Dean M. Chriss

My First Real Photo Trip Since the 2020 COVID Pandemic Began
March 31, 2022

Turret Arch and La Sal Mountains, Winter
Turret Arch and La Sal Mountains

The pandemic that began in 2020 turned many lives upside down, including mine. I was traveling on what was to be a month long photo trip when the pandemic hit in earnest. I headed back home after not quite two weeks as the entire world shut down. For the previous 30 years I averaged about three months per year capturing photographs in the most beautiful places America has to offer. Coincidentally, I retired from over 30 years of self-employment a few months after the pandemic began. I previously thought retirement would bring even more time for photography, but with two minor exceptions I captured no photographs for the last two years. As you’ll see, my expectations for retirement have also changed a bit.

The impact on my photography was obviously profound but not completely negative. I began the long overdue task of going through an enormous archive of photographs that had previously received only a cursory glance, and in some cases no glance at all. Roughly 75,000 of these were captured on film before I switched to digital photography in 2005. Sorting through and digitizing selected images on film is especially time consuming. Two years and thousands of hours later I am not finished, but I should be done in perhaps another six months. I also kept myself in shape and healthy by hiking between 3 and 5 miles nearly every day almost regardless of the weather. Even though I haven’t been sitting idle, by February of 2022 my world had grown exceedingly small. It was impossible to ignore my growing need to get out to experience and photograph nature as I had always done in the past.

For a few years before the pandemic started I had thought about visiting Moab, Utah, in the dead of winter again. I did that once in the late 1980s and found that the winter climate can be very uncomfortable, especially in the higher elevations outside of town. The sun is hot and intense but you instantly freeze in the shade, and if it's windy the discomfort can be excruciating anywhere. The cold dry wind has a bite like nothing else. There is seldom snow, and if there is it’s usually gone before noon. The photographs captured in winter look about as they would if captured at any other time. I have often photographed comparable snow on the La Sal mountains in late fall and early spring when temperatures are very pleasant. So why go in winter? The answer is simple. Arches National Park visitation statistics indicate that January visitation (before the pandemic) is at its lowest point of the year, and roughly the same as it was in September during the late 1980s and early 1990s when visiting was still a joy.

I made plans for a December 2021 photo shoot in Moab, and further south in northern Arizona. They got moved to January 2022 due to the traditional Holiday COVID surge, but that same surge was still going strong in January. In early February I again looked again at the COVID case graphs and forecasts, national park visitation graphs, forecasted gasoline prices, and newly extended prime season for motels along with their astronomically higher prime season rates. All of these factors were simultaneously becoming optimal, or as good as they would be for months. The clincher was park visitation. If I did not leave by mid-February it would be pointless to go until the following December.

Driving the 1700 miles to Moab should be no big deal. I have made that trip and many others that are as far or farther countless times, with photography trips alone putting over 15,000 miles per year on my vehicles for more than 30 years. But now for the first time ever, for no particular reason, I felt a little uneasy about the long drive. Maybe that’s because I had spent so much time in the house and had hardly driven for the last two years. Maybe it’s because the pandemic is not over, travel is still a definite risk, and very recent studies show that even mild COVID can sometimes lead to long term illness and disability. Whatever the reason, I felt a little apprehension along with the usual excitement and anticipation when I thought about going.

The drive from Ohio to Utah was not the best I’ve had in terms of weather. There were extreme gusting winds that made driving seem more like rowing a boat. As evidenced by my vehicle’s thermometer varying between 15° and 70° F (-9.4° and 21° C) in a single day of travel, those winds were fueled by temperature extremes. They persisted from the middle of my first travel day in Chicago to late morning of my second travel day in Denver. Last but not least, just after nightfall in Iowa there was a long period of sideways blowing rain that turned to freezing rain and then to a near white out snow storm. I was never happier to get off of the freeway and into a motel room.

