When I first planned this trip I put together a rough itinerary, threw together a budget based on some estimates, and set aside 3 weeks (give or take a few days) to get things done. Here’s how it all turned out.
The budget I made for the trip was fairly conservative, but I was still happy to stay well under it by the time things wrapped up. This was mostly due to three things: 1) the generosity of my family, who let me crash with them on several nights rather than find alternate accommodations 2) finding cheap places to stay when not crashing with my family, and 3) not spending as much money on food or gas as I thought I would.
After putting together my itinerary I used Google Maps to calculate the driving times and distances for the entire trip. The total miles traveled, if I never strayed from the designated routes, would be just under 3,800 miles. But, what fun would that be? I assumed I would stray from time to time and created what I considered to be a conservative estimate of 5,000 miles traveled from beginning to end. This estimate was a pretty good one – all in all I traveled 5,158 by the time I returned home. Even though I went over budget in terms of miles traveled, super conservative estimates for gas milage and gas prices kept my fuel expenses under budget.
By the time I left St Paul, my itinerary was more specific and detailed than I had originally planned. While I wanted the flexibility to change things on the fly, I did make some hotel reservations in advance for places I thought would be more crowded than others (the Grand Canyon, for example). Other than during the shooting class, only twice did I spend more than one night in the same place. That was a mistake. I could have spent another night in Santa Fe. If I were to do it all again I would spend an extra day in Page, AZ, spend less time in Monument Valley and then have a full day to see Canyon de Chelly. I tried to rush things too much at the end and I didn’t really get to see Canyon de Chelly because of it. Also, if I were to do this again I would schedule a little more downtime for myself – a half a day here or there to just catch my breath, catch up on photos and maybe even take a nap. By the end of the trip I was exhausted from all the early mornings (taking pictures), full days and late nights (processing pictures).
One of the main objectives of the trip was to take photos along the way – lots of them – and work on improving my photography. I cringe whenever asked “So, what do you like to shoot?” mostly because I’m not sure of the answer. I can say “landscapes” would not be the first thing that came to mind. Not because I don’t like shooting landscapes, I just don’t shoot them that often. I knew there would be a heavy emphasis on landscape photography during this trip, and looked forward to getting outside my comfort zone and trying something new. For all you photo nerds out there, here’s what I brought with me:
Cameras: Fuji X100, Nikon D700
Lenses: 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 80-200mm
Other: Tripod (w/ball head), cable release, circular polarizers, extra batteries, CF and SD cards, and all that jazz.
I used every last bit of this stuff throughout the trip. I was really happy with my tripod (although there were times I wished it were heavier because of the wind), and used it to get shots I would not otherwise have been able to take. Same goes for the cable release, which I used extensively in Antelope Canyon. The cable release was absolutely necessary in places where I couldn’t wait on the self-timer to get the shot.
As far as lens selection goes, I would definitely have benefitted from having a “normal” zoom with me. I know I recently spouted off on the benefits of prime lenses, and I still love them to pieces, but it would have been nice to not have to change lenses in the field as much as I did. As it turns out, I had a bunch of issues with dirt on my sensor and had to get some sensor cleaning supplies in Sedona to properly address it. If I had had a 24-70mm lens, especially in a place like Monument Valley, I would have changed lenses MUCH less often than I did and had a lot less dirt on my sensor to deal with. While I brought and used all of these lenses, the ones I used most often were the 24mm, 50mm and 80-200mm.
There was one particular item I brought along that I would like to highlight. Before the trip I agonized about finding a good backpack for hiking with my camera equipment as well as water, food, a first aid kit and everything else I might need out on the trail. In the end I spent $10 on these from Optech USA and used them on a backpack I already owned. They were AWESOME, transferring the weight of my big, heavy DSLR from my neck to my backpack straps. Whenever I wanted to take a photo my camera was right there in front of me, ready to go. I used them extensively throughout the Grand Canyon, and I’m not sure what I would have done without them. Sure, you have to remember to unclip them to take your pack off, but these worked so well, I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Keeping myself entertained
Do not underestimate my ability to keep myself entertained. I was fairly certain this would not be a problem on this trip. I’m pretty sure I could hang out in a box by myself and still have a good time. Howevah…because I can be content to just hang out with myself, I didn’t expect to meet as many people on the trip as I did. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t make any new BFFs, but I did have some great conversations with interesting people from all over the world.
In Tucumcari I chatted with the owners of the Blue Swallow Motel, former Michiganders who moved out west after purshasing the motel a year earlier. In addition to being friendly, they were incredibly helpful, steering me towards the scenic route to Santa Fe and encouraging me to spend the night there rather than in Albuquerque.
In the Petrified Forest I met a couple from Australia who are trying to visit all of the US National Parks. They’ve been at it since 2007 and have already visited 39 of the 58. By the end of this trip, they will have seen 44 of them.
As the sun was setting over the Glen Canyon Dam in Page, AZ I met a lovely group of Canadians who were headed to Sedona the next day. I bumped into them again in the hotel lobby the next morning and they said they had booked a Pink Jeep tour on my recommendation.
That same morning I shared my breakfast table with a woman who was headed back to her home in Salt Lake City. A snowbird, she had spent the winter in Phoenix and was driving back to Salt Lake with her new service dog, a gorgeous, big-headed golden retriever named Pete.
While taking pictures of the sunset in Monument Valley I bumped into a lovely English woman who said, “Were you at the Grand Canyon a few days ago? I swear I saw you there taking pictures…”
The next day I joined a family of three from LA on a morning tour of Monument Valley and had a blast with them as we rolled through the backcountry, laughing and taking pictures together.
All in all there’s not too much I would change about the trip. Sure, I might make an adjustment here or there, I might add a couple of things to the itinerary if given the time, but I’m really happy with how things turned out. It was awesome to stop reading about everyone else’s journeys and instead hit the road on an adventure of my own. I met some interesting people, saw some amazing sites and even shot a nice photo or two along the way.