Southwest

"There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars."

- Jack Kerouac - On the Road

 

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Kerouac understood. He just got it, man. We are born inquisitive, curious explorers. An innate drive to venture out on the open road and experience the unknown is buried deep within each and every one of us. Some suppress that explorative nature over the course of their lives, others feed and nurture it with vigor. I'd like to think I'm the latter. As I write this, my train of thought is continually broken by the enchanting aroma of a single origin Rwandan bean in a trendy San Diego coffee shop. I'm surrounded by contradictory tattoos and bleached hair from all walks of life. An array of colorful personalities form a queue out the door awaiting their early morning caffeine fix. Three teenage girls stand together, transfixed with their cell phones in an exemplary display of social disconnect. They all wear matching sweaters from a local university. A ragged man with a salt and pepper beard sits in the corner wielding a guitar, looking pensively out the open bay windows toward the ocean as he plays a flamenco tune. He never once locks eyes with another.

I arrived in this southwest corner of the country less than 24 hours ago. I had been landlocked in Nashville far longer than my wandering soul could handle; the west coast was calling me back. There's something to be said about the California appeal, but I'll leave that polarizing topic for another day. After all, it's not always about the destination. More often, its the journey that sets the soul ablaze. And this journey began with a decision to feed that inner desire to explore the unknown, entropy-ridden desolation of the southwest. 

The Jeep had been packed with material items that held relative importance; the rest donated. This isn't the first time I've purged the majority of my belongings. Life on the road brings attention to our consumer-centric society and just how quickly all the small purchases add up to a culture of overindulgence. Thanks, Amazon Prime. I set off on I-40 West, engaged cruise control, and lost count of the number of completed podcasts. 26 hours and 6 states later, I arrived on the Utah/Arizona border in the iconic Oljato Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. It was nearly 3am; I was notably exhausted. I couldn't wait to get out of the Jeep to stretch my legs, so I pulled over on the side of the road and took a walk under the stars. As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I quite literally laughed out loud as I realized where I had parked. One of the buttes iconic to Monument Valley was perfectly aligned with the Milky Way above. Timing is everything, I suppose. 

 

 
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After a quick power nap under the stars, I began to hike around in the dark. The desert was unseasonably cold on this particular morning, but I had every intention of catching a sunrise from John Wayne's favorite viewpoint. Sometimes we crave new experience, other times we want to follow in the dusty footsteps of someone we've never met. The tale of humanity is a curious narrative indeed. Making my way to the iconic view at dawn, I immediately understand John's appeal to this particular spot at sunrise. Three pinnacle buttes rise out of the desert floor with captivating scale, each surrounded by it's own deposit of erosion. The impressive scale of time and corresponding entropic effects provoke deep thought of creation.

 

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Southern Utah is raw. It's wild. It's untamed. The contrasting colors of the landscape are utterly transfixing. Highway 163 north of the Arizona border winds through dozens of stunning canyons and rock outcroppings worth exploring. A personal favorite detour is called Valley of the Gods, hosting a dirt road complete with river crossings large enough to deter those without a 4x4. Big shoutout to Jeep for making arguably the best off-road vehicles on the planet. It's one thing to view these massive structures from a distance with a telephoto lens. Personally, I like to immerse myself in the wild, untamed landscape and feel present. 

 

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I followed Highway 163 northbound with the intent of making my way to Salt Lake City. One of my absolute favorite humans from college booked a flight to meet me the following afternoon, and we would finish the drive to San Diego together. With a nomadic lifestyle such as mine, it was good to have a companion to keep me cognizant of time. I did have a vehicle full of valuables, after all. I made some quick decisions on what would prove the best use of my final 24 hours en route to SLC. Sleep feel victim to adventure, yet again. At the top of the list: Arches National Park.

Arriving at the park just before sunset, I took a moment to appreciate the passing storm that left the park empty. It was as if I had the pristine, freshly rinsed national park to myself. I must have stopped a dozen times along the road to frame shots of the landscape blanketed in dynamic sunset hues. A combination of passing storm clouds and breakthrough sunlight accentuated the captivating contrast of the southwest color palette.

30 minutes into the climb up to Delicate Arch, the fading sunset transitioned into a star-filled, moonlit nightscape. This part of Utah is a stargazers paradise; The vibrant sky allows a sea of transfixing stars to feel almost within one’s grasp.. only to be complemented with a waxing gibbous moon illuminating the landscape, casting delicate moon shadows across ancient formations of sandstone.

 

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After a night of exploration under the stars, I found myself in Salt Lake City with my adventure partner. We enjoyed a night on the town before setting off the following morning with Zion National Park on our minds. Just 2 years prior, I had explored this jaw-dropping canyon while driving across the country to New York. Among the highlights, one particular place will forever stick out in my mind: Angel’s Landing. Let’s take a moment to appreciate that name… Angel’s Landing.

Few experiences in my life have proven noteworthy in the form of intimidation. Skiing through a glacier littered with crevasses in the French Alps is one that comes to mind. Walking out onto a frozen lake without another soul in sight to witness encapsulated methane bubbles under my feet is another. Hiking up to Angel’s Landing, despite being a fairly popular trail, remains on that list. The vast majority of the hike is notably mild and easy to navigate. At one point, however, the trail narrows along the ridge to the final viewpoint, and that narrowed section showcases a thousand-foot drop on either side of the 2-foot-wide trail. When looking back on the photos captured on that day, I remember not only the incredible view at the top of the sketchy hike, but I vividly remember how heavy my backpack felt. I remember the change in temperature as the sun fell behind the mountain, and the exact moment I questioned my decision to film a time-lapse of the sunset and return down the dangerous path in darkness. The feeling of awe, the physiological change from temperature.. the focus of every single shadowless footstep. A rush of memories come hurdling back when these images flash across my screen. Perhaps this is why I always have my camera in my hand.

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