Behind the Photo: Picnic at Red Rock Canyon

It’s midnight on a Sunday, and I’m doing dishes with my dad in my parents’ kitchen in North Las Vegas. We’ve been cooking for six hours: grilling chicken, making pasta salad, pressing grilled vegetable sandwiches, and baking angel food cupcakes, all for a picnic we’re shooting for SAVEUR the next morning at Red Rock Canyon. I’m dead tired, but my parents are the real champs: they would’ve been asleep hours ago if it weren’t for this shoot, for which they’ve been helping me cook, clean, and get organized. While my dad and I are at the sink, my mom is in a frenzy trying on outfits to wear in front of the camera tomorrow. Finally she gives up: “It’s the desert,” she says. “Why am I dressing up?” As I hit play on the last load of dishes in the machine, I crawl upstairs and collapse into bed.

By the time I’ve showered and dressed the next morning, my parents have already packed the food into our ancient green and white Coleman cooler and loaded it into the Jeep. The rest of the SAVEUR team pull up in a rental car: deputy editor Beth Kracklauer, editor-in-chief James Oseland, and executive food editor Todd Coleman, who’s our photographer for the day. We head off in a convoy for the 18-mile drive up to Red Rock, where we’re joined by my friend Selena, my sister Kristina, and her husband and son. Everyone’s excited and hungry, and we’re all looking forward to hitting the food.

Instead of laying camp at the picnic area just inside the park, we head off for the Calico Basin, a famous hiking trail that James had scouted as a perfect shoot location on an earlier visit. As the rest of us unload the cars, he sets off with Todd on the uphill hike to the spot he has in mind; half an hour later they return, sweating and exhausted, and James pulls me aside. He’s heading back to his hotel room at the Cosmopolitan to fight off an impending cold, but he has a job for me: “Take care of Todd,” he says. “Keep him hydrated and make sure he eats something.” We look over at Todd. In keeping with his role as an office fashion plate, he’s dressed to the nines despite the 90-degree weather: slacks, a button-up dress shirt, and a tweed jacket with elbow patches. With just a little convincing, the rest of us (who are clad slightly more practically in jeans, sturdy sneakers and lightweight shirts) get him to peel down his sweat-soaked layers until he’s just in his undershirt and slacks, and we head up into the hills.

Besides looking out for Todd’s hydration, I’m also responsible for making sure everything gets to the site. And because this is a Saveur photo shoot, that’s not as simple as it seems: no paper plates here; it’s a box of heavy ceramic platters. My dad, a true superhero, joins me on a few trips back and forth to the Jeep to pick up the rest of the food and props, including much of Todd’s photo equipment, neatly packed into rolling suitcases, which are of little help on this rocky, steep terrain.

Once everything has arrived at the site — a sloping red-rock plateau with a gorgeous view — we lay out our ersatz picnic blanket (a burgundy, full sized comforter from my parents house) and the chaos begins in earnest. I start transferring ziplock bags and OXO storage containers full of food to the platters and bowls from which we’ll serve them. Beth, who had broken the strap on her shoe on the hike up from the car, is playing photo assistant, helping Todd set up lights. My three-year-old nephew, having used up all of his cute about an hour ago, is already tired of the picnic and has run off to climb rocks, his dad in tow. Mom is ready to eat; she’s nearly passing out from the heat and the hike. Kristina and Selena are helping me keeping the food and drinks from rolling off the sharply-angled rock we’ve settled on, but it’s of little help, and from the look on Todd’s face, we’re running out of time.

“Just go, just start eating,” Todd directs us as he chases the noon light, snapping away with his camera, Beth and her one good shoe scrambling around behind him holding down all the equipment that the brisk wind is trying to pick up and carry off. None of us is concerned with looking good; we’re too busy scarfing down the food and trying not to get blown over. “Will the friend stop taking pictures?” Todd shouts from the rock above — Selena, in awe of the utter craziness of the situation, has decided to capture her own memories. Todd then asks us to move the entire picnic about 20 yards away to a shadier spot for something different. My nephew and brother-in-law reappear from their rock-climbing excursion just in time for the angel food cupcakes to make their appearance — in true picnic fashion, I packed the frosting separately from the cakes, but forgot a knife or scissors to snip the corner of the Zip-Loc bag. In keeping with the seat-of-the-pants feel of the whole shoot, I pull it off guerilla-style, with a sharp rock.

It’s one o’clock and the shoot is over. Exhausted, we only half-jokingly discuss the idea of walking away from the whole set, leaving the entire picnic tableau as a surprise for the next group of hikers. But this isn’t the time for installation art, so we pack it all up and schlep everything back to the Jeep. Like war veterans or survivors of a natural disaster, we’re all just a little more bonded together thanks to our shared ordeal — but we got our photo, and only one shoe was injured in the making of it.

See Kellie’s story “Vegas, Al Fresco” »
See the menu for this picnic: A Southwestern Canyon Picnic »