While leading a recent photo tour in Grand Teton National Park along with my good friend and colleague Joseph Rossbach, I met someone who changed my life forever. This amazing woman has forced me to rethink my whole outlook on life, photography, and love. I will never forget her, and I will cherish the memory of her words for the rest of my life.
It all started one day when we stopped with the workshop group to photograph a stunning stand of cottonwood trees. With so much beauty around us, our clients scattered like windblown leaves in all directions. Eventually, one by one, they began to drift back to the parking area, until only Joe remained missing. While we were waiting for Joe to reappear, what can only be described as a massive house on giant off-road tires pulled into the lot. It was the biggest vehicle I had ever seen, looking to be one-part RV, one-part construction vehicle, one-part tundra bus, and one-part tank. The knobby tires were as tall as a man, and the cab loomed so high above us we couldn’t see the driver. We all gathered around in anticipation, expecting Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe to open the doors and jump down to the ground with a resounding boom.
Instead, out popped a short, squat old woman with meaty thighs and body-builder arms. She walked to the edge of the parking lot, took out a compact camera, snapped a few quick shots, and returned to her massive castle on wheels. One of my clients asked her: “What kind of gas mileage do you get with that thing?” She answered in broken English with a thick, throaty Russian accent, a voice harshened by too many cigarettes and cold winters: “A little.” I sensed that things were about to get interesting.
My client then asked her, “How did you get this to America?” She replied: “I drive to Africa. Then I drive across ocean to South America. It is also boat. Then I drive here.” Amazed, we started asking her more questions about her journey, but once her tongue was loosened, without prompting she started telling us a random string of stories about her life, all tumbling out like water flowing over a collapsed levee in a flood.
“When I was ten years old I dug holes in ground to stop German tanks. I kill many Germans.” This was in response to a question about where she was heading next. I didn’t really see the connection, but her answer was more interesting than “West Yellowstone” would have been, so we just ran with it.
“I once made love to Stalin,” she said next. I wasn’t sure she was even talking to us anymore; she seemed to be announcing it to the world. “I gave him heart attack. He died with smile four days later.” She seemed to remember the encounter fondly, although I am not sure which part—the lovemaking or the stroke—brought the thin smile to her lips.
“In Russia, newspapers say I was chief boss of Russian mafia. Not true. I am legitimate businesswoman. My pig dog captains betray me so now I am ‘on the run’ as you Americans say.” She showed us the mafia tattoos covering her muscular arms, and then pointed to her vehicle: “This is my witness protection program.” She made a low gurgling noise which I later realized was laughter. “If my pig dog captains find me I will kill many before I die.” She seemed to relish the encounter.
We sat rapt, listening to her stories about war, lost loves, her bloody ascent to ultimate power in the Russian mob, and her journey around the world after her henchmen’s coup d’état. Suddenly, she turned to me and said “You are pretty man. I like pretty men. I will make you my husband.” It was immediately made clear to me that this was not a request, but rather a pre-ordained fact. I meekly protested, pointing to the wedding ring already on my finger, but she didn’t seem to care—she had claimed me and no amount of begging or pleading would dissuade her.
At that moment, Joe came sauntering down the road, unaware of what was transpiring. I am not proud of what I did next, but in moments of great danger hard decisions must sometimes be made. I pointed to Joe and said “he’s single!” Not true, of course, but I was desperate.
She fixed her beady eyes on poor confused Joe, sizing him up the way a farmer might size up livestock at auction. “He is pretty too. I like him.” Before Joe realized what was going on, she picked him up and slung him over her meaty shoulder, and with a single bound vaulted ten feet into the cab of her vehicle. We could hear Joe’s muffled cries as she stuffed him into the passenger seat, but there was nothing anyone could do to save him. The old woman leaned out of her window to bid us farewell. With a twinkle in her eye, she spoke her final words to us: “I will break him. Just like Stalin.” Then she drove off over Grand Teton Mountain into the sunset. The last we saw of Joe was his face pressed up against the glass of the passenger side window, a look of terror on his face.
No one has heard from Joe since.
About the image: I always enjoy working with backlit subjects, especially with dramatic storm clouds in the background. I used a Selective Color adjustment in Adobe Photoshop to help the yellow cottonwood leaves stand out from the gloomy clouds, and to darken the blues in the sky, creating more contrast and drama. You can learn more about my Photoshop workflow from my Creative Digital Processing video tutorials. Canon 5DIII, 49mm, ISO 400, f/11, 1/200 second.