagle dove headlong into the water, looking for its first bite of breakfast. With a barely heard splash, the eagle quickly rose again into the sky, now with a fish grasped firmly in its talons. Eagle Catch is the moment the eagle heads skyward. The vignette would repeat throughout the morning. Dive, then catch, the soar, over and over.

Incoming Eagle

However, the eagles and the blue herons didn’t exist peacefully at all times. Now and then, an aggressive eagle would fly right by a heron, who almost always objected. Incoming Eagle shows us one of these moments, and the heron is not pleased with the eagle bearing down on it.

The eagles would circle high above, always keeping one eye on the water. They would fold their wings and streak toward the water when they spotted their prey. The term “eagle eye” means something. Most of the time, they would catch a fish, but they would also miss it from time to time.

And some eagles would attempt to steal another’s fish, apparently thinking this was easier than catching it. This effort seldom was successful, but it must be a good enough strategy to keep attempting it. Sometimes, a fight would break out over the endeavor, and the fish dropped back into the waters below. The food was plentiful, so the battles were brief and not intense.

Eagle Dance

The wiser, older eagles grabbed the fish, tucking it close to their body, making it harder for another eagle to see and harder to steal. They are, quite literally, pretending as if they are flying around empty-taloned. Even though I knew there was a fish in the talons, it was hard to see and challenging to be sure. The younger eagles would fly with their fish readily exposed, inviting another eagle to take it from them. Eventually, they all learned how to hide the fish.

Despite the drama between the birds, sometimes a lone eagle soaring in the sky created a decisive moment. Voyaging Eagle shows us exactly what I mean. The eagle, wings outstretched as broad as they can go, sweeping across the sky, remains one of my favorite eagle photographs ever, and I could not be more pleased with how it turned out.

Voyaging Eagle

Eventually, all the birds had their fill, and gradually, so slowly I barely noticed, began drifting away. Before I realized it, I was alone once again. With a sigh but not a heavy heart, I packed up and headed out for the day. It had been a fantastic day with the eagles, and the blue herons, and who could ask for anything more?

Online Gallery

I’m excited to announce that my new online gallery is now available on the Virtual Galley page! This virtual gallery lets you tour and view selections of my work from, well, anywhere. The virtual gallery is an exciting way to discover and browse my photography, and it is just like being there in person.

Online Gallery

I’ve carefully selected some of my favorite pieces to showcase in the online gallery, organized into four wings: Adventure, History, Journey, and Route 66. Once inside the wing, you move around however you like, and there will always be another stunning photograph around the next corner. You can come back to the lobby to select a different wing.

Each piece has a title card, and some title cards are clickable. Clicking cards outlined in blue take you to the piece’s web page, where you can view more details, read the story, and purchase it. As for the others? Those are from my archives! I’ve dug deep in the digital cellar to find some of my favorite scenes that I want to share with you.

Online Gallery

Moving around is simple. If you are on a keyboard, use the arrow keys, and if you are on a touch screen, your finger moves you around. Click or tap the title card for more information. There are options at the bottom that let you customize how the gallery will work for you.


I want to thank my friends at Galeryst for helping me bring my online gallery to you. Galeryst is, well, nothing short of fantastic. They are a small team dedicated to making sure your work stands out, Galeryst is incredibly flexible and super customizable. You will be delighted with the results. If you’re an artist, I encourage you to give them a try. Be sure to head over to their featured galleries page to check out some of the other artists!

Let’s dive into the online gallery: the doors are open, and adventure, history, journies, and Route 66 awaits.

Ever Onward

The adventure continues in Ever Onward!

Ever Onward, my fourth book, is now available. You’ll encounter everything from the frigid Alaskan night in winter to terrifying tornados to tender moments on the waterways. We’ll visit more national parks, and yes, we stay up late after dark to wonder at the night sky!

Ever Onward

Of course, the stunning photographs make Ever Onward a wonderful volume, but the stories are what makes the book. I take you behind the scenes on my adventures, and we can spend the time we need to properly tell the story. We go deep into the backcountry of Mesa Verde National Park to visit places that few ever have the privilege to witness. We trek into the far reaches of Death Valley National Park to explore its past and hear tales told to me by those who might know, or they might be just a story. And we find something very unexpected along the way, too.

