Get off the Strip

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The Las Vegas Strip that is. Not far away, about an hour+ drive from all of the glitz, glamour and craziness of the commercial city of sin lies Nevada’s first state park. Upon taking the exit from the main highway from town, you begin to drive down a long straight away single lane paved road. Off into the distance, you can see mountain formations as you pass desert-like flat terrain. As you near these mountains, the road take a drastic (and very drivable I might add) turn … literally. The road becomes windy as you make your way for about 15 miles through this vast nothing-ness. At first, I thought to myself as I was driving along was, “… I hope this car doesn’t breakdown … cuz’ I ain’t seen anybody since I left the highway … I have some water, but not days worth …” This kind of thinking, yes, is self-preservation induced, but you have to think of these things as you scenery changes to complete remoteness – I’ve been there several times and yet, I’m still here!

 

Anyhow, making one last turn off from this road, a small sign reads, “Welcome to the Valley of Fire”. Encouraged to continue. Since the forecast (in July on this day) was supposed to be in the upper 90s to low 100s(*F), I wanted to arrive early enough to where the sun would be beating down on me straight overhead. Even at 8am, you can just feel it was going to be a toasty day – good thing is is that you’re out and away from the concrete and asphalt jungle which retains at least 20*F so it shouldn’t be too bad. After self-paying entry, make a few turns down the main park drive and you’re immediately transformed to another world.

The landscape turns to a rust colored wonderland of strange formations that (from movies) look like a scene from planet Mars – definitely not one that resembles Earth as we typically see it. The blacktop road undulates through this valley of fire colored pock- marked vermillion rolling hills. Along these roads are well marked vista points that point you towards the more structures such as Arch Rock, Elephant Rock with the Fire Wave not but a mile from a parking lot. This park, more than many others of this type have several easily accessible natural wonders to enjoy and marvel at. What’s even nicer is human traces around these wonders were far and few – I have seen the worst of human visitation in our grand state and national parks of the western part of the US. While setting out for one of the scenic areas, I happened upon a young couple making their way to the same spot. Being that they had been photographing it the night before, they knew the way – thankfully they helped lead the way.

 

Because of recent travels to places where heat is a factor, I have come to seek out lighter and lighter camera kit while upholding a certain amount of image quality (better than a quickie snap from my trusty iPhone), leaning towards a kit that has been making great strides in the digital area of photography over the past 4 or so years – Fujifilm. This trip was sort of an experiment for me to see what I can come up with with only a single focal length … ok, perhaps a screw on lens attachment to allow for a wide angle, I had two  lengths 27mm and 35mm. For the most part, the 27mm was on most of the time. I found myself not being bogged down by a zoom lens, let alone the carry weight. It was liberating in a way. For those of you who have ever lugged around a DSLR, you know where I’m coming from – especially those pro-type kits that border on 7lbs! This may not sound like a lot, but trust me, it begins to tug and tire you out more than you know when it’s strapped to you for more than 5 hours. My camera carry weight was around a pound and a half now. Heck, I schlepped more water (a definite must in these conditions) than I did in kit weight. Billed as a street photographers tool, I am becoming overwhelmingly convinced that the Fujifilm X100F is an all-around camera for most genres. Highly mobile. High image quality. Bonus … it’s whisper quiet shutter has allowed me to stealthy fire off frames in such forbidden places as monasteries …. shhhh.

 

We were lucky this day – weather wise. Although the sun was fully out and heating the desert, we were gifted a fair amount of cloud cover to filter the suns relentless beatdown allowing for a bit more exploration than usual for this time of year. It being just past high noon and the clouds beginning to disperse widely, it was time to leave and head back to the (even hotter) concrete jungle of the Las Vegas Strip. I highly recommend visiting this magical place for a day to give yourself a break from the one-arm bandit (and possibly from losing $$ too). Viva Las Vegas!

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Ne Gases of the Past

Ne9Signs. It’s almost an American icon in and of itself. Whether a huge donut, an oversized pistachio nut, a purple dinosaur or a simple flashing motel light to tell us “No Vacancy”, the American backdrop has a strong history of signage and Las Vegas is probably at or near the center of all it. This is what drove me to want to see what a place called the “Neon Sign Boneyard Museum” was all about. Seemingly, it is a small operation operating on a small budget with a passion to tell visitors about the history of Las Vegas’ glorious past through signs. The boneyard isn’ particularly large in scale, but holds many of the familiar places most Americans have heard about while growing up, ranging from the Tropicana, Algiers, Las Vegas Club, Rivera and my personal fave the Stardust to name a few. The boneyard is just a fraction of what they have collected over the years and have resurrected them to pretty good viewable condition and in some cases restored them to a functioning state where the neon is actually operational.

