Turning off of Chispa Road’s crisp smooth pavement deep in the heart of West Texas, I veer onto what seems to be an unassuming stretch of dirt road.  “Take a left at the fork in the road about ten miles in,” Fred had told me.  “Unlock and pass through the gate then drive right into the ranch.”  Driving right into an unexpected driving adventure is just what lie ahead of me.

The thirty thousand acre Coal Mine Ranch is a privately owned investment and playground for a group of businessmen who have called the ranch their sanctuary for more than twenty years.  On the rear side of the Sierra Vieja Mountain Range, a world away from the flat grassy desert plains of Highway 90 and thirty miles of rough dirt road winding through steep arroyos from the end of the pavement on Chispa Road, is the Coal Mine Ranch. 

Less than midway, with the pavement far behind me, the only sound I hear is the gravel and rock being churned by my 4×4’s wheels and hitting the underside of the vehicle.  Clank, pop, clackity clack, in an erratic yet rhythmic cadence. 

Lightning fast jackrabbits race by every so often; otherwise, there is no sign of life save for the desert brush,  blooming yuccas along the way and a petrified rattlesnake or two.  I reach for my mobile phone only to see there is no signal.  Immediately, thoughts of the 4×4 breaking down, a flat tire, or more dramatically, a sudden ailment race through my head.   Who would find me?

No one would find me and I had convinced myself of this.  “Keep on going,” I told myself after the first 60° dive into an arroyo and a serious rev of the engine in a low grinding gear to carry me up and out at the other side.  And forward I traveled through several more arroyos with bright clear blue skies above and a piping hot West Texas sun glaring down upon me until I reached a tunnel, twenty feet high and fifty yards deep, blasted from solid rock more than a hundred years ago. 

At last, after a wild hour and a half adventure drive to what felt like the middle of nowhere, I turn the corner to find the Coal Mine Ranch.  What lie behind me is what some would call extreme terrain with civilization somewhere behind that .  Directly ahead of me was a modern ranch house, a feeling of peace and solitude as well as a fantastic time for introspection. 

The ranch lies on the rear side of the Sierra Vieja mountains, a world away from the flat grassy desert plains of High- way 90.  From the end of the pavement on Chispa Road, thirty miles of rough dirt road winding through steep arroyos lead to the Coal Mine Ranch.  This road features its own tunnel, twenty feet high and fifty yards deep, blasted from solid rock by Chinese migrants.  How did they ever find their way deep into the rugged and unforgiving West Texas landscape

Eighty-five-million-year-old fossils of clams, turtle shells, coral, and snails can be found below the sandstone bluffs where once a river delta said to be six hundred miles wide—bigger than the Amazon— fanned out as it approached the sea. Deeply nestled in West Texas, the ranch is about solitude, introspection, and the crackling of the campfire at night.

The rugged West Texas landscape is most definitely the master of the scenario but the adventure is what one gains internally from the experience.

Unexpectedly arising from southern New Mexico’s barren landscape is a natural arrangement of larger-than-life rocks reminiscent of urban high rises.   Formed of hot volcanic ash that solidified nearly thirty-five million years ago, these formations have been carved by the elements into gnomish shapes and fanciful columns that can reach forty feet high.   Only a handful of places in the world have formations like these.  I know all too well they are not easy to climb.  I tried.

Popular with many overnight campers, the “city” is webbed with pathways that I curiously trundle through, feeling dwarfed along the way, until dusk.   It is during the golden hour, when the sun begins to set, that the magic begins.   The sun’s rays bounce from the ancient volcanic rock giving off an exquisitely rich cornucopia of color—sparkling hues of pink, orange, yellow, and purple—that you can only see in these moments.   The “city” comes to life, making this an ideal time to begin clicking the camera’s shutter.

The reason to visit City of Rocks is to escape routine and stress.  Trust me, it will be you and the rocks and no phone signal when you visit.  The landscape is a nice blend of the west’s rugged rock formations and grassy plains.  You’ll be in the desert, tho’ the land is not barren like you see in Arizona or Southern Utah.

