travel

Travel Season

Lobster Landing - Connecticut

Taking a vacation is a good excuse to make some photos. You’re in a new place, with new sights and people to see. Everything is fresh and wonderful (especially when they have lobster rolls along the Atlantic Ocean, as above).

But most of us can’t take a vacation all the time.

So what if you took little trips, around your hometown, or to the cities you’re next to?

I started a little project based on small towns around Michigan a few summers back – little towns that I had never visited, or had only traveled through. I’d take a lunch hour and prowl around main street, and shoot what I see.

You don’t have to go far to see a new place. Chances are, there’s something to see within a few miles of where you are right now. This idea is not new.

August is travel season for a lot of people. Now, challenge yourself to travel a little more local for a new perspective.


About every year, I need a mountain fix. To fly away from our flat-ish peninsula state and land somewhere above sea level.

Luckily, I’ve kept to that pretty consistently. I’ve used mountain states to escape, to reflect – and to drive.

Rocky Mountain National Park 565

The driving is therapeutic, too. I take in the countryside by mostly driving through it – with little stops along the way to get out and explore.

Rocky Mountain National Park 550

It’s not my style to stay in any one place for very long while traveling. I hit the highlights and move on to the next thing in fairly rapid succession.

Hiking Colorado: Dense Pathway

But it’s important to absorb the highlights. Especially with mountain scenery. Soak it all up.

Michigan is a fantastic state. I love living here and traveling here. Seeing the lakes and the woods and the wilderness. Michigan, though, doesn’t have mountains.

Rocky Mountain National Park 552

Colorado has mountains. Virtually a whole state full of them.

And every once in a while, I get the itch to see them.

(Photos edited with VSCO Film 04.)


‘We Work for Tips’

And so it went last weekend in Las Vegas with three of my good friends: Andrew Krukowski, Chris Driver, and Keith Coates.

My experience with Vegas before last weekend was more like sticking my toe in the pool. I stopped there during a rush-hour traffic jam along I-15 coming home from the Route 66 trip. Then there was last summer, when I flew in and out of Vegas during my driving tour of the western national parks.

But I had never done Vegas righteously. Last weekend I finally got the chance, and did it as it should be done: with good friends to enjoy the spectacle.

The entire weekend was like one long-running comedy routine, with new in-jokes appearing from the sights, sounds, and people of this city. We took our accommodations and had a lot of fun with it, both with the people that we saw and the location of the hotel. Staying off-Strip means you get to see that other Vegas you always hear about – the one we saw, in full color, along Fremont Street.

Ah, Fremont Street. You take the old Vegas that appears in movies, the Vegas that Sinatra and Martin knew, you put a roof over it, and you turn it into an amusement park. It was still my favorite part of the trip. The Strip seemed like a giant themed shopping mall. But Fremont Street was the Vegas that I always pictured in my head: lights, mutants, cheap booze, the whole works. If I ever go back, I’ll be sure to spend more time on Fremont Street.

No one in our little group struck it rich, nor did anything too crazy happen. The trip was four guys who know each other so well taking this spaceship of a city as it is. We walked, and took in a ball game, and saw a show, and took a trip to the Hoover Dam. And then there was karaoke. Lots of that in a bar called Ellis Island, where tourists and locals both meet for cheap (but good) beer and lots of fun.

My role in these types of trips is usually the documentarian – a role I relish. Between photos and the video above, I feel like I captured some of the best parts of the trip while still leaving those fun parts – the ones only us four guys would get – locked away in memory. That’s as it should be.

The title of the video comes from a brief snippet of Fremont Street. The showgirls, the ones on either side of the gentlemen where one whispers something in his ear, walk around ready to pose for pictures. When I stood there to get my own picture taken, the one whispered “We do work for tips, okay?” into my ear.

Nothing is free in Vegas. Not really. And that’s okay.


Jump the Fence

Call me a railing jumper. I wear it as a point of pride.

That photo of the waterfall above? I had another one from the viewing station, probably 20 to 30 feet above where I took the above shot. Then I glanced over the wooden railing that surrounded the viewing station, saw a root-studded path down to the rocks below, and jumped.

