Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ute's Kingdom

In January, 2009 I was hired for a photography assignment (shoot the Taos Gorge/Ute Mountain region). Here is the story:

In preparation for my trip, and because it is January, I check the weather – eighty percent chance of snow with temperatures dipping below -10. My kind of weather. I pack accordingly, or so I think, and head north, alone.

The first day is uneventful. I drive around for a while pissed off for no reason and scout possible shots.

At night I decide to camp. I do this for two reasons: one, I am broke; and two, I am a man and therefore not afraid of a little cold.

Unbeknownst to me, two kinds of people seem to live in the region surrounding Taos – old school hippies that live in strange round homes called Earthships that are built into the ground to save energy, and gun-toting crystal-meth-cookers. I camp in no man’s land between the two groups.

Every hour I am awoken by said meth-maniacs driving by my tent, stopping, yelling obscenities at me, completing their drug deals and speeding off. Between this and the ass-chapping cold, I sleep little.

Day two, I awake shivering and tired, but more or less alive. All my cooking water is frozen so I head to town for breakfast. A breakfast burrito full of fat and goodness gets me goin’, but now comes decision time.

A nature photographer, unlike most other artists who have a lot of control over what they create, is at the whim of Mother Nature. I cannot make up a compelling scene. I have to wait for clouds to form and the light to pop and for the drunken tourist wearing the, “My Bush Ate your Gore,” T-shirt to get out of the way. Because of this, I am constantly stressed about where I choose to shoot – will the light be best from the east or west? should I head into the mountains or stay in the valley? should I go for a basic shot I know I can get or gamble on a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece? and on and on.

After an hour of consternation, I choose the easy one. I was hired for this trip, so I figured I better come back with something.

I toss on my snowshoes and head up a hill for a view of the Taos Gorge. Pretty shot of the Gorge … check.

It is getting dark and I am hungry so I find a nice bar in town. After a couple margaritas, a beer, and a failed attempt at getting laid later, I drive off to try this winter camping again.

Despite being shot down by the Taos tart, I feel good. The moon is shining while some sparse clouds dispense snow. I drive on past hippy-meth-land to a more isolated region.

I find a spot at the base of a volcanic rise and promptly sink my trunk in two feet of snow. The alcohol still in charge, I decide I can dig it out. No shovel, no problem. I’ll use a ski pole. Four hours, two broken ski poles, and a retreating ego later, my truck is now three feet deep. The wind is cruel and my hands look blue. I tie my tent into the bed of the truck to keep it from blowing away and call it a night.

Now I have found it to be true that when it rains it pours. In this instance I translated that to mean: when my truck is stuck in the snow it will keep snowing till I remove it. The night dumped another foot, which the wind turned into a house-size snowdrift over my truck.

I decide I need help. With my phone nearly dead, I called my mom. “Mom, ummmm, I’m stuck. Can you call AAA and get me a tow, please?” Mom, being one of the most awesome in the world, has a truck there in a couple hours.

Oh course, when they finally arrive, another foot has fallen. They don’t want to risk getting stuck themselves, but I offer another $100 and I’m out in 30 minutes.

Getting out took so long that I just find a better campsite and call it a day. This night is the coldest. Im’ not sure I am sleeping at all and my throat feels like a cactus.

The morning finds my left nostril frostbitten shut.

But this is it, the day I’ve been wait for. The clouds separate but hang around like rosy-cheeked drunks lingering after a party. The sun, blinking through the openings, separates each layer of the landscape into depths of complexity like a fractal.

The road to my location is, as my dad says, slicker than snot. I pass at least five cars that called the ditch home for the night. But I escape unscathed and arrive on the plains to the west of the Gorge.

Luckily it was too windy here for the snow to stick so it is only a foot deep. I apply my snowshoes and winter-warrior gear. My ski poles are a shadow of their former glory but I take them anyway.

I’m in a race now. The sun is my stopwatch. It is time to see the future. I must find my subjects and compose my shot all while imagining what the light will be later.

I pick Ute Mountain as my background focus. Most of the plain is barren, but a small grove of juniper trees congregates off to the south a few miles. They will be my foreground.

I move as fast as I can. Which is not very fast considering I’ve only snow shoed twice before.

The land elongates as I move across it. What I thought was 3 miles becomes 6. The sun drops like a bat carrying a cannon ball. My throat screams for water, but I press on. Photo possibilities abound, but I must ignore them to make it to the shot I’ve envisioned.

Then finally, I am here. I stand on a slight roll to get depth. I compose the shot and set the exposure. My heart beats and my hand shakes and … the sun goes behind a cloud. So I wait.

Clouds go from white to orange to red above my head, but I still have no foreground illumination. So I wait.

My hands tingle and my feet spasm in the cold. The wind picks up slicing across my face. Still I wait.

Then… Something moves behind me. A cloud is dislodged. The sun begins slowly exhaling orange across the plain. One by one the inch high crests of snow along the expanse start to ignite. Red waves follow, lapping at the junipers. I hold my breath and take hold of the camera’s trigger. Excitement cascades down my spine. A scream builds in my stomach.

Like just before imminent death, time stops, the stillness is tangible. Then … glory. The world explodes in emeralds and rubies. Sapphire skies frame clouds on fire. Ute Mountain presides over his kingdom. I snap the shutter and remember what it is to be alive.

(Legal Disclaimer: The events in this story may or may not have happened in the way described)


  1. Colin, your writing has definitely improved my man, always so honest. Sounds like a real adventure. I look forward to seeing your future work. Amazing photo of Ute Mountain.



  2. btw - all the Google adwords are linking to "meth" in your post. Might want to reword for SEO purposes...