I always to see Fred Flinstone as the large rock formations literally remind me of Flinstone’s Bedrock.  Close your eyes and envision for a moment.  You see this, too.  Don’t you?

City of Rocks
32 ̊35’24” N

-107 ̊58’33” W

5,250 feet (1,600 meters)

1,230 acres (497.8 hectares)

When Photography is More Than Taking Photographs

I have two great passions in this world.
One is photography and the other is travel.
When I realised I could marry the two – travel and photography – it was a match made in heaven because that meant I could go around the world photographing all these great places in all of these great lands that I had always dreamed of visiting.

When I first thought about becoming a photographer, that was my vision. I could go to Mont Saint Michel and photograph this great architectural wonder in the middle of the water. I could also go to Venice and get lost in the alleys, and capture the colors of Morocco.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that photography could affect me or put me in situations where I would meet people who would cause me to look at myself and learn more about myself.  These very same people changed my life.

Travel really has become a very personal thing for me.  Sometimes I think that there’s someone I don’t see who pushes me or has their hand on my back pushing me in a certain direction so I do come across some of these people that I do.

The first real true experience that opened my eyes would have been in Marrakech. I was in the Medina and really not enjoying the atmosphere because there seemed to be too much chaos and noise. What I had envisioned in my head wasn’t happening in front of me.

Then, out of nowhere this man stopped me and he asks, “are you ok?” And I replied, “Well, yeah. Why do you ask?” “You don’t look very happy.”
I said, “I’m not. There’s too much chaos here and it’s driving me crazy. I just want to leave.”

The stranger looked at me with a look of surprise.  He took a hold of my arm and asked, “what is your name?”

So, I told him.

With a huge smile he asks how long I planned to be in Marrakech. Again, I told him.

Then he asked, “where are you staying?”
And, I told him the name of the resort. I don’t know why I told this man, but I did.

He firmly replies, “I’m coming for you tomorrow at 8am.”
I said, “no you’re not!”

“Yes, yes, I will come at 8am.”
I replied, “No!”

“Why not?” the stranger asks with more surprise.
“It’s too early,” I replied with a sly smile.
“Ok, Ok, What time should I come?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Let’s say 10:30 or 11am.”
He smiled and said, “Ok, I’ll be there.”

The man jetted off into the Medina; I went the other way.  My only thought was what a peculiar encounter and I didn’t give it a second thought.  This was merely a moment in time and I’d never see the man again.

Well, low and behold the next morning at 10:30am the phone in my hotel room rang. The receptionist said, “Mr. Paulda, there’s someone here to see you. I thought, who is it?  Who in Marrakech knows me?  I had forgotten about the day before.  More to the point, my brain doesn’t function so great in the morning.  The receptions ended by saying, “his name is Hakim and he’s waiting for you.”

I think to myself, I don’t know anyone named Hakim.  Curiosity got the best of me and so I walked to reception.  There waiting for me is this man, the man I met in the Medina the day before.

Hakim told me, “I want you to come with me.  Go get what you need for one, two three days.”

And with no obvious expression, I thought – “holy crap!  This man wants to take me away.  I have no idea who he is. Then I thought to myself, “I’m going to do this. I’m going off with this stranger whom I don’t know.”

So I did. I went off with this man, Hakim.

We drove in a direction foreign to me.  I had no idea where we were going. We talked about life, the philosophy of life – just back and forth as if we were friends reunited after a long separation.

By the end of the day, we were headed into the dunes of the Sahara Desert.  That night I slept under the stars, a gabillion stars in the Sahara Desert.  And, there was a full moon. I remember the rising moon over the dunes; the sight was one I’ll not soon forget.

After being awed by the sandy desert, Hakim drove me back to the resort after this incredible time.  In my mind I kept asking myself, “did this really happen?”  Am I going to wake up only to realise the eye opening experience was merely a Moroccan dream?”