It happens often enough, especially on trips and photo assignments, that I automatically look for a way to hop the fence and find a path to get closer. It happened on that trip Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I only hesitated because there were a mom and a dad, with their two kids, standing next to me, and I didn’t want to be a bad influence on the kids.

But then I thought, “Well, why not?” Maybe the kids will get yelled at now, but isn’t it better to show them that a little rebellion will do you good?

Sure, jumping the fence could get you hurt (the rocks were slippery from the waterfall spray) or arrested (though I didn’t see a sign – but more often I do). But getting a closer view of that waterfall was worth it.

Now this kind of thing gets me in trouble. I’ve had enough run-ins with the authorities that keeps me at least pragmatically cautious. My first instinct, though, is to jump the fence – always has been.

Don't slip.

While in Yellowstone, it wasn’t enough that I saw pretty waterfalls from the park roadway. No, I had to slide down the ravine, step into the river, scramble up the rocks, and get a closer view. Tasting the river is more memorable than seeing it from the side window.

Grand Canyon - My little rock ledge

At the north rim of the Grand Canyon I noticed, just next to the lot where middle-aged insurance salesmen parked their Buicks, a little outcropping of rock. It was dozens of yards away from the main viewing area, the one encircled by metal railing. This little ledge off to the side? The one partially covered by ragged desert brush and boulders? No one was there. It was all mine.

So I climbed it. And as my legs dangled from the edge and the tourists screamed in horror, I felt like I was getting a view that few people saw. There’s something to be said about experiencing the Grand Canyon all by yourself, with no one around, and with nothing holding you back from the void. There was no railing here.

And so it is with life. That’s pretty obvious, but the more I travel, the more I realize people are content with staying within some prescribed boundary.

This philosophy is largely situational. Rules aren’t there simply to be broken. As Dr. Renner, my journalism professor and mentor always said, “Rules are made for smart people to break.” In other words: learn the rules, pay attention, and break them when it makes sense.

If everyone broke the rules willy-nilly, there might not be waterfalls to photograph. But if breaking the rules means harming nothing or nobody but yourself, I say go for it.

Jump the fence.

On the edge.

Maybe it says something about my compulsion to hang there on the edge of nothing. Maybe I just need medication. I don’t know.

But while I have legs to carry me and a lack of the kind of common sense that says “stay within the boundaries,” I’ll keep doing it.

In fact, I’d recommend it to anyone.


Return to Route 66

Route 66 - wallpaper

This last trip out west brought me back to a turning point in my life. More specifically, a simple pavement-and-paint road: Route 66.

Leaving the Kaibab Plateau on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and crossing the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, I entered New Mexico by way of I-40 and Gallup. The last time I was in Gallup was four years ago on a life-changing trip across country – the first of my great big adventures.

But I didn’t enter Gallup by Interstate; that was just the destination. Instead, I drove into Gallup like I did last time – by a smaller two-lane highway coming out of Arizona. Driving down Main Street, seeing the old Sante Fe Line railroad cars, being in Gallup brought back a lot of good memories.

So I thought, “What the heck? Why not?” I decided to hit the route again for old time’s sake. The only problem was that I came unprepared. No maps, no directions, no idea where, exactly, to jump on and start driving.

That’s the thing about Route 66: there are parts that remain in a straight line, but out west the road remains broken and jumps around in fits and starts. You don’t hop on and keep riding. You have to navigate the Mother Road, crossing the interstate, zipping down frontage roads, and then watch as the “Road Ends” sign signals a change of plans.

Doing the best I could, I tried it anyway. And let me tell you, it was great.

I flicked through my iPod playlists and hit “Play” on my Route 66 Mix. U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Boston’s “Foreplay Long Time,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” The Eagle’s “Take It Easy,” Chuck Berry’s version of “Route 66” – it’s hard not to get emotional when those songs start playing while I’m driving on the road they were organized for.

There was only one wrong turn the whole way from Gallup to Albuquerque. It’s like my brain snapped into place and my hands become automatic sextants, guiding the rental car down a defunct highway.