Along the guided tour, you learn about the history of the signs, but also the politics of some and how they dictate what you see either downtown or on the Strip around signage. Very interesting I must say. The guide also educated us on the different expertise required to making these signs – from understanding science to engineering. Neon or Ne on the Periodic Table of elements, naturally gives off an orange hue and to get other colors, helium, mercury and other gases are used in combination to create yellow, blue and green. I surprised I remembered that! But before pumping any gas to create a vacuum, glass blowing experts have got to work their magic in creating tubes that can withstand pressure. Lots more techie stuff involved, but fascinating for sure.

Not much more to say about this place, but to encourage you to pay a visit the next time you’re in Vegas – you can do it in about an 2 hours door-to-door; if you’re staying downtown near Fremont St., less than that! I recommend booking in advance as tours at prime times (early morning and evenings) are usually booked. I highly encourage to book a tour just before sunset as it’s not quite dark yet not too light out. They don’t allow tripods so you need enough light to capture a cool background sky while capturing the essence of the signs themselves.

This is definitely a slice of Americana.

Life as it should be, a 1st Nation Peoples Experience. 

Last summer while touring Monument Valley, I met Ron, one of the tour operators. Since I opted to stay the night in The Valley that night (with requires an escorted stay by a Navajo (Diné) as it’s on their land), we were treated to a pow wow after dinner. My, of course, having had to photograph this event I ended up send Ron prints of he and his wife dancing in their full Diné Regalia. Since keeping in touch, he told me about an annual event that bring together many native nations for a huge pow wow. I thought little of it and stowed it away as a future ‘maybe’ thing to do.
For some reason, as karma would have it, I received an email that had an advertisement for “the largest pow wow of the year”. I thought … is this the same one that Ron mentioned. Curious forced me to click through the ad. It took me to a website called The Gathering of Nations. After perusing, I found that it was coming up in a couple of months. Almost immediately after leaving the site, I emailed Ron asking him … well you know … yep, same one! So, my quest began. During this quest, I ended up being sponsored as a photographer for a local magazine in New Mexico! With media pass secured, it was time to begin plans around the event.
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Ceremonial pray to kick things off.

Growing up in America, all we learned about in history class was how the new settlers from Europe traded and later fought the natives and how the aggressive and warring Indians fought the US Army in various battles. Our history paints “them” as savages. This is what we all mostly grew up believing. Further, Hollywood depicted Indians in similar light which further supported what we learned in school. Sadly, this is the complete opposite in reality. Here we have an ethnic race of proud people having foreigners stealing their land, treating them as second citizen people all b/c the new settlers wanted what they had (their land). Ugh. History aside, what I’ve come to know (now), that the First Nation People have band together in solidarity preaching love, tolerance, respect for once another, a deep commitment to their respective cultural importances to carrying forward to their future generations.
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I digress … Fast forward months of waiting … and arriving in Albuquerque for the first time, I quickly got my bearings and found myself readying my gear to shoot the event. I entered the event to a familiar sound. The sound of a Native American flute song. If you’ve never heard this before, the sound is emotionally moving and soothing. Such a powerfully peaceful sound reverberating off the walls of this large hall, oddly transforms you to a spirtual place. More native music ensues. Then, it’s time for what’s called “The Grand Entry” – a large procession of First Nation peoples dancing to the beat of drums. Arrrgh … the DRUMS. The arena was encircled with no less than a dozen different tribes from all over North America. Each tribe had 8 drummers sitting in a circle around their sacred drum pounding the it in near perfect uniscent with all their might while chanting in their own tongue. That alone sent me spiraling to a different place. If this wasn’t enough for the senses, in come streams over 3000 Native Americans from all over the US and Canada from some 300+ different tribal nations – dawning their tribal Regalia. It was an explosion of color, not to mention a sensory overload that was both exhilarating yet spiritual all at once. I didn’t expect this to hit me the way it did.
Just after a Grand Entry, I struck up a conversation with a tribesman sitting at his encircled drum. He said to me, (while glancing at a female next to me) “Would you like to sit, pointing at a seat next to him in the circle), it’s ok for you”. Come to find that this drum circle a sacred place for men only – no women allowed. Noticing a few things within the circle, I asked many questions and got some very interesting perspectives into what this circle entails. I was honored to be invited to his circle as he shared much knowledge with me.
These brief 3 days felt like 7 as it was a party and spectacle for 12 hours straight. I befriended a couple of folks both from the local area and neighboring states who helped clue me into snipets of Native culture & rituals that helped enhance the overall experience. I was told that once I set my belongings down, that it was completely safe as to no worries of it disappearing – it was against he spirit of the event. More over, everyone whom I interacted with in conversation of otherwise were the friendiest most generous I’ve experienced in the US. I felt like family in an odd sort of way – like they were taking care of me. It felt what I’ve experienced in Asian cultures – which I draw strong parallels from and think the two cultures are somehow descendants of one another.
I left with a few key messages that were both felt and spoken in Respect, tradition, spiritual awareness and forgiveness – all strongly taught to all generations within this proud nation of people. I am humbled once again.

