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Low Light Photography

30th March 2019

It’s Dark Down There


Mammoth Cave National Park, located in central Kentucky is the world’s largest system of caves extending more than 400 miles. On a recent trip with a few of our grandkids, we stopped there for a few hours to explore some of the caves.


here are the grandkids adorning the park sign

at this entrance way we had to descend about 30 steps

We arrived at the park too late to reserve a spot on one of the various guided tours. Instead we opted to take the self-guided tour.


The beginning of the cave entrance is lighted by daylight with handrails and a cement walkway. Continue walking and the outdoor light slowly disappears.

Electrical lights provide the only illumination inside, but they are relatively dim. We were surprised by the width of the cave at this point – about 30 feet side to side.


As you can see, we’re walking alongside the cave walls. The pathway is mostly hard dirt but there are cement pavers in some parts of this cave.

At this point, the cave widens considerably and the ceiling varies between 30 and 50 feet high. You’ll also notice that this area is well lighted.


One of the park rangers points out this small bat hanging from one of the cave walls. He tells us that there were hundreds of the bats at one time but they are no longer found in large numbers.

This part of Mammoth ends after about one-quarter of a mile. As we turn around and walk back towards the entrance way you can visualize the darkness of these caves.


This short clip shows the large size of the so-called “ampitheater” within the self-guided tour cave.



The steps from the cave. The self-guided tour is an easy way to explore Mammoth when you’re time limited.

Here is the wife and grandkids relaxing after their cave diving experience.



For those interested, these photos were taken with a Sony A7 III camera using a 24-240mm lens. In most cases, the ISO setting was 16000 or 32000 and taken handheld with a shutter speed of 1/15 or 1/30 and aperture as wide as f/3.5. I think the photos are of pretty decent quality considering the cave environment.

 

 



 

 

 

 

Brightening My Winter


Winter weather in Michigan consists of lots of snow, cold and blustery temperatures and dark, gloomy clouds for weeks on end. You can imagine that I’d welcome getting away for a few days to a warm and sunny place.

Luckily, it’s just a three hour plane ride from the chills of Grand Rapids to swaying palm trees of Ft Lauderdale. I’m happy to feel the warmth and see the cloudless sky after quickly changing my attire into shorts and a t-shirt. Then I’m off to Everglades National Park.

As usual I have a camera in tow. My goal is to photograph the snowless foliage that lines the paths along the Everglades. Without any fanfare, below is a group of pictures that help to shed the Michigan winter blues.





















Of course the Everglades has much more to see and explore than its amazing foliage. I’m also a lover of birds but I’ll save those photos for another article.

 

 



 

 

 

 

SuperBloom

11th March 2016

The Desert Explodes with Color

Nature never ceases to amaze me.

Death Valley National Park is the driest, hottest place in North America. Although its climate isn’t very hospitable, wildflowers do appear each Spring. However this past October, a series of rainstorms set in motion the favorable conditions for a literal explosion of colorful wildflowers that blanketed the normally harsh landscape of the park.

This phenomenon happens seldom, perhaps once in every 10 or so years and arrived in mid-February. When I visited Death Valley in early March, I was fortunate enough to see many fields still shimmering in the SuperBloom.
 





 


I’ve visited Death Valley more than a dozen times previously, but I’ve never seen as many visitors taking in the colorful wildflowers as I saw in March.

Click here to see one of the DV Park Rangers describe a “once-in-a-lifetime” visit to Death Valley.

How lucky I was to be able to see this unexpected event.

Written by: Arnie Lee
 
 


 
 

What a View

27th August 2014

Wide Angle to the Extreme

It’s eye-catching when I see a photo that “bends” the horizon.

This bend comes from the camera’s lens. Use a very wide angle lens and you’ll see the curved “barrel” distortion on the images. One well-known type of wide angle lenses is the fisheye. These lenses typically have a field of view approaching 180 degrees – allowing you to capture the entire scene in front of the camera.

