Road Stories

Mixed Messages

Ross Knox

by Jennifer Denison

Ross KnoxRoss Knox is a government packer in Yosemite National Park and a respected cowboy poet. Photo by Darrell DoddsI’ve been on enough photo shoots to know that even the most skilled photographers sometimes miss the money shot. The weather, changes in light, unpredictable animal behavior and even photo-bombers can cause strategically composed images to go awry. But I’ve never set up a camera at the wrong landmark, until last fall.

It happened while photographer and former Western Horseman publisher Darrell Dodds and I were preparing to take a photograph that would run at the beginning of the feature about cowboy poet and packer Ross Knox in the February issue. The opening photo is a critical component of an article; it often corresponds to the headline and sets the stage for the story.

Before the photo shoot, I told Darrell I wanted to title the story “Living on the Edge,” referring to the perilous situations Knox has experienced the past 40 years as a working cowboy and packer. We followed Knox to a trailhead in Yosemite National Park from which he would depart with a loaded pack string that morning. He told us to walk around the large, circular water tank and there would be a bridge in the trees that he would cross before heading up the trail. Darrell and I gathered the camera gear we would need and toted it around the water tank. Sure enough, there was a bridge beneath a canopy of large oaks, and it was a spectacular place to take the photograph. With plenty of time to prepare, Darrell found the most flattering angle to take the photo and adjusted his camera settings.

It wasn’t long before we heard hoofbeats coming toward us. It ended up being a guided trail ride into the park. Then two other packers passed by with their strings. After about 20 minutes or so, Darrell asked if I thought we were in the wrong place because there was no sign of Knox. I looked around but I didn’t see another bridge. Then I heard the faint sound of hooves striking granite on trail and noticed a cloud of dust swirling into the air. It was Knox, and he had crossed a bridge we hadn’t noticed on the other side of the water tank. I ran after him, hoping to catch up and ask if he could turn around, but once Knox hits the trail he’s gone.

Much to my chagrin, I’d had Darrell set up at the wrong bridge and we now missed what appeared to be our only chance to get a photograph of Knox setting out on the trail. With a full schedule of photo-shoots planned during the week, we didn’t have an extra day to try again. Scratching our heads in disbelief, Darrell and I packed up our gear and headed to the coffee shop in the historic Ahwahnee Hotel to devise Plan B. The mood was glum, but Knox called and gave us hope.

 “Where are you guys?” he asked. “I thought maybe you’re hiding out so well I don’t even see you, or you can really run up that trail.”

We decided our best bet was to stay in touch with Knox throughout the day and catch him on his way back down. With a few hours to kill, Darrell and I explored the Ansel Adams Gallery and a couple of other Yosemite sites. Then we scouted another location to catch Knox and his pack string.

Ross KnoxDarrell Dodds and I caught up with Knox as he was coming back down the trail in the afternoon and captured this image of him. Photo by Jennifer Denison

I positioned myself about 100 yards ahead of Darrell so I could give notice of when Knox was coming. Just like in the morning, a few other packers passed by, which gave us a chance to practice and adjust our settings and position. After about an hour Knox came around the bend, wearing his hallmark silver belly and sitting tall on his bay horse Hard Twist. Sunlight streamed through the oaks casting a spotlight on Knox. Cameras were clicking in time to Hard Twist’s fast, four-beat gait. The result is the full-page photo on page 59 of the February issue.

Knox will perform poetry January 29-31 during the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.

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