Story and Photography by Peter Zelinka
Have you ever considered quitting your job to go on an epic adventure?
After graduating college and working a full-time IT job for over a year, I needed an escape. I was tired of spending 9+ hours a day in a windowless, grey server room. A plan slowly started to form. This trip would span the entire Western US, and would allow me to finally see the landscapes I had been dreaming of for years.
After I had saved up enough money to support this journey, I made the terrifying decision to quit my comfortable job and dive head-first into the unknown. With a couple dozen locations plotted on a map, I hit the road in my 2004 Chevy Malibu. My goal was to come home with a great Portfolio and begin my life as a Professional Photographer.
In June of 2016 I embarked on a 4 month long photography roadtrip across America. Along the way I visited 15 National Parks, drove over 14,000 miles, and took thousands of photographs. From the desert of Joshua Tree National Park, to the rugged mountains of Glacier National Park, to the rainforest of Olympic National Park. It was an incredible journey across the Western US. One highlight of the trip was North Cascades National Park, in northern Washington. I arrived in the North Cascades in mid-September, about 3 months into the roadtrip. Having had little time to research this area, I decided to wing it. My first destination was Picture Lake. I arrived just in time! After snapping a few photos, a rainstorm hit Mount Shuksan. It was a good reminder just how quickly the weather can change in the mountains. Satisfied with 1 good photo, I continued on up to Artist Point. Little did I know this would be one of the most dramatic sunsets of the entire roadtrip!
As I walked around the Artist Point area, the storm clouds began to break up. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.
After the sun set, I drove back down to Picture Lake. Surprisingly, the sky had completely cleared up and I was able to capture a few Long Exposure photos.
The next morning I drove down to the North Cascades Visitor Center, where I saw a beautiful painting hanging above the entrance. The Ranger at the front desk mentioned that the painting was based on Cascade Pass. I now had my next destination. Unfortunately, the trailhead was 23 miles down a rough forest service road.
My little Chevy Malibu was not happy with the rugged, washboard road. When I finally arrived at the trailhead the weather was cold and grey. It would soon be dark. I set up camp and waited for daybreak. As I laid in my tent on a dark, rainy night I heard the sound of rocks tumbling down the mountains. It was very unnerving. I kept dreaming I was crushed by falling boulders. When I woke up, the clouds had covered the surrounding mountains and the rocks were still falling! I pulled out my telephoto lens and captured some video.
I waited all day for the clouds to break and the sun to come out. At least the conditions allowed for a few cool photos!
At 4pm I got my chance! The clouds were slowly breaking apart, revealing the blue sky above. I packed up my camera gear as quickly as possible and began the 4 mile hike up to Cascade Pass. I reached the pass just in time!
While I was scouting out different angles for the landscape photos, a deer snuck up behind me!
Satisfied that I had captured the scene from the painting, I headed back down the mountain. After a good night’s rest in my tent, I was ready for a new adventure. My next destination in the North Cascades was Blue Lake.
I couldn’t believe how beautiful the water was! The blues of the lake contrasted beautifully with the yellow of the larch trees. I spent 40 minutes hiking around the lake, looking for the perfect vantage point. After getting some nice photos, I felt like something was missing. Then I had the “brilliant” idea of going for a swim; that would make for an interesting element! So I set my camera to Timelapse mode and went down to the lake shore. It took me a while to work up the courage to jump in. Finally I was ready! I jumped in and began swimming. The water was ice cold!! I only lasted about 10 seconds before I had to turn around. My limbs quickly started to go numb and I didn’t think I would make it back to shore. Thankfully the sun was shining brightly, I was able to warm up in the light in a few minutes. The things we’ll do for a photo!
Satisfied with my Blue Lake shoot, I headed to the Washington Pass Overlook. With a beautiful, clear sky overhead I decided to capture some Star Trails. Light slowly faded from the sky and the faint stars became brighter and brighter. Eventually I dozed off, after staring up into the night sky for what seemed like hours.
Before leaving the North Cascades I visited a hot spring buried deep in the rainforest. Soaking in the natural hotspring was incredibly relaxing, especially in the early morning fog. Unfortunately, this spring stunk of sulfur. The closest thing I’d had to a shower the whole week was my quick dip in Blue Lake. Now I smelled even worse!! I was ready to get back to civilization and shower!
If you’ve been considering doing something similar, I’d highly recommend picking up the book: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. This book gave me a blueprint to quitting my IT job to become a professional photographer. Embarking on a new adventure can be terrifying, leaving everything and everyone you know behind. In my experience, it was well worth it. Living on the road is so different from most people’s lives. You truly have complete freedom over your life. Swimming in pristine alpine lakes, spending the night alone under a sea of stars, hiking through the mountains, walking along the coast, watching the sun rise over the mountains.
If you are interested in reading more about my trip, head over to www.peterzelinka.com for detailed blog posts on my journey. I recently published a post with some tips for living on the road. You can also visit my Gallery to see photos from the expedition.
Now that winter has arrived I am saving up my money and beginning to plan my next adventure. I’m currently teaching private lessons on photography, as well as working at a local camera store. I can’t wait to get back on the road! Some trip ideas include: a summer driving up through Canada to Alaska, a Spring or Fall month-long trip to the Southwest, and a Fall color trip to Southwest Colorado from September to October.