Arches National Park – Monument Valley – Arcosanti – Grand Canyon National Park – Canyonlands National Park – Boulder, CO
About a year ago I saw a photograph of a “festival” by the incredibly talented Julian Bajsel. I had the pleasure of shooting a show with him when Odesza came through Washington, DC. I asked him about the event and he told me about FORM. A 3 day event in the desert of Arizona. After 30 minutes of research I instantly knew that I needed to attend this unique musical experience. I reached out to my friend Lauren, who I knew would be the only person that would want to take on such a big adventure across the country. After many many months of planning, tickets purchased and our nerves growing with excitement, Lauren and her boyfriend moved to Colorado. This didn’t throw a wrench in the plan, it only made it an even bigger adventure than we had originally had in our minds.
We were now planning on driving from Colorado to Arizona to attend FORM. What this meant, is that we were going to pack a jeep full of everything we needed and make it a weeks worth of fun, rather than just a few days. I flew from Baltimore, MD to Denver, CO on Wednesday and was welcomed by Matt at the airport with an ice cold seltzer and a big smile. After dinner, and reorganizing my luggage for the following morning, and making a huge mess in their living room, I got a great night’s sleep in a real bed. Our alarms went off at 7:30 am Thursday morning, and we quickly packed the jeep with all of our clothing, backpack camping gear, a cooler full of vegan food, and 5 cameras to document the experience. After a quick stop for cans of cold brew coffee, we were officially on the road. When I left Maryland it was about 72 degrees. It was a brisk 45 degrees in Colorado. Once we started heading west from Boulder…. it started snowing. And the further up the Rockies we got, the more the snow came down. As the jeep climbed the beautiful roads of the front range, we arrived at 11,000 feet with about 8 inches of snow and a cool temperature of 33 degrees. It slowed us down a bit, but didnt stop us from getting to our next destination – ARCHES NATIONAL PARK.
As a photographer, Arches has been something I have been looking at since I can remember. And to be able to drive right up in there and pull out a camera has been a dream for a long time. We decided to go right to the park, not look for a campsite, but to get right into the dust and dirt. As we drove up the gigantic turns of the front cliff, our emotions were buzzing all over the place. That first site of a butte when we finally got to the top was a feeling I cant put into words. It was beautiful, it was 65 degrees, and we were ready for adventure. We drove and hiked through the park until the sun set, seeing about 6 different arches and endless vistas. We were on the road for 6.5 hours from Boulder to Moab. We now needed to find a place to camp and get some rest to be prepared for FORM the following morning. We had researched a hand full of campsites that were first come first serve, but guess what? They were full. After 45 minutes of driving to each spot hoping to pull in a get a site, we ended up at Moab Brewery to eat and do some more searching on our phones. Thankfully Matt texted us and told us about a wonderful app (iOverlander) that within 10 minutes, we found numerous options for free backcountry camping. I put the coordinates into our GPS and off we drove. It was 10:00pm. We are now on a busted up half paved, half gravel road, twisting and turning up what we think is a mountain. The info on the app said “when you see mile marker 4661, turn left”. After 9 miles on said busted road, Lauren spotted the sign, I reversed and we pulled the jeep down into a rocky dirt road. We found a “flat” area and set up our tent and quickly went to bed. The following morning, I woke up first and got out of the tent. “Holy Shit”, is all I could say. We were camped at the bottom of the La Sal Mountains, and the sun was coming up behind them, with massive clouds and fog flowing over the rim. And just to the west was a golden lit view of the outskirts of Arches. MAGIC. We packed up our campsite and were officially on the road to FORM.
A few hours later, we got off of the highway, seeing the sign for ARCOSANTI. We are now officially HOME. The line for festival arrival was long, but doable. We parked our jeep, gathered everything we needed for the event, and checked in. After a short time, we boarded a shuttle to take us to our campsite. We were fortunate enough to stay in a pre-set canvas tent with 2 single mattresses, side tables, and lanterns. Big change from the previous night of sleeping bags and small air pads. As we unpacked our stuff and got ourselves ready for the weekend to come, the sun came out and we were now officially in festival mode. We walked down the paved paths to the first building, passed through, in awe of the design, and made our way to the first set of our weekend. The best part about FORM is the incredible diversity of the line up. It has DJ’s, rock bands, folk music, and endless amounts of instructional talks and demonstrations. Kilo Kish, was the first act we saw. A singer and DJ combo that brought such high energy to the crowd. I wasn’t quite prepared for that, but damn did I have a good time. We posted up behind the stage on a blanket for SERPENTWITHFEET. A solo piano set, full of soul and inspirational music. It was incredible. As the sun began to set, we wandered over to the Envelop stage to watch the sunset while Christopher Williets created soundscapes from another world using a guitar and his voice. The sun went down, the stars came out, and the night life had begun. We made a trip back to the tent to get warmer clothes and get prepared for the show of the night. We were lucky enough to meet someone at lunch who we instantly became friends with. Amy and her two friends had saved some space for us 1st row stage right. We were literally less than 10 ft from the stage. In anticipation for Florence, we weren’t expecting the incredibly talented poet and writer, YRSA DALEY-WARD to come out before. Her words and the way she presented them were captivating and paralyzing. I felt like i was seeing something that no one had ever seen before. She walked off the stage with pure confidence.Now, I have seen Florence before, at Merriweather Pavilion. A 25,000 person venue. So to be first row with less than 2,000 people instantly made the show a one of a kind experience. And, the hear her say “I get really nervous in front of small crowds”, gave me goosebumps. We ended our night with a intense DJ set by Peggy Gou. We had been on the road all day, hiked and walked all over a national park the day/night before, so by the end of that, we called it a night and missed out on the Bonobo set (i know, i know, i should have pushed through).
