by Marilyn Noble
Chuck Hoekman enjoys the wide-open highway. One time he drove his small sports car from Orlando to Alaska and back, a trip of twelve thousand miles in thirty days, and on another occasion, drove from Orlando to Newfoundland and back (seven thousand miles). Now, from their home base near St. George, Utah, Hoeckman and his wife travel the Western U. S. and Canada. They’ve been through Death Valley four times in the last four years, and have visited many of the West’s premier botanical gardens and zoos. “It’s been a fun four years of traveling,” he says. They don’t have a firm itinerary in mind when they start out. “We just end up wherever at the end of the day.”
Hoekman enjoys getting away from the heavily traveled highways and getting lost on roads that aren’t even on the map. Recently, the couple took a trip to California and explored the western flank of the Sierra outside of Bakersfield. “The road was curvy and full of wildflowers, from the poppies in the pastures down low to others at higher elevations. Of course, you have to make sure you have plenty of gas when you do that,” he laughs.
Hoekman mentions several places that he’s enjoyed visiting recently, including the Quarryhill Botanical Gardens near Glen Ellen, Calif., home to one of the largest collections of scientifically documented, wild-source Asian plants in North America and Europe. On the day they visited, the place was empty of other tourists and they were able to enjoy the peaceful beauty of the gardens.
The same lack of people resulted in “an unexpectedly nice trip to Yellowstone last July,” he says. On that trip, they witnessed a life drama playing out among two antelope and a coyote, all under the watchful gaze of an unperturbed bison bull. The coyote was stalking the younger antelope until the mother chased him away, all while the bison continued to graze. Hoekman also had a run-in with a coyote himself. “I laid down on a little hill to shoot (photograph) him, and then he saw me and ran straight at me. I jumped up and scared him off. It was exciting,” he says, with a hint of understatement.
Tucson’s Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is another favorite place. “The mountain lion enclosure is fantastic,” Hoekman says. “You can park yourself there for an hour or so and hope he moves.”
While photography isn’t the main emphasis of Hoekman’s travels – “we’re just traveling to see the sights, and I take pictures to remember” – he manages to take plenty of exceptional photos, one of which was the grand prize winner in Rio Nuevo’s spring photo contest.
He shoots with a Sony a77 Mark II DSLR, although lately he experienced technical difficulties and had to send it away for repairs. He had to go back to using his older camera, and can really tell the difference. “I have to work harder in Photoshop because there’s lots of noise in the old camera,” he says. He uses Topaz software to de-noise, but then the image suffers from less clarity. He shoots with a 400 mm lens for birding and animals and also enjoys shooting macros. He says he uses a tripod about ninety percent of the time.
He got interested in photography in the early 80s when he moved from South Dakota to Florida. “I had been a hunter and fisherman in South Dakota, but there wasn’t as much of that in Florida. I needed a new hobby, so I turned to photography.” He also joined the Orlando Winter Park club, which he says was a fabulous way to learn, and spent the next eight years immersed in shooting photos. At the end of the 80s he did a little commercial photography and some weddings, but those were “the most stressful thing in my life,” he says.
He took a break for a while to indulge his radio-controlled car racing hobby and do some fishing, but when they moved to Utah in 2012, he got serious again and bought his first DSLR. Now, when he’s not on the road, he spends five days a week wandering the high Mohave Desert near his home in St. George. He lives a quarter-mile from the entrance to Snow Canyon State Park and has a view of the mountains from his yard. “It’s a gorgeous place to be,” he says. “We have quail and roadrunners in the yard, and I can’t think of a better place to live if you want to travel the West.”
He posts his photos on his Facebook page, and a recent macro shot of a grasshopper was the most popular in the last four years. Although he recently sold an image to a company to use for their Christmas card, Hoekman says he doesn’t sell his work on purpose. “It’s just for fun,” he says.
See more of Chuck Hoekman’s work on his Facebook page.