The Dark Night of the Photographer

            I’m a night photographer by compulsion and here’s my plan. Somewhere out there is a big beautiful desert canyon that I need to photograph with the light of our Milky Way Galaxy. All the calculations are complete, alignments double checked, as well as time, angles, weather, elevation, planetary positions, the I Ching, my horoscope, the horoscope of my van and my mechanic. 9pm is show-time. All should be good. Heading into Utah’s southern desert and I’m gonna get that damn photo tonight. It’s gonna be fan-freaking-tastic. All I need to do is walk a few miles, stumble around in the dark, hang out in the cold and hopefully, fingers double and triple crossed, don’t fall off a cliff, sprain an ankle poke or my eyes out on a tree branch. Worth the effort? Maybe…

            Six hours south I’ve driven. Down one interstate, over a pass at 35mi/hr in 2nd gear, through a one-church town wishing it was a many-bar town, and over a million miles of asphalt.  I’ve poured two tanks of petrol into this rickety vehicle, a quart of oil, a liter of coolant, and three cups of coffee into my skull, my thoughts and nerves are simmering in caffeine.

Down the dirt road. The dirt track, well, actually the two wheel rut… It looked better on Google Earth. But all is fine, no worries, I paid good money for knobby tires and I’ve got the ground clearance, but I’ve also got thirty year old suspension held together by bubblegum and  duct tape, along with crusty rubber bushings bitching and moaning with every dip, rock and washed out rut. But I have no doubt they can handle one more trip.  Scrappppeeeeee!!!! A branch across the paint, the trees are reclaiming the road here. No worries, the paint job has looked like shit for years.

            At the road’s end, sand devils twirl across the slickrock. Yikes!!! The wind grabs the door trying to rip it off! Lurching for the handle I slam it shut. Wind rocks the van, reminding me it’s still out there. Wind? I didn’t expect this… Check the cell phone for the weather… No 5G, 4G or even 3G, no Gs here. Well… I guess it really is windy even if I didn’t read it on the internet. No matter. What’s a bit of wind but a few molecules of air moving at inordinate speeds. I’m certainly tough enough to handle a few molecules of air.

            But it does look cold. Maybe I should just hang out and drink some vodka… Sip. Hmmm… I could just eat, drink, do some reading and go to sleep. One more sip…I’ve got some geeky documentaries loaded on my phone. That would be educational, not a waste of time at all to drive for hours, ruin the suspension and nearly bust my oil pan to simply hang out, get drunk and watch some documentaries in the dead center of nowhere. Sounds perfectly reasonable. Sip…Ahh vodka… Walk all the way across that pinon forest? This is a stupid idea. What the hell am I doing here? I could have had a delightful time at home, reading, watching movies, sleeping on the couch…. Now my van will probably break down and for what? So I can walk 6 miles back to the asphalt? To get a pretty photo? Screw it. I’m not risking my….

            What? For Christ’s sake!!! You hauled your ass across the state to get into the middle of this somewhere! Now you can at least make the effort! Shut-up and gear the hell up! Figure out where you’re going. You have GPS on the phone. Coordinates picked out, all you gotta do is walk there. What is it?? 1.5 miles? Two miles? An hour tops. Jesus Christ! it’s just walking! Are you too lazy to put one stupid foot in front of the other? Sip…

            I shake my head, pour a bit of liquid courage into my belly and head west with my gear on my back. The wind greets me, wrapping it’s cold tendrils around my limbs, dancing with my hair, drying my eyes and flattening my cheeks. No worries. Wind usually dies down at sunset. I’m sure that will happen. My years of windy sunsets convince me so. But it’s a bit chilly too. The sky is clear at least and the walking will warm me up! Feeling good and optimistic! A rush of air screeches through my ears muffling my thoughts.

            My planned site is a bit southwest. Alright, find the setting sun walk that direction but a bit to the left. My satellite maps showed some pinon and juniper forest then some slickrock when I hit the canyon edge. No problem.

            For the next forty-five minutes I stumble and tumble through a maze of dirt gullies. Each gully sucks me deeper into madness. I’m so sure each one has to be the last. Keep beelining for my chosen spot. Stay dead southwest!! Down the gully. Dirt in the shoes. Scrambled up the other sides, 60 degrees of loose muck packs my fingernails as I claw disconnected brown soil. Desert dirt, no water for months. One step up and several back down. Trees grabbing and snapping against my pack. Go! Go! Go! Branches in the hair, broken twigs down the shirt. That has to be the last one. Nope… There’s another…. Yikes!! Tumble down the slope. Well atleast I’m at the bottom. Yuck! How did I get dirt on my tongue?? Which way am I walking?? No idea… Somehow I eventually manage to stumble onto the slickrock and the canyon’s lip.

