Category Archives: Creativity

Cross Country – Parts 3, 4 and 5

In the previous article (parts 1 and 2), we discussed how we planned the driving portion of our cross country road trip, including tools for mapping, weather, and destination selection. In this chapter, we address how we selected and booked lodging and excursions – including how we might have wanted to do things differently, as well as additional tips and tricks we learned.

We also sprinkle in a healthy dose of representative photos, and some tips we used to break up the monotony of nearly 4000 miles of driving.

I will also give you a brief idea how we enjoyed the lodging and events in case you want to follow in our footsteps.

One thing I refrained from doing while gone is posting any updates about WHERE we were to any social media platform. No point letting the bad guys know you are out of town for an extended period of time. Our family did have access to a map of our progress, as well as daily updates about our safety (see part 1 for more)

Quick Reference… There is a Lot Here

The License Plate Game – And the Marriage Refresher

One of the things we did was the “license plate game”. Surprisingly we spotted 46 of the 51 possible US license plates. The plates we did not spot were Hawaii (no surprise there), Washington DC, South Dakota, Vermont, Connecticut, West Virginia, Kentucky and Rhode Island. We might have actually seen some of those, but many folks had license plate frames that covered up key things like state names. We were really surprised to not see Kentucky since we drove quite near the border. We did spot a smattering of car carriers, two of which were heavily laden with tags from a variety of states… but none proved to be new ūüôĀ

There is a real tangible benefit to spending many hours with your spouse, too. While a fair amount of the time was spent listening to music and programs in the car, we got a good chance to talk and spend quantity and quality time together.

One of the other things we did was to keep a look out for “Welcome Signs” and stopped to photograph them (where it was safe to do so). In retrospect, I wish we had stopped to photograph more signs and oddities that we encountered. For example in Virginia we crossed “Stinking River“, “Pole Cat Creek”, “Consternation Creek” and many other oddly named places and signs. For example, we were less than two miles away from Toad Suck, Arkansas while traveling down I40. Cookietown, OK was pretty far off the road, so although I am a recovering cookie monster I did not stop there.

Lodging and Excursions – Booking Tips

As I noted in the previous article, I wish I had done at the beginning what I did later in the booking process… that is to sign up for one or two hotel chain perks and stick to those hotels where possible. There are a number of reasons why, savings is just one of them. We stayed at several different chains and independent hotels, including Hilton Brands: Hampton Inn, Home2 Suites, Tru; IHG: Holiday Inn Express and Suites; Aramark: Lake Powell Resort (two nights); Mauger Estates Bed and Breakfast (Albuquerque – two nights); Pelican Inn (Cambria – two nights). One side benefit of avoiding staying in big cities is that the rates at most of the Hilton properties, for example, were less than $120 per night – tax included. Hands down the best places we stayed were at the Home2 Suites in Farmington, New Mexico. Good property, service, location and ambiance. Having an available ice machine, mini fridge (with freezer) and in-room Keurig was a plus. Two criteria I used to book rooms included: free breakfast (one less thing to worry about), and free in-room wifi.

Book Through the Property Unless You Get a Stellar Discount

Something else I learned from my trip: if you book directly you are more likely to get concessions and discounts (and fare changes). When you book through a third party like Travelocity or Booking.com, the front desk has less power – and less incentive – to make any changes in your booking. It is also true that third party bookings sometimes offer only the less desirable rooms: why face the road in Lake Powell Resorts when the lake is a much nicer view! Indeed, you would probably prefer buildings 4, or 5 as they have the better views. 1, 2 and 3 all overlook a huge boat ramp. Not a bad view, just not ideal.

Expect Some Disappointments

There were some disappointments, of course. Tru – a new Hilton property in Amarillo, TX tries to behave like a Eurostyle hotel – with small rooms, and few in-room conveniences. And check-in took forever there. There was a Hilton Home 2 suites less than 1/2 a mile away… and I am sure it would have been a more pleasant stay. We did enjoy the trivia board in the Tru. Did you know Amarillo, Texas is the windiest city in the Continental United States (sorry, Chicago). Of course it depends how you measure, but indeed, some articles support the conclusion.

Lake Powell Resort and Marina, Page, Arizona (great view from the Driftwood Lounge)

Aramark, is the concessionaire for Yosemite National Park, and Lake Powell Resort. Unfortunately they do a poor job managing a very nice property at Lake Powell Resorts. Problems included no working wifi in our building (and it apparently had been non-working for months)… in lobby was little better. While we had no trouble checking in a little early in every other place, Lake Powell Resorts proved to be the exception. Not only was the food service painfully slow (as we passed time waiting to get a room), but during their peak check-in time they had one front desk operator for the busy period. Mind you Lake Powell has about 800 rooms. The room was clean and in good order, and well located… but the problems made it feel less like a resort and more like a chore to stay there.

By the way, Aramark has several claims to fame, servicing vending machines and uniforms are two of them as well as serving food in correctional facilities… but, I digress.

Photography and Night Photography Considerations

The photography portion of the trip. Click Here for a larger view.

Enroute to White Sands (map item 11) through Texas, and Amarillo, Texas. In particular we passed through Roswell, New Mexico (8). You get a fun vibe in Roswell, and there are even some interesting museums – but we only stopped for a snack and a few photos of the quirky signs.

White Sands National Monument

The first photography stop was not until Alamogordo, New Mexico (map item 12) with the nearby White Sands National Monument (11).

And it was only one night. A lucky night as it would happen. By way of reminder, I do use Weather.gov to check the weather forecast before photographing at night. But White Sands proved a bit more complicated. White Sands is in/part of and next to the Holloman Air Force Base as well as the White Sands Missile Test range. White Sands is NOT a National Park. In essence that means it has “operating hours” and is not open at night.