Until recently, fisheye lenses were expensive. I have one that cost well over $1500. But when I was looking for an ultra-wide angle for my Sony equipment, I found an inexpensive lens made by Rokinon. With its $300 price tag, I was a little skeptical of the quality of images from such a low cost lens but decided to try it regardless.

Here’s a short gallery of some of the scenes that I captured during my first outing with the lens a few weeks ago.
 
 



This is an 8mm f/2.8 fisheye. I wanted an ultra-wide angle for an extra Sony Nex7 mirrorless camera.

The Nex7 is very compact and lightweight. The Rokinon 8mm fisheye is also surprisingly compact.


The Sony Nex7/Rokinon 8mm setup is only about 1/3 the size of my Canon 6D with a Canon 8-15mm fisheye – a true space and weight saver.

One of the first images that I recorded with the new lens was in the Tetons. I especially like the curved horizon.



Here in Yellowstone you can see that the bridge rail curves upwards. The lens does not support the camera’s autofocus feature.

However an 8mm lens has a very wide depth of field which makes focusing less critical as you can see in this image taken at Mono Lake.



At Grand Canyon, the bend in the horizon is amazingly scenic. The lens does not support autoexposure so I set the camera shooting mode to manual, set the lens aperture to f/8 and adjusted to the proper shutter speed.


In both of these photos, you can see that the exposure for both a shaded and sunny scene were correct. Neither the manual focus nor the manual exposure requirements of this lens is a concern.



At Monument Valley I took advantage of the lens’ extreme wide view. Here I was able to take in a 180-degree view to photograph this huge monument within a single image.


The fisheye excels for those of you who like shooting portraits that include the vast surroundings.



At Mesa Verde, we encountered another “tight squeeze”. However, we were able to capture this with the lens’ wide view.


In Rocky Mountain National Park, the lens took in not only the winter’s left over snow but the billowing overhead July clouds.

What about the sharpness?

Here I’ve enlarged a small section of one of the above images. You can clearly see the detail in the face, the lettering of the cap and the tufa formations in the background.

I found the sharpness of this inexpensive lens to be very acceptable.


After my short time with this lens, I am no longer skeptical of it’s quality. The images are tack sharp with very good color reproduction. If you’re on the lookout for an ultra-wide, include this lens in your search.

The Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 fisheye is also available for other camera models as well: Fuji, Samsung and Canon M mount. Other similar versions with a maximum f/3.5 aperture are available for Canon, Nikon, Sony A mount, Pentax and Olympus 4/3.
 
 
Written by: Arnie Lee
 
 


 
 
 
 

A Single Photo is Just a Split Second in Time

A few weeks ago I traveled to Yellowstone to view the wildlife and scenery before the cold and snow arrived. Unfortunately, I chose to visit at the same time that our government decided to shutdown the National Parks.

The scene went something like this: As I passed through the north gate at Gardiner, MT at 7:30am on October 1st, the park ranger informed me that Yellowstone would be closing at 8:00am, just about 30 minutes from now. Having just entered the park, I was temporarily elated to think I’d have the entire place to myself.

 

My plan was to drive southward to Norris for some hiking in this amazing geyser basin.

As I approached Nymph Lake, I was awed by a lone bison foraging near a mountainside of steaming fumaroles.

I immediately pulled off the road onto the shoulder and grabbed my camera. Here’s the shot.

But my stop off here didn’t quite end after taking this photo as you’ll soon see.

Bison at the Fumaroles

 


In the above photo, the bison was standing about 150 yards away across the main highway.

As I stood next to my car, the bison slowly troded towards the area in which I was standing. You can see the asphalt in the foreground.

The bison didn’t stop there, he kept coming towards me. I always adhere to the “wildlife ethic” of not approaching animals, but this was the reverse situation.


From the above photograph you can’t tell that there were already six or seven other autos parked on the shoulder.

These visitors had already spotted the bison and were admiring the dramatic view.

Little did we all know that the bison wanted to admire our autos. She strode right over while all of us wisely gave her plenty of room to wander.


She remained just feet from me for several minutes.

So as not to disturb her, I stood very still and captured her portrait. I shot over the hood of my auto to keep some distance between the two of us.


