Part Three:
The Route 66 Painted Desert Trading Post

Once again, if you’re just joining us, I encourage you to check out Parts One and Two. Now that you know a little more about night photography and light-painting, we’d love to take you on a little journey by recounting one of our absolute favorite night photography excursions: the Route 66 Painted Desert Trading Post.

For those of you who followed along on our recent Route 66 road trip in June, this journey will sound familiar, but bears repeating! As a traveler of Route 66 for several years, Chris has found countless images of this lost place…in daylight of course. When we planned our trip to the Wheels on 66 festival in Tucumcari, we noticed that the trading post was just a short jaunt, 400 miles west near Holbrook, Arizona. Even though we weren’t headed that way, we decided it was imperative to make a special trip.

First of all some quick history on the Painted Desert Trading Post: Opened in the early ’40s by Dotch Windsor and his first wife, Alberta, Dotch (along with his second wife, Joy Nevin) ran the post until the mid-to-late ’50s when he decided to call it quits and leave the building to the arid, dusty elements. Even in those days when Route 66 was packed solid full of travelers and vacationers, the trading post was a remote destination with no electrical power (gravity did the work for the gas pumps and wind did the work for the appliances). Though it has been pummeled with sand for over half a century, you can still make out much of the painted graphics on the sides of the white building. Before the interstate pulled travelers miles away from Route 66, you could drive the gritty old alignment right up to the trading post. Now, however, the easiest way in is blocked by a large and solid metal gate emblazoned with a “No Trespassing” sign, as the property is now owned by a cattle rancher. There is an open way in about ten miles east of the post, but the road is washed out and clearly not fit for anything without four-wheel drive…especially a rental! Plus it sounded way more possible to visit the post if we, perhaps, got some sort of permission. We come in peace, afterall.

We were determined to find more information about the elusive curiosity. It was a light-painter’s dream comp: simple, pure white building; clear-as-crystal, deep blue sky; a barren desert landscape below a gorgeous blanket of stars. Even after reading website forum after forum, we were still unsure as to how we were going to reach this White Whale. A week before our trip, a conversation thread regarding the PDTP just happened to spark on the Route 66 World facebook page. Chris intently followed along with the various comments about protecting the trading post from vandals, as well as how to locate the owner so people could see the relic. Finally, days before our trip, Chris found a glimmer of hope in one Nick Gerlich from Texas who had just visited the trading post by mountain bike. He described how he had run into the cow boss on his way to the post and got the man’s kind blessing to go ahead and explore! After some additional conversations, we gleaned the impression that the cow boss was happy about the fervor surrounding the trading post and welcomed anyone to contact him to tour the place. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Kevin and Nancy Mueller—beloved caretakers of the famous Blue Swallow Motel—braved the blistering sun and heat to venture out to the trading post themselves!

The only thing was, we weren’t interested in seeing it in the daylight. We’d be going late, late into the night.

So once we officially hit the road with a better idea of our schedule, along one of the lengthier drives on the New Mexico highway heading toward Holbrook, Arizona, in a small section of the desert where mobile internet 4G magically exists, I emailed with Nick to ask about this magical place so many fans of Route 66 were just dying to see. Chris and I stopped at a McDonald’s in the parking lot of one of many Casinos off I-40 for some much-needed wifi and while I typed out a blog from the previous day, we got a call from Nick! He gave Chris all the info we needed about the PDTP: the interstate exit, the padlocked fence, the cow boss, the condition of the road in, the animals and critters we might encounter, the 3 mile walk to the abandoned building. All thanks to Nick, I know my anxiety about going to the post completely blind (we were going at night afterall) was calmed. And Chris was just more excited than ever. We were set and we were stoked!

When we arrived in Holbrook, we stopped at Joe & Aggie’s for a soulful dinner to fuel our adventurous spirit. Stuffed full of enchiladas and sopapillas, we quickly unpacked our belongings at the newly renovated Globetrotter Lodge across from the Wigwam Motel, repacking our light-painting gear for the active night ahead. I stowed beef jerky and extra water in case “something bad happened,” along with various sprays of the bug and sun variety to act as our only line of defense against critters large and small (eep). With our heavy gear in tow, around 10:00pm, we embarked on one of our most intense journeys to date! Well, simultaneously intense and yet serene all at the same time.