HooDoo HooNu?

I’ve always heard about Hoodoo’s or toadstools as they are more commonly called. On our last day in the Page, AZ area, it worth the early morning short drive to the Rimrock Hoodoo’s. It’s located right off Hwy 89 towards Kanab just after the 19mi marker on the very southern tip of Grand Escalante. There, apparently, are more spectacular Hoodoo’s in other areas not far from Rimrock, but we were running out of time as we were leaving for Phoenix in a couple of hours. Once parked in the lot not far from the highway, just follow the wash towards the mesa before you and you’ll run right into it – can’t miss it.

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Only the shadow knows.

You’re first greeted by the red toadstool standing high and proud above the multicolor badlands below. Getting up the the plateau closer to the mesa wall affords you to climb around a large flat area with other smaller Hoodoo’s. From there, head westerly along the red colored mesa to find more Hoodoo’s of various sizes and shapes. Once you’ve found a few, keep going and you’ll be treated with an entirely different rockscape that changes from the typical cinnamon colored sandstone to a sugary white wonderland that appears like snow. As you sit and set gaze in your surroundings, the curious Hoodoo’s have white stalks with red colored tops.

It is believed that the Hoodoo’s are formed through nature’s erosion of wind and rain with it’s pillars giving way for their soft sandstone properties. Their capstone counterparts precariously balance themselves perfectly as the erosion process begins. It’s sort of a freak of nature if you will and definitely a special sight to see firsthand. Having gone when the sun was just beginning to rise over the mesa, allow me to play around with the morning’s sun against a (too) perfect cloudless brilliant blue sky in and around the Hoodoo’s themselves. Backlighting and pinching the sun against the Hoodoo’s is just another way to gain different compositions. When doing so, take care that your exposure isn’t too dark or too overly done no the highlights – take the middle ground and adjust in post a little bit.

Spend a bit of time relishing in and amongst the white Hoodoo’s in the peaceful and well protected cove. Going early in the AM afforded a quiet solitude as we were the only humans there. I don’t believe this is all that popular of a place, but definitely worth the visit.

Vermillion Remoteness

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At the edge, then becomes desert again

Said to have been formed back in the Jurassic period and plunked down in the middle of nowhere somewhere on the Paria Plateau in the Vermillion Hills at the southern border of Utah is in good company with the likes of Wire Pass Canyon, South and North Coyote Buttes, including much visited “The Wave”. Unlucky in obtaining the daily issued BLM permit for The Wave (only 20 per day), I was a bit bummed as this was yet another place that I’ve been wanting to witness firsthand. The tightly monitored Wave, from what I understand, is permitted the way it is mainly for crowd control. The delicate structure that it is, the BLM wants to help preserve it by limiting it daily visits. I think the 3.5mi trek to this location is plenty to stave off the casual tourist.

My disappointment quickly wained when we were informed that permits were granted to the South Coyote Buttes – an upcoming blog post for sure and as a bonus, this magical place that is protected by its soft rust colored sandy moat. This is White Pocket.