As it turns out, this bison was the mother waiting for her calf. The calf was also across the road, but out of sight. He came hobbling over to mom a few minutes later.

When they were reunited, they walked off along the tree lined path. The calf had a very visible injury to its rear leg.

Here’s hoping that he’ll make it through the winter.


 
After I lost sight of the pair of bisons, I hopped back in the car and continued driving southward. Little did I know that most of the viewing areas and parking in Yellowstone would be barricaded with orange cones including the Norris Geyser Basin due to the government shutdown. There went my hiking plans.

Was I disappointed? Yes, but not depressed. Having stopped at this and several other roadside areas in the park was still exciting and exhilarating both emotionally and visually.

The single photograph “Bison at the Fumaroles” is but a split second during my visit to Yellowstone. Along with the other photos, these five split seconds actually add up to much more than the fifteen actual minutes that I spent near Nymph Lake.

I don’t think I can put a number on the amount of enjoyment this stop off brought me during this visit to one of my favorite places.

 

 
Written by: Arnie Lee

 

 


 

 

 

 

Experiencing the Environment

03rd September 2012

and keeping the environment “a thing of importance”

Our family has been enjoying the outdoors for many years. Some of our adult children were mere babies when we trekked long distance to experience and camp in far away places like Mono Lake, Yellowstone and Acadia. We were attracted by tight knit forests, tumbling waterfalls, golden meadows, majestic mountains, winding hiking trails, abundant wildlife, trickling streams and shimmering nighttime skies.

The love of nature has been in my blood from childhood. At the University of Michigan I studied natural resource economics. The year was 1970 and the call for ecology had gone out with the first Earth Day and notable proponents such as author Rachel Carson, politician Senator Gaylord Nelson, futurist Buckminster Fuller, economist E.F. Schumacher. With my studies, I was counting on a future career that would revolve around conservation and ecology. But as often happens, this career plan didn’t come to pass. Nonetheless, I’ve been trying to keep nature and the environment close to my heart all the years since.

Wouldn’t you guess that photography has been one of my hobbies also since childhood? So it’s only natural that I would arm myself with a camera as our family traveled far and wide. And while family snapshots comprise an important part of my picture taking activities, the other part are the photos that I take to record the many amazing places that we visit.

These are all “peopleless” photographs. They’re meant to illustrate the beauty, scale, magnificence and sometimes fragility of some of our nation’s most iconic vistas and scenery.

Here are some of those picturesque places that we’ve experienced in our travels.
 



Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon NP

Temple of Sinawara, Zion NP
Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton NP
Snake River, Grand Teton NP
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley NP
Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone NP

Joshua Tree NM

snow geese flyout, Bosque del Apache NWR

Devil’s Golf Course, Death Valley NP

West Thumb, Yellowstone NP

Lake, Yellowstone NP

Upper Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone NP

Spider Rocks, Canyon de Chelly NM

Olympic NP

Devil’s Tower NM

 


 

As I view this photo, I can feel the mist rising from the roaring waterfall. When I look at that photo, I find myself breathing in the scent of an immense douglas fir forest. In a third photo, my eyes are following the billowing clouds passing over a craggy, red rock canyon. And that photo has me marveling at the way the bright, fall colors accent the distant snow-covered peaks. Yes, all of these photos serve to remind me how wondrous our environment really is.

But I haven’t completed documenting my encounters with the outdoors just yet. And so I’m determined to continue experiencing the environment in person. I somehow prefer the phrase “experiencing the environment” rather than “capturing the environment” even though I may be recording the scene with a camera.

Whether it’s a national, state, county or city park or any other natural setting, I will treat the environment with respect.

I remain committed to practicing “leave no trace photography” – disturb neither our environment nor our wildlife.

Written by Arnie Lee
 
 

Our National Parks

As you can see from the photos above, I’m a avid user of our National Park System. It’s extensive, consisting of almost 400 parks, monuments, landmarks, recreation areas, shorelines, trails, historic sites and wildlife refuges and encompassing some 85 million acres. Each year 275 million of us outdoor lovers visit these places.