Instead, the encounter was real and it helped me understand the culture in Morocco just through Hakim.  I also learned I am a little bit braver than I ever imagined.

When we arrived back to the hotel, I thanked Hakim and asked how much money I could give him for the journey. We hadn’t discussed money before the trek began. Hakim’s startled expression was followed by, “nothing my friend, I only want you to love my country.”   I was speechless and in awe at the same time.

Before Hakim drove away, he simply said, “I’ll be in touch.”

I went back into the hotel. I started thinking, “ok, Hakim told me he’d be in touch with me, but how?”  He didn’t have my phone number; I didn’t give him my email.  He only had my name.

Months went by.   I was in Texas and I received a phone call from the gallery manager, the gallery that represents my work.  Kelly said, “Mark, there is this man on the phone, he has an accent and he’s asking for you.”

Immediately, I knew who was calling.  It was Hakim.

You never really know when you’re traveling who you will meet.  And, you never really know the long lasting friendships or relationships you’ll create along the way.

It was a year or two later, I’m sure two years after meeting Hakim, he called me. I was in Texas, he was in Marrakech and he said, “Mark!  I have this great idea for you.

I thought to myself, “oh my god, here we go.” “What is it,” I asked?

“I want you to come back to Morocco,” Hakim said, “I want you to go with me.  We’re going to walk on a trail that has been traveled for thousands of years with a nomadic tribe.”  Berber nomads.

It took me about ten seconds to say yes.  “I’ll be there. Tell me what day, I’ll be there.”

Walking with the nomads is an entirely different story of learning about myself and learning about the Moroccan culture, and the simplicity of life.

More importantly, I look at the Moroccan way of life, then looking back at us in the Western world.  I always think how much we in America and Europe really do complicate matters.

Know and understand that photography can be more than taking photographs.  Photography is more than owning a camera.

I’ve said this throughout the blog and I’ll repeat it again here – open your heart and open your mind.  Let whatever happens, happen.  Take it all in; the experience, take it all in.

Photography can really be an education for you.

I know it has been for me.

Colorado is famous for its 52 fourteen thousand feet mountain peaks but one of its hidden treasures is situated in a river valley at 7,700 ft. in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.  Here lies the spectacular mountain town of Ouray in Southwest Colorado. This small intimate community is nestled in some of the most rugged and towering peaks of the Rockies and is set at the narrow head of a valley and surrounded on three sides with 14,000 feet snowcapped peaks – Ouray has been eloquently nicknamed the “Switzerland of America.”

Ouray officially began in 1876 with the eager stroke of the mining prospector’s pick; however, the future brought with it those simply inspired by its beauty.  Because of Ouray’s majestic peaks, cascading waterfalls, natural hot springs, the famous Million Dollar Highway and its reputation for being the Jeep Capital of the World, modern visitors flock to Ouray as much for its beauty as the miners of the past did for the riches they hoped to find.

The present year-round population of approximately 800 swells considerably in the summer months as thousands of travelers visit this unique valley but the town can not grow much and is only six blocks long and six blocks wide.  It is not uncommon to find a wandering bear or a family of deer crossing Main Street.  Ouray is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. Whether you set out to conquer the mountains with rope and carbineer, on foot, bike, or four-wheel drive—there’s a route for everyone. There are panoramic vistas, mountain basins with waterfalls and wildflowers gracing each turn.  Autumn is truly an outstanding time of year, with aspen stands and mixed conifer forests exhibiting glorious displays of golden colors and an inspiring winter wonderland waiting to be discovered should one visit then.  At night when the lights meet the formations of ice and snow they join in a shimmering dance of magical light. There are few inhabited places where one can look up to view millions of stars and see the Milky Way so pronounced.  It’s no wonder that this area has been described as the “Gem of the Rockies.”  Remarkably, about two-thirds of Ouray houses original Victorian structures, both private and commercial, and have been lovingly restored in order to preserve their turn-of-the-century charm.