The journey here is one best left for the willed photographer or trekker who enjoys the unusual in a solitude that only speaks to itself. The drive out crosses a number of washes – many dry at the time, but mushy due to the occasional rainstorm in its deep sand. Evidence of how tough a ride it is, turning one corner, we see a human form frantically waving his arms in the air like someone trying to signal an airplane while lost at sea. In this case, we couldn’t miss him as he was smack dab in the middle of our way. On closer approach, muddied from knee to toe, the look on this poor stranded persons face (and his equally muddied girlfriend) were one of relief. It could’ve been hours if not the next day

until he would potentially see another living soul driving by this desolate road as he had expertly lodged his little 2×2 sedan into one of the deeply muddied ruts in a failed attempt to cross a wash. The rule of life in the desert – even stuck cars (with people in them), you leave no person behind and do the right thing … tow them out. Our being in a 4×4 (not a weak AWD) Suburban, it was easy work to get him out of our way so we can continue.

Doing our good deed for the day, we pressed onward along unmarked trailheads, “roads”, washes and a few gates (for what I’m not quite sure). There must have been cattle that roamed out here before as evidenced by Cattle Gates – strange finding these in the middle of remoteness. As we drew closer, you can see what the prize will be off into the distance as it’s like no other. Not easy to miss for it’s brightly color shades of white as the sun beams hit its peaks surrounded by the rust colored desert moat, we finally arrive.

From the moment you start down the short walk from the parking lot … yes, oddly, there is a parking lot here! … you get a sense that you’ve been transformed or in Star Trek terms “beamed” to another planet. Firstly, the ground beneath your feet now stand on firm pale grayish colored terra littered with potholes both big and small. Being that it hadn’t rained in some time, they were dry (we are, after all, in the desert). As you continue up the gentle mounds of gray matter – think of brain contours of a brain, you eventually realize that the gray matter soon gives way to its more natural rust colored sandstone only a few centimeters underneath. What you are treated to are waves upon waves of white, various shades of gray and a reddish colored landscape that is absolutely stunning. On first

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Life on the rocks

arrival, the dark clouds began to loom ever closer towards us. Thunder can be heard in the not too distant hills and as I stand atop one of the brainy mounds, our Guide gently reminds me that I might want to get to lower ground if I didn’t want to be (potentially) electrified meat … good advice indeed as I lost my head with all of the beauty before me. As the storm was fast upon us, we made for safe cover to our car, now a makeshift cafe as we sit eating lunch almost alfresco until the rains came and went. Local knowledge is king as our Guide called it right – waiting it out until after the storm passes will reward us greatly (instead of calling it for the day and head for home). After about 30 mins of a light downpour, we explored more and were treated to what gave White Pocket its name … pockets of water in those potholes mentioned above! Here we stand in the middle of vast nothingness, on brainy like rocks with hole punched into them that with only a few minutes of rain to semi-fill them with water!

As you can see, I couldn’t decide which was a more powerful image – color or black and white. I love b/w as stripping away color affords you to look deeper into the image itself and find little gems that would otherwise be lost, but on the other hand, color presents its own beauty and allows us to appreciate the world as we see and experience it.

Whilst traipsing around this red and gray conclave, you see these odd dark colored bumps or pimples stuck to the walls; come to find out that these are little iron and sandstone mixtures that eventually break off and and form into little rocks or pebbles. After the rains and wind blow them about, they become perfectly shaped into small little egg shaped rocks. These rocks are called Moqui Marbles and they’re scattered everywhere. Very curious looking indeed. I am told, over time, these marbles turn into sand completing its lifecycle with new marbles dropping and forming to continue the cycle and replenishment of what forms White Pocket in the first place – how cool is that?

Every turn, every mound ascent & descent was pleasing to the senses (aka eye candy) as you are treated to Mother Nature’s curious way of presenting something strange, something never scene before – be it terra compressions, striated sediment swirling around massively curved walls or deep bowl shaped washes. Photographically, like most things, it’s difficult to convey the depth, breadth and remoteness of this magical place. Use of wide angle lens is a must if you want to capture anything close to what you’re standing in the middle of … and even then (at 16mm), it still doesn’t capture the essence of this place. Of course, zooming in to grab some detail leaves you with abstract lines and swirls that begs the question for recognition.

My only wish is to return and stay overnight to capture this place under the Moon and stars, but that’s for another time … so much more to witness when I return to this part of the world. I believe this place will soon be under strict crowd control soon as it’s worthy of protection – but then again, the drive out here is probably enough of a deterrence for the casual tourist.

