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The light fantastic

31 May

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, Tom Till’s vocabulary numbers well into the millions.

His iconic images of the American Southwest have been published in National Geographic, the New York Times, Outside, Arizona Highways, and many other magazines, and he is the sole photographer for more than 30 books, including Utah: The Light Fantastic and Photographing the World: A Guide to Photographing 201 of the Most Beautiful Places on Earth. He is one of America’s most published landscape and nature photographers.

Tom grew up in northwest Iowa, but his family’s frequent trips to southern California exposed him at an early age to the wonders of the desert Southwest. He soon found himself drawn more to the rock formations in Utah than to the characters at Disneyland.

He majored in English at Iowa State, graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 1971. After a short time as a musician in the rock band “Rural” (which eventually landed him in the Iowa Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame), he moved to Moab, Utah, where he taught high school.

Surrounded by the beauty of the local landscape, Tom found he “wanted to capture the things out here that I was seeing.” He turned to photography.

He found that he was good at it. In 1976, Tom committed himself to making a living in nature photography, something few photographers are able to do.

He shot first in Utah and the Southwest before branching out to the Rocky Mountains, the eastern U.S., and to more than 100 countries, mostly using a 4×5-format film camera. Many of his classic images can be found in the Tom Till Gallery on Main Street in Moab and at

But Tom’s home and his heart remain in Moab.

“Utah has a huge variety of things to shoot,” he says. “You could explore the Moab area for your entire life and only scratch the surface. The best light and best subjects in the world are here. Just being here is fantastic.”

Conservation gypsies

13 Nov

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Finding alumni to feature has been one of my favorite parts of the whole VISIONS Across America project.

Case in point: Many months ago, I was searching the alumni database for unique stories to tell in Utah. When I found Kathie Taylor and Rob Andress, a couple in Salt Lake City, Jim and I got really excited. My research showed that Kathie was a wildlife biologist and ecological consultant and that Rob was a hydrogeologist. Wow – a double whammy in one of the most beautiful states in the country.

“Finding” them turned out to be a two-part process. Kathie quickly returned my email, and we scheduled a morning meeting (with breakfast!) at their home in late September. But the directions she sent to their home left us a little confused once we were actually in the car and trying to drive there.

“Take the 6200 South exit from I-215,” her directions began. “Follow the signs for Big Cottonwood Canyon. From the mouth of the canyon, we are 8.2 miles up and across a creek. We don’t have a ‘real’ address, so it’s a bit tricky to find. Call me and I’ll be at the road to meet you.”

It turns out that I had to call more than once, because Jim and I were never really sure we were going the right way or were even in the right canyon. But Kathie assured us that we couldn’t get lost, and she gave us a landmark to watch for: big green Dumpsters. We drove up and up and up.

Happily, we found her.

She opened the gate that led us up a private road to a cabin, one of about 25 homes on the mountain. We were greeted by Rob, who had started a fire in the wood stove, and by a small, enthusiastic dog named Crawford. The cabin smelled fantastic – like wood and coffee and something delicious baking in the oven.

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While breakfast was cooking, Rob and Kathie gave us a tour of the two-story cabin they’ve lived in since 2001. The bedroom is downstairs; kitchen, living room, and office space (above) is on the main floor. The cabin is small, cozy, and efficient.

Rob and Kathie are one of a handful of homeowners in their neighborhood that live there year-round. The rest are summer homes.

At 7,400 feet, winter comes early here, and the Wasatch Mountains get a lot of snowfall – three feet in three days once – but Kathie is unfazed. She grew up in northwest Ontario, Canada, the daughter of parents who ran a fishing camp.

“My dad gave me the genes to be on the path I’m on,” Kathie says.

She was “destined” to go to Iowa State, too. Her father, a Creston native, attended Iowa State, as did her sister and some cousins.

Kathie was an undergraduate when she met Rob, a grad student. Kathie was doing fieldwork on a forestry project and Rob was writing his thesis. They met through mutual friends.

Following graduation in 1999 – Kathie with a bachelor’s degree in animal ecology and Rob with a master’s in geology and water resources – Rob began to apply for jobs in Utah.

