The Leap / by Robert Welsted

Sometime in the not-so-distant past, a series of events occurred that changed my outlook on life.  What were these events, you ask?  Honestly, I am trying to find the answer to that question, myself, as I cannot pinpoint them.  All I know is that things changed considerably at work, and not for the better.  If you do not already know, as of writing this I am a Correctional Officer in the State of New York.  With that, New York State will not allow me to publicly bad-mouth the department, so let's just keep it at 'I'm an ever-so-slightly unhappy employee' for now (talk to me in person if you wish to hear more on that topic).  Due to feeling as though my insides are constantly wrenching, I knew that something needed to be done in order to improve my mental stability.  That said, I took to the road...again.  The words you are about the read are an extension of my somewhat wayward mind and speech, and may - at times - seem to be in no particular order.  You'll soon see that I use commas and semi-colons like they're going out of style, but I write like I talk; plenty of pauses.  Meanwhile, the photos you will see are an extension of my very focused heart and soul.  All in all, the following scattered entries and photographs document my journey:

*Date of entry - Location of entry*

March 22, 2017 - Fishkill, NY

The road ahead of me - at least on paper - looks grueling.  By my estimate, I'll have logged somewhere around 10k miles when this one is said and done.  Having done a trip similar to this not long ago (August 2016), I fully expect to be worn out upon my return home.  Hopefully, I'll be able to clear my head a bit and get some decent shots along the way.  The truck is loaded up, gassed up and ready to roll for the morning, but now it's time for bed; the rest will be needed.

March 23, 2017 - Orchard Park, NY

I rolled into mom's house and was greeted by my niece and nephew upon entering.  It was nice to see some of my family members, especially since we live so far away from each other and don't often get these opportunities.  Everyone ate some pizza, and then uncle Robbie had to entertain the children.  Damn, those kids tired me out today!  After all of that, it's amazing that I had any energy left to go and meet a friend for a couple of beers, but when you don't get to see people because of distance, you make an effort.  It was a great day and an even better night, but tomorrow the road awaits.

March 24, 2017 - Chicago, IL

After waking up early and making some breakfast to enjoy with my grandfather (the dude is a fucking legend in my eyes; one who I don't often get to spend time with, but truly enjoy it when I do), I hit the road to Chicago.  I'm here to stay for one night, and it'll be on the couch of a high-school friend's apartment.  We had a lot of catching up to do, as it has been nearly 10 years since we've seen each other.  We caught up, and beat up our livers in the process.  Damn you, Pabst Blue Ribbon!  It was a great night of bullshitting, drinking, and playing some guitar (while butchering your favorites!) with an old friend.

March 25, 2017 - Omaha, NE

I left my friend's in Chicago around 1pm and arrived in Omaha around 9pm.  I'm staying at the Hilton Omaha and just had a nice meal in the hotel's restaurant, the Liberty Tavern.  Add a couple of drinks to the fold for good measure, and my ass is off to bed after this long day.

March 26, 2017 - Estes Park, CO (Rocky Mountain National Park)

Early to rise and early to check out of this town.  Unfortunately, Omaha has only been a stop-through point.  I'd really like to see what this town is all about someday, as I'm sure it has its fine points.  I'm thinking a stroll down by the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to take in some fresh air will be a sound idea, as my truck will undoubtedly be filled with the aroma of beer farts and beef jerky (Old Trapper is where it's at!).  A trip to Walmart was required, as provisions were needed (road-trip essentials like water, more beef jerky, sausages and trail mix, to name a few).  After a lengthy drive to Estes Park, Colorado, I was blown away by how awesome the 4 Seasons Inn on Fall River was.  The owner was a true delight, and even handed me a complimentary Coors Light upon arrival!  The room was immaculate, and the location of the place couldn't be beat (just a couple miles from the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park).  That customer service, though...outstanding!  RMNP was stunning.  These parks will never get old.  Never.  I strapped on the snowshoes and hoofed it to a place called Nymph Lake, which was frozen over and snow-covered.  Set up for a few photos and then carried on to Sprague Lake.  The reflections of mountain peaks on the water seem to put me in a peaceful state of mind; something that is needed after working in a hell-hole.  Upon returning to my room, tomorrow's plan began to take shape.

March 27, 2017 - Estes Park, CO (Rocky Mountain National Park)

What a long day!  Entering the park at 4am in order to snowshoe to a spot to check out the stars was worth the lack of sleep.  Dream Lake always looked great from photos that I've seen, but nothing beats laying eyes on it for yourself.  It was very, very windy and cold, but I've learned to somewhat block that out when on a mission like this.  Nothing is going to slow me down when it comes to acquiring a photo that I'm after.  Nothing.  After setting up for a couple of hours and light painting my foreground elements with a headlamp, the angle of attack needed to be changed, as the sun was about to peek out.  Hiking just a bit beyond this area yielded some wonderful sights.  As the sun crept ever so slowly above the horizon, I couldn't help but to stare into it.  Should my retinas burn out or my fingers blacken due to frostbite at that moment, I'd have been at peace with it.  After all, sunrises like this one (in locations like this) aren't something that I see every day.  Behind me sat this gnarled tree, twisting up from the ground and leaning onto a rock face.  The distant peaks were framed nicely by it, so you know what came next.  After getting a couple of shots, I hiked back out to my truck, drove to Sprague Lake (where a couple of moose were passing through), then headed back to my room to eat.  Around 2pm, I re-entered the park and hiked to The Loch (based on a recommendation from a fellow photographer that I met through Instagram).  It was quite difficult, considering a few things: the elevation differential was wreaking havoc on my lung capacity (especially with a backpack full of camera gear and water), the switchbacks didn't seem to want to end, and it was snowing a ton.  When I finally reached the top, vision was severely limited due to the heavy snowfall.  This made getting a shot of what I came for impossible.  As the snow was only getting worse, I figured it'd be high time to get my sorry ass out of there and back to a safer area.  Only one shot came from this trek, just to show what the snow was like.  As I packed up my gear, I was joined by a fellow hiker who captured some images with his iPhone.  We decided to hike out together, shooting the shit along the way.  My feet felt like they went through a woodchipper and were soaking wet from the snow.  Despite this, it was time to eat.  Smokin' Dave's BBQ & Tap House came through with a fine pulled-pork sandwich.  Yessir!  I need a nap.