DAY TWO OF FORM was now underway – With breakfast served and consumed, we packed up a backpack of stuff to make sure we stayed in the venue damn near all day to make sure we didn’t miss anything. The first thing on the agenda was a Fungi workshop with a Pennsylvania based farmer. In the 1 hour ted talk, we learned so much that I think we are now both going to become mushroom farmers. It motivated us to buy numerous mushroom coffees, and elixirs from a different mushroom vendor up on the hill. We quickly made our way over to a “stage” that was posted at the edge of a cliff overlooking the desert. This stage focused on soundscape artists. The in the round environment featured speakers surrounding a circular pillow area where we would lay down, look up and the sky and let the music take over. It was soothing, and very surreal. Now, for one of the highlights of the trip. A curated, augmented reality, based around the music and art of Sigur Ros. Now, before you call it some hippy shit, let me explain to you how amazing it was. If anyone knows me, you know that I have been a super fan of the bands since i was in my mid teens. And to have the experience was something I wasn’t taking lightly. With 3D goggles on, the host hit play. I was now in the room with shapes colors and organic matter floating around for me to interact with, grow, manipulate and change. All while atmospheric sounds by Sigur Ros were in my ears. This is yet another experience I can’t explain well enough. Next up, PUSSY RIOT. I feel truly lucky to have been able to see this band. They only have 5 dates on their schedule and this was the only one in the U.S. Russian anarchist women, performing high energy protest dance music. While wearing masks to give the impression of some sort of chemical warfare.
We headed to dinner and sat with our new found friends and tried to make a plan for seeing music the rest of the night. Little did we know that everyone at the festival wanted to see the same things we did, and it was tough to get a good spot. We posted up at the top railing of the AMP for Khruangbin. A three piece soul/funk band that creates a unique sound. It was a dance party. And as the set went on, it built and built into larger and larger sounds and grooves. We danced, bobbed our heads, and watched the crowds energy increase through their one hour set. As the sun set on another day of magical proportions, we hit the tent to get warmer clothes, and headed back to the main stage (AMP). It was surrounded by people waiting to see the next artist, who we had never heard of. I made friends with a cute couple that graciously gave me a spot at the railing at the top left side of the theater. The guy said to me, “why is so packed? Ive never heard of this artist”. I responded humbly with, “Yeah, me either but if this many people are here, its bound to be really good right?”. He smiled and laughed at me, gave me a nice smack on the ass and said, we shall see. KELSEY LU, took the stage. And one minute into her first song, the guy turns to me and said, “fuck you, how did you know this??!”. I smiled at him and directed my attention at the show that wound up being unbelievable. It was a artistic and opera like approach to independent creative expression. A large sound coming from such a small women. The band backed her with massive build ups and precise rhythms. Her set started 55 minutes late. Which made the schedule move around a little bit. The artist to perform after was moved over to the stage next door. We weren’t able to get to see because we were very particular about having a great spot for ANDERSON PAAK. We did just that. Kelsey Lu ended, and the AMP started to disperse a bit. We quickly made our way down a few rows and laid out blanket down to reserve out space for what would end up being our favorite show of the weekend. AP was scheduled to play from 10:30 to 11:45. But he didn’t take the stage until 11:15pm. He came out with pure fire. A massive presence, with a band to pull the load of his giant personality. This was the first “hip hop” act of the weekend. Filled with tons of soul sessions and him on drums. You can tell that he is a performer, that he has been playing larger clubs and rooms. He took advantage of the intimate atmosphere that FORM provides. There was a moment when he said, “Hey, turn all the lights off”. And then the crowd pulled out their phones and put the flashlight on. He then directed the crowd to wave the lights back and forth, and instantly the band and fans were connected as one. His set ended early… but then… he came out for a 45 minute encore where the party really started. The performance came to an end at 12:45am. And we all knew that Anderson was more than happy and humble to have been a part of this unique venue and community.
