Make time

File this under “do as I say, not as I do.” In vacation photography, I always recommend building in some time to take pictures when traveling. Stop for a few days or even just a few hours to get out of your car, look around and get a sense of the place. Well, recently I broke that cardinal rule.

A few weeks ago, I moved my daughter Claire cross country to an apartment in Alexandria, Virginia so that she can attend grad school in Washington D.C. With her possessions and furniture stuffed into a 15-foot long moving van, she, my son Chris and I stuffed ourselves into the tight cab and headed off on a journey across America. Chris and I planned to drop off the truck in Virginia, then take a plane back to California. According to Google Maps its about a 40-hour trip to D.C. from the west coast. We estimated that 4-days (96 hours) should get us there with plenty of time to spare. What we failed to factor in was that roughly half of that time would be spent stopped in motels along the way. Aside from one relatively short side trip, nearly all of our time was spent either driving, eating or sleeping.

We followed Interstate 80 eastward across 12 states. I’d named them all, but then I’d start sounding like Johnny Cash singing “I’ve Been Everywhere.” It was a great way to see how vast our country really is. The only problem was that we didn’t have any time to stop and really explore it.

Once in Utah we stopped on the shoulder of the freeway, which was ill-advised. We saw a salt lake, not the Great Salt Lake, but picturesque nonetheless. The traffic was light so we pulled over to the side of the road. We got our shots and got back into the van. Getting back onto the freeway proved to be more difficult. While there weren’t many vehicles, they were spaced out just enough to make pulling back into traffic a white-knuckle affair. We learned our lesson and didn’t try it again for the remainder of the trip, no matter how much we were tempted.

The cab was cramped, so much so that we were forced to leave our camera bags in the cargo hold of the truck. That left us to photograph what we could through the windows with our cellphones, and sometimes even that wasn’t possible. Often, long stretches of countryside went without a picture because while one of us drove and subsequently couldn’t take photos, the others would try to catch some sleep in the tight quarters the truck. The entire state of Indiana didn’t produce any pictures for us because we passed through all of it at night without stopping.

Another problem with shooting out the window is that after a while all pictures tend to look the same. A mountain range in Utah can look a lot like one in Wyoming. Was that photo of a cornfield from Nebraska, Iowa or Ohio?

We did make stops for food and fuel, but most gas stations and roadside restaurants are picked their convenience, not for the aesthetics of their locations. When we did stop for lodging it was either too dark for and/or we were too tired to look for pictures.

For us, the trip was a lot like watching a preview for a movie without being able to see the entire film. There were some interesting things to see from the road, like Utah’s alien landscapes and the Midwest’s green rolling hills, but they were only a taste of what those places must really be like.

In the second half of our journey time became a precious commodity. Driving times became longer and sleeping times shorter as our deadline neared. But by the time we hit the outskirts of Virginia we could see the light at the tunnel. We arrived at our destination just a few hours later than we planned.

At the end of the trip a three of us were exhausted, but seeing the sights that we did and remembering the things that we passed up, we surprisingly all agreed that we’d like to do it again, but with two conditions. First, we’d need a more comfortable vehicle and second, and most importantly, we need to build in more time.

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  • Blog Author

    Clifford Oto

    Clifford Oto, an award-winning photographer, has been with The Record since 1984. Through the changes from black and white to digital photography, he’s kept his focus on covering the events, people and life of San Joaquin county. This blog deals ... Read Full
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