It seemed like such a good idea at the time. The Grand Canyon North Rim, fall color, and maybe even a thunderstorm or two. What could possibly go wrong? Well, let me tell you….
I’ve wanted to do this trip in the fall since my first visit to the North Rim. On my visit in August I polled local experts for the best time to photograph fall color, and the consensus seemed to be around September 20. Perfect—I return from Hawaii on September 8, and don’t have to be in the Eastern Sierra for my fall color workshop until September 29. With the only thing between me and the North Rim a 13 hour drive, I made tentative plans to leave last Friday (September 20). Before locking in my final arrangements, I e-mailed my North Rim contacts to verify that the color was indeed on schedule and got a thumbs-up. With all systems “go,” I loaded the Pilot and headed out, on schedule, Friday morning.
Punching the Grand Canyon Lodge into my GPS reminded me that its mount had broken a couple of days earlier: Let’s just swing into Best Buy—it’ll make the drive so much easier…. Found what I needed, avoided temptation (stayed away from the home theater department), paid, and was out the door in less than 10 minutes. Okay, that was easy—but wait…. Isn’t that an AT&T Store there? Didn’t the iPhone 5s come out today? I know, I know, I just ordered one last night, but it would sure be cool to have it on my trip (because it’s sooooo radically different from my iPhone 5). Of course they’ll have been sold out for hours, but I’m here, so I may as well check. The nice young lady at the door, reading my mind, told me all they have left is the 64 GB version in black. Why, that just happens to be exactly what I ordered last night. Hmmm…. It’s a sign. How long could it take?
An hour later I was out the door, new iPhone synced and ready for business. Okay, now I’m really ready for the open road. What time is it? Hmmm. Maybe I’ll only go as far as St. George, Utah tonight. But wait. Where’s all my music? Oh crap, that’s right, when I restore my iCloud backup, my music doesn’t come with it—that I need to sync from my iCloud music library. Of course I need my music and podcasts, but 40+ gigabytes of data could take forever (or never) over AT&T’s network. Well, I’m only 15 minutes from home, let’s just pop back in, hook up to my lighting fast Internet, and I’ll be completely set in no time. And Las Vegas is only 4 1/2 hours from the North Rim.
Four hours and two lengthy Apple support calls later, everything’s perfect. Of course Vegas is certainly out of the question, so I make reservations at a Best Western in Barstow and (finally) hit the road for real. Okay, nothing can can stop me now—I mean how much traffic could there be at 6 p.m. on a Friday night? Hint: A lot. It takes me an hour-and-half to get through town (but my music sounds great), but I own that room in Barstow, so I guess it’s Barstow or bust. And somehow, with the help of two Starbucks stops, I finally do limp into the Barstow Best Western. At 2 a.m. To find that my reservation is listed as Jerry Hartman, with some unknown credit card. The guy at the desk must have sensed my desperation because he worked some magic. Phew. (It didn’t occur to me until later that my credit card probably paid for somebody else’s room, but that’s a battle for another day.) Nice room. I wonder what those ear plugs on the nightstand are for? Wonder no more. For some reason somebody at Best Western HQ decided it would be a good idea to wedge an entire hotel into a narrow strip separating I-15 from what must be the busiest railroad tracks west of Grand Central Station.
Fortunately, my Saturday drive went smoothly, all the way up the Jacob Lake turnoff on to Highway 67, the last 40 miles to the North Rim. That’s when I started scanning the forest for signs of autumn. Every once in a while I spied a token aspen wearing yellow, but there sure was a lot of green. A lot of green. Okay, I can still make this work—I won’t stress it now, I’ll just head out to one of the vistas on the Cape Royal road for sunset, then go exploring for color tomorrow morning. Approaching the entrance station I saw a sign that says something like, “Road work on Cape Royal Road—access limited.” Hmmm—that sounds inconvenient. Handing the ranger my National Parks, pass I ask if I’m going to have to deal with flagmen on the Cape Royal Road, and he tells me no. Okay, cool. No flagmen, he says, because the road’s closed. Oh. Inconvenient indeed.
No doubt distracted by the fact that I seem to be a photographer with nothing to photograph, I somehow lose track of my speed (honestly, I’m usually really good about honoring the speed limit in the National Parks). No problem, here’s a nice ranger pulling me over to remind me….
Okay, so you might think things couldn’t get worse. You’d think. But rather than dwell on things like 50 mph winds; multiple, lengthy power outages; zero cell service (thank you very much, AT&T) and zero Internet for the duration of my stay; and utterly cloud-free skies (great for tourists, not so much for photographers), I was able to elevate my attitude enough to actually enjoy my surroundings. In fact, it turned out that despite being a little early for the fall color, just a little exploring uncovered many nice patches of autumn lining the unpaved Forest Service roads just outside the park boundary.
I found this tree on one of my exploration excursions. On my final afternoon I drove fourteen unpaved miles to Shoulder Mountain, where I hiked two vertical roundtrip miles (down, up, down, turn around, up, down, up) to a view that was nice, but far from photo-worthy. A couple of miles into the drive back, this grove of backlit aspen pulled me like a magnet. I spent two hours traipsing through the woods here, watching the color warm as the sun dropped. What drew me to this scene was the tiny aspen shrub that the sun lit up like a spotlight for just a few minutes. Since the composition I wanted was directly into the sun, I hid all but a sliver of the sun behind a tree and, using a small aperture, turned it into a sunburst.
Photographing here that afternoon, I felt like I’d finally hit my stride. I really had a blast, enjoying myself so much that I delayed my departure the next morning so I could go back and shoot leaves backlit by the rising sun. That little delay cost me another night in Barstow, but it was a trade I’d make again. Would I do the trip again? Absolutely (albeit with a little better decision-making on the front end).
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The title of this post is a line from “Pogo,” a cartoon by Walt Kelly. It’s one of my favorite quotes because it so perfectly applies to so many disasters.