We meander through swamps and byways. We’ll marvel in the forests. We climb tall mountains. Together, we stand on the shoreline of oceans, and yes, we even go on the ocean, much to my dismay. We even peer through telescopes to see the wonders that lay beyond our planet’s confines.

We go Ever Onward, exploring, being delighted and amazed, and seeing the world around us in a whole new light.

Like Route 66, Sojournic Tales and Unbounded Chronicles, Ever Onward has the same trim size, making a fantastic collection for you. The premium pages are heavyweight and the colors rich and true.

Be sure you order your copy today!

Throne’s Glory

New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, has more than its fair share of enchanting places, although you have to know where to look. Knowing where to find extraordinary beauty is always the case, of course, but in New Mexico, it is paramount, and the best places are easy to overlook. The photograph Throne’s Glory, at the bottom of this story, is a perfect example.

I made Throne’s Glory in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness. Like its more famous cousin, the nearby Bisti Badlands, the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah boasts tortured, twisted rock formations and sparse vegetation. But, unlike the Bisti, this wilderness is much smaller, giving it a more intimate feel. It’s also less accessible, and you’ll need to walk at least a mile to find the most interesting rock formations. Because it is a wilderness, there are no roads through it, and all motorized vehicles are strictly prohibited. Then again, walking is the best way to discover its secrets, so it works out well in the end.

One fall afternoon I made this trek to photograph Alien Throne in front of the Milky Way. I knew that the Milky Way was vertical at this time of the year, making a perfect backdrop for what I had in mind. I bumped and jostled along the dirt roads on my way to the parking area; as each mile slipped behind me, the road worsened. The last couple of miles wasn’t even a road at all; it was more of a maze of two tracks through the brush. I know the area relatively well, so I had no trouble navigating, but I remember the first times I was out there were a puzzling and disorientating experience. I reached the parking area, which is more of a wide spot than a designated parking area, packed up my camera gear, and headed out into the wilderness.

Navigation is best accomplished by picking out a distant feature and making your way toward it. There aren’t any formal trails or paths, although now and then, you can find a footprint or two of someone who was before you. At first, you’re able to walk in a wash, which is easy progress. Later, you make your way across the landscape as best as you can. Sometimes, you’ll reach a small cliff or impassable section; it’s time to backtrack and find a different route. In any event, it is fun to explore and take your time on the way. The further you go into the alien landscape, the more interesting it becomes.

The Ah-Shi-She-Pah has several groupings of rock formations, and I made it to the one that holds Alien Throne after a pleasant and, surprisingly for me, uneventful trek. I set up my equipment, made myself comfortable in a camp chair, and waited for night to overtake me.

Waiting for night in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness

This photograph, made just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, shows the sinuous and oddly-shaped rocks. Alien Throne, one of the more recognizable formations and my target for this adventure, is on the left side of the photograph. You can see my camera positioned below it at the very bottom.

Eventually, the sun was long gone, and night stole in. With night came the first star, then more stars, and before long, the sky was alive. The Milky Way rose right where I expected it to, behind Alien Throne, and finally, I made Throne’s Glory.

Throne's Glory

Jupiter and Saturn make a guest appearance in Throne’s Glory, too. They are the large, bright lights to the rock’s left, with Jupiter slightly above Saturn.

Alas, it was time for me to leave. I packed up my gear and headed back through the maze of the wilderness to where I had parked. I had a headlamp for the return trip, and the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah was truly otherwordly when lit only by starlight and the dim light of my lamp. I’ll be back there again, of course, both in daylight and the nighttime, and we’ll explore more of its wonders then.

More Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah

This adventure isn’t the first time I’ve been in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah wilderness, of course. The Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah is one of my favorite places to visit, and you can find another story at Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah’s Night.

The Playa

The Playa

Death Valley National Park covers a vast area and, despite the word “valley” in the name, a wide range of topologies. It has mountains, hills, plains, valleys, and even sand dunes within its borders. There is one area that particularly stands out, the Playa, commonly known as The Racetrack, notably because of its ultra-flat surface and sailing rocks. The Playa is a lakebed, almost always dry, but now and then rains turn it back into a shallow lake, at least for a few hours. The lakebed isn’t the most notable thing, however, as we shall soon see.

