Thursday, September 07, 2006

Western States Photography Tour: Across Nevada - A Twisted Tale


"Saigon... shit; I'm still only in Saigon... Every time I think I'm gonna wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after my first tour, it was worse. I'd wake up and there'd be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said "yes" to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I'm here a week now... waiting for a mission... getting softer; every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter."
- Martin Sheen as U.S. Special Forces Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now

Life has a way of sneaking up on you. Job, house, bills, cars, insurance, investments, spouse, anniversaries, vacations, children, birthdays, education, sports, cell phones, email. Complexity tends to increase as the days, weeks, months and years pass. You do what you need to do to get everything done. You set goals, a new car, a second house, and often achieving your goals adds to the pace of your life. The overhead of managing your cumulative belongings, relationships and commitments tends to grow.

In spite of careful planning and steady progress towards your goals, at some point you may sense a subtle disconnect between getting what you want, and wanting what you get. You may notice the gradual erosion of the activities you engaged in and the traditions you practiced, including the ones that contributed to making you who you are, and the ones that soothed your soul.

Every once in a while you have the opportunity to step back, to reassess your goals, your priorities, and the incremental and cumulative effect that they have on your life. You may decide on a change, or some kinds of change may come at you with little warning. Change can be difficult, it can be stressful, but it can also provide the opportunity to adjust the things that you can control - your career, your residence, what you do with your free time - to restore balance. In fact, who you spend time with, including your spouse, is one of the choices you make that can be changed.

Like Captain Willard, I said yes to a divorce. I dream of waking up in a jungle. The temperate jungle of the California redwood forest or the granite towers of Yosemite. The stone jungle of Utah's slot canyons. The intricately layered and wind-carved sandstone of Arizona's buttes and mesas. The blazing aspen of Colorado's high country. When I'm here, I want to be there.

Nevada... shit; I'm still only in Nevada.

Don't get me wrong; I like Nevada. There are some truly beautiful sites in Nevada, but I wouldn't be visiting those on this day. Crossing Nevada can be an exercise, in concentration, in stamina, in your ability to absorb coffee. My crossing consisted of boredom, sparse radio coverage with stations in unfamiliar formats (country, evangelical), and the occassional shock of seeing a tree. Sometimes a live one! It was in this waking stupor that I approached the exit for Deeth, which vaguely struck me as eerily similar to "Death", perhaps spoken in an ancient Celtic dialect.

As I scanned the horizon to the north, perhaps scanning for my first tree in over an hour, I could make out a small cloud of dust on a hillside on the horizon. It resembled a column of smoke froma fire... no, perhaps a truck or farm equipment disturbing the dry soil. Over time if grew in size, and I could see by it rotation that it was a "dust devil", a large one. It was growing in size, and another cloud of dust appeared nearby, so I accepted Death's exit and pulled off to watch. The dust in the main column was reaching skyward toward the thunderstorm above, now resembling a true tornado. I was happy not to be in Kansas, where I might actually have something to worry about.

Smaller, tighter columns danced a few hundred yards away. It was still a bit unreal, but it was definitely getting downright interesting. I did what needed to be done: grabbed my camera, snapped my tripod open and locked the legs, clicked the camera in and started shooting. The funnels were highly unstable, appearing in places for a few short minutes, then starting up elsewhere and repeating the process. I counted as many as seven distinct areas where tornadoes were being spawned, with as many as five reaching the ground at any given time.

The front edge of this system was about a mile north of the highway, but it was moving south, in my direction. The leading edge of the rain started to arrive. Things could get too interesting in a hurry. One of those funnels could pop into existence over my head. I did what I could with f-stops and shutter speeds in the dim light, until the wind started howling and debris and rain was flying horizontally past. I could go one more exit to the west and watch this mess from the comfort and safety of my vehicle. I stuffed the camera gear into the front seat just before the deluge hit. I crossed the overpass and accelerated down the ramp, wondering at what point a vehicle starts to develop lift. I left Death behind as fast as I could and pulled off at the next overpass, a mile ro two down the road. I had driven out from under the rain. The funnel clouds were no longer clearly visible in the wall of water now coming down, but there was a large mass of dust mixed in the air that still marked their passing. I had no problems staying awake for the next hour or two, and I had already kicked off my multi-week shooting spree in a very unique way. It seemed to bode well for the trip to come.