Eye Candy

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Greeting Teepee

Unlucky in The Wave lottery. The consolation was South Coyote Buttes (SCB), equally requiring a day permit to visit. Bonus? It was breathtaking. Unearthly. Surreal. Deep into the Paria wilderness, SCB stands on its own in beauty for its colorful display of sandstone swirls from millions of years of layered sediment and erosion from fierce rainstorms and relentless winds. Permitted, like its cousin The Wave, it seeks to preserve and control the amount human visitors – we were the only humans there during our 3 hour walkabout, not to mention the roughed 4×4 journey here.

Upon our egress from the parking lot, it’s about a 1/2 mile trek through a winding sandy trail. You’re first greeted with a ginormous teepee shaped or inverted ice cream cone that screams rainbow sherbet. The swirling and striated lines criss-cross each other in opposite and curious ways that makes one wonder how something like this can be formed. Traversing along side of the colorful sandstone walls in a bowl-like fashion, you finally make your way to the top only to be greeted with yet another gorgeous view of more swirling bowls that resemble caramelized bacon. Yum … a feast for eyes and all of your senses.

Pinks turn to orange and orange back to pink and just about every color in the spectrum. Curious boulders sticking up out of nowhere in the flat surrounded by strange looking hoodoos, balancing rocks, beehives and more striated beauty. Recent rainstorms during this monsoon season have treated us to settled water in low points along the rocks amidst the usually arid terrain.

As you walk along the marbleized sandstone, the further you venture into different sections of SCB, the terrain changes again, then back again. From smoothly shaped bowls sporting hues to calm the senses, you quietly step into the ruggedness of Cottonwood Cove area where brightly colored orange and rust predominate the rockscape against the wildly sea blue sky. Delicate sandstone fins scale from their walls jetting out in louvered fashion that defy gravity.

Photographically speaking, it’s easy … go wide. Wide angle lenses afford you to get up close and personal as their focal distances are macro-like, they accentuate leading lines while capturing the expanse of the scene. And, with this, find the sweet spot in your aperture (usually b/n f8-f16), just set it and forget and shoot away like there’s no tomorrow! For us on this day, another bonus was we were the only humans around. We had the entire  place all to ourselves = peace and serenity. All you hear is the whirling winds and your own panting from the next summiting rock formation that takes your breath away. A colorful feast for the eyes, mind and spirit. South Coyote Buttes. Onward to White Pocket

HORSE Anyone?

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Classic view

This is yet another location I’ve been dying to see firsthand … did I mention there are many firsts this week? Upon discovering this was very easy to get to from Page, AZ it was a must to see. As I’m sure you’ve seen, Horseshoe Bend is a 180* bend or U-turn in a portion of the Colorado River that’s absolutely a sight to witness in person. Upon arrival at the parking lot from the main road, it’s an easy 1/2 mile walk up a little mound, down the backside before reaching the cliffs edge. When I say cliff, that’s pretty much what it is. No railing, just a shear drop-off that’ll make your palms sweat in nervousness as you shimmy yourself closer and closer toward the edge. The drop is about 1000ft.

When I arrived at the cliffs edge, there was a stiff wind blowing in all different directions making it even more intimidating to creep towards the edge to get an unobstructed view of the entire bend – not to mention being pelted in the face by sand (that was being kicked up by the wind). I managed to setup my tripod back from the edge, take meter readings for exposure and set the tripod near the edge to fire off a few frames before pulling back from the edge. It got windier and windier so I sat for a bit to wait for it do die down. I continued, but without the tripod by shimmying my body army crawl style towards the edge and hung the camera over the get a clear view … no strap … if my sweaty palms let go of the camera … oh well, be it then me, right?

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Narrow view

The weather wasn’t the best for making stunning images, but you just have to take what’s given to you and be happy with it – unless you’re there for a few days. Waiting for sunset (as the sun sets directly behind the U-turn), the clouds began to form heavily on the horizon. After waiting until near sundown, I bagged any hopes of capturing the sun lower itself below the far off plains of the Grand Canyon and just left for a good hearty dinner in town.

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Sheets of then sandstone at cliffs edge, not recommended to stand on!

If you ever find yourself there shooting with a proper camera, I would recommend bringing and using your widest angle lens in your bag. I used my Nikon 16-35mm and felt that 16mm wasn’t quite enough and wished I’d brought my Rokinon 14mm, but I wanted to keep my overall camera kit weight down to a minimum. Also, once there, walk around left and right of center to see other angles that you can shoot from.

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Framed view