To get in to White Sands NM for night photography you have five choices:

  1. Get a back country permit, and camp at least 1 mile away from the road. If you do that you are locked in for the night, and MAY have restrictions on where you can go.
  2. Call in advance and arrange – for a fee – for a ranger to allow you to come early or stay late. The details required to do this are not clear, but it will not be effective if you want to shoot the rising Milky Way at say 2:00 AM. Shoulder times to normal opening and closing are doable, but must be done weeks in advance – not at the moment you walk in the Visitor Center. I learned about this option through a friend the day before I got to White Sands, so it was not an option for me.
  3. Try sneaking in. HIGHLY, HIGHLY, HIGHLY suggest you DO NOT do that! First there are two sets of locked gates. Second, because of where the National Monument is, you can bet that there are remote monitoring devices, and trespassing is likely to get you in a HEAP of trouble. I never would consider this, but I know some people think “it is cool as long as you do not get caught”.
  4. Join one of the evening programs. They do not run very late or very often, however, so you may not find it suitable for the same reason as option 2.
  5. Leave your camera out at night all by its lonesome and come back and pick it up first thing in the morning. THIS ONE! Note however, that the ranger informed me that anything suspicious that is discovered during the night is likely to be confiscated and removed. Therefore do not set up next to a road or within easy sight of a road or major path. Also, tape over anything that may flash or glow. You do not want to attract attention.
El Paso, We Have A Problem

Obviously I chose option 5. However I got to my location rather late in the day, so did not have a lot of time to scout an ideal location. Originally I planned two days here so that I could scout the first day, as well as have a second chance at night photography if the weather was a problem. It also meant on the first evening I could have determined how bad the light pollution is and made a wiser foreground choice for the second night. But this is also where talking to the rangers comes in handy, especially if you find one who likes night photography. Ranger Jason gave me advice to shoot low, behind a dune in order to block out the light pollution from El Paso. He also suggested where I might go – a place that is not off limits, but the parking lot was roped off so people assume it was off limits. Obviously I was not low enough!

Do understand that you will have to deal with the fear that your equipment may be confiscated, stolen, or buried in a sandstorm (or that you will forget where you put it!). I highly recommend using a trail app, GPS or dropping a pin on your phone where you put your camera. In fact, I kill two birds by also using the camera on my cell phone with the location information left intact.

Tip: In the desert, clouds often dissipate at or after sunset. The forecast for my night of shooting indicated 50% cloud cover until about midnight, but I set the timer to start at about 11:00 PM and discovered it was completely clear (less the El Paso haze, that is).

Not All is Photography … Albuquerque has Plenty To Do

I traveled with my wife, so relentless photography just was not in the cards – nor did I want it to be. We spent two nights in Albuquerque (16, often called ABQ or Burque by the locals) at the Mauger Estates Bed and Breakfast. We also took the Sandia Tramway (18) to the top of Sandia Mountain. Sandia is Spanish for Watermelon, something the mountain tends to look like in the colors of sunset. The entirety of ABQ, by the way is more than a mile elevation above sea level. Take that Denver!

Almost all year round you can book sunrise balloon flights. So that is what we did. Rainbow Ryders did a fantastic job with the balloon flight, well organized and skilled pilot. It was a bucket list (ok, BASKET list) item that I am grateful to have engaged in. We were told landing can be jarring, but ours was as gentle as stepping off a curb. And we landed in a median of a quiet residential neighborhood in the vicinity of where the pilot lives.

And there is much to see elsewhere in ABQ – including Old Town. There is also a Rail Runner train that will take you to Santa Fe for cheap. Unfortunately it runs on a very limited schedule on the weekend – which, of course is when we were in ABQ. That, and the day we planned to go to Santa Fe there was a severe thunderstorm warning in effect. The train station in ABQ is next to the Galleria downtown which appears to be a large failed shopping mall – mentioning that in case you are thinking of going shopping there (which was our plan B when realized the train was not running).

Bisti Badlands – De Na Zin Wilderness

I wish I had a good story about Bisti Badlands (map item 20) in De-Na-Zin Wilderness (Bureau of Land Management). Chaco Culture Center and other interesting locations are nearby. Bisti from the Navajo word Bistah√≠ means “among the adobe formations. Bisti Badlands is about 40 miles south of Farmington, New Mexico. I had high hopes for this location based on many photos and the Wiki write up, but … well it did not work out as I hoped. In the same area, apparently is Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness – but is more remote and a Lexus sedan is not the best thing to take on such backroads. There are many trail recordings with photos of Bisti in AllTrails. Unfortunately its not easy to use AllTrails to hike to a SPECIFIC location.

Here are some of my experiences and advice:

  1. It is at least a mile and a half hike in to see anything interesting.
  2. Go early,or in a cool season and take plenty of water. I thought my wife might face heat stroke because the 94F temperature and lack of any shade was overwhelming her. She nicknamed the location: Beastly Badlands.
  3. 7290 is a gravel road. It was in good shape, but you probably want to approach from the west via 371 and 7297. 7290 was closed heading north just past the Bisti Badlands parking area – so despite it appearing to connect you cannot come in from the north or continue through heading north. That may be a temporary condition.
  4. There is a Bisti Wings formation that I really wanted to see and set up for night photography, but it is on the northern end of 7290 – perhaps 7293 from 371 (marked by Bistahi First United Methodist Church sign) is the way to go.
  5. Use a tool like AllTrails (e.g. a GPS on your phone with a pre-downloaded map) to plan where you want to visit. You can wander around for hours and find very little of interest.

