Springtime is the season for long walks with your skis. The snowpack is generally more stable and you can hit big alpine lines. A couple weeks ago, I went on two long walks with skis.
I first tried to get to Flattop Gully with my old roommate, forgetting how far back Flattop goes. We didn’t quite make it all the way to the gully but skied a fun north slope I’d assume doesn’t get skied very often because of how long the walk is. The exit is one of my least favorite I’ve done, second probably to Silver Couloir on Buffalo Peak.
Bindu Pomeroy, of Vail, and I had been trying to get out since we met at Outdoor Retailer. Three days before the Loveland Pass area received somewhere around 20 inches of new snow, and he thought Citadel Peak would still be good. I haven’t skied too much in that area, so was open to skiing something new.
I left my house at 2:30am to be at the trailhead at 4am. Bindu and his fellow split-boarder, Jon Adgate, show up a few minutes after me. We shuttle a car to the Herman Gulch Trailhead, where we’ll finish, and drive to the gate at Dry Gulch.
The moon, while not full, was bright enough that we didn’t need headlamps for the start of our skin. You follow a low angle road for about a mile before turning uphill, pulling up your heal risers, and walking up the steep creek – hearing the water running under the thin snow cover. We had to traverse under a face that I would not want to be under in unstable snow conditions, then go straight up to the saddle between Hagar and a few false summits from Bethel.
I figured out with my Fritschi Ttecton binding, if I partially took it out of walk-mode the brakes would drop, which allowed me to walk almost straight up the hard-frozen steep face. I also found that this technique stops working when the sun warms up the snow, you just slide back down, the brakes sliding through like butter.
Bindu puts on his crampons for the final push, to the top of the rocky peak behind him
We walk the ridge and skirt to the northwest of the Citadel to find someone had oh-so-kindly already put in a boot pack up the steep snow slog. As we gained the summit ridge, we were finding the snow was softening up very quickly.
Looking to the northeast to Pettingell Peak
By the time we are set to go, a few wet slides and pilling are going off on east facing slopes. Bindu and Jon (carving in the photo above) choose the left route down the couloir (which looks far less steep at super-wide angle in the photo than it is in reality). After both of them are out of slide danger, I pick the shoulder on the right. It took me maybe 10 minutes to finish shooting and get set to ski and in that time the snow had warmed up considerably. I made a couple jump turns and set off a wet slide that pulled the top layer off the rest of couloir. I wait for it to settle before straightlinging out to the major slope. The east facing snow was some of the strangest I’ve ever skied in, both soft and crunchy, grabby and super fast. My skis sunk to ankle deep or so and the snow grabbed my tails, making it almost impossible to turn. I could make large sweeping turns which were not sufficient to control my speed. I’m not sure if I didn’t fully clip into my binding, but about halfway down the slope my right ski took off on its own. It took me too long to retreive it, wallowing in the wet snow in avalanche danger area. Getting my ski back on, I made it over to Bindu’s position, “Damn, it feels like I’ve never skied before!”. I hate that feeling. The snowboarders didn’t seem to have the same problem, claiming the snow was great for carving. I’m going to attribute it to their greater surface area and not sinking into the grabby mess (and not my lack of abilities…).
The ski out is 4 miles of generally downhill but very low angle skiing that goes by pretty quickly, except for the dirt patches you have to gingerly walk across. The last quarter mile or so we had to put the skis on the packs and awkwardly walk with ski boots (I guess the snowboarders less awkwardly walked in their more comfortable boots). High alpine adventures are fun, but I think I’m about ready to hang up my skis for the summer. It’s rock climbing and mountain biking season!
I recently took a trip to Los Angeles for portfolio reviews at Fotoworks LA. I didn’t just want to be in LA for 2 days, so I booked an AirBnB for 7 days and set up a few personal shoots to fill out my week.
I met Natalie Duran (@Ninja_Natalie , frequent gold sequin-wearing, always excited American Ninja Warrior and Madrock professional rock climber) at a Madrock dinner during an Outdoor Retailer Tradeshow several…(6?) years ago. She liked the mood board I’d created on Pinterest and agreed to meet me for a shoot. We decided on the Petersen Automotive Museum and LACMA in Mid-Wilshire.
The red wall on the shade side of the building immediately struck me as the obvious location to start on, and Natalie started running and jumping, expending her endless supply of energy while wearing her new and very sparkly Bell Bullit helmet.
Click on photos to see larger in a lightbox
I felt like I’d sufficiently covered Natalie jumping around like a Lara Croft video game, and she had just froggered her way through traffic to climb on construction scaffolding, so I thought we should move on to the LACMA where she immediately found steps to use the wrong way.
It was super fun shooting with Natalie! And it was great to see my buddy who moved to LA part-time, Parker Rice (aka Cinema Raven), who braved LA traffic to help out.
I’ll be posting a few more from my personal shoots. Keep checking back here!
I realized, as I was driving past the exit for Moab, that I had never driven further west on I-70. I’ve taken countless trips to Moab and Indian Creek since moving to Colorado, but I hadn’t explored anything beyond this area of the desert. I was heading to Hanksville, UT to meet up with my friend, CJ, to explore for a few days. First, we went to Capitol Reef National park. This not-so-popular NP has amazing and varied sandstone cliffs and painted desert badlands. You can drive back through some very tight canyons, and if you have a high clearance vehicle you can see many more things. We didn’t have a lot of time so we only drove down Capitol Canyon, and it was pretty close to noon, so the light was not great for photography. We did stop in one tight section of the canyon to play around on some boulders.
The national park was really interesting, but I was blown away by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land outside of the park. There are endless miles of playground and free camping. We stopped to explore an area of what I’m calling painted desert. I drove my Passat wagon down sandy roads (that I hoped I could get out of) that all ended at a river. After searching for a bit at the end of the road for a way to cross, we walked into the tall brush following cattle trails which led us to a fallen tree creating the perfect bridge.
I loved this section of road. It was too good to pass up! I want to make a giant print with this…who wants one for their wall?”
