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on the road and in my head

I love a road trip with a good companion. Jeremy is my ideal companion. I love a photo shoot with a good shooting partner. Jason is a great shooting partner. But sometimes things come up and I have to go solo – like this week’s shoot. I left Jeremy at his conference and headed back north for a few days.

the road from new mexico to colorado

The fact that the American West is so big and spread out is both a blessing and a curse. More blessing than curse though. Sure, it takes a long time to get from point A to point B. I cherish the wide open space between them. People talk about what a small world it is, but if you drive the empty roads under big skies and through sprawling landscapes and really have a look around, you understand that the world is quite enormous and you are but a measly speck. It’s awesome.

fresh snow

Empty roads, wide shoulders, views for hundreds of miles. Out here, you can slow down to 15 mph and cruise for antelope or birds of prey. Pull over, step out, and take a breath of that clean air. The only sound is the wind racing across the high plateau. If you pass something interesting, it’s easy enough to take your foot off the gas and turn yourself around. Go back. Check it out. How many times do you continue driving and then think “I wish I had stopped”? When I tell myself I’ll go back later, most of the time I end up not returning. I’m trying to be better about this.

hasta, baby

The passenger seat is filled with quick grab items: an ipad, maps, water bottle (with water), juice, phone, camera, wallet, headlamp, hat, gloves, lip balm, guide books… If I could put the main camera and my tripod in the passenger seat safely, I would – but that’s what the backseat is for.

believe it or not, there is organization to this jumble of junk

the big lens makes all of the others look like tiny toys

Do I talk to myself? Yes. A lot. I try to keep a lid on it when other people are around, but there is a loud, never-ending discussion going on in my head when I’m working alone. It helps to keep my mind from getting stuck in a music loop. I don’t listen to music or the radio when I drive or when I’m out shooting. I listen to the road, the engine, the birds, the winds – I hear my surroundings as much as I see them. Midday is usually reserved for recon, so there is more driving than shooting. But there is always looking… seeing.

checking out another wildlife preserve

let’s go say hi to the dunes

While I enjoy the company of others, I also thoroughly enjoy the solitude and working on my own terms and my own schedule. After the sun goes down, most of the bird watchers, photographers, and noodlers pack up and head for someplace warm. I like that time with just me and thousands of sandhill cranes, geese, ducks, blackbirds, and any other birds I didn’t identify.

coming in for the evening

At the end of each day, I drive to my generic motel in the dark with high beams on so as to see bunnies, deer, and other critters that like to scurry across or stand in the middle of the roads. The internal conversation mentions something about being grateful for seat warmers. I realize I am starting to feel my toes again, but the fingers are still numb with cold. In the morning the process is the same, just backwards. I load the car quietly in the dark and start driving back to the birds. Nighttime gives way to twilight and the sky takes on different shades of dark blue, intensifying and then becoming lighter. When the slightest hints of warm color tint the horizon, I’m set up and waiting in the cold, dark, and not-so-lonesome – I’m surrounded by birds.


Some people might say 17°F is practically the same as 12°F. I say it’s definitely warmer. If you stand outside for a couple of hours in one and then the other, I’m sure you’d notice a difference. Last year we were sitting around in 4°F waiting for sunrise one morning. The next morning it was 12°F and it felt like a tropical vacation.


Sunrise is the breakfast of champions. I don’t think enough people witness enough sunrises. I know I have seen many a sunrise and I still can’t get enough of them. So the birds and I watched the sky turn colors in anticipation of the sun’s arrival. No one else was there – it was all ours!

sandhill cranes patiently waiting in the water

sun up!

the other view

Bird chatter increased with the light levels as the world went from blue to orange to golden in a few minutes. The cranes began to take off for their feeding grounds. On top of the din of the bird calls, the sound of their enormous wings beating against the air boomed around me.

take off

me shooting them (with a camera)

A couple of cars came by and people hopped out to take a few photos, but the sun was done performing for the morning. It moved behind the bank of clouds that had been giving such a glorious display of color only minutes before. I wanted to tell them “you should have been here just a little earlier!” but I quietly packed up my gear and headed out. Looking forward to scoping out more pronghorn antelope on the way back to New Mexico and then sharing what I saw with Jeremy, I turned on my seat heater and held my fingers in front of the air vents to thaw as I made my way south.

32 nibbles at “on the road and in my head”

  1. Ruth says:

    This reads like a poem. Thank you.
    And of course, the images are spectacular.

  2. Twila Moon says:

    Jen –
    Your photos of the west are just stunning. I grew up in Colorado and traversing the southwest. Now I’m in Montana and your blog is always taking me on a tour of the places I love – thank you! I can also attest to the difference a few degrees makes, and our wood stove notices too.
    One more thing – just the other day I realized that you often reply to comments at some point. I went back and found your comments to my comments. What fun! Now I feel like we’ve had a conversation :)
    All the best!

  3. Rosa says:

    Magnificent! What a fabulous experience.



  4. Kath says:

    I honestly felt like I was traveling with you!

    Beautiful story, beautiful pix and beautiful you!

    (altho I did read ‘recon’ as ‘bacon’) :-)

  5. Naomi Mimi says:

    The road and the silent expanse of nature around you can be scary, mind-numbing, glorious, inspiring, cathartic. You find yourself out there, in the tiny whispers of the breeze around you and the chatter in your head slowly dimming to a comfortable buzz. This helped me remember the glory of the journey amidst the anxiety of having to pack all my shit again and go back across country in less than a month. So happy we share that love together :) Hopefully we can take a road trip someday!

    xoxo Meems

  6. cindy says:

    so beautiful! i love the solitude of early morning. it gives me time to sort my thoughts for the day. i, like you, have a constant dialogue in my head and i talk to myself. i like to say I’m “thoughtful” and not crazy ;)

  7. vanillasugarblog says:

    i would love to take you to marconi beach here on cape cod in the middle of winter. the solitude, the crashing waves and the face-numbing winds make you feel alive and alone all at the same time.

