My Assignment in the Sun-baked Southwest

A breathtaking view of Canyon Lake in Arizona at dusk. We traveled in an old Chevy van on dirt roads to get here. The lake is one of four created by dams from the Salt River. (Jay William Stephen)
A breathtaking view of Canyon Lake in Arizona at dusk. We traveled in an old Chevy van on dirt roads to get here. The lake is one of four created by dams from the Salt River. – Jay William Stephen photos

In the fall of 2005, before the crash of the real estate market, I was contracted and sent out to Nevada and the Southwest to help train photographers in taking pictures of properties and homes for sale.

I was already familiar with the Midwest, the green forests of the Smoky Mountains, the blue oceans of the Southeast, the amber fields of the farming Plains and the metallic cities of the East Coast. But I had only been exposed to the desert Southwest as a child, long before I developed an eye for photography.

So when the wheels hit the runway at McCarran International Airport in Nevada, it opened an entirely new spectrum of color and beauty for me.

Most of the next six months spent in Nevada would involve long days of training and traveling within Las Vegas and surrounding communities.

I found Las Vegas to be the quintessential adult playground, much like Six Flags Great America is for kids. Beyond the ‘strip’ and the lights, things seemed pretty shallow. Though lacking an obvious draw, the outside area did include a host of interesting characters. I found that non-natives inhabit most of Las Vegas. Seemingly four main categories make up the core population—casino owners, casino ‘victims,’ casino staff, and retirees.

With my workload, time to play casino games was limited. I did on occasion, have time to listen to music; so I would set out to find an underground music scene or a small blues bar. It was difficult though, because most of it came with the facade of lights and bells.

Since I had several open weekends I decided to venture out. A couple of local photographers advised me where I could find the type of music I had been looking for. I traveled to the famous Mojave Desert, a drive which sometimes included road-less journeys, beating up my rented Ford Explorer pretty good. It was fall, but the heat still lingered, even in the early morning hours.

The forecast was an unseasonal 110 degrees, but I figured I had already fought the extremes of the Midwest, and I was determined to capture what I could when I was there.

After traveling for some time on Interstate 15, I broke from the road into the desert, and drove until I came upon red mounds of rock that form the Valley of Fire, the oldest and largest state park in Nevada. The area is named for the magnificent red sandstone formations that were formed from great shifting sand dunes during the Mesozoic Era, more than 150 million years ago. These brilliant sandstone creations can appear to be on fire when reflecting the sun’s rays. Other important rock formations include limestone, shale, and conglomerates.

There are times when photographers are so busy thinking of exposure and shutter speed, that we fall flat on living the real experience. So I laid down my camera, and for more than an hour I did nothing but look out at the splendor and magnificence in front of me.

While in the Southwest I also had the opportunity to visit some family, albeit a five hour drive to Phoenix where I caught up with cousins, and my rugged Uncle Butch – a welder, and a nomad of sorts. In his rusted Chevy van we traveled a somewhat dangerous trip to the Apache Trail and Canyon Trails. The experience was worth the risk and one I will never forget.

The following February, I packed up my gear and flew back to Chicago. When the plane landed I shuddered at the nine degree temperature, thinking back to the heat waves I’d experienced during my memorable stay in the beautiful Southwest.

Looking across the Valley of Fire from 300 feet up. Sometimes the roads are empty for long stretches of time. (Jay William Stephen)
Looking across the Valley of Fire from 300 feet up. Sometimes the roads are empty for long stretches of time.
Magnificent Superstition Mountain located east of Phoenix is a famous icon separating urban life and the Wild West. (Jay William Stephen)
Magnificent Superstition Mountain located east of Phoenix is a famous icon separating urban life and the Wild West.

Jay Stephen of Waukegan grew up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, raised by his Sicilian grandfather. Stephen is known for his stunning photographs, and his real life experiences make for fascinating essays.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *