If you have a sister who is willing to strip down to her skivvies behind a juniper bush, stand around wearing a hideous ankle-length crochet dress in the middle of the desert as you shout “CHANNEL YOUR INNER DESERT NYMPH,” race across a muddy, spider-infested flood plain and nearly succumb to heatstroke for the sake of your hopeful photography career, raise your hand!

*Raises hand*

My sister Kelli is pretty freaking awesome. She also happens to be annoyingly pretty, graceful and model-esque. But, when my mom suggested that Kelli look into modeling when she was a tween, Kelli defiantly declared that she’d rather spend her time reading. If you know Kelli, you know that this is THE most “Kelli” response imaginable. In High School, when I started shooting film for my photography class, my sister was the only person around me who I felt comfortable enough to photograph (#socialanxietyproblems). I, therefore, declared her my muse, forcing her to model for almost all of my photography class projects. Ok. Maybe I didn’t force her, per se, since I do recall a fair amount of haggling over chores involved in getting her to agree.

I’ve asked her to be my model a couple of times since High School, and she’s always up for it, and always nails it. Now that we’re both living in Albuquerque again, I asked her a couple days ago if she would once again return to her reluctant modeling roots and fulfill a photographic vision I’ve had for over 7 years. And she said yes! WOOP!

If you’re in central New Mexico, you’ve probably been to or at least heard of, the Ojito Wilderness. It’s a vast wilderness area (11,000 acres) off of highway 550, an hour and a half northeast of Albuquerque. The Ojito is fantastically easy to get to; the dirt road you take from 550 gets pretty washboard-y, and I wouldn’t love to drive it when muddy, but that’s the hardest part of the journey and 100% doable for most cars/driving abilities. I should also note that there are zero facilities in the area, and it is SUPER arid, so you will absolutely need to bring plenty of water with you when exploring here.

Sisters in the Ojito, 2009

I first visited the Ojito on a hike with my Mom, stepdad Jack and some family friends in 2007-ish, and remember being absolutely captivated by the area. Upon first glance, the area may come across as nothing but a barren desert. But bizarre-shaped hoodoos, badlands, mesas, box canyons, bands of gypsum, colorful sandstone, red clay, travertine springs, and cryptogamic crust are just a few of the incredible geological gems in the area.

Ojito Wilderness in New Mexico

Since that first visit, the Ojito wilderness has completely transfixed me. Over the last 6 years out of New Mexico, it is without a doubt the place in NM that I dreamt of returning to the most. When living in rainy Juneau, and then rainy, Oregon, I yearned for the blazing, dry heat of the Ojito. When hiking a crowded trail outside Portland, I craved the Ojito’s vast trail system where I rarely saw another soul. I can’t explain it, but the place just has this energy that pulls me to it. I’ve always felt inspired to photograph the area, and I usually snap a few shots when I’m out hiking, but I’ve never come solely for the purpose of photographing.

Enter: my muse, who agreed on Thursday to accompany me as my model on a photographic adventure of epic proportions (which I told her would be an “easy hike.” – my bad).

I ran to Savers (a thrift store) after work on Friday night, scouring racks festooned with some of the most hideous dresses I’ve ever laid eyes on. I was searching for a couple of items that I felt would 1. Fit Kelli, 2. Fit the environment, 3. Fit my artistic vision for the shoot (this feels pompous to say, but so it goes). After I finally found a few, including that fantastically horrid crochet number I mentioned earlier, I ran to Kelli’s to show her what she was in store for, talked styling, and then went home to run the dresses through the wash and prep my gear for the shoot.

Morning light would have been primo for shooting, but since Kelli works late nights and had no interest in going anywhere before 9am, I picked her up around 9:20 and we were on our way after a quick stop for Starbucks and gas. When we got to the trailhead of an area called White Mesa (or Dragon’s Back, depending on who you’re talking to) there were several groups of mountain bikers gearing up. Oh, right. This part of the Ojito is used primarily by mountain bikers, so I always get a little nervous that someone might say something about hikers clogging their trails or something. But nobody said a word as I started up the trail with Kelli, lugging a backpack that must have weighed 30lbs once loaded with water, food, hiking necessities, camera gear, and clothing/makeup for our shoot.