Fortunately after we left Lake Powell (described soon), we did some hiking at the Toadstool Hoodoos – it is a shorter and more rewarding trail. After spending the night in Farmington, NM, we had a tight schedule to get to Monument Valley in time, but there was enough time to stop in Four Corners (23) where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado all meet. Interestingly each of the different kiosks surrounding the landmark charge different state tax depending on the state they are in. In Bluff, there was also the interesting stop, restaurant and vista of the Twin Rocks.

Monument Valley

There is a lot more in the area than Monument Valley. On the way there we passed through Valley of the Gods (26) and stopped at Goosenecks State Park (28). There is a great confluence of interesting geography. And there is still more in the area, including the singular Mexican Hat formation for which the town of Mexican Hat (28) is named. Valley of the Gods, Utah is similar to Monument Valley (30) in its expansiveness, but I do not recommend it for a touring sedan. A high clearance vehicle is a better fit for the environment both in Valley of the Gods, and in Monument Valley.

Hands down the best thing I did in Monument Valley – perhaps the whole trip – was to connect with Phillips Photography Tours for an overnight trip to Hunts Mesa. Phillips supplied the tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, vehicle, driving, dinner, breakfast, and guide. If you told me that I was going to be driven for about 5 and a half hours over rugged terrain, I would have guessed the price would be high. Throw in a dinner, a breakfast, camping equipment, and a very great guide named Tully to be the leader, driver and chef and I would not have believed they charge as little for the tour as they did. Indeed, I feel like a 40% tip would not have been too much. In my particular case it was just Tully and me though you may have as many as 3 other photographers with you. Want a clue what the driving was like…

Descending Hunts Mesa

Not only did I get to go to breathtakingly beautiful places, but I learned a lot from Tully, including quite a bit about the Navajo way of life, and even a bit of Navajo language.

If you know my wife, you probably guessed that camping out was not high on her do it list. So for her, a night in Gouldings Lodge (29) was arranged. The onsite restaurant at Gouldings was quite good. I had the Mini Navajo Taco for my pre-trip meal. It was delicious and far, far from mini. Because I had also arranged a tour for the morning following our all-nighter, Tully dropped me off at Gouldings giving me a chance to shower before my wife and I arrived at the View for a 1.5 hour Fords Point Tour. I would go back in a heartbeat. Not only was the experience fantastic, but there is so much photography and night photography potential here that remains undone.

Page Arizona, Lake Powell and Vicinity + Rainbow Bridge

If you have not visited Page, Arizona (36), you have not really lived. Truly. There is so much that is visually compelling in the area, that it is hard to even start. I have already stated my misgivings about Lake Powell Resort (37), but I would STILL go back. And I highly recommend a boat tour to Rainbow Bridge – an immense natural bridge that spans a wash in Lake Powell. Not far from Page are many other impressive sites.

(Upper and) Lower Antelope Slot Canyon

Rocky Mountain Sunrise

If you have not heard of Antelope Slot canyon on Navajo Tribal lands, where have you been? There are many slot canyons in the area. They are formed when monsoonal rain carves a deep gash in the earth as it makes its way downhill. Lake Powell itself can be described as one HUGE slot canyon. To my eye, Lake Powell and the surrounding canyons – like Horseshoe Bend (36) – are more appealing and interesting than the Grand Canyon. Now that I have been to both the Upper (upstream) and Lower Antelope slot canyons (34), I can say conclusively that the lower canyon which requires stairs, ladders and some maneuvering to keep from whacking your head and limbs, is overall more interesting photographically. Lower Antelope ranges in depth from inches (where you emerge) to up to 70 feet down. The range in depth is what adds to the rich tonality of color you can achieve. Plus the Lower Antelope has some striking features including an overhang (see photo above), and even some arches/windows.

We used Dixie Ellis tours (34) for our excursion. Ala was our guide and while she had not been at it even a year, she was very informative and really knew where some of the most compelling photographs can be found. Her demonstration of how slot canyons form using sand and a bottle of water was interesting and illuminating.

If you wondering can you photograph the canyons at night… the answer is yes, there are a few tours. I was originally salivating over the idea but then realized that there are lots of constraints that may make the effort not worth the trouble or expense. One of the limitations is that you would have to work well with others to get the canyon lit for the foreground. Experience teaching Night Photography workshops has taught me that it is usually best if the instructors light the scene unless there are many different directions and things to shoot – otherwise people get testy about shots being ruined by stray light. The next constraint is the length of the tour… want to line the Milky Way up overhead? It is not very likely that will work for a tour that is not all night (and may not be possible at all). Indeed, the one night tour I nearly booked (link above) started 2 hours after sunset and lasted for 2 hours. You would have to know that will work for what you want. At least you can use Google maps satellite view to realize that the canyon(s) run almost due North-South.

Toadstool Hoodoos (East of Kanab, UT)

As I mentioned, Bisti Badlands was a bit of a disappointment, no doubt in part due to lack of effort on our part, but also because there was not any quick payoff. The Toadstool Hoodoos (41) was a much more approachable hike than and the sixteen mile hike to the Wahweep Hoodoos – something also on my list of places to go. However unlike Bisti, the less than a mile hike to the Toadstool Hoodoos is immediately more striking. Do not neglect hanging a left at the back and seeing the striking white gypsum hoodoos.

After the Toadstool Hoodoos, we ran into heavy road construction so we dropped Coral Pink Sand Dunes from our route in the hope of getting into Valley of Fire State Park before it closed. But, we had less than an hour before Valley of Fire closed, so we called it an early evening at the North Shore Inn, in Overton.

