Tuesday, April 5, 2016


I am recovering from a nightmare that turned into what might be called a transformative experience all within a six hour time frame while I was in Yosemite Valley last weekend participating in a landscape photography workshop.


My five companions were strangers with whom I shared one thing in common:  becoming a better photographer. That is why we signed up for a course in a place that many call one of nature's most beautiful creations.


I went to Yosemite with considerable trepidation, concerned that I would not keep up if I didn't understand new concepts.  Now that I'm getting older,  I often need to hear complex instructions more than once, making me fear I might not measure up.  Who wants to look or feel stupid.  It's easy to compare myself with other people I envy because they are so skilled and talented as photographers. This is not jealousy.  Rather I consider it a type of admiration and a desire for me to grow personally, so that some day I might be able to put my name on the same quality of images they do.    The people I'm talking about are not famous photographers like Sally Mann or Ansel Adams.  They are people like you and me, but they are very good at what they do.   Some friends tell me they like my pictures and encourage me to publish a book, but rather than accepting their comments as compliments, I see them as good friends who just want to be nice.


The instructions for the photography course stressed competence in using one's equipment, which rattled me because I had never used a tripod or a cable release and didn't understand certain terms.  For example, what is a mirror lock-up?    I spent an hour one day practicing to open and close the new tripod,  so that I could do it under two minutes.  No one wants to wait around while I fumble, and I didn't want to embarrass myself.  Don't laugh, but I even struggle to open and close hiking poles, which function similarly to the legs of a tripod.  The first cable release I ordered was overly complicated, so at least I had the sense to exchange it for a simple one, but the second one I ordered never arrived.  UPS said it was lost in the mail. 

The workshop weekend was fast approaching -- too fast, in fact, as the course started a few days after I returned from a ten-day trip with the family.  Despite all my years of frequent travel,  I have never unpacked from one trip while packing for another.  Reader, please understand I am not complaining.  I want to paint a realistic picture of what was going on in my head as I prepared for this adventure that would use a new part of my brain as I learned new skills.  At least that was one of my key objectives.

Day One

After a five-hour drive we arrived in Yosemite late in the afternoon, and began taking pictures at one of the park's many iconic sights called Valley View.  We hoped to catch the last rays of sun shining on the cascading waters of Bridalveil Falls.  Although I tend to shoot mainly in the aperture priority setting, the goals for this afternoon were to shoot only in shutter priority setting, to examine the histogram of each photo, and not to worry if the image was overexposed.  Our instructor, David, moved easily among us, chatting about how to set up, checking our shutter speeds, and showing us how to evaluate histograms.   I took about 45-50 images, but after the sun faded,  we packed up our gear and drove 30 minutes back to our motel, which was located outside of the national park. 


 Day Two  

At 7 a.m. we returned to the valley to capture the early morning light that showcases Yosemite Falls, which was at its peak given this year's excellent snowpack.  I had a little pit in my stomach since the peer review session the night before highlighted something I suspected.   My five newfound friends were much more experienced photographers than I.   Again I compared myself with the others and assumed they knew much more about photography than I did. 

Today we were instructed to shoot in the manual setting, one  which I have avoided because I thought it was too complicated and didn't bother to learn.   After David explained the camera setting, the others began shooting away.  I didn't understand what he meant as some of this was new language for me.   He reviewed the instructions again.  What don't you understand?    I let him know that numbers scare me.  I am a person of words not numbers,  I explained to David, but he ignored my excuses and continued to explain.  "Pam," he said, "slow down.  Follow my directions.   Take one step at a time.  This is what I want you to do."  I took a deep breath and slowed down.  I listened more carefully and followed the steps he explained one by one.  A couple of images later I checked my histograms and thought to myself, wow,  I think I got it.   David reviewed my histograms and said,  "Pam, I think you got it."


Day 3  

Today we would have an early start, which meant no time for  breakfast.  We would leave the motel at 6 a.m. and drive thirty minutes back to the valley and photograph in Cook's Meadow at sunrise.  This would be the same spot where Ansel Adams took one of his most treasured images -- the last remaining elm tree in Yosemite Valley, backlit against the dominance of the majestic rock formation called Half Dome.

The night before I laid out my warmest clothes, so when the alarm went off,  I could dress quickly and be on time.  There might even be extra time to make a cup of coffee in the small drip pot that was in the room. Some of you know that I am always prompt, if not some times early.  I set my phone alarm for 5 a.m., shut off the light, and quickly fell asleep, exhausted from a day filled with new facts and information.  

