I started the week in El Paso where I met up with the other guys from the workshop. We spent the first evening photographing the El Paso skyline as it lit up at sunset and then had some really, really good Mexican food at the L & J Cafe.
The next day we drove to Big Bend National Park, stopping briefly in Marfa and Alpine. It was my first time to visit each and I can't wait to go back with my family. After checking in to the Chisos Mountains Lodge in the Basin, we headed down toward the Rio Grande to photograph a hill and some tuff formations at sunset. While we were there, we did a light painting of an ocotillo plant. A few days before we arrived at Big Bend, Hurricane Patricia had passed through and dropped some rain on the desert, which sent everything into bloom. The ocotillo plants, which are normally a woody stick with thorns this time of year were completely leafed out all throughout the park. And lavender sagebrush plants were in bloom in large concentrations throughout the park. It was amazing!
The following day, we started again down at the Rio Grande at Santa Elena Canyon, which is famous for catching the morning light against its walls. It had gotten down into the upper 30s that night, so there was a great mist hanging just above the surface of the river.
That evening we headed down to the river again in a different part of the park to photograph the sunset against the Sierra del Carmen range. We hiked up a big hill and went off trail for a little while until we got to a hill that overlooked the Rio Grande snaking like a silver ribbon through a canyon below as it disappeared into the mountains.
The mountain cliff faces, true to their name, lit up bright pink as the last rays of the day hit them. Then the huge full moon rose from behind the mountains into the clear night sky. The whole while Laurence helped us check our settings and exposures to make sure we were getting a good shot.
We stayed on the hill until it was well after dark. Luckily, the light from the full moon made it easy to find the trail and hike back down. It was really fun hiking cross country down the hill in the dark.
But we weren't done yet. After the hike down the hill, we stopped at an old stone building that at one time was the store and post office of a hot springs resort that used to be here before this area became a national park. We did a light painting on the face of the building and huge palm tree out front. On my last exposure - one in which everyone else had stopped shooting - I was playing around with some camera settings a huge shooting star streaked across the sky, breaking up into a brilliant shower of smaller pieces at the end. When I saw that I had captured the shooting star, I jumped around in the dark screaming like an idiot. It was after nine by the time we had our sack lunches in the van back to the lodge, but the late dinner was definitely worth it.
We started the next morning out by hiking a mile and a half to a place called "Grapevine Hills" where there are huge stacks of boulders. One formation in particular, the balanced rock, is a fairly famous representation of the park. Our group started the hike in almost pitch black and got to our destination as the sky was just showing some light. We were there for sunrise on the balanced rock formation, but I found the way the first light touched delicately off the edges of the boulders absolutely beautiful.
We had done quite a bit of hiking and the plan was to stay near the lodge for sunset that evening. But there were several of us that wanted to do a moderately challenging hike that wasn't on the workshop agenda. The Lost Mine Trail is a great place to catch sunrise and a pretty good sunset location, too. So some of us went with Laurence up the Lost Mine Trail and a couple of the group members stayed near the lodge to photograph in the basin with our group leader, Ron.
When my buddy, Lance Varnell (who is an awesome landscape photographer in his own right), first turned me on to the work of Laurence Parent, some of the first images I saw were of his shots of sunrise on the Lost Mine Trail. So when he asked if anyone was interested in doing the hike to shoot it at sunset I was all in. It was such an honor to be able to hike that trail with him to shoot at the spot where he created some of the work that made me a fan.
While we were at the top of the trail, he convinced me to climb out on a tiny little rock formation that hung out over a several thousand foot drop on either side. No problem. He got the idea because on the way up the trail I had climbed to the top of a pinon pine tree to get a better view of the canyon below. Yes, seriously.
I started out standing on the three-foot wide rock... until the wind started blowing. Suddenly, large gusts of wind started blowing UPWARD from the canyon walls below, which made me a bit unsteady. So all I could manage from that point on was to sit on the rock. Laurence got a shot of me sitting up there with my camera as well as with his. You almost can't tell that I'm paralyzed with fright and about to wet myself here.
It was a great ending to a great day.
Me and Laurence Parent at the top of the Lost Mine Trail.
Barry, one of the other photographers in our group, photographs at sunset.
