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The Chronicles of an Adventure Photographer: Laura Austin cruises Hwy. 395

This project was done in partnership with our friends at Vans.

The pull of the open road is a feeling as old as the automobile itself. Wind on your cheek, hand on the wheel, radio cranked, nothing but miles ahead: The road trip is textbook American exploration.

Still, it’s rare that any of us leaves the map in the glove box (or Google Maps turned off, anyway) when setting out for adventure on the double yellow. “Destination unknown” is the parlance of the wanderer, and as natural as it may be to amble cross-country through an unmarked forest, even the gutsiest outdoor enthusiast might hesitate to leave all the planning to someone else.

Not Laura Austin. Solo road trips have become the calling card of this 27-year-old Los Angeles-based travel photographer. Well-versed in the vagaries of playing outside — thanks in part, at least, to her two years spent as SNOWBOARDER’s online editor before quitting familiar income to strike out as an artist a few years ago — Austin is known for making getting to a trailhead as interesting as what happens once she shuts off the ignition.

This July, we selected Austin to pilot a trip she couldn’t turn down: discovering, capturing and sharing the experience of waking up with only mile markers ahead and GPS points to lead her to places she didn’t even know existed. “I’ve done a lot of trips where I don’t have an exact destination,” she says, “but I was the one putting myself in those situations.” For this adventure, however, she would relinquish all control, letting a series of latitude and longitude intersections act as guide — no place names — and giving herself over to the experience of really not knowing what lay ahead.

An anonymous fellow traveler shipped Austin a box containing only some cash, a list of map coordinates, a pair of go-anywhere sneakers and a journal in which she’d record her observations. Excited by the “adventure on top of an adventure” aspect to her trip, Austin navigated Southern California’s Highway 395, a classic corridor connecting urban adventurers to the vast and achingly scenic Eastern Sierra, over four days and three nights, following her mystery benefactor’s plans for everything from breakfast to breathtaking vistas.

“I got the journal with the coordinates the day before I left, and I could have easily looked on my computer and seen exactly where I was going,” Austin says, “but I wanted to leave it more of a mystery.” Fossil Falls, near Little Lake, California. Photo: Laura Austin

“Normally when I’m driving up to Mammoth, I’m kind of just beelining it to get to the destination,” says Austin; she’s made the trip to the resort countless times in the winter. “On this trip, it was cool to find all these little unexpected treasures along the way that I would have never known were there, from a beef jerky stand on the side of 395 that I’ve never stopped at [before] to taking a road to a tiny little mining town I didn’t even know existed.”

Wheels hummed, sneakers met dirt, campfires were conjured and new memories of a not-unfamiliar place were made — sometimes to Austin’s own surprise. Here, in her words, is what she saw along the way.

The White House Saloon in Randsburg, California — one of the state’s famous mining ghost towns. Photo: Laura Austin

Randsburg: “It’s a road I never would have turned down. This old couple that owns this little burger spot [and] saloon were giving me all sorts of tips of all these places I needed to check out along the way. We just sat and they gave me the whole history of the town and how they came to own the restaurant.

“It’s funny: When you’re traveling with someone else, you’re kind of distracted by and content with their company, but when you’re traveling alone … people want to talk to you. You’re more apt to talk to other people just to not be sitting having a meal all by yourself.”

The misnomer that is Fossil Falls, Little Lake, California: The glacial cascades and lava flows, long gone, shaped the stone — which is the only record of the past. Photo: Laura Austin

Fossil Falls: “It was so hot! It wasn’t a long hike that I did, but it was literally 111 degrees. It was nice to get out of the car and stretch my legs, but I had been riding comfortably in air conditioning up until that point. [Laughs.] That wall of heat definitely hit hard, but Fossil Falls was cool; I was distracted from the heat by the very cool, unique landscape. Since it was that temperature, I was the only one out there.”

Lone Pine Campground, near the base of Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States, Lone Pine, California. Photo: Laura Austin

Lone Pine Campground: “I think this is the first time I’ve intentionally camped by myself. Normally when I’m on my solo trips, I stay in hotels — I’ve also slept in my car before — but I guess I normally shy away from camping solo because it seems potentially dangerous … a tent’s not that hard to break into. [Laughs].

“It was nice; I like traveling by myself because I think it forces you to be present and really take in the experience, because you’re not distracted by your company. Waking up at the base of Mount Whitney was insane. [The night before] I saw the most dramatic sunset I’ve ever seen, and it happened literally behind Mount Whitney; It looked like Mordor [from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy] or something. The mountains behind Lone Pine … are so dramatic because it’s flat and then these mountains just jut up; it looks like a fake photo backdrop.”

