Monday, August 3, 2015

on the road: traveling alone through the rocky mountains, great sanddunes, monument valley, route 66

Um.. wow. I have so much to share with you!

I thought that maybe over the course of five weeks and 10,000 miles alone on the road, I might have a few hours here and there to upload photos and write about each leg of my trip. But in reality there wasn't a moment where I wasn't moving, exploring, hiking, meeting people, sketching and just taking it all in. I camped alone in my little tent or in my car almost every night except for a few nights on friends' couches and in hostels, waking up with the light and seeing the sun set in a new place nearly every night. I cooked over a camp stove or a fire pit, or sought out a quick, cheap breakfast at the kind of diners that "don't do internet, honey." Doing anything electronic was the last thing on my mind; even at night when I went to bed early with the sun, there were books to read, or crashing waves to watch, or stars to photograph. And upon returning home I kept the feeling alive by diving deep into my sketchbook and paintings and just now coming up for air.

But I love this blog and I love sharing what's inspired me, so... sorry for the lack of posts, I hope these snippets of adventure will make up for it!

After a spectacular Kansas sunset, I folded down the back seats of my SUV, tossed my duffel in the front and laid my sleeping bag facing a good view of a lightning storm out the windshield in Limon, Colorado. In the morning I headed west on Route 86, a country road that heads straight for Denver and delivers wide sun-drenched fields of grazing horses, cattle, and the occasional pronghorn antelope before surprising you with jagged blue snow-capped peaks that appear suddenly on the horizon. The way America is flat for a thousand miles and then suddenly rises where the Rocky Mountains pierce the land is really amazing. I meandered around a bit just taking in the wide blue sky, interesting little towns and last bits of western prairie.

After a quick stop in Denver for car work I drove south to Colorado Springs, stopping at the Garden of the Gods, where the sun set over the Rockies and turned the sky twenty shades of soft blue and the massive rock formations faded from bright adobe red to a deep baked blush color.

The next day I was really excited to drive up Pikes Peak, one of Colorado's 'fourteeners' (mountains taller than 14,000 feet) which towers over Colorado Springs. Unfortunately a snowstorm rolled into town mid-morning and closed the mountain road. Attempting to escape the snow, I drove south to Pueblo and then west over La Veta pass, but the snow followed me and the drive turned into a frightening hour-long, white-knuckle drive down slick, winding mountain roads in whiteout conditions. After holding my breath for an hour my heart finally unclenched when I made it onto flat, barely-dusted prairie; Mount Blanca emerging from the storm was a beautiful and welcome sight.

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing. Wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating. There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. - John Ruskin

Despite dreaming of it for months, I didn't really plan this trip very thoroughly. I knew I was heading west and south to California, and then north-ish, then back over the course of five weeks. I knew I wanted to explore, and do so slowly, and take every day as it came, and try to pack as much in as possible. I love the serendipity that brings snowstorms, or makes certain people seem approachable, or makes particular exit signs light up a little brighter and creates luck and possibility for us if we look for them.

So this surprise late-March snowstorm (that ended up dumping a foot of snow on Colorado Springs!) brought me down to U.S. 160, past the southern face of the Rockies and into the little town of Alamosa, where I saw a road headed straight for mountains and turned onto it: CO-150 towards Great Sand Dunes and Zapata Falls.

On the east side of this road the earth rose up into snow-capped mountains cupping the last of the drifting stom, and to the west, open range, rolling tumbleweeds and far-off rainstorms.

It was so cold on the dunes that there was only one other person there, walking in the distance beneath the shifting mountains of wind-whipped, horse-trotted, millennia-swept sand dunes.

The next day I headed west, but not before taking a quick swing up Route 17 to check out the UFO Watchtower, a combination art installation, parking lot campground and, obviously, geodesic dome UFO watchtower area.

I love these funny, random bits of the open road.

Through Pagosa Springs, Durango, over Wolf Creek pass towards the Utah border. Through the four corners and into the most majestic, surprising and jaw dropping area of the country I have explored so far.

At the entrance of Monument Valley, the winding desert road crested and my chest clenched up again, this time in a wonderful and full way. Out of the formerly flat Colorado plateau, the most surreal landscape played out in front of me: unbelievably enormous red monuments reaching into the wide blue sky, millions of years of rusty sandstone layers intricately sculpted down by wind and water, giant sloping piles of fallen boulders resting at their bases like sand from a slowly deteriorating sandcastle. In the late afternoon sun, the monuments took on rich blue and purple shadows, the haze softening their sharp points and spires. The overwhelming enormity of the land, contrasted by the incredible silence of the plateau except for gusts of wind scraping dust off the ground, was so unfamiliar to my senses and I was just blown away. As happy as I was to experience it, I was equally sad that Mike wasn't there to see it with me.

I got there a little too late in the day to go explore the monuments so I checked in at my campground and headed back out to catch sunset, surprised and excited by a couple wandering horses out on the open, unfenced range.

Trail rides and horseback guides are a popular way to see the monuments so I think these horses were heading home from 'work' -- they trotted alone through the sage and cactus, stopping to munch on plants every few feet, and then passed me in the direction of some trailers and loosely-structured paddocks about a half mile away. Monument Valley -- a Navajo Tribal Park, generally the equivalent of a national park, though operated by the Navajo Nation -- is sparsely populated and it was kind of cool to see these horses just meandering through the open range on their own.

After it got a little darker I tried a little bit of long exposure star photography. I'm getting better at it since I first tried it up in Maine.

