Everyone who knows me knows that I have my camera on me almost all of the time, attached to the hip. Normally, I would take one look at this photo and critique the off-centered alignment. This time, I didn’t. I actually prefer it this way.
This is why I love film. You don’t have unlimited tries to get the perfect shot. You can’t be picky, especially when you hand your camera off to a stranger on the side of the road and ask them to take one photo. Film does what it wants. You either love it or hate it. I have learned to love film and all of its minor imperfections — especially when I shoot with my 1996 Canon Sure Shot Z135. It’s a beat-up, well-used, thrifted camera, so I expect streaks and light leaks and black spots and overexposed shots.
This is why I chose to bring my Sure Shot on my six week cross-country road trip. I didn’t want finely-tuned RAW photos ready-to-be cropped and tweaked and edited by me later in Lightroom. I wanted memories.
I wanted raw photos, yes, just not the kind of RAW photos my Canon 5d Mark iii takes. I wanted imperfect, timeless film photos to remember this trip by. My Sure Shot is compact, lightweight, automatic, and ready to take a photo with the press of a button – giving me zero control over any of the settings. It was exactly the step back that I needed.
Our road trip was similar to the photos that amounted from it: freeing, wild, and beautiful, but not without some bumps in the road. We drove almost 12,000 miles, visited 18 states, 22 national parks, and hiked over 200 miles, all within 44 days.
Six weeks living out of a 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan.
Somehow, I never really got tired of it. The van was our home. By the end of the road trip I felt like I had been doing van life for years. I remember feeling like the entirety of my first year of college was a fever dream.
The beauty that we witnessed on our journey across the country was vast and far-reaching. Being able to see western America in all of its entirety was a once-in-a lifetime experience.
I couldn’t have asked for better friends to embark on this journey with. My friend Kate tagged along for the first two weeks of the road trip and flew out of Vegas back home to Michigan while my other friend Sidney and I continued onward to California. The farthest south we made it was San Diego. The farthest north we went was the North Cascades National Park.
Our first stop on the road trip was Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. We left Michigan on Friday May 14th and arrived to Estes Park on Saturday May 15th just as the sun was rising. We decided to stop at the Indiana Dunes National Park and Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis during our drive on Friday.
I was on the late night driving shift, so I drove from midnight to around 4 a.m. when I couldn’t stay awake any longer and Sidney took over. Kansas was just as the Wizard of Oz portrays it. Windy. I felt like the van was about to tip over. I also drove through the worst storm of the entire trip on our first night. It was pouring rain and lightning, not to mention the fact that I could barely see through the deep fog.
At the same time, one of the most magical moments that occurred on the trip was when I was woken up by Sidney as we entered Estes Park. The snow capped Rockies were glimmering in the early morning sun.
After our short stint in Colorado, we moved onto Utah.
In Moab, Utah we made friends with a river guide and rock climber who gave us climbing lessons in exchange for a meal and haircut with the same scissors we had used the day before to give Sidney a trim.
We were zigzagging from northeast Utah to southwest Colorado, through the four corners, and southbound through Arizona to reach the south rim of the Grand Canyon before we popped up again in southwest Utah to spend time in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks.
After Zion we drove to Vegas for Kate to catch her flight. But, before heading into the city, we couldn’t miss the Valley of Fire State Park. Earlier in the day an old man from Texas read the “Venmo us, we’re on a road trip!” on the back of our car and gave us $20 in cash. We ended up using the $20 for our state park entrance fee.
After Vegas, it was just Sidney and I. We started our southern California journey off with little water and a few bumps in the road. Just outside of the Mojave National Preserve we helped a family with an overheated radiator on the side of the road. We used up the rest of our water to help them cool down their radiator. Eventually, after patience and a couple gallons of water, we were both back on the road.
We were racking up the mileage, and of course Betty took a toll. The brakes were beginning to wear down after a rough patch of off-roading in the desert. There was a moment when I thought we’d be stuck in the Mojave after the maintenance required light came on. We were lost for a couple hours without service in the National Preserve, but Betty pulled through. We got out, and on our way out we saw a group of four wheelers headed toward the “road” that we were just on. I remember looking back for a second in awe. Our minivan had – barely – rumbled down the same roads reserved for off-roading tours.
We continued to explore the Mojave Desert and parts of the Sonoran Desert in Joshua Tree National Park during our time in southern California.
After southern California, we worked our way up to L.A. to visit a friend. Our four days there gave us the time to shower, take a break from hiking, and spend time with our friend. We were given a moment to recharge and eat real meals, which felt wonderful after three weeks spent living, sleeping, and eating out of the van.
After L.A., we drove up Big Sur. Driving that stretch of Highway 1 up the coast was by the far the most stunning drive I have ever been on.
In the morning the Los Padres forest was enshrouded by shadow and fog in the most beautiful way possible. Much of our view of the ocean was hidden by the fog. By late afternoon, though, the sky lost its mystical, darker undertone to reveal the sun. For the rest of our drive, the sky was blue and not a cloud was in sight. I watched the sun begin to set just above the horizon. Big, beautiful, blue waves crashed onshore.
We left Highway 1 that night to cut over to the San Joaquin Valley. We explored Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park.
The sheer volume and beauty of the sequoias was something I had never seen before. Our last hike in the park that day was during golden hour. The light twinkled perfectly from every angle, slicing through branches and peeking out over the mass of leaves in the sky. It felt like I was walking through an enchanted forest.
After a day in Sequoia and Kings Canyon, we headed to Yosemite. I was beyond excited. I had stared, mesmerized, at pictures of the iconic Half Dome in Yosemite for years.
I had Half Dome in my sights, and one way or another, we were going to climb Half Dome.