            This was supposed to be a stroll through the woods. One with nature and all that crap. Tiara of twigs in my hair, smeared grit on my face. Sweat and mud staining my knees. Too late to turn back now. Sun is going down and the thought of re-entering that dirt maze hell-hole is too much to handle. Retreat is terrifying. Forward across the slickrock.

            Alright. Time for some nice moments. Easy walking from here. Still a bit windy, well actually ass-bite-cold, but whatever. The sun is kissing the horizon, scattering pink-olive-oil light through the atmosphere, rosae slickrock. For the next few minutes all is almost-as-it-should-be. Silky light and effortless steps. Except for the wind. Burrrrr. But I’m sure that’ll die down with the sunset. No doubt!

            Onto the sandstone peninsula, the sides fall away hundreds of feet to the canyon bottom. Leaping and scrambling across the sidewalk in the sky until poised at its tip, only the wind between myself and the floor. Perfect view down the canyon for miles, cottonwoods and wavy undulations of sandstone dissolving into rising darkness. Damn it’s beautiful… Yikes!! a small stumble!! I gotta watch the feet! Sure would be a crappy place (but beautiful) to fall and die… “Do not fall. Do not die.” I mumble my night photography mantra.

            The wind whips around me, snatching some of the beauty out of my eyes… And the cold as well. Wind and cold, such a perfect recipe for unpleasantness. Where are my gloves? Emptying the pack, energy bars, camera lenses, a liter of cold undrinkable water, a cotton t-shirt, a Venetian mask from a party years ago. But no gloves… Damn it! Well, my hands don’t get cold. I’ve got a good metabolism. But it is kinda chilly…

            Set up composition. Camera points that way. Down canyon. Yep, that’s it. Keep tripod low, don’t want it blow over and fall off the cliff. Ok all set. The sun is gone, just a remnant glow on the horizon. Just gotta wait for the moment. Nine PM where are you?! Damn, I’m cold! Brrrr!!! The wind down my back again. Where’s my hat?? Probably with my gloves…. Wrap the cotton t-shirt over my head. I wander around looking for a rock to cower behind. Undulations here and there but no good boulders.

            Lying on my back in a stony depression I find myself staring skyward with a sparkly Venetian mask shielding my face from wayward molecules of chilly air. Almost comfortable, chilly but not freezing. Like sand in an hourglass my heat slowly sinks into the cold bonelike stone, the freezing is coming.

Winds swirl around the canyon’s edge. It courses between stone pillars and trees as an omnipotent force. A viscous sprite, flying over my body snagging wisps of warmth. The big cold is coming but I’ve got a few minutes to enjoy mild discomfort. Irises open, pupils dilate and dark starlight pours in. Precious moments to remember why I’m out here. Starlight turns into a thousand slow motion firework displays.

Then suddenly eight fifty-five!! Yikes! Time to get up! Headrush! Blood sloshing to and from my brain in a myriad of colors. Kaleidoscopically dizzy!! Breath. Breath. Gotta stop spinning before going to the canyon’s edge. “Do not fall. Do not die.” The wind whips behind my Venetian mask and pulls tears from my eyes. A chill dances up my spine and reverberates across my muscles in an arctic spasm. Legs move clumsily, blood has pooled and frozen in their joints. With my headlamp slicing a diffuse beam of light through the darkness I stumble to the camera.  Particulates fill the headlamp’s glare. Bitter wind curls into my ears and dance beneath my clothes. Holy crap I’m cold! Shivers ripple up and down my muscles.

At the cliff’s edge the wind pushes me towards darkness below. “Do not fall. Do not die.” The camera has fallen over. Luckily it fell backwards and not off of the cliff. However, if it had fallen off of the cliff I would have had an excuse to sprint back my warm van, to huff and thrash my way through the forest and dirt gullies. An excuse to get the hell out of here and a half decent story to tell later. Both pleased and disappointed I prop it up, realign and begin photography.

Hands wrap around the tripod’s legs stabalizing against the wind. White knuckled, like steering a motorcycle gloveless in a blizzard. The wind is screaming. I’m staring intently at the LCD screen. Waiting for it to flicker, meaning the long exposure needed for night photography is finished. I can’t move until it flickers. The wind is howling!! Flicker, damn it. Flicker!!! The wind roils my hair, pulling the t-shirt skyward and consuming the last warmth within my scalp. It shreeks into my exposed ears. Is my brain freezing?? Are my fingers frozen? Doesn’t matter, not sure if I could let go of the tripod without leaving a coiled finger. Back muscles are shivering, desperate to generate warmth with each contraction. Fantasies of shelter, hot cocoa and heavy sleeping bags overwhelm my conscousness like a locust plague. Flicker!!! Damn it! Flicker!!

