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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

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.

Stay Tuned for More

Stay tuned 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

UV Filter for Protection!?

I see the question asked a lot. Should I get a UV filter to prevent my (expensive) lens from being damaged should something bad happen? Or “the salesperson told me I’d get better photos if I used a UV filter.”

In a nutshell my answers are no and wrong.  The thinking that a $25, $50 or $150 piece of glass in front of a $1,000 lens is going to somehow protect the lens element from harm seems a bit absurd except in a very few scenarios which I’ll address in a moment.  Moreover, to assume that a thousand dollar lens’ image quality will be improved by a filter is unlikely.

Here are some of the arguments for NOT using a filter (clear, UV or any other for that matter).

  1. A filter creates another surface that may cause additional flare, glare or reflection.
  2. For all but the most perfectly polished and coated filters, optical degradation is certain with a filter.
  3. Filters can introduce color casts and vignetting.
  4. Putting a thinner shatterable piece of glass in front of a lens provides a source of sharp shards with which to to scratch the front lens element.
  5. Those who leave a filter on all the time often find their protection becomes unremovable preventing them from using a more useful filter like a polarizer or neutral density filter.

But… That Filter Might Save My Bacon!

Think about it. In what scenario will a filter protect the lens? A blow by a golf ball, baseball or softball? Nah, a direct blow will shatter the filter and drive shards of glass into the front element.  A drop onto the floor, lens first? Maybe. The filter holder may provide a little extra protection to the lens barrel, but again, when the glass filter shatters you’ve got shards of sharp up against your expensive glass.  What about a fall onto a rock?  Yep, a filter might help a little, but a lens hood would help a lot more – as would a lens cap.

Block UV rays

What about the argument that a UV filter will “block UV rays” and improve the contrast and exposure?  That is part true – if you’re shooting film. DSLRs are far less sensitive to UV light than film and that filter is more likely to become a source of glare, flare, internal reflection and vignetting.  That UV filter is also yet another expense and item to carry around.

When Does it Make Sense to use a UV/Clear Filter?

If you have burning metal or corrosive substances flying at your camera, I would certainly prefer that they strike a cheap(ish) piece of replaceable glass rather than my expensive lens. Also, some lenses are only well sealed against rain and dust if you put a filter on them. So an excessively wet, dusty or sandy environment might be a good candidate for filter use.

Under Fire [C_041883]

What Do I Do to Protect My Lens?

Aside from being careful, I would argue that using a lens hood is an almost ideal solution. A lens hood helps keep things away from the front element and it also serves the important additional photographically USEFUL function of keeping off-axis light out of your shot. Off-axis light can cause significant glare and flare and attendant loss of contrast.  Even the best filters are little or no help with off-axis light.

My personal policy is also to “cap the lens” whenever  I am not shooting and definitely before I move anywhere. The cap stays accessible in my back pocket and it goes on the camera before I move it. Much like my seatbelt is always fastened before I start the car.

Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful – or Not

Published: May 18, 2012
Updated: May 3, 2016

One of the necessary tools a night (or landscape) photographer must have in their tool bag is a decent weather forecasting tool.  Though I’ve been known to ignore the forecast for some events, like an Annular Solar Eclipse, I definitely am more inclined to go where the weather is clearer (Nevada) than where it will be cloudy (Crescent City, CA).

A forecast like this despite how detailed it seems to be is all but useless to me:

Weather.com forecast

Weather.com forecast

This is the hourly forecast. The “daily forecast” is less helpful. How partly is partly cloudy? And how mostly is mostly cloudly? Other sites sometimes just say “sunny” during the day and give no idea what night will be like.  Compare the above with the Weather.gov forecast from NOAA.

NOAA to the Rescue (no Ark)

Fortunately the US National Weather Service provides a nicely detailed “click point” forecast with charts of the hour-by-hour conditions.

Weather.gov oh yeah.

Weather.gov oh yeah.

There is quite a lot to take in here but it’s all good stuff.  The “partly cloudy” at 7PM  shows as 72% cloudy (Sky Cover) on weather.gov. Not only are the forecasts different, but I get more useful numbers.  It looks like the wind will be very gusty during parts of the day. But the humidity won’t be so severe that dew will form.  If it weren’t for the mostly cloudy skies, night photography might work out ok.

Where do you find this great tool. Start here:  http://weather.gov

Once you get to the forecast, look for a small graphic on the right under “Additional Resources”.  But that, my friend, is where the good stuff is. Before you rush off on the hourly thing, though, take a look at the little map window.

Weather.gov forecast area highlighed in green.

Weather.gov forecast area highlighed in green.

You can get a forecast for any specific area by clicking on the map!  So, for example clicking on the summit of Mission Peak (just off the screen to the north) may give you a significantly different forecast – one that is adjusted for the difference caused by altitude.

Do remember that these are “forecasts” not actualities, so be prepared for whatever may happen.

