Last week I got the chance to do a few things that I've never really done before, and had more fun than shirtless Putin riding a horse bareback. Did I skydive? Swim with sharks in a cage? Hike to a Bhutanese cliffside monastery and learn the secrets to life? Not quite, but close. I was hired to do some aerial photography of Central Texas!
My cousin, Kristen, works for a local insurance company here in Austin, and she contacted me asking if I'd be interested in a photography shoot for her company. I'd actually only purchased my brand-spanking new DSLR five months ago. In that time though, I had spent countless hours researching and reading books, trying to wrap my head around just how to manipulate such a complicated piece of hardware. I had only just begun to really understand it all when she asked.
And so, with my usual blind bravado, I accepted. I rented two lenses (the Canon 24-105 f/4L and Canon 70-200 f/4L, for you photography nerds out there), and we made plans on what exactly it was that we wanted to capture. The photos would be of topics that represent central Texas; a diverse part of the planet with equal parts cowboys, cattle, hipsters and hangouts.
Meanwhile, Kristen was working on renting out a helicopter which was made available through her boyfriend. A helicopter! I'd never flown in a helicopter before, and couldn't help but grin at the prospect of it.
Day 1: Bluebonnets and Sunsets
We decided to take care of some pictures the night before the helicopter shoot. We set out to grab a few sunsets and try an interesting bluebonnet/ astrophotography composition that I'd been dying to capture.
Airport Hill is one of the higher spots in town and we found a good location for the setting sun. There wasn't a cloud to be seen, so the sky burned with oranges and reds as we watched the sun finish its day's work over the Hill Country.
Afterwards we drove out to a spot on Lake Travis called Turkey Bend. I'd scouted the area a few days before because I had heard there were millions of bluebonnets, and they certainly weren't lying! The night wasn't ideal for astrophotography because the moon was nearly full and very bright but we still managed to capture some interesting shots.
Day 2: The Helicopter!
The next morning, we woke up at 5:30am to begin our long day of shooting. We met up with Chris, a coworker of Kristen's, at Walter E. Long Lake just east of downtown Austin for a beautiful sunrise. The lake was smooth as glass, and birds were careening towards the surface, occasionally making ripples.
Our trio ate some breakfast, and chatted with the waitress about what was in the area.
"Well, there's a ghost town just down the road?" she offered.
Pssh, yeah we want to go to a ghost town! We got directions and headed that way.
What we saw when we got there, however, was more of a tourist trap. Hand built, definitely within the last decade, the "ghost town" had a bar, a blacksmith, a corral, and several buildings that were made to look old. A trailer sat out back, probably lived in by the person running the attraction. Even though it was all blatantly very fake, there were still some pretty cool pictures to be had.
The Executive Airport
The pilot, Drew, was sitting in a comfortable chair when we walked through the front door of the airport and stood up to shake our hands. We followed him outside toward the tarmac and turned left to a helicopter pad with a shiny red helicopter resting on it. My body was filling to the brim with nervous excitement. It was a bit smaller than I imagined. The doors were opened, and I took the front right seat.
"Unless you wanna fly, that's my seat," said the pilot, laughing.
Off to a good start Jackson.
I moved my gear to the other front seat, while Kristen and Chris took up the cramped back seats. The helicopter looked like a giant dragonfly, with huge bubble windows for great views of the countryside.
"You guys all ready?" asked Drew.
We nodded, buckled our seatbelts, and put on the headphones so that we could hear and talk to each other. He pulled a few levers, pushed some buttons, and the rotor blades began screaming. And just like that…we left the ground. Within seconds, we were above the buildings and banking hard above the tarmac. What a rush!
Circuit of the Americas
Our first stop was for some aerial shots of the Circuit of the Americas, the only Formula 1 race track in the United States. I'd been there for a concert of all things before, but seeing it from the sky was a whole other experience. He took us around for a few laps; the first from higher up and the second from a lot lower for different angles. I could see people sitting in the parking lot, looking up at us.
Downtown Austin is right next door (when you're in a helicopter), so we flew around the skyscrapers several times capturing photos of the capital building, the beautiful Lady Bird Lake and University of Texas campus.
A Secret Waterfall and Lake Buchanan
On our way to Enchanted Rock, the pilot asked if we'd like to go check out a cool waterfall that he knew about on the way. Uhh, why would we say no to that? We followed a brown river a little ways, came around a bend, and saw what he was talking about. Right beside the river was a large patch of grass with a beautiful waterfall cascading over the edge of a cliff into a large pool. It didn't look like it belonged here! We watched the buzzards float high above us and listened to the waterfall as we took a ton of pictures. We were on a bit of a schedule, so we soon departed.
Lake Buchanan was on the way to Enchanted Rock, so he took us in low over the water. I felt like we were flying along level with some of the boats that were gliding across the large blue lake. We couldn't have been more than a hundred feet off the water, and were closing in on the opposite shore fast when he pulled up and lifted us over the houses and trees.
