Elle Zhu
Dreams of a Mobile Life


Updates on life, photography, and the importance of being earnest.

The Great Basin Misadventures

My answer to an upcoming four-day weekend was a road trip to the desert.  This landscape has earned a permanent hold in my appreciation of the outdoors.  Somewhere between the sunsets and the silence, the desert became familiar and welcome.  In this terrain, the geological vertebrae of the land are laid bare.  Here is where the wind and water has shaped the rocky spine of the earth. The hills catch light and their shadows throw contrast to an often monochromatic scene. Even that is not really true. There is a myriad of colors hidden in the desert that exists ephemerally. Twice a day these colors appear with the rising and setting of the sun.


My friend Jane and I sketched an outline of a trip that involved hot springs along Highway 50, exploring the Lehman caves in Great Basin National Park, then visiting sequentially: Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bryce Canyon, and finally Zion.  Packed and ambitious, we took off with high spirits and stayed the first night at Cold Springs station- a tiny pullout off of America’s Loneliest Highway.  I was excited to share a slice of vanlife with Jane and in my heart, felt it would be a good last hurrah for ole Silas the Sprinter!


The next day awakened with promise and vigor and we were motoring along with the wind in our sails.  First up was a new experience for me- real hot springs!  I gleefully jumped into the warm waters of a natural hot spring in the middle of the Nevada desert.   My toes curled in the silted mud and I relished the heat which contrasted with the cold, dry air.


The dip made us late for the Lehman cave tour in Great Basin National Park but the rangers generously let us in despite being 40 minutes tardy, and even let us stay behind for a bit of private exploration.  Perhaps we used up all our good fortune for the day because on the way up Wheeler Peak to see the famous bristlecone pines, suddenly I was pressing the accelerator pedal but no fuel was pumping through.  In a blink, our road trip was headed into a very different adventure and experience.

Suddenly we needed to accept that despite being less than 20 miles away from Utah, we were not going to make it there.  The cold, the dying light, the absence of people, and the total lack of a plan moving forward froze our mental and physical faculties. This breakdown at nearly 10,000 feet was perhaps the worst type of altitude sickness.  I would’ve preferred the more conventional kind.  But let’s count our blessings: we were in a van with food, water, and a blanket palace to keep us warm. We had just enough cell phone service to make a call to AAA.  Then we waited and readjusted our expectations. Commence rescue mission Nevada! 


After an interminable wait of five hours, tow truck driver Brett and his friend Mike arrived to tow us down the mountain.  But first, in a fit of irony, we had to head to the top of Wheeler Peak (our initial destination) because the truck needed room to turn this whole mess around. After our 80-mile tow ride to the closest town of Ely, Nevada, we had to dig in for the uncertain future of Silas the Sprinter van. The next day dragged on and we met a few members of the town of Ely.  What characters they were!  First, there was Andre the auto mechanic with all the off-color stories of Korea.  Then Brett and Mike appeared again (out of boredom?) to check in on the status of our van.  This was an almost depressing thought- to know we were the curiosity of the town.  As we sat and watched the people of Ely drive down the main strip, we got a glimpse of what small town life was like.  Here was a place where practical matters occupy the hours and any permutation in the days is palpable. 

In the late afternoon, it became certain that our van wasn’t going to be fixed today or even the week after.  There was nothing to do but let them order parts and leave the van there.  But what to do about getting us home?  This was met with some uncertain comments from our mechanic, Andre.  It seems that there are no rental cars or public transportation out of Ely.  Simply, if you didn’t have a car or truck, you weren’t getting out. 

Never one to turn down a challenge, I remembered that last night, Mike was returning to Carson City after finishing up some business of his in Ely.  I called the tow truck business and asked if he was still around- he was.  In fact, he was planning to head back the next morning and did we mind if he had a six-month-old chocolate lab in the back?  Not at all!  I am always down for a free hitch especially when it involves puppies. In a stroke of further luck, Jane’s dad was a small aircraft pilot as a hobby and he was willing to gallantly fly into Carson City tomorrow to pick us up.  With our escape plan in place, there was nothing left to do but make dinner and entertain ourselves.