After unsuccessfully attempting to acquire two Half Dome cable permits from the lottery system, we were bummed. But, we decided to take our chances and climb the eight miles up to the base of Subdome to ask the ranger if there were any extra permits that day. Sometimes, groups buy more permits than people who end up coming or are able to complete the hike. We were told to wait and ask groups walking along the trail until we got lucky.
So, that’s what we did. We sat on a log and talked to people, and by the end of a half an hour we had acquired two cable permits and a group to climb Half Dome with.
I cannot stress enough how much this road trip restored my faith in humanity. We received so much kindness from strangers for no particular reason besides the goodness of the hearts.
So, thank you, wherever you are, to the families that gave us their extra permits.
Half Dome ended up being a 19 mile day for us because, of course, it wouldn’t be a hike with me if we didn’t get lost on the trail.
Despite the soreness and the aches and pains that lasted a couple days, that detour gave us one of the best views of Nevada Falls.
The next day, we drove up to Glacier Point for sunset to view Half Dome from a different angle. It was snowing when we got to the top. The light snowfall and dark sky gave way to a dramatic backdrop when looking out at Yosemite Valley. Once the clouds parted, and the sunlight appeared, the shadows became even more dramatic, and portions of granite were hit with an intense glow. Certain patches of falling snowflakes momentarily transformed into a glittering amoeba of stardust. I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly at peace.
After exploring Yosemite for a couple days, we drove over to the Bay Area to visit San Francisco and Sausalito.
We left San Francisco for the redwoods. It was pouring rain during the one day we spent in the forest, but it was a perfect day. We went on a hike along a partially flooded trail and soaked in every second of the towering beauty of these trees. I felt so small with my raincoat on and hood up, having to lift my face to the mercy of the rain every time I wanted to view a redwood in all its glory.
It was a beautiful feeling.
On our way out of the trail I heard music coming from the forest. At that moment I thought my mind was playing tricks on me.
As Sidney and I continued along the trail, it grew louder. The music sounded almost ethereal. I grew more and more curious. Finally, we came across a group of people sitting under a log playing a drum. The repetitive, lulling sound that rippled off the drum seemed to fit perfectly between the momentary breaks in sound of the rain hitting the forest floor. Standing there listening, I felt the two sounds combine and collide into one sound in the forest. It felt as if the sound of this spiritual drum echoed off of the energy of the rain.
In that moment, I felt the most spiritual I have ever felt.
Once out of the redwoods, Sidney and I continued up 101 and fell asleep to the sound of rain on a highway pull-out in Southern Oregon along the S.H. Boardman Scenic Corridor.
In Oregon, we explored the Willamette National Forest and hiked to a hot spring. We also hiked the Trail of Ten Falls and did not fail to get lost.
I saw my old house in Portland, Oregon and visited long-time family friends that used to live across the street from me.
After Portland, Sidney and I made our way to Olympic National Park.
After a quick detour to Olympic, we drove to Seattle for the night and explored Capitol Hill, spending the night in a parking spot on the street of the neighborhood park.
We woke up and headed to Mount Rainier National Park and brushed our teeth on Chinook Pass.
After Rainier, Sidney and I drove straight up to the North Cascades National Park. We hiked Thunder Knob which gave us an incredible view of Diablo Lake. We drove a scenic route out of the park and were so low on gas that car after car passed us because I refused to put my foot on the gas as we descended down the mountains.
The low fuel light was a constant for us throughout the trip.
We left the Cascades and drove through the night to reach Spokane.
We were kicked out of a Walmart parking lot so we had to resort to sleeping in a casino parking lot. Tough luck.
The next morning we restocked on some fruits and vegetables before heading into Glacier National Park. We were preparing for two full days of hiking. We finally reached the west entrance of Glacier around 7 p.m. and were able to fit in a hike to Avalanche Lake before the sun went down.
The next morning we woke up early and hiked to Iceberg Lake, and after a break full of bear sightings and huckleberry ice cream, hiked to St. Mary and Virginia Falls in the afternoon.
Our last day was a 20-miler. It was tough, but it was the most incredible loop hike I have ever been on. We straddled two mountain peaks and crossed the continental divide twice.
Back at the trailhead, we gave a few Continental Divide thru-hikers a ride. They graciously gave us $30 which we put toward, of all things, two footlongs. It was a long day and all I wanted was a sandwich.
After Glacier, we drove south to Yellowstone and saw the Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful.
Sidney and I slept on the top of a dirt road with an incredible view of the Grand Teton range where we found a community of road trippers parked for the night. We sat around the fire with them and talked and laughed while we were bit incessantly by mosquitos.
The next day we hiked up to Delta Lake. We passed patches of wildflowers and crossed fields of boulders before we reached the Caribbean blue alpine lake. The water was a milky type of blue and the sun was shining so we laid on a rock for a couple of hours, soaking in our last few days on the road.
After napping on the rock, I thought that it would be a good idea for us to try and summit one of the tetons. They looked so close from our view, and we were already so high up. The mountain to the left of Middle Teton was what I was aiming for.
Sidney, for good reason, thought I was out of my mind, but eventually agreed. Long story short, we both cried by the time our adventure was over.
I hit Sidney with two rocks by accident and she kicked me in the eye by accident while we were crawling up the side of the mountain on all fours. We made it up fairly high, but we had no gear and were free soloing on unstable rock and climbing up deep snow. Sidney went up higher but it was getting dicier and I was on the verge of a breakdown, so we bowed out. We were close, though.
That was the dumbest thing we did on our road trip. No question. But, lessons have been learned.
After spending a bit more time in the Tetons the following day, we started our drive home.
It was a good run.
As I’m writing this now I’m already nostalgic for the memories I made two months ago. I am forever thankful to my Sure Shot for capturing these moments for me to look back on in the months and years later.
Daily Staff Photographer Tess Crowley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.