I was in a deep sleep when I barely heard a light knocking at my door. The second knock woke me up, and the third knock had me jumping out of bed.   I looked at the clock.  It was ten after six!   I had overslept, something I have never done before.  Half asleep, I fumbled with the security lock and opened the door.   "My alarm didn't go off," I shouted to Greg, one of my new friends who came to check on me since I wasn't at the van when we were supposed to leave.  I opened the door a crack and groaned, "Oh, dear,  I overslept.  My alarm never went off."  I was stunned.  "We're leaving now," Greg said. "We will meet you this afternoon when we return to the motel around 2."   What else could I say, but OK, I will see you then, but after closing the door, I stomped around my room like a banshee hen and instead of cluck, cluck, cluck, it was fuck, fuck, fuck."  I could hear the rushing water coming from the Merced River right behind my room, but the tears streaming down my face were silent.  I sat on the bed and looked at my iPhone.  The 5 a.m. alarm was turned on so I don't know why I had a problem.   I brushed my teeth and quickly dressed.  I couldn't worry about the alarm's malfunction.  I needed to figure out my alternatives.  No way would I sit in this drab motel room and wait until my friends returned from Cook's Meadow after they had  fun shooting at sunrise.   My head cleared.   I had a plan.  I would hitchhike to the valley, and if I was unable to find Cook's Meadow,  I would find another place to photograph and meet the group at Yosemite Lodge for lunch.  

Adrenaline surged through my body as I grabbed my jacket, my camera and a hat.  My tripod was still in the van from the day before.  I slammed the room's door behind me and rushed out into the large but silent parking lot, which was filled with cars belonging to guests who were sleeping peacefully in their rooms.   I looked up and down, over and behind, but there was nothing but silence.   There had to be people wanting to get to the valley at dawn, I thought, and suddenly I heard a car's engine start somewhere in the vicinity, but I couldn't see where the noise was coming from.   I had to hurry and find the car so I could talk to the people about getting a ride.  Suddenly I saw headlights coming from a chartreuse-colored van, and I could see the  driver begin to pull away.  I ran as fast as I could toward the slowly moving car, yelling for him to stop and thankfully, he did.  Rolling down his window, a man looked at me curiously, but he gave me a big smile.   I'm sure he heard some panic in my voice. "Are you going to the valley by any chance?" I asked. "Yes, we are," the man said.   "Can I hitch a ride with you?  I'm here taking pictures with a group, and I screwed up.  I overslept."

"We'll make room for you," he said as he rolled up two sleeping bags spread out in the back of the van.   "We are Bill and Arlene, a couple of Aussies, doing a quick American drive by," he told me. "We came for a conference and thought we would rent a well-equipped camper van and see some of your country's beautiful sights."   I climbed into the back of the van and sat on a still-warm mattress, which had been their bed for the night. My legs were outstretched, and I was so rattled, I didn't bother to try and find the seat belt.  Adrenaline continued to pump through my body.  My anxiety level was very high, but I never asked myself this question.  Should I be getting in a car with strangers?  I didn't ask myself because hitchhiking to Yosemite Valley was the only solution to my dilemma.  It was my plan. 

"Do you know where Cook's Meadow is? " I asked Bill.
"No, we arrived late last night," he responded, "so we haven't been to the valley yet."   "If we can't find the meadow," I told them, "you can drop me off at the lodge, and I'll figure out the rest."  I knew there was a good chance I would miss the group, as well as the early morning light. 

The drive seemed to take forever, but once we reached the one-way road I knew we were headed in the right direction.  The Aussies asked me a lot of questions about how to get out of Yosemite and drive to Death Valley, but I was so hyper and too focused to give them an answer that I was sure was right.  "Take a left turn here," I said when I saw the sign for Sentinel Bridge.  David, our instructor,  pointed out Sentinel Bridge the day before and pointed out its proximity to Cook's Meadow.

"There it is. That's the meadow," I shouted when I saw the big black Suburban van we were using parked in a lot across the street.   I also thought I saw a blue down jacket that another photographer had been wearing, but she seemed a long way away.  "I think I see my friends with their tripods.  This is where I want to be dropped off," I said.  I got out of the van, pulled a twenty dollar bill from my pocket and shoved it into Bill's hand as a way to say thank you.  "No, no," he said.  "No way could we take money from you because then we wouldn't see it as our helping out some lady."  I gave him a quick hug and he and Arlene drove away.  