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

One of the last places I had set aside to visit was the Valley of Fire State Park, in Nevada. It is 14 minutes from the town of Overton which has about exactly one place to stay, but Valley of Fire is also about an hour drive from Las Vegas. As you might guess, it was also hot in the Valley of Fire. By the time we arrived a little after 9:30 AM on June 6, it was already 89 degrees. I had done my homework, of course, and though I wanted to see it all the reality is that the heat of the day was going to interfere and we were not going to stay overnight. You can stay overnight – with a camping permit. However night photography requires not just a camping permit, but also a separate photography permit, and insurance. I have no idea if – or how – campers can brave the 100F heat that is common in the late spring to early fall, but I knew from Bisti and Toadstool Hoodoos, that an extended hike was not in the cards. The compromise was to drive to all of the vistas I had pre-checked out from sources such as AllTrails, Atlas Obscura

I did elect to hike to the Fire Wave said to be the more accessible version of the famous The Wave in Paria Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona. I have tried 4 times to get a spot in The Wave lottery, all failures. No lottery is required to reach Fire Wave, just the State Park entry fee. Apparently White Pocket in Vermillion Cliffs, has a similarly attractive swirling sandwich effect, but it requires some off road driving.

Those familiar with my favorite place: Alabama Hills, will find Valley of Fire nearly as interesting. Valley of Fire, has many more windows and arches. Valley of Fire also feels more vertical. And while overall, Valley of Fire is very red (and thus its name), there are areas with lots of interesting color variations.

I made an unfortunate decision during my hike that resulted in nearly getting heat exhaustion. My wife was parked in the car, shaded as much as possible at the trail head. I noticed, however that the 0.7 mile well marked Fire Wave Trail, connects to not well marked Seven Wonders trail, and the latter trail intersects the road about 0.7 miles farther. As I set out thinking about taking the short cut to the road rather than hiking back uphill, I had a good cell signal. Unfortunately, once I got near the end of the Seven Wonders trail, I discovered I had no signal, and had to hike back up the road to get to the Fire Wave trail head parking place. About halfway back I had enough signal to ask to be picked up. I did not save myself any exertion in the heat! However I would recommend that plan if you can be shuttled to the start location and picked up at the bottom. I recommend it for TWO reasons, one is obvious: you see more. And more to the point, part of the Seven Wonders trail is – as you see in the photo – a shallow, multicolored slot canyon.

One other mistake I made was not getting gas in Overton before heading to Valley of Fire. As we were leaving Valley of Fire, the projected distance remaining was 24 miles. Luckily, the first gas station was two miles short of that distance!

Lessons Learned

This article has grown longer than I wanted it to be, but splitting it into more parts was not appealing. One of the things I am glad we did not do is book nights in Las Vegas. There are certainly attractions and places to visit, but by the time we had reached Overton, we decided to bolt to the coast to escape the daily 100F heat and get some wave therapy – as my wife calls it.

Sometimes you just need a cool sea breeze and the sound of the waves to rejuvenate you after a lot of driving and heat. We stopped at the Pelican Inn, Moonstone Beach, Cambria, California for a few nights of bliss.

Fortunately most of the other prominent issues I faced I have already covered… except one that really fried my turkey: Drone woes.

Drone Haters – Everywhere

Everyone, everywhere, seems to hate drones. Almost everywhere I brought my drone, there was a prominent sign forbidding it. All National Parks and Monuments, for example forbid flying a drone without a special permit – ditto for the Nevada and Utah state parks that I visited. Mind you before I left, I had big plans to survey some of these locations by air rather than solely on foot. I probably would have found better vistas in Bisti had I flown, but the day I brought the drone to Bisti it was gusty. Later I took the drone out at Toadstool Hoodoos, and was really unhappy to have it tell me mandatory controller update required and refused to fly without the update. There was barely enough signal for it to determine an update was needed and nowhere near enough signal to download an update out in the hot open sun. The warning was despite having very carefully checked to make sure everything was in flying order before leaving on my trip. I can not imagine what was so important that it would not let me fly. But DJI (makers of the Mavic Air), you made me unhappy! I had hoped to capture videos like one in Trona, or one in Red Rock Canyon State Park.

Disclaimer

First, any and all of the places I wrote about in this two part article present risks of various kinds. Conditions change, and poor preparation on your part could result in loss of property, injury or even death. This is an anti disclaimer as well. No one has asked me to write about any of the tours, companies, lodging or locations, nor have I been paid in any direct or indirect way. If I have praised (or berated) a place, people or company, it is genuine and based on my personal experiences. We always do things that way here at Star Circle Academy, but we thought you might want a reminder.

Happy Trails to You, and please feel free to comment about what we missed, or if you would like clarification.

Cross Country – Things Learned Driving East to West (Parts 1 and 2)

Last revised 6/14/2019

San Jose to East Coast by plane and then driving back over 15 days

If you already read this and are looking for the rest of the article (parts 3, 4 and 5)… Look HERE.

Steven’s father passed away last December and the family decided to hold a memorial in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia on Memorial Day weekend. Seemed entirely appropriate as that is when all of dads cross-country scattered kin could convene… that and dad also served in the Army during the Korean War era. What I hope to illuminate in this article are some of the considerations to consider to take a multi-day or longer car trip. In this case, we flew to Roanoke Virginia via Chicago (the upper line) and then drove my fathers car back from Smith Mountain Lake through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and finally California.

