“A MOMENT OF REDEMPTION”
The Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park glow crimson under a fiery sky.
April 1: Everything is packed and ready to begin what is supposed to be the opportunity and adventure of a lifetime. Between the excitement, butterflies, and an alarm set for 3:45am, I have barely slept a wink when the alarm clock sounds… And just like that, it’s time to get to the airport!
I land in Cleveland around 4pm local time and am delivered to a large building on the outskirts of the city where a highly-anticipated “state-of-the-art” Mercedes Sprinter camper conversion is waiting. This vehicle will be my home, office, and transport for the next 6 months, and is obviously a crucial component to the success of the Chief Exploration Officer campaign.
The first impression: nothing but amazement.
After getting a quick walkthrough of my new home, I am handed the keys and suddenly on my own. The first stop is Big Bend National Park, located in remote West Texas. A car going the speed limit would be there in about 27 hours without stops, but a large van being broadsided by the strong midwest winds that has to stop every 200 miles for fuel required 3 white-knuckle days of driving.
I arrive at the Big Bend National Park headquarters in the afternoon, already a bit sunburnt due to scouting a potential Milky Way composition along the way. The temperature outside is about 98 degrees, but it is 108 in the van as it has no windows nor any means of circulating air when stopped.
As instructed, my first priority when arriving to any park throughout the campaign is to speak with a predetermined point of contact for the National Park. I find my guy at the visitor friendly and we have a nice chat. He is friendly and helpful, and clearly has a deep love for Big Bend. We go over the rules of the park, his personal recommendations, and what my commercial permit allows me to shoot for Michelob ULTRA. I am exhausted and stressed from a long drive, but feeling good about being here.
After a bit of rest, I hop in the driver’s seat and attempt to start the drive to my first sunset location when I notice the van isn’t running right. The check engine light flicks on, confirming my concerns. As quick as I can, I get it turned around and drive back to the visitor center; the gas pedal stops responding with just enough momentum to coast into a parking space.
Day 1 in Big Bend: I am broken down in a 108 degree van at the visitor center.
It is truly lucky that I was able to get back to the visitor center in time. For one, there would have been nowhere to pull over where I was driving for sunset, which would have forced me to try and contact emergency towing. Two, the visitor center had bathrooms, drinking water, and most importantly, free Wi-Fi for visitors. Were it not for the complimentary guest Wi-Fi, I don’t know how I would have been able to get in touch with anyone as I had lost cell service long ago.
At this point in the story, it is important to mention that my proud mother had driven all the way out from Oregon to bring some supplies that I couldn’t fit in my checked bag and to be a “roadie” for the first few stops. We were set to meet in Big Bend in a few days, but the location was still TBD.
I emailed my dad so he could communicate with mom where I was, as she had cell service but no internet, while I had internet but no cell service.
My next calls were to Michelob ULTRA and the company that leased the van to find out what was going on and how we should respond.
2 days later: The van remains stranded in the parking lot.
Meanwhile, the temperatures continue to reach triple digits each day, and it is always 10 degrees hotter in the van.
While the van has a shower, the water tank had been left winterized upon pick-up and I had yet to get to a campsite to get clean water and flush the antifreeze. It is now nearly one week into the journey and I am saturated in dirt, sunscreen, and good ol’ natural stink, tired and stressed from an inauspicious beginning, and still without a single photo on the memory card.
I don’t think I have ever been as relieved to see my mom and that big goofy smile as I was that morning she arrived. The van was still stuck, but at least now we could explore the park together in her van and I was no longer completely alone out there.
For the first time, I was able to leave the parking lot and go explore a bit. We spent the evening in the Chisos Basin region of Big Bend, doing a few short hikes and just seeing what the park has to offer.
It turns out, it has plenty…
Mom and I are back at the van having a bite to eat and I am checking messages. The clear blue skies are starting to fill with clouds and the desert winds are blowing a gale.
As the clouds roll in and begin to thicken, I observe that the sunset will either be a total bust, or absolutely magnificent.
Judging by how thick the clouds were becoming, a bust looks more likely. Still, this is our first day out and about, so skipping it is not an option.
We head back toward the Chisos Mountains, which are getting some nice evening light already. As the sun begins descending, the high clouds begin to catch some color… hinting at the possibility.
I scout the exact trajectory of the sun to where it will cross the horizon and realize it would be setting into a small gap below the cloud layer. If things hold up, the sunlight will be able to get underneath and light them up! There is no guarantee, but my experience leads me to believe this could be spectacular.
We decide to get out of the valley we find ourselves in and drive to the top of the road where the views open up to the west.
Before we can completely ascend the mountain road, the clouds are starting to ignite!! With no time to spare, we find a roadside pull-off with a view of the iconic “Window” rock formation, just as the sun hits the horizon. The clouds begin exploding with color in all directions while the camera shutter is firing continuously!
