Plains and Peaks: A Roadtrip on Film

I never really understood taking risks in photography until I ran $40.00 worth of film through a Mamiya m645 that had been collecting dust in my mom's basement for over 15 years. I was just beginning to pack for a two-week road trip to Colorado and Wyoming when mom sent a picture with the text, "Is this a good camera?" Her timing could not have been more perfect; my own medium format camera (a MONSTER called the Honeywell Pentax 6x7) had just taken a crap and, if you've ever had the opportunity to see one of those beasts, you'd understand why I wasn't too keen on taking the Pentax cross country anyway. 

The film was Ektar 100 120mm, which gave me some stellar detail (when I could hold the camera steady; in retrospect I should've brought a tripod, but naaaaahhhhh). The colors were pretty impressive on most of the exposures, but I like tweaking in post because I haven't found a film whose colors I am totally in love with.

Anyone who consistently shoots film will tell you that film trumps digital, always; but I would be lying if I said I didn't bring my DSLR as well. I'd like to believe I'm rebellious enough to not give a shit about how my 120mm images come out, but that's simply not true. Ty and I had been dreaming about taking a road trip together since we started dating, and I wanted to make sure every moment was accounted for. However, of the 2,000 plus pictures I took digitally, there is not one image I like more than my film shots. That's because the moments captured on film are exact representations of when Ty and I were able to slow down which, in my opinion, are the most important.

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WE'RE OFF, or PASSING THE TIME

Two twelve-hour days on nothing but asphalt seemed daunting when we first set off. I had driven as far west as Columbus, Ohio, but everything between there and our destination was pretty much a mystery (unless you count the birds-eye views from plane trips to California and Alaska). Luckily for us, we were no strangers to long days of traveling together. Everybody travels differently, but one bit of advice holds true for everyone: venture with someone you feel comfortable with in silence. 

Believe me when I say you can hold a meaningful conversation with anyone if you try hard enough. I once spent a three-hour plane ride talking to a lovely young Swedish man about sandwiches and drinking games. All that's needed to carry on a conversation is common ground, which apparently for me and Sven was an excessive love for BLTs and alcohol.

But I've been with Ty for three years, and though I love the hours-long talks we have about nothing and everything, what I love the most is how we can also shut up and actually take in what's going on around us and not just within us. 

Besides the initial high from taking off on our first roadie, much of the first leg of our trip was a blur. Ohio was flat. St. Louis had a charm to it that was only accentuated by the incredible barbecue. Surprisingly enough though, my favorite part of the first leg was Kansas (or at least the first two hours of Kansas...things went downhill after Ty ordered a bierock). Kansas boasts some of the most gorgeous plains that, when hit by the morning light, glow a reddish-orange against a deep blue sky. 

Afterwards, it's shit. Just kidding; it's not shit, it's just a long haul, especially when the first half of Colorado is just Kansas 2.0. On a real note, I don't really want to go into just how painstakingly long and boring driving-dedicated days can be because really, you get over it. The feeling of sweaty thighs sticking to the leather seats becomes the norm and life goes on.

However, when we finally made it to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I was excited again. At the first sign of major tectonic plate collisions, I whipped out the Mamiya and fired away. I put an entire roll of film through my camera before we even reached Denver.

Distant mountains + 85mm lens + car shake = absolutely horrendous negatives. "Why don't you just use your DSLR paired with your zoom lens?" asks the wiser version of myself. "BECAUSUEE MOUNTAINSNS I'M EXCITEDJ THERE"S MOUNTNIAnjiws!" responds the overly excited five year old armed with a medium format camera and expensive film version of myself.

In the end, I finally calmed down enough to hold off taking any more pictures until we reached the outskirts of Denver.

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DENVER AND SURROUNDING

I found it incredible that sights such as the above were a stone's throw from a major road or highway in the Denver area. Anyone from Pennsylvania knows that most sights like these are achieved by at least an hour of hiking in some remote place, followed by fifteen minutes of post-hike tick checks.

Overall, I'm happy that these little pulloffs exist so everyone has the opportunity to connect, for even the smallest moment, with our beautiful planet. On the other hand, it was pretty heartbreaking to see that it's not about making an actual connection with nature or sharing a moment with someone you love; it's just a convenient background for a selfie. I'm looking at you, middle-aged tourist mom with a selfie stick who won't explore the trail that is literally ten feet away from the parking lot with their kid who, thanks to you, probably doesn't even care about shit like this anyway.

Oh god, I'm ranting. Sorry...back to the stuff that's actually fun to read.

I wish Ty was here to write the section about the awesome buffalo herd we saw. I love wildlife (not sure if these furry daddios count as wildlife though, being behind a fence and all), but NOBODY knows wild animals like Ty does. The kid can practically quote every episode of Wild America. Fun fact: buffalo testicles aren't that bad, albeit a bit chewy. Now that I've got you throwing up a little in your mouth, I'll clarify that I ate said testicles in the form of Rocky Mountain Oysters, an appetizer of the famous Buckhorn Exchange. Vegetarian readers, DO NOT click that link.

See, I told you Ty should've written this section. Not only have you learned very little about buffalo, but you learned something you probably didn't want to know anyway. At least now I have a fun fact about myself for company team building workshops. 