March 28, 2017 - Jackson, WY (Grand Teton National Park)

Well, today started off kind of shitty.  I woke up to a heap of snow on the truck and some of the worst driving conditions that I've ever experienced.  Roads leading north were closed due to a snowplow being stuck, so I rerouted southeast to get around the park (RMNP) and keep this show on the road.  All in all, it added an additional 2.5 hours to the day's trek.  I rolled into the Tetons around 5pm and checked into a hotel called the Lexington.  An old friend who lived in the area met me in the parking lot and we went to a restaurant called Lift to grab a quick bite to eat and catch up.  We had discussed the possibility of her joining me for a while on this trip, but it's something I'll have to think about.  We drove to the T.A. Moulton barn for sunset photographs, but the sunset was lacking tonight so we took off.  I dropped her back off at her vehicle and decided to relax in my room and do laundry, while she went off to meet her friends.  As the sky darkened, I gathered my equipment and headed back to Mormon Row to see some stars on this clear night.  While photographing in a field (alone, of course), coyotes started howling to each other and honestly, it made my asshole pucker a bit.  I don't know if they're known to attack humans, but I wasn't about to be an easy meal should they go that route.  Grabbing the Gerber knife, I said out loud "you're going to earn this one tonight, motherfuckers!".  That's right...come get some.  No coyote attacks, so I'll head back to my room in peace.  I subsequently texted my friend that I'd let her know in the morning if I wanted her to join me going forward.

March 29, 2017 - Cannon Beach, OR

Only a few hours of sleep and I'm out of here.  Moulton Barn's sunrise was lacking today, at least from the typical angle.  When there are no clouds in the sky at times like these, I tend to get frustrated.  It's this frustration that is usually fleeting, so long as I step back and realize that it's not always about the photograph so much as it is the actual moment and place.  I collected my thoughts for a moment and changed the pace.  I don't recall ever seeing a photograph taken from the backside of the Moulton Barn, so I gave it a shot.  After all, the best view of the sunrise itself would be from this precise spot.  Success.  Satisfied, I headed back to the truck and sat for a few minutes.  I shot a text to my friend and told her that I wished to continue the trek alone, and I didn't feel right having her accompany me.  The next stop was a considerable distance away; Multnomah Falls, OR.  It had been a hell of a long day behind the wheel, but I've made it here a hair prior to sunset.  Multnomah Falls is impressive.  There are people everywhere.  Setting up the Nikon was kind of a waste, as mist from the falls continued to moisten my lens.  Furthermore, I'd have done a bit better with a 14mm lens, which I didn't have.  A stitched, vertical panorama of the falls is was possible with my 24mm, but it just wasn't something that I was happy with sharing.  Hiking to the top was nice, and once there, I pulled out the Nikon again.  Not many shots were to be had from here, though, so I did some more of taking the moment in.  While shooting the stream runoff at the top of the falls, I felt a pair of eyes burning through my back.  Upon turning around, I noticed a woman standing by and watching me as I worked.  When I packed up the gear and decided it was time to descend, I noticed her begin to make her way down the trail.  We wound up walking down the falls together, conversing along the way.  She was a very pleasant person with a big heart; an art teacher of kindergarteners.  She spoke of the importance of travel and making positive changes in one's life; something I could easily relate to.  It is encounters like these that add a sense of comfort to my travels.  You see many people who are just trying to find their way, just like you.  We exchanged Instagram info and intend to remain in contact.  I'm now exhausted and have opted to drive a bit further until I hit the Pacific.  Today was somewhere around 15 hours of driving, and I've made it to my favorite place in the world, Cannon Beach, OR.  The Inn at Cannon Beach was a pretty nice place to rest my bones for the night, but I wanted some beer so sleep would have to wait a bit longer.  Walking next door to the Warren House Pub allowed me to enjoy the busy day by pounding a draft beer in seconds, and it was then that I retired to my room.

March 30, 2017 - Cannon Beach, OR

Kiss my ass, alarm!  After getting prepared for the day, I drove a few minutes north to Ecola State Park (you may recognize this from The Goonies) to photograph the rugged Oregon coastline in some classic Pacific Northwest weather.  The camera was set up, my hiking boots were getting stuck in the mud, rain was peppering my face, I looked to my 2 o'clock position, and that's when it all hit me.  A Pacific wave bowled me over, but not a typical wave that creates a thunderous clap as it curls over near the shoreline.  There was a thunderous clap, but not one that anyone else would've been able to hear.  Tears began to streak down my face as a pool of emotions overcame me.  You could say that I became unglued at that moment.  The Pacific is symbolic of the journey that I'm on.  Many changes are to come in life, and traveling just to take a few photos only proves to myself that I'm working hard on getting the fuck out of working in a prison.  Standing before this ocean is something that I once thought I'd never have a chance to see until retirement, however, I'm here now because it's very painful to continue to hear about coworkers dying either by their own hand or cancer, and I want to live as much as possible before this job completely destroys me.  It tells me that I need to change something now, because the situation is dire.  It is - in a sense - a halfway point, but it carries far more weight these days.  Sure, we sometimes reach the shore, but when get there and look into the horizon, do we really know what exists beyond our line of sight?  There is a particular beauty about this area that resonates within me.  Given the magnitude of the scenery's splendor and the whirlwind of shit dancing around in my head, I stood there and inhaled the ocean air, so much to the point that I hoped my lungs would wither from the sea's high salt content.  In reality, I couldn't differentiate between the saltiness of my tears or the dense ocean air as both mixed near the corner of my mouth.  When I finally pulled it together, I packed my things and walked around the park a little, then headed to Pelican Brewing Co. for some suds and some lunch.  I dialed up Hallmark Inns and Resorts (quite possibly the most beautiful place that I've been fortunate enough to stay at) and booked a room for two nights.  Haystack Rock looked awesome at sunset, so I celebrated the night by slamming some beer in the hot tub.  Things seem just fine now and that emotional outpouring was long overdue.  At the end of the day, the Pacific left me feeling vulnerable.  Occasionally, we're all vulnerable.