We found a quiet wash just far enough from the highway to make camp. In the morning, we were planning on leaving early, but I wanted to see what was hiding beyond the wash, so we just started hiking up to the top to see what we could see. Really, the BLM land was just as cool as the NP.
CJ had been wanting to check out Goblin Valley State Park for a while, and a friend had told me to do the Chamber of the Basilisk slot canyon. FYI Fees have gone up to $15 entrance and $4 for each person’s permit to do the rappel.
The approach through the valley is quite entertaining, with plenty of mud hoodoo “goblins” to explore (and even a cave!). I read the directions wrong and took us down a different slot canyon which was trying to deliver us back into the valley, so we had to backtrack to find the right chamber where a crowd of people was waiting to do the descent. We had to wait for nearly 2.5 hours for everyone to get down, including a woman lowering her friend and her brat of a son by hand with a very misused Guide ATC instead of having them rappel. #scarythingsyouseepeopledo. Finally, it was our turn. CJ couldn’t resist playing around while lowering.
By the time we were hiking back to the valley, the light was too good to get try and get some shots of the goblins. Such a unique and other-wordly place!
CJ is a BASE jumper and wanted to get a jump in at one of her favorite exits, at Black Dragon Wash. We got to the campsite well after dark, but it was warm and the wind was still. We went to check out the landing in the light of the full moon. The photo came out looking like daylight with stars!
CJ launching of Black Dragon!
We still had a whole day ahead of us to explore, and couldn’t decide what to do. We eventually found a county road that went further into the San Rafael Swell and just drove on four-wheel drive roads (in CJ’s Tacoma) till we found something interesting. We came to this large canyon with nearly 400-foot walls. CJ thought that she could jump one of them, so she grabbed her rig and potentially opened up a new BASE exit!
I had a great time exploring further west in Utah than I’d been (at least since I was a little kid and went to Bryce Canyon). I’d love to have spent more time there, but I had a shoot I had to get back to in Moab. I can’t wait to go back and see more of what else Utah has to offer!
Abby Chan, the talented yogi/dancer/entrepreneur I photographed on the roof of the Hotel Monte Vista, connected me with Alex Pavon. Alex is a professional Enduro mountain biker who lives in Flagstaff and was kind enough to give up her New Years Day to shoot with me. She took me to a beautiful section of trail on Mount Elden overlooking Flagstaff, a trail called Sunset.
We had a couple hours to shoot up high before we drove further from Flagstaff, past Arizona Snowbowl (Flagstaff’s ski area), to some double-track trails in rolling hills with aspen tree groves. Alex switched kits and got out her gravel bike for something different.
I really enjoyed Flagstaff. Everyone I met was awesome, and the city had some pretty great reasons to come back – more climbing and mountain biking!
After seven days in Flagstaff, I headed north, through Monument Valley, Indian Creek, Fruita, and back home to Boulder, rounding out an amazing trip around the South West. I need to take more roadtrips like this!
Melissa had always told me how much she wanted to go to a hot springs and Great Sand Dunes National Park. Labor day was her birthday, so we took off to southern Colorado to climb and explore. We climbed for a day in Shelf Road, then made our way to the San Luis Valley. We found an awesome open camping spot on BLM land, then soaked in Joyful Journeys Hotsprings.
Sunday, we moved our campsite to Zapata Falls. We stopped in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to take some photos, then I missed the road to the falls and found these awesome wildish horses and a buffalo…
The road to Zapata Falls is 3.5 miles up a mountain gravel road that is in desperate need of grating. Even in Melissa’s jeep, it was a jarring road that we had to drive four times. “Oh, my poor car!” But the camping up there is great, and even on Labor Day weekend, we found a great spot.
The falls was incredibly crowded but worth going to see. We happened to be there for the 20 minutes or so that the sunlight streams down through the canyon, highlighting the falls’ mist.
Also, as expected, the Sand Dunes were overrun with tourists, so we drove down the 4WD road to a small parking lot. Luckily we got to right as someone was leaving, so we secured a spot. We took a nap under some trees, being rudely interrupted by a family of deer that came stomping through right next to us and loudly chewing leaves off the bushes all around us.
It was my 5th time at the dunes, but it never disappoints. Actually, with the smoke from the western forest fires, the light was absolutely incredible.
I’ve never seen the dunes with this much vegetation! It must have been a very wet August.
A couple came through, setting up camp and getting a front row seat to nature’s fireworks.
My friend, Dan Lehman, created these awesome La Croix seltzer water inspired tights that say “La Crushin It”. They’re sweet!
I couldn’t stop taking photos, the light was too good!
Right place at the right time!
Another couple joined us on our vantage point.
If you get the chance, it’s definitely worth while to watch the sunset from the interior of the sand dunes. I give it an A+.
After a lazy morning cleaning up at Zapata Falls Campground, we made our way down the mountain. We stopped at San Luis State Park to see if there was anything interesting. It was pretty barren accept for these sweet sun shades that litter the park.
The San Luis Valley, and everything east got smokier and smokier as we drove home. We went through the South Platte to avoid traffic, and it was almost impossible to see the climbing areas from the road. I couldn’t take it anymore and stopped on 93 to capture the epic sun, and of course my favorite tree. I love that you can see the sun spots on the sun!
This was a fun weekend for me shooting a ton of landscapes, I hope Melissa had fun for her birthday!
I was pretty unsure of how I wanted to see the eclipse. I first had plans to pick a random field northeast of Cheyenne, WY to watch in relative solitude, with only my buddy, Scott Homan, but reports that the area might be cloudy deterred us from making the trek. Saturday we decided this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we should take the time to go into totality. I had been thinking that since the eclipse was at noon, the eclipse would not photograph well in most landscapes. I thought photographing people looking at the phenomenon would be more interesting, so we picked a spot where we thought there would be at least some other people watching, Alliance, Nebraska.