Wunderground Classic

I used to use Weather Underground. Then they changed it so that the good stuff was only in “Classic”. But really, no need to use it at all any more.

May the wind not be at your back or in your face, may the road not be muddied by rain and may the clouds gather only when you really want them i.e. at sunrise and sunset.

Star Circle Planning Tools in The Field

In early September, I discussed the four essential tools for planning a star circle or star trail shot. Briefly recapping, those are:

  1. Google Maps (or other mapping software preferably with roads and terrain maps).
  2. An ephemeris
  3. An Inclinometer
  4. A GPS Unit – very useful for finding a location as well as finding north (if your unit has a compass built in, that is).

In this article I am expanding on those basic items and I am about to tell you where most of these tools reside… wait for it… my iPhone. Trust me I am no great gusher of “all things Apple”. My co-workers have been defecting to the Mac platform while I have been cursing myself for sticking it out with Windows 7 and all of the bizarre behaviors that came with it.

But my iPhone is an indispensable tool for me. I use it much more onsite than for pre-planning, but the apps are very useful nonetheless. Can you do this stuff with a netbook? Probably. Android phone? Most likely. But I do not have those and I have come to love my *first generation* iPhone. Yep. Still first generation.  Sure I could grab my wife’s former G3 model since she’s moved on to an iPhone 4… but my iPhone feels quite comfortable to me because it is set up just how I like it.

My indispensable apps in approximate order of their value to me are as follows:

  1. Words With Friends $3 – or get the free version  (App Store, website)
    I have to do something to pass the time while the camera is clicking away. This is for playing scrabble with folks. Requires a data connection through wifi or carrier. Was VERY buggy, but stability has improved. I am usually playing 10 to 15 games at a time.
  2. Clinometer (for iPhone / iPod or iPad) $1  (App Store, website)
    Probably my most useful application. I use this onsite to measure angles from the horizon. I can determine if the North Star will be visible, and how close or far to get from a foreground object to have the north star where I want it. I start the app, sight along the long edge of the iPhone and read the angle on the display.   I can scout during the day and get just what I expect when it gets dark. I will cover this very useful tool in more detail in an an upcoming column as well as the next workshop.
  3. Starmap $12 or Starmap Pro $19  (App Store – regular, pro).
    I bought the regular version even though I knew the pro version was coming out. Great planetarium app with dates and locations for meteor showers of every description, sun, moon and planetary data, constellations and the ability to customize the display to match your viewing conditions. My main gripe is that it uses only “common” names for the constellations. I know the latin names (I much prefer Orion to “The Hunter”). Has a good “find it” feature and you can set it for different dates and times and locations. Very handy for navigating the night sky.
  4. Photo Buddy $2 (App Store, website)
    It is overkill for what I use it for which is primarily: calculating the hyperfocal distance, and calculating the angle of view. It will also calculate depth of field and has a sunrise and sunset function. There is a very wide selection of cameras and models which makes configuring it pretty easy even if the interface is just a bit clunky.
  5. Focalware $5 (App Store)
    I do not use this as much, but it will calculate sunrise, moon rise, sunset, moonset and altitude and azimuth for each. It needs a signal to determine your location or you can enter GPS coordinates.  There is a very advanced version of a similar app called Helios which sells for $30 – if they had it for the moon it would probably be worth the price.
  6. iCSC free. International Clear Sky Chart –
    Predicts visibility on an hour by hour basis for the next 24 hour period. Widely used by astronomers and usually very accurate. Covers most of the continental US and Canada.
  7. Safari (builtin) Sometimes you have to look something up on the internet… if the internet is available, that is.
  8. Flashlight (free). (App Store)
    This app is a bit clunky, but you can use it for light painting and once when my headlamp broke it was very adequate as a “flashlight” substitute since it can be set to any color or luminosity.
  9. Built in Camera (free)
    The old iPhone has no zoom so it is possible to measure angular dimension with just the camera display. It also comes in handy for grabbing quick shots of possible shooting locations. Admittedly the G3 version with built in location info would be better for this.
  10. TPE [The Photographer’s Ephemeris]  $9 (App Store, website)
    Sadly, since this app requires a data or wifi connection to be useful, and since the screen real estate is so tiny, I find this a less useful substitute for the free version which you can use on your laptop or desktop machine (Mac or PC). An iPad version is available which provides much more real-estate to work with. Haven’t tried that version yet, however. A new feature has been added which seems very interesting (finding WHEN the moon or sun will be in the direction you want)… but I haven’t used it yet.
    If you’d like to learn how to use TPE, there are many resources available, including a tutorial I did:  Using The Photographer’s Ephemeris
  11. TideApp (free)  (App store)
    When photographing along the coast it is very helpful to know when and how high the tides will be.  There are not many tidal stations and finding the closest and most accurate one is not easy… but it sure is handy when you need it.  Hint: if you want tides along the Pacific Coast do not pick stations that are inside of bays, rivers or estuaries.