Before we can explore the Racetrack, we first need to get there. On the surface, this is as simple as driving out the 26 miles on a rocky road. The road is flat, has minimal elevation gain, and doesn’t require any problematic navigation, save going straight at a well-marked intersection. Simple, right? Appearances are deceiving as they say.

The road looks easy enough at first blush. But its rocks are not round, nor are they easily driven over. Although relatively small, the stones are exceptionally sharp and quite fond of puncturing tires. You think to yourself: “how bad can it be?” The answer is, “beyond your imagination.” The experience is an exercise in careful, precise driving, choosing what looks to be the least worrisome section to traverse, and hoping you miss the worst of it. Hint: you won’t. In addition to worrying about routine punctures, you also have to worry about tearing your sidewalls out should you venture too close to the edges.

If the rocks don’t do in your tires, the constant vibration of 26 miles of washboards and bone-jarring bumps will shake something important loose or cause an engine component to fail. As for your suspension, it is unlikely to be the same after this experience. Far too many people have decided the laws of physics do not apply to them, and far too many people have learned the hard way that retrieving your vehicle is not quick, inexpensive, or uncomplicated. It is quite the opposite.

Teakettle Junction

In any event, I made it to The Playa in a few hours. There isn’t a lot to see, and even less to photograph along the way, except for Teakettle Junction, which is the only possible turn on the entire route. Just behind the sign, you can see what passes for the road. Legend has it that teakettles were left at this location by early settlers to indicate water is nearby. Although this may indeed be true, I suspect it is more of a myth than actual fact. Today, some consider it good luck to leave a teakettle, sometimes inscribed with a message, at the junction. The Park Service occassionally clears most of them out, and the collection slowly begins again. Water or not, myth or reality, it is a welcome waypoint on the way.

And truly, despite the hazards, the journey itself is a pleasant, albeit slow, excursion through the desert.

Near the end of the track, you can catch a glimpse of the entire Playa sprawling in the distance. It looks small, but it is almost a mile wide and nearly three miles long. Distance and size are not always easy to gauge in the desert.

Distant Playa

Finally, we get to the Playa itself, and it certainly is worth the effort. This ancient lakebed is flat as a pancake across its entire surface. I don’t mean that it has ripples in it, or small swells not worth mentioning. I mean, it is perfectly flat everywhere from edge to edge. It is featureless, too, except for its sailing stones.

Sailing Stones

The sailing stones are the main attraction. Scattered across the lakebed are numerous rocks, some of which are quite large, and behind them their trails as they moved across the lakebed. Some tracks are small, others long, some straight and some curved. Until recently, it had been a mystery how they moved. The Playa, with its sailing rocks and their trails, in the middle of the Death Valley, make an interesting juxtaposition.

Because the lakebed was bone-dry, I spent hours wandering about it, examining every rock and every trail I came across. I bent down and looked from their point of view to see where they might be going. Peering around them, I wondered if they would move, but they remained stubbornly in place for me. I looked at small rocks, and I looked at the largest ones. I examined every rock I could find.

The spectacle of the sailing stones is not one soon forgotten. Alas, it was eventually time to leave, but I’ll certainly be back soon!

Oh! You wanted to know how they move? Several things have to happen all the same time: the lakebed has to fill up, just enough to cover the bottom, but not too much, plus ice has to form just right at night, the next day has to be sunny, and finally, there have to be light winds. If everything lines up correctly, the ice is capable of moving the rocks, little by little. Over the years, they sometimes leave trails in the mud.

Explore more of Death Valley

Want to explore more of Death Valley? You can visit Zabriskie Point and places beyond!

Death Valley

There are places on this planet which are hot. And, there are places with scorching heat. There are even places that are below sea level. And then there is Death Valley National Park, which is all of these places and more. Along with this harsh environment, however, there are also wonders to be found.

David explores Death Valley National Park in California

California’s Death Valley National Park is isolated and remote, far from anywhere. Perhaps because of its remoteness, the valley has a certain timelessness to it, and it is easy to forget the modern world while you are there. The valley exists today as it always has, and always will. The landscape is arid and barren, for life is an effort here in one of the harshest environments anywhere. And indeed, its early history is one of struggle and perseverance as the early settlers and 49ers found out as they crossed through here in the mid-1800s.