Even though, for many miles, the route runs alongside the Interstate, I found (then, as now) that the mind occupies a totally different space when driving on Route 66. On the highway, you pay attention to your destination and the car around you, speeding and passing and watching for exits. On the Route, you pay attention to the Route: the scenery, the little towns you pass, the way the road meanders around rock formations and railroad tracks. You think differently driving at 55 miles per hour.

Of course, for me, there was a lot to think about. I couldn’t help but remember what was going on with my life four years ago, and how it mirrored today. Same stress, same heartache, same need to hit the road. It was only appropriate that I returned to the road that had given me so much comfort and respite back then.

For some parts, it was like waking up out of the slumber I’ve been in – both sobering and exciting to realize that, here I was, back in the desert, on my own again. I looked out at the landscape and thought, “I’m back.”

And it was good to see sections of the Route I missed in 2006. For that section of western New Mexico, I had traveled a lot of path in the dark. I remember pulling out of Albuquerque at sunset, sneaking into the Acoma Pueblo at twighlight (long past closing hours), and crawling into Gallup at night to sleep in my car. When it’s dark in the desert, it’s dark. So I missed large sections of the Route.

This time, it was pretty cool to see the parts I did remember again. There’s a little section an hour or two west of Albuquerque that winds through sandstone cliffs, and “Route 66” is painted on the asphalt along the way. I’d forgotten about that section of road through the years, but driving through those formations brought everything back. It could be that last time I didn’t grab a picture. This time I did:

Route 66 - Main St. of America

Most of all, it was tons of fun to drive. Changes in altitude, taking corners at 15 or 25 miles per hour – it makes steering the car along the road a true joy.

On returning to Albuquerque, I made a special point to take a snapshot of the sign I saw when I left town in 2006. It felt like Gen. MacArthur’s vow to return to the Philippines: I came into town the same way I left it:

Route 66 - A Return to Albuquerque

On the way back home, during my shotgun trip across Arizona back to Las Vegas, I picked up bits and pieces of the Route – mostly because that’s all that’s left in Arizona. There’s a long section, between Seligman and Kingman, that was my favorite driving experience the last time I was out there. Past Kingman, the Route heads toward the Black Mountains, on the border with California, and snakes through Sitgreaves Pass – practically a religious experience for a young man from mid Michigan.

So I went back to that place. It’s a 10 minute drive outside of Kingman to the entrance of the Pass, and last time those mountains loomed at me. I remember my palms sweating, getting nervous, for no good reason except I felt something ominous about those mountains. Turns out I was right, because a winding, narrow, sheer-cliffed road facing the setting sun in a desolate landscape will put the fear of God into you. That road changes things. It broadens your horizons, and teaches you a bit about the unpredictable nature of the world. Plus it’s a pretty fun drive.

Last time, I came down the other side of those mountains – changed, sweating – and pulled over in Oatman just to get my bearings. A pair of the locals, probably feeling sorry for me, invited me to dinner and told me about guys who sat at the entrance of the pass and got paid to drive out-of-towners through Sitgreaves. Many who didn’t have help died falling down those rocky cliffs.

Route 66 - Sitgraves Pass

This time, it was nice just to see it again, and remember the dread I felt approaching that mountain pass as the sun was setting in May 2006. I only went part-way up because I had a plane to catch, but I came back down with some new resolutions and fond memories of my younger self. It was worth the return trip.

Plus, while in Albuquerque, I took a day’s drive up to Sante Fe and caught an old section of the Route, dating from 1938, that I didn’t catch last time. The Route changed, and straightened, to include Albuquerque after 1939. What I did see in Sante Fe wasn’t all that impressive, though – mainly a long commercial section with three lanes each way and many, many stoplights. Really, I was glad to be done with it when I hopped back on south-bound I-25.

But no matter where I was, the world changed on Route 66. It could be part sentimentality and part psychological need, but my heart needed a little trip down one of the best memories of my life. A return voyage to a great adventure, if only in small sections.