I’ve divided the discussion into the following sections:

  1. Trip Planning Tools (Excel and Google Maps proved to be the most useful)
  2. Supplies and Provisions
  3. Booking Lodging and Excursions
  4. Photography and Night Photography Considerations
  5. Lessons Learned (What went wrong, what went right)

Trip Planning – Google Maps + My Scenic Drives + Excel

The way I started was simple: fire up google maps, enter my beginning city, added known stops (arranged east to west) and see what happened. To travel directly from Moneta, Virginia (Smith Mountain Lake) to San Jose mapped out as 40 hours of driving over 2722 miles. Since our actual mileage was 3982, clearly we did not take the “straight path” which would have been I40 nearly the whole way. One of the limitations with Google Maps is that you can have a maximum of 10 stops – unless you’re willing to do strange unnatural acts (or create your own map). But the key here was to see what the total distance was. Next I looked at breaking the trip up into digestible bits. The goal was to NOT drive more than 8 hours total in a day. And more significantly, to not be “on the road” more than about 10 hours including stops for sightseeing meals and potty breaks. Google maps was a bit unwieldy as I added more destinations and re-routed the segments to include driving to and through places of interest. One of the nice side benefits of using Google Maps, though, is that I could pull up the map on my laptop and send it to my phone directly. The phone then served as our GPS since the 12 year old navigation system in the car was clearly out of date.

One tool that I spent a lot of time on, and certainly helped was “My Scenic Drives“. The interface is a little clunky but My Scenic Drives can automatically divide up your driving based on time, but its method is not ideal. Indeed, the best use of My Scenic Drives was to “Find Nearby Attractions”. That proved to be it’s forte. “Avenue of the Ancients?” Why yes, thank you. “Valley of the Gods?” OF COURSE!, Chaco Culture, Mesa Verde, Bisti Badlands…. nearly all of these were suggested when searching in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. At one point I had at least 70 items “on the map” as potentials, and I paired it back to a mere 50. Reality eventually set it and I paired it back much further.

My Scenic Drives was quite useful for finding places of interest near or on the route.

I had a core list of must go places which included White Sands, NM; Monument Valley, UT; Lake Powell, AZ/UT; Lower Antelope Slot Canyons, Page, AZ; Toadstool Hoodoos, Kanab, UT; Valley of Fire State Park, NV. To that list there was a long list of LIKE-to-GOs that included Chaco Culture, Avenue of the Ancients, Mesa Verde, and many more. Since my wife traveled with me, it was also important to include stops and destinations that were of interest to her as well.

El Paso, We Have A Problem

Ultimately the reality of the distances, vehicle choice and time constraints dictated what stayed in and what fell out of the plan. And THEN it got even tougher… Scheduling it on some days required to-the-HOUR timing. To be clear, not every day needed to-the-hour scheduling, but 2 of the 14 did… and that’s when I turned to creating an Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet helped in a number of ways: accumulating miles (and thus predicting fuel costs and tracking lodging costs), accumulating time, and also keeping a record of addresses, reservation numbers and status… and more. The reality of one of the days made me realize that from Farmington, NM to Monument Valley, AZ, it was just not possible to go through Avenue of the Ancients AND Valley of the Gods as well. The reason: I had booked an overnight photography tour of Monument Valley and HAD to be at the View Hotel in Monument Valley by 2:30 PM or the photo tour was in jeopardy. It worked out just fine, however, as the Mrs. wanted to visit Four Corners, so we timed our Farmington, NM departure to arrive around opening time at Four Corners (a Navajo nation stop) and then budgeted time at the additional stops. Fortunately we ended up about an hour ahead of schedule on that day, and were able to take a brief detour into Valley of the Gods.

To accommodate our desired focus points, we elected to “force march” from Raleigh, NC to Amarillo, TX with no sightseeing except for one lunch stop in Omni Oak Grove in in Asheville.

Oak Grove Inn View, Asheville, NC

That’s nearly 2/3 of the total east-west distance, and we did it in three LONG days (each less than 8.5 hours of driving, however). I micro managed the stops. The locations I picked for lodging initially were Knoxville, TN, Little Rock, AR; and Amarillo, TX. But the Little Rock to Amarillo drive was almost 9 hours, and the Knoxville to Little Rock was similarly long. There was also the matter of potential rush hour traffic, so the plan changed to drive 40 miles farther west on the first day (Harriman, TN), and about 20 miles farther west the next day (Maumelle, AR instead of Little Rock). That evened out the driving a bit more and got us away from major cities during rush hour. Mind you I still had to find cities with decent lodging. While I might be willing to stay alone in a flea bag hotel for a night, that wouldn’t fly with the Mrs. Choosing better lodging made the trip better overall, anyway!

One thing I highly recommend doing is making sure to add in an extra day or two here and there for two reasons: one is to have a cushion in case you run into delays, or find places more interesting than you expected, and the second is perhaps obvious: rest is good! No sense hauling your luggage into and out of the car twice a day every day. We elected to stay two days in Albuquerque, NM; and three days on the Pacific Coast of California – the latter came about because Las Vegas was just TOO hot to stop, and we needed some cooler “wave time”.

What I wish I had done was to pick the same “chain” of hotels as much as possible. But my strategy of not booking everything in advance proved helpful for changing plans as needed. See the Booking Lodging and Excursions (part 3) for the rationale behind each.

Maps Can Lie – BEWARE!

One last comment about using any mapping software (Google Maps, for example), is to inspect the path carefully. I’ve seen mapping software make bone-headed decisions. On the planning for this trip, for example, it routed us over about 50 miles of dirt-road driving until I forced it to pick a different route by adding intermediate destinations. Once in California, the mapping software assumed that the East Pinnacles National Park and West Pinnacles National park were connected by a road – but they AREN’T. The best you could have done is carry your car about 3 miles over a foot path… And of course there are many examples where people have relied on outdated maps of places like Death Valley and ended up in a heap of hurt.