Laura Austin’s never-leave-home-without-it gear pick? Her tripods. Photo: Laura Austin

Los Angeles: “This may sound narcissistic, but when I’m traveling alone, as opposed to just taking photos of pretty landscapes, I insert myself into the scene just to add more of a story. So when I’m on these trips, I put my camera on a tripod and then I have a remote. If anyone from the outside saw me doing this, they’d probably think I was crazy, but I’m running back and forth from behind my camera to in front of it, like, 20 times to try to get a shot.

“The tripod is something that comes with me everywhere just so I can properly document the journey. From my point of view, by putting myself into these scenarios, it makes it seem more accessible [to the viewer]. People can put themselves in those shoes, and that’s my goal with my work — not to say ‘Hey, look at me in all these cool places I’m going,’ but more so to encourage other people to see these places for themselves.”

Northbound on California’s Highway 395. Photo: Laura Austin

Highway 395: “I kind of always take a shot that looks like [this] when I’m traveling alone. I just like the perspective; it’s just me and the open road, and just showing the landscapes I’m in. Aesthetically, I like the leading line, Again, if anyone saw me doing this, running out in the middle of the road, basically laying on the ground, hoping that a car doesn’t come and run me over …” [Laughs.]

The eerie Alabama Hills, just outside of Lone Pine, California, have been the setting for hundreds of films, television shows and commercials since at least 1920. Photo: Laura Austin

Alabama Hills: “Alabama Hills has been on my list of places I’ve wanted to check out for a long time. I knew it was right along the 395, but again, normally when I’m traveling up to Mammoth it’s just beelining it, and I [typically] have people with me and they don’t want to stop at places along the way.

“It’s a very surreal landscape. Alabama Hills on its own is very interesting, but then you have Mount Whitney as a backdrop and it’s just a very surreal place.”

Convict Lake, just south of Crowley Lake, California, is indeed named for a shootout with bandits back in the 1870s. Photo: Laura Austin

Convict Lake: “It was cool to see Convict Lake from a different perspective, like actually on the water and in a different season than I would normally see it. I’m an adventurous person, but I normally wouldn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go rent a kayak for the day.’ So this was cool; I hike a lot, but this was something a little more out of the ordinary for me. It was pretty windy that day, unfortunately, to the point where they almost didn’t let me go out because I’d paddle my heart out and then just be blown back.

“Also, it was nice to dunk my head in the water at that point, after two days of not showering, so that was really nice.” [Laughs.]

Tioga Pass, the grand eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park, is renowned for four-season adventures — including, when you’re lucky, backcountry snowboarding in July. Photo: Laura Austin

Tioga Pass:Snowboarding was my first love. I’ve been heli-boarding, I’ve been splitboarding, I have hiked during the summer to go snowboard a bowl on the Fourth of July. I’ve done backcountry snowboarding, but nothing that was like this; it was intense. I had assumed I was just going to take some laps at Mammoth, but boy, was I wrong. [Laughs.]

“We did seven hours of hiking in snowboard boots with snowboards strapped to our back. We snowboarded down two different faces; it was four hours of hiking to the first one, you get a couple-minute ride down, then three more hours of hiking to the next face we rode down. No trails whatsoever — we were basically just hiking vertically up the mountain, through trees and scrambling on all fours over loose builders, then also hiking through snow.

“By the time we got to the top of where we needed to snowboard, I was questioning whether I’d even be able to ride down. My legs were just Jell-O, and also the faces we rode down were probably some of the steepest faces I’ve ever snowboarded down.

“That day was insane. I definitely pushed my body to a limit I haven’t in quite a while, but because of the struggle and because of how intense that was, it made it even more memorable.”

Tamarack Lodge at Twin Lakes, Mammoth Lakes, California. Photo: Laura Austin

Tamarack Lodge: “The first two nights, I was camping, and the last night I had a cabin to myself up at Tamarack [Lodge], which was so nice in contrast to what I had been doing. I hadn’t showered in three days, and I was hiking in 111-degree weather and sweating more than a person should ever sweat … camping in the dirt and getting up and doing it again the next day, so to sleep in a cabin — just to have a shower and bed to sleep in the last night — was nice.

“This photo was the next morning after I woke up at Tamarack, just kind of reflecting on the trip a bit. This is the first time I’ve been up to Mammoth in the summer … it was definitely interesting seeing it in a different way than I would normally see it [in the winter]. … It’s definitely a nice escape from LA.”