Take a Lo-fi Road Trip Across the American West with Photographer Alec McKeand

From the desert to the mountains and the sea, McKeand captures that “on the road” feeling


You know that feeling, when the windows are rolled down after a good long day and the sun is low in the sky? Alec McKeand’s figured out how to capture it on film. That is, when he’s not busy immortalizing that other elusive feeling, when you look at some scene—a peak or a desert-scape or a still alpine lake—and time slows down. Nothing matters but the way the light changes and the wind blows.

Among hundreds of outdoor photographers capturing wanderlust and shuttling it to the masses via Instagram, McKeand stands out. His photos are carefully composed, edited to a flat, vibrant saturation that takes familiar scenes into the surreal. A deer running through a field, a tiny triangle of light atop a peak, a well-known view framed by pine limbs or a beloved car surrounded by trippily colored leaves; his work surprises you the way an unexpected creature might as it crosses your path.

21-year-old McKeand is from Austin, Texas originally, but he calls Durango, Colorado, home now. When he’s in town, he spends his days scrambling around the San Juan Mountains and his evenings editing photos. “My favorite way to get out there is to combine as many activities as I can. Get the whole body moving! Bike to a trailhead and then run to the climbing area,” says McKeand. “I’m all about human-powered outings for a few reasons. First and foremost, it’s better for the environment, second, it’s fun, and third, I hope it encourages others to do the same. I’m already doing enough environmental harm driving my Land Cruiser cross-country a few times a year. I like to minimize that when I’m not traveling.”

McKeand shoots and edits a lot of his photos on his iPhone, citing his preference for VSCO’s editing capabilities and ultralight hiking setups with little room for bulky cameras. You’ll notice he has a thing for film, too; he shoots on a Pentax ME Super and carries an Olympus mju-II whenever he can. When he’s not experimenting with expired film or cheap rolls bought in bulk off eBay, he shoots on Portra 400 and Agfa Vista 400. When he’s shooting digital for professional purposes (or hiking with a big backpack), he carries a Fuji XT1.

For the young photographer, the future is invitingly unclear, but “one thing is for certain,” he says, “as much as I love being at home in Durango, I do have a lifelong commitment to road tripping. I live in the moment as much as I can, and on the road is a perfect place to do that. There isn’t a future and there isn’t a past, just the next 10 minutes.”

Here, he tells us about how a few of his favorite shots came together.

“I shot this on my iPhone at Mount Rainier. We were seeing how far we could hike before things got dangerous (i.e., crevasses). Nothing too crazy about the photo! I love it because I met one of my photography inspirations this day, Kellen Mohr, and we got to share a lot of lovely memories. My friend Peyton is on the left and friend Addison is on the right. Edited in VSCO, as I do all of my other work. Flat, over saturated, and a few small details thrown in.”

“This is an iPhone shot from Hungry Horse Reservoir in Montana. We were gathering wood for a fire and I noticed this perfectly symmetrical, nicely framed view through the trees. One shot and done! I like this photo because it shows how beautiful the in-between moments are. Fires are nice, but so is gathering wood. My friend Theron and his flawless FJ60 are pictured here. He’s a pretty famous guy, but his dog is probably more famous.”

“I shot this on my Pentax coming into Flagstaff, Arizona. I was feeling really empty after leaving a person very dear to my heart in California earlier that day. Sometimes a sunset is all it takes to mend the soul.”

Porcupine Rim overlook in Utah.

“Silverton, Colorado. I had been hiking most of the day and hadn’t seen a good sunset in a while, so I waited patiently for this one. The sun is really good at what it does.”

“I shot this on my Pentax a couple hours southwest of Phoenix, Arizona, a.k.a, the middle of nowhere. I had woken up to an amazing sunrise about an hour before this and was really feeling the “camp vibes” as I paced around observing everybody in awe of the super bloom happening at the time. I like this photo because it was a real moment and a happy moment at that. Mister Forrest Mankins sitting on his tailgate, swinging his legs, happy as can be.”

Malibu, California.

“I took this one with my Fuji XT1 on Kendall Mountain, outside Silverton, Colorado. A lot of times after rain storms the clouds will hang nice and low in the valleys. My friend Peyton and I made it a mission to not miss that short period of time this day. We made our way above tree line and I managed to snag this as the clouds opened up to a view of the trees. Natural framing at its best.”

“I took this on my Pentax at Convict Lake in California. I was nearing the end of the first extended road trip I had ever taken. Week four, I believe. I had seen a photo of this rope swing and didn’t want to go home until I got to use it. It was just as amazing as it looks. That’s my cousin, Zach. One of the more memorable moments from those four weeks. I’ve been hooked on road tripping since then.”

“I took this with my Pentax at Ice Lake in Colorado. This was my fifth time hiking up to that lake. Im not sure this morning could have been more perfect. I was up before the sun. Rain from the night before caused the valleys to look like there was a river of clouds running through them. The sunrise lit up the river of clouds bright orange. Made me get quite emotional! Once I reached the lake there was this flawless reflection, only to be turned to ripples by a man jumping in with his dog. Too good to be true.”

“I shot this on my Pentax at Silver Lake, above Silverton, Colorado. Fall was nearing its end, so I wanted to make sure I made as many trips to the high country as I could. I was nearly to the lake when I was hit with winds strong enough to cause me to stumble. I had shorts on, so the blowing snow cut my legs up pretty bad. I was actually bleeding when I made it to this shelter that the miners built back in the early 1900s. One of those unforgettable days.”

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