American West Bandelier National Monument

Planning a Road Trip in the American West

Sunset in The American West
Ahhh, that sky, that road

Leave me to hell and let me go by my own route – Famous American frontierswoman Calamity Jane

“The American West”– what do you think of when you hear those words? Perhaps Cowboys and “Indians,” a lawless place governed by the gun and horse, prospecting for land and gold, desolate landscapes and beating sun, leathery skin and darkened faces?

What I think of is some combination of all of the above, as well as the  incredible light that you find in that place. The sun shines differently there and the golden hours around sunrise and sunset are truly something to behold. The rugged setting and lighting of the American West make for one of the most fertile photographic and artistic backdrops on Earth.

The American West Aerial View
The expansive landscape of the American West

I first sunk my teeth into this place only recently, with a course I took last summer in New Mexico at Santa Fe workshops with the brilliant Brett L. Erickson, my photographic mentor and one of my inspirations. Since then, I have thought of the American West often, and living back in the East, I have longed for the space, the sky, the light.

Three months ago, I packed up my things in my beautiful 100-year old loft in Chelsea in New York City, put them in storage and moved north to Toronto to work temporarily in Canada’s largest city. One last job in finance to pay some of the bills going forward, as it were. Time flies, and including a one-month extension I am now just two weeks away from the terminus of this contract and to quote the ant colony in space from the Simpsons, “horrible, horrible freedom.”

As intimidating as the thought of freedom may be, I am privileged enough to be returning to the American West. This time,  I am going to be learning the art of photography from Brett’s own mentor, the legendary photographer, Sam Abell, who spent 35 years at National Geographic and shot two  of their top 50 photographs of all time, as well as being the man behind the Marlboro Man. How I came to be so lucky, having my application and portfolio accepted to his competitive class, is beyond me, but I owe a debt of gratitude to the people who have helped me get started on my photographic life, such as Alan Winslow, and of course, Brett.

American West Bandelier National Monument
A storm rolls in over the bluffs at Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

When my class is done at the end of March, I have a week of free time in the American West until I fly out to Japan to begin the next phase of my photographic journey. A week isn’t a heck of a lot of time to complete a road trip around such an exhaustive space, especially if I want to stop and shoot, and how could I not?  These lands are home to some of Earth’s most stunning locations, including: Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and on and on. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon from the Arizona side and done Sedona, but the rest I have not had the chance to visit.

I have two main route considerations here. The first option is a 1700 mile loop, similar to the Grand Circle Road Trip, but looping east to Albuquerque instead of Las Vegas. The main benefit of this route is that I can rent a car in Albuquerque, where I land before my course with Sam starts in Santa Fe, and return it there. The cost of a rental SUV in this scenario is about $60 a day, but I have to buy a one-way airfare out to LA from Albuquerque (about $170).

The other route option is to make it a one-way trip, hitting all those points along the way and then driving west from southern Utah to Las Vegas or even all the way to LA in time for my flight to Asia. This may be a more logical route, and it gives me a little more recovery time poolside in Vegas or in LA before a big, long flight. However, the main drawback is that a one way rental costs significantly more money, with the same SUV suddenly costing $150 a day to rent and drop off one way. An 8-day, one-way rental thus would cost $720 more than the loop. If I deduct the cost of the airfare on the loop option, that’s a $550 difference. That’s a significant savings.

These are the things I am grappling with now at this moment. I will keep you posted on what I decide. But I ask you, what would YOU do if you were me? Let me know in the comments section below.

6 thoughts on “Planning a Road Trip in the American West”

  1. I’d go in a loop. Specifically this one:

    * Albuquerque – Santa Fe, via NM 14
    * Santa Fe – Taos, via the High Road (that’s the way we went in Brett’s class last summer)
    * Taos-Dulce-Farmington-Shiprock-Tuba City-Kanab (with detour before Kanab to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon)
    * Zion National Park
    * St. George – Las Vegas – Kingman
    * East of Kingman, there’s a piece of old Route 66, so you don’t have to spend so much time on the interstate
    * Flagstaff, then south to Camp Verde
    *Camp Verde – Peyson – Show Low – St. Johns – Zuni, MN – Grants – Albuquerque (with detours to Acoma and Laguna pueblos

    (See you soon! I will get to Santa Fe on the 21st.)

  2. I wish knew the places then I could advise you… 🙁
    However, those travel plans sound amazing! Looking forward to reading your adventures.

  3. No one’s mentioned visiting Warren Jeff’s ongoing Mormon polygamist cult in Colorado City. I went and it was amazing!
    Do your research and stay at “Americas Most Wanted Bed and Breakfast”. Named after Warren Jeff because he ordered the mansion that is now the bed and breakfast and he was on America’s most wanted list. And it has 12 inch walls so you know you’ll be safe. Unless you’re a 13 year old Mormon girl.

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