March 31, 2017 - Cannon Beach, OR

This morning's weather was shit, so finding a spot for sunrise photos was going to be a chore.  Instead of driving all over the place, I opted to just walk a few yards down to the shore and inhale the ocean air.  There were some interesting pieces of driftwood lying about; gnarled and twisted.  As the day progressed and the tide receded, plenty of families with small children would make their way over to the tide pools at the base of Haystack Rock.  It is here that you can see starfish and other forms of sea life up close.  I wanted to capture the flow of people via time lapse, so I set a camera up on the balcony at let it run for three hours while I ventured off to Pelican Brewing Company for some lunch (including beer, of course!).  You meet some interesting people with interesting stories while traveling.  Sometimes, these stories are inspiring.  I strike up conversation with the bartender at Pelican, and some of the questions that I ask her are "have you lived in this area your entire life?" And "if not, where did you move here from and why?".  She proceeds to tell me that the stresses of videography in big cities such as Los Angeles and New York wore her down over time, so she traded the 6-figure job and lifestyle for something much simpler and fulfilling.  She came to the area and only made $20k, but was far more happy with the easier, laid-back lifestyle that the Pacific Northwest offered.  Sometimes, it's not about the money.  Sometimes, it's about the change of pace that will improve the quality of your life.  Her story was inspiring and gave me hope.  After this conversation and meal, I headed back to the room to keep an eye on the time lapse and relax for a while.  For sunset, I loaded up a bag full of beer and headed back down to Haystack Rock.  The sunset was shit, but the beers went down nicely as the ocean water poured into my boots.  Fuck it, two more burgers from Pelican sounded like a great idea, and washing them down with more beer sounded even more intelligent.  Bed time for my ass.

April 1, 2017 - Crescent City, CA

Checking out of that hotel is a shitty feeling.  For a couple days, I was able to plant the feet and relax a bit, but now its time to hit the road again.  Dragging the coastline is the plan, as there is plenty so see.  Highway 101 was pretty.  It amazes me that I didn't wreck the truck, considering my head was turned to the right and my eyes were fixated on the ocean for most of today's ride.  The first stop of the day was in Cape Perpetua at Thor's Well.  The ocean was violent today, and a ranger suggested that I don't head out to photograph the well, as they were forecasting sneaker waves today (waves that are disproportionately larger than most other waves in a wave chain).  He said that there was a chance that I could be swept to sea and killed, should I choose to venture further out.  Of course, I packed up my camera gear, put it back in the pack and headed out...toward the ocean.  High tide was rolling in, so this was my chance.  I worked my way out the the well, all while keeping an eye on the horizon for what might ruin my day.  The camera was set up and I started firing away.  It felt as though someone had eyes on me, and upon turning around, there were all sorts of people - including small children - on my six.  I felt horrible that these folks followed me out onto the rocks - especially considering the potential dangers - so I had pleaded for some of them to back off or move inland a bit more.  I mentioned that I was out here with a purpose, and that the camera's memory card would tell the story that my voice couldn't, should the sea choose to claim me.  They didn't budge, instead, phones came out and photos were snapped.  The sea then reared up and crashed into my left side, nearly sweeping my camera away as I braced my stance against the wet rocks.  I was able to keep the camera from tipping over, I was soaked, my gear was soaked...but I got the shot.  Sea water wreaks havoc on electronics, so getting the fuck out of there to dry off the gear needed to happen in a hurry.  As the equipment dried out in the truck, I carried on toward the redwoods.  It was almost sunset time when I pulled over at Arch Rock viewpoint, jumped a railing and set up on the cliff's edge.  A few photos later and it's back on the road.  Fatigue set in and a hotel was a necessity.  I didn't quite make it to the redwoods, so this America's Best Value Inn here in Crescent City, CA will have to do, and man, this place is a rat fuck.