I have always taken some food along on these trips, but not as much as I did this time. I visited many fast food drive through windows, but due to the unmasked, unvaccinated, and unboosted Republican nature of the states I’d be in, I did not want to eat inside any restaurants. I also planned a number of days camping, and even when staying at a motel it’s often faster and easier to heat up something than go to a fast food restaurant and wait in an endless line. For those reasons I took enough food, mostly canned, for the entire trip. That’s a lot of food, and it’s heavy. This worked out well, except along my drive out to Utah. I always got food from fast food drive-thru windows for speed and convenience, but the bitter cold nighttime temperatures forced me to carry all of that food into each motel room so the cans would not freeze and burst. I came to think of it as a weight training exercise.

Weather on the Day of My Arrival in Moab

Evening sky and ferocious wind in Arches on the on the day I arrived in Moab.

Once in Moab I was glad to see it was not excessively crowded. To make up for that it was excessively cold. Then it got colder and windy, and the next day a northeast Ohio style blizzard blanketed the entire southwestern U.S. with snow. Because elevations increase in every direction outside of Moab it was far worse everywhere else. There were only four to six vehicles at my motel for a while after that, including mine and two that belonged to workers who were remodeling the rooms and living in the motel while doing it. The town was quiet, the snowy landscape was beautiful, and I was happy. I spent my days in Moab doing things I have deliberately not done for decades in places that are usually the most crowded. I can’t say it was as peaceful as it was in the 1980s, but it was much better than it was in the mid 1990s when I stopped visiting the more popular places. The unusually cold temperatures persisted for well over a week, causing the snow to remain much longer than usual, especially on north facing surfaces that receive little or no direct sunlight.

A Blizzard in Moab, Utah

My First Morning in Moab.

When my planned time in the Moab area ended I headed south into Arizona for what I thought would be the heart of my trip - visiting some very remote places that I have never seen. The only way to access anything worthwhile in this area is via “roads” that require a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle with a two speed (high and low range) transfer case. I was very concerned about how moisture from the recent snow storm may have affected those roads. I stopped at a local BLM office to inquire and had an hour long discussion with two people who were extremely knowledgeable and helpful. They told me that all roads in the area I was interested in were impassable due to mud and quicksand, the latter of which was knee deep in some spots. One of them looked at my vehicle and said I could “probably get in there” if I crossed a particular section of road at around 4AM when the ground is frozen. I’d also have to come out at the same time and hope the nights don’t get warmer. As much as I wanted to go, going just seemed stupid. The reality of spending 14 hours of darkness each night with temperatures in the upper teens helped make my decision. Thanks to the two BLM folks I found some hiking to do for a couple of days, but I left the area much earlier than I had planned.

Northern Arizona Back Road, Closed by Nature

Road Closed by Nature, An Alternate Adventure Thwarted in Northern Arizona

With my plans exhausted I returned to Moab with no particular goals or itinerary. I ended up re-exploring more places and doing more hikes that I haven’t seen or done for decades. As in those early years, I spent far more time hiking than capturing photographs. In fact I captured fewer photographs on this trip than any in my recent memory, and I'm fine with that. I hiked more miles per day in more difficult terrain than I thought I was still capable of, and felt quite good at the end of each day for doing it, except in the following instance.

I had a problem getting up through a completely exposed, difficult, and precarious section of a trail that I last hiked when I was in my 30s. There was a big steel cable meant to assist hikers that had become unfastened from the rock. I barely made it through that section going in and did not believe I could get back down carrying my camera gear. My large and fairly heavy tripod was a particular problem, but my heavy backpack didn’t exactly help. Since I was alone this was an issue. I was nervous about it during the hike back from the trail’s destination and actually wished there was another person or two around! My fears were well founded. As I realized I was unable to go further down and could also not go back up, I heard a female voice at the bottom of the slope ask if she could come up and take my tripod! I must be the luckiest person on earth! Once down I thanked her profusely. She and her partner asked me about trail conditions further on. I assured them that this was by far the most difficult spot on the entire trail. Surprisingly, after a minute or two spent looking up the smooth slope, talking, and shaking heads, they abandoned the hike. I’m sorry they didn’t go but glad they were there to help me out, and that I’m not dead yet.

