October - November 2012 - map
I never longed to visit the United States. I saw a lot of it when I was young and watched TV, and I don't like the Anglo-Saxon culture and philosophy of life. But sometimes the destiny just throws you somewhere you do not even know how and you just have to swim. So while we are here, I take the chance and will photograph the national parks in the southwest, which I think are really among the best places for landscape photography in the world. Also, the local infrastructure is excellent and suitable for individual car trips. This all causes that in 17 days we have probably the most exhaustive photography session of all my life. Not a single sunset or sunrise missed. Even now after the years when it comes to my mind, I have to go to sleep immediately.
We set up our base in Novato village, where by accident lives sister-in-law, 25 miles north of San Francisco. We borrow there one of the seven cars which lay down in their courtyard. At the time of preparation for the trip, I try almost every morning to catch the famous fog over the Golden Gate bridge, but I never succeed. Our final plan is to drive 5500 kilometres, see 11 national parks and a few other places. In the first phase, we head towards south to San Diego to visit a friend. The way along the Pacific coast is so wonderful, especially the part called Big Sur. I read about all that in the books of Steinbeck when I was young. The natural paradise turns into hell as we enter Los Angeles. Together with New Delhi, it is probably the most disgusting place in the world. Heat, smell, smog and jumble of ten-line highways is the only thing I remember.
In San Diego, you can feel like being on holidays, even if you live and work there. After enjoying it, we turn our wrack to wild inland deserts. The state of civilization changes rapidly right after the first mountain ridge - while in coastal California we felt like inferior kind of people among the millions of super athletic young bodies (we saw no old bodies), here we are the only ones who have teeth in the mouth. The first night we spend in the Anza Borrego desert, frustrated by all the poison stuff which lives here. Also, we mention that significant majority of geographic names is composed of a combination of about ten words: big, green, old, black vs. river, peak, valley, so it is easy to get lost.
The next day we move to Joshua Tree national park. It is incredibly hot even in mid-October. I would not like to tramp here during the summer. The park is famous for its phallic cacti which are admired by men and especially women all over the world. We buy here the open ticket for most national parks in the US.
After the hike in the park, we have to pass the longest single distance by car during the whole trip. My navigator falls asleep after 20 miles, so I have to drive alone the remaining 400. With a stick of wood in my eyes, I manage to reach the small city Williams in Arizona - the entering gate to the wonder of the world, Grand Canyon. This monument was mentioned in millions of blogs so we skip it here. The only notice: we went down to about middle, but we had to go back because we forgot the water and met there a lovely older couple of teachers. We spend the night in the near beautiful dense forest. Photographing sucks both in the evening and morning, because of the annoying haze.
The landscape becomes fascinating after the Grand Canyon. There are fewer trees and more bare rocks in various colours and shapes. We approach Monument Valley, but we have no clue where exactly it is because our map does not mention it. We arrive at Native Americans settlement, and we're told that it is forbidden to sleep anywhere else than on marked campsites which are paid. The camp is a marked site in the sand without a toilet or anything else. The Monument Valley is a holy place for Native Americans and Marlboro smokers. In the morning, I manage to find a popular spot for photographers, and I enjoy the game of light over the red monuments. We try some hiking later that day, but it is somehow too hot again.
Utah starts right after the Monument Valley, and one can quickly notice. Utah is no doubt the most spectacular place on Earth, and if you take any random piece of it and put it anywhere else, it becomes immediately an attraction number one there. In Utah you can't arrive anywhere on time because you have to stop every five minutes, get out of the car and shake your head in never-ending astonishment. The majority of the state is quite high, and it almost never rains, so the air is incredibly clear causing long distance views but also terribly cold nights. The centre of all attractions is the triplet of national parks around the confluence of Colorado and Green River. The system of canyons here surpasses the Grand Canyon in all terms except the depth. An enormous amount of land is waste and untouched by human activity and every year someone gets lost and dies or, at least, has to cut his hand with a knife to survive. Utah is also full of Native American reservation areas, mostly thanks to its inhospitality. In the past, the reservations were established solely in areas with absolutely no vegetation. There are many small shops with handcrafted stuff made by aborigines. Because my navigator loves anything handcrafted, we have to stop at every single one. In one of the stores, we have a long conversation with a beautiful Aborigine woman who speaks with so much passion and sadness about the tragic history and despaired present of her people. When we quit her, we feel quite depressed, and the feeling remains for several more days. Later in the car, we try to find out the way how to break the power of US and return the land to previous inhabitants, but we find no solution.
