It was a cold Thursday night in January. I was over-caffeinated and wandering through a local bookstore with time to kill. Over-caffeinated because I’d just attended an espresso making class, a thoughtful Christmas gift from my sister indulging my newest addiction and obsession. Wandering because the local bookstore could be better described as a labyrinth, being in a building built before the Civil War, which had previously housed a saloon, cinema, and now tens of thousands of books. Killing time because I was waiting to start my 2200 shift at the hospital.
I remember going on a reading binge after graduating from pharmacy school in 2013. The sense of freedom that resulted from being liberated of the drudgery of analyzing innumerable scientific articles and memorizing treatment guidelines was intoxicating. Finally, I could read what I wanted. I could read for pleasure. Fast-forward seven years and I’m ashamed to admit that time being the last time I picked up a piece of fiction. My mind ached for stimulation outside my area of practice, but where to start? Perusing the shelves of a well-stocked bookstore is infinitely more overwhelming than Netflix’s algorithm-derived recommendations. Just as I was about to give up, a paperback seemed to call my name from the Classic Fiction section, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It’s a title that’s been on my list for some time and the orange “5% off manufacturer list” sticker sealed the deal, and I left with the paperback tucked in the cargo pocket of my scrub pants.
What does all of this have to do with the Mamiya 6 and why have I spent two paragraphs on this camera blog writing about books and espresso? Because something similar happened earlier last year at the used counter of my local camera store. Like Bradbury’s most famous book in the bookstore, there at the camera shop I found the famed Mamiya 6 with its wide 50mm calling out to me. It’s a camera considered by many to be one of the premier medium format rangefinders, with some of the best glass ever created. The square aspect ratio is by far my favorite, and the Mamiya’s incomparable portability with its collapsible lens mount make it the perfect travel camera. With only three lenses produced for it: a wide 50mm, normal 75mm, and telephoto 150mm, it also hedges against decision paralysis and limits the endless acquisition of new glass.
So now I had a travel camera, but where would I travel? One of the scariest aspects of adulthood is how easy it is to get caught up in the routine of everyday life: wake up, eat, walk dogs, shower, work, walk dogs, eat, watch re-runs of The Office, sleep, repeat. Even more alarming is the increasingly accelerated passage of time: one blink and a year has passed. We try to grab onto and pour the experiences like sand into our soul, but the routine realities of everyday life make us into sieves. So the Mamiya sat on the bookshelf in the office, motes of dust and the occasional dog hair befouling it with each passing day. Sitting patiently, but beckoning me to take it out – to break from the cycle and experience something real and beautiful.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have a partner who shares my love of adventure and exploration. We have a goal of visiting all of the National Parks, but it is so easy to get lost in the mundane aspects of work, bills, and overall survival. We were burnt out and needed a reprieve. In October, we took some time off work and loaded our belongings and our dog into the Subaru and headed in a northeasterly direction.
My sister-in-law and her husband, both New York City attorneys and simultaneously yet uncharacteristically bohemian in lifestyle and worldview, are some of my favorite people on this Earth. They and their two dogs welcomed us into their beautiful home for both the first and last legs of our journey. Theirs is the rare company in which the passage of time holds no barrier to connection. We sat and talked and drank and laughed; conversation drifted effortlessly between deep philosophical debate and infantile puppy impersonation. They took us to a winery in upstate New York that was a combination of the Hamptons and the Jersey Shore. We ventured into the city and were sobered by the World Trade Center memorial before eating dumplings in China Town and becoming un-sober at McSorley’s Old Ale House. At Brooklyn Film Camera, I held a 24K Gold Polaroid SX-70 and used every ounce of willpower within me to put it back where I found it. The Mamiya 6 snapped away effortlessly every step of the way and pleaded for more rolls to be fed to it.
We continued on our journey to Bar Harbor, Maine and Acadia National Park. As a lover of parks and seafood, I was happy as a clam. The last time I visited New England was in utero, but I immediately felt a connection to the rugged landscape. We timed our visit coincident with the peak of fall color and the scenery was truly awe-inspiring. The cool weather had halted the trees’ chlorophyll production revealing the gorgeous color that had been hidden all year. Driving through winding back roads surrounded by and partially covered in Kodachrome-colored leaves towards our remote AirBnB apartment left me with the uneasy feeling I was now a character in a Stephen King novel, but fortunately for us we suffered no Kingian plot points.
Acadia National Park is a breathtaking place. Although small in comparison to the Parks in the west, Acadia held no shortage of opportunities for photography and, more importantly, reflection. We watched as our dog played in the ocean, climbed a mountain sans equipment with the assistance of large boulders and iron rails bored into the cliff face long ago, scrambled over foam and spray-coated rocks to get the best view of a lighthouse, hiked numerous trails, and ultimately became lovers of Maine. The Mamiya 6 kept pace the whole time. I don’t believe in being over protective of gear and it never lodged a complaint. The near-silent leaf shutter just kept clicking away quietly and consuming more rolls of film. An author more clever than myself would make some association between rolls of film and rolls of lobster, but yeah, I ate lobster every day, and it was amazing.
A sixteen-hour drive with a brief overnight stop at our Jersey City oasis and it was back to reality. More work, more bills, more stress. The television certainly offered no relief as the world appeared to be ripping itself apart at the seams. With winter fast approaching we feared it would be a long time before we got to travel again, but we were determined to take advantage of the freedom granted from this childless chapter of our lives. I swapped lenses with my dear friend, Matt Day, the 75mm from his Mamiya 6 for my 50mm, in preparation for our next trip. Any parks to the North were already clutched by winter’s grip so we decided to go southwest in both direction and airline. I cashed in my flight miles and we were off to Las Vegas. We picked up a campervan to indulge our fantasy of #vanlife and immediately put as much distance between us and Sin City as possible. Several hours later we found ourselves bouncing down an unnamed dirt road in darkness, searching for a dry lake bed upon which the Bureau of Land Management allows drifting travelers like ourselves to stay for free. Weary from a massive day of travel, we cooked dinner in the van, looked up at more stars than either of us had ever seen in the sky before, and fell into a deep sleep.