What I thought was an unmarked dirt road (there were many) was actually the beginning of someone's quarter-mile driveway! I couldn't see it in the dark, but thanks to the long exposure you can see a glow on the right -- their house -- and six little dots in the center -- the moonlight reflecting off their ATVs. An older couple drove down the driveway and thinking I was stealing the tires off a car they had parked for sale by the road were very surprised to see a lone woman with Massachusetts license plates and a giant camera pointed at the sky. We laughed it off, they let me stay on their road and invited me to contact their son about a discounted ATV ride through the monuments.

Up in at 5am to see the sun rise over the monuments.

This spectacular view was from the visitor's center, run by the Navajo Nation. I think there's normally a fee to go in, but I got there early enough that no one was in the booth collecting money, so I just sort of wandered around exploring with a few other early birds.

More horses! This time lit by sunrise, lazily meandering around the plateau above the valley before work. At the sound of a man's whistle they trotted over to start their day on the trails and I sat down for a bowl of cereal overlooking a million years of mind-blowing beauty.

So... that tent in the background. The first pang of disappointment from not really researching this particular stop happened when I stumbled across a campground literally on the edge of the plateau, directly above the valley. The campsite I stayed at was in its own red sandstone canyon, giant walls of rock towering above a little road with tent and RV spots; very pretty in its own right, but still one of those places that has a laundromat and a gift shop and where it feels like you're out in nature until the RV next to you turns on its generator. This little cliff-side campground with not much more than flat ground and a bathroom was nearly empty except for two other photographers savoring the morning's light. In this case, 'winging it' and just hoping for fate to bring good stuff my way wasn't enough.

Next time, Monument Valley!

Even beautiful on the way out. Down Route 160 to Arizona...

... Route 66 across Arizona, in all its bizarre, vintage beauty...

... and into Flagstaff, where I picked up the best maps ever, recommended by my tent neighbors in Monument Valley. After five nights on the road I was really hoping for actual camping that night: not in my car, but in a tent, preferably somewhere pretty and definitely nowhere that offered electricity or ice delivery. Upon chatting with a few people at REI (including one salesgirl who actually called her mom to get her favorite local camp spots! I love you, REI.) I decided to try 'coyote camping' -- dispersed, free public lands camping -- for the first time. That is a whole, amazing day of its own that I'll share in my next post. Back to painting!


  1. I have been waiting for this post Mae! (: Outstanding photos! We are traveling to Arizona in September and you are Making me anticipate ever more! Best, Rebecca

  2. Stunning photos. I came across your work when you were just finishing up your trip and have been excited to learn more about it. I admire your courage to do something like this! You have inspired me to look into doing a little trip of my own. Can't wait to read more!

  3. Soooo good! What an amazing adventure you had. I love your photos - especially the night sky ones.

  4. So awesome, Mae. I love the photos (especially the map one with the pins!) and can't wait to see how they translate in your work...

  5. Incredible photos! It looks like you are traveling alone? How do you get up the nerve to camp alone especially?? I don't even like driving alone. Leslie

  6. I've read this post three times now :) You have this writing style that is so natural and descriptive and just reads like a novel. Paired with your amazing photos, I almost felt like I was really there. Thanks so much for sharing.

  7. I have been a fan of your work for sometime now. I have purchased only a couple prints but my dream is to own an original.. some day! Anyway: I love to follow your posts and was excited to share this with my REI co-workers! I work at a store in Tustin, CA. (a supplement to my f/t job - single mama = the struggle is real) It is easy to have a second job like REI because the people are pretty amazing! Warms my heart to know they helped you out, too!!! Best regards, vRod

    1. Thanks Veronica! I'm so thankful that REI hires people who are really passionate about what they do and the area around them... I got great help/advice in every store I went to. The ladies at the Flagstaff store encouraged me to try backcountry camping and it changed my whole trip! :)

    2. p.s. Funny story... I underestimated how cold it would be in the Southwest and stopped at a well-known sports store in southern Colorado to see about a better sleeping bag. The salesman actually recommended I not buy anything they had, and stop at the next REI on my route because he thought the REI brand would end up being the best fit! You know you're doing something right when even your competitors know you're the best bet ;)

  8. So glad to see your new post! Your blog has always been a great source of inspiration to me. And the southwest has always been near and dear to me. If you go back check out swimming or boating at Lake Powell, river rafting the Colorado river at Moab or exploring Zion or Canyon de Chelley national parks. Beautiful country. Loved your night exposure photos. Stunning. Looking forward to seeing your new work. Thanks so much for sharing!
    - Becky

  9. AMAZING!!! I've never had the "urge" or time to head to the US (I'm from Australia) but you are showing me such a side to it that I would LOVE to see it in all it's beauty!! Another blogger is showing me different parts of it so all in all, I'm convinced I must head there one day. I have dreams of driving across Canada so I'll have to add some of the US into that too ... Your photos are stunning!!!

  10. So nice to see you back on the blog! You sure had an interesting trip. Mu hubby would think he'd died and gone to heaven if I liked to travel and camp like you do :) Those unexpected snow storms are scary—have been in a couple of them. Your Arizona pictures remind me of a trip I took there where I got to see hot air balloons in the desert sky that were so pretty. Great pics with the horses. Your night sky photos are stunning, and that map with the pins and money on it is fabulously intriguing! I keep meaning to tell you how much I'm enjoying a big print of yours (ocean & poppies). I had it on my wishlist and my brother got it for me for Christmas. Found the perfect frame for it and it looks gorgeous—I never tire of looking at it!

  11. These are stunning. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Beautiful photos!
    Thanks for sharing.

    You might want to check out
    we have an art post from Africa...

  13. I literally got goosebumps reading your description of Monuments Valley! I have been wanting to do a U.S. Road Trip for a while, and all of your journeys make me even more excited for it! You are such an inspiration and basically my hero as far as travel and artistic success. sending much love and happiness your way :)