Or, The Benefits of Scanning the Road Ahead

I love gloomy fall days, especially after the leaves have changed. Unfortunately, this past Sunday wasn’t like that. Like so many disappointing things that have happened in 2016, the fall foliage followed suit: About a week of vibrant colors from one third of the trees, the next third still-green, and the last fraction bare since mid-October.

While the trees weren’t able to incentivize me to go shoot (and to be honest, “lovely fall scenery” isn’t really my forte anyway), another factor conspired to get me off of my ass on a cold, cloudy Sunday-after-Thanksgiving: A simple desire to do something positive and constructive in this post-truth (never mind post-Bowie) age.

When I’m feeling restless, blue, and a little dissatisfied, I like to combine my always-present wanderlust with photography. So, I decided to hop in my car and explore Iowa’s seemingly endless gravel roads.

To set the scene: Iowa is a sparsely populated state—just over 3,000,000 people according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau. I live in Linn county, population 211,000, one of the more populated counties in the state (Cedar Rapids, just ten minutes from our little burg, is Iowa’s second largest city). The two counties that share Linn’s eastern border, Jones and Cedar, are much more rural. Cedar county and its 18,000 inhabitants butt up against the southeastern corner of Linn county. And this is where I found myself wandering around on gravel roads yesterday, looking for some interesting rural ruin porn (RuBex?) or other scenery to shoot.

While keeping my eyes peeled for abandoned old barns, houses, and farm equipment, I caught site of this skull hanging from a branch at the edge of a timber stand. That it seems to be a deer skull sans jaw is no surprise—we have more than our fair share of deer in the area. And an unfortunate circumstance is many of these beautiful animals go to waste after being hit by cars and trucks. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, does a great job of managing hunting schedules to try to keep the population balanced, but the year ’round carcasses alongside the roadways would indicate it’s a moving target (no pun intended).

To say that a skull—no matter the species—hanging from a branch wasn’t at first a little intimidating would be a lie. But at the same time, the skull combined with the dark skies and bare trees possessed a certain dark, baddass appeal. Fortunately, I’d decided to forego my usual practice of shooting primes (lenses with fixed focal lengths) to give my “lowly” kit zoom—the AF-S Nikkor 24-120 f/4G ED VR—an honest chance after six months or so of ownership. The fence around the woods made me glad I did—my longest prime is 85mm, and I would have needed more reach without resorting to jumping the fence. (And, as you can see from the image, there wasn’t much incentive to trespass.)

I shot this at 120mm, and it was just long enough. Without going onto more geeky detail, let’s just say I was more than impressed with the 24-120 and expect to use it a lot more in the future.