April 2, 2017 - San Francisco, CA

Hot shit, I made it to the redwoods!  Humboldt Redwoods State Park to be exact.  Driving around in there was no better than cruising on the surface of the moon, though, because the soft soil underneath the roads had given way due to the rains, and craters were every-fucking-where!  It looks like a fantasy world in there, and the smell of the trees was very distinct; very woodsy.  My guts were screaming to be coated with some sort of grilled meat, so I broke out the propane grill at a picnic table near the park's visitor's center.  A couple of middle-aged women - who were also enjoying a mid-day meal - engaged me in conversation after seeing New York license plates.  Those license plates are quite a conversation starter!  They were kind enough to listen to the rant about my job, and were very supportive of my photographic endeavors.  They had suggested moving to Ashland, Oregon, where living was easy and weed was legal.  Apparently, picking weed for $20/hr (according to them) was a decent way to make a living there, although I wouldn't say that that's quite up my alley.  Wrapping up the meal and conversation, I wished the ladies well on their travels and took a brief stroll through a path in the woods.  The trees are ungodly tall, and the only true way to understand the scale of these behemoths would be to stand before them yourself.  In this case - and in order to show such scale - I decided to put myself in a few photos.  San Francisco was the next destination on the list, so it was time to roll out.  Something about the Golden Gate Bridge fascinates me.  I don't think anyone could take a shitty photo of it, being that it's just too iconic and beautiful.  Crissy Field and Fort Point are right next to each other, and offer a nice opportunity to see the bridge from sea level.  Baker Beach was pretty interesting around sunset time, though.  As the waves crashed loudly onto shore, piles of people blasted music, drank beer, picnicked, smoked weed, and got as close to the rolling tide as possible for photo ops.  There was one fellow who marched around the beach and approached people like he was the mayor, only he wore nothing but a pair of aviators and had a ghetto blaster on his shoulder.  This didn't shock me at all, however, I silently lauded him for having it like that.  People accept you for who you are here and aren't judgmental.  Go naked-aviator-ghettoblaster-dude; do your thing!  I set up the camera for some shots of the bridge as the setting sun lit it up and fired away.  A young couple approached me and asked how much I would charge to take a photo of them, to which I said "that's for free".  The fellas got into position, shots were taken, a business card was handed out and they went along their way.  Upon receipt of an email, I'll send them the photos.  Photographers were everywhere, and as the sun paints the western side of the bridge, it's easy to see why.  Hours went by and people cleared out, but a few eager photographers stuck around; all side-by-side in a row.  One by one, they petered out.  Then it was just one female (presumably my age) and me.  I moved around looking for a different angle of the bridge, got the shot I was looking for, then packed up and got ready to head out.  Before heading out, I thought it'd be right to do the gentlemanly thing and offer to walk the woman out and not leave her by herself in the dark.  After we talked for a few moments about photography, she thanked me and took me up on the offer.  She mentioned that drug addicts were known to linger around on the beach, so trouble wasn't something that she was looking to find.  We walked off of beach together and up to the street where she thanked me as her Uber rolled up.  From here, a shot of the bridge from straight on would end the night, so the hotel bed was calling my name.  I should be meeting a long-time friend tomorrow, and I'll bet our livers take a beating.

April 3, 2017 - Oakland, CA

Sunrise at the Marin Headlands turned out to be a nice time today.  I conversed with a young photographer who I set up along side of, and told him why I travelled with the intent of taking photographs.  He said that he was just getting into photography and truly enjoyed it.  The importance of following your heart was something that I could not stress enough to him.  Life isn't always about making money and paying bills.  Sometimes, it's far more important to do something for yourself that no amount of money could ever replace.  Something such as making memories and experiencing life in a different way.  These experiences can make you become a better you.  This conversation has come up a couple times on this trip, and will probably surface a couple more.  Everyone's got a story, everyone's got some pain, everyone's got a dream, and everyone's got happiness; I enjoy hearing these things from people that I come across on the road.  Seeing another familiar face on this journey was the next order of business, and meeting up with another long-time friend elated me.  I picked my friend up in Oakland and we headed north a couple hours and decided to hike to a place called Alamere Falls.  It was a long hike, but we motored along and caught up quite a bit.  Our conversation turned to the significant, positive impact that travel has made in our respective lives.  It's about the experiences and the people.  The things your that eyes and soul absorb can somewhat be measured by the eloquent, concise and intellectual words that you share with others regarding these experiences.  It was easy to see that my friend's experiences have given him a solid education in the game of life, and his story of how that came to be was one of inspiration.  It was one of desperation.  It came from a low, dark place and eventually led to a rebirth, of sorts.  Due to the fact that I'm not using names in these entries - and hearing it from him is far more descript than my fragmented scribblings - he'll have to disclose that information at his discretion after this is released.  He's got a friend that he met overseas who has a house in Oakland, so we headed over there for a gathering.  A pile of people came over, beers went down the hatch, and out came the guitars.  We all passed guitars around and jammed the night away.  One guy even busted out an a cappella version of a Russian folk song in Russian.  This is something that I've never seen before, but it fit the scene; it fit the flow.  After rocking and rolling, the fingers were a bit raw.  We headed out to a local bar via Uber, and out came the shot glasses.  Son of a bitch, my insides are going to hate me tomorrow.  The bartender at this establishment was yet another good-hearted, passionate and vibrant human being.  She was an avid supporter of breast cancer research; always volunteering her time and money toward finding a cure.  What a good soul, driving my friend and I to another bar, joining us for one, and then dropping us off back at the house in Oakland.  I'm a bit dehydrated and my voice is shot now, but that's because it was another awesome day.  This couch is now my bed for the night.

April 4, 2017 - Oakland, CA

I woke up and my head was pounding.  Breakfast is needed right-the-fuck now, so we wandered the university of California, Berkeley campus area in search of some gluten-free bagels for my friend.  We bounced around from spot to spot and walked off the hangovers until we settled on a place that made some bitchin' gluten-free chocolate chip pancakes.  I haven't an allergy nor aversion to gluten, but these things were pretty good!  As it turned out, another friend from back in the day was flying into San Francisco later today, so I was easily convinced to stay for one more night.  Until he shows up, there is some time to kill, and what better way to do that than to drink some beers outside while people watching?  Okay, maybe that wasn't the greatest idea, because some middle-aged, tore-up, backstage Betty-looking shipwreck of a crackhead began to gravitate toward where we were sitting and began to ramble incoherent nonsense, yell at fire hydrants and void herself of clothing.  Yeah, time to go back inside this bar.  When our other friend arrived, the three of us continued to bar hop and catch up on life.  Of course, alcohol helps anyone make the finer decisions in life, so we decided that getting tattoos was the next order of business.  Fuck it; I haven't had anything done in over six years, so don't threaten me with a good time.  Ah, the needle.  The aroma of a tattoo shop puts me in a nice place, mentally.  After that adventure, we met more of our friends from the Oakland house and headed off to enjoy some fine Korean BBQ and (you guessed it) more drinks.  I'm stuffed.  It's time for bed.