The first park of the triplet we visit is Needles. It's full of high and smooth rocks where one can easily get lost and die. The first we manage well, the second we hardly avoid. Next stop is the Island in the Sky - the mesa between the rivers. It is so-called car-national-park, where you just drive along and occasionally stop to enjoy the view. In fact, it is much more exciting than it sounds. For me personally one of the highlights of the whole trip. The views are something that you will remember for the rest of your life. We also experience a massive storm here, which drops the temperature in a while of 15 degrees but also creates extraordinary conditions for photography. I spend all afternoon until the dusk doing pictures.
After a long time, we look for accommodation, this time in small city Moab. Moab is the world centre of all outdoor sportsmen, but only those, who are cool. If you are not cool enough, you do your activities in other cities. If you are cool enough, you have to wear a stocking cap, especially inside. Finally, all the pubs are full of cool sweat athletes with stocking caps on their heads. In the Moab neighbourhood, we visit another natural jewel, Arches National Park. Mother nature created here for some reason couple of hundred stone arches. There is one long and thin, and it seems that it will fall in the next second. Our hike in the park has bad timing, so I have to run few kilometres to catch the last light over the Delicate Arch, the most famous one. I meet here about 60 photographers, well organized to the line. I have never seen something like this before. Each time some poor tourist tries to go to the arch, we all start to yell so much, that he runs away and our compositions remain uncorrupted.
The last stop in central Utah is Dead Horse Point, a narrow plateau at the end of the mesa where once many wild horses died. They were chased there by a group of cowboys who got drunk and forgot the animals there. They died of thirst a few days later. When I saw the pictures taken from this spot on the Internet, I hardly believed my eyes, that such a beautiful view exists. I arrive in a complete dark, a few hours before the sunrise. Deep below I can hardly recognize the meanders of the Colorado River. The sunrise is just gorgeous, and I can compose on all directions.
On the border of Utah and Arizona, in the wild landscape, there are many smaller but fascinating monuments. One of these places, called The Wave, has only limited access, probably because it is made of fragile sandstone. Only 20 people every day can win the lottery in Page, nearby small city. We Czech are quite good in lotteries, so we go to try our luck. And indeed, we are the first people chosen that day. They give us the map with orientation points because no obvious path to the monument exists. After about two hours of walk through the desert, we stand in the middle of the incredible natural amphitheatre. The whole location is unbelievably beautiful, and we spend hours walking through the labyrinth of smooth red rocks.
We go a bit south to visit two nearby spots, Antelope Canyon and Horse Shoe Bend. Both are a must for landscape photographers. Antelope Canyon is several hundred metres long and about one-metre narrow hole in an incredibly red mass of sandstone. It took 200 million years to create it. The entry is paid and the visitors are divided into groups by ten and follow the Aborigine guide from the local tribe. Our guide is quite bored and does not share our excitement in the canyon and rather pushes us to move faster. We meet four Czech guys, who came from Canada, where they worked illegally and cannot return after crossing the US border. They offer us the accommodation in their motel room, even though it is illegal. They seem to enjoy illegal things. Not far from the canyon we enjoy the sunset above the meander of the Colorado River, called Horse Shoe Bend. The scenery and light are excellent again. I use the wide lens for the first time, which I bought especially for this occasion.
