Focus Trek #5 – Looking for a Heartbeat in Telluride (Part 1)

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This is part 1 of 2. Part 2 is here:  Looking for a Heartbeat in Telluride (Part 2)

Notes on a first workshop experience in one of the most beautiful places on earth

“But some emotions don’t make a lot of noise. It’s hard to hear pride. Caring is real faint – like a heartbeat. And pure love – why, some days it’s so quiet, you don’t even know it’s there.”
         -Ernest Hemingway

Location of the filming of the original True Grit movie with John Wayne – ISO 100 18mm 1/125/sec @ f6.7

That quote has also been attributed to Erma Bombeck. I couldn’t find any definitive source for either, but when in doubt, I’ll always go with Hemingway.

Day 1: Flight into Montrose

and the attempt at Last Dollar Rd at Sunset

Bucket list item completed: Fall in Telluride, Colorado. Again, this was not originally on my bucket list, but was added based on opportunity. I can’t put into words what I experienced without actually writing a song about it because upon arriving home I immediately channeled my inner John Denver and wrote a song. It will probably remain unfinished because I still think I have more to see there.

Last Dollar Road Fence18mm 1/250@f8 ISO400

My main reason for being there was to attend two photo sessions. One with Rick Sammon, an accomplished photographer and author who runs worldwide photo workshops. He’s going to be our guest speaker for our camera club’s seminar next March, so I wanted to meet him ahead of that. The second was with Michael Clark, an adventure photographer for Red Bull who showed us his techniques for shooting bouldering, which is freestyle rock climbing on small boulders. By small, I mean 15-20 feet high, which is small compared to most of the other climbable things in the area. These boulders probably sheared off the face of the nearby mountain thousands of years ago. If it happens again, I don’t want to be anywhere nearby.

Rick Sammon photo adventure

Rick Sammon doing one of the things Rick Sammon does the best, teach. – 75mm 1/30s@f8 ISO1100JF4 5003

Red Bull Photographer Michael Clark – 1/80s @ f6.3 75mm ISO 640

But that was day two. Day one was my journey into Telluride down from Montrose. I want to tell the Alamo lady how much I love her, but again, words cannot express my elation when they didn’t have the all-wheel drive SUV I wanted and replaced it with a 4×4 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Fortunately, they didn’t know my history with 4×4 vehicles.Jeep on Last Dollar RdJeep on Last Dollar Rd26mm 1/45s @ f11 ISO100

I was talking to another photographer in the later session. She said that she was taught that a good photograph had to have a “heartbeat”, something that makes a photo alive. Otherwise, it’s just a snapshot. I’ve heard this before but had not thought about it again until then. It shouldn’t stop you from taking a photo, but it sure helps when editing them. So during the flight back, I went back through my photos looking for that “heartbeat”…

…in the evening sun shining through the aspens. 

Sunburst in Aspens

The setting sun peeks through the aspens on Last Dollar Rd – 1/180s @ f22 22mm ISO800

…in the balance of elements, like Newton’s cradle…


Faded Twilight

Tree line near Telluride at sunset – 1/3s @ f8 38mm ISO100

After midnight’s fallen
I reach the solid ground
After quarter phases, the moon is all around
I look to the sky,
I look to the sky but I see solid ground
I fly with the birds
I swim with the tide
But I never die


…in the kiss of ground and sky…

Cloud on Hillside 2

A cloud hangs above a small hill – Last Dollar Rd

Cloud on Hillside 2A cloud hangs above a small hill – Last Dollar Rd 1/125s @ f11 105mm ISO100

…or in a isolated patch of Aspen Trees on a hillside.

Stand of AspensStand of Aspens7/10s @ f8 22mm ISO100

After a hundred miles
The pattern soon was painted
I slept under rain and thunder
A higher battle rages

Clouds Gather

Clouds gather at sunset over Last Dollar Mtn



These were all taken on Last Dollar Rd, which is a dirt road that leads down from CR62 and goes to Telluride airport, which is just West of Telluride. Most of it is two lane, but the middle few miles is mixed one-lane wide with hundred foot high drop offs. On the one lane routes, one car has to move over enough to let the other car go through. 

The map says 1h 17 minutes to go 20 miles. That might be true if you don’t stop. But you will stop. You will stop every 100 feet or so. Just sayin’

I was about halfway down the road when it started getting dark. I thought I had just enough time before twilight turned to blackness to make it all the way, but I did not judge how slow some parts are and it was getting really dark.

