1968 was a big year for me. I turned 15 and I went on a date, my first, with a girl who would later–45 years later, become my late-life partner and constant companion, road trips included. But that is another story. Earlier in that big year I experienced my very first road trip adventure.
My uncle Bob had completed his medical school training and had been accepted for the next stage on his path towards becoming a practicing physician: an internship at Oakland Medical Center. In 1968, Oakland California was a long way from Minneapolis Minnesota. Yes, an expensive plane ride could get you there in three hours, but if you needed to bring more than a weight-limited suitcase, a three-day overland drive was required.
And Bob was fully ready for it, having recently acquired a 1968 model year Ford Mustang convertible, into which he packed the possessions that would support him for the next year in a remote setting. The car was symbolic, a vehicle to take him to that next phase of his career. It was freeing. With the top down, the wind in his hair evoked that sense of traveling to far off destinations holding unknown new experiences. It was a big year for him too.
It has been a wonderful time-trip to go back and review my journal entries, voice memo transcriptions, collected travel brochures, and observing notebooks to recreate these stories. Some of the material was outlined and posted on an early web site, but the impact of 9/11 a few weeks after my return from this trip, combined with the urgencies of daily life with my active family, derailed the project. My notes and artifacts have been hibernating these years since in an ignominious cardboard box.
The film that I brought home was processed by a professional photo lab and carefully organized into sleeves and folders and correlated with my observing notes. The images that stood out became popular prints that I presented at art fairs and exhibits the following year. The others kept silently in their folders in my file cabinet until I looked for supporting images for these stories. I have enjoyed scanning them and discovering pictures that deserve more attention.
My notes from immediately after my return offer some advice. Though today I do not recall it this way, my last night in the field with the windmill was recorded as a miserable experience, a disappointment of trying to reach a closure by recreating the first pictures from the outset of my trip. Maybe seeing a successful film image a few days later, erased that negative emotion. Today I enjoy reciting the story of being lost in the hayfield; at the time, it was just too frustrating.
In my notes I wrote that I took too much stuff and my plans were too ambitious. Today, I’m not so sure. My internalized boy scout motto, “be prepared”, provided the tools and materials when I ran into trouble in the wilderness– situations that could not be solved by a quick trip to the mall for repair items. There were many times that I was glad to have the resources that I had brought.
As to the ambitious plans, they might have been a setup for disappointment, but I no longer see it that way. I am appreciative for all of the experiences and opportunities that presented themselves. Maybe this is just a way of life for me; there is far more to learn than I can possibly take in. In the years since, I have learned to live with this limitation.
The road trip format– travelling every day– was not particularly good for deep sky work. Because of the high overhead for setup and alignment and focus, it would have been better to stay in one location for several days. I made the error that first-time travelers to Europe often make: trying to fit everything into a whirlwind tour.
In the end, because I couldn’t do everything, I had to prioritize. I favored shots that couldn’t be made from near home—so the startrails with unique foregrounds took priority and the deep sky shots that could, in principle, be made from anywhere on a clear night, were secondary.
Today, GPS is ubiquitous. At the time, before cell phones, specialized receivers were required. I had an early model, a gift from my mother-in-law who rolled her eyes about the whole concept but took pleasure in my delight at receiving it. The GPS receivers were quite primitive by today’s standards of localized maps that show you the nearest coffee shops and the route to get to them; instead, they displayed your numerical latitude and longitude and could record markers (waypoints). They could also show a trail of breadcrumbs of your recent route on a blank background. If a major city was nearby, the display would show a mark and a label for it. Still, as limited as it was at the time, GPS was a terrific aid to my efforts.
In the days before smart phones, there were “personal digital assistants”, PDAs, and I owned a Pilot, that hosted helper programs before they became known as “apps”. One such program, Sol-2, told me the local sunset, twilight, moonrise, and moonset times based on my location, which I could enter by reading it from the GPS unit. This was extremely beneficial for my nighttime photo planning. Today of course, all of this is available from your pocket computer/smart phone.
I have often referred in these stories to the difficulty of getting enough sleep. With the demands of cross country travelling, and nighttime photo shooting, sleep is postponed until it can’t. I learned that an hour or two nap is extremely beneficial. Even if not fully sleeping, the momentary metabolism slowdown of just resting seems to help.
The solo time on the road was a contemplative opportunity. My mind wandered over many topics as the miles rolled by. Most of those idle thoughts went unrecorded, with no subsequent loss to society; others I made notes of and have tried to convey in these essays.
The opportunity to undertake projects like this do not occur often. When they do, they are not always apparent. I am indebted to my wife Vicki, who recognized the moment for what it was and encouraged me to embark on this adventure. She saw that this was exactly the right thing for me; I encourage everyone to support the dreams of their partner.
And for those of you reluctant to embark on something that is outside of your usual style, I encourage you to push past the discomfort and seize the moment.
Consider the lesson I learned from the visit with my old classmate (Tillamook Friends…). That story was the result of wondering if I should take a tangent trip to Tillamook to meet him. The easier choice would have been to not go, to stay in my introvert’s comfort zone and get back to my solo photography. But had I not taken that normally untaken option during that summer trip long ago, I would not have renewed a friendship that then lasted until he passed away last year, and I would now be regretting the missed opportunities to have shared in part of his fascinating life.
It’s another reminder that life is short. When risky or expensive or uncertain opportunities come up, take them. Most people regret the trip not taken.
And when you find yourself under a clear night sky, take a few moments to look up at the stars and contemplate our place in this corner of the universe. We are blessed to be here, to have a life to fill with experiences and activities, and to share them with the people we love.
I’m on my way to rediscover a bit of personal history. As a young man I embarked on a road trip with my best friend Rich McMartin. We were college students with little experience and even less money, but Rich owned a functioning car, and we set out one June to see the Rocky Mountains. It was an adventure that left many lasting and wonderful impressions but, like many of my life experiences, the details of where we actually traveled and when and how we got there have been lost to the decay of aging synapses.
But some of the memories are so permanently etched that there are valuable clues to follow. One in particular has held a certain fascination for me, as it is the motivating inspiration for many of my startrail compositions: I am trying to capture the feeling Rich and I shared after we drove up a mountain pass one night, stopped at the top, and looked out at a sky that was so dark and deep and star-filled that we couldn’t find our favorite constellations! The dome of jewels that filled our eyes extended even beneath us as we momentarily lost our balance at the invisible shores of an alpine lake that mirrored the sky.
In the years since that powerful experience I have often wondered where we were that night, and now whenever I summit a mountain road, I look around to see if a familiar lake is nearby. On this day, leaving Yellowstone and its road construction behind, I realize that there is a famous pass on a road that would not be on any of my usual homeward routes, but it is not very far from here. Beartooth Pass! I’ve not been over it for many years; maybe this is the location of our nighttime trance. Even if it isn’t, it may hold a place for me to setup my equipment and take pictures in a remote alpine setting.
The forecast is for winds, and the clouds are intermittent at medium height. They aren’t the puffy cumulus blobs that evaporate at night; this is a troubling indicator. But I’m here, I should keep going. It may not turn out in my favor, but if I’m not there to try, there’s no chance at all. My task is to place myself at the right place and time, the weather is beyond my control.