Flicker. It flickered… Ok. That’s done. Just gotta do it three more times… Ten minutes later my physical form is reduced to a frigid gargoyle, poised in darkness on the edge of a high desert canyon. The last flicker. Damn it. Finished that one. Ok. Make a small adjustment, shift the lense slightly upwards. I guess it’s right. Not sure if I care. And wait. Flicker!! Damn it!! Wind. Cold. Wind Cold. Flicker!! Three flickers, 15 minutes and 20million joules of heat extracted from my flesh and I’m finished.

Get the hell out of here. I’m going to drink a hot cocoa tonight if it’s the last thing I do. Gear shoved in the pack, throw it on the back and start walking. Briskly. Briskly. Ok. What’s that noise?? Oh, just my jaw chattering. There’s the big dipper, line up those two stars and there’s the north star. Keep polaris on your left but veer a little more left than straight. I can do that. I’m heading towards those four stars on the horizon. Kind of looks like a mug. Just keep walking that direction and you’ll be in hot cocoa land soon enough.

Forty-five minutes later I’m laying in the bottom of a dirt gully. My own private frozen over hell. Pinyon pine needles and dirt in my hair, my ears and other regions I don’t want to think about. I tried to follow those stars. I really did. Walking through the forest the night sky spun my sense of direction like kids playing with a dreidel. Left was right and right was diagonal. I’m convinced north is a myth, something made up to brainwash kids that adults understand the world. I certainly don’t understand it at the moment.

I stand up, spit the dirt from my tongue and pull out the phone. I’m lost. I can’t hack it. Navigate by the stars. What a crock. No one does that. A map on my phone screen shows a point labeled van and a blue dot. I’m the blue dot. It’s not too far away. Nose down, stare at the screen and walk until the blue dot and the van point are the same place.

Through trees, over bushes. Sorry cryptobiotic soil, I realize you take a gazillion years to regrown…. Down the gully. Up the dirt. Whack!! Right into a tree. My pupils are constricted from staring at the screen. I look up and see only darkness, a phantom image of my glaring phone ghosts my vision. March, march, march. Overheating now, but I don’t care. Won’t stop! Can’t stop until the blue dot and the van are one. Rock! I’m down! Almost there! Almost there!! Cocoa will soon be mine!! Ahhh!!! Down a dirt gully again! Dirt, sand, twigs!Damn it. Get up and walk!

Flashlight in the face! I peer up. Blinded and Venetian mask shimmering. “Who the heck are yo-?”

“No time to talk!” I blurt out “Mission for hot chocolate!!” I put my nose into my phone and creep the blue dot towards the van. I’ve no idea who that person was, not interested and within moments the blue dot and the van are one. I raise my eyes and my headlamp reflects back into my eyes from the window.

 Within minutes I’m ensconced within the metallic palace. Propane heater! Check! Hot cocoa! Check! Cheap vodka down the throat! Check! Photos uploaded and frantic post-processing begins. More vodka!! Music! And more Vodka! My brain swirls with gasoline fumes, Russian spirits and processed sugar, the perfect cocktail for creativity. Hours later as the sun creeps from the east my sweat, blood and drunkenness stare back at me on my computer screen. One photo, that’s what I got. Was it worth it? No doubt, I’m sure my 100 Instagram followers are gonna love it, or at least like it.

Light on the Edge


Like most of the treasures of the Bears Ears, dwelling lies hidden. Secreted beneath a cliffs edge, guarded by a narrow ledge.
Bathed in weak sunlight and the orbs of Ursa Major, these sites have sat under the turning of the stars for hundreds of years, gradually softening into the Earth from which they came.

Sky That We Are

This essay was originally published in The Gulch Magazine, Issue 9 July 2019

A blazing web spreads out across our country like some kind of electric Manifest Destiny, stretching from east to west. Dense lines of light have overtaken the old wild lands. Check it out if you don’t believe me. Type “light pollution map” into your favorite search engine and stare at the gradation of light. The east coast has fallen, over there we’ve painted our night skies yellow and orange with the sodium-vapor bulb. I hate to be pessimistic but it’s true. There’s barely a star to be seen over there. Sorry, your best hope for a view of the milky way is a massive power failure or a full-scale collapse of civilization.