Ouray is the perfect retreat for rest and relaxation. Throw away your cares to experience the area’s outdoor opportunities or stop in one of the many reputable art galleries, shops and restaurants  that line Main Street.   After only a day you’ll find you, too, are a local and will realize this is one place you’ve visited that you won’t want to leave.  Only a nine hour drive from El Paso, this is a vacation you will want to remember for the rest of your life.  Take a step back in time to enjoy the Victorian architecture, friendly mountain people and a peaceful atmosphere that runs on its own time.  Reward yourself – escape to the dramatic and breathtaking beauty of Ouray and transform yourself in this year-round recreational playground.

Morning Flight

It was morning, and the new sun glimmers across the sand of the desert floor.  “Clear!” beams Suzie, as she pokes her head out the twin engine’s open window.  Flashing a mischievous smile at me she asks, “Are you ready?”  “Of course,” I respond, thinking nothing of her facial expression.

Like several times before, the plane’s engines rev causing a slight vibration on the floor board as we slowly roll toward runway one at Santa Teresa’s Municipal Airport.  The buzz I feel in my feet and legs always has a calming pre-flight effect on me, though little did I know this take-off would be different.  After negotiating the slight curve onto the main runway, I vaguely hear Suzie’s voice through the headset,  “Mark, it’s your turn to take off and fly.”  As the words quickly register in my brain, no doubt my eyes widely pop open and my heart thumps as if it will burst from my chest.  No thoughts race through my head except, “Good Lord, please let my fly today!”  There is no time to second guess her decision or my ability; or lack of ability, as I’ve only ever been a passenger during these flights.  Keeping outwardly calm, yet tightening every muscle in my body, I intently listen to Suzie’s instructions.

I reach for, and pull the throttle with a slight tremble, causing the plane to move faster.  Reaching a speed of 60 mph, I steadily draw the steering column towards me as far as it will extend, and with this movement, the plane gradually sails upward into the morning’s blue sky.  “Tower, this is Lima Papa. We’ll be flying around Kilbourne Hole this morning for aerial photography,” are the next words I remember as my breathing and heartbeat regain their normal rhythms.  There is an instant feeling of relief and peace inside me as the sky opens up its cobalt tent; the space beneath stretching as far as an ocean.  The weight of the world swiftly lifts off my shoulders allowing me to connect with the desert below as I navigate towards Kilbourne Hole, an 80,000 year old inverted volcano crater stretching nearly two miles long and well over a mile across.

A remnant of an ancient volcanic explosion, Kilbourne Hole is a crater in southern Dona Ana County’s desert basin between the New Mexico’s Potrillo Mountain Range and the Rio Grande River, approximately 40 miles northwest of El Paso.  The “hole,” or crater, is roughly elliptical in shape, and is known as a Maar; a pit or depression caused by a volcanic explosion with little material emitted except volcanic gas.

Circling around Kilbourne for a bird’s eye view, Suzie takes over the plane’s controls descending and looping until we swoop hundreds of feet deep into Kilbourne.  The curve causes the plane to slow until the wind seems to whisper around us, until the walls of the crater encompass the plane.  The exposed rock, in a near plastic state, is dull black or brown though erosion reveals a brilliant, sparkling yellow and green interior of olivine glass granules like treasured jewels in a sunken ship.

Looking forward, I see the crater’s end wall racing towards the plane’s front with great speed before Suzie noses the plane swiftly upward till the flat undisturbed desert plain lay calmly below.  Her playful smile returns as she glances toward me and there were no words needed to show my appreciation for this episode.  Exploring the desert southwest can always be an experience, though one just might find the adventurer sleeping inside one’s soul along the way.

