Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Lost in the Desert - Was it Worth It?

Getting the Shot at All Costs - What Cost is Too High a Price to Pay?

Earlier this year I traveled to Nevada on a photography expedition, with my prize being the other-worldly Valley of Fire State Park.  Never heard of this place? Few have, which is amazing because it is just a little over an hour's drive from Las Vegas.  

Valley of Fire State Park - Scenic Drive at Sunrise
Most people probably find too many other things to occupy their time in "Sin City" or they head into Utah and the many national parks in the southern half of the Beehive State.   Barreling north out of Vegas on I-15, it's easy to miss the rather unimpressive exit which features nothing more than a truck stop and dry desert scrubland for miles. 

Having done my research and formulated a plan for my time in Valley of Fire, I spent three full days exploring the park - and I could have spent many more.  Most visitors would be content with driving the scenic paved road through the multi-colored rock formations and doing a few short hikes.  For those with more wanderlust like me, we need to get into the backcountry, away from the tourists, to really experience the solitude and essence of the place. 

Unfortunately, there really aren't any defined trails but rather routes with an occasional rock cairn or a post in the ground, which can be very easy to miss.  If you don't have good route-finding skills and a strong sense of direction, that can be a recipe for disaster - particularly in a harsh desert environment that can have sudden and extreme weather, including temperatures that can climb over 110 for many months of the year with virtually no shade.  And lets not forget there are some creatures that could also cause a lot of harm to humans, including poisonous spiders and snakes, scorpions, gila monsters, and prickly cactus to name a few. 

The photographer always sees his shadow - at Valley of Fire State Park
On this trip, most of those concerns would be mitigated since it was February.  Even so, daytime high temperatures were in the low 70s, and when the sun went down it dropped quickly by 20 degrees or more.  Water is nowhere to be found unless you bring your own and plenty of it. 

One late afternoon I headed out for a relatively short hike, hoping to catch a good sunset to photograph. Leaving from a popular trailhead, the "trail" was nothing more than sand through rock formations, with only a few brief, small markers.  Wanting to get up high, I took a few turns and soon had scrambled up on a promonatory that offered panoramic views in all directions.  The late afternoon light was brilliant, and I went back and forth getting numerous shots of several arches, cool rock formations, and distant vistas.  The sunset did not disappoint, as the sky lit up in pink and purple hues which contrasted nicely with the orange, gold and white rocks. 

A very cool arch lit up by the late afternoon setting sun
 In fact, the sunset was so good I stayed out until dusk, taking numerous shots of the increasingly colorful sky.  Just before dark I started to head back to my car.  The park makes a point of warning visitors to not be in the heart of the park and the scenic drive after dark.  I scrambled back down toward familiar territory, and I knew I had to make a right turn to connect back onto the "trail" back to the parking lot. 

The sun set that I stayed out for
But with the light fading fast I never saw that turn, and I kept walking. And walking. And walking. It was almost dark and I was in a canyon bottom, and the once-familiar way was anything but.  The very warm afternoon had turned into a very cold early evening.  I also had broken several of my own rules for this type of exploration:  I was only wearing a t-shirt and shorts, and didn't have extra warm clothing.  I also didn't bring enough water and had run out. I didn't have a flashlight with me either.   And I didn't let anyone know where I was going (I was traveling by myself and staying in a motel in a small town north of Vegas). 

It was getting hard to see anything deep in that canyon, and I started to have very real thoughts that I would be one of "those people" (unprepared) featured on the evening news the next day that had to be rescued after getting lost in the desert. 

Not the most setting of sights when all alone in the desert!
Fortunately, two things I possess are 1) a very strong sense of direction and 2) a very calm demeanor, particularly under pressure.  I also remembered I had installed a flashlight app on my phone, and quickly switched it on.  

I knew three things at that point also: 1) I had gone way too far and had missed my turn, so I stopped and turned around back facing the way I came; 2) The sun sets in the west (and I knew which direction was west from where I was), which was where the parking lot was and thus I would be searching for a lefthand turn; 3) If I couldn't find the turn, I could continue hiking due north (straight) and come out onto a side road in the park, and walk the mile or so down the road to my car. Of course it was now almost completely dark so all of that was much easier said than done. 

But with my phone flashlight in hand I slowly, carefully retraced my steps. There was enough light left in the sky that it helped illuminate the canyon.  Thanks to that, I eventually found where I was supposed to turn - easy to miss in low light conditions.  I made the turn and then trudged through the sand toward the direction of the parking lot, finding a couple of those sign posts in the light of my torch.  

"Bumps in the Road" - Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
I soon was in familiar territory and back at my car, in total darkness, alone, the last person left in the park that evening.  Before leaving, I contemplated what had happened, why and that my own actions had caused it.  I resolved not to break those personal safety rules in the future on the long, dark, lonely drive back to my motel.  

But it was a sobering reminder of what lengths that photographers go to in order get "the" shot.  Staying out too late, walking or hiking too far, going off-trail, or even to places considered dangerous, both in the wild and in the urban corridors, all for the sake of coming up with a specific shot.  I have to continually remind myself to not push the envelope, and my personal limits, so far that I end up in threatening or precarious situations. 

In the end, it was a great to Valley of Fire, and I highly recommend it to anyone if in the Las Vegas or southern Utah areas.  I enjoyed it so much that I went back a couple of months later for more fun, photography and exploration.  The second time, however, I was more careful and did not put myself in any situations of getting lost or stuck out in the desert.

So was it worth it? I'll leave that to readers to decide.   

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The "Fire Wave" - an iconic feature of Valley of Fire State Park

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