Vegetation is sparse, at best, leaving a landscape comprised solely of sand and rocks. Winds howl through the valley, further drying it out, and the searing summer heat parches the unwary. The desolation is endless, even as you climb out of the valley and into the surrounding mountains. Although there are some low bushes and shrubs in the hills, and even trees at the higher elevations, you are still in a desert environment. Water remains precious and not easily found, and the summer heat is formidable.

Death Valley possesses the lowest spot in North America, Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level. Being in Badwater Basin doesn’t feel any different than being at sea level, except in the summer when the temperature routinely tops 120 degrees and has a record temperature of 134 degrees. That’s hot! It is the kind of heat that hits you like a blast oven and can easily overwhelm you before you even realize what is happening. The experience of being here, in the lowest place on the continent, is a powerful and moving one.

But yet, beauty is everywhere. Even in this harsh environment, there are soaring landscapes and amazing scenes. From sweeping panoramas to intimate moments, Death Valley is a photographer’s wonderland. Looking up at the surrounding mountains while you are in the valley is spectacular. The mountains meet the valley floor in a sharp line, making a dramatic transition. Although there aren’t any sheer cliffs, the mountainsides are steep and unforgiving, and most of all, imposing. Looking down at the valley from up above is equally inspiring, and we’ll see that view in detail at Zabriskie Point in just a bit.

But first, let’s stop at Artist’s Palette. This area is renowned for its uniquely colored slopes. The jagged hillside is composed of unusual and unexpected colors and jumbled together. Turquoises and purples, oranges, greens, and blues are everywhere, and it does indeed look like a colossal pallet. Metals have oxidized the soil, creating a very different landscape. Instead of the mounds being a jumble of color as you might expect, each has a unique color, creating the pallet effect when seen from afar.

Death Valley: Artist's Pallet

It was very wild to make my way through the purple sand to the top of a low hill to make this photograph. Every step I took, I kept looking down, wondering if I would see brown beneath my feet. I never did. On the other side of the purple hill was a green one, which I also dutifully scaled. All around me, colors assailed my senses, and Artist’s Palette has left a long-lasting impression on me. I’ve never seen this to this degree anywhere else.

Badwater Basin is another highlight of Death Valley. Here, there is, amazingly, water. It just isn’t drinkable water. Instead, it is salty and bitter and undrinkable even to the most desperate. What makes this area unique, however, is the massive salt flat, miles upon miles across, completely unbroken almost as far as the eye can see. I made this photograph after walking a mile out on the salt flat. Even at that, it felt as if the far side was no closer than when I started, and the distances began to fool my eye. The more I walked, the farther away the mountains became, and my sense of scale was completely off-kilter the entire time I was out there.

Death Valley: Badwater Basin

Finally, let’s visit Zabriskie Point, where I spent quite a bit of time and many sunrises. Zabriskie Point is easy to get to, but far harder to leave. You want to linger here for just a moment longer to witness how the display will change. Then, as you get ready to depart, you can’t help but wait a bit more to see what happens next. The timelessness of Death Valley is strong here, and knowing how many people before you have beheld the scene before you is a powerful reminder. Some of the most iconic Death Valley photographs and posters feature this very view.

Zabriskie Point is an overlook into the valley below, which is incredible in and of itself. What makes it truly spectacular, however, are the tortured rocks surrounding you. There isn’t a straight line anywhere, and erosion has created a rock fairyland. The colors, while not as colorful as Artist’s Pallet, are outstanding, especially in the warm glows of the early morning and late afternoon.

Each morning here tells a different story, and each morning presents its unique imagery. This photograph, Zabriskie Point, is my favorite from all the ones I made. Some mornings were full of reds, but this morning the clouds briefly lit up with an ethereal orange glow. Coupled with the oranges and deep yellows of the rocks below, and contrasted by darker ridges and the distant mountains lighting up, I think Zabriskie Point is a classic Southwestern desert photograph. I can feel the drama of the sunrise, yet the tranquility of the desert offsets that. There is tension, and there is a counterpoint of calmness in Zabriskie Point.

Death Valley: Zabriskie Point

You can read more about Zabriskie Point here.

Death Valley is also home to The Playa and its magical sailing stones.