My goal was for us to hike down to into the valley that rests at the base a long, thin gypsum mesa dubbed The Dragon’s Back and then spend a couple of hours shooting in different locations in the valley.Ojito Wilderness New Mexico

This photo from a previous hike shows the valley I was dying to shoot in

But as we were winding down a foot trail near a gypsum vein, trying to find the trail that descends into the valley, inspiration struck. THIS IS IT, I told Kelli, dropping my pack on the dusty white trail. We were in a depression, and I rarely see other hikers in this area, so I felt pretty confident that we’d have privacy and wouldn’t be in anyone’s way if we stopped to shoot right off-trail.


Sneak peek from our first shoot location

After a few minutes in this spot, Kelli changed back into her hiking garb and we decided to head down a long, steep gypsum-lined gully to the trail we could see at its base. Have you ever felt raw, worn slaps of gypsum? That shit is ROUGH. By the time we cursed, hooted and howled our way down to the trail at the end of the gully, our hands were raw and our legs shaky. It’s probably at this point that I realized the lie in my “it’ll be an easy hike!” statement (another weird thing about hiking here – I always forget how long and strenuous the hike into this valley and back out is. Ojito mind-warp!)

Gypsum Gully in the Ojito Wilderness, New Mexico Hike

The gypsum gully we descended

We endured a few more minutes of treachery as we scaled down the side of the mesa, along a steep trail that mountain bikers literally ZOOM down. I was hyper-vigilant about oncoming cyclists as we clamored down this section of the trail, and I think at one point I just yelled at Kelli to run when my nerves couldn’t take the anticipation of a sudden and swift death by mountain bike. At that point, Kelli decided it would be faster and easier if she slid down the last steep hill on the soles of her shoes, which was absolutely hysterical. It also finally convinced her to invest in some actual hiking boots! Miracles abound in the Ojito.

Kelli, right before sliding down this hill on the soles of her shoes

We stopped for lunch in the meager shade of a juniper tree and then hiked over to what I consider the most colorful and geologically interesting part of the valley. We then made a little makeshift station under yet another juniper tree and then got busy taking photos in the deserted valley. I was in heaven shooting in such a stunning environment, despite the fact that it was noon, AKA as the worst time of day to shoot outdoors! But I was excited about the challenge of learning to direct a model and work in the harsh mid-day light and rolled with it. For poor Kelli, however, this meant that she faced the sun for 80% of my shots to avoid unflattering face shadows. “Ok. I’m done.” she finally announced about an hour later, red-faced and wilting. Since I’m not one for familial torture, I obliged and we returned to the shade, rested for a bit and then packed up.

Water tension on one of the travertine flows! So cool

To get to the trail that leads to the top the Dragon’s Back ridge, essentially making a giant loop, we had to cross a floodplain that is also part of the runoff from the travertine springs in the area. This muddy field is usually no big deal as long as you’re prepared to get your boots a little dirty, and we started across. I immediately realized that the mud was much deeper than usual, and stopped to laugh at Kelli, whose tennis shoes were sinking into the goop. As I glanced down at my own feet, I saw a handful of spiders frozen on the ground. I screamed, as you do when you see five spiders at once, and took a few more steps, examining the ground in horror. With every footstep I took, dozens of thumbnail-sized spiders scurried away from my boots. “SPIDERS!” I shrieked towards Kelli, a few paces behind me. Once I verified that she got the memo (she screamed), I booked it across the muddy field with the speed of an Olympic runner, screeching in terror with every step, Kelli close behind. On the other side of the spider field, we hyperventilated for a few minutes, regaling the horror, until we calmed down enough to carry on.

Kelli, pre-arachnophobic nightmare, on the edge of the floodplain, looking towards the Dragon’s Back mesa

*no photos of the spiders – you can thank me later!

Carrying on meant climbing up the steep side of a mesa via a thin trail that is probably only used by deer or parades of spiders. We were tired, it was hot, and this was really hard. Kelli and I started fantasizing aloud about the delicacies we were going to devour once we got to the Sonic Drive-In in Bernalillo on our way back to Albuquerque. Our “corn dog and a cherry limeade” mantra helped power us up the hill until we were finally cruising along down Dragon’s Back, trailhead in sight.

This shot is also from a previous hike but shows the view when hiking along the Dragon’s Back

We finally headed back to town caked in mud, exhausted and sore, but I was armed with a memory card full of photos I couldn’t wait to edit, memories of an awesome day spent with my sister, and the best damn cherry limeade I’ve ever had.

P.S. Stay tuned for a post with my favorite shots from our photoshoots later this week!

Written by Sara
Desert dwelling nature lover. Forever striving to live a life of adventure, wholeheartedness, and curiosity.