We headed back to the tent after a marathon of music. Lauren hit the bed and I grabbed my tripod to head out for some night time photographs. I was in high need of capturing the projection mapped cliff side. I sat and stared for a while. I was in a psychedelic trance per say. I was overwhelmed with the color and sound that surrounded me while dangling my legs off the edge of a 200 ft drop. I captured what I needed, packed up my stuff and walked away….. but why go to bed when there is so much to be seen? I walked over to check out KAYTRANADA. A dj bumping house music with great visuals and high intensity beats. I decided instantly that since im now energized by this music, that I should make the most out of my night up. I wandered the property and took some more photos before face planting into my bed back at camp.
DAY THREE OF FORM: Every morning kind of starts the same. The sun comes up and I wake up about a hour after it. Just like a normal day at home i guess. Except, im waking up in a canvas tent in a real bed with a lantern and bedside table. That’s how i want to do every festival from this day forward. I wake up, grab a camera, or two, and wander the property, photographing the amazing architecture on the property and hoping i get in to the yoga session (i didn’t). After a few miles of walking around I came back to the tent to meet up with Lauren and get our day started. We packed up the blanket and headed over to brunch. All vegan, gluten free food has been the diet all weekend. We filled ourselves with the best food around and headed down to the AMP to see FRED ARMISEN. I had watched his stand up on the tv, but it was so much more than that when seeing it in person. He played off the audience, a lot. We were close to the stage, and he even walked out a few feet from us during one of his bits. The entire theater was packed to the gills. Unlike any other performance at 12 noon. We laughed, laughed so hard that my eyes watered and dried instantly from the desert weather. After a hour of Fred, we wandered again. Drinking copious amounts of CBD water to stay hydrated and “chill”. We wound up back at the AMP to see a resident artist, LONNIE HOLLEY. A man who paints, and creates music. His music is only ever played once. Meaning, the lyrical content and melodies are on the spot. And damn… it was amazing. We decided right after that it was time to go explore the desert more. Like, not on the property. We packed up our stuff at camp and jumped on a shuttle back to the jeep. Little did we know what we were about to get ourselves in to.
The jeep is full of our bags, CBD water, Stumptown Cold brew, and every bit of camping gear we need. We are now 80mph moving north to Grand Canyon National Park. We decided on the south rim, to avoid any sort of rules we would need to follow. We drove in, showed the Nation Park pass and headed east around the rim. Now, for anyone who has ever breathed air, you have pretty much been shown a picture or told a story of the Grand Canyon. So, I really wasnt that hyped on visiting. Until I got there. The grand canyon is exactly that. GRAND. It was much more vast, large, deep, big, amazing, and quite confusing then i ever imagined. I was actually speechless. I couldn’t wrap my head around the intense depth of the canyon. I was standing at the top of a flat land, looking down 1 mile. I will say it again. Looking down 1 mile. My eyes and brain couldn’t make sense of it at all. With a camera in my hand, I struggled to take a picture that felt realistic. The space was the grand. We hit a few look out points and decided to take a dirt road through national forest to check out a place to camp for the night. We found it. 8 miles south of the canyon. There was not a human around. So we instantly jumped back in the Jeep and raced ourselves to a east push out of the canyon. Why? Because were gonna see the sun set. It was perfect. A silver rocked ledge on the east site of the canyon, with the sun setting perfectly in the west amongst the flat plains of arizona. Sounds perfect right? It wasn’t. We picked a spot that was easy to drive up to. That families on vacation chose as well. Families that had balls big enough to bring there small little children down to. We posted up on the rim of the canyon, my tripod and camera ready for the sun to set. Our phone set for time lapse. But. Behind us, a family of… 7? And to the left another family of 5? All kids running and screaming like they were at disneyland. As horrible as it sounds, it was worse. But we didnt let it change anything for us. We had the best spot and watched that big orange ball drop below the west rim of the canyon.
Now that the little creatures have left, we jumped in the jeep and offroad our ass’ into the woods. Pulling up to a private, quiet, and FREE campsite in the middle of the forest. It had a fire pit, we build our first fire of the trip. Well actually Lauren made the fire happen, not me. I busted out the tripod again and got some shots of the stars. Asking her every 10 minutes, “where is the milky way?!?!?!”. I never found it. It was 55 degrees when we got into the tent. I woke up at 3am randomly, saw my breath, checked my apple watch, and low and behold, its 30 degrees. I was frozen. The coldest night of our trip. I slipped deeper into my sleeping back and pushed my pillow in the the hole to make me a nice warm vesile. I slept great. We both woke up at the same time. About 730am. We were packed, loaded, and driving north by 8:15am. Next stop Canyonlands National Park.