We took Sunday afternoon to slowly make our way up into Nebraska, driving through Pawnee National Grasslands. I’m not sure how it’s a national public land because it’s filled with oil rigs, grazing cattle, and wind turbines, but it does have its own kind of beauty.
The sky is huge out there in comparison to Boulder where the mountains block the view of much of the sky. We were ok with leaving the confusing grasslands when got off the maze of gravel roads onto highway 71.
This sign off of HW71 caught my attention. I had to turn around to take the shot
We drove into Scottsbluff, amazed with the bluffs that surround the town in Nebraska (not a place you think of having a variety of landscapes). Two Scotts ate dinner in Scottsbluff. On the drive, Scott Homan found that Carhenge was only a few miles north of Alliance, and I thought, there’s no other place for us to go! We drove in the dark from Scottsbluff on more dirt roads towards Alliance, found a field with a downed gate, pulled the car in and set up camp for the night.
We woke up to an amazingly wet and foggy morning.
The sleepy town of Alliance was very alive with Eclipse travelers, the activity looking quite out of place. There were several locals looking to make some cash from this one time opportunity, hosting viewing parties in their yards. But it was obvious the only place for the Scotts was Carhenge.
Scott acquired a pair of solar glasses and we watched the moon creep into the circumference of the sun.
The interesting spectacle of Carhenge! Definitely glad we wound up here!
In planning to focus on shooting the people watching the eclipse, and the eclipse being at around noon, I brought my Flashpoint Streaklight 360 Barebulb Flash to overpower the mid-day sun. Well, less over power and more fill in all the obvious shadows. It’s a style I had wanted to try for a while. I’ve mentioned it before, I think, but this is definitely one of my favorite strobes and works flawlessly in the Flashpoint R2 wireless system.
The inevitable crystal worshipers
The Aliens, of course
For the 15 minutes or so before the totality, the light turned this very eery grey, and my insides starting tingling like the feeling right before a huge storm hits.
The moment the sky turned dark, the crowd gasped, and the photojournalists clicked away
There was a 360º sunset, definitely one of the things I was not expecting.
Then the moment everyone had been waiting for, some for the majority of their lives!
The light came back to a dull grey, people hugged each other and talked excitedly, expressing the magical experience they just had that words didn’t really do justice for.
Alright, this…this. I wish I had a video of this. A short, fat, middle aged man with a shoulder satchel pulled these unicorns out of his bag and lovingly placed each of the figures onto the bumper of the car, took out a nice camera, and shot the unicorns. Just as gingerly as he placed them, he picked them up, returned them to his satchel, and walked off into the crowd. He did it with the nonchalance of taking a tourist photo with his wife and children. I looked around to see if anyone else saw this happen, and no one else seemed to notice.
I’m definitely happy that Scott and I finally decided to make the trek to Nebraska to see Totality. Incredible experience. I’m psyched we went to a place with people and found Carhenge. Now, I need to come up with an amazing idea for shooting the next one in 2024!
Last month I took a job rigging ropes for a video shoot in Yosemite. I took the job knowing nothing about the details of the shoot, other than I would be rigging for another video guy (unnamed at the time, ending up being Andrew Peterson). The video we were shooting for followed a Danish TV investigative reporter, Morten Spiegelhauer, along a year long journey into rock climbing, seeing how dealing with fear on the rock changed his decision making process in everyday life. Morten had come to Yosemite a year ago to start the journey with Hans Florine, who holds the speed record for climbing the Nose of El Capitan (31 pitches in 2 hours and 23 minutes). Through mental and physical training, Morten culminated the experience by leading several trad pitches on El Capitan. It was awesome seeing his cool headed approach to leading, with only 4 trad leads under his belt previously.
I flew into Salt Lake City at 1am, arriving late because a woman with a carry-on dog refused to make her dog sit under the seat in front of her. After taxiing to the runway, we had to return to the gate so she could be escorted off the plane, screaming profanities, and the other passengers clapped once she was gone.
Andrew met me outside the airport with his Diesel Jeep Liberty, having slept for 3 hours in preparation for our 12 hour all night haul to The Valley. We made it somewhere into Nevada, but even with switching off driving we had to stop and sleep. Google was telling me we’d arrive 3 hours before we had to be there, so I reasoned we could sleep for two hours. We pulled off onto some gravel country road and made a quick bivvy.
After a mandatory In-n-Out stop outside of Sacramento, we started the drive back east towards Yosemite. We knew we were in a hurry (unnecessarily so, we beat the rest of the crew), but we stopped to take photos.
This being both of our first times in Yosemite, driving in was pretty magical. There are 3,000 foot cliffs towering over you with waterfalls dumping huge amounts of water on every side. The sun filters through the thick trees as slowly drive the one way road. Around every corner you catch sight of the sites you’ve heard of before: Horestail Falls, Bridalveil falls, El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls.
El Capitan towering over Southside Drive
Yosemite Falls, taken through the sunroof
We met up with Hans Florine and the Danish crew in the meadow below El Capitan, discussing our plans for the shoot. Morten, the subject of the video, wanted a warmup climb to get used to the rock, so Hans took us to climb Pine Line (thin 5.7) and the first pitch of Salathe (5.10c, dual crack fingers!!). We had limited time, so I top roped Salathe, with Hans telling me I only had 8 minutes to climb the 120′ route. It was a fun exercise in speed crack climbing, with Hans yelling, “30 seconds!”, “10, 9, 8…”
We reconvened with the rest of the crew, who were scouting locations and doing timelapses, and jet off to Hans’s Basecamp. We ate well for the week, having grilled steaks and pork pretty much every night (except on the wall).
The last light bouncing off of El Capitan
Dusk scene from Tunnel View
The next morning we do another warmup climb, with the full crew out taking video. I take Andrew up some variation of After Six so he can shoot down on Morten and Hans.
