The Church On Johnson Mesa

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New Mexico is called “The Land Of Enchantment.” On a recent trip to Johnson Mesa, it was “The Sky of Enchantment.” New Mexico skies are very powerful and have provided photographers and painters with a perfect foundation for any image.  I recently joined up with some other Oklahoma photographers and we invaded New Mexico to photograph the night skies.

We met at the Eklund in Clayton for lunch.  I had been speaking with Arlene about the trip for several days prior as we were “tour guides” for several other photographers. Even though Arlene and the group had stayed at Black Mesa, we were of the opinion to find new ground to photograph. There was a large group of photographers from eastern Oklahoma that had ventured out to Black Mesa and we did not want to be stepping on any toes.

Once I sat down with the group and introductions were made, I opened up my Ipad and Google. We had several possible locations that we were thinking about shooting. We had to scout the locations first. Within a few minutes, I had stumbled across a church located on top of Johnson Mesa. The pictures I could find had me intrigued. I was able to find the location and opened up GoogleMaps. I then opened up StreetView and found that the church, on face value, was perfect. The orientation was perfect to use it as a foreground for Milky Way photography. The church was still in use, so we were able to access it and it stood by itself with the New Mexico landscape as a backdrop. The only thing we had to do was drive to the church and look at it in daylight just to be sure we had our spot for the evening.


If you are unfamiliar with Johnson Mesa, it is a piece of landscape in northeastern New Mexico that runs roughly from Folsom to Raton and from Highway 87 to the Colorado State Line. There is a two lane, blacktop road that runs across the top of it. The elevation tops out right around 8300 feet, so even August nights are somewhat cool. From what I understand, the road is closed down in the winter due to weather. Johnson Mesa has also served as a film location for movies and shows such as “Red Dawn” (the awesome original, not the sucky remake) and “Longmire.”

After enjoying some great food at the Eklund, we gassed up and headed west. The first stop was in the town of Folsom. I have been through the town several times over the years, but this trip was the first time that I had stopped. We visited the museum and enjoyed learning a little more about the history of the area.   After the museum, we headed to the church.


The Johnson Mesa Church was built in 1897 and is still in use to this day. Although we were unable to get inside the church, we were able to look through the windows and even the interior hearkens back to simpler times. My first thought on seeing the inside was “how can I book a wedding here?” Even though I had a great feeling about the church before we left Clayton, once we arrived at the church there was no doubt where we would spend our evening.

We left while we still had daylight and did the tourist thing by heading up to Trinchera, Colorado and then to Branson. The countryside was alive with antelope.  The drive to Trinchera and on to Branson was on dirt road, but it was well maintained. The views were outstanding as we went from the top of a mesa, down into canyons and then onto relative flat ground.   We went back to the church after playing tourist.   Even though we were night shooting, we timed it so we could be there well before sunset.   When it comes to shooting sunsets, we can only guess how it will turn out.  Sometimes we will see it will be great and other times, it will fall flat.

Not long after we began shooting the Milky Way, we goaded two more photographers to join us.  They made the two hour trip from Kenton to meet up with us. We probably spent a little more time than we thought at the church, as it was roughly around 2 a.m. Central Time when we finally packed up and rolled east.  We made a final gas stop in Clayton and headed to Kenton.  I broke off at this point and headed home.

I was awake for 22 hours.  On the road for 20 of those hours.  When I got home, I got a whopping 4 hours of sleep.  The images I have seen so far from everyone have been outstanding.   The trip will go down as one of the best photography trips I have made.

The following photographers participated:

Arlene Winfrey

Dawana Caldwell

Lori Elfers

Stewart St. John

Daniel Tolson

and myself

Now for the final images.  The gallery represents the images that I created from that evening (click on to view high resolution versions):

[envira-gallery id=”622″]


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