We found the only (and actually quite impressive) movie theatre in town and caught the one showing of Thor that day.  It seemed that all the people of Ely were here sitting with us.  Watching a movie was such a relief from the anxious readjusting of expectations and revising our wobbly futures.  Finally, we didn’t have to think about survival and escape because here the entertainment was provided for us.

When we returned to the van, I thought- this was truly the best version of the worst case scenario.  The national parks will always be there but the people we meet by chance along the way must be sought after. How did we make it out?  By surviving on human kindness and the generosity of strangers.

The next day went by quickly because we knew what was in store.  It’s funny how long the hours feel when you don’t know what comes next and how quickly it rushes by when it becomes pre-ordained.  Mater, the chocolate lab puppy, did not disappoint in his adorable cuddliness. Mike was a quiet companion in the car although we did manage to coax a few stories out of him from when he was a prison guard.  Without much ado, we made it to Carson City and Jane’s dad was already there waiting for us in the small municipal airport.  The flight back in the roomy Cherokee Six was one of the best plane rides I’ve ever taken.  I was treated with panoramic aerial views of Lake Tahoe as we headed into the sunset.  The lights of the surrounding cities turned on and grew brighter as the natural light of the day faded.  As we touched down, our rescue mission was complete.


That should have been the end of this story.  But there was the issue of my poor, broken Sprinter van lying in the middle of the Nevada desert.  It was an understatement to say it weighed heavily on my mind.  Stay tuned...Rescue Silas Part 2 to come!


There are moments when I think about the answers to these questions: who I am, what I do, and why.  What motivates and inspires me to bring joy to other people?  What drives me to pursue the goals that I do?  Lately, I've thought a lot about a life on the road- what that would look like in the big picture and in the day-to-day.  I've distressed over what I would fill all my free time with, how to combat boredom and routine, the logistics of travel.  I've wondered about the people I would meet along the way, what bonds (transient or everlasting) would form.

Mainly, I've wondered if this path is right.  I'm not a stranger to making impactful decisions.  The moments in which I second guess myself have been overcome either with time or with strength.  I have crossed thresholds in which there is no point of return and what's left is either to move on or to live with regret.  I've learned the importance of being sincere and straightforward with my intentions.

It occurred to me recently how easy it is to make life more complex and intangible, oftentimes superfluously so.  It is more convenient to take complexity and turn it into an excuse, a barrier, a cage.  Living is much harder when you try to simplify it.  I look at my life and think- ultimately, what brings me joy?  The answer- human connection, a sense of agency, the great outdoors, and a belief in endless wonderment and possibilities.  

Point Reyes Seashore

Point Reyes Seashore

A Guide to Astrophotography: How to Capture the Milky Way

Staking Out Your Spot 

What's the most important thing they say when you buy a house? Location, location, location!  As it turns out, the same thing applies to astrophotography or night photography.  When I'm on the hunt for the perfect Milky Way shot, I head to the desert or the mountains.  Some of the best spots I've found have also been out of sheer luck or just paying attention to the sky while I'm on the road.  The photo below was taken the night before the Great American Solar Eclipse in the middle of the Oregon high desert.  I was staking out a claim for the next day when I knew the influx of traffic would be at a peak in order to glimpse the total solar eclipse.  I looked out the window while driving down a long stretch of road and realized how bright the stars were.  It was a crisp summer night and the moon was hidden away.  There was minimal light pollution in this rural location.  Perfect conditions.

Oregon High Desert

Oregon High Desert


Finding the Milky Way

This may seem silly but there is actually a "season" for getting the best Milky Way shots.  This appears to be around the time of April through October where the galactic center is brightest and most prominent.  My favorite app for finding the Milky Way is PhotoPills although there are many others such as SkyView that allow you to perform many of the same functions.  Consult your starry night app to determine when the best time to view the Milky Way will be near you.  For those who are just starting out and don't want to spend money on an app- don't worry.  It's not essential to track it as long as you can spot it in the sky!