At the top of Manure Pile Buttress, waiting for Morten to finish the climb
Hans Florine in his natural environment
After we got down, Andrew and I went into full tourist mode. We drove around the loop, 1 mile, taking us an hour and half (mostly because of construction). We stopped at Yosemite Falls to get a closer look. There’s really not a great viewpoint of the falls that doesn’t include being sprayed with ice cold water and high winds, so we left the path and found some cool boulders.
These rocks are constantly wet with the spray from Yosemite Falls. It amazes me that it doesn’t look even more rainforesty
This couple has the right idea
We then drive the 45 minutes up to Glacier Point, overlooking Half Dome. It’s pretty incredible. Click on the image to see bigger
Andrew wanted to get a timelapse of the last light on El Capitan and climbers’ headlamps from Tunnel View. I wandered off, following random trails on the side of the mountain over the Tunnel chasing the sun.
I never got to the point where I could see around the other side of the mountain, but looking back, I found these amazing wild flowers with the entire Yosemite Valley behind them. To get this photo, I was precariously perched on loose soil, holding onto a tree above a couple hundred foot cliff. I wished I had had my climbing equipment.
I made my way back to Tunnel View, where Andrew was still working on his timelapses. These guys were too cute not to get a photo of.
Looking up at the El Capitan headwall from pitch 4 anchors
This was my first time in Yosemite. This was my first time on a big wall. The most pitches I’ve done in one push is eleven, I think. I’ve never ascended (climbed a rope fixed to anchors rather than climbing the rock) more than one pitch (100-ish feet) at a time. I typically do not have problems with heights or fear while climbing.
This time I was legitimately terrified, more so than I can remember in recent history. Climbing someone else’s old climbing rope they retired and donated as a fixed rope that has been hanging for an unknown amount of time in unknown weather conditions and is in an unknown state of health, attached to unknown anchors did not inspire confidence in me. I was attached with two Petzl ascenders that lock in one direction, which allows me to move up but will not slide down the rope unless I remove them from the rope. Both ends of the ropes were attached to anchors, but if for some reason the rope above me snapped, my ascenders would fly off the loose end instead of allowing me to stay attached to the anchor below. All of this is pretty irrational fear as these ropes are used quite often by climbers descending from Freeblast or by Jimmy Chin and other filmmakers to get to different vantage points.
Also, adding to my fear was the 50lb haul bag riding below my feet. Every step that I took into my stirrup attached to my ascender pulling on the frayed rope, I was adding 50 more pounds. I think if it had just been my weight, the fear would have been a lot less.
Every time I attached myself to an anchor, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Every time I had pulled out all the stretch in the old dynamic ropes and I had to transfer all of my hopes and dreams onto that rope, I had to overpower my fear…”F*$& F*$& F*$& F*$&”…”Guh, just go, the only way out of this is up!”. Six pitches up, I reach the Heart Ledge, and I finally am able to breathe normal again. There was a fixed line on the 5.10 up to the Mammoth Terraces, which I was happy I wouldn’t have to lead on the one static line we brought up.
Andrew jugging up the fixed line to the Pitch 4 Anchors
Andrew topping out pitch 5
After a final struggle to get my haul bag unstuck in the corner roof of the 5.10 I made it to the Mammoth Terraces and traverse the wide ledge to the anchors above Pitch 10 of Freeblast. Hans, Eric (Han’s employee), and Morten are just starting into pitch 6. I quickly rigged our static line to the anchor so Andrew could rappel down and shoot them on the exposed face before they were hidden by the Ear of Pitch 8 (or Half-Dollar). Andrew rappelled down to pitch 9, to shoot Hans coming over the edge of the “Half Dollar”.
Eric Griffith leading pitch 9, Hans Florine belaying, and Andrew Peterson jugging the static line
While Andrew was shooting them below where I could have a decent shot from the top, I took the opportunity to change. But I couldn’t resist getting naked and taking photos from ~ halfway up El Capitan.
Morten led the final pitch, and I captured video of him topping out. Andrew and I continued shooting video with the little remaining light before setting up our bivvies on the ledges. I took some opportunity to take photos in the fading light.
The weather on the ledges was perfect, good temps and very little wind. The stars came out in full force. I balanced my camera on the ledge to get this long exposure.
My sleeping quarters for the night
While on the ledges, we tried to stay connected to the rope via ferrata setup by Hans from the bolts on Mammoth Terraces. While sleeping, I remained attached to the via ferrata and clipped my sleeping bag to the fixed line to Heart Ledge, since it was conveniently located. I did not consider that someone might be climbing up from Heart Ledge early in the morning. I woke up to my sleeping bag getting tugged towards the ledge and a very sweaty Jimmy Chin, National Geographic photographer and film maker, popped up onto the ledge. “Oh, hey Jimmy,” I said super casually. “Go back to sleep! Go back to sleep,” he said as he stepped over me. It was like a weird Santa Claus moment.
We saw Alex Honnold climbing up pitch 6 on Freeblast (Freerider), and figured Jimmy was filming him on some unknown project. Little did we know that Alex was training for his now famous free solo a week and half later.
On the ground again, looking back up at where we spent the night
The majesty of El Capitan. Alex Honnold and crew are the little specs in the shaded area
Andrew really wanted to get his timelapse from Tunnel view and was electing to stay up all night working on it. I went with him, getting a few shots I really wanted.
El Cap and Half Dome from the other side of the Tunnel
Moving the tripod, happy little accidents
Sunrise over the Dome
Andrew getting one last shot before we left Yosemite
Yosemite was amazing! I definitely want to go back and climb more, though I haven’t made up my mind whether I want to do big walls or not. There is tons of climbing away from the crowds to be done. We had bluebird weather all week, which is amazing for climbing, but not ideal for photography. I wished that we’d had a bit of inclimate weather to give the valley a bit more drama.
After a great week exploring Yosemite, I stopped in Reno for a few days to spend time with my sister. I had been wanting to shoot a new truck in an off-road scenario for a while, and my sister’s friend, Chris, had a 2016 GMC Canyon that was perfect. We went to the Washoe Boulders above Carson City just before sunset and got exactly what I was looking for.