Ever westward this voltaic Manifest Destiny rumbles, annexing the night sky with our insatiable need to hide from the dark. The net of human-generated light thins out when it finally hits the great plains. Eastern Kansas and Nebraska, somewhere around 97th meridian. Sioux City, Wichita, Oklahoma City… These are towns on the frontier. Sitting on the edge where a ghost of true night remains. West of the 97th the hunter Orion still stalks the winter sky. Bright orbs of Ursa Major and Cassiopeia chase each other around Polaris.

It is the western lands of the US where the darkness continues to be found. Places yet uncovered by the shroud of buzzing light. Outposts of false illumination are scattered across this frontier. They continue to grow, slow and almost imperceptible, like colonies on a petri dish. Denver, Salt Lake City, and VEGAS!! For Christ’s sake. VEGAS! What more needs to be said about Vegas? All glowing bubbles of fossil-burning light, spilling their electricity into the surrounding wilderness. From there their photons diffuse and dissolve into the air far from our homes and car dealerships, until all that’s left are mountains and canyons with an unobstructed view into the cosmos.

As a kid, I never got all that hubbub about the stars. I’d walk the dog through east coast suburbia after dinner and see a twinkle-twinkle here and there. But was it moving, inspiring? Did anyone spend time gazing upwards in wonderment? Did it spark verse in the soul? Hardly.

Then in third grade I got my first pair of glasses. I walked home from the eye doctor on a late spring day. Every distinct leaf on the trees was visible. I could see the lines and details separating each piece of foliage. I swear I could see the xylem and phloem from a hundred feet away. I had no idea the world was full of such detail.

The same thing happened that night walking the dog. On a quiet street, I strolled through an intersection. I stared up and there they were. Hundreds of pinpoints of true light. Suns from millions of miles away staring back at me. I now realize how dim this sky actually was, but to my naive eyes it was like learning a secret, an initiation. I laid down in the middle of the street and allowed my glaze to stream upwards—no, not upwards—but outwards, outwards into the Space which surrounds our home.

Several years later I caught another glimpse. I was a teenager in the 1980s outside a motel in northern Arizona. I wandered a few hundred feet into the desert, sat down and stared. Hungry for the faint light my pupils dilated, cones in my retina ramped up, my rods started cranking out rhodopsin, ocular pigments began snagging each and every photon. Particles of light born millions of years ago, the past traveling across time, bringing all of the memories and beauty collected along the way. The universe poured like a pitcher of clear water into my skull, filling it with vast infinite points of light and color. That was it. There’s gold up there in that sky. Gems and jewels, poems and sonnets! All for our eyes to be taking!!

Westward I fled. A nocturnal refugee. I wanted a home without an industrial light over my head. I studied the dark maps. Measured distances between glowing blobs. I found an open space, a space full of beautiful nothing, between I70 of Utah and I40 in Arizona. Two hundred and seventy miles of almost town-less wonder. A blip of yard light here, a gas station there, but mostly just wild lands of sandstone, carved by wind and water, with scattered rock art pecked by people millennia ago.

Under these dark skies I ran into other refugees, those who had fled the urban lights for sun and starlight. These were photographers, climbers, hikers, rock hounds, petroglyph hunters, all sorts of wilderness junkies. Hardly any of them fled to these regions seeking dark skies, but you’d hear it in their voices when the campfire dimmed or when they crawled from a tent in the wee hours looking for a bush with which to do some business.

With my camera I wandered these sandstone cathedrals. I’d point it across landscapes in the darkness and try to capture the night’s celestial light. The camera could see better than me. It showed me the shades and shadows cast on the ground from the Milky Way’s core 25,000 light years away. Photons only now raining gently upon our planet.

Sometimes I’d find art in this dark wilderness. Along the top of a sandstone spine I stumbled upon a ceremony frozen and etched into rock for eternity. It stretched across the patina, a journey of humans, animals and a multitude of chimera migrating across the desert varnish.

I gazed upwards into the deepening evening sky and imagined the stars beyond the scattered blue light. Eventually a point of brightness pierced the blue, high in the southeast. Soon a few more twinkled faintly to the north, the same stars beneath which these ancient artists had stood.

I sat there for the night. The sun dipped below the mesas pulling away the warmth of the day. I aligned my camera with the rock art and the milky way. The sky transitioned from daytime blue to the deep zaffre of twilight. Time deepened and the final scattered rays of sunlight vanished behind the curve of the earth revealing the darkness of space and the foreign light of suns. The stars which are always there pierced our atmosphere with their thin light.

I kept my headlamp dark, not wanting to cast unnatural light upon the panel. Leaning against cold stone, my warmth slowly sank into the rocks. Heat from the day diffused into the sky and into the space between the stars.  The night enveloped everything. The camera clicked methodically, hoping to catch the perfect moment, keeping a rhythm to the wait, a ticking clock of the spinning stars above my head. The milky way rose in the southeast, like a silent opera. It begged me to stare. My eyes hungry for its light and beauty.