Entrance fees vary by unit, but an $80 annual pass is a bargain if you plan to visit several parks. Senior citizens 62 years and older can purchase a lifetime pass for only $10.

Find our more about our National Parks here.

 
 


In this final Part 3, I’ll show you additional examples of some of the innovative and easy-to-use features that make the Sony Alpha A55 my recent favorite camera.

You can read about the “standard” features of the Sony Alpha A55 in Part 1 of my review. And in Part 2, I describe my experience using several of the A55’s unique features.


D-Range Optimization

When shooting a scene that has high contrast, you may notice that the shadow areas are likely to lack detail and/or the highlight areas are overexposed.

To counter this tricky lighting, the A55 offers D-Range Optimization that compresses tones to preserve detail in both shadows and highlights.

This feature is not unique to the A55; Canon offers a similar feature which it calls Auto Lighting Optimizer and Nikon uses the moniker Active D-Lighting.

However, the A55 offers five levels of D-Range optimization. To use it, press the dedicated D-Range button on the top of the camera to reveal the DRO menu item and toggle between Auto, Lv 1, Lv 2, LV3, Lv 4 and Lv 5.

In the high contrast winter photos below, you can see that the D-Range reveals much more shadow detail at Lv 5.


D-Range off

D-Range Lv 1

D-Range Lv 5

High Dynamic Range – in-camera

The A55’s High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature has a similar goal as D-Range Optimization, namely to maintain detail in shadows and highlights. HDR photography attempts to reduce the contrast levels of a scene so that the scene can be displayed with maximum detail on a print or display device.

For the last few years, HDR has been popularized by using software to combine multiple images within the computer. The A55 is one of the first to offer it easily and automatically in-camera.

For HDR, the A55 take 3 successive photos with varying exposures (bracketed). To use it, press the dedicated D-Range button on the top of the camera to reveal the HDR item. Then toggle between Auto, 1.0 EV, 2.0 EV, 3.0 EV, 4.0 EV, 5.0 EV and 6.0 EV. For example, when set to 3.0 EV, three images are captured: one at the normal exposure, one at 3 stops overexposed (+3.0 EV) and one at 3 stops underexposed (-3.0 EV).
The A55 then writes two images to the SDHC card: one at the normal exposure and a second that has been processed to combine the predominantly shadow detail from the +3.0 EV capture, the predominantly highlight detail from the -3.0 EV capture and the predominantly midtone detail from the normal exposure.

normal exposure

HDR 3.0 EV

normal exposure

HDR 5.0 EV

normal exposure

HDR 6.0 EV
Some users are surprised that the HDR images appear to have low contrast, but this is a by-product of having to reduce such a wide range of exposure values to level suitable for a display device or printing.

While it may not produce acceptable results in all situations, I’ve been happy with many of the A55’s HDR images that I’ve captured.

Note that HDR is not available unless the A55 is set to capture JPG only images (not RAW).


Multi Frame Noise Reduction – in-camera

Multi frame noise reduction is the A55’s “stealth” feature. For some reason, it hasn’t been widely promoted by Sony. In fact, I didn’t know about multi frame noise reduction until one of the Sony reps explained its use to me at a recent trade show.

When set to use this feature, the A55 captures six successive images and merges them to produce a single image with lower noise.

Once again, it’s simple to use. Press the ISO button and set the topmost item (labeled ISO) between Auto and 25600. Press the shutter release to capture the scene and a short time later after it is processed, the image is written to the SDHC card.


Left: image captured at ISO 1600;
Right: image captured at ISO 3200 with multi frame noise reduction.
Click to see an enlargement.

You can also click here
to see a more detailed full size image

Briefly, the process works like this: the camera automatically takes 6 frames at the currently settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. It combines them into a single JPEG image by carefully aligning the 6 frames during compositing while at the same time using proprietary techniques to reduce noise level equivalent to two ISO exposure levels.