The sun glanced across the lakebed at such an acute angle to let us know morning was well underway. As I opened the back doors of the van to see our surroundings for the first time in daylight, I was amazed to discover that we were not the only people crazy enough to venture so far out into the desert at night. While by no means as crowded as your average off-highway KOA, I was able to see a few dozen vans and tents scattered about the seemingly endless horizon. It was a comforting feeling of both solitude and community shared with strangers on the same mission.
I put a percolator full of coffee over the fire and started my daily ritual of making Migas (a variety of breakfast taco I discovered and fell in love with in Austin). Our bellies full and our souls adjusting back to the natural world, we made the short drive to Joshua Tree National Park. We spent the day hiking and taking in the subtle color and beauty of the desert landscape. It’s amazing how a place that looks so brown and dead from 35,000 feet is actually so full of life and diversity at ground level. The massive boulders made us feel as though we were walking on some distant planet yet to be discovered by man. The Joshua trees were massive and inspiring. I could now understand why the Mormons who settled in the region felt as though their branches were reaching toward the heavens.
Fast forward a couple of days and we were piloting our spaceship, or van, to my favorite place in the world: Yosemite. We drove through the smoky haze of distant wildfires that were ripping through parts of California, but were fortunate to not experience their wrath up close. At one point my wife provided me with a sandwich that she made in our tiny kitchen as we were blasting down a highway through fields of almond tress and grape vines. Life was good.
The last time we visited Yosemite was on our honeymoon and we then stayed in the famous Ahwahnee Hotel. This time, we spent the first two nights in the Victorian Wawona Hotel in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias: an area of the park we had yet to explore. We hiked among the giants and never felt as small. The following night, we camped in Yosemite Valley and re-visited the granite monoliths that make the park famous. We drove the Tioga Road that was unseasonably snowless and explored the now deserted Tuolumne Meadows. We ate lunch at the bank of a deep blue alpine lake. More coffee, more migas, and lots more rolls of film shot through the Mamiya 6, then we continued on our journey.
Our last stop of the trip was Death Valley. If Joshua Tree was a distant planet and Yosemite the center of my universe, Death Valley was the lunar surface. The landscape ranged from the pure white salt flats of Badwater Basin to the rainbow rocks of Artist’s Pallet. We stumbled upon a real ghost town called Rhyolite and got a sense of how fortunes were made and lost in a sliver of time insignificant to the geology of the place. We watched the sunset from atop the sand dunes and listened to some spaghetti-western live music performed from our campground. We were in love with the desert and our van and wished the trip would never end. Unfortunately for us, our time ran out far too soon and we were headed back towards the antithesis of nature in Las Vegas. We reluctantly turned in the keys to the van and began our journey back to our Ohio home.
The night before I returned to work, the feeling was different than from the returns of our previous trips. Melancholy was replaced with hope. In the span of two months we had seen more of the country than most people do their entire lives. We are incredibly fortunate to have the ability to travel of course, but we made it a priority. This is what matters. Fancy dinners and shiny new things are great, but the rat race is what left us feeling unfulfilled in the first place. I view work differently now: although I love my job, the paycheck is a ticket for exploration and rejuvenation if I choose it. We have no intention of selling everything and living a vagabond lifestyle, but our travels have reminded us of what is truly important in this life. Looking back on that morning on the lakebed, I wondered if we had stumbled upon our own version of Bradbury’s book people. While not tasked with anything so important as memorizing literary works for the benefit of future generations, hopefully we can encourage others and ourselves to make time to do and see things that bring joy and peace to our lives. Our time here is short, and what we choose to do with it is ultimately up to us.
I initially started writing this article as a review of the Mamiya 6 and how it fits in as the perfect travel camera. I think the lack of details in my recollection of our travels speak volumes about its useability. It was a truly transparent partner on my journey, which is perhaps the highest praise I can give a camera. The collapsible lens mount gives it such a slim profile as to go largely unnoticed when carried on a strap across the body. The viewfinder is massive and bright, and the rangefinder patch has more contrast than any I’ve ever used before. The 50mm and 75mm lenses I used are perfect in their sharpness, contrast, and color reproduction. The leaf shutter is whisper quiet and allows handheld shooting at speeds that would relegate any SLR to a tripod.
Although battery dependent, the electronically-controlled shutter allows the use of aperture priority for quick shooting and precisely-timed exposures when in manual mode. The original batteries I put in the camera have yet to die, but when they do they are easily replaced being the ubiquitous SR44’s. A unique feature is the internal dark slide which allows the changing of lenses mid roll and also prevents contact with the rear element of the lens when loading film. Other useful features are a self-timer, both a hot shoe and PC sync port, and threads to accept a standard cable release.
In short, the Mamiya 6 is the perfect travel camera. It is lightweight, compact, and provides stunning results from big medium format negatives and truly impressive and modern glass. It can be shot quickly or methodically given the situation and has the ability to go unnoticed until it’s needed. Its greatest advantage is the size of the system itself: the camera, all three lenses, an extra set of batteries, and plenty of film could all be carried in a small camera bag, or just throw the camera on a strap with an extra roll in your pocket and go on about your day. Come to think of it, the Mamiya 6 may just be the perfect camera in general, and along with Bradbury’s masterpiece, it has earned a permanent place on my bookshelf.
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