13,000 miles, 68 days, 29,000 shutter clicks
There are two big trips that I hope to do some day — one of those around-the-world airline tickets where you pay one price that allows you to make numerous stops around the world as long as you keep going in the same direction, and a cross country road trip across the U.S.A.
That’s one reason I was so fascinated with (and very envious of) Mike Lennett’s Facebook feed the last couple of months as he posted daily updates on his trek across the country. All told, Mike traveled 13,000 miles in 68 days, visiting 27 states, 17 national parks, numerous state and local parks, while notching 29,000 frames on his Canon 6D. Wow. Let that sink in a little bit.
It’s the type of trip a lot of landscape photographers dream about.
For Mike, wanderlust seems to be part of his makeup. He grew up outside of Philadelphia but hit the road at age 18 on a 10-speed bicycle. Over the next 7 years, he traveled across the country riding through 48 states. After notching the 48th state, he met his wife and settled down in northern Virginia, where he has lived since 1986.
While he has always had in interest in photography, like many of us, one day, he decided it was time to up his game. As Mike puts it, he was determined “he would learn to create images instead of just taking snapshots.”
That decision in 2013 would ultimately lead him to his two-month trip across the country with a van packed to the gills with supplies and photography gear.
This trip, however, was no spur of the moment adventure. He saved and meticulously planned every mile. He cut costs by sleeping in the van he bought for the trip, while preparing many of his own meals on a two-burner propane stove. As a courier driver, spending hours on the road was second nature.
And despite being in remote areas with limited internet access, he was able to post regular updates to his Facebook page. And as you can see, his pictures are awe-inspiring.
DC Focused: Tell us a little bit about the planning process for a trip like this. How far in advance did you plan? How did you decide the route?
Mike: With my travelling background, it was an easy choice once my 2 children, Jennifer, and Jonathan grew up and moved out on their own. It actually took a few years of saying I wanted to do a major trip like this to actually planning and setting a date.
The real planning started in the fall last year. Spending probably 100’s of hours on the computer using Google Earth for the images of places across the country, TripAdvisor for reviews, and any other resource I could find online or in books. This info was then placed into MS Streets & Trips map program so that it could set up a route that mades sense. There was obviously too much on it at over 19,000 miles, but better to have more available, than to not have enough. As it turned out, I put on over 13,000 miles during the 68 day journey.
Next step was the gear. Since the plan was for 2 months, and I was to live in my van for that much time I would have to have everything that would be needed for that length of time. I was really happy when I found a metal framed bed that fit perfectly inside the van, with enough room to fit plastic tubs under it for all the stored clothes, food, cookware, camera gear, and any other gear that would be needed. Even my van was bought for the journey. The van I work with had over 350,000 miles on it and for safety and durability reasons, it was replaced.
DCF: Diving a little deeper into the planning — having done trips to National Parks, planning photo shoots for just a week-long trip can be a painstaking process. I can’t even imagine planning shoots for two months straight. Were most of your shoots planned out? How much did random luck have to do with the images you were sharing along the way?
Mike: I had a number of iconic shots planned with exact locations on the map for most of the National Parks and for some other areas, but knew that I would always be looking to shoot anything that looked good to me. Not being legalistic about following a set route on a set date helped when the weather didn’t cooperate. There was flexibility to stay an extra day if the clouds, rain, and even snowfall would move on and allow a shot with good light, especially at sun rise/set. I feel that I’ve been lucky, or rather blessed, in some of the places that allowed for a great view to be captured, sometimes with only seconds to catch it.
DCF: What was the hardest part of the trip? At any point did you consider calling it quits?
Mike: The hardest part of the trip was not having enough time to see, and shoot everything that was out there. The 2nd hardest was when the season started coming into summer at the same time I was coming out of the higher elevations hitting the northern plains. It got hot and stuffy in the van, especially at night. Never once did I ever consider ending the journey early. If I had the resources, I would probably still be on the journey.
DCF: This may be impossible to answer but what was the single most memorable moment of the trip? What is your favorite image from the trip and why?
Mike: There was so much jaw dropping scenery all across the country that, you’re right, it’s nearly impossible to pick one. Some of the highlights would be being surrounded by 19 wild bighorn sheep in the snow in Colorado, hiking canyons in Utah, the waterfalls in Oregon, the volcanic mountains of the upper northwest, and the wildlife and other worldly landscapes of Yellowstone. Oh yeah, the mountains everywhere, especially the ones with snow on them. Possibly my favorite image was a stacked time-lapse of star trails over Mount Rainer in Washington State, with the star trails reflected in a lake. There were climbers on the mountain and the image captured their light trails as they hiked during the night.
DCF:. Best advice you can give someone contemplating a trip like this?
Mike: Go for it! Start with making a list of locations, a list of gear needed, and a realistic amount of time to do it. Then decide how to do it. Be willing to get off the main roads, some of my favorite place were down dirt and gravel roads. Ask a lot of questions, and come up with the answers before finalizing plans. Will you have the long lens that is needed for wildlife, and/or a fast wide angle for the night sky? Will you stay in motels every night or use a van, or RV? Will you cook or eat out 2-3 times a day. How will you keep batteries charged? How will you store your images, and back them up? Will you have a laptop to edit images? If so, will the monitor be calibrated? If you forget something, don’t worry, there are stores everywhere you go. The questions can go on and on, but the bottom line is to be prepared before going into it so that you’re not surprised by anything major.
I would be willing to offer planning services for those that are interested in a journey of epic proportions.