On a Saturday morning in mid-May, I left my girlfriend’s apartment in northern Rhode Island and drove 8 hours to Washington D.C. My car was fully packed with clothing, supplies, and the camera gear I would need for the 37-day cross-country road trip that I had been envisioning for almost ten years. Each bag, bin, and cooler was situated in a meticulously selected location to maximize available space, the organization of which I knew would probably descend into hopeless chaos after just a few days of living out of my Subaru.
After visiting with friends in D.C. for a night, I got back into my car for another 8 hours of driving, making my way south through the steady rain and fog that encased the area near Shenandoah National Park and much of the rest of Virginia.
On the drive, I reflected on the trip I had ahead of me, one that would eventually result in over 9,400 miles driven and visitation to 29 states and 13 national parks. At the time, the prospects of the trip didn’t yet feel real, and I was still in a mindset of needing to return to my daily life within a few days. I had never before had such a long, uninterrupted period of time to dedicate to photography and I was determined to make the best of the opportunity. By mid-afternoon on that second day of driving, I crossed the state line into Tennessee, eventually making it to my campsite in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Since a 37-day road trip, in retrospect, requires an overwhelming amount of planning, I was happy to have a friend familiar with the Smokies that could guide me around to some ideal photo locations. Landscape photographer David Johnston, a Tennessee native, had explored enough of the park in his lifetime that he could casually throw around terms like “secret waterfall” with confidence, so I knew I was in good hands.
After setting up camp, David and I took advantage of the overcast skies and recent rains and made our way to a cascading river and waterfall inside the park. Leading up to the trip, I had spent so much time meticulously planning to make sure that I could maximize my time at each location that I visited, I hadn’t taken my camera out of my bag in about 6 months. And as much as I would like to say that almost ten years of photography has made picking up my camera and shooting landscapes a skill that never regresses with time spent away, I quickly realized after setting up my tripod and staring at the waterfall in front of me that I had no idea how to make a good photo out of it.
After about 30 minutes of trial and error, during which time David had moved on to other parts of the river--most likely because he was bored with shooting the painfully obvious compositions that were staring me straight in the face but still somehow eluded me--I finally began to shake off the rust that had clearly accumulated during my 6 months away from photography. By that point I felt less like a well-oiled photographic machine and more like a monkey that had never held a camera, but I was finally able to find a composition that I liked and I fired off a few exposures, which eventually resulted in the shot below.
After being satisfied with our shots at the waterfall, David and I headed back down the trail and were soon after caught in an absolute downpour. Still in a bit of a stupor from driving 16 hours in the previous two days, I didn’t think to put my rain cover on my backpack, and, once the damage was probably done, I had the thought that I may have just soaked all of my camera gear on Day 2 of a 37-day photography trip. Luckily, aside from a little humidity inside the bag that dried out the next morning, my camera gear was spared. I’d like to thank F-Stop Gear for making a water-resistant hiking/photography bag in the Ajna 40L, because otherwise that day would have ended with a grown man weeping softly inside his tent while cuddling with a pile of waterlogged camera gear.
The next morning, David and I explored more of the park, eventually making a stop at Newfound Gap, which overlooks some of the layered ridges of the Smokies. By that time, partly cloudy skies were were casting dappled light all over the mountains, creating an opportunity to take out our telephoto lenses and use the shapes of the mountains and the light and shadows dancing across them to capture different compositions. With a month-long road trip clearly occupying my brain, I focused my attention on a paved roadway cutting through the mountains, and waited for the sun to shine a soft spotlight onto it and the surrounding trees.
Back at camp, I relaxed in preparation for sunset and interacted with the nature around me--activities which mostly consisted of stalking butterflies and trying hopelessly to remove the gaggle of ants that decided to throw a party on my tent. At one point, David and I stopped talking mid-sentence as a large shape swooped into my peripheral vision. With a quick “get your camera” we were moving silently towards the river next to our campsite, being careful to not disturb the great blue heron that had just landed near us to hunt for fish.
As the evening approached, we drove towards Morton Overlook for sunset, arriving early enough to witness an engagement shoot and hear the photographer give the posing direction “Ok, now tickle her until she pees her pants.” I’ve never had the urge to be a portrait or engagement photographer, but it’s at least good to know that there are ones out there who would direct their clients in the way that I would ideally want to.
The sunset at Morton Overlook, while bright and fiery, was one I found tough to photograph. Harsh direct sunlight was flooding much of the scene, and a bank of clouds on the horizon blocked the softer sunset light that would have been more ideal. Luckily, the hour leading up to sunset offered plenty more opportunities to break out my telephoto lens, and focus my attention on the shafts of light illuminating smaller parts of the grand landscape—and option I never had prior to picking up my Nikon 70-300mm.
The next day in the Smokies was my last, and it began with a classic location atop Clingmans Dome. At over 6,600 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in the Smokies, and provides unparalleled views of the surrounding area. It’s an iconic sunrise location, as it provides first light glowing behind layers of picturesque mountain ridges stacked between you and the horizon. David and I groggily arrived in the parking lot atop the Dome as twilight was starting to spread soft light across the landscape, illuminating a handful of frost-covered cars that had spent the night atop the mountain.
Maybe it was fatigue. Maybe I was still shaking off the photography rust. Maybe it was the sub-freezing wind chills that managed to follow me from Boston. Whatever the reason, I don’t have any photos to share from that morning. Between the intermittent clouds enveloping us and the other complicating factors I just mentioned, none of the photos I shot that morning meet my nitpicky standards. So, a description of a softly lit twilight sky brightening into sunrise over a landscape filled with tree-covered ridges and fogged-filled valleys will have to convey the scene to you instead.
Or you could Google it. I guess that would also get the point across too. Yeah, maybe go Google it.
Next stop: Rocky Mountain National Park.
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