El Paso. Why El Paso? Texas is the next state over from Louisiana, with a western landscape and a city I’d never visited. I pictured dusty streets, dry air and a western facade main street. Wrong. El Paso is modern and like almost any other American city, with two important differences: it’s on the border with Mexico and dead center south of New Mexico.
It is one thing to hear about immigration. It is another to leave your hotel, drive a few blocks to the Rio Grande, and look across a wire fence into another country. I turned right and drove slowly, taking in the square shacks in Mexico, the great river, which at this spot looks like a dried up stream and the white Border Patrol vehicles parked every quarter mile. It was exciting and exotic. I felt the tension of immigration in a way that can never be appreciated by watching talking heads on television. It is real, there in El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juarez.
As I drove west, I merged with I-10 and about fifteen miles later entered New Mexico. Frankly, when I decided on El Paso as a destination, I paid no attention to its proximity to the “Land of Enchantment”. By the end of the week, I had put almost two thousand miles on the rental car, most of it in New Mexico.
Open spaces, the elixir of life. Wind that has blown across miles and miles of land, much of it with nothing taller than tumbleweed. It is where emails, phone calls and the detritis of high rise life fall away with each mile. It wasn’t long before I looked at the map and saw the Organ Mountains to the north. Who knew? I turned and soon drove past them and into the valley where White Sands National Monumnent sits: a vast expanse of snow white gypsum dunes the size of ocean going ships. Closed. Government shutdown. I vowed to return.
Ten months later I drove into the dunes, following the only road in or out which blowing and shifting sands often covered completely. It was in White Sands that I began to learn the most important attribute of a landscape photographer: patience. Walk, frame, walk more, re-frame and wait for the light. Waiting, always waiting. Dawn, sunset, midday, White Sands is like being on the moon: a place like no other on earth.
We who fancy nature photography will often jump through hoops, crop, dodge, and photoshop out those things that man has dropped into what we envision as perfect nature. And yet, photography never ceases to remind us of the folly of expectation. As I framed a lovely shot of giant dunes and waited for the sun to set, a couple appeared in the viewfinder, “spoiling” my picture. I shot several frames anyway, knowing that they would drop below the line of sight shortly. And, of course, the image became my favorite of the trip.
I returned again, this time staying in Santa Fe. Just the name had allure for me: a place for artists, seven thousand feet above my New Orleans sea level, clear crisp air, open spaces. In fairness, Santa Fe became my base and not the center of my interest. I love to drive and I love open space. One day I drove north, first taking the “Low Road to Taos”. I went into Colorado, the first twenty miles true open range. Signs announced it, with images of elk and wild horses, warning drivers of a possible encounter. My heart sang, to be honest. “Open Range”. No fences, Wild Horses. Heaven.
After a while, I turned south, still looking but not encountering those beautiful creatures. Driving south, I took the “High Road to Taos” back to Santa Fe. As to why one takes the “High Road to Taos” to Santa Fe, the views are better southbound, and, yes, you can get there from here. On my last day, I drove to Ghost Ranch, a beautiful place about an hour and a half west of Santa Fe. It was Georgia O’Keeffe’s winter home for many years and ultimately where she settled. I treasure the simple fact that I laid eyes on those exquisite cliffs, as her art is now a little like going home to me.
As I drove into the ranch and topped the hill, there before me was a magnificent cliff with multi-colored strata, a testament to Aeons I could only imagine.
I shot only a few pictures there as I didn’t have time to take one of the available horseback tours. But, just seeing the land was enough to feel O’keeffe’s presence and gain a much deeper appreciation of her life and art. It was a chance to connect with an indomitable human spirit and stunning landscape.