The mountains glow crimson while the clouds above flicker through every shade of fire.
This was the first moment everything felt like it was going to work out. Hopefully, this was the start of the dream that had been promised! On my first night of shooting, I was spoiled with a sunset as good as any I can ever remember.
This was a moment of redemption…
This is a new section that I have decided to add for general updates and thoughts on the Pure Gold CEO journey.
I feel it is important (and maybe a little cathartic) to include an overview of how each month has gone, particularly as I am no longer free to post captions and photos without them undergoing an approval process wherein they are screened, monitored, and censored.
There have been a lot of challenges so far that have not been discussed, but most can be forgiven as flukes and one-offs. It is this feeling of being censored and losing control of my personal accounts, however, that I continue to struggle with most. Not feeling like I have the ability to choose how, when, and what I communicate with an audience that has supported me in many ways, including financially, has been an impossible pill to swallow.
This new Afterthoughts section is my attempt at providing some honest, genuine insight into how life looks out here when you peek behind the social media curtain.
With the help of a ranger, I ended up finding out what was wrong with the van. The air intake had been loosened during conversion and never screwed back in place, having become detached as a result.
The ranger had the right tool handy to get things back in place so that after 3 days of being broken down, the van was back in service.
It was fortunate that we were able to get it fixed before spending money on a tow in this instance, but I worry about the potential for results-oriented conclusions being drawn. Three days was a long time to be stuck in that heat — my fear is that the valuable lesson and sense of urgency we should have gained as a team in an early breakdown scenario may have been lost due to a fortuitous end result.
The trip so far has been a series of incredible sunsets, star-filled nights, and genuinely beautiful moments, overladen with feelings of stress, frustration, and isolation. Before we can tie a bow on one challenge, it feels like another one is already rearing its ugly head. But then, the sky will catch fire over an incredible landscape and everything will feel alright again.
I do not want to seem ungrateful for the opportunity, and at the same time, I do not want to pretend like it has been what I had hoped it would be… not so far, anyway.
Being paid to travel and take pictures has been a dream since before I was even behind the wheel that first time all those years ago. Back when I was daydreaming of hitting the road, I imagined something like this coming along. It is surreal to think that day has finally come. And yet, while I am truly thankful to be in this position, I find myself struggling with the unmet expectations of it all so far.
Receiving a solid income to photograph nature is not something I will ever complain about. The compensation is certainly fair, this is all just to say that what was advertised as “the dream job” has felt more “job” than “dream.”
Ironically, “van-life” is synonymous with liberation, but I have never felt less free in all of my travels. Our partnership with the National Park Foundation (NPF) has meant constant monitoring and censorship of my posts, strict adherence to a schedule that takes away the ability to adjust to conditions and circumstances, and feeling like a target whenever I am in the parks. The joy in much of this has been replaced by fear as seemingly endless attempts are made to uncover if and how I may have broken a rule.
I remind myself as much as possible that it is only the first month of six, and I remain hopeful that the promised increase in exposure will come, that the numerous van issues will be fixed once and for all, that I will regain some of the 80% of my audience that my posts no longer reach, that the National Parks will see me as an ally and not a target, and that the May Moment of the Month will be filled with tales of joy, optimism, and victories.
In other words, I remain hopeful that the May Moment offers even greater redemption than that first skyfire sunset in Big Bend.
Enjoy these additional featured photos from our April visit to Big Bend, Texas.
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MOMENT OF THE MONTH GALLERY – April 2021
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- Big Bend National Park Guide:
Find out everything you need to know to plan your visit to the International Dark Sky Reserve of Big Bend!
- Big Bend Photography:
Discover the best photography locations in Big Bend to help you take home the best pictures possible!
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park Guide:
Explore a national park most never do; the 6th least-visited in the US!
- Night Photography Video Tutorials:
Advanced video tutorials on photographing night skies.
This month’s Photo of the Month was “A Moment of Redemption”.
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My plan was to reveal the itinerary for the Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold tour so that those interested and nearby could meet up and say hi.
Unfortunately, I have not had anywhere near enough free time to arrange meet ups. Hopefully once I get into the rhythm of things, I’ll find myself with an abundance of time to share a beer and/or a photoshoot.
In other words, there are no announcements for the time time being 🙂
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If you have a question that is not covered, just send us an email or message on social media!
WE TRULY HOPE YOU’VE ENJOYED A BEHIND-THE-SCENES, GENUINE LOOK AT THE LIFE OF TWO FULL-TIME TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHERS.
Where to Next?
The Michelob ULTRA journey rolls on through New Mexico and Arizona, beginning in White Sands.