We did do other things in Denver besides eat bull testicles, though. It's hard to not feel like a tourist when all you can really do in an unfamiliar city is the touristy things, like drink free beer and eat famous donuts, so we tended to travel outside Denver city limits and the surrounding towns. But as an out-of-townie, there are just some things you don't want to miss.

Red Rocks Amphitheater is an absolute must if you're visiting Colorado. I didn't get the opportunity to see anyone perform, but that only meant that the theater was pretty much empty except for a few of them fitness types running the stairs. Red Rocks is the perfect attraction for both outdoor and not-so-outdoor folk since it can be accessed by either driving or walking/biking and is home to some pretty stellar views. I imagine it's much busier during the summer months, but even if you're not the crowd type, Red Rocks is still a pretty spectacular link between man made and nature made.

The above image is from Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. I realize I'm jumping all over the place with both my written thoughts and images, but bear with me. Like I mentioned before, the shots that I'm posting have really no criteria except that I liked the way they turned out, and the way they turned out has a lot to do with how I reacted in the moment. If I was able to take the time to apply my technical photographic abilities to a shot and therefore create a usable negative in the end, it means I was fully encapsulated in that particular moment, trying to understand my surroundings. That is the essence of film. And for someone whose thoughts are constantly ranging from zero to maximum overdrive, I can really benefit from a practice like film photography.

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ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

After a few days of messing around Denver and surrounding areas, we made it to Rocky Mountain National Park just before what we know as Snowpocalypse 2015. Or, as Coloradans like to call it. "a pretty average Saturday in April." And by average, they mean two feet of snow in less than six hours. As a central Pennsylvanian, I am no stranger to snow; it was just, you know, A LITTLE SURPRISING AFTER ENJOYING FIVE DAYS OF 70-DEGREE WEATHER.

But before we got buried under a blanket of Mother Nature's favorite prank, we treated ourselves to a three hour drive around RMNP. As an added bonus, the weather reports scared all of the other tourists away; it felt like someone reserved the park just for me, Ty, and two other guys who, now that I think about it, never actually turned around when the weather started to hit. Rest in peace.

I don't want to understate the danger of driving in a closed National Park before, during, or after a storm of any kind, so I'd like to make it clear that there is a big difference between being adventurous and being stupid. I might be upset that I didn't get to really hike or take more photographs of the National Park I've been dying to see, but had we gone any farther in our two-wheel drive vehicle, we might've been two meaty popsicles for the wildlife to enjoy. Besides, a visit cut short means a visit in the future. 

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WYOMING

Have you ever been so depressed by a place that you drive eight hours out of your way just avoid having to spend the night there? That's Cheyenne, Wyoming. I mean, I don't exactly live in a metropolis either, but Cheyenne is a town I can only describe as "crusty." I don't know why, but if you saw it, hell, you'd say it was crusty too. So understand this: it was 6PM and we had a choice of either staying in Cheyenne for the evening or driving so far away that we wouldn't even find a hotel until 2:30AM. 

And that's the story of how we decided to visit Grand Teton National Park.

Keep in mind that, while mapping our trip out just weeks before, we had originally decided that hell yes, we were going to the Grand Tetons. However, after Snowpocalypse, we thought that maybe Wyoming got hit even harder with snow and it would be best to steer clear of remote areas for the time being. I even cancelled our motel reservations because I was so certain that the weather would turn into a nightmare. However, we still wanted to cross Wyoming off our list of states, so we thought "Why not Cheyenne?" By now you know the answer to that question was "F**k. That."

Wyoming is one of the least populated states in the US, which made it probably the strangest state to drive through. There was fresh snow on the ground paired with an overcast sky, which made it nearly impossible to tell where the horizon lay. The only things breaking up the white canvas were these weird structures called snow fences.

I knew Ty possessed an innate love for the wilderness and National Parks, but I had no idea how much until he plowed through that eight hour drive like it was nothing. We fueled him up with Mountain Dew (the weirdo doesn't drink coffee), and after about five hours of driving I passed out. I have faint memories of opening my eyes to a black expanse, lit only by the light of our car. When I woke up, he was basically carrying me to the only hotel room available in Jackson Hole. He didn't complain once.

And this is where I get sappy. My absolute favorite negatives from this trip are the images from the Grand Tetons. After days of driving, feeling stressed about the weather, and encountering an unexpected UTI (Hell. Hellfire), I finally felt so at ease and all I had to do was look into the driver's seat to realize why. 

I have a tendency to let the small, seemingly awful moments add up and eventually cloud the moments that deserve my full attention and more. I don't know why I had expected my first real road trip to be absolutely perfect, but once I saw how easy it was for Ty to let go of the little errors, I knew the only way to take full advantage of my experience was to mimic his "ain't no thang" attitude. 

With a clear mind and full heart, I spent the day beside my favorite person in one of the most gorgeous places in the world.

Ty's sense of adventure kicked in once more, thinking we could truck it to the entrance of Yellowstone and turn back. That particular entrance was closed, even though all he really wanted was a picture by the sign. I couldn't help but smile at his enthusiam, but I told him I didn't want another repeat of RMNP; feeling like we only scraped the surface of what could be an incredible adventure in the future.

It didn't take much convincing to turn back and start our journey back home; we knew full well we'd return someday and give this heaven the time and attention it deserved.