Photography ended up being by far the least important aspect of this “photo trip”. Experiences are always the only things that matter. Everything else, including photographs, flows from them and are their artifacts. Peace, quiet, and solitude are an intrinsic part of nature and it is impossible to experience the true nature of a place like Arches National Park without them. It is certainly possible to capture photographs depicting beautiful and serene experiences in a crowded, noisy, and unpleasant setting, but the photographs are disingenuous. That true nature experience is exactly what has been missing from everything near Moab for decades. I have frigid temperatures and a snow storm to thank for bringing them back, though temporarily. Being able to re-experience some of how things once were in what once was my favorite place on earth was incredibly satisfying. As Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again, but sometimes you can visit for a moment if the conditions are right. Doing that triggered many memories of past adventures in the area and dear departed friends from Moab.

One of those departed friends frequently said “They always come back to Moab”. That was certainly true for me and many others I've met. Since my first visit 39 years ago, my first thoughts about returning have come as I pack to leave. That was true even after I accumulated well over a year exploring and capturing photographs in the area. It never got old, and I still believe it is the most spectacular and diverse area I have ever visited. But this time as I was packing to leave there were no thoughts about returning. I thought about my experiences of the last few weeks, and the memories they evoked, and they felt like a satisfying and appropriate goodbye. The reality is that Moab is no longer the place I grew to love, and it is no longer very lovable. The spectacular geology of the area is the same but can only be experienced as part of a chaotic mob, as one might experience a busy amusement park. In some photo hot spots it is necessary to stake out a position an hour or two before sunrise or sunset because there are so many photographers. It's like getting a place in line for a popular amusement park ride. No photograph is worth enduring that experience.

There is no saving the parks and public lands around Moab, or anywhere else, from the devastating crush of humanity and greed. Most are already lost, existing like circus side show zombies with people swarming around them to see the show. Full of scars and missing parts, some occasionally and temporarily reanimate, becoming something like their former selves only when conditions are uncomfortable enough to keep the crowds away. Those conditions are uncomfortable for everyone, it’s just that some will endure them to experience places as they were for millennia until the mobs arrived about 30 years ago. But what about the spring bloom and fall colors, and in other parks what about the elk rut in September and June’s baby animals? Visiting places only when weather forces most to stay home is incredibly limiting for a photographer, or a human.

I should mention here that what I have said does not apply only to Moab. There is a vampire town or two like Moab feeding from almost every national park in America. They relentlessly promote increased visitation, increase the strain on park resources and budgets, decrease the quality of the experience had by those visitors, reap the rewards of that increased visitation, and give nothing back. It is hard to find motivation to visit such towns or the parks they have decimated. I have been avoiding national parks for years whenever I could find alternatives. Those alternatives do not often exist and they too are becoming crowded, many of them with jackasses on noisy, smelly, and destructive ATVs, ATCs, and the like. Given the situation I am happy to have cumulatively spent well over 10 years experiencing and photographing some of the most beautiful places in America before I retired, when they were still worth visiting. I am also glad that I did not spend much time sorting, culling, and organizing those photographs instead of capturing more. There is time for things like that now, and I'm not missing as much.

What has not faded like a dream in the morning is my love of nature and photography, but finding places that are rewarding to visit becomes more difficult with each passing year. Everything is booked months ahead and even if you get a place to stay or camp every nice place is a chaotic mob scene. This was made considerably worse by the COVID pandemic, which has increased the use of already overused public lands. I think my life may need to have a different balance than it has in the past. Perhaps devoting more of my time to hiking, exploration, and finding new places further off the beaten path is a good idea. Life usually works itself out somehow, though not often in the ways we expect. I thought this trip would bring me full circle, back to where I left off when the pandemic started. Instead I ended up somewhere else. I suppose things like this keep life interesting.

There is not much more to tell about this photo excursion. I headed for home a few days before my planned departure date. The drive was better and warmer than the drive out, and I did not need to carry my remaining food supply into any motel rooms. I was also happier than usual to be back at home. After a nice hot shower I weighed myself and discovered that I lost an average of a half pound for every day I was gone! I did not need to lose any weight, but I feel great and this seemed like one last bonus from my trip down memory lane. For better or worse, I have probably gained most of it back already.

Be happy doing whatever it is you do,