The heavy lifting of east-to-west travel behind us, day two departed South Dakota during the dark hours of evening. It was clear, however, that we were not the only group descending upon the roads: motor homes, pickup trucks and motorcycles were commonplace along Interstate ninety west. If the roar of a Harley didn’t give it away, it didn’t take long for a series of large billboards to make it clear that Sturgis, a major annual motorcycle rally, was about to roll the area. Apparently, the first full week of August each year motorcycle enthusiasts across the United States descend upon the sleepy South Dakota town of Sturgis in Meade County. Somewhere just north of eight-hundred thousand visitors attended last year and according to internet sources the festivities surrounding Sturgis during this one-week extravaganza account for a staggering 95% percent of the city’s annual revenue! How does that even happen?
The wee hours of morning hummed beneath the tires, dropping the energy of South Dakota in exchange for the deep quiet of Wyoming. The truck’s cab became still as everyone drifted in and out of sleep. Driving shifts became shorter between swaps; no amount of water, nuts or other aids could shake the impending shutdown of systems that two days on the road demanded. A fresh driver took the wheel and managed to right the ship, however, getting us all the way to the Grand Tetons just before sunrise.
I didn’t have high hopes upon arrival. The skies were clear; stars danced overhead in the dark morning skies. However, as is often the case in geologically special places, the weather pattern shifted quickly. As we snaked along a moderately curvy highway towards the Teton Range the skies to the west showed signs of storm activity with occasional flashes of lightning. We stopped at a few pull-off areas along the highway, settled on one with a clean view of the range and performed a groggy, half-dazed fire drill to clear the truck and get on with the business of finding an image.
When you have no real knowledge of a place or experience therein the only thing you can rely upon is prior training in similar environments. In the Appalachians, everything is more intimate; the scenes closer, more cramped; the landscape green and thick; the vegetation seemingly closing in around you and the scene. The mountains give way gradually to the rolling hills of the piedmont in predictable fashion. In the Tetons it was the opposite. The landscape was vast and dry. There was no gradual gradation: the valley and river gave way abruptly to mountain range. The mountains soared tall, well above twelve thousand feet in elevation. And I was far away. Literally. There was a fence blocking my advance toward the mountains, beyond which a massive valley spread before the jagged peaks of the Tetons. The Snake River produced a fog trail clearly visible at the base of the peaks. My process goes something like this: identify the most interesting subject within the scene (personal choice driven by instinct/gut usually); decide on where to place the power (through choice of focal length and perspective); find supporting elements in the way of leading lines or strong axillary subjects; balance the scene; take advantage of atmospheric conditions as they present; technically hit the capture (something like that!). My initial analysis led me to the medium telephoto lens, zoomed to give the Teton Range power within the frame (minimizing the bare valley in the foreground), hoping on diffused first light striking the clouds and mountains to thereby liven up the scene and provide the magic. The approaching storm quickly changed my approach! I swapped to a wide angle lens to capture the atmospheric show (now my primary subject), found some beautiful flowering Sagebrush and tried to create a triangle of interest between foreground, approaching storm (and rainbow), and the Teton Range. My choices behind the lens were certainly far from perfect, but the sunrise was pretty spectacular—arguably the best of the entire trip.
Rain moved us off the scene and back into the truck. After a tasty and much needed nearby breakfast where a local resident shared some valuable insights into area attractions, we took another quick look at the Tetons. The skies had matured to hypnotic blues contrasting clean white clouds. Walking along the Snake River, images were available with ease. I’m pretty sure I could’ve spent hours shooting with the conditions as they were. The Grand Tetons surprised me; I barely had an introduction and they hooked me. I would love to spend a couple of months exploring the trails and sights within the park!
Next up: Yellowstone National Park. Remember that local back at the breakfast haunt that shared some great insights? He said that nearby Yellowstone during the summer months didn’t hold a candle of interest compared to the Grand Tetons. He was spot on in my personal opinion. Yellowstone National Park is known for unique geothermal features (Old Faithful and other geysers), as well as abundant wildlife. In these respects, Yellowstone did not disappoint. We drove through the Nation’s first National Park and visited Old Faithful, waiting patiently for the clockwork explosion of water skywards. It was a bit surreal. The boardwalk that surrounded the geyser held what were probably upwards of several hundred visitors. It was like a concert, a performance. As wild as the place may have been in reality, the spectacle of it all, the development surrounding the geyser, the parking lots—all of it gave me a feeling of an amusement park. I didn’t remove my camera from the bag. Further down the road we came upon the famous herds of buffalo, cameras hanging out of the windows in awe at the large animals. At one point, a herd of buffalo came charging straight down the road itself, weaving to within feet of each side of the truck as they worked into the next valley. It was pretty neat.
The evening came to a close just as we exited the park. Stopping along the shoulder, we climbed a steep embankment and enjoyed some mammatus clouds as they caught the last light of day. It was good to get some strenuous exercise as the dark hours signaled a return to the tight confines of the truck and more miles of highway, this time to our final destination, Glacier National Park. Stay tuned for more on day three!