Above, you can clearly see that the noise level of the rightmost image is significantly less than the leftmost image even though it was captured at a higher ISO setting. I experienced an equally reduced noise level in several other images that I shot in low lighting conditions. So I find multi frame noise reduction to be a very useful yet unexpected feature.

Note that multi frame noise reduction is not available unless the A55 is set to capture JPG only images (not RAW).


Sweep Panorama – in-camera

While I’m a fan of panoramas, the task of setting up a tripod, adjusting the camera to capture a series of images, post-processing the individual images and finally pasting them together afterwards using stitching software often takes a few hours.

With the A55, you can create a panorama automatically. First, you set the mode dial for panoramas. From the shooting menu, you can select either 2D or 3D panoramas.

For 2D panoramas, you choose a direction for panning: left to right, right to left, up to down or down to up direction and a format: standard or wide.

For 3D panoramas, you choose a direction for panning: left to right or right to left and a format: 16:9, standard or wide.

As its name suggests, to capture a scene you press and hold the shutter while slowly sweeping (panning) the camera in the chosen direction. After a specified number of images are captured, shooting ends and the A55 stitches together the separate images to create the panorama and writes a single one to the SDHC card.

It’s as simple as that. You’ll want to take a few test shots to determine the speed at which you should sweep the camera. To guide you, the A55 displays helpful text messages in the viewfinder with shooting suggestions.

Below are a pair of panoramas that I captured – one with the camera held in the horizontal orientation and the other with the camera held in the vertical orientation.

Death Valley panorama captured horizontally 8192 x 1856 pixels

Bryce Canyon panorama captured vertically 3872 x 2160 pixels
I also captured a few 3D panoramas. However, to display a 3D panorama, I had to have a 3D television and special eyewear. The 3D panoramas are very impressive.

The 3D panorama will appear as a 2D panorama if you do not use a 3D television nor special eyewear.

I really enjoy the ease at which I can capture a landscape using the Sweep Panorama.


Earlier in the review, I mentioned that I’ve had extensive experience with a large variety of DSLRs. These range from low-priced entry to expensive professional level. I mention this so that you understand that my fondness for the Alpha A55 is not just “puppy love”.

When I first learned about the Alpha A55, I was amazed by the number of innovative features that Sony claimed to have packed into this new body. In the two months that I’ve used this camera, I remain impressed by the results that I’m seeing in the images and the ease with which I am able to capture them.

If the Alpha 55 is any indication of the kind of innovation that we might expect from Sony in coming months, I’ll be anxiously watching for more.

It looks like Sony has a winner. The Sony Alpha A55 is certainly a winner in my book.

 

Written by Arnie Lee

 


Shooting Birds

Certainly one of the reasons that I enjoy the profession so much is that there are so many types of photography to choose from: architectural, wedding, journalism, nature, portrait, fine art, and the list goes on.

And like many other photographers, I often jump from one type of photography to another when the job calls for it or when I feel the need to “escape” to a totally different subject.

Each type of photography utilizes different skills.

For example, portrait photography is most successful when the subject can comfortably relate to the photographer who then combines creative posing and technical lighting to record a likeness of that subject.

A food photographer may use many tricks to enhance the appearance of a gourmet dish – with sprays, glue or gels, perhaps. These are skills that make the food look good; you probably wouldn’t want to eat the food after the photo session.

Having participated in many of the types of photography over the past 40+ years, I have learned that some types of photography require a higher level of skill than others.

From my experience, “photography degree of difficulty” varies from snapshots and event photography at the low end to wedding photography at the high end. And somewhere near the high end is wildlife photography. For the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to improve my wildlife skill level.

Birds are among the most nervous types of animals to photograph. Approach a bird perched on a branch and he’ll quickly fly away.

Consequently, most of my photos of birds are from quite a distance using a long telephoto lens.

On my last outing, I snapped several bird photos which drew complimentary comments from several viewers. While I’d like to think that the photos were the result of my great skills as a nature photographer, in this case it’s not true.

Last week, I was doing a little winter hiking in Bryce Canyon NP and stumbled upon this colorful Stellar’s jay.