Approaching Exit 320, we were both pretty anxious. Even with Nick’s advice, I still wondered about all the questionmarks: The long walk in…how long would it be? The cow boss…did Nick tell him about us or would he be pissed we trespassed? The animals…ugh, the ANIMALS…cows, antelope, snakes, scorps?? After a bumpy and twisty dirt-road ride to the gate, the waning moon had just poked into the eastern horizon. Moonrise over the desert. Simply beautiful.

We unpacked and hopped the gate with all of our gear: the point of no return.

The walk was indeed lengthy, but we were so excited, nervous and busy dodging cow pies, we barely noticed. The temperature was cool, but walking warmed us up quick. Even though you could see the glow of head and tail lights near the horizon, a couple miles to the south, we still felt absolutely alone out there. It was spooky, but definitely tranquil under those brilliant stars with the moonlight growing brighter with every moment. Soon enough the distinctive, crater-like mound of rock we had seen in photos loomed like a giant in the distance and we knew we were close. With the moon hung low in the sky, we could even see the reflective white rectangular building, so tiny, still a mile away.

Painted Desert Trading Post in the distance – FINALLY!

When we arrived, we both breathed a sigh of relief. We busted out all the gear and got started: Chris comped and framed shots, I climbed around the barbed wire-protected concrete and dark, treacherous innards of the long-abandoned trading post to explore what I was up against. As Chris controlled the exposures, I popped the Vivitar flash at the walls and ceilings inside. First a blue gel, then a red one and finally a yellow: the yellow spoke volumes. To us it was perfection.

Painted Desert Trading Post – Our favorite…

I continued to leap and hurdle around inside the building as Chris changed angles and compositions. As mentioned in Part Two yesterday, when using a Vivitar strobe-style flash, it’s not only tough to see where to step (between flashes, the inside is nearly pitch-black with just a dash of moonlight that seeps in through the east windows), but the flash occasionally blinded me when I accidentally kept my eyes open (what is this amateur hour?!). I weaved through the interior studs and tucked into alcoves. The structure wasn’t huge by any means, but there were a lot of windows that needed to be illuminated, so after every take I’d jog back through the desert brush to Chris, glance at his camera screen and say, “nope go-again,” jog back to the building and continue to crouch inside the corners of the exterior walls and dart in through the back with bursts of color. I must’ve done this at least three dozen times.

We had to get this perfect.

We’d undoubtedly never again step foot inside the Painted Desert Trading Post during such ideal conditions, so we spent several hours shooting several angles with several colors. Using the moon as our light-painter, we even shot a few ghosting ourselves into the photo (another popular night photographer technique). Eventually with the impending 3 mile walk ahead of us we called it a wrap and packed up for the long journey back to the car. And long it was. Midway through, the wind shifted directions and the temperature felt like it dropped thirty degrees! Even with light sweatshirts and a swift pace, we were freezing!! We passed the time pointing out all the familiar mile markers: the old tin can, the spot where you can still see the Route 66 divider line paint on the crumbling road, the cowpies. We even discovered that a noise we thought was the low, faint rumble of semi-trucks on I-40 was actually snoring cows under a bridge we crossed. And after what felt like an eternity, looming in the moonlight, we could spot the fence and our car just as we left it on the other side of the gate. The exhilaration and accomplishment you feel during a light-painting adventure is one thing, but the sense of calm and relief when you make it back to your car safely is the icing on the cake. And just after 3:00am we were back in our Globetrotter king-sized bed safe and sound.

We did it.

We hope the trading post is a permanent fixture on the Arizona desert landscape. Many have suggested renovating and re-opening the space, while others urge to let it be. Because it is so far off the beaten path, so to speak, perhaps letting it remain in its relic state will serve as a simple, but strong reminder of our past. We will never forget the night we spent there and what it must’ve been like to travel that same old road we walked, when the trading post was the only spot to stop for miles and miles.

Many thanks to all of you who followed along on our three-part series about light-painting and night photography. On the one hand, the last thing magicians do is reveal how they perform their tricks, but—at least for me—learning about the time it takes, the skill level involved and the terrain one must traverse to get a truly unique image almost makes it more powerful and engaging. And yes, even a little more magical.

Looking to purchase this fine photograph? Hop on over to our Etsy shop!