  8. Crystal says:

    Ahhhh! This post was so amazing! LOVED it. And it makes me happy that there are still *real* photographers in this world.

  9. Nicole says:

    It’s great to see the cranes getting ready for their journey north. I will keep my eyes open for them in a couple of months here in Fairbanks. I can relate to your feeling of the wide open road. Every time I travel here in Alaska I am always in awe of how many hours I can travel without seeing another human.

  10. Averie (LoveVeggiesAndYoga) says:

    I love the post and the sights from the road, Jen!

    “the big lens makes all of the others look like tiny toys”—haha, I JUST received my 24-70mm lens and had no idea how HUGE it was going to be til it arrived. And yes, I need a new and roomier camera bag now :)

  11. haya says:

    seat warmers are made of awesome!

    your photographs are incredibly gorgeous.

  12. Sarah Hope says:


    thank you.

    that is all.

  13. marlene says:

    Your photos take me back to all of the road trips I have taken through the southwest.
    Thank you for your amazing photos!!!
    Love your work.
    A” Californiaite”

  14. Paulette says:

    Beautiful, gorgeous, a site for sleepy eyes in the morning to awaken to such a fantastic view.
    Thank you again for allowing us to enter your world and sharing in your talents. Paulette

  15. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this post. I live in New Mexico and am currently up reading blogs and planning meals at 5 am while the rest of the family sleeps. We are headed to Colorado (Pagosa Springs) this morning for our first vacation in years. I suspect I will be seeing that same stretch of road very shortly! Reading your post set just the right tone for my day. Think I will go out and catch the sunrise over the Sandias now.

  16. Nan says:

    I always regret not stopping when I thought to. That’s one great thing about a solo road trip — you can stop when you want instead of having the driver glance over at you when you ask to stop– they look quizzical while simultaneously pushing down on the accelerator just a bit (husband comes to mind here).

    Beautiful images – peaceful — lovely.

  17. Kristin says:

    What a wonderful meditation with which to start the day. Thank you.

  18. Paik Chuah says:

    Hi Jen,

    I have been reading urb for a few years now and have a great admiration for what you do and who you are.
    I’d like to share this little video with you, just something I shot with my little point-and-shoot out at Bosque del Apache over Thanksgiving 2010, to share with the folks back in Malaysia. Sights like this are worth standing out there in the cold before the sun is up and having your fingers and toes freeze till they hurt.

  19. Debbie says:

    Four simple words….I LOVE YOUR BLOG!

  20. amanda says:

    Oh, I drive to and from Denver and Nambe all the time – and these sites still make my heart tingle. The lonesomeness of San Antonio Peak and the orange willows of San Luis are visions that never get old – as are these. We are so blessed!

  21. Amanda says:


    Thank you, once again, for starting off my morning with peace and perspective. I truly felt like I was traveling with you! You have such a gift.

  22. Kath says:

    What a beautiful way to start my weekend! Thanks for sharing your gorgeous photos and insights on solo road trips.

    I used to enjoy solo road trips in my youth, before I had someone special to share them with. But my trips were at high speed with the music blaring. I didn’t have the wisdom to slow down and really savor the trip. I’d love to try it your way some day.

  23. Jill says:

    Simply beautiful, and wonderfully descriptive.
    I wondered what you ate, once at the generic motel…and wondered if you would photograph your plate.

    Always, safe travels…..jill

  24. Radka says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your “music”. You fill people’s hearts.

  25. Peta says:

    Thank you for shaaring your trip with me, I feel like I was practically there.

  26. Katie says:

    You got some pretty fabulous photos! I love the sunset – so beautiful, especially against the dark contrast of the birds. Lovely.

  27. Allison says:

    Love this. I got an amazing sense of serenity from reading this post.

  28. Angie Gibb says:

    I agree with everyone else, there is music, poetry and art in this post. Thanks for always sharing it with us.

  29. Margie says:

    Your post has me missing my sister even more. We drove north, and into the Sand Dunes, one summer. No cranes to view, but plenty of buffalo (or were they bison?).

    That ‘Icebox of the Nation’ area is a bit frigid. I think my fingers and toes need warming after this read.

    As always, a beautiful post, Jen.

  30. eemilla says:

    I am not a morning person, but sunrises are certainly an occasion to break my habits as long as I can nap later.

  31. Katie says:

    Lovely lovely post. Before I was a cook I spent much time driving around the city I was currently living in just thinking. Thinking about how I could convince those I loved, and myself, that i could quit my big girl job and be a cook. I got out of my one day and walked into a kitchen. Which means that while I don’t have a lot of time drive aimlessly I still do some of my best thinking, dreaming, when I do.
    I just discovered your blog. I will most certainly be back!

  32. jenyu says:

    Twila – I do try to answer specific questions, but it usually takes me a few weeks because I’m so behind on this blog all the time :)

    Kath – ha ha! bacon!!!

    Mimi – your kind of road travel is far harder than mine, hon. xo

    Sarah – I think it’s one of my favorite roads to drive that area :)

    Paik – thanks, the Bosque is a beautiful place to be sure.

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