The sign on the right says:


 As this was an unknown road to me, my need to survive my first day overcame my spirit for adventure and I made a hasty retreat back where I came from. I took a shortcut via 58P to the main highway via some switchbacks into a place called Sawpit. The next day I drove the part I missed and confirmed that was the right choice. It’s hard driving down that road during the daytime.


Caution Ahead
The dark roads we tread
If I never see you again
I’ll just smile and remember



Before I turned in, I stopped at the New Sheridan Hotel for some food. Here is a shout out to the bartender Daniel Davenport and his co-worker Brian Balconi.  Brian actually turned out to have a Michigan connection, having attended a wedding on (or near) Van’s Beach a week before my Dad took the wedding photo for the9/26 Leland Report. They made my first night alone in a strange place less boring by feeding me a massive hamburger and seasoned fries. Thank you, fellas! I came for the food and stayed for the music. Thanks for the scotch. And the advice about pacing myself? Worst bartender advice ever. 😉

There was another heartbeat I experienced. This was real, and kept me up all night. I thought I did my homework about the trip and came 100% prepared (actually 90% because I always forget something). But I forgot to check one critical fact about my destination. Telluride is at 8,750 feet. That’s over a half mile higher than Denver. That’s considered “base height”. That means everything else is higher, so you should be prepared. So what happens to you when you plod along at sea level for 47 years and then jump to 9,000 feet in less than 4 hours?

I went to sleep, but I couldn’t for some reason. I could feel my heat beating. It was beating hard. It’s not a comfortable feeling at all. It’s a feeling I’ve had after drinking Red Bull and that’s why I don’t drink it. (sorry, Michael)  So I looked up all the symptoms of being at altitude.

  • I didn’t have a headache, good.  
  • I wasn’t nauseous, good.  
  • My heart rate was strong and slightly elevated  

Turns out my heart was working not so much faster, but harder, to pump oxygen into my blood. Turns out, an extra day in Denver would have helped acclimate me better to Telluride. A reminder to all other “at sea level” residents.

Day 2: Imogene Pass & Tomboy Mine

We met Rick Sammon at 6am the next morning at Telluride Outside, an adventure excursion company. There were 9 of us joining him. Our route was going to be up Imogene Pass to visit the Tomboy Mine, an abandoned silver mine near the summit. We rode up a narrow and bumpy road 7 miles along the south side of Chicago Peak (appropriate) so the sun was actually going to have to rise higher to light up the range opposite us. Our guide was “Roma”, who had, what I can only describe as a face for adventure, experienced and rugged in his words and his attitude. For the photo below, Rick was showing us some fill flash techniques. In this particular image, my flash didn’t go off, but I brightened it up and it turned out to be my favorite.


Roma, our Telluride Outside Guide – 1/200s @ f11 105mm ISO100


I got there early and tried to get some long exposure cityscapes in the back alley. Just for fun.


Shadow Play

Shadow Play20s @ f5.6 11.5mm ISO 1600


And then on the street as people were gathering

Morning Streetscape

The Overland Store in Telluride, CO – 8sec @ f22 32mm ISO200

We headed up the Imogene Pass and through the sun was starting to come up, it was mostly behind the range to the East. As a result, I didn’t take many landscape pictures early on. We were mostly heading SE so sun had not yet lit up the valley and range on the opposite side. In addition, the sky was cloudless. Here, you have an impossible exposure situation with shadowed hills on the bottom and bright, cloudless sky on top. You can try a split ND filter on it and up the saturation, but really all you get is still a shadowed landscape with a less bright cloudless sky like below. Pretty, but no heartbeat here.

JF4 4461Exposure Dilemma1/180sec @ f8 18mm ISO800


So I took pictures of everyone else taking pictures.

I talked with the guides.

There, I found my heartbeat.

It was cold up the mountain, around 40F. I had forgotten my hand warmers (argh, there’s the last 5%!), so I had a hard time keeping them comfortable. But I layered up, so only my hands were cold. But the sun eventually rose and started warming everything up. We watched as the sun started lighting everything up as it moved slowly down and into the valley below.

First the pines, and then the whole valley


JF4 4572Light in the Pines1/40s @ f10 38mm ISO100


As we started back down the trail, one spot drew our attention. Four of us jumped ship and spent some time on the hillside shooting some aspens. Josh Trefethen was with us and judging from his body of work, I know he was there for the experience and the view, like myself, not so much to learn technique-wise. But he was trying out a new Sony mirrorless, which takes some getting used to. I’m not sold on mirrorless, yet.