April 5, 2017 - Santa Monica, CA

This early to rise shit has yet to get old.  It breeds productivity.  On the way to Santa Monica, there were a few points of interest that warranted stops: Shark Fin Cove, Bixby Creek Bridge and a sunset somewhere in Malibu.  Check, check and check.  The Santa Monica Pier was nice to see with the lights on, although my arrival was beyond that of business hours, so there wasn't much to do other than walk the pier, itself.  There were seemingly two kinds of people at pier's end tonight: fishermen, and annoying kids in their early 20's.  I took my time to stare into the dark ocean for somewhere around twenty minutes and drown out the sounds around me.  All of the sudden, there appears a sea lion before me.  It surfaced from the dark, turned to its back and made its way over to the fishermen, presumably looking for bait handouts.  Within moments, a slap in the water nearby.  A whale (not sure which species, exactly) breached a couple of times and then disappeared into the distance.  A peaceful feeling came over me at that time, as I was fortunate to witness something special.  That was a pretty good end to another beautiful day.

April 6, 2017 - Twentynine Palms, CA (Joshua Tree National Park)

Boy, it was hotter than a pistol today!  That sun felt nice, though, as it crispened my pasty, white self throughout the day.  Joshua Tree National Park is simple, yet stunning.  Rock climbers could be seen scaling mighty geologic formations throughout the park, other folks picnicking, and others staring into the distance and taking it all in.  I spent most of my day driving around the park, stopping randomly and wandering aimlessly.  A short hike to Baker Dam as the sun began to sink toward the horizon almost ruined any chance I had at a decent sunset photograph.  I couldn't find an ideal spot to set up - at least not one that I had envisioned - and time was ticking.  I then expedited my departure from this trail and got back to the truck in a hurry.  Hit the gas, because it was time to find a place to work the cameras and I needed to find one fast.  All of the sudden, there it stood.  It was an old Joshua Tree that bent back toward the ground, somewhat out of place, but it framed the setting sun wonderfully.  There's a thing about those western sunsets that I just cannot get enough of.  The sky seems to open up magically and the colors are so bright.  These are the moments that I now live for; the shots that I need to capture.  Time slows down a bit and good things come to the forefront of my mind.  It'll be an early night for me because I've got to get to the Grand Canyon early to try and acquire a campsite.

April 7, 2017 - Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

It's a good thing that I hit the road as early as I did, because the drive to the Grand Canyon was long and I needed to arrive early enough to have a shot at a walk-in campsite at Mather Campground.  Jackpot; they had one available.  Prior to my arrival, I was forced to pull over at a truck weight station for the sole purpose of checking out the Arizona sunrise without wrecking my vehicle.  I pulled through the open truck bay and cruised by officers, pulled over and hastily and attempted to set up my gear.  Two officers came over while I fumbled with camera equipment in the back seat and asked what I was doing, to which I just pointed toward the horizon.  The two officers stood by and enjoyed the burning sky along my side.  After setting up camp and chugging a beer in celebration, I headed to the Yuvapai Lodge to eat some much-needed breakfast.  You know the point at which you are so tired you feel lunacy setting in?  That's where I was at.  My first glimpse of the vastness of the canyon on this trip wouldn't come until that meal disappeared as fast as it ended up on the table.  Few places that I've ever laid eyes on have taken my breath away like this, and it will never get old.  A good friend of mine once described the Grand Canyon as 'just a big fucking hole in the ground', although he said he was happy that he and his wife had seen it for themselves.  I agree, it is just a big fucking hole in the ground, but people wait their entire lives just to stand before it.  People come from all over the world to watch its colors change by the second as the sun sets on it.  It's an important part of people's lives, and seeing it is a goal that people set.  I - like many before me and many after - remember shedding tears the first time I stepped to its edge and felt the winds whip over my male-pattern-baldness cranium.  Maybe I cried that time because of its beauty, or maybe it's because I got upset about my fucked up genetics and how my hair seemingly disappears every time I see myself in the mirror...you be the judge.  There was still amazement this time, but I picked my jaw back up off of the ground in a hurry and headed out onto a couple of dicey ledges for some different vantage points.  It was on one of the ledges that off in the distance I could hear kids yelling to their parents "Mom!  Dad!  Look at that guy out there!!!"  That meant it was probably an awesome place to set up a second camera to get a shot of me working, so that's what ended up happening.  The sunset was tough to capture, as my tripods took a big fat shit on me.  I love the Manfrotto BeFree Travel Tripod and have beat the living shit out of it throughout the course of my now one-and-a-half times around the country, but the miles were wearing this old girl thin and I think she's had about enough.  With the mighty winds, she was just about useless.  Minor adjustments were made on the fly by utilizing a multi-tool, but it wasn't staying stable enough.  Son of a bitch, I hope there's a camera store within a decent drivable distance or I'm going to have to MacGyver something in a hurry.  I think that cutting my losses and drinking beer by the campfire is a great way to close this day out.

