My sister has a seasonal job in Yellowstone this summer, giving me a great opportunity to get out of the studio and shoot outdoors. I will be heading out west on Amtrak early in October, and we will drive back to the east coast.

Naturally, flying to Jackson Hole or Bozeman is expensive, as none of the local airports hosts a hub, so multiple stops and mega-bucks are required to arrive by air. I decided to use Amtrak, as I have enough miles to get the trip free. Unfortunately, direct train service to Yellowstone was cut decades ago, so my options were to go to Salt Lake City and rent a car or to go to Whitefish and have my sister meet me. I opted for Whitefish, a ski resort which lies adjacent to Glacier Nat’l Park near the Canadian border.

Empire Builder at Two Medicine Trestle by Steve Wilson

Empire Builder at Two Medicine Trestle by Steve Wilson

For a photographer, the train provides a lot of advantages over flying. For one, you can take pictures on and from the train as you travel. You can also do a lot of preparation, going over maps and sites, and talking to a whole bunch of westerners about the best places to go.

The biggest advantage, however, lies in the much more liberal baggage policies. One can check two bags and still carry on two more at no charge. That means I can easily carry as much camera gear as I like and still be able to pack less essential items like clothes and toiletries.

Even though I won’t be leaving for months, I want to be as prepared as possible.

I knew that on a three day train trip, I did not want to have to keep an obsessive eye on my gear, so I decided to get a Pelican case. Amazingly, a company had a whole bunch of them up for sale on my local craigslist in various sizes for $50 per. What a steal! I nabbed a 1620 (the 1650 does not meet carry on size requirements).

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Why, you may ask, would I buy used? a) I am frugal. b) Pristine cases call out to thieves. c) Beaten up luggage shows that you have successfully protected your gear. d) Pelican has a lifetime warranty that they actually honor. Two latches were broken, and Pelican sent me replacements with no questions asked except for “Where do you want them sent?”

My second line of preparation is choosing where to go and what to shoot. When you are away from home, every day costs money. Indeed, every hour costs money. A lot of people think that they will not plan a trip and just try to stumble upon things. I like to improvise and go off the beaten path, but you have a path to start with. I like to know what I will be doing for part of the day, and having accomplished that, I can add more. If I find something on the way to a shoot that intrigues me more, I can do it, knowing that I have simply replaced something on my itinerary. Also, I have to guarantee my sister some sights.

The ever fascinating Trey Ratliff of Stuck in Customs fame has created an app called Stuck on Earth, that assembles photos by place on your iPad. I spend a few minutes on it whenever I can, and am taking notes.

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With that outline, the advice of other photographers online and in person, and tips from people who live out west, I should be able to put together a memorable trip. I have crossed the country twice, but always in a hurry, and never with photography in mind.

I can’t wait! Anybody who has tips or tricks, please comment below.

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