Here’s the thing, I only did research on a few parks. Canyonlands wasn’t one of them. But lauren insisted we visit. And I have to say, she was way more then right on this one. The one thing I didn’t know about the park is that, there really aren’t paved roads to get you to thing to thing. Which I am ok with, I just didn’t know. So Lauren being the bad ass women that she is, took the map and told me where to go. She picked a 4×4 road so we could truly JEEP. Well, we did just that. I made a left turn on to a gentle gravel road that quickly turned into the most intense driving situation i have ever done. Those who know me, know that I have been without a car for 1 year. I ride a bike, a fixed gear bike around the great city of Baltimore and Philadelphia. So, now I am the driver of a jeep on a straight up cliff in the middle of nowhere Utah. We headed down, I was not allowed to look anywhere but straight ahead unless i was stopped and in park. Adn trust me, it was the correct thing to do. 45 minutes later, we made it down the 4,000 ft cliff. Lauren took over the jeep so i could take pictures. It wasn’t that easy. This wasn’t a road. It wasn’t just crushed rock. It was straight up dirt and boulders. A true 4×4 trail. FUCK YEAH i said to myself holding my $4,000 camera rig. We bounced our asses around these roads. Never knowing what was next. T-Tops off the jeep with the desert sun backing me like a chicken wing. “Put more sunblock on” Lauren said. “Nah, i’m good, i swear”. 3.5 hours later, we saw Utah’s version of horseshoe bend, buttes, vistas, and endless amounts of the most beautiful red soil you could imagine. We both made little terrariums to take back with us. We finally made it out of the park and onto the main road that leads into Moab. “What do we do now?”. Well, we sped our asses down the road, back to Arches National Park, and find a spot to watch the sun set. We did just that. We found a 4×4 road in arches that led us to a quiet rock where we could see a ton of land with arches in the distance. I set up my tripod, we unpacked out dinner, and sat there and watched the sun disappear across one of the most beautiful vistas of the trip. It was like the lion king. Everything the sun touches…. Is Arches. And in the moment, it was ours.
We cleaned up our trash, leaving no trash and got back in the jeep. Driving out of the park , we found a recycling stop to empty out the days worth of trash and recycling we had so thoroughly been keeping track of. It was our last night before heading back to Colorado. Rather then drive south back to the La Sal Mountains, we again used the iOverlander app and found a free camping spot 30 minutes north of Moab. When pulling off onto the road, i looked at the GPS and it said 54 more minutes to the destination. That seemed a little overkill. So 2 miles into the drive, a perfect little spot below some boulders appeared. We set up our tent in the field, parked the jeep, and said “thank you Utah” one last time. The next morning we woke up with yet again, another amazing view of La Sal to the east. We slept well, the temperature was great, and now we were off on the last 6 hour drive of our trip, up through northern Utah and the Rocky Mountains. This time around, we knew wouldn’t be driving through a blizzard. We were able to stop in really cute towns like Georgetown, before powering through to north Boulder. Once we were about home, i mentioned to Lauren that i kind of wanted to recreate a photo i took in 2007 when in boulder. At the top of the flatirons, off of Baseline Road. She hadn’t heard of this. Which for me, felt kind of empowering considering i live in Philadelphia and she is a Coloradian. We changed the GPS and a hour later, Lauren was driving us up the front range. Once we got to the top, i remember the spot from years ago, from 2007. It had changed…. A lot. There was now a parking lot, and a trail to the spot. Once walking the trail i was greeted by some Jamaicans, smoking blunts and drinking 40’s. “Do you” i said, as i set up my tripod. I then kindly asked them if they could stand behind me while i cranked out a few photos. They eagerly did and awaited to see my final product. 20 minutes later, we are again, back in the jeep and headed home. Home to Longmont, CO. Home to where we can both take a hot shower, lay in a bed and watch game of thrones. A home where I can look at all my photos on my computer and ask myself why i didn’t take more pictures. And at the end of the day, I didn’t shoot nearly as much as i thought i would. And i’m thankful for that. Because a lot of the trip couldn’t be captured in a still frame to say anything at all. We came back to a home where I knew the next morning, i was getting on a train and headed back to reality. It felt great to be there. We drank one more CBD water and slept for 10 hours.
This trip was planned to experience FORM. But it turned into so much more. Much more than i was ready for. Much more than what either one of us could imagine in our minds. But once it started, my mind and body was able to take on all of it. Every new band, every new site. Even the biggest part, the desert. I can’t thank Lauren enough for being the best travel partner. For always making sure she was driving so I could take pictures. Im thankful for Matt for letting me take his girlfriend away for 7 days to explore the great unknown of Utah. I’m just thankful.