Kathie wasn’t so sure about that.

“I thought, ‘UTAH? They don’t even serve real beer in Utah!’”

She’s since become a convert.

“Salt Lake City is a hub for lots of things around it. There’s lots of things to do, recreation-wise,” she says. “There are a lot of out-of-the-way places – probably 50 places for every national park and other areas you’ve heard of.”

The couple climb, hike, bike, camp, ski, river raft, and backpack. High-end ski resorts are located within a couple of miles of their cabin.

Rob owns his own hydrogeology firm, Gradient LLC. Kathie owns an ecological consultant company called Argenta Ecological. They share an office in the cabin, but for weeks and even months at a time they’re on the road, working for federal agencies (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, etc.) and with non-profits.

“We call ourselves ‘conservation gypsies,’” Kathie says.

Rob explains that they bid jobs separately but try to team up to do the work, often traveling to Nevada and Arizona. Much of the work has been in the area of habitat restoration for endangered desert fishes and invertebrates.

After breakfast and a brisk walk to the top of the mountain (see photo at top), Rob and Jim climbed into our rental car and Kathie and I followed in her truck. Our destination was the Provo River in the Heber Valley, south of Salt Lake City.

With Kathie in the driver’s seat and Crawford on my lap, we went up and over the mountains, past the ski resorts and through a landscape Kathie calls “an island in a sea of desert.”

We arrived at the Provo River and began to scout for photo-shoot locations. Kathie explained that she did one of her first jobs in this area – tagging Columbia spotted frogs. (“Such a great job! I used to come here every day and catch frogs,” she said.)

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She had no qualms about wading waist-deep into a wetland adjacent to the river, fully dressed. Rob held Jim’s portrait light so it didn’t fall in the water, and I held on to the dog. We attracted a lot of attention. Afterwards, Jim photographed Rob watching birds, a slightly drier pursuit.

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During my research phase I had learned that Kathie and Rob both do site assessment and design, and Rob does construction oversight, restoring springs and their outflow channels.  Kathie also conducts wildlife surveys but has “morphed into a bit of a GIS Jack-of-all-trades.” (“I make a lot of maps and do spatial analysis for listed/sensitive species and for threatened landscapes,” she explained in an email.) They also do some writing – technical reports and management recommendations mostly ­­– and at the time of our visit Kathie was in the final stages of writing a book about a place in Nevada called Ash Meadows that has a very high rate of endemic fish, plants, and insects. It’s also a place where Rob has done restoration work.

Spending the day with Kathie and Rob – seeing where they live and visiting one of the places they’ve actually worked – just reinforced the coolness of my job (meeting awesome people in awesome places) and the truly amazing variety of lives being led by Iowa State alumni. I mean, seriously, here we are in a pond in Utah. I could not have imagined this when we started this project.

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So when we’re finished with the photo shoot and Kathie is covered up to her waist with pond “detritus” (and no spare clothes to change into), she suggests that we all go out for a late lunch at this Latin American restaurant nearby.


“It’s OK,” she laughed. “They have a patio.”

We spent the next hour on a sun-warmed deck somewhere near Provo, Utah, eating our combined weight in salsa.

And wouldn’t you know it? The next day it snowed.

Travels end with a flurry of fall color – and a bit of winter

11 Oct

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I write this with a mix of sadness and joy: OUR MULTI-STATE TRAVELS ARE OVER. No more packing, no more rental cars, no more loading/unloading, no more airports, no more hauling equipment through airports – and, most significantly, no more cheap hotels with bad free breakfasts. The VISIONS Across America travel team (Jim Heemstra and myself) is back home in Iowa after traveling to 49 states in 22 months – a total of 114 nights on the road.

Jim and I finished with a bang last week, putting more than 3,500 miles on the rental car – the most miles we have accumulated on any single trip. We visited seven alumni in the states of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

This was a challenging trip to plan, especially when parts of Colorado received a year’s worth of rain the week before we were supposed to arrive. Two days before we were scheduled to leave Iowa, we scrambled to reconfigure our itinerary to give Colorado time to dry out and roads to be repaired. Thankfully, everything worked out OK. We met everyone we were supposed to meet – and we even got in to Rocky Mountain National Park between the time it was closed from the flooding and closed from this ridiculous government shutdown.

