Last Saturday evening, I got off work and drove for thirteen hours--including two gas stops and two short naps on the side of the road--all the way across the states of Oregon and Idaho, to the Teton mountains of northwest Wyoming. After weeks of working at the grocery store with no getaways, I had been incredibly antsy leading up to that point... that point when I could jump in my car, turn the key to start up the engine, and begin the long drive by taking highway 20 east out of Bend, Oregon.
A lot of people look at my life and see freedom, but to me it feels more like the difference of a dolphin in a really big aquarium tank compared to a goldfish in a small bowl. There may be a good amount of freedom to roam, but I'm still confined in many ways because of my obligations to my job and bills.
There is an element of mobility to living out of one's vehicle, though... in essence, I'm ready for adventure at a moment's notice. Want to drive to Arizona? Yeah, I just need to stop for a loaf of bread and I'm ready to hit the road. That is my life. Road trip preparation involves an oil change at most, or a refill of my drinking water stash, but usually no big packing or planning effort is necessary. I am in love with that part of truck life. For any big road trip, I make sure to take care of every bit of prep BEFORE the day of the drive--otherwise, it can be impossible to get out of town in a timely manner.
While driving the highway over Teton Pass from the west, at some point the mountains are suddenly jutting into the sky, owning the horizon. The peaks were snow capped this time, as the snow line is beginning to creep down toward the valleys now. Seated in the valley beneath these mountains is Jackson, Wyoming, a very quaint but hip town which caters to the gobs of tourists visiting the National Park and ski resorts. I passed through this town on the way to Grand Teton National Park (GTNP), eyeing a few restaurants that looked like a good place for a buffalo burger--but only returned once or twice for supplies like ice. Otherwise, the next five days were spent in and around the park, devoted to the mission for adventures and photographs.
"Nature Photography Road Trip" Philosophy
This road trip got me thinking about my philosophy as a photographer. While I'm happy to simply explore a new place, maybe cross some hiking trails off the bucket list, and so forth... as a landscape/nature photographer, the biggest motivation to take a road trip anywhere is the possibility of going home with some great shots.
So, how do I set myself up for the most success with that? Luck and timing is always a bit of a factor, but you'll get the best results by doing a good amount of planning and research around a location.
The biggest thing you can do is to plan on scouting. Explore and research the location to understand the weather patterns for the area, how the light changes the landscape throughout the day, and where your favorite vantage points are. The deeper your connection with a place, the more it will show in your photographs, stories, and so forth. On the other hand, the likelihood of pulling up and getting awesome, unique shots right away is very slim. For an iconic place like GTNP, I prefer to research what some of the popular spots are, without looking at other photographers' photographs too much (I want to be careful not to be too heavily influenced by what everyone else is shooting there).
Moreover, landscape photographers are typically very reliant on getting the ideal weather or light. If the weather is bad in a location, consider using this as a time to go scouting, instead of immediately leaving to chase favorable conditions elsewhere. Brief moments of storm break can make for unique, dramatic lighting, but you'll have the best chances of capturing it by waiting out the less-than-ideal weather. This time spent will also contribute to your connection with a place, and learning its many qualities.
Last but not least, remember to make time for rest. Photographers have a way of pushing the limits with this. Feeling too burnt out to do anything (or feeling doubtful and restless about crappy conditions, etc.) can often be resolved with a good nap or some time spent recuperating with a good book. Many times I have felt like leaving my destination early, and then changed my mind after catching up on rest. There have also been instances where I unexpectedly awoke to incredible light or storm conditions, after passing a few hours with a nap. True story!
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Above: a cinnamon bear wandering along Moose-Wilson Road; below: a bull moose at Schwabacher Landing
The first couple of days in GTNP were rainy, but I toured the park thoroughly during this time. My favorite locations were Schwabacher Landing, Colter Bay, and Jenny Lake. Moose were very active at Schwabacher Landing, as it's rutting (a.k.a. mating) season for them. We got to watch a bull moose chasing the apple of his eye, a cow (and her calf) around the river banks for several hours. For easy bear sightings, Moose-Wilson Road was the best place to go, even though it was always over-crowded by tourists.
When the weather improved later in the week, I did a day hike to Cascade Canyon which traverses beneath the steep walls of the Tetons along some small ponds. It was a beautiful place to explore. I would have loved more time to hike up in the mountains, as there were a few other trails beckoning to me, like one to a place called Amphitheater Lake.
Above: views along a hike through Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park
For the entire week, I made my own meals and coffee out of my truck using a propane stove and a pan for cooking. Staple foods on the road consist mainly of things which need no refrigeration, like soup, pasta, instant refried beans, eggs (yep, they don't necessarily need to be chilled), nut butters, bread, etc.--although I did pack an ice cooler for a few things like coffee creamer, cheese and lunch meat. Hotels were avoided on this trip by parking my truck in the National Forest for free to get some sleep each night. If the trip had gone any longer, I definitely would have needed to purchase a shower from a campground--that is for sure. Baby wipes only cut it for so long!
Here are a few of the meals I cooked with my propane stove: a sweet potato hash with ham for breakfast; a burrito with instant refried beans and sauteed veggies; a grilled turkey gouda sandwich with pears and red onions
At one point on this road trip, I was struck with momentary anxiety about being so far away from home all by myself. Then, almost immediately, it was pacified as I remembered that I have my home, a.k.a. my truck with me, so no need for panic. I get so used to the way my life is, that I lose perspective pretty often--and then get a sudden shock when it sinks in that I'm 600 miles from home with only sixty dollars cash to my name, waiting out a rain storm just so I can take a picture. I forget how amazing it might be to some people that I'm doing this as a single woman... and that I can take care of myself, feed myself, and make some cool art while doing it. I'm still not sure where this all is leading me, but my intuition says, "keep going if you're having more fun than not!" And I am!
Next road trip: a visit to British Columbia (hopefully as far north as Banff Provincial Park), as well as the beautiful Olympic National Forest in Washington State!
Thank you for reading, and please don't be a stranger if you have comments or questions about what you've read here. I wish you happy adventures!
Many thanks to my friend Shaun Peterson for showing me around the park and giving me some pointers! smpetersonphotography.com