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Looking For New

The never-ending winter (which seemed like a real life version of "Groundhog Day," with Yours Truly playing the role of Bill Murray) finally gave way to spring; but, just like last year, there was a real sense that I was repeating and reiterating myself again (just like "Groundhog Day").

The typical spring itinerary for Yours Truly (and virtually every other photographer in the southeast, it seems nowadays) over the past few years has roughly gone something like this, in some semblance of order:

1) Charleston

2) Cades Cove/Great Smoky Mountains

3) Linville Gorge

4) Blue Ridge Parkway

5) Craggy Gardens/Pinnacle

6) Roan Mountain

It's almost seemed like a rite of passage in the past few years for me to "hit all of the hot spots, to get all of the hot shots." Well, now that social media has inspired virtually everyone to buy a digital camera and become a "photographer," those hot spots are now getting mighty crowded. Which is no bueno for a fierce introvert like myself. I don't like being one in a crowd. Besides, the need to "keep up" and get those "hot shots" has frankly led to burnout--both last year and this year as well.

After my experience at Jane's Bald last year (where I indeed found myself as one in a crowd, and one that I walked away from as well--see my blog "Reboot" to read and see more about it) I desired to do something different. So I got together with my alternative model friend last June and we combined her alternative modeling style with my landscapes, with a touch of graphic art to create something different; and we largely succeeded. It was a nice kick in the pants creatively, I was able to put some of the things I learned in our photo shoots to good use, and it led to a rather productive rest of 2017.

For 2018 though, I wasn't going to do the complete 180 I did a year ago with the modeling shoots; but I did want to break away from the need to go to all of the usual places. And if I did find myself at one of the "hot spots," I was going to seek out something different than the standard, expected fare.

I skipped over the Charleston trip this year, as I felt I'd captured the majesty of Magnolia Gardens as well as I possibly could in 2017. I made a half-hearted trip to Cades Cove a month later, coming away with at least one usable image where I felt I wasn't repeating myself, blooming dogwoods framing one of the historic cabins there with some nice morning light:

In the meantime, one of my old "Tri-Cities" hiking friends had relocated to Virginia, where he now serves as a guide and "adventurer extraordinaire" at the vastly underrated Breaks Interstate Park, billed as the "Grand Canyon of the South" as it straddles the Virginia/Kentucky line. And there is no exaggeration in calling John "Gnome" Forbes an adventurer extraordinaire--he was named "Adventurer of the Year" by Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, and his expertise and knowledge have been invaluable for this rank amateur and for many others over the years.

Gnome invited me to come up and give Breaks a more in-depth look than my very brief first (and only) foray there in 2015. So a week after the Cades Cove trip, I was excited to seek out a different locale to break away from the usual humdrum.

Along the way there that morning, I made a pleasant new discovery as I drove up US Highway 23 near Big Stone Gap, the Powell Valley Scenic Overlook. US 23 is just to the right of the walkway:

Once I arrived at Breaks, I set up shop at Stateline Overlook, which may very well have become my favorite overlook. I stood mesmerized as the skies continuously shifted, a wonderful view to the west of the gorge as it snakes into the horizon:

Soon after this was taken, a thunderstorm (complete with pea size hail) rumbled over the area--but thankfully, it rolled out as quickly as it came.

I later met with John and fellow hiker Dan "Cosmo" Till at the Stateline Overlook parking area. Soon we set forth, as Gnome guided us through nearby trails with impressive rock outcroppings:

....into caves (complete with friendly bats):

......over streams; and finally, off trail and straight up the gut of a steep fissure between two large boulders of exposed granite, leading to a spectacular overlook.

There was more than one way to that unnamed overlook, a decidedly less difficult path to our right that Gnome mentioned; but since Gnome and Cosmo were going straight up the more difficult crack, I decided to take the challenge. And besides, I pretty much had no choice anyway, since I had no idea where that alternate path began, but I digress.....

So as I peered up at that slick, steep fissure, my thoughts veered back to December and my little slip-and-fall broken arm-and-wrist incident; and suddenly, questions began popping in my mind:

"Am I going to be able to pull this off?"

"Should I make out a will before I climb up this thing?"

"If I slip, am I going to slide all the way to Elkhorn City; and if so, will I be able to find someone to pick me up and take me back to my car?"

But John encouraged me with every step, handhold and foothold--this old, out of shape guy grunting and climbing (and mumbling under my breath), until I reached safety--though it felt the whole time as if I was one wrong move from disaster. Or sliding all the way to Elkhorn City.

John told me, as I emerged from the crevice, "You did just fine getting up. Don't sell yourself short." I replied, "Well Gnome, I'm just a stubborn, tenacious old ass."

And once we reached safety (and the overlook) we were treated to quite the sunset show. Thunder began rumbling, lightning struck off in the distance (if only I had a lightning trigger!), rain began to fall (so perhaps we hadn't really reached safety), but I didn't care. I was in the moment, and I wanted to capture that moment as best I could. I tried vertical and horizontal compositions as the sun set, the vertical view being the best route. The resulting image is one of the best images I've taken so far this year, as I wedged myself into a tight space with blooming Catawba Rhododendron and a twisted tree trunk in the foreground. The refreshing part of it all is that I didn't have to go to one of my usual spring itinerary spots to capture it. This was something new:

Speaking of new, this image was also taken with a "new" camera - the amazing Nikon D810, a 36 megapixel dynamo with incredible dynamic range and low light capability. The image above was shot with no graduated filters, as one would not have been practical with the tree in the foreground--I just simply shot a single image, utilizing the full dynamic range of the RAW file in post processing--coming away with an image that contained rich color and almost zero noise or grain, even though the foreground was nearly dark in the original file. I exposed for the sky to prevent blown highlights.

The D810 replaces both of my ancient cameras, the venerable old Nikon D2Xs and D3s. I plan on selling the D3s to help offset the cost of the D810, while the D2Xs will join my other retired cameras on my "camera shelf," since it has so little used value.

My time at Breaks was quite a nice shot in the arm, and a welcome break from the ol' routine. But only a short time later I found myself swerving right back towards that routine with a brief stop to catch the blooms in Linville Gorge, in preparation for a future event:

And yet, that planned event never happened.....

In part two of this blog, you'll find out why......stay tuned.

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