Here’s our last trip, day by day:

Day 1: We drove all day to Denver, Colo. It’s a long way across Nebraska, and really there are no diversions even when you get into Colorado. Yawn.

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Day 2: The next morning we met Jeremy McCann (’01 liberal studies), and things started looking up. Jeremy is a Denver-based screenwriter for TV and film who often travels to Los Angeles, so we were lucky to catch him in town. He writes both comedy and horror/thriller scripts, and it was especially fun to debate favorite horror films with him. (We both really love “The Shining.”)

This afternoon we left Denver and drove to Steamboat Springs for the night. The drive was eventful: Pouring rain, snow on the other side of the Eisenhower Tunnel, two-lane mountain roads, more rain, and dense fog over Rabbit Ears Pass. And we also saw a moose.

Day 3: Another full day’s drive, this time to Salt Lake City. Was it wrong of us to listen to the soundtrack to the Broadway musical “Book of Mormon” on the way there? Maybe, but it helped pass the time.

09-24-13 SALT LAKE CITY KI0A7171Day 4: We started the day with a walk to the 35-acre Temple Square in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, an area that was nice and quiet in the early morning. The Temple reminded me a little bit of Cinderella’s castle at Disney World, although Jim’s picture makes it look more like the Taj Mahal. Afterwards, we checked out of our hotel without eating breakfast (bad or otherwise) because the alumni we were scheduled to meet with this morning offered to fix us a homemade breakfast. Yay!

We drove up Big Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains to the year-round cabin of Kathie Taylor (’99 animal ecology) and her husband Robert Andress (MS ’99 geology & water resources). Although the canyon was only a few miles outside Salt Lake City, it was about eight miles up the mountain and it felt a world away from the city.

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Kathie is an ecological consultant; her company, Argenta, provides services that benefit and conserve native species and naturally functioning ecosystems. So, yeah, she works with frogs and fish and all kinds of cool stuff. Rob is a hydrogeologist who owns Gradient LLC, a company that provides ecological planning, design, and restoration. He and Kathie work together on most of their projects. And they have a very cute dog, Crawford, whom I puppy-sat during the photo shoot. Afterwards, we went to a Mexican restaurant for a late lunch, and it was devine.

Tonight we drove to Provo, Utah. I was too tired to enjoy it.

Day 5: Today it snowed at Kathie and Rob’s cabin, so we were glad we’d met with them the day before. I’m learning that in the mountains, fall and winter can be sort of interchangeable, as in: The fall leaves are just now starting to turn, and, oh wait, it’s snowing.

We drove southeast to Moab, Utah, this morning and arrived in time to order a late breakfast at a funky café called Peace Tree. I ate huevos rancheros and Jim got a big breakfast burrito with green chile. It was a truly delicious meal.

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This afternoon we met Tom Till (’71 English), a professional landscape photographer. He has an incredible gallery on the main street of Moab. It’s filled with photos from the Southwest and also from around the world. Tom’s published 30 photo books and also teaches photography workshops. Take a look at his website:

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Our idea was to photograph Tom with evening light, but he said that gusty winds were creating a hazy look around the area, so we decided to photograph him the next morning instead. What to do with our extra time? Go Arches National Park, of course. We saw as much as we could and photographed the natural arches and other landforms before returning to the downtown area for our third Mexican meal in a row. Again, it was delicious, but I vowed after that meal not to eat any more Mexican food for awhile.

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Day 6: We met Tom this morning at our hotel at 6:30 and followed him to Dead Horse Point State Park. When we arrived, the sun was just breaking through, and the photo opportunities were endless. I’m sure Tom would rather have been on the shooting end of the photo shoot, but he was a great sport and took us to the best vantage points with the best light. Dead Horse Point is famous, by the way, as the location for the last scene in the film Thelma & Louise.