Points of Interest

Once you've got the Milky Way squared in your sights, start looking around you.  This might be Photography 101, but establishing a point of interest and foreground can be really hard in the face of distracting astrologic wonders.  However, to make your photo more interesting, composition is key.  Look for a rock formation or clearing of trees, maybe a lighthouse to establish a striking silhouette in the foreground.

Lover's Leap in Tahoe National Forest

Lover's Leap in Tahoe National Forest


You will need a decent DSLR camera and a wide angle lens to get the results you want.  Sorry iPhone users, Apple can't do it all.  I shoot with a Nikon D7100 camera body and a Tokina 11-16 mm f/2.8 on top of a Slik Sprint Pro II tripod.  (For more information on gear, please look for my upcoming gear post!)  This is by no means expensive as far as camera equipment goes but it's also no drop in the bucket.  Even if you don't have the best gear, don't be discouraged. Kit lenses can produce incredible images when used right and serve as a useful starting tool to astrophotography.

Taking the Shot

Once you have all your equipment set up, the fun begins.  First, begin by cranking up that ISO to 3200 or more.  Then choose the maximum aperture your camera will allow.  Generally I always use an f-stop of 2.8 on my lens and find that it's still able to take pretty sharp photos even wide open.  Then put your camera on manual focus and move the focusing ring to infinity.  Most lenses don't respond well to the absolute infinity mark so once you dial it all the way, turn it slightly in the opposite direction.  This tends to be more an art than anything.

From here take a few test shots and zoom in to see how the focus appears.  Generally a shutter speed between 15 to 30 seconds is appropriate, depending on how much light you want to capture.  Stars should be solid dots with no halo or bokeh.  Anything longer than 30 seconds and you start to see a phenomenon called "star trails."  While star trails are cool taken to their maximum effect, they tend to be messy when you're trying to capture discrete stars in the Milky Way.  I also like to delay my shutter action by 2 seconds so that there is no wobble from clicking the button.  This can make the difference between a crisp, clean image and a blurry disaster.

Finally, sit back and enjoy!  One of the brilliant aspects of night photography is that you can soak it all in while waiting for that shutter click to produce an image.  There is room for wonder and letting your imagination run wild.  Kick back, set up in a nice cozy camp chair, and wait for a whole new perspective of the cosmos to appear.

Yosemite National Park: Horsetail Falls - The Making Of a Photo

Capturing special moments in Yosemite has always been a bucket list whimsy for me.  Ever since I caught word of moonbows, frazil ice and the like, I set my sights on being present to photograph them.  Dear to my heart was the elusive firefalls that flowed down El Capitan.  I first heard about this phenomenon three years ago (you can imagine the widening of my eyes) of a waterfall that caught the glow of sunset in its prism only once a year for a few days.  I pictured the molten stream and felt my blood quicken with its phantasmal flow.  There was no question that I would plan a trip with the firefalls in the target of my camera lens.

Last year, Horsetail Falls was a spectacular failure when I showed up in the Valley and was dismayed to find conditions so dry that there was no waterfall at all.  My friends joked that we could pour water from a bottle and overlay it on top of El Cap for the shot.  We consoled ourselves with bouldering in Camp 4 and a walk up the Four-Mile Trail.  This year, though, I watched the weather forecast intently and baited my breath when February came with promise of rain and a bigger snowpack than California has seen for the last five years.

The weekend arrived but we barely made it to Yosemite by sunset on that first day and I had a sinking feeling as I leapt out of the van that this wasn’t the moment.  The angle wasn’t drastic enough, lighting up all the surrounding rock and water but not the steady stream of the falls.  Not only was the shot off, I spent the next hour wading through cars and traffic along the Valley Loop trying to find my friends.

The looming cloud cover on the second day didn’t promise much of a show, but as I was giving up hope, a glimmer of red touches the falls. It’s not a perfect shot, but nature is rarely a willing participant.

Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park

Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park


For those hoping to catch the Firefalls next year- hit me up!  I can share tips and location suggestions in exchange for good company.  Contact me!