Supplies and Provisions

Because we were flying from the West Coast to the East Coast, we couldn’t possibly take all the provisions we would want on the plane. Some of the things that just were impractical to take included:

  • A cooler for drinks (plus snacks and ice)
  • A tow strap (in case we got stuck in sand or mud somewhere)
  • Bits of carpet for traction
  • Jump Start cables & jump start battery
  • Keurig Cartridges
  • Supplies, blanket / pillow
  • Gallon or more of water
  • Quart of the proper oil
  • Gallon of Bug / Windshield cleaner

And despite my normal camera-bag-full of equpiment (2 cameras, lenses, two tripods, etc), I elected to take ONE camera – the Nikon D600 – and ONE lens (24mm manual focus), and one tripod. I also took my Mavic Drone, but was only able to use it once… most locations prohibited drones, the wind was excessive in other locations, and a complication with the software made it impossible to use in one area that I wanted to use it… more on that in the Photography and Night Photography Considerations chapter.

My father’s car is an older model Lexus and so it wouldn’t be suitable for going down the bumpy off road areas where I might take an AWD high clearance vehicle like my Subaru. I also knew that some of the destinations included driving on unpaved roads. Indeed, some of the destinations that we removed from our itinerary were removed because of the off-road driving required. Since we clearly couldn’t take all needed provisions on the plane with us, and it was not clear that we would be able to acquire all that we desired, I used Amazon to order and have shipped to my father’s house the hard-to-find supplies that I needed. We figured we could pick up a cooler, snacks and drinks, water, oil and windshield cleaner along the way. Indeed, after we noticed that the first two lodgings had in-room Keurig machines, we bought Chai and Pete’s coffee cartridges. I am a Chai drinker, and my wife is a coffee snob. Only about 40% of the places we stayed had such machines, but when they had them, it meant we could enjoy our normal morning and evening beverages.

In Case of Emergency

For our peace of mind, I purchased and activated a plan on a Garmin InReach mini. I had the device shipped to my home before we left so that I could make sure it worked, and the service was active. The Inreach mini is a portable satellite communication device that can be used to track your location –

Emergency Communication and tracking

indeed that device supplied the tracking information for the map presented at the top. One of the plans allows you to track your location every 10 minutes – you can see I turned on tracking somewhere over Nevada on our flight out. The mini can also be used like the SPOT emergency location device to send 3 different canned messages to pre-canned destinations. The mini is about twice the cost, but it’s bi-directional. The messages I chose were: All is well, just checking in when arriving at lodging for the night; Look what I found to mark a particularly interesting place for posterity; and Delayed, or rerouted to indicate we were fine, but not going to arrive as planned. The device also allows an SOS to be sent, and you can then communicate by text with the emergency personnel to indicate what your needs are, and they can text you to indicate their status. Fortunately we had no need of sending an SOS, but there were many areas where we had little and NO cell coverage on either Verizon or ATT (my wife and I have different plans on purpose), so the peace of mind was worth the about $50 of service… and no doubt I’ll use the $300 device in the future.

Enroute Planning

Strorms Ahead. (Actually the blue is from shooting through the screen in the top of the windshield ;-), but it did dump a heap of rain and hail on us just a bit father down the road in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t enough, of course, to merely plot out the path. We also had to be mindful of the weather and road conditions. I’ve written extensively about how I >> plan for weather << so visit that link to learn how I use Weather.gov to be aware of what is going on. On this particular trip, we drove through the middle of the country prior to and during tornado and flooding events. Without the maps, we might have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As it was, a tornado struck 1 mile away from our path two days prior to arriving (El Reno, Oklahoma) and major flooding was experienced in Little Rock and Fort Smith, AK the days of and following our trip segments there. Amarillo, TX and Roswell, NM were also hit with violent thunderstorms, and we used the forecast to refrain from heading up into Santa Fe, NM due to severe storm warnings. One Android tool I picked up and used was the NOAA Radar app. That offered alerts about nearby events – it was worth one month of subscription at $3 just to get those!

One of the other things that I discovered, but wasn’t aware of is that Google Maps in addition to notifications of slowdowns and road construction also has notifications about speed (radar) traps. We weren’t speeding anywhere, but the heads up certainly came in handy in case we decided to “blow the doors off a slowpoke driver” at an inopportune time.

Keeping Cool

Sugar free beverage + excellent “ice bottle”

We did acquire a decent cooler, small enough to fit in the backseat, but with a velcro latch so that it would be easy to open while underway. It had to be spacious enough to hold a half dozen drinks, ice AND chocolate. Since it was quite hot during our trip, even a short stint with the A/C off would result in a choco melt-down. I employed a trick I often use when hiking. After finishing an Ice beverage (sparkling sweetened drink), I rinsed it and refilled it with tap water. In lodgings that had a freezer component of the mini fridge, I put the refilled bottles in the freezer. Those frozen bottles then served as ice, and in a pinch, cold drinking water on some of our hot hikes. Do not try this with your average bottled water, however, they are too thin and flimsy to stand up to freezing.

It is also a good idea to buy a one or two gallon bottle of water that you can use for drinking (when the tap water is sketchy), and as an emergency source of coolant should your car need it.

See The Rest of the Article!

>>> Click here for parts 3, 4, and 5 along with many photos! You’re also welcome to use my excel planning sheet for yourself. The sheet contains links to the maps I used (divided into daily segments), a TODO list, as well as a heap of web references I used to select the events and locations I visited.

Sky Drift

Stacking: the Overloaded Word That Needs Explanation

The current rage of “stacked Milky Way” (or night sky) captures is quite different from the star trail or timestacks style of captures. Huh? The words stack and stacking are overloaded with many different meanings. Let’s see if we can add some precision and clarification.

