It’s been cold here in Southern California and all the places that I’ve been thinking about traveling to are far colder still. Snowy and freezing is to be expected in winter, but it doesn’t make my travel plans any easier. After some thinking, I looked at the one spot on the map that seemed to be reasonably warm and headed there.
Glamis is a tiny town that gives it’s name to a huge expanse of sand dunes east of the Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley. The miles upon miles of perfect dunes attract motorcyclists and dune buggy riders from all over the country. Some live there throughout the winter though most make the weekend trek from Los Angeles in their RV’s and pickups.
I’ve never ridden a motorcycle and didn’t know anything about the area. I’d been there once, but stuck to an area open to hiking only. I suspected there’d be some good opportunities to meet people and take their portraits so, with no advance knowledge nor planning, off I went.
My first day there started off slow. It took a while to get my bearing straight and understand the rhythm of the place. I walked around with my camera, met a few folks and learned a lot about the sport and the lifestyle of the people here. For one thing, the toys here are shiny, powerful and expensive.
It’s also a family affair out here. Mom, dad and kids are a common site.
Unlike Joshua Tree - the site of my last portrait adventure, there’s no central gathering point for the riders. Everyone has their own camp which, much like the settlers of old, consist of motor homes and trucks all circled around and closed off to the outside. I found it hard to walk into an uninviting camp filled with people and ask to photograph individuals. Plus I’m an outsider with no set of off-road wheels of my own.
Basically, the going was slow and I began to question whether I’d made the right decision to come here.
So, I switched locations to one that I thought might be more of central hub. I took off to the high-point in the dunes, Osborne Overlook, to see if my luck might change. And, initially, it did. I hooked up with some friendly guys - one of whom offered to give me a personalized, turbocharged tour of the dunes.
I mounted my camera to the front of the buggy to get this next shot. That’s me in the passenger seat. Oh, this stuff is way fun!
Here’s where things took a turn for the worse. I happened to park my van next to a big, well-organized camp. Turns out that a famous NASCAR driver invited all his buddies out to the desert for their annual get together. I chatted with a couple of them and everything seemed cool. Until… some guy told me I couldn’t shoot photos there. To which I politely replied that I could shoot photos anywhere I damn well pleased.
Later, as I was getting ready to go to sleep. Someone turned on the big diesel semi-truck parked next to me. Then I got a knock on my door. I opened my door to some guy walking off and shouting that they were going to leave the truck on all night until I left. The truck made it way too loud for me to sleep and taking on the big group did not seem like a wise career move for me. So I moved to another, less scenic camping area down the hill.
The next morning, the first folks I approached for photos said no in a rude way, In all I was feeling pretty low at that point. I’d been there two days and only had a handful of usable shots. Again, the thought of taking off weighed on me.
Instead I tried another area that seemed to have more riders and more activity. The sun was out and the day warm as I trudged through the soft sand with my gear. The going was slow, but I managed to get a few portraits that I liked. It wasn’t easy, but I figured nothing good comes easily.
By this point, I knew I wasn’t going to get as many portraits as my recent Joshua Tree trip, but I was getting some stuff that I liked so the balance was starting to tip in my favor.
Then my luck turned. I struck up a conversation with a fellow who invited me to go out on the dunes with him later to get shots of them jumping with their motorcycles. A couple of hours later, I returned to see if he was still around. Unfortunately, he’d already left.
As I dejectedly walked back to my lonely van, I struck up a conversation with a couple of guys replacing a motor in their camp. I asked if I could shoot some photos of them working away. They said no problem; before long we were chatting away in between me snapping photos of them and all their stuff - of which they had a lot.
It turns out that Mike, the guy above, works for David, the guy below. David is David Gilliland a NASCAR race car driver. (His is the Taco Bell car.) He invited me to come out and shoot some photos of him cruising around in his dune buggy. Hell yeah!
What happened next was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life bar none. With David behind the wheel and me in the passenger seat of a 1,000 horsepower dune buggy, we rocketed over the sand, launched off a sandy ramp and flew a hundred feet through the air. Holy shit! This was Evel Knievel stuff!
I got out and set up my camera to get him taking off overhead. I’d imagined this shot before I left my home. I didn’t think I’d get it because most buggies aren’t made to take this kind of abuse. David’s hot rod on steroids didn’t hesitate. (I didn’t either.)
Then we moved on to another, steeper jump. Again, we launched into it. We flew through the air for more than two seconds. Not sure how far or high that was, but it was jaw-dropping, high-fiving far enough for me.
Here’s another angle for a little perspective.
Afterward, we flew across the bumpy sand to an impromptu drag strip where riders showed off their loud motors and wheelie skills. The kicked-up dust softened and further warmed up the already red desert sun. Nearly all of Glamis turned out as the racers enjoyed the last of the sun’s rays. Even the guys who chased me off the day before were there. One came over to apologize - the guy that hassled me ended up getting kick out of the camp. So I guess everything worked out and karma had its way.
This trip was definitely a leap of faith for me. I didn’t know what I would encounter; I just assumed it would be good. From it though I took home three little jewels of inspiration:
1) Good things happen when you walk out your door and open yourself to new opportunities. Great experiences do not come about just sitting at one’s computer.
2) There’s power in being alone. Had I gone out with a partner - be it my wife or a friend - I wouldn’t have forced myself to do the hard work of heading out to take photos. Nor would I have met the people and had the experiences I did.
3) Persistence is the key. Great experiences come from new adventures, but that doesn’t mean they come easy.