April 8, 2017 - Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

This morning's first stop was Desert View Watchtower for sunrise, only there wouldn't be much of a sunrise due to the immense cloud cover.  The clouds visible on the northern rim at any time can be pretty intense, and this time was no exception.  Ravens barrel-rolled, dipped and dove down into the canyon from over the edge, putting on a clinic in how to master the canyon's chilly early morning winds.  Damn, that sun needs to start showing itself and warming this place up!  Back at the campsite, I cooked some sausage and then took a nap in my hammock.  This would be how most of the day was spent until sunset at Navajo Point.  Of course, the most dangerous ledge that I've been to yet called out to me at this location, so another shot of me working was in order.  Holy fuck, was it ever windy out there!  The can of Grand Canyon Brewing Company's American Pilsner that I pounded in celebration out there tasted that much better, though.  Upon retrieval of my D810, disaster was almost completely averted.  My stupid ass posted it roughly 6 inches from the canyon's edge as I climbed down into position for the working selfie, and to give it some more stability from the winds, I looped my backpack around the already low-to-the-ground tripod.  When I went back up to it, I grabbed the backpack and the tripod started to tip forward.  You want to talk about time slowing down, holy fuck!  I had to lunge forward to save the camera from swan-diving headfirst a mile to its doom, and I was able to, however, the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens slammed into the rock and shattered.  The following photo in which I can be seen in the lower left-hand corner standing on an edge and photographing would be the last one the Nikon took on this trip.  From here on out it'll be the Canon 5D Mark IV's turn to work.  Back at camp now and the fire is rippin'.

April 9, 2017 - Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

When you're on the road with only a loose itinerary, finding places to stay can be a pain in the ass.  If you plan to camp in the National Parks, it is very important to wake up very early and get to the registration station if you're going to have any chance at securing a site.  Here at Mather Campground, Park Ranger Dave was able to help me out considerably by setting me up with a campsite for another two nights.  After setting up camp, a hot, coin-operated, eight-minute shower may have been the best thing to happen to me in a short while, which would be followed by doing some laundry.  Based on Mather Campground's amenities and the close proximity to the South Rim Trail, I would certainly recommend it to campers at the Grand Canyon.  The constant abuse that my tripods took on this trip put me in a bad spot.  One tripod was just a cheap piece of shit from the jump, so it was only a matter of time before it failed.  The other - and my primary one - is a Manfrotto BeFree Travel Tripod.  I chose this specifically because of its portability and minimal weight.  It has served me very well on a daily basis, and has seen a pile of abuse from not only this trip, but my August one as well.  Because it no longer wanted to stay stable, I had to take to Yelp to find a camera shop.  It's Sunday and I'm in a scarcely-populated area, so options are severely limited.  Rollie's Camera Shop in Sedona, AZ (roughly two hours south of the Grand Canyon) came through like no other.  They had quite the selection of items, and the gentleman working that day was quite friendly and knowledgeable.  Armed with a new MeFOTO RoadTrip Tripod, I was ready to get back out there and snag some more crisp shots.  On the way back up to the canyon, I stopped off in Flagstaff to pick up a friend from the airport; one who was also heading to the Canyon for a couple of days while on vacation.  Strange, because I moved around the country like a ghost in August, and only spoke with a handful of people along the way.  This time, there are friends all over the place; each on trips of their own.  It has been nice to spend time with all of them so far.  We headed to the canyon and I decided to share my campsite, as there were no more available spaces.  All of today's driving didn't allow for sunset shots because I got back to the canyon too late, but the blue hour is always as nice sight to see.  It is made even better by having some beers with a good friend.  Even better was seeing someone's reaction when they've never stood at the edge of the canyon before.  Back to camp because the temperature is dropping and I needed to get some food in my gullet.  The fire was cranked up and a few more beers down the hatch.  Hey, you've got to stay warm somehow, right?!  Holy horseshit, it is freezing tonight.

April 10, 2017 - Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

That was one of the coldest nights that I have ever experienced while camping, goddamn!  Getting up early to catch the sunrise was nice.  Off to breakfast at the Yuvapai Lodge and then back to camp to break it down.  Fuck sleeping in this cold again, so I got a hotel room for tonight.  It'll make things easier when it's time to hit the road in the morning, anyway.  For the last little bit here, a quick hike into the canyon via the South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge turned out to be a great idea.  It was here where I played tour guide and imparted some limited canyon knowledge to my friend.  We got to the turnaround point and - you guessed it - slammed a beer, then headed back up to the top.  The hike out was a bastard; steep and void of shade.  We made it out in great time, though.  After that long and tiring hike, I've got no problem paying for a meal.  The hotel bar/restaurant had just what the doctor ordered, and it was here where I met an interesting couple from Washington.  They sat to the left of me, both drinking local beers.  They were really interested in trying to get me to play air hockey with them - a genuine request, I'm sure - but I'm no stranger to the road (and also expect the worst because I work in a prison), so my twisted mind leads me to believe that they probably wanted to have a threesome.  It probably was the furthest from their intentions, after all, I look like an escaped convict who had been lost at sea for a while.  Furthermore, people out west are just friendly.  Genuine and friendly.  The man was my age, but carried himself much like a younger college kid who liked to party.  He seemed higher than a kite - probably on some sort of prescription pills.  He was accompanied by a charismatic, sweet woman who was much younger, although she carried herself completely unlike him.  She was the yang to his yin.  As I ate my meal and enjoyed a couple of beers, they told me stories of the road, how they worked in the service industry at nearby hotels, and that they've become enamored with the traveler's life.  They were happy on the road, never setting up shop in one place for too long.  They wound up retiring to their room, as the man continued to ramble incoherently and damn near passed out in the barstool.  She said enough was enough, I guess.  It's time for bed for me, as the road will be calling very early.  Tomorrow is going to be a long day.