Here are some of the variations possible:

  • Auto Blend Layers with Stacking: Used for macro/focus stacking, HDR, and generic image blending – NOT for astro images!
  • Lighten Mode Stacking: Creating Star Trails!
  • Statistics Mode Blending (Stacking): Can perform the same operation as Lighten Mode Stacking when the option “Maximum” is used, however Statistics are heavy weight and more complicated to do in our opinion.
  • Align and Stack: Deep sky astrophotography using several images taken one after another as quickly as possible. Photoshop doesn’t do this well, but we describe how in the next section. Align¬†is the distinguishing word here.
  • Tracked Stacked Images: For still astrophotography images with less noise and greater detail. A device is required that tracks the sky rotation – the word tracked is the key here.

    Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Bridge¬†“Stacking”

  • Group into Stack:¬† Not stacking at all! It really just means “create a group”.

The above is NOT an exhaustive list of the kinds of stacking you may hear about!

Stacking Types Explained

Group into Stack

Let’s start with the easy one: Stacking may mean add to group.¬†In Lightroom and Adobe Bridge you can pick several photos and the options¬† Stacking -> Group into Stack. Or pick several photos and either Photo Merge to HDR or Panorama with the “Create Stack” option checked. In this context, Stacking¬†and Stack just means group.¬† Unfortunately a photo can only appear in one stack, and you cannot stack photos from different folders together.

Why would you want a photo to appear in two (or more) stacks groups? Here is an example where I used a single top shot and created two different panoramas.

Panoramas 1 and 2 were both created using image 3 (608095.NEF) but when panorama 2 was created, image 3 was removed from the stack (group) for 1 and added to the stack (group) with 2. Furthermore, you can see that the panorama and the two photos used to create it were all added into the group (notice the last image says 3 of 3).

Blend Layers using Lighten Mode

Stacking may mean blend photos in lighten or darken blend mode – examples are star trails and timestacks. In this usage, the lightest (or darkest) of all the pixels in each image is selected. This is the kind of stacking that AdvancedStacker Plus does. Below is an example of taking several images that we collected over time with long delays between each exposure causing the “dotted” appearance of the star trail.

Several layers of images taken at intervals all set to blend mode “Lighten”

Align and Blend Stacking

Stacking can ALSO mean¬†ALIGN and blend images with median, mean (aka average) or more sophisticated algorithms. Indeed astroimagers have been doing this style of blending for years using techniques that involve “star registration” (aligning stars with stars) and some pretty fancy stacking algorithms like Alpha-Kappa Median Clipping and Entropy Weighted Average. The key point here is the alignment. Indeed, here at StarCircleAcademy, we’ve explained how you can brighten and reduce noise in your foreground using simple astrophotography processing techniques.¬† See below for how to accomplish Align and Blend Stacking in Photoshop, and plenty of warnings about why this method is very likely to FAIL using Photoshop as the tool.

You may also see references to tracked, stacked images. These are the same as “align and blend” just described, except that to capture the image, the camera is guided by an external device (or by some fancy internal hardware), to allow longer exposures of the stars without getting unintentional trailing (smears) of stars.

The takeaway is that not all stacking is created equal. You need to know the context to understand what is meant by the word: stacking.

Focus Stacking / Auto Blend Layers

In Photoshop there is Edit -> Auto-Blend Layers -> Stack Images this is yet another kind of stacking (focus stacking) and despite the wording is NOT the kind of operation needed to ALIGN and Blend astro images. If you don’t believe us, give it a try and you’ll see it will do very weird things with your layers. Below are the same images as earlier. Note the bizarre masks it created to do the blending.

Edit -> Auto-Blend Layers -> Stack Images makes a mess. We told you so! Click to see a bigger image.


Aligned, Stacked Starry Landscape Images

While it would probably be better to make this a separate article in itself, we found it painful enough that we don’t recommend bothering – and yet we proceed to explain HOW to do it anyway!

If you want the cleanest possible images, you’ll – of course – want to reduce the overall noise¬† and bring out details by using many images instead of one. This approach is not all puppies and kittens. Here are some of the pitfalls:

  1. The direction of sky movement relative to the ground has a significant influence on the quality of the result (as well as the order chosen for alignment). In general, setting constellations are better than rising ones.
  2. Most of the existing tutorials will assume that you have a recent (CC) version of Photoshop with statistics and an an “Auto Align” that properly manages masked regions.
  3. Some of the tutorials we’ve observed are more cumbersome than they need be. There are plenty of hotkeys and mouse shortcuts to make the process go pretty quickly.
  4. More than 10 or so images can become quite demanding on machine resources.
  5. The complexity of your foreground will also affect the outcome. A clean, crisp separation between sky and land is preferable. Trees, poles, wires, and other things that extend through the sky are problematic.
  6. Lens distortion can also adversely affect the outcome.