Colorado has some incredible and unique landscapes. Many are slammed with tourists, but there are some that are much less known. Escalante Canyon is one of those. Similar rock to the Westgate Sandstone Cracks of Indian Creek, this canyon attracts trad climbers, hikers, and ATV-ers.
I didn’t shoot any climbing because I was too busy climbing! Can’t wait to get back there!
This last February I went to Reno to help my sister move across town, and she took her boys and me to Mono Lake, California. The salt water lake is famous for its limestone tufa towers that seem to grow out of nothing. Definitely worth a stop if you’re in the area.
Click on the photo to see larger.
Sebastian taking flight.
Sarah has gotten used to being my stand in model.
After the sun went down, the grass was glowing pretty spectacularly.
Sarah and my nephews moved into a cute little one room house that I’m kind of jealous of. I wish we had these kind of rental options in Boulder (affordable too)!
Sebastian is psyched he has a place to ride his bike now.
Glad I got to help out my sister and explore a bit.
I was asked to join Paradox Sports for their ice climbing trip in Ouray, CO. It was impressive seeing the adaptive climbing on things most people would never dream of getting up. On Sunday, I was able to break away with Maury Birdwell and Lucas Onan to get some back country turns in at Red Mountain Pass. Great terrain that’s pretty easy to access made for a good morning.
A stitched panorama made from some 27 images that create an image that’s 5.6 feet x 3.12 feet at it’s native resolution!
I love driving US 285. It’s a beautiful drive that takes your past the Black Canyon of Gunnison and the Monarch Pass. I had to stop and take advantage of the light.
Over the holidays I went with my girlfriend to Lafayette (pronounced Laffy-et), LA to meet her parents and see where she spent most of her childhood. Melissa wanted to make sure I wasn’t bored for the almost two weeks we spent there, so we tried to explore as much as possible.
Our first adventure was driving down around Lake Arthur, then coming back along the coastline.
I’m trying play around with more video and made this quick edit from Chicot.
Closer to Lafayette is Lake Martin. I’d wanted to get a moody, foggy, sunrise here, but it was either raining or brightly sunny. So we drove the 30 miles on a whim in the afternoon, renting a canoe just before sunset. Was a beautiful sunset.
Finally, we had a foggy morning in Lafayette. But we were heading to New Orleans, so I couldn’t stop for too long.
We stayed with my cousin and ate some amazing food, then went to City Park the next day to explore. The sculpture garden is worth spending some time in!
My Spanish is very poor. I knew this before I decided to come to Cuba, but I came anyway, hoping it wouldn’t be too much of a problem. I tried to work on it, but being here it’s pretty obvious I know next to nothing useful. Thank god for Google Translate.
I needed to take a trip, and commercial flights from the US to Cuba just started a couple months before. What better time than now to come check out this interesting country, supposedly trapped in a time warp. I had no way of knowing that Fidel Castro, dictator of the island for nearly fifty years, would die 3 days before I arrived.
The Boeing 737-800 landed with a heavy thud, harder than most recent flights I’ve been on. The woman next to me crossed her chest with a sign of the cross, scared it would be her last landing. She was nice to me and offered to have her husband help get me to the bus station In Santa Clara. “His English is very good. I’m sorry mine is not.”
We exited the plane on stairs connected to the tail of the fuselage and walked around the wing. The silver American Airlines jet was the only aircraft visible on the tarmac. I don’t really think any more could be accommodated in the space. I stayed close to Damarys, not wanting to lose her getting through the terminal. A man wearing a black graphic tee and “fashion” jeans came up to me and asked to see my visa. He didn’t look official, except the credentials hanging around his neck.
“Here, take a seat,” he said, guiding me away from the line. “you need to fill out your visa.”
I asked for a pen and he disappeared into the crowd. He returned shortly and directed me into a tiny office with “Immigration” marked on the door.
For American travelers, you have to fall under 11 categories of travel, none of them being tourism. I had marked that I was here for journalism, but I had been told that no one actually checked the category here in Cuba. The man in the graphic tee kept asking me who I worked for, what my story was, how much I was being paid, and what side of the political spectrum I was on.
He would lead me to the front of the the line and hand my passport to the immigration officer, then take it back and tell me to sit. I sat for 2 hours, watching two full sets of airline passengers make their way through immigration.
I prepaid for An AirBnB in Havana and needed to take a 5 hour bus ride, so I was anxious to get out of the airport and into Santa Clara. The man in the graphic tee kept saying, just a little bit longer. A police officer came around the corner and looked at me, and for a second I thought I might get to spend some time in a Cuban jail. Finally, after there was no one left in the immigration line the man in the graphic tee sent me through.
On the other side of the door was another line, I had to send my bags through more scanners and walk through a metal detector. The scanner operator told me to take my bag to another table, but a man at a different table motioned for me to come to him. I gave him my medical card and got in line for customs behind two young guys from NYC. I quickly introduced myself and asked if they wanted to share a taxi into Santa Clara. I handed my customs form with “nothing to declare” marked and tried to walk past after watching all the previous passengers do the same, but the man stepped in front of me. “Take your bag to that table.”
I watched Julius and his friend get quickly waved past, and I worried that I’d miss another opportunity to have help getting into Santa Clara.
The customs officer took my bags in a back room to scan them again, which I watched through the slats of the baggage claim door. The officer asked me a few more questions then let me go.
Julius and his friend were sitting at the currency exchange, waiting for the worker to come back from a smoke break. I only exchanged 60 Euro because the rate was not very good, hoping to find a bank as soon as possible to exchange more.
The taxi driver agreed to take all three of us from the airport to Santa Clara in a newish Mercedes van – not the expected 1950s vintage tank of a car. I was dropped off first and probably overpaid because of miscommunication, but it was less than had I gone by myself.
A swarm of taxi drivers met me at the bus station, “La Habana? La Habana?” I initially walked passed them, but one followed me while I grabbed my bags. “Bus to Habana takes 5 hour. Taxi take 3. Bus $18 dollar, taxi $25.” That actually sounded pretty good. A driver I’d been emailing in Havana had said it would be $200 for a taxi.