April 11, 2017 - Tempe, AZ

It has been really nice to be somewhat planted for a few days, but I had to put some more miles on the truck today and there were a couple of places that I needed to see.  Horseshoe Bend (located just outside of Page, AZ - about 2.5 hours NE of the Grand Canyon) is awesome.  A short hike from a large (and always full) parking lot leads to a vertigo-inducing visual.  If you've been here, you know what I mean.  If you haven't yet, you'll understand when you creep carefully to the ledge.  The drop off is a mere 1,000 feet, and it makes your knees wobble as you near it.  The stay here was brief.  Next up, Monument Valley; the backdrop for many old-school western films.  Arrival at the visitor's center was interesting.  Tour buses full of people unloaded on the place and everyone piled into the bathrooms.  Maybe I should've waited a bit longer to wait online at the urinal because the putrid aroma of people's asses as they annihilated porcelain made my fucking eyes cross.  The horrid symphony of groans and broken wind reminded me of working overnights on housing units at the jail.  Seriously, what are they feeding these people on the tour buses!?  Anyhow, into the park I went.  Immediately upon stepping out of the truck in the hot desert sun, I was overcome with calmness.  The simplicity and beauty of what stood in the distance floored me.  I walked out and inhaled the air, thinking that this moment would've been made far better if I could stand here next to my grandfather.  He is the most important male figure in my life and has always been a huge fan of westerns.  I know he'd love to see this.  Hopefully I can get him out here in the near future so he can stand here, too.  Should that moment come to fruition, I'm sure I'd not be fixated on the horizon so much as I would on his reaction.  I'd probably look at him much in the same way that I did as a young boy, similar to how I still look at a starry, night sky - in admiration.  From this magical Navajo land, it was onto the next spot.  I stopped off to take in a sunset at Sunset Crater Volcano, and then rolled into Tempe pretty late.  The guy behind the counter at the hotel happened to be from East Aurora, NY; a town adjacent to where I used to live.  Small world, indeed.  Walking a mile or so to go get some chicken wings on a warm Arizona night felt nice.  I sometimes forget what it's like to be able to enjoy the nighttime while wearing a pair of shorts.  Those wings were surprisingly respectable.  Time for bed.

April 12, 2017 - Phoenix, AZ

It's toasty today; a stark contrast from a couple mornings ago at the Grand Canyon.  I just dropped my friend off at the Phoenix airport and had some time to kill before I met up with some more people.  I sat in the hotel parking lot while parked in the shade, and leeched off of the wi-fi so I could edit photos before meeting someone I hadn't seen in close to fifteen years.  A short drive from the hotel brought me to a nice neighborhood in Tempe, where I parked the truck on the side of the road and stepped out to meet my buddy.  This kid was as good as immediate family to me years ago.  We lost contact as we grew up and went our separate ways, but here we are now.  It's funny how time doesn't negatively affect some friendships as much as you might think.  Fifteen years is a long time, but the conversations that occurred as we rode bicycles through Tempe and toasted beers in no way indicated a lapse was present.  It was in these conversations that I sensed a great deal of maturation and growth on my friend's part.  There were pain and desperation in the stories, similar to what another friend told me on a hike up the California coast.  And change.  Change for the better.  A few hours of catching up went by quickly, and there was some time to kill before meeting my cousin.  My cousin recommended the sunset as seen from South Mountain, so I headed up to see what all the fuss was about.  Nice place, but I didn't like the volume of people there so I walked into the horizon to be alone as the sun sank.  Afterward, it was back to Phoenix to meet my cousin who had just gotten out of work.  We caught up over chicken wings and beer (what self-respecting Buffalonians wouldn't do the same?), then headed back to the apartment.  It is on this couch that I'll stay tonight, so long as these cats let me sleep.

April 13, 2017 - Tucson, AZ (Saguaro National Park)

Of course, I was awoken by one of the cats as it pushed its head against my face.  No harm, no foul, though, as I got adequate sleep.  We headed to breakfast at a local diner and then my cousin departed for work.  I then shuffled off to Tucson to see some Saguaro cacti.  If someone were to ask me to choose a place that was the American West, Saguaro National Park would be that spot.  Towering cacti stretch toward the desert sky as far as the eye can see.  I quickly set up camp at Gilbert Ray Campground (located between the western and eastern sections of the park) and then headed back out to enjoy the desert scenery, namely the sunset.  While this trip was in the early stages of planning, I had a few shots in mind that I REALLY wanted to get.  Understanding that the weather, skies and cloud cover are beyond my control, the least I could do is get into position to have an opportunity at getting these shots.  Tonight was just what I had imagined.  The howling, circling coyotes weren't going to be a deterrent, however, so I held fast and enjoyed the fiery Sonoran sky.  There's only one way to celebrate that sight, and it's by (you already know where this one is headed) slamming a few beers back at the campsite while cooking up some sausage.  Now that's a banner day.  Fuck yeah!

April 14, 2017 - El Paso, TX

That was a peaceful night beneath the desert sky.  Up and at 'em nice and early, yet again, and off to White Sands I go.  While on the way to the monument, there were signs everywhere indicating that I was entering an active missile testing range.  There was a missile museum in the area, so I decided to swing by for a history lesson.  The background check and security checkpoints didn't hold me up but for a few moments, although there were clear instructions not to photograph anything except for what was visible in the museum, or the mountains behind me.  Considering there are active military operations at this site, the message was received and respected.  I was sent on my way to the museum area, where missiles pointing to the sky were on display, along with information regarding them.  Another very informative stop.  If there's one thing to be gained from traveling, it's that there is always something new to learn.  Pretty neat, but it's off to the next stop.  White Sands National Monument in New Mexico looks like something from a dream.  Huge, white sand dunes crested and dipped as far as the eye could see in all directions.  People were sliding down the dunes on saucers, picnicking and flying kites.  I opted to hike the Alkali Flat Trail (which was anything but flat, so don't be fooled) to get a better idea of what it would be like to be lost in the desert.  Never underestimate the effects that the sun will have on you, so always bring plenty of water on your hikes.  And beef jerky.  Old Trapper beef jerky if you're the real deal.  Fuck Jack Links.  Then again, they do use Sasquatch as their mascot, so... nah, fuck them, anyway.  The sun reflected off of the sand and burnt my white ass to a crisp, but I enjoyed every second of it.  Walking up and down the dunes alone made me feel like I was wandering aimlessly on another planet, only this planet was scorching hot.  I completed the five mile loop and raided the Yeti for more water, fired up some sausage on the grill and relaxed in the shade of a covered picnic table.  As sunset approached, I had envisioned a shot of the sands void of human footprints.  To capture this, I'd have to veer off of the beaten path a bit, but the payoff was worth the extra effort.  Tonight's sunset was again spectacular.  I've been very fortunate to have been able to witness brightly painted skies in some truly beautiful places, and it's humbling.  It sometimes feels like someone or something knows that I'm on a mission, and is greatly aiding me by granting me ample opportunities to get the shots that I'm after.  If that's the case, Mother Nature, thank you; you're a goddamned gem!  Back to the truck and off to El Paso, where I'll rest up for the night.