Our final full day of the workshop started with a cross-country hike across the desert floor. We left the road and headed out by flashlight for about half a mile until we came upon some really interesting rock formations called hoodoos out in the middle of the desert. Laurence said he had found these one time while he was out walking across the desert. You know- just like everyone always does, right? The full moon was just getting ready to set as we got ready for sunrise and for the first time during the workshop we had some clouds in the sky too photograph.
We were set up next to this large hoodoo that from one angle I thought looked like an Indian screaming and from another angle looked like a battleship. So I named it "battleship rock." I happened to find a cool little keyhole in battleship rock where I could frame the moon, and I loved that. Then the sky started lightening and I got really happy photographing clouds and silhouettes of ocotillos until the sun started lighting up battleship rock.
From there we headed to another hike to a waterfall in the park known as Cattail Falls. It's a place that is completely different from the rest of its desert surroundings. A small waterfall is present after rains and was still flowing a little form the rains a few days earlier. Trees found in more moderate climates surrounded this little oasis of life. Grasses and lots of vegetation filled the little enclave - including lots and lots of poison oak. I got a couple of good shots of Laurence up on a huge boulder photographing the falls and got to play with my polarizer a bit.
We headed back to the lodge for a rest before venturing out of the park to Terlingua that evening to photograph the sunset at Study Butte. Laurence led us to an area that was a campground used thousands of years ago by Indians. Huge boulders formed shelters where some families had obviously lived, as evidenced by petroglyphs on the walls of these shelters. There were petroglyphs drawn on many of the rocks in this area. I instantly recognized some of them as maps that led directly to water. One seemed to lead to the Chisos Basin and perhaps to the very waterfall we had visited earlier in the day. I tried too find a translation of these petroglyphs online, but didn't find anything that even attempted to decode them. But to my eye, especially because of the direction some of them were facing, that's what they looked like to me. Because if this was, in fact, only a temporary stop for a nomadic tribe in the area, what would be more important in a desert environment than to know the location of water?
|I didn't take a photo of it, but this drawing closely approximates the shape of the hill is sits below. It also seems to indicate the location of a spring just around the side of the hill (which is actually there).|
|The way this petroglyph is facing seems to me to be a clear map of how to get to the Chisos Mountains and the Basin area in particular. It even appears to indicate two series of hilly areas and a two day journey, which would be about right on foot.|
The area where the Indian camp was had a very clear view of both Study Butte and the Chisos Mountains across then desert and badlands. We had some great clouds that made the sunset even more spectacular. I climbed up on top of the boulder that held the ancient Indian shelter underneath. There was a small pool of water on top, and I wondered if it was natural or if it had been chipped away from the rock as a basin to collect water.
The Chisos Mountains lit up bright yellow and orange and pink as the sun set behind us. Pink clouds hung in the air over Study Butte, and for the first time I had a good enough cell signal to make a Facetime call to share what I was seeing with my family at home. It helped to make the moment a bit more special to share it with them.
We photographed until after dark and then headed into nearby Terlingua for a great dinner at the Starlight Theater, an old movie theater that had been abandoned and later reclaimed as a bar and restaurant. Our group celebrated a fun and knowledge-packed week with drinks, steak and soem really, really good guacamole. Spirits were high as we made the hour trip back to our lodge at the Chisos Basin.
The last morning, we were only supposed to go a few minutes away from the lodge to photograph some plant and rock details, but there were some good clouds, so we headed instead down to the desert floor near Panther Junction to photograph some of the sagebrush in bloom. Where we stopped also had an awesome view of Casa Grande looking back into the Chisos Mountains. In that little area
were sagebrush, ocotillo, yucca and sotol plants. It was like a garden.
We packed up and made the five hour drive back to El Paso, stopping for Chinese buffet in Alpine along the way and visiting a local bookstore so Laurence could sign a few copies of his book for the owner, one of his friends. As we got closer to El Paso, the worse the weather got until finally in town it was just rainy and ugly. It was as if we had reemerged from a desert oasis into the real world - and the real world was gray and ugly.
We unloaded the van and said good by to our new friends. The next day (or two, in my case) would be an ordeal of cancelled flights, waiting in airports and booking and rebooking of reservations. But the workshop was awesome, and even this minor inconvenience couldn't detract from that.
I learned so much from Laurence Parent and Ron York at this workshop, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to attend. I hope that this is the beginning of a marked improvement in my landscape photography. It was fun and challenging week, but my FitBit says that I got to hike about 30 miles, so that's always a good thing - especially if it involves photography and Big Bend, as well.