JF4 4550Kim shoots among the remants of the old mining operation 1/125s @ f11 18mm ISO250

JF4 4538

Old Tomboy Shack

Shack near Tomboy Mine

Trestle Boards and Aspens1/1600s @ f5.6 90mm ISO400

Eventually Roma came back up and collected us. I don’t know if I got my heartbeat though.  “But Jim”, you say, “those are beautiful shots, what’s wrong with those?” I’m just looking for a little more, that’s all. I’m a cloud guy. And there were no clouds. The one above with the sun as it moved behind the trees with the old shack above was my heartbeat but was difficult to get for some reason.

We had strayed

We were being called back.

I was rushing the shot.

But there are other things.

You look for patterns and find balance.

Old TrestleDilapidated trestle at Tomboy Mine – 1/40s @ f22 52mm ISO200

There are patterns in nature, some created by millions of years of geological upheaval, and then those that were created by people, but slowly covered up by nature. At the bottom is an old abandoned silver vein. I’m not sure if the other lines are also veins, but it’s likely.
 JF4 4477JF4_45651/320s @ f8 38mm ISO250

Before heading back, we all gathered at another mine site where Rick was helping some of the others with HDR techniques. The sun is strong at this altitude, so shadows are difficult to expose. I’m not an HDR guy. I can do it, but choose not to. Sometimes it can get out of hand and unless you are very restrained, it can become unrealistic. Then unrealistic becomes the norm and normal becomes unrealistic. Bright directional light on a cloudy day can be spectacular if you have time to wait. Watch the shadows on the landscape. Anticipate the speed and direction of the patterns it creates on the ground. Wait for the light to cover your subject. More on that later.
JF4 4606Abandoned Silver Mine Cut1/750s @ f6.3 250mm ISO100 

Note to self: Clean your lens before you point it into the sun.

I like the star effect I got on this, but I later showed this to Rick when he was our Seminar keynote and he in return gave me a lens cleaning cloth

Mining EquipmentRick and Josh on Mine1/60s @ f22 12mm ISO250

We were done and back by a little after 10am. We came in a little late because Roma liked to stop and tell us stories about different parts of the route where someone proposed to someone else, or got married. There was even an old “red light district” way up the mountainside. Remnants remained of old shacks where there were women for hire. I wouldn’t have wanted to be that horse that had to drag those men up that trail every week. One story involved stopping at a campsite over Pandora to watch the July 4th fireworks at eye level with his son. If I can revisit my bucket list, that one is moving to the top. We all enjoyed your stories, Roma!


When we got back, I had breakfast at the Butcher and Baker with an 80-year old young man named Tom and his “significant other” as he introduced her, a very nice Lithuanian woman (forgive me, I forgot your name). But he also had another “significant other”, which was a newer Porsche Carrera that he drove up in. We talked about photography and his time as a Navy Doctor and his greenhouse where he grew orchids. I think he was involved in Korea and Vietnam, I can’t remember exactly if it was one, the other or both. The car was a present to himself as he never had a sportscar.

I asked him what made him pick the Porsche and he replied, “When you think sportscar, what do you think of first?” Oh yeah, a Porsche. It was a pleasure to meet you Tom, I could tell the trip up the mountain was not fun for you, but you endured and I don’t think you would have had it any other way. I wish you all the luck going forward. I also wish I had gotten a picture of you with your car. Maybe next time. Please keep in touch. If you have one, please send it to me and I will include it. There’s some more heartbeat, right there! 😉

I really enjoyed meeting the people on this trip. I think it’s just as exhilarating and inspirational as taking pictures. It was a very eclectic group, widely different ages and nationalities all gathering together to share a single interest. If I regret one thing is not getting a group shot. I always get a group shot. Regardless, it was a pleasure meeting all of you. I think I would like to eventually lead my own workshops. Please leave a comment below if you read this article. I’d love to hear from you.


Rick Sammon photo adventure

Instruction1/30s @ f8 75mm ISO1100

JF4 4600Imogene Pass Trail1/125s @ f11 18mm ISO200

Next article: Last Dollar Road (for real this time), bouldering with Michael Clark, and Airport Rd for a final gift shot for the relatives.

Part 2 is here:  Looking for a Heartbeat in Telluride (Part 2)

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