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The Best Of 2023

(Or, looking back through my images over the past year to find needles in haystacks)

When I wrote my "year end" blog a year ago, the recurring theme of that blog was "keeping the fire alive." In fact, it was the blog's title!

And in 2023, that particular motif still holds true.

Admittedly, it's getting harder and harder to stay fresh.

Like 2022, this year was more notable for my travels than the results of those travels - especially during autumn, where it's often feast or famine (this year leaned towards the latter, but we'll get to that).

Yet still, a few gems emerged from all that driving. And here's the best of those gems:

Autumn Course

I was invited to photograph a local golf course - a private, high-end course set high in the mountains just outside Waynesville and Sylva.

Being a golf nut, I'd wanted to see the course for years anyway, it's close to home, so I thought, "Why not?" It was a gorgeous autumn morning, with the course in perfect shape and fall colors at peak. I wheeled around in a golf cart by myself for roughly two hours capturing every angle I could (I was the only photographer there that day) - and the views were absolutely stunning, like the view seen above.

Smoky Mountain Haze

I began a late June day by driving some back roads in East Tennessee after seeing an article about a couple who restored an old “See Rock City” barn in Crossville. I thought of driving over to Crossville to check it out (also to enjoy a brisket sandwich at the Crossville Buc-ee’s) but then I realized the Buc-ee’s in Sevierville was finally open. So I headed back from just east of Knoxville to pay a visit (and wade through a veritable sea of people). The trip to Crossville would come later, kicking off not only an exciting summer's worth of journeys (chasing down old "See Rock City" barns), but yielding many new images, one of which will be seen later in this blog.

I decided to finish the day high up in the Smokies, and I arrived just below Newfound Gap just in time for a great - but extremely hazy - light show.

Linville Blooms

As you'll see, I spent a lot of time around Linville Gorge this spring. My second home seemed to be the Pixie Inn in the Linville community as the blooms in and around the gorge came and went. By the end of spring, the nearby Mexican restaurant knew me on a first name basis, but I digress...

This one came overlooking the plunge basin of Linville Falls, with Carolina Rhododendron blooms framing the cascade.

Blown Away

Spring came early to Linville Gorge, with the rhododendron blooms popping late April rather than the typical first week or two of May. But freezing weather killed off much of the premature blooms, and tropical storm force winds just about blew me off Hawksbill. Good thing I'm carrying around a few extra pounds nowadays...

I brought out my "new" 14mm ultra wide lens for this one. The lens is actually an old Nikkor that was first released around the time when the Nikon D1 - the first truly viable professional digital camera - came to market in 1999 (sorry, Kodak). So it has its limitations, but it gets the job done, and it did well here, opening up new compositional ideas for me. Speaking of...

Up Close

As mentioned, the 14mm lens opened up a whole new world for me, allowing me to get close to a foreground subject while still being able to compose my typical widescreen images. Rough Ridge provided me that opportunity, as I found a cluster of rhododendron just before I reached the popular rock outcropping high up on the trail. So I took the often cliched "flowers in the foreground, landscape in the distance" vertical photo and turned it on its side. The only thing I wished could be different with this image is a better sky.

Table Rock View

A simple, vertical image of Table Rock, taken from the Chimneys section of Linville Gorge in spring. Sometimes, the best images don't always have to be dazzling showstoppers. They can just convey the peace and joy of the moment. And I felt both in shooting this image.

Historic Barn

There's something beautiful - yet sad - about this old barn I captured in Sweetwater, TN earlier this summer as part of my larger "See Rock City" barns project.

In 2013, I shot an image of this same barn, in far better condition. When I returned at the end of August, I first mistook it for a barn I'd never seen before. It was only after comparing the before and after images that I realized it was in fact the same barn. The roof markings gave it away.

The years and overgrowth have given it a certain character; yet still, its long overdue for a restoration, so generations long after I'm gone can enjoy this bit of history. You can read more about this barn and many other "See Rock City" barns I captured over the summer of 2023 here:

Spring Has Sprung. Or Something Like That...

When spring...springs, or blossoms, or blooms, or comes alive...I usually head to the upstate of South Carolina first, where the Blue Ridge meets the Piedmont.

The glorious peach blossoms of Hyder Farms in Landrum are a wonderful place to start in my pursuit of spring beauty.

The farm sits at the foot of Hogback Mountain, also known as the southeastern-most protrusion of the Blue Ridge Mountain escarpment at 3,200 feet above sea level, and the highest point in the image (at upper right).

It was a warm early March day at the farm when I captured this image. And I wasn't done yet. This was just a stop along the way to coastal South Carolina - Charleston and Magnolia Plantation, where I captured even more blooms, albeit in slightly less favorable conditions. Nonetheless, any day chasing after early spring blooms is indeed a good day. And this day was about as good as it gets.

Firecrackin' Fourth of July - the Highlands Edition

The question of where I'd enjoy an Independence Day fireworks display was answered when I decided on a spot I didn't think of at first - lovely Highlands, NC, where I'd get a bird's eye view from atop Sunset Rock.

The rain that came through just before sunset not only ran off a good chunk of the tourists (no complaints here), but it also left some low lying clouds and fog, which wonderfully lit up in whatever color the fireworks happened to be as they rose into the sky - like the red and orange seen here.

A New Twist

I've lived here in Western North Carolina for nearly a decade now. So I've seen a lot of the same overlooks and vistas many times. It's finding new vistas that's always the challenge.

But then again there's always the challenge of finding a new twist on a familiar overlook.

And in early June, I stood right on the precipice of a steep drop at one of those familiar overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway to incorporate rhododendron blooms into a colorful wide angle sunset scene.

A Familiar View

Then again, there's those familiar places where the colors and light are so good they transcend all the clichés. Cowee Mountain Overlook, delivering once again in early spring.

Frosty Roan

Every time I've ever visited Roan Mountain in winter I was greeted with the familiar ice and snow - and a heaping helping of fog. I wasn't fogged in on December 11 though, with fast moving clouds and the occasional peek of blue, like here at Carver's Gap.

My Favorite(s)

And my best of 2023?

It was that incredible October day where winter decided to crash autumn's party. In an autumn that was less than spectacular for me, this was that one spectacular day. And ironically, winter had to prop it all up.

There was the Blue Ridge Parkway near home, just below Waterrock Knob:

And the image that (for me) nudges out the one above - a "yin and yang" view of autumn color transitioning into winter white, just below Newfound Gap in the Smokies:

But now, it's 2024. The slate is clean, the ambitions are high - as is the desire to keep things fresh. All those landscapes are out there, waiting to show off God's beauty.

So let's get this party started, shall we?

Happy New Year to you all!

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Robert, I absolutely LOVE your eye for light, and color and compostion! Plus I love our mountains and rivers and streams and trees! 😂 I finally moved into my new little house at the end of October. White walls everywhere! 😜😂 I’m gonna paint soon. I’m also going to finally get around to ordering pictures from your collection. Not sure how in the world I’m gonna choose!! I do have some favorites though. 😊♥️

Happy New Year!! 🎉🎉2024

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