April 15, 2017 - Austin, TX

***This entry was pieced together the following morning***  Today's first task was to get a hotel in Austin.  It took a hair over eight hours to get there, but Austin is a town that is worth a lengthy drive.  Between the food, music and people, I don't know what tops the other.  Much like the last time I rolled through here, Austin had its way with me.  Starting off by double-fisting local beers down at Shakespeare's will eventually lead to a night that you won't remember.  Although most of the night was hazy, I do remember walking through the streets and over-tipping at bars.  At one point, there was a panhandler asking me for money, to which I offered to buy the guy food.  He refused, so I offered to pay for his drinks for the night instead.  He refused, so I told him if the money was to be used for drugs and he admitted it to me, I'd hand it over as an enabler.  He denied that and walked away.  I followed him around for a while and asked questions pertaining to why he was on the streets; questions that were genuine in nature.  This guy clearly wanted nothing to do with me - as I was getting to be annoying - so he continued to walk away.  Drunken Rob continued to follow the man, when he finally took off in a full sprint to get away.  Off to the next bar I went, then back to the hotel to hurl my brains out.  Yikes.

April 16, 2017 - El Dorado, KS

It's Easter Sunday, as well as my ten year anniversary as a Correctional Officer in the State of New York.  Much like my head began to hurt when I walked into the academy ten years ago, my head is pounding today.  I awoke with my upper torso on the bed and the lower half dangling over the side.  Clothes were strewn about the place, and my phone screen had shattered.  What the fuck did I drink last night?  Damn you, Austin!  Cooper's BBQ did a fine job of making everything right in the world after that, however.  As I ate on the back patio on this overcast day, Have You Ever Seen The Rain? by Creedence Clearwater Revival played loudly.  I was thinking of the last ten years of my life, the changes, the ups & downs.  It was one of those moments that felt like a scene from a movie, and the soundtrack was fitting.  There won't be much time to reminisce just yet because the road ahead is daunting.  Mile marker after mile marker pass by as I entered Kansas by way of Oklahoma City in search of a tornado.  While the weather was horrendous, my aimless driving in the pouring rain yielded no results.  That's probably a good thing, though.  A nighttime meal at a Sonic would be chased by a brief nap at this Days Inn Suites.

April 17, 2017 - Cloverdale, IN

My last photo target of this adventure will be the St. Louis skyline, but not until I check out the Anheuser-Busch brewery.  I rolled into town around 4:15pm and made the last tour in the brewery (which was free, by the way).  The tour guides took our small group around the grounds, explained the beechwood aging process of Budwesier (my favorite) and allowed us to sample the beer, not that I like to drink beer ever...  What a cool place!  Dinner at Frazer's hit the spot, so much to the point that I ordered a second plate of the sesame-crusted tuna.  I wound up eating at this fine-dining establishment like a piece of white trash would at a buffet, but I had no shame.  The last chance at a photo that'll get is going to be from Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park, which is in a fucked up part of town.  The park was nice, but I was disappointed with the skyline view from the top of the concrete observation point.  Power lines obstructed the view so I had to hop some train tracks and get down to the water for any shot at a decent photo.  Shortly after jumping a concrete barrier wall in order to get to the water's edge, I heard a helicopter buzzing to my right.  I turn around and see that it's a police chopper, so like any sane person would do, I pay zero attention to it.  I figured I'd take the 'dumb tourist' route should they tell me to get lost, though.  As the bird circled above me for roughly fifteen minutes, the sun lit the western sky up and I continued working.  Back to the truck and there are zero signs of me getting into trouble for trespassing here.  Whew!  After a couple more hours, I found a small hotel in a small town for the night.  Tomorrow, I'll head to my brother's house in Ohio for a couple of days.  It has been a long road, but it is almost over.  Some time with family from here on out will be a nice way to close out the trip.  I'm just so tired.

Conclusion:

My mind isn't always the most clear, it isn't always the most stable, and it isn't always the most organized.  It is recalibrating by the day, as is my soul.  If you asked me what I saw in the mirror ten years ago, I'd tell you that there was a scared young man with the drive to improve a dire situation.  You'd find that he was slowly learning to be calculated, although he existed recklessly.  Fast forward to today, ask me the same question and the answer differs, albeit slightly.  You'd find that there is a man with the drive to improve a dire situation, only this time, he's not stuck in neutral.  He is very calculated and is now alive; no longer just existing.  There is a sense of urgency when I discuss just how unhappy I am with my current employment situation, but just sitting around and bitching about it solves nothing.  This principle can apply to your life, too.  If you feel the need for improvement, do something about it.  Do something that makes you happy; you'll probably live a hell of a lot longer and will surely be in a much better way.  Perhaps this journey that you've just read about is a microcosm of life: it starts and ends with family, there are a few good friends sprinkled in there, it gets boring at points, but I always find a way to do something to that I enjoy in order to be satisfied with the overall experience.  Someone once told me the best thing that I've ever heard in my life; something that I often share with others.  Where they got it from, I haven't the slightest idea, but it has made a profound impact.  Fear not the fall when it is the leap that shall set you free.  Go ahead, leap.