Dean M. Chriss

How I Spent My Autumn 2013 Photo Shoot
Some Company for Your Miseries to Love
November 7, 2013

Early Snow, Teton Range
Early Snow, Teton Range

I always look forward to photo trips and I had planned a great one for the autumn of 2013. It was to be a three week adventure through parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, following peak fall color through various regions and winding up in areas where leaf color doesn’t matter much. If the color wasn’t good that year we’d just proceed to the latter areas ahead of schedule. I had all the bases covered, or so I thought, until record storms and devastating floods visited most of the places on our itinerary. Even paved roads were washed out so the backcountry roads where we planned to spend most of our time would be far worse. Undaunted, a “plan B” was developed. We delayed our trip by a week in hopes of hitting the somewhat later fall color in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park and afterward we’d head up into Yellowstone where there is more wildlife and pine trees dominate, making fall color less important.

Even as we were making those alternate plans the news channels began buzzing with talk of a possible government shutdown on October 1. If it happened it would close all national parks and monuments. Most prognosticators said a last minute deal would probably avert the shutdown. Others said that if a shutdown occurred it would in all probability last only a few days. Of course nothing was certain, but that was the best information available. Waiting until October 1 before leaving home could mean missing the fall color, and even then there would be no way to know how long a shutdown would last if it occurred. We had a plan that would easily handle a few days without problems, but not weeks.

In the end we decided to go. Our trip began in Jackson Wyoming to photograph in Grand Teton National Park. Unlike most national parks, there’s a main road through Grand Teton that can’t be closed because it services communities beyond the park. Another small road intersecting that one also can’t be closed because it serves a tiny town and a few ranches. If a government shutdown happened there would be enough access to the park and its wildlife to keep us busy for a while, and we hoped that would be sufficient to get through a closure. It seemed like a reasonable plan at the time.

As everyone now knows the government shutdown did happen. It began the day after we arrived in Jackson. We spent the first five days of it according to our plan, photographing wildlife and landscapes in areas that remained accessible. Each evening we watched the television news, hoping for word that the shutdown was ending. During this time the first winter storm of the year came through while the trees were still in peak fall color, creating some amazing scenery. It left only six or eight inches of snow with some treacherous ice under it where we were, but the same storm dropped far more snow to the north and east, in the Bighorn Mountains and along Interstate 90. In western South Dakota 40 inches (102 cm) of snow fell causing widespread power outages and killing over 20,000 cattle.

By the time the storms cleared it had become obvious that an end to the shutdown was not imminent. Worse, the clear blue skies after the storm were not photogenic, many of the leaves had fallen, those that remained turned brown overnight, and we were growing tired of visiting the same places every day. It was definitely time to leave the Tetons, but with all national parks and monuments closed, fall color gone, and regions to the north and east digging out of record snow and still struggling to restore electricity, we decided the odds were not in our favor. While starting the long drive back to Ohio about two weeks ahead of schedule I wondered whether my head would explode if the shutdown ended on the day we got home. I never got to find out because it lasted another week and a half.

Relative to countless past trips to the Tetons and Yellowstone this was our shortest ever, and it consequently produced fewer photographs than any other. It had the lowest total cost, but to make up for it the cost per day was the highest ever, as was the cost per photo. Thankfully the winter storm and unsettled weather preceding it provided some of the best days of photography I ever experienced in the Tetons. That, together with a few late breakfasts and lunches at The Bunnery, made some good memories and kept the trip from being a total disaster. With that said, the good parts can't possibly make up for two lost weeks in Yellowstone. If not for the antics of the GOP we would have had a wonderful and productive trip. As my wife so succinctly says, "We placed our bet and lost".

Happy betting,