The man I’d negotiated with stuffed my bags into the back of a bright green 1980s Japanese hatchback, along with a British couple’s. We squeezed into the back seat and two Cubans who I hadn’t seen before took the driver and passenger seats. Natalie, Pete and I settled in for a bumpy, windy three hour ride.
Pete and I chatted, with Natalie throwing in comments between naps, for most of the trip, till it got dark and we all three passed out. Once in the city of Havana, the driver seemed lost, stopping to ask directions from anyone that would listen. With their phone’s flashlight and a map in their guidebook, Natalie and Pete tried to guide the driver near to their “casa particular” or homestay. I had preloaded Havana on Google Maps, and it was telling me the location of my AirBnB, which I was able to direct the driver pretty easily to. After they dropped me with my bags in the street I realized Google had approximated the location. I asked a young man where the address was, which he replied, “Far.” It turned out to be about 8 blocks, not too bad even with a large backpack full of photo gear, another backpack and a rolling carry-on.
Casa Angerona was a plain house, but nice for Cubans. I walked through the gate, and the two occupants who were watching TV stood up from the couch to greet me. “Eh, Scot?” Carmen asked. “Si!” “Sit down, sit down.” she said. And that was about where the ease of communication ended. We struggled through the documentation for my stay, using Google Translate, and some input from her husband, Raul.
On the TV was a ceremony remembering Fidel Castro who had died 4 days before. I could hear the faint noise of the loudspeaker booming the words of the speaker from outside a few seconds before it was said on the television. The ceremony was happening maybe a kilometer away, in the Plaza de Revolucion.
Carmen showed me my room; high ceilings, light pastel colored walls with a few pieces of art, a small fridge and table in the entryway leading to the bedroom. The high ceiling makes it feel like you have a ton of space for the lamp, fan, full bed and bureau. The bathroom was basic, and Carmen made sure to show me that I have to hold down the handle on the toilet to flush and pull it back up.
I dropped off my things and went to find dinner, following the rough directions given by Carmen. I found a “cafeteria” that was a restaurant served out of someone’s house. You order from the window behind metal bars. The options were a pork sandwich or a larger pork sandwich for 15 pesos or 24 pesos, 80 cents cuc or 1 cuc. I still don’t get the conversion, basically handing them a denomination of CUC and getting an assortment of pesos in change.
I walked to another cafeteria and bar to see if I could find a large bottle of water, but no one could really tell me where to find that. I had yet to see any bodegas or corner stores with groceries or snacks.
I continued walking and found myself in the crowd for the Fidel Castro ceremony, where dignitaries from all over the world were speaking. I know I heard the president of Venezuela and someone from South Africa, but there were many more. Most of the Cubans in attendance were in good spirits but reverent. Young and old stood together listening to the speakers and intermittently breaking out into “Viva Cuba!” chants. I didn’t bring my camera when I thought I was just going to dinner.
The bed was sounding particularly enticing. When it’s dark and I have no one to talk to and no access to the Internet, going to bed early is pretty easy.
The sun filtered into the room from a vent near the high ceiling, but I kept falling back asleep – recovering from my travels, I guess. I finally got moving around 10:30.
I walked back to the Plaza de Revolucion, wondering what I was going to photograph. I stopped at a simple skatepark, watching two young teens drop into the halfpipe. A group of young boys gathered around me and started asking all kinds of questions I could not understand. One of the skaters tried to translate, but ran out of English.
An older man in rollerblades, somewhere in his 30s, appeared out of nowhere, sitting on the steps like he’d been there the whole time, started translating more. Rodney is a tattoo artist and started showing me all his tattoos. He invited me to see his home, which was just around the corner.
In a space between two buildings, there were a collection of ramshackle shacks, haphazardly built and in some stage of disarray. Rodney quickly introduced me to his wife, who looked maybe 18, and pulled me through the bedroom to his “studio”. It had crossed my mind to get a tattoo here, but I did not really want to get one in this dark and dirty space. I still toyed with the idea.
“Do you have any clients coming today, I’d like to photograph you at work,” I asked. As I was saying this, three teenage girls came in. The space was dark and I wanted my tripod to shoot.
I walked back to Casa Angelano and added my tripod and bare-bulb flash to my backpack. I had not yet eaten breakfast or lunch and it was after 1pm, so I stopped at a cafeteria to buy a simple pizza and “jugo fresco”.
Rodney’s wife stopped me on the street and tried to tell me the girl getting tattooed wanted privacy. I sat on the street and watched young boys play with a tablet until Rodney came and invited me back in his house.
One girl was passed out on the couch, another lounged on the operation table, and the third sat at the table with her arms resting on the previous girl’s legs. Rodney sat opposite the sitting girl and worked on a small tattoo on girl number three’s finger that simply said, “love”.
After taking a few photos of Rodney’s operation, I decided to walk further into town. I walked past a Plaza de Revolucion that looked very different than it did the night before with tens of thousands of people filling the now empty space.
In a corner of the plaza a collection of classic American cars turned tourist taxis were surrounded by a squadron of tourist busses. Old white people took turns having their photos taken in the newly painted convertibles from the 1950s.
My walk took me past two guys sitting in front of a candy merchant. They stopped me and spoke in decent English. One short and fat, the other a tall skinny black man. “We are in a band he [the short one] plays piano and I play bass. We would invite you to watch a concert, but with Fidel’s death there is no music till Sunday. We will have a big party Domingo!” They continued to chat with me, gave me a peanut butter sweet from the merchant, and for some reason gave me a 3 peso coin with Ché on it. The short man started saying, “you should go into central Havana and buy some cigars for your friends.” He kept pressing, till the black man, George Luis, said, “Hey, I will go with you.” Both of them jump up and hurry towards a bus that was stopping. “Get on, we’ve paid for you.”