Aligned Stacking Procedure

  1. Load all the photos as layers in Photoshop.
  2. Heal out airplane and satellite trails from each layer.
  3. Select all the layers and add to a group named “Sky
  4. Right click the Sky Group and duplicate the whole group as “Foreground”
  5. Select all the layers in Foreground.  Use Layer -> Smart Object -> Convert to Smart Object.
  6. Select Layer -> Smart Object -> Stack Mode -> Mean
  7. Duplicate Mean using Ctl-Alt-Shift-E (Command-Option-Shift-E on MAC). Label the newly created layer “Mean” and turn it off.
  8. Select all layers in Sky. Set blend mode to “Lighten” and observe the direction of star movement against the ground.
  9. Be sure the image with stars nearest the ground is at the BOTTOM of the stack. The bottom layer will be your base for alignment. You can drag layers around, or Layer -> Arrange -> Reverse may do the trick.
  10. Create a mask keeping as much of the sky as is easy to do but that DOESN’T include any ground¬† or fixed location objects. IMPORTANT: Be sure the mask doesn’t have holes in it, including at the bottom corners. Click the layer mask, hold down the Alt (Option) key and drag the mask to the next sky layer. Repeat until all sky images are masked with the same mask.
  11. Select the bottom layer and lock it  (Layers -> Lock Layers -> check Position -> Ok)
  12. Select all the sky layers.
  13. Chose Edit -> Auto Align Layers -> Auto
  14. When alignment is done, set blend mode for all sky layers to Darken. If stars are disappearing in the result image, that’s bad.
    1. If alignment is great everywhere, that is you have plenty of stars, you’re done. But it probably won’t be. So…
    2. Duplicate the current layers to a NEW document – call it whatever you want, but perhaps “Left looks good” makes sense.
    3. Open the history palette and click just above the “Align Layers” item (to restore to before the alignment was done). Lock the TOP layer (see item 11) and repeat steps 12-14.
    4. If a large portion of the image still has streaks in some quadrant, try undoing align, undoing the lock and re-aligning.
    5. If you’re still getting a significant amount of streaking you can also try Auto Align -> Reposition rather than auto.

      Q: Why do I have disappearing stars?
      A: The reason they are disappearing is because they are not aligned. In Darken mode, the darker sky “wins” out over the several stars. This COULD be a good thing in other situations, but not here!

      Q: If I went through the trouble of doing all this alignment, why is it still “off”?
      A: Photoshop isn’t optimized to align stars. Secondly, lens distortion makes a star move non-uniformly across the sensor. And third: stars at different declinations (celestial latitudes) travel at different speeds across the field. To eliminate streaks, the best solution is to track the sky.


  15. Take the aligned sky, delete all the layer masks. With all the aligned sky layers selected, create a smart Object.
  16. Do the same Stack Mode “Mean” trick for the sky smart object that you previously did for the foreground.
  17. The rest is pretty straight forward. Turn the foreground (mean) back on. Use a selection to reveal only the foreground and apply that to the Foreground Group.
  18. Adjust contrast, color balance, vibrance, etc. to your satisfaction.
  19. Save the kit and caboodle.

Does all this seem too complicated? Well, then perhaps you might consider using these tools instead. They do most of the hard work for you and they KNOW the difference between stars and foreground (usually because you help them know).

  • On a Mac: Starry Landscape Stacker – from the Mac App Store
  • On a PC: Sequator – do a Google Search to download it.

By the way there are many astro processing tools, like Deep Sky Stacker – but most/all of them expect that your images will have NO foreground or non-moving objects like wires in them.

Landscape Astrophotography

Thanks for attending my Landscape Astrophotography discourse with the San Jose Astronomical Association on Tuesday, June 19, 2018. 7:30 PM to 10:00 PM. Most of the audience are Astrophotographers.

Below is a form you can fill out and we will email you a PDF of the notes from this lecture.  Following are some brief excerpts from the talk.

The Meeting of Earth and Sky

Big Sur, California, has earned a reputation for being The Greatest Meeting of Land & Sea, a phrase attributed to Robinson Jeffers, the “Walt Whitman” of the West Coast. Indeed living here is inspiring. The towering cliffs and mountains, lush forests, crashing, craggy Pacific surf all work together to evoke a sense of beauty and wonder that is astonishingly intimate.¬† There are certainly other beautiful places in the world¬†– even nearby. But I believe that there is awesome, virtually undiscovered beauty that touches nearly everywhere in the world: the night sky.

Night Sky photography has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decades. Prior to the age of digital photography, there were relatively few painters of the night sky. Not surprisingly, none of those painters painted just stars. All featured stars with landscapes. Perhaps the most well-known painter of the night is Vincent Van Gogh. In Van Gogh’s day, light pollution was far, far less noxious than it is now. Indeed our super abundance of artificial light has rendered our night sky almost unobservable. But the night sky has such depth and mystery that everyone should find a dark sky to sit under for a time. Part of the allure of the night sky is its expansiveness… its immense scale.

Because the scale of the night sky is difficult to grasp I believe it is important to link human-scale to the starry night. Deep-sky photography of nebula and galaxies reveals things completely unseen or unseeable by the naked eye Рand the revelation of those objects is  compelling and engaging. But even more compelling are photographs that tie humanly identifiable scale to the mysterious night.

In addition to scale, compelling photographs¬†reveal the unexpected. Photographs can show time, location, relationships, colors, and details that are unobservable by looking. To draw lay people, however, I believe there must be a strong link between what is observable with what is not: a Marriage of Earth and Sky. And for that reason, I’m urging Astrophotographers and astronomers to try Landscape Astrophotography.

As Numerous as the Grains of Sand

This is truly a meeting of Land, Sea and Sky

For more details, please see the accompanying notes.



Landscape Astrophotography Notes
Landscape Astrophotography Notes
71+ Pages of notes covering the following topics:
  1. How to Make Images Memorable
    • Scale / Grandeur
    • Connectedness
    • Interest
    • Revelation
  2. Impact of Photos
  3. How to Create Scale / Grandeur
  4. How to Connect - Interest and Familiarity
  5. Revelatory Photographs
    • Time | Location | Relationships | Familiarity | Seeing Differently | Surprising Colors | Intricate Detail
  6. Inspiration from Painting
  7. A sense of place
  8. An Astrophotography Idea
  9. Conclusion
  10. Resources and References

 

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