We left Moab by 10 a.m. (sadly, as I could have spent many days there) and headed back toward Denver. The forecast was for rain later in the day, and we didn’t want to encounter more snow at the higher elevations in our less-than-desirable rental vehicle. (Side note: I requested a 4-wheel-drive SUV and got some kind of minivan/car crossover that was totally impractical for this trip.) We were doing very well on time and enjoying the mountain scenery very much … until we hit Denver traffic and came to a grinding halt for an hour or so.

Our destination for tonight was Fort Collins, Colo. I have a friend there, Adam Warren, who used to work with me at Iowa State when he was a student. We originally planned to go “jeeping” with him, before the rain and floods and landslides and our complete change of itinerary. Instead we settled for a pizza and beer.

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Day 7: This was the trickiest day. Jim and I wanted to take alumnus Pat Reed (’71 outdoor recreation resources), a 42-year National Park Service veteran, to Rocky Mountain National Park. It made perfect sense to photograph him there; he retired last year from the NPS and moved to Fort Collins to be close both to his family and “Rocky,” one of his favorite parks (he worked at about a dozen different National Park sites during his tenure).

The Colorado rain and flooding and the closure of Rocky Mountain NP had forced us to delay our visit. Pat kept us up to date on the condition and status of the park: It’s completely closed, it’s partly open, Trail Ridge Road is closed due to snow, it’s open again. Each day brought something new. But on the morning we arrived at Pat’s home in Fort Collins, the news was mostly good: The park is open. You just have to drive a really long way to get there.

A drive that normally takes about an hour took us three and a half, down through Denver and back up two-lane mountain roads to the park entrance near Estes Park. But what a beautiful drive! We had rain, mist, fall color, low-hanging clouds…it was great. We learned at the gate entrance that Trail Ridge Road was actually closed, but we were able to go as far as Bear Lake.

Jim immediately found a scenic area to photograph Pat. Afterwards we drove around looking for – and finding – elk in rut. They put on quite a show for us. The males were bugling and strutting their stuff for the females everywhere we went.

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We encountered heavy, wet snow at Bear Lake, as you can clearly see in the photo above. We got really wet and cold but had so much fun! Pat’s a man who knows his park, and he knew just where to take us to show us a good time. Afterward, we went into Estes Park and drank coffee and ate a big breakfast for lunch – before driving four hours back to Fort Collins because we hit Denver right at rush hour.

Day 8: We left Fort Collins this morning and drove north to Wyoming. Our day’s plan was to meet with Dennis Steele (PhD ’75 computer science), a college professor and guest-ranching cowboy who runs Bit-O-Wyo Ranch between Cheyenne and Laramie. The ranch road had washed out during the earlier rains, and our crummy car just barely made it up the steep drive. But it did make it.

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Dennis and his wife, Molly, showed us around the lodge, the show barn, and the horse corral. This is a real working ranch, and during the summer it becomes a dinner-show and trail-riding destination as well as a children’s adventure camp. I was hoping Dennis would get Jim up on a horse, but there were no wranglers working that day so we all ended up keeping both feet on the ground.

Later in the day we explored Cheyenne and – surprisingly – found a wonderful New York-style pizza for dinner.

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Day 9: Our last – and longest – day. Early this morning we met Bill Lindstrom (’79 journalism & mass communication) at his home in Cheyenne. Bill is executive director of Arts Cheyenne, a new arts agency for the greater Cheyenne area. He also has a business called Bevara Digital, which transfers old media to digital format. Bill gave us a tour of downtown Cheyenne, with its iconic cowboy boots and train depot, and introduced us to a side of Cheyenne we hadn’t really seen before: the cultural/artistic side.

I was chatting happily with Bill in a coffee shop until Jim gave me The Look, which means it’s time to hit the road. It was 11:15, and we had about 700 miles to drive.

I won’t bore you with the drive home (mostly gas stations, rest stops, road music, and bad car snacks). We got back to Iowa in record time, even with the time change.

So now we’re 49 states complete! Only Iowa remains. We have lots more photos and stories to share with you; we’ve traveled so much the past two months that I’m completely behind on posts from the Pacific Northwest, Missouri, Kansas, and other states. Stay tuned!