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Showing 14 comments
  • kapshure@gmail.com
    Reply

    Hi there. I just visited the Trading Post 3 days ago, except unlike your light painting excursion – which turned out some nice shots i must say 🙂 – we were during middle of the day. ugh! We had intended that time slot to be early morning, as we had approached the exit 320 point of entry already a few days prior, and saw the signs on the gate. we moved on, however, we kept thinking about it and on our way back West, we decided it was worth it. we pulled up to the gate, about ready to hop it, and another guy drove up, who was doing a solo 66 trip & was trying to check it out also. i told him to come with. right then, a jeep w/ 2 yokels (complete w/ the cowboy hats) pulled up. i knew immediately they werent tourist. no worries, just played it cool, told them i was super into checking out the trading post, i’m a photographer also, so it was really a special thing to see given its state of fragility. I do a lot of abandoned urb-ex stuff, and love ghost towns, etc. anyways, the guys like yeh, go for it. the other random solo guy left in his jeep before they give the all clear, so he missed out. we walked all the way to the post, took some shots, checked out Dead River Wash, then hiked it back. doing long exposure there would be insane, soooo mayybee i might try to squeeze that in on my route 66 round 2. haha.
    oh by the way, did you guy lose a pearstone wired remote switch? cus i grabbed it off the ground since i had read your article before hitting PDTP. haha. i shoot canon so it doesnt matter to me, but i thought it was funny.

    anyways! check out my stuff http://www.berderp.com (this is the UE stuff http://berderp.com/category/urban-exploring/) i’m also on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/kapshure

    nice to meet you!
    jonathan

    • fglass04@gmail.com
      Reply

      Hey Jonathan!! Man, I got lost in your stuff…excellent! You have a great eye for street photography that’s for sure. And quite the collection of UE places. NOLA Six Flags would’ve been amazing. Some of that architecture reminded me of Rock-A-Hoola waterpark in Cali. So are you based in SF?
      You had to have met the cow boss at PDTP then, “I reckon”…haha! He seems pretty willing to let people explore…just wants to make sure no one is planning on vandalizing. But yeah, we never got to see it in the daylight. Obviously there are quite a few photos out there, but it would’ve been cool to explore…rather than feel our way around in the dark!! But definitely an amazing experience to say the least. Especially that walk in and out. If you make it back out there during Rt 66 Round II, definitely try to go at night!!

      In any case, we didn’t lose anything and I’m not sure who would’ve left the remote switch out there. Maybe someone will stumble upon this post and we can make that Missed Connection 😉

      Thanks for leaving the comment! Let us know if you post your PDTP photos at some point! Really love your photography! PS here’s Chris’s flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/christopher7/sets/) and mine (http://www.flickr.com/photos/fglass04/). Aside from 66 stuff, we haven’t done an urbex scout in awhile, but Central Hospital could be a pretty cool (and relatively close) location.
      ~Katie

  • kapshure@gmail.com
    Reply

    uhm, if you do Central Hospital, I can tell you from first hand experience, the security there doesn’t screw around, and they WILL arrest you on the spot. They are GA state police, with nothing to do, and every use every bit of power to prove they can make your day miserable. I came very close to spending all weekend in jail — I dragged my dad on the road trip to the hospital, and he was waiting for me to come back to the hotel, and when I didnt show back up, next thing he knew he was on the way to the jail to bail me out.True story. Wound up getting the criminal trespassing charges dropped, but cant say it wasnt worth it haha!
    I dont know if the guys in the jeep were any type of “mgmt” so to speak, but the guy driving certainly didnt care. I will post a link back to my PDTP pics once I get through post-processin’ everything ..(ONLY took 1500 photos on the road trip)

    i’ve not been to Rock-A-Hoola, its on the “To-do” list 🙂

    thank you for the kind words on my photog material. I really need to start a true, trimmed down portfolio site, as 10K+ images on Flickr is just too much.

    you guys Flickr stream has some great stuff. Chris has shot a lot of places. Detroit is certainly on my go-to city/UE list. I would love to go back to Gary and shoot all the stuff again. That is a UE playground, but a sad city to say the least.

    6Flags was super easy to do, that would be a trip to do light painting at, but probably is super creepy and who knows what kind of elements you might run into.

    I am based in SF, so if you guys are ever in the ‘hood, lemme know — I added you on Flickr btw.