This photo was taken with long telephoto lens from about 50 feet away. I hesitated to approach the jay any closer for fear that he’d take off.

Surprisingly, the jay flew closer to me. In fact, he ended up landing on a tree branch that was only 20 feet from where I was standing.

I can only surmise that in the cold wintery weather he was acting differently than he would if I encountered him in warmer weather.

My telephoto lens has two settings: one to accommodate close focusing (2 meters) and one for more distant focusing (8 meters). So as not to disturb the bird, I very slowly changed the lens setting for close focusing and snapped.

Bingo. Here’s the closeup that I ended up with of the Stellar’s jay.

I can definitely say that this photo was more a matter of luck than skill. Anyway, for me this photograph is a definite keeper.

As a counterpoint, here’s a less lucky encounter that I had about an hour before.

As I was hiking along the hard packed, snow covered trail that descended into one of the canyons, I heard a screech overhead. I gazed upwards and saw a large, majestic set of wings in the sky.

I hurriedly changed lenses to my long telephoto and looked up again. But during the minute that I spent changing lenses, the predator had climbed higher and farther away.

I quickly snapped a half dozen photos before the eagle was out of range. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as lucky here. The photo is blurred owing to the distance and my rushed attempt.


So this time out, luck played a role in my capturing the Stellar’s jay. But I wasn’t as lucky with the golden eagle.

Still, I know that unless I’m out there hiking the trails and observing my surroundings that luck won’t have a chance to take hold. Each time I’m out enjoying nature I’m hoping that for that lucky catch.
Take enough photos and luck will come your way too. It’s a promise.

 

Written by Arnie Lee

 


Descending on Las Vegas

02nd December 2010

In years gone by, November was the time to travel to Comdex, the huge COMputer DEaler eXhibition. For as long as it was alive – some 25 years, I attended the Comdex Expo in Las Vegas.

Although the last Comdex took place in 2003, I’ve continued to travel to Las Vegas to analyze and discuss the publishing business with two of my closest friends. Lest you think these trips are gambling junkets, we actually visit lots of mass merchandise, retail and book stores to gauge the products, trends and competition. And most of us don’t gamble at the tables – the publishing business is a big enough gamble.

(more…)

I wrote this article almost two years ago. The purpose of this cross country journey was to deliver an auto to Phoenix. Whenever possible, I try to record my travels through photographs. Since I’m planning another repeat of the drive from the Midwest to the Southwest in a few weeks, I wanted to refresh my memory to see how I might stuff even more photos into my next trip to Phoenix.


Written: November 2008.

Here’s some rambling about nothing in particular.

When the weather starts cooling off in Michigan, Mom starts thinking about going to the warm environs of her Winter home in Arizona. Normally she waits until after the Christmas Holidays, but this year she decides to travel early.

Here’s where I come in. She flies and I drive. As the designated driver, I drive her car from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Phoenix, Arizona to use for the months that she is there. I don’t mind, in fact I look forward to the 2000 mile trip. After delivering the car to Phoenix I’ll fly back to Grand Rapids.

During the cold months to avoid bad weather, the preferred driving route is through Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and then on to Arizona. When I leave Grand Rapids on Friday at 7PM, my plan is to follow this route. But two hours into the trip I call my son Paul by cell phone and have him check the road conditions forecast for Colorado. According to weather.com, he assures me that the roads through Colorado are clear. So I decide to take the more northernly route through Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado. The reason is simple – the scenery in Colorado is preferable to the scenery of Missouri and Oklahoma.

Except for refueling, a rest area just east of Des Moines is my first stop at 3AM. Mom has thrown a blanket and pillow in the back seat for me so I recline the car seat for some sleep. My alarm clock is the cold temperature of the car. After a few hours sleeping in an unheated car (the engine is off), I’m too cold to sleep any longer so I’m back on the road. I reach the Iowa-Nebraska border at 7AM.