When the blue gradually reappeared in the eastern sky I gathered up my things. My brain sloshing with sleepiness. With dark adjusted eyes and scattered rays of sunlight I worked my way down the ridge. The air was still and the cool quiet of morning settled heavily. The light grew incrementally with each passing step.

I have been driven to photograph rock art beneath the light of the milky way. For years I could not understand why. This was the night which inspired me. I spoke earlier of being refugees, but I now realize we, all of us, are pilgrims. We are not fleeing the light polluted urban glare but seeking the night, the stars and its vast darkness. In this seeking I think we are not only looking outwards, but also within and learning about who and what we are as humans.

In the night sky we see the origin of everything.  Hydrogen fuses into helium. Atoms coalescing into the rocky matter of our home Earth, mingling and changing via pressure and friction of stone. Geochemistry rising to biochemistry. Then something marvelous happened and perhaps unique. From this mix of atoms and biochemical reactions consciousness and awareness emerged. Art, culture, love and hate, war and tenderness, bottomless needs, dreams, and fears of humanity all manifested via this intermingling of atoms and molecules.

Our carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, everything came from the inside of those burning spheres. We are all built of atoms of stardust, everything is. But what is unique and special, is you and I know it. We contemplate it. These atoms came together and carved that art on the stone a millennium ago.  Somehow, through all of this, Meaning happened. Humanity and the stars are one and the same.

This is why we need to keep earthbound light at bay and the skies dark. We need a place we can go, a place that is not hiding from the sky. A place we can stare into space and feel the eternity of everything and remember what we are and where we came from. Too often we hide on this planet beneath a blanket of artificial light, staring myopically inward, pretending we are all that there is. We need the covering pulled aside so we can gaze outward. I am not a religious person but these dark places are my church. 

The night sky is beautiful and we are beauty staring back at itself.

Movement

One hour long exposure. The stars traveled the length of the trails. Well, they didn’t. They didn’t move at all (well at least not enough for our eyes to perceive in one hour). My eyes and lied to me.

The planet moved, it spinning around on it’s axis. My camera was moving, I was moving. At this latitude around 750 mi/hr. The folks on the equator are moving about 1,037mi/hr.
I never would have guessed it. No one would have. Experiments and the scientific method showed us.

Don’t trust your senses. What we see and hear are not necessarily the truth. Even if they appear to make perfect sense.

Question, doubt and evaluate. And hopefully eventually understand.

Teewinot, The Grand Teton and Mount Owen reflected in String Lake


Watching the sunlight dissipate the twilight deepened into blue sky when two meteors flashed over the summit of Teewinot. We didn’t have the camera out but the subtle green flashes were recorded into memories.
 
I returned at 2:30am hoping our galaxy’s center would align with the three mountains of the Cathedral group. With sunlight hidden behind the earth’s curvature starlight was the sole illumination.
 
The sun’s brightness hits the earth at angles with directionality, loudly carving brightness and shadows into our vision. Conversely, starlight’s photons rain upon the land in an even mist, light from the entire sky. The dark 360 degree dome is the source of the mountains’ and lake’s luminosity. Some of those photons began their journey 25,000 years ago in our eyes, instantaneous for a photon.
 
Delicate shadows can be seen from the star clusters of the milky way’s core but the effect is subtle. Starlight is virtually contrast-less. It’s smooth and quiet, almost impressionistic. With patience and calmness our eyes can open enough to catch faint glimpses of this archaic light.

Seeking

I wonder why people are driven to seek out places like this in the desert, signs and memories of humans from hundreds and thousands of years ago, ancestors of the living indigenous people.

Painted potsherds lying among soil and sand one can almost see the artist’s fingertips and hands.

Art pecked into stone. Memories of a foreign (to me at least) consciousness imprinted into the landscape. Culture embedded into geology.

And places like this. Small delicate structure on a cliff edge. For a moment one is removed from this world we have constructed and reminded that for millennia other worlds existed, incomprehensible perceptions viewed through human eyes, just as real of our current lives.

For me it’s the seemingly incomprehensible well of  human consciousness that gives me wonder. And I sometimes think this spectrum of human awareness is a vast as the space which surrounds our planet.

Reaching outward


In the thin twilight Joshua Trees reaching into the sky.

The atoms of these plants were fashioned in stars.

Similar to the millions of suns which are shining their photons upon them now.

Alive with chemistry, the interactions of molecules. 

These plants and all of life are looking upwards from whence their elements originated.