beloved home­land Lau­ren Buch­holz farewells a


WILLINGLY ROLLING OUT of bed at 4:30 am and lay­er­ing on win­ter clothes be­fore stand­ing, in near freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, at the edge of a precipice is enough to in­di­cate to most peo­ple that they need a head ex­am­i­na­tion.

As my alarm rings, I’m also tempted to hit the “off” but­ton. Th­ese predawn starts haven’t be­come any more al­lur­ing in 10 years of do­ing them, and yet ex­cite­ment still drives me out of bed. In the past 24 hours a rare, late-sea­son snow­storm has blan­keted the Sierra Ne­vada, and I’m on my way to cap­ture Yosemite Na­tional Park un­der fallen snow and ris­ing sun.

It’s April, spring­time in Amer­ica. I’ve been on the road for the past three weeks and will be trav­el­ing for two more. I’m cur­rently 1220 me­tres above sea level in the foothills of Cal­i­for­nia’s most prom­i­nent moun­tain range, which lies be­tween the heat of the Great Basin’s desert land­scape and the fog-laden hills and rugged beaches of the west coast. The Sierra Ne­vada is the half­way point of my 5077-kilo­me­tre cir­cuit from the Rocky Moun­tains to the Pa­cific and back again, dur­ing which I’m tak­ing in seven na­tional parks that are home to some of the coun­try’s most spec­tac­u­lar nat­u­ral icons.

This route is fre­quently taken by Amer­i­can fam­i­lies and in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers dur­ing the sum­mer but, in my case, it’s more of a poignant ex­pe­ri­ence than a hol­i­day. Af­ter nearly a decade of liv­ing and work­ing in many of th­ese places, I’m pho­tograph­ing them be­fore I leave the States – my coun­try of birth – to travel half­way around the world to be­gin a new life in New Zealand.

It’s this el­e­ment of farewell, of nei­ther know­ing when I will re­turn nor what th­ese places will look like when I do, that mo­ti­vates me to take up the chal­lenges of this trip. I’ve cov­ered 400 kilo­me­tres in three days just driv­ing to and from my St Ge­orge camp­site in Zion Na­tional Park, and lugged my tri­pod and cam­era equip­ment 10 kilo­me­tres through a steep river canyon to se­cure a shot in the park’s back­coun­try. And now, af­ter throw­ing off those snug­gly blan­kets and grab­bing my gear, I’m slid­ing into the car head­ing to Yosemite. It’s mi­nus three de­grees Cel­sius as my clock ticks 5am.

Af­ter 45 min­utes nav­i­gat­ing the icy curves of a wind­ing, nar­row road and still in half-dawn light, I pull into a car park. A low stone wall bor­ders a look­out where sev­eral peo­ple, dressed in multi-lay­ers, stand along­side tripods and cam­eras. I’m at Tun­nel View, pos­si­bly the most fa­mous van­tage point in the Yosemite Val­ley. I’m try­ing to avoid crowded des­ti­na­tions but this morn­ing I’m grate­ful I’m not the only one crazy enough to be out here.

The lure that draws us here – breath­ing into gloved hands and wait­ing for first light in front of one of na­ture’s grand­est vis­tas – is what orig­i­nally pro­pelled me to­wards pro­tect­ing na­ture. Dur­ing univer­sity, I worked as a sum­mer ranger at Se­quoia Na­tional Park, a Sierra Ne­vada mo­saic of deep cav­erns, tow­er­ing peaks and the world’s largest trees. This ig­nited a pas­sion for pho­tog­ra­phy and led to sev­eral years’ work with con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions across the western United States. It also sparked a de­sire to see the beauty of our planet be­yond my home coun­try. I wanted to learn how peo­ple cared for en­vi­ron­ments in other parts of the world, and New Zealand was an ob­vi­ous des­ti­na­tion.

As I wait for dawn to ar­rive, my thoughts drift back two and a half years: it’s a bright Jan­uary morn­ing when I ar­rive at Auck­land Air­port. In be­tween ter­mi­nals, the songs of birds I’ve never seen ser­e­nade me. Over the next four months, I travel on a solo road trip around the coun­try, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the solem­nity of Cape Reinga, the Mar­tian ter­rain of the Ton­gariro Cross­ing, the wild sub­antarc­tic beauty of the Catlins and the jaw-drop­ping vis­tas of the South­ern Alps.

