Recently Bligh Gillies and I spent just over a week in Arkansas documenting Rebecca Rusch’s effort to complete a Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the newly minted Arkansas High Country Route. This tour of Arkansas follows both paved and dirt roads for almost 1,100 miles, with a surprising 84,000+ feet of elevation gain.
Rebecca, being the crusher that she is, managed to complete this ride in 8 days 3 hours and 33 minutes. Wow!
“I’m still amazed at how my body held up,” she wrote. “Though I’m tired and my legs are sore, I’m not hurt. I feel like I was getting stronger along the trail physically and mentally.”
A week like this would crush most, but after all that’s why she’s the “Queen of Pain.”
We shot still photographs of Rebecca’s ride for Red Bull, one of her sponsors. Given that I had to leave for three days halfway through the shoot, Red Bull agreed to bring on my colleague Bligh Gillies as a second shooter … and I’m so glad they did, because this became one of the best parts of the trip for me.
This was a gritty, raw adventure that checked all the boxes. From a photography perspective, it was a challenging shoot—not physically (for us), but creatively. As Rebecca rode her bike, Bligh and I followed her in a car, with the floor of our car littered in fried food wrappers and camera equipment. (There’s a good chance Rebecca left Arkansas ten pounds lighter and Bligh and l left ten pounds heavier!)
The main creative challenge for us was making each stage look different and interesting. A lot of the scenery was similar: a road or trail running through a hallway or canopy of green trees. There were very few vistas. The light was often dappled. We had to push ourselves to find interesting foregrounds and backgrounds such as graveyards, abandoned cars on the side of the road, grazing cows, or neighborhood watch dogs chasing Rebecca on her bike.
The moments were often fleeting as well, since we couldn’t ask Rebecca to go back and re-create a scenario. We had to be quick, nimble, and fast.
The second reason this trip was such a memorable shoot was that I got to spend time with my dear friend Rebecca, who I first met in the late 1990s when she was on the adventure-racing circuit. We initially bonded back then because we both came from a climbing background, but became friends as we supported each other’s careers, as they shifted and changed course in response to a fast-changing changing world. No matter what she is doing, Rebecca has always had a gift for being able to translate her fringe pursuits into mainstream inspiration. Today, her success and professionalism has always been a huge inspiration for me.
Perhaps the best part of the trip, however, was getting to shoot alongside a guy I’ve known for years, who started out in my office as an intern and whose talent I’ve watched grow and evolve: Bligh Gillies. Whether it’s because my father was a teacher, or because I’ve had so many important mentors in my life, the idea of mentorship has been an important part of my DNA. I hope that I’ve been able to play a role in helping Bligh evolve as a photographer because he absolutely knocked it out of the park on this shoot.
Bligh crushed it! He did an incredible job of creating an amazing set of photographs. Halfway through the trip, when I realized Bligh was out-shooting me, I was forced to try to step up my own game! That kind of healthy competition can be a god-send for creativity and pushing yourself. If you want to elevate your photography, there may be no better way than going out and shooting next to someone who is making better pictures than you. Bligh, thank you for being that person on this shoot! I’m not sure if you’re happier with your images or if I am, but well done, sir! Very proud of you.
Thank you to Chuck Campbell at Adventure Cycling for pioneering this very special route through Arkansas, and for all the hospitality to Rebecca and our team. Thanks to the Arkansas State Parks, and all the friendly, great folks we met in Arkansas.
Thank you to Red Bull photo team for trusting us, and for Rebecca’s partner in crime Ally Davis for being a good travel partner.
And of course, most importantly, thank you to Rebecca and Bligh, the two people who blew me away and made this such a memorable adventure. Here’s to planning the next one!