    I’ll toss the shutter release switch.

    oh, btw, i wound up buying Chris’s Polaroids from Route 66 book when we stayed at the Blue Swallow — but didnt realize it at the time it was him 🙂

    • fglass04@gmail.com
      Reply

      Ahh, so CH sounds like Michigan Central in Detroit then…totally locked down and watched now. I’m glad you got the charges dropped, but such a fiasco none the less. Glad it was worth it!! Hopefully your dad thought so too HA!!
      Yeah we’re seriously going to have to consider a trip to New Orleans. I mean Six Flags has been said and done by many, but a light-painting experience might freshen it up a bit! Plus I haven’t been down to NOLA since I was 14!!

      So you were one of the Blue Swallow purchasers!! Kevin and Nancy just told us about another book sale! Awesome, thanks for supporting the cause 🙂 That’s too funny you didn’t realize the connection! We’ve considered a volume 2 since there’s so much we didn’t get to put/capture in the first one, but the Impossible Project film has been absolutely terrible these days. Chris didn’t scan a batch from our last trip right away and it all disappeared. SUCH a bummer!!! An expensive bummer to say the least! Most of the Polaroids from the book you have are original film…nothing compares!

  • kapshure@gmail.com
    Reply

    well you could always try and go the legit route for CH, and see what happens. the POE’s were incredibly easy, we just happen to get caught right at the very last minute. Thank goodness they didnt confiscate my mem cards or film. They were just too dumbfounded that I would have drove 7 hrs to come sneak into an abandoned hospital to take photos. “Why are you here” photos! “where do you live” , SF; “why are you here”, photos! hahaah ..and on and on..
    I need to find a fixer on the ground in Detroit before I go, definitely dont want to wind up in that predicament again.

    the polaroid book is great. I do love it. clearly I can see that some things just arent on the Route anymore judging by stuff that I didnt see myself.

    i’ll be about 2 hrs from NOLA over the Christmas holidays, if you guys want to try and plan something. I’d be into that.

    I need to learn how to develop my own film. I live in a studio, so not a lot of room (and havent stepped towards the bathroom method yet). I spend ~$50 for a few rolls, and I’m stoked if I get a dozen shots. sooo pricey! :/

    I really loved the Blue Swallow. I got a lil misty eyed when we were leaving. Definitely a great memory and the owners are just so friendly.

    anyways — holler!!

    • fglass04@gmail.com
      Reply

      Oh man the NOLA trip is far too tempting!! If only I got the week off like in my advertising agency days, we would probably take you up on that. Coincidentally my sister is heading down there with her boyfriend in January for her 30th birthday. Not the traipsing through abandoned amusement parks type though, haha!
      That’s great to hear about the Blue Swallow!! I know they put a lot of effort into that place: both in renovations and just general hospitality. Living the American dream, I tell ya!!

  • kapshure@gmail.com
    Reply

    jus fly into NOLA, make it a 3 day excursion. in, out. bam. 😛
    finally got around to posting the PDTP pics, I have a few more I havent posted yet, but I def wanna do a round 2 and light paint! you guys inspired me! ha.

    both the links below open into the flickr lightbox view of my shots.

    http://goo.gl/J2m2x

    http://goo.gl/0epoL

    I’m still working on the route66 shots. headed to Bodie next weekend 🙂 i’m never caught up!!

    • fglass04@gmail.com
      Reply

      Whoa!! For whatever reason this comment got stuck in space! Love the PDTP shots, esp the one including the shield on the road! We actually officially met the guy who paints those all over 66, Rich Dinkela, a couple weekends ago at a 66 fest get-together in Cuba, MO. Awesome guy! AND lovin’ the rest of your Route 66 signage. I can never get sick of seeing those 🙂 Did you make it to Bodie??

      • kapshure@gmail.com
        Reply

        yep! we made it to Bodie. still making my way through those. Highway 395 is very cool. Lots to see along that route. Bodie is an interesting place though. pretty surreal.

        • fglass04@gmail.com
          Reply

          Awesome!! Can’t wait to see those, let me know when they’re up! Chris has actually been down 395, but got to Bodie just when they were “closing up” so to speak. Hopefully we can get back there eventually and do some night shots. Troy Paiva has some amazing work from that whole area!

          • kapshure@gmail.com

            oh snap, i forgot to share the Bodie/395 photos. Did you guys ever make it there? I wound up in Bodie again this past summer. I really do like the Eastern Sierra’s.

  • Anonymous
    Reply

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  • sharinrucker@gmail.con
    Reply

    Hey I truly enjoy your photos and was wondering if I could use one for an upcoming project of mine. I am releasing a music single in the coming months and would love to have a photo of yours as cover art. Thanks in advance for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you!

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