Imagine yourself riding a bubble in the wind. The quiet peaceful serenity of floating gently in the breeze, brushing the pecan orchards or drifting silently above the Rio Grande River.  The silence is interrupted briefly, as Pilot Bill Lee burns, adding heat to the bubble that keeps us aloft. Then, back to the silence, as we climb, up above the treetops, where we overlook El Paso’s upper valley.  Even birds fly by beneath us, seemingly unaware of our presence.  This is the joy that is Hot Air Ballooning.

Hot air balloons are the oldest successful human carrying flight technology, dating back to the Montgolfier brothers’ invention in France in 1783.  The first hot air balloons were basically cloth bags, sometimes lined with paper, with a smoky fire built on a grill attached to the bottom. They had a tendency to catch fire and be destroyed upon landing. On September 19, 1783 a sheep, a duck and a rooster become the first passengers in a hot air balloon launched by Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier. For manned flights King Louis XVI had originally decreed that condemned criminals would be the first pilots but a young physicist named Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis Francois d’Arlandes successfully petitioned for the honour. They took off at 2 p.m. on November 21, 1783 from Château de la Muette in Paris watched by King Louis XVI. They traveled about five and a half miles  for 20 minutes – the first free flight made by man. 

Today, however, countless hot air balloon pilots can provide you with a safe and skilled bird’s eye view you’ll remember for years to come.  As you float effortlessly above ground you “see the area from a unique perspective,” says fellow passenger Julie Hammink.  “The valley looks like a patchwork quilt from several thousand feet up, and it made me want to look in every direction at once.”  As the mighty Rio Grande meanders below, the vastness of the unique El Paso region unfolds and stretches from one direction to the other.  The beautiful green textures of the river valley contrast with stark Chihuahuan desert providing the chance to appreciate a unique and peaceful view from above. The breathtaking views of the mountains, north to New Mexico and south to our neighbors in Juarez, Mexico only add to the experience of being aloft.  

What a fantastic view there was one early Sunday morning as the sun began to peer over the Franklin Mountains giving the valley a stunning glow.  “To be up in the air floating around on such a beautiful day, I couldn’t help but feel peaceful and calm,” says Henry Delgado.  “Pilot Bill performed his job like a master craftsman.”  While Bill Lee is a professional and licensed hot air balloon pilot don’t expect a definite landing area as there is no steering wheel or brakes in a hot air balloon.  Despite this Julie muses “it wasn’t Mr. Toad’s wild flight…it was more of a sensation of walking around slowly on very long legs.”  Any concerns truly vanished once we gently lifted off the ground and began drifting along- the flight was sensational and the feeling of achievement has lasting effects.  Since the balloon moves with the wind, one feels absolutely no wind, except for brief periods during the flight when the balloon climbs or descends into air currents of different direction or speed.  Upon landing Pilot Bill decreased the amount of fuel and with a slight bump we were back to land again in an open Canutillo field.

Floating high in the sky is an adventure all its own, but the hot air ballooning experience begins early in the morning from the moment the balloon and basket come out of the trailer to the inflation of the balloon and continuing through to the traditional and humourous champagne celebration at the end.  Much preparation goes into the launch of a hot air balloon and from the direction of Pilot Bill we were part of every step.  There is a strong camaraderie among balloonists taking pride in their craft and as Delgado says, “I felt as if there was a genuine invitation into the world of ballooning.”  Indeed there was.  You can fly throughout the year, early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  The flight duration is usually one hour to an hour and a half but you must allow three hours in total for the time which covers inflating the balloon, a champagne ceremony after the flight and returning to your pick-up point.

“The best part of ballooning is the people you meet along the way,” says Pilot Bill, so do expect to walk away from this experience having met new friends who genuinely welcome you to the world of hot air ballooning.   If you are seeking adventure for yourself or an unforgettable gift for those who have it all round up the family or a few friends as there is no better ride.  As the Irish say, “The winds have welcomed you with softness.  The sun has blessed you with his warm hands.  You have flown so high and so well, that God has joined you in your laughter, and he has set you gently back again in the loving arms of Mother Earth.”  Happy Flying!