Zion National Park Day 1: Travel Day

It's 4:30 a.m. and there is an incessant alarm coming from my phone beside my bed.  Who wakes up this early for fun?  Better question, who goes to bed at 1:30 a.m. knowing they have to be awake to travel in three hours?  Unfortunately, the answer to both of those questions is "me" and this is how I started my 2014 trip to Zion National Park.

I suffer from a severe and incurable case of procrastination which caused me to not start packing until about 10:30 the night before I left.  Yikes!  In addition to procrastinating, I also tend to get overwhelmed when I have a lot of things to do.  My wife suggested making a list so I gave it a try: 

  1. Pack camera gear
  2. Pack clothes
  3. Make a better list

Clearly I need organizational help.  I find it somewhat ironic that a trip to a place where most people find their Zen started off with such a chaotic feeling.

I had been eagerly anticipating this trip almost since the day I left Zion a year ago.  My first photo trip there was such a great experience I immediately decided to return the next fall.  This trip, however, was going to be a bit different.  I was going to be shooting strictly 4x5 film; all digital cameras (save for a GoPro and iPhone) would not be making this trip.  I felt confident in my abilities with this format, but still a bit anxious to be placing so much importance in a format where so much can go wrong.  In fact, just before I left my wife asked me, "Are you SURE you don't want to take the digital camera?!"  Gotta love the vote of confidence before I left!

Eventually, after triple checking to make sure I didn't forget anything, all gear and clothes were packed.  I settled into bed and then, almost immediately, woke up and hit the road a few hours later.  I made the short drive down to Chattanooga where I met my friend Tommy, who would be joining me on the trip.  It's always nice to travel with friends...the offset rental car and hotel price aren't bad either!

One question I often get is, "What's it like to fly with film?"  The big concern is sending film through the scanner and exposing it to radiation.  Online, the TSA says you shouldn't worry about film as long as it's slower than 800.  Nothing I had is faster than ISO 100 (or should I say ASA 100?) but I wasn't taking any chances...especially with my precious supply of Velvia 50.  I asked to get my film hand checked, explaining that I didn't want to risk anything because Velvia is no longer made in the US, and they were extremely accommodating.  The agent swabbed all of my boxes of film, even the previously opened ones, and that was it!  My return trip starting in St. George, UT was the same; I honestly can't say enough good things about my experience in both places.  I just try to be as friendly to them as possible, and I think this goes a long way in smoothing things over.

The flights were all pretty uneventful.  At heart I'm still a little kid on an airplane so when I wasn't napping, I stayed glued to the window.  I'm always fascinated by how the land changes so drastically as you fly west from Atlanta to Utah.  On our last connecting flight from Salt Lake City to St. George, we were on a much smaller plane so my camera suitcase had to be checked at the gate.  I was a bit anxious having everything out of site, but it all arrived safe and sound.  Also, that flight goes flies directly over the western border of Zion.  If you sit on the left side of the plane, you'll have a spectacular view of the massive finger canyons in the Kolob Canyon section of the park.  Months ago, I may have booked a seat on this side of the plane for that very reason...like I said, kid at heart!

We arrived in St. George around noon and checked out our rental car.  It's about an hour drive from the airport to the park, but if you know what you're looking for, you can see the distinctive cap of the West Temple while you're still at the airport.  This is when I first started to feel that nervous excitement of a shooting trip.  Up until this point, I had been too tired!  Now, Zion was in sight.  Time to get into photography mode.

We would be staying at The Desert Pearl (highly recommend this hotel btw) Inn in Springdale with Marc, the third member of our group.  Since he was arriving a bit later, and the hotel was in his name, Tommy and I ventured into Springdale to kill some time.  We stopped by Zion Adventure Company to check out some gear.  Last year I rented some dry pants for the Narrows and intended to do the same this year, but they were selling off their old inventory.  It was cheaper to buy than rent, so I picked up a pair.  The only caveat to this was that the pants had not been checked for holes.  Spoiler alert:  mine had a hole which I discovered the hard way!  After getting some supplies, we ventured into the park.

Zion's beauty is absolutely breathtaking.  In fact, I often tell people that on my first trip I had built up Zion so big in my mind that I thought there was no way it could meet my lofty expectations.  Instead, it far exceeded them!  However, despite this beauty, it is difficult to capture its scale on film.  One image I had envisioned months ago to try and show this was of Angel's Landing framed by trees.  Tommy and I spent about an hour looking around for the perfect tree to frame this massive peak.  Google "Ansel Adams Half Dome Oak Trees Autumn" and you'll get a feel for what I was searching for.

After checking out the cottonwoods around Angel's Landing, we got back on the shuttle and headed to the last stop:  The Temple of Sinawava and the entrance to the Narrows.  I had no intention of actually getting in the Narrows, but I just wanted to see how the afternoon sun was bouncing off the canyon walls.  At this point in the day, I was actually starting to feel pretty sick.  The three hours of sleep combined with 2000 miles of flying and airport food had taken its toll.  We made it about halfway up the paved River Walk, and then turned around.  If I didn't get food and some water soon, things were going to turn ugly!

Fortunately, by this time in the evening Marc had arrived.  We unloaded everything in the hotel and headed out in search of food.  We decided on a burger joint called the Brew Pub.  While I highly recommend the burgers, DO NOT order the shrimp cocktail appetizer...unless you like paying $14 for three shrimp.  It was one of the most significant disappointments of my entire life.

Feeling better, but still exhausted, we returned to the hotel and organized some gear for the morning.  I don't think I had ever looked more forward to sleep than I did that night.  A pull-out sofa bed has never felt so good!