I fill up the tank again in York, Nebraska where the gas is only $1.99 per gallon. This turns out to be the lowest price for this trip. As I pass by the large and fragrant stockyards in Ogallala, Nebraska I know that I’ll soon be leaving the East-West Interstate 80 and heading south into Colorado.

Since I’m getting a little drowsy, I pull off into a rest area in Sterling, Colorado for an hour nap. Then I’m back on the road through Denver and a short jog onto US 185. Now I’m passing through the very pretty mountains and high plains of central Colorado.
Although today is a Saturday, the roads in rural Colorado are nearly traffic-free. This makes my drive through the mountains very relaxing. Five hours later I arrive in the southwest corner of Colorado and the picturesque town of Durango.

Durango is most well-known for its narrow gauge railroad that climbs the steep mountains to Silverton. During the summer, this unique railroad attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists to the cozy town. A few years ago, our youngest son lived in Durango so I know the town well. So I point the car towards East by Southwest Restaurant to treat myself to sushi after my first 24 hours on the road. Then on to the Best Western motel.

After checking in, I ask the clerk for a 6AM wakeup call and hit the pillow for some real sleep. The next thing I know my wakeup call is harkening me back into the car. It’s still dark out when I pick up a coffee from McDonalds and leave town driving south.
A few miles out of Durango I cross into New Mexico. Northwestern New Mexico is also the Navajo Indian Reservation. I stop in Shiprock to snap a few photos of the famous monument. Then I continue south to Gallup where I pick up Interstate 40 westward into Arizona.
An hour later, I’m at the entrance to Petrified Forest National Park. Although I’ve passed through this area a dozen times before, this is my first visit to this National Park.
The 28 mile loop through the park yields about 75 photos. Then, I’m back on the road for the last leg of my journey. In the scenic east central area of Arizona I drive over mountains and through winding canyons and past the cactus covered deserts. I arrive in Phoenix just as the sun is setting.

Here’s a few observations from this cross country drive.

My biggest surprise is the cost of a medium chocolate shake at McDonalds in Holbrook, Arizona – $3.81 including tax (ouch).

Best breakfast – Golden Corral in Gallup, New Mexico

Best dinner – East by Southwest in Durango, Colorado

Prettiest site – Shiprock monument in Shiprock, New Mexico and Painted Desert overlook in Petrfied Forest National Park

Sleepiest section – eastern Iowa at 1AM

  • $2.03/gallon – Walcott, Iowa
  • $1.99/gallon – York, Nebraska
  • $2.59/gallon – Sterling, Colorado
  • $2.58/gallon – Farmington, New Mexico

Mom’s Toyota Camry performs OK. I check the mileage twice and find that it gets 25 miles per gallon on the interstate highways where the speed limit is 70 mph to 75 mph. However in the high plains of Colorado where the speed limit is 55-60 mph, the car gets an impressive 35 miles per gallon. The bottom-line to maximize your gasoline dollars – slow down.

I pull up to Mom’s house at 6PM – just about 48 hours after leaving Grand Rapids. I unload her belonging from the car, have dinner with my sister and brother-in-law (who also live in Phoenix) and then retire for the night to get some sleep. I’m up at 5AM the next morning for my early flight back to Grand Rapids.

Here’s a few observations about my return flight on Monday morning.

A one-way ticket from Phoenix to Grand Rapids is a sky-high $470.

The leg from Phoenix to Chicago is overbooked. United Airlines asks for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for free travel. Within 5 seconds of the gate agent’s announcement, a dozen volunteers are offering their seats. This is not surprising. With high prices for airline tickets, consumers are on the lookout for ways to save money. Since I want to get home, I don’t volunteer.

One of the passengers confesses that she is upset over the $15 charge for checking her luggage.

Onboard, I find that not only are United’s prices for beer and wine up from $5 to $6, the prices for purchased meals is also up from $5 to $6.

After the 3 hour flight to Chicago and short connection to Grand Rapids, I’m back home by 3:30 PM. Mom’s car is now in Phoenix awaiting for her arrival. I’m happy to have a set of photos from the cross country trip and I’m also happy to get back to work. And all of this completed before the snows begin out West.