Wichita Mountains Wilderness, January 2018

Growing up in the urban sprawl of Dallas, I’ve always been searching for a way to escape the uniformity of life in the suburbs to experience the unique opportunities the world offers to those who seek them. I was searching for unfamiliarity, the feeling which keeps my soul burning and alive. I desired something unique and different.

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The destination for this trip was the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a beautiful, 59,020 acre refuge for bison, elk, and wild turkey, with mountains like giant mounds of stacked boulders, which arise from the sprawling plains seemingly without warning. 

Any good traveler knows the journey is just as important as the destination, so I stopped at the small cotton town of Grandfield, Oklahoma, a town so overrun by cotton that fugitive remnants settled along the shoulders of neighborhood streets. Towards the center, I explored the once-booming downtown, a main street lined with a bank, library, and many abandoned storefronts, several missing entire roofs.

Continuing north, deeper into Oklahoma, mountain peaks began to reveal themselves over the horizon, and I knew my destination was nearing. As I passed Fort Sill along a stretch of road which, to my amusement, was lined with signs warning passers-by, “artillery may be fired over roads in this area”, the lone mountainous area in southwest Oklahoma began to surround me. 

Then I arrived. Canyons, mountains, and boulder fields span most of the refuge, and I explored all of them. The immense power of even a small creek, the West Cache, cut directly through a hill several stories tall, producing a stunning canyon with frozen waterfalls and a small lake at the canyon floor.

It was a wonderland. Seeing a potential shot from the canyon edge of the frozen waterfall, I wanted to get closer. I descended the 40-foot canyon wall with my pack and tripod and explored the canyon floors, making sure to stay near the edges to avoid falling through the ice. Searching for the perfect angle of the waterfall, I realized it could only be reached by crossing the frozen creek. Water was still rapidly flowing beneath the ice, and I couldn’t be sure how thick it was, or more importantly, if it could hold my weight with 30 pounds of equipment. I speared the ice with the legs of my tripod to see if it would crack. It didn’t.

Cautiously, I proceeded. I slid across the ice as if I were on skates to keep from any sudden shift in weight on the ice surface. Foot by foot, I made it across. I set up the tripod, and captured the ½ second exposure of the smoothly flowing falls.

The next excursion was the ascent of Elk Mountain, a 2200-foot summit overlooking the surrounding mountains and plains of southwest Oklahoma. I sought a grand golden-hour panoramic sunset, but the timing was off. The sun began to set as soon as I began the ascent beneath the shadow of the summit, and by the time I reached the peak, the sun already began to hide behind the horizon. The flat top of the mountain was absolutely otherworldly. As the sun fell below the horizon, the mountain became a lunarscape, with massive, towering boulders under the moonlight. I shot a few images and began my descent, in fear of hiking in total darkness.

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Hiking back down the side of the mountain, I looked up and behind me at the sky above the peak. I saw the dark, starry night sprawling above, like the plains below, and I sensed the perfect harmony of this world we live in, and the perfect melody to which every aspect of this world is in tune. It was an inspiring sensation, and it brought me to realize that, in this pursuit of the unfamiliar, I had received far more than I had expected to.

In every walk through nature, one receives far more than he seeks.
— John Muir

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Ryan Palczynski is a self-taught fine art photographer from Dallas, Texas. Ryan produces work in landscapes, architecture, abstracts, and astrophotography, all displayed in Ryan's personal portfolio on this site.

Ryan was born in McKinney, Texas. He discovered his interest in photography in Boston through the lens of a 35mm Kodak in 2004, and has been passionate about the art ever since. In 2015, Ryan converted his family bathroom into a full photographic darkroom, and experimented with pulling and pushing film, dodging and burning prints, manipulating chemistry, and even multiple-exposure negatives and multiple-negative prints.

His passion for photography brings him around the world in search of pristine wilderness, untouched lands, and ultimately, the perfect shot.