We finally arrived at Enchanted Rock, about a 40 minute helicopter ride (or 2 hours if by car) from Austin. Enchanted Rock is a massive granite formation and is the largest of its kind in the United States, rising 425 feet above the surrounding area. I loved camping there as a Boy Scout back in the day, and seeing it from above was spectacular (get used to me saying variations of that throughout this post!) The people who had climbed up to the top looked like tiny ants atop an ant hill, and we flew around it for awhile before heading down to the small Texas town of Fredericksburg. There, we landed at the airport for some lunch downtown and got some classic small-town pictures.
We called for a cab and waited for about ten minutes for him to arrive to take us into town. The man that arrived was certainly not what I expected, although with I shouldn't have expected anything otherwise given the town that we were in. He was about 75 years old, and looked as if he should be on a ranch herding cattle instead. He agreed to be our driver for the day while we drove around some of the surrounding area for other items on our list. He was a gentleman and was constantly opening doors for Kristen, but had a hilarious old-man wit that was on constant display. He dropped us off at the Auslander Restaurant, a German-style biergarten. I ordered a pork schnitzel for lunch, and even though it wasn't as good as the ones Shelly and I had in Austria (how snobby does that sound?), it was a good experience overall and we left full. We snapped a few pictures downtown, and called up our cab driver to take pick us up.
We headed for Wildseed Farms, the country's largest active wildflower farm. Even though we were a bit out of season to view it in its full glory, there were still plenty of gorgeous flowers begging to be photographed. We walked up and down the rows of poppies, fields of bluebonnets and through the lush courtyard containing small ponds stocked with koi fish. We were there for about an hour before heading back out to our waiting cab driver. Apparently he'd been bored, because he was really excited to show me this seashell he found in the grass.
We were headed towards Luckenbach next when off in a pasture we could see about a dozen horses grazing. They were something on our list, if we could find them, and decided to turn around to try and get some pictures. The cab driver pulled into a small parking lot, and worked his way around a little road. It felt like we were trespassing just a tad bit, but we started snapping shots anyways. A big ranch truck pulled up behind us. We'd been caught! A young girl not 5'2" with fiery red hair jumped down, looked at us, and starting getting ready to corral a horse. Chris and I looked at each other, and decided to walk over to ask her for permission to take a few pictures. She agreed.
"If y'all want to, just drive on up that dirt road to the barn. There's a bunch of horses back there if you'd like?" she offered.
Well sure, thanks! Our cab driver put us on the road, and with his windows rolled down started yelling funny things at her as we drove by with his old-man charm.
"There ya go girl, rope them hosses!" he yelled. We were nearly crying with laughter at his boldness.
We drove around to the barns, and it wasn't long before she came up the long road, two horses in tow. We kept hearing what sounded like humans screaming coming from inside the horse barn.
"What in the world is that?" we were all thinking.
She brought out three small goats only five weeks old. They stayed at her feet wherever she went as if she were their momma goat. She later brought out a two DAY old goat, who promptly pooped a yellow-green liquid all over her shirt. We were there for about thirty minutes before thanking her for her kindness and departing for Luckenbach.
Luckenbach is a strange oddity of a town. It's become a part of Texas folklore as a country music community where people gather for live music events and drink many Shiner Bock beers. I'd never been there before, so it was fun finally getting to see the town whose motto is "everybody's somebody in Luckenbach."
Our pilot offered up another destination to end the day, which just happened to be in the area.
"It's a guy's ranch, Josh, whom I taught how to fly," he said.
Drew called him from the air. After the call was over, Drew filled us in.
"He actually just landed himself, and he's more than willing to show us around."
We were hoping for some good pictures of wildlife, and Drew promised we'd get just that. We landed on Josh's private helipad (never thought I would say something like that), and were astonished. Josh came out of his "hangar," which was more like a glorified man cave. It housed his helicopter, and had a spare room, living area and bar.
Josh took us around his property in his hunting vehicle/ souped-up golf cart that fit all five of us easily. From our seats on the back end, Kristen and I snapped pictures of all the exotic game Josh had imported to his ranch; deer from India, black buck, axis deer, ibex, and even wildebeest, among others. It was one hell of a place, and our eyes were wide with amazement the whole time.
We flew back just as the sun was setting. Everything was under the cover of darkness except for the tall skyscrapers of downtown which looked like it was glowing with a pink-red.
It was such a cool experience overall. We were exhausted from taking pictures for over 12 hours, but had great fun the entire time. Shelly was incredibly jealous of my opportunity, so I tried not to brag too much when we landed and I called her.
We're already looking at helicopter flights somewhere else.
Have you ever been in a helicopter? Let us know in the comments below! We love hearing from you 🙂
Jimmie & Shelly