Alaskan Eagles

One of my goals for Alaska was to find and photograph bald eagles. I didn’t think this would be too much of a problem since Alaskan eagles are common. Or, rather, I hoped they were easy to find. In the end, finding them wasn’t difficult, but photographing them, and photographing them well, was a different story entirely.

If I had to characterize the most common place to spot a bald eagle, it would be at the top of a tree. My neck still isn’t quite right because I spent all my time walking while looking up. I tripped over a good number of things along the way, but that didn’t dissuade me. I continued scanning the tops of trees. To be sure, I saw a lot of eagles, too. But just because they were in a faraway treetop didn’t mean it would make a good, or delightful, or even reasonable photograph. I needed a different approach.

Now I started to look at mid-level in the trees, and lo and behold, I found them. There weren’t as many, but the ones that I did see made for better photographs. I was on to something here. I just had to keep searching. 

Eventually, outside of Juneau, I found a perfect, secluded location. There was a small stream that fed a pond, which in turn emptied into the ocean. There was a solid treeline for the Alaskan eagles to perch in, and there were plenty of places for me to set up and wait. I did just that. I readily spotted several eagles, and now it was a matter of waiting for the right opportunity.

Intense Eagle

Here, I learned my second lesson about eagles. Once they are sitting, they are in no hurry at all to move. Once they settled in on a branch, they were likely to stay put for an hour or more. Oh, they would move around a bit, but as to the actual flying part, not so much. But that was OK. It gave me plenty of time to work on the perfect photograph, and eventually, I made Intense Eagle. The lighting was excellent, the sun was ideal, and the pose was flawless. I couldn’t have been happier!

Intense Eagle

Intense Eagle was not the only eagle photograph I made, of course. While I was out on the sailboat (Humpback Whales details that part of the adventure), I saw quite a few eagles, mostly in trees, and occasionally on the distant shore. But now and then, an exciting opportunity presented itself.

Icy Eagle

While sailing toward the LeConte Glacier I began to encounter small icebergs floating in the ocean. These icebergs completely enchanted me. Most were little, but there were larger ones as well. But amazingly, as I sailed by one of the medium-sized ones, I spied a bald eagle perched on it! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. What a fabulous perch it was! If offered a commanding view of the nearby ocean, and it even moved, providing an ever-changing viewpoint. I sailed the boat around the iceberg, looking for the perfect angle. The eagle watched me but wasn’t alarmed, which allowed me to make Icy Eagle. Icy Eagle just makes me smile every time I look at it and reminds me that you find eagles almost anywhere.

Eagle Post

Not every eagle photograph came about because I waited for hours on end. A few came about by happenstance, as is the case with Eagle Perch. I had been outside of Petersberg for the better part of the day, chasing the Alaskan eagles along a beach. I was positive the beach would work out, but after a day I realized it wasn’t going to. There were several eagles, but they were all high in the trees, away from the beach, and far from me.

Despite my patience, they were onto me and didn’t allow me to make any good photographs. With a sigh, I packed up, started up the car, and headed back into town. As I drove, I wasn’t thinking about much, except perhaps what sounded yummy for dinner. I drove into the outskirts of town, now paying attention to where I was. Next, I motored past a quaint neighborhood. I drove past an eagle hanging out on a post. I then headed into the central part of town and wait a minute! It finally dawned on me what I had just driven past. 

I turned around as fast as I could and sped back up the road. And there, sitting on an old post in the water, was a bald eagle watching me. I couldn’t believe it! The eagle was as calm as could be, enjoying the last rays of the day’s sun. 

Quietly, and slowly, I exited the car and picked up my camera. I sauntered nonchalantly in the eagle’s general direction, being careful not to let it know I was interested in it. It ignored me. Good! I prepared my camera, and feigning complete and utter disinterest in the eagle raised my camera, composed the photograph, and before the eagle knew what I was doing, made Eagle Post. I don’t think the eagle ever quite realized what I was doing. And in the end, Eagle Post has become one of my favorite eagle photographs as well.

Eagle Post

Sometimes, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Being in Alaska is a marvelous start. It was such a joy to bring these Alaskan Eagles to you, just as it was awesome to create Humpback Whales and Fishing Bears for you. I’ll be back in Alaska soon!