I learn the Māori names of species, and I meet and work with New Zealanders whose lives – like mine – are shaped by our land­scapes. I left my heart in New Zealand, and I vowed to make it my home. Now that mo­ment is ap­proach­ing, and in a few months I will bid farewell to the United States of Amer­ica.

As Yosemite Val­ley emerges be­fore us I start up a con­ver­sa­tion with Steve, a pho­tog­ra­pher from Ari­zona I’d met in the park the evening be­fore. Steve has spent the past 10 days pho­tograph­ing Yosemite, even sleep­ing in his truck to shoot dur­ing the pre­vi­ous night. I’m def­i­nitely not the only one crazy enough.

“I feel cold just think­ing about sleep­ing out here,” I say, glanc­ing back at the ice cov­er­ing Steve’s wind­screen. He laughs, showing me some of the im­ages he’s cap­tured on his LCD screen. “You for­get about the cold once you have the shots.”

Our con­ver­sa­tion is cut short as the grey light soft­ens to a gen­tle rose pink. Dawn is upon us. Sun be­gins to warm the air, and plumes of mist rise from Bridal Veil Falls and the thick for­est of conifers lin­ing the Merced River. El Cap­i­tan, the ver­ti­cal rock for­ma­tion on the north side of the val­ley, catches the first light of the sun, its nose turn­ing gold. For sev­eral min­utes there is si­lence, bro­ken only by the click of cam­eras and the oc­ca­sional shuf­fling of win­ter boots on the icy ground. Each time I ex­hale, my breath lifts in a fog to be­come part of the scene be­fore me.

Through my pho­tog­ra­phy, I have a chance to share the in­cred­i­ble – and in­cred­i­bly frag­ile – beauty of our world with peo­ple who, oth­er­wise, might never see it. But only if I’m here, in the right place at the right time, tak­ing those pho­to­graphs. To para­phrase environmentalist Baba Dioum, we will con­serve only what we love and un­der­stand. Pho­to­graphs are a pow­er­ful step to­ward un­der­stand­ing.

The sun creeps over the hunch­back of Half Dome at the eastern end of the park, and I re­turn to my car and head to the val­ley floor. Along the river, thick clouds lift from the banks into the spring sky. I stop at sev­eral lay-bys, clam­ber­ing over snow-cov­ered boul­ders and hop­ping across logs to cap­ture El Cap­i­tan ris­ing through the mists. Near a slow bend in the Merced River that of­fers a par­tic­u­larly strik­ing re­flec­tion of the 2300-me­tre gran­ite face, I cross paths with Steve again. He’s as giddy as a child on Christ­mas morn­ing.

“In the past two weeks, I haven’t seen con­di­tions this good,” he says. “Def­i­nitely worth the wait.”

I nod, a slight lump ris­ing in my throat. It’s more than just a gor­geous morn­ing. When the mists dis­si­pate and the tour buses be­gin to roll in, I will be head­ing to the coast for the next leg of my jour­ney. For me, this mo­ment feels like a beau­ti­ful farewell.

Moon­rise from Mid­dle Emer­ald Pool, Zion Na­tional Park, Utah.

The Sub­way, Zion Na­tional Park, Utah.

Dawn over Painted Wall, in the Black Canyon of the Gun­ni­son Na­tional Park, Colorado.

Note­book The best way to ex­plore Amer­ica’s na­tional parks is a road trip. US Parks of­fers some sug­gested itin­er­ar­ies for self- driv­ing tours, us- parks.com. Dis­tances be­tween des­ti­na­tions are much far­ther than in New Zealand. Give your­self plenty of time for the trip, and re­mem­ber to keep to the right. If you’re plan­ning to visit mul­ti­ple parks, pur­chase an Amer­ica the Beau­ti­ful pass at your first des­ti­na­tion to cover your en­trance fees for all United States na­tional parks – as well as many other fed­er­ally man­aged lands. About $110 for a year’s travel, nps. gov To learn more about the na­tional parks and how to help pro­tect them, visit the Na­tional Park Foun­da­tion at na­tion­al­parks.org Sun­rise from Tun­nel View, Yosemite Na­tional Park, Cal­i­for­nia.

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