Our route turns slowly back to California. We drive quickly through Bryce Canyon, another psychedelic creation of nature made of sandstone. In the last century, it was almost destroyed during making one of the Holywood blockbusters, but it was very well renovated. We continue on the Road No.12, which is said to be the most breathtaking in the United States. The views are nice indeed, but it is so breathtaking because the mean altitude is almost 2500 metres above sea level. The last stop in Utah for us is Zion National Park. Unfortunately, we have limited time, at least, I shoot the beautiful sunset next to the car. In general, almost all sunsets and sunrises in Utah were extraordinary. Maybe the reason is the clear air and the vibrant colours of the rocks, multiplied by the soft light.
Nevada and California
Our plan for the day is to get rid of nature a bit and have some fun in the city of sins. We arrive in Las Vegas rather late, so we try to find a parking place as fast as possible near the casinos. Our GPS does not work since we left California, but this is the first time, we need it. We find a calm place near the main road anyway and go for a walk towards shining hotels. It proves to be a mistake, as we finally walk for more than two hours to get to the centre. We go around infinite fences and meet strange people. We arrive at casinos too late, and all the attractions are closed. Instead of nude dancers, we see only crowds of dressed pensioners sitting by endless rows of machines and trying to exchange money for happiness. The scene is both sad and disgusting. We have enough of civilization and can go back to the forest. I drive all night to catch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley.
I remember I saw the place called Zabriskie Point in some movie about hippies, but I'm unable to remember the name. Later, at home, I find that the name of the film is imaginatively Zabriskie Point. It is again a colourful bunch of stones, but it hard to beat those in Utah. Death Valley is rather disappointing for us. It is too hot even at the beginning of November, and there are only stones, smell, and one coyote. I'm afraid to boil the engine when we go up from the valley. It often happens here. We leave the valley quickly behind and enter the Sierra Nevada mountain range which divides the whole California. The landscape starts to be forested again, the air is nice, and we see the smooth huge blocks of rock, which is so typical for the highlight in the area - Yosemite Valley. Last night before entering the valley we sleep on the shore of Mono Lake. The lake is famous for its tufa rock formations which appeared after the people took so much water from the lake, that the water level dropped several metres. In contrast to Aral Lake in Kazakhstan, the locals were able to turn the ecological disaster into the tourist attractions, we see more photographers here than there are bisons in the prairie.
Our last spot is the famous Yosemite National Park. The high country Tioga Road leading over the main ridge to the valley is a fantastic start of the day. We are pretty lucky because most years the road is closed at the beginning of November. The Yosemite Valley with its rock walls and waterfalls is undoubtely beautiful, but the most interesting for us is the local forest. I have never seen nicer one. The forest is also full of animals, which are not afraid of people at all. The lynx passes at a five metres distance. We spend the night at the campsite because sleeping in the wilderness is strictly prohibited here. We move all the food and perfumed stuff out of the car to prevent the bears to sneak inside. The parking place is full of photos of poor bears stuck in the car trunks. Going to the toilet in the middle of the night in such atmosphere is scary for me. Anyway, I wake up early and look for a good place for morning photography. Later that day, we try to get to the base of the famous El Capitan, one of the most famous climbing walls in the world. For us, it is even quite hard to cross the field of massive stones to get under the wall. When we reach the wall itself, I try to find any presence of asperity that would help me to climb at least a few feet, but there is nothing, the wall is completely smooth. It seems that all the climbing here is some voodoo. We observe a tiny colourful spot several hundred metres above the head. A climber who passes by explains to us we actually see a tent with four climbers who fight with the wall for eighteen days and if they succeed they conquer another insane level of climbing.
The hectic road trip ends during the rainy day in coastal California. The only goal we miss is the Sequoia National Park, at least, we keep something for the next time. I keep double-edged memories from the trip. In the United States, there still exist huge parts of landscape untouched by man, which is something we can only dream about in Europe, except some regions in Scandinavia perhaps. Travelling by car is also very comfortable, we even enjoyed exotic fast foods in the tiny settlements in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, history and present of Native Americans people and orientation to individual transportation is something that made us sad and hopeless. Anyway, we look forward to coming again, this time probably to the northwest part of the country.