To the Roads Less Traveled…

by Josh Meier, Nature First Contributing Writer 

A few years ago while on a road trip across the American West I decided to stop and photograph the iconic Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. (Original, I know…) Admittedly, I was a little hesitant in doing this – I’d heard horror stories of altercations breaking out between jostling photographers, and knew that the location turns out dozens of near identical sunrise images every single day. You have to admit though, that scene is pretty spectacular; and a respected workshop leader had urged that I at least shoot it once for myself. So I decided to give it a go.

Maybe it was my apprehension, but from the minute I turned off Interstate 70 and started the remaining 30 mile stretch south toward Moab it just felt like there was a tension in the air. Cars flew by, passing recklessly against oncoming vehicles despite a traffic flow already well over the posted limit. Drivers honked, braked, and accelerated aggressively. It was as if everyone came to the simultaneous realization that the carload in front of them might claim the final open campsite, or the last trailhead parking spot, and the race was on. In reality, that sense of urgency wasn’t so far fetched. It was 10 AM on a midweek autumn morning and by the time I got to the park, the campground was full. So were the next two I tried. I was fortunate to find an off the beaten path BLM site a bit farther away, but even it filled soon after.

I crawled out of my tent at 2am the next morning to accommodate the 6:30 sunrise. In part due to the added drive time, but mostly to make sure I was one of the first photographers on the scene. I hate the thought of potentially interfering with somebody else’s shoot, or imposing to ask if I can “squeeze in,” so arriving earlier than anyone in their right mind has become my go-to strategy when photographing popular locations. 

I walked up to Mesa Arch just after 3am – the first one to arrive that morning – but within forty-five minutes had tripod legs interlocked on either side of mine. Things remained cordial, our little group of strangers shivering in the cliff edge darkness, until another photographer emerged and apparently felt entitled to my front row spot. He boasted of owning a gallery, criticized my “entry-level” equipment, tried repeatedly to get me to give up my position, and made fun of my quiet response. I ignored him, but remained tense as a large crowd gathered, packing tighter and tighter to the point you couldn’t move an arm without bumping someone or hearing somebody behind growl that you were in their frame. When the sun finally broke the horizon emotions almost boiled over as casual onlookers tried to stretch cell phones through the wall of photographers to sneak quick snapshots. The sunrise itself was beautiful – surely a sight to behold – and I came away with an image I was happy with, as I’m sure the thousands of other photographers who have captured nearly the same have been pleased with theirs. Beyond that though, it bordered on a mob scene. 

A week later I was back home in Iowa and ventured out one foggy dawn to shoot the fall colors in a local state park. I hiked into the woods with no predisposed expectations, no specific “spot” to race to, and not another person in sight. I relished the damp smell of the forest, listened to wild geese pass overhead, and watched leaves twirl through the misty sky returning gently to the Earth. I spent hours exploring the riverbank in quiet contemplation with no one to distract from my thoughts – save for one chubby little muskrat (I’d set up in a spot for so long marveling at how the sunlight was breaking the fog that he splashed repeatedly in surprise, each time not realizing I was still there. For what it’s worth though, he didn’t offer a single critique of my gear at all.)

To me, mornings like this embody much of what I love about nature photography. It’s the chance to ponder, to observe, to just get out there and be immersed in your surroundings. The sights, the sounds, the entire experience of that Iowa morning filled my heart with joy. I hardly recall any of those things from Canyonlands though. I just remember bristling defensively and trying to hold my own against the crowd with a laser focus on clicking the preconceived daybreak shot. It was robotic, not enjoyable. And all for a photo replicated thousands of times after and before.

I’ve thought of those contrasting experiences often in the years since, especially when shooting around the Midwest, where I never take the ease of finding solitude for granted. There you may not find a plethora of recognizable bucket list scenes, but here’s the deal… There is beauty EVERYWHERE. And by embracing this mindset, it becomes so much easier to prioritize Nature First principles in our photography, especially when it comes to vacation/holiday plans. 

When we choose to look beyond chasing trophy shots it allows us to avoid adding to the environmental strains of overcrowded parks. Popular scenic locations in North America and Europe, as well as elsewhere around the world, are already experiencing record visitation and anticipating even higher tourist counts in a post-pandemic boom. Here in the U.S. many national parks are incorporating reservation-based entry, or closing gates when capacity is reached. The influx of visitation not only leads to overflowing trails and parking areas, it endangers fragile habitat, increases water and energy consumption, stresses wildlife and overwhelms the park staff who are working hard to protect the places that we love. By making alternative travel plans we can become one less party contributing to these problems.

Furthermore, taking the road less traveled approach may allow us the opportunity to choose locations a little closer to home, decreasing our carbon footprint and travel requirements, and allowing us more time in the field.  Plus the experiences you’ll have – the peace, the exploration; the chance to discover tucked away little towns and hidden back road gems. Finding gorgeous vistas, or fascination in intimate scenes, as you get to know a place that before was only a green spot on the map. This is what most of us crave; and the chance to feel true connection with nature. But it’s something you’re very unlikely to find in pursuit of those iconic scenes.

So as you finalize this year’s travel plans, please keep all of this in mind. Going the environmentally responsible route can often provide a more gratifying experience, not to mention the satisfaction of coming away with photos uniquely your own.