My five friends were a good distance from the van, so I ran fast toward them shouting,  "Hey guys, it's me.  I'm here.  Don't leave.  Please wait."  I was breathless by the time I reached them, and they were shocked and amazed to see me. David handed me the van keys so I could run back and retrieve my tripod.   "We only have ten more minutes of decent light," David said, "so please hurry, but avoid running on the boardwalk because you might cause some vibration for others taking photos.  I ran as fast as I could back to the car and grabbed my tripod from the trunk.  Then I ran back again, opening up my tripod as I moved.   How amazing.  Just a week before I was in my living room learning to open and close the tripod legs under two minutes, and now I was running as fast as I could back to the group and opening the tripod legs at the same time.  Luckily I didn't trip and fall.  I found a spot, set up my tripod and turned the knob to secure my camera on the tripod's head.  I saw the reflection of Yosemite Falls in a small pool of water surrounded by the meadow grass, and the beauty overwhelmed me.  I fought back tears as I turned on my camera.  David's advice from the previous day repeated itself in my head.  Slow down, take one step at a time, focus, and press the shutter release.   Six or seven images later, the other photographers were closing up their tripods.  The light was changing fast.  We had to move on.  I tried to speak to everyone in a calm voice.  I didn't want anyone to guess that my emotions were in overdrive. 


Like photographers do, we followed the light and eventually found another area in which to shoot.   I still couldn't believe that my hitchhiking plan worked, and I was here now with the others taking images of Yosemite Falls reflected in the water, as well as images of  the slowly dying lone elm tree backlit against the granite face of Half Dome.

After a late breakfast at the lodge, we had time to browse in the Ansel Adams Gallery next door.  I wanted to ask about a signed Ansel Adams photograph I bought in this same gallery for $10 in 1967 because over the years I have wondered whether the signature meant the photograph was an original.  I talked with a young man who asked me questions about my photograph.  His questions morphed into a nice conversation about the beauty and solitude of Ansel's images, and that's when I started to cry.  It wasn't an out and out bawl.  Tears simply welled up in my eyes and slid down my cheeks.  I'm not sure what the clerk thought when I quickly wiped the tears away, but I know he saw them.  He probably could also hear some emotion in my voice as I spoke.  He might have thought I was some crazy lady reliving her life in the sixties.  Then I saw a series of small books on a table nearby and picked up one called The Four Agreements.  As I leafed through the self-help book, one of the four agreements jumped out at me.  It said Do not make assumptions.  Continuing further,  I read that making assumptions is believing they are true.  In other words we often don't perceive things the way they really are.  We imagine what other people think, and we make up stories about ourselves and quickly jump to conclusions.  David's words echoed in my head.  Pam, slow down and focus.  You will get this.  We assume that others think the way we think, feel the way we feel, and judge the way we judge.  This is why we sometimes fear that others will judge us and blame us as we often do to ourselves.  I bought The Four Agreements book, as a gift, knowing I will order another copy for myself because each of the Four Agreements were pertinent to how I want to live my life.

After the drive back to the motel following lunch, I went to my room and called Bruce.  I told him about what had happened that morning, how horrible I felt, how devastated I was to possibly miss out, and how I blamed myself for being so stupid not to set a second alarm, although that is something I actually never do.  I always rely on my phone.   Then I started to cry.  These were not simply a few tears.  I really began to bawl.  There was silence on the other end.  I blabbered something about how stunned I was at my perseverance to get to Cook's Meadow on my own.  Through the tears, I tried to explain the anxiety I was feeling but at the same time I asked Bruce what was it about this experience that made me so emotional.  I just didn't understand.  Honestly, it took at least several minutes for the bawling to stop.  All this time Bruce remained silent on the phone "Do you know why I'm crying so hard?" I asked.  "What's going on?"  Why am I so emotional?  

"Yes, I know, Bruce said softly.  "I know because I understand you.
What you were feeling this morning was panic and humiliation.  Panic that you would miss out on something really really special, and humiliation because you thought others would judge you.  But you overcame the panic and focused on how you were going to resolve the problem.  You used resources you didn't know you had, and even though you were taking somewhat of a chance by getting into a vehicle with strangers, your resolve to get to Yosemite any way you could pushed you into another zone.  In the beginning it was fear but in the end it was determination, and I have seen you do this before.  This is one of the reasons I love you."  "Oh, my God,  you do understand me," I sobbed.  You truly do.  There was enormous power in Bruce's words.  He truly did understand me.  But why do I do this?  Why do I compare myself with others?  Are these fears based on faulty assumptions I make about myself.  There is no need to judge myself based on the abilities of others.  Can I possibly transform my mind and understand that in reality I am fundamentally equal to others?  Although I pose this as a question, I must accept this as the truth.

It took a combination of fear, determination, and a plan, plus a few sentences from a self-help book to bring me to this realization.  But the real essence of this growing experience was the insights of my incredible husband who truly does understand me, and his ability to synthesize and summarize my babbling words, which set me on a course of continuing to try and understand myself. 

In the meantime, I can exult in my beautiful images of Yosemite Valley, no doubt enhanced by my newly-gained facility of shooting in manual. 



NB:  If you are interested in learning more about David's workshops and the programs he offers, please write me at bikerchickgonecrazy@gmail.com.    The two workshops I attended were excellent, and I highly recommend him.