I’m going to preface the decision to go with them with this, I was told that the Cuban people are not dangerous, and I still have not felt that I have been in any dangerous situations in Cuba.
I followed the two men into a house on the edge of Old Havana, where life looks like it starts to get a bit rough. The short man introduces me to a short, skinny, bald man with gold chains around his neck and rings on all his fingers. “This is the Pitbull of Cuba!” he said, very happy with himself. Pitbull pulled out a large black bag filled with boxes of cigars. “This is the cigar of Fidel. This is the cigar of love, Romeo and Juliet. This is the cigar of Ché Guevara.” The Short fat man made all of the sales pitches, Pitbull just nodded silently.
I finally spoke up, “I definitely don’t need a box of Cigars, and I don’t have the money to buy a whole box any way. I want maybe two or three cigars.” “But for only $60 you can have a box of the finest cigars in the world. Take and sell them!” I was feeling very pressured to not leave empty handed, so I talked them down from a box to 5 cigars. I handed them some money, which left me with barely enough to buy dinner with. “I should be exchanging money tomorrow, and I can walk home,” I thought.
I take a quick photo of George Luis and the short fat man. Gorge grabs the pack of cigars and says, “one for us?”… Whatever. Take it, I probably won’t smoke it.
A bit frustrated with myself for getting into that situation, I separated myself from them and walked deeper into central Havana. The streets narrowed, and suddenly there were people everywhere, hanging out on their doorsteps, talking with passer-bys. A group of boys practiced corner kicks in an intersection with a beat up football.
A short, middle aged man with a baseball cap saw me taking photos of the boys, he started asking questions about me in broken English. He said he was a teacher of dancing. “My name is Michel,” he said, pronouncing it as in English. We walked further into central Havana, and Michel greeted almost everyone we passed. He was excited to show me the “real life of Habana”.
Michel took me into one house after another. “This is my wife. This is my brother. This is my mother. This is my otro mother. This is my father’s brother’s wife’s son (he means daughter).” Their residences were small and dense, but had everything one would need. Simple. Several were down dark mazes of corridors, we had to duck under water hoses and piping to reach the doors.
“Do you need anything? What are you looking for?” asked Michel. “I would like to get my shoe fixed, do you know a Zapatero?” I had worn my running shoes mountain biking a year and half before and skimmed a rock with the side of my shoe, taking off a section of material, exposing my pinky toe. I’ve been running and walking in them like this since.
Michel bounced around the street, asking anyone who might know a zapatero. We’re pointed into another dark corridor where a fit, topless black man greets us at the door of his tiny home. He sat down on a chair in the middle of a 5ft by 15ft room that houses his wife, infant son in a crib, and 10 yr old son. He used a razor to tear apart a scrap shoe to fit into the hole in mine. He glued it then stitched it. It’s not pretty, but now my pinky toe doesn’t stick out. I paid him my last 3 cuc.
I woke up the next day, and hoped to find a nearby bank to exchange money. The closest bank had a long cue that I waited in for thirty or forty minutes without any real idea of what was going on. It didn’t seem to be moving. I walked the forty or so minutes to Michel’s house in Central Havana hoping to find another bank on the way. I reached Michel’s having not found a bank almost an hour late for our meeting time. We walked to Habana Vieja and found a bank with a shorter cue. Of course the rate was quite a bit lower than I was expecting, but there were no other options I knew of.
As we left Habana Central, we entered “Chinatown” marked with a pagoda arching over the street. “There aren’t any Chinese in Chinatown,” declared Michel. He stopped and told me, “The police don’t like seeing Cubans from Central with Tourists, they don’t want you to know the real Havana. Walk with some space between us. I could get in trouble with the police if they think we’re together.”
Michel led me through the touristy areas of Vieja where the fancy hotels, nice restaurants, and street performers, which I did not find very interesting. He saw I was bored and not taking any photos, so he took me back towards Habana Central, stopping at a few markets along the way. I finally saw where the locals find there produce.
Yelling into the second story of a typical central Havana building, the door opened in front of Michel. I walked through the small door finding a staircase immediately behind the door and no person that opened it. A small string ran down the wall of the stairs and attached to the lock on the door, which someone could pull from the top of the stairs.
The stairs led to a courtyard in disarray of construction never finished, but behind the door to the left a large woman greeted us. Giving Michel the customary kiss on the cheek, she invited us in. A pretty black girl was busy making cupcakes in one side of the room, and the large woman returned to putting icing on a cake. Michel explained that they were his aunt and cousin.
The aunt kept pressing sweets into my hands, a cupcake, a tart, custard… I’m probably forgetting some. It’s definitely understandable how she got to be in her current state. It was all delicious.
Yesabel, the cousin, told me that she was a musician, she plays the bongos. When I said that I played guitar, she looked excited and disappeared into a back room. Returning, she thrust an old classical style guitar into my hands. With one strum it was painfully apparent the guitar needed new strings and a tune. I sat down on the couch and pulled up my tuning app on my phone. Yesabel looked amazed. As I tuned, she disappeared into the back room again. She brought out her smart phone, opened an app and thrust it at me. I looked at Michel confused. “She wants you to transfer the app to her.” “No entiendo? I don’t know how.” Apparently there is an app in Cuba that allows people to transfer apps via Bluetooth. I did not have this app so I could not help her.
“I’m done here,” said Michel after a while, “are you ready to go?” With kisses on everyone’s cheeks, we make our way back to the street. I couldn’t really imagine trying to balance a cake while going down that steep staircase. I take a few more photos on my the street, then we’re back to Michel’s house.
Michel is very proud that he has Univision and Telemundo on his TV, two illegal stations that he buys on the way black market. “The Cuban station is just boring talk all day long. No novella, no international news.”
He lives in a simple apartment on the second floor. The door opens to a small living room with a balcony, a couch, two chairs and a TV take up most of the space. A small kitchen has enough room for the a couple burner stove, the sink and a bed opposite. Passing through the kitchen you get to the toilet, opposite to the bedroom. Michael’s wife is a tired looking short and fat woman who didn’t seem to have much to say. A transvestite named Havier lives with them, but I was unclear of their connection. Havier was very nice, all smiles while she cooked for us.
The Internet was generally accessed In WiFi Hotspots near public parks. You buy a scratch off card that gives you an hour of connection. Michel said the cards cost $3, but there were black market Hotspots for $2 in his barrio. Before dinner, all of us go to one of these, which was a dark street filled with glowing faces looking at screens. Michel handed my phone to a young man with a girl sitting on his lap. He purposefully closed all my running apps, which apparently all Cubans have a penchant for doing. (Android states that it takes less processing power to keep them all open, hence why they took away the option to Close All Apps. Every Cuban that held my phone, to use the translate app, went through and closed all my apps, repeatedly). The connection was very weak, but I was able to get some emails and chat briefly with my girlfriend who was happy to hear I was still alive.
Dinner consisted of rice, pork, tomatoes, and a small sweet banana; simple but delicious. After, Michel led me back to Avenida Simon Bolivar and instructed me to get on the first bus that came.
The passengers in the front of the bus helped me to get off at Calle Zapata. The walk home in the dark was a nice stroll, but the heat of the day still was not done. I was quite sweaty when I got back to my room. I slept with a fan blowing on me all night, covered by a light, silky sheet. As soon as the fan hit, I was at the right temperature.
My only plan for the day was to meet Rodney and more of his friends for photos, hopefully equally tattooed and in a different location. We were supposed to meet at 1, so I decided to go in a new direction for the morning. I wanted to check on the bus for Viñales and the station was south.
I stopped at a cafeteria for breakfast and asked the pretty black server what they had for desayuno. She rambled off a bunch of things I didn’t understand, so I said, “el primero”. “Pan y queso?” she clarified. “si.”
A foot long piece of bread overflowing with pre-sliced cheese came out. Eh, good enough. I had tried to order “jugo fresca,” fresh juice, but an apple juice box came out with the bread. When the server handed me the bill, it said, “Pan y queso: $4, jugo de manzana: $2. En Total: $6.” $6! For bread and cheese! Bread should be at most $.50 and cheese, the same. The juice boxes are $.80. At the very most the total should be $2. I was upset. I argued with the pretty black girl for a while. I have no idea what she said. “This is my most expensive meal so far in Cuba. For Bread and cheese!!” I said. She tried to bargain with me, “cinco dòlares.” I eventually gave up, I’m in another country and I have no clue what the person I’m arguing against is saying.
After I gave her 5 cuc, she asked, “Que pais?” (what country?) “estados unidos” “ooh! Que parte?” (what part?) “Colorado” “Tienes novia?” (do you have a girlfriend?) “si” “Es ella aqui?” (is she here?) “uhh, no?” “(some things I couldn’t understand while smiling flirtatiously)” “yo voy ahora por Via Azul, much gracia” (I go now for the bus, thank you very much)
…. This girl, over charged me, argued with me, then basically came on to me. A very confusing ordeal.
Taxi drivers intercept me at the bus station. “Viñales?” they asked? I bypassed a younger, more aggressive driver and came to a jolly older man. “Viñales por $20?” He made the case that he would come to pick me up at my house, which makes up for the difference in price from the bus. I agreed, and he said he’d come at 9am.
Rodney’s house looked pretty lifeless. I knocked on the back door and found him mopping his tattoo studio. He said his friends came the day before, not today. He said if I returned at 5pm, maybe they would be around. I told him I would possibly be back,but knowing I didn’t want to backtrack that far. I had plans with Michel for dinner.
I typically take street portraits with only my small flash and a 12 inch pop up reflector, but since I was expecting to shoot with Rodney’s friends I brought my much more powerful bare bulb flash and 18 inch beauty dish. I decided if I was going to get portraits that I really wanted I might as well break out the big gun. It was better than just carrying it as dead weight.
I walked a new way into Habana Central and came across a school just as it let out. The students responded with differing levels of interest. Right as the kids started to dissipate, older teen boys and 20 somethings appeared carrying baseball equipment. They were playing a pickup game in the courtyard. It was beautiful and incredibly interesting to watch. A young boy, Daniel, took it upon himself to be my assistant and carried my light for me all around the field. I almost took several balls and one flying bat to my head, but I wanted to get the photos. Definitely one of those magical moments in travel that doesn’t happen unless you put yourself out there, one of the benefits of traveling alone.
After the sun had gone down and the game got more aggressive with lots of yelling, I continued on towards Michel’s house. I still had over an hour till I was supposed to meet him, so I made my way into Vieja to try and use the fancy hotels’ Internet. After catching up with my girlfriend and some emails, I walked back into Central. “Eh Cot! Eh Cot!” I heard yelling from across Avenida De Simón Bolivar. Michel was waving to me from the opposite crowded side walk. He was coming from having a drink with a friend. (It just struck me that it must have been at his residence because all the bars were still closed in respect for Fidel’s death).
A family friend and her 20 something daughter were visiting with Michel’s wife when we came in. Michel showed them my photos of the baseball game, which was at the school he grew up in. The friend exclaimed, “Esa es mi hijo!” (that’s my son!) in one of the photos. They inspected all of them to try to see more.
Havier and Michel made basically the same meal as the night before, but definitely still delicious. Havier and Michel’s wife left to get Internet, and Michel and I talked for a bit more. He walked me to Avenida de Simón Bolivar and put me in a shared taxi. I hugged him goodbye and wished him luck. I’m pretty sure he was skimming money off of most my my transactions, but he gave me an experience I was glad to have, very different than the typical Havana you’ll see as a tourist. I’ll let him have that.
I was feeling very fat in Havana despite all the walking I was doing, so I bought a tub of chocolate ice cream to really seal my obesity.
I regularly get bored in airports. Last year I did a post from the Phnom Penh Airport in Cambodia. This year, on my way back from Cuba in the Havana Airport I stopped several fellow travelers and asked if I could take their portraits.