1000 words behind a photograph.
9am November 25th, 2019 | The Plan
The truck, a 1999 s10 pickup with 175k miles, packed and ready for a seven hour, 293 mile excursion Westward. In the cab sleeping, Phoenix, my five month old Husky pup, and a very large camera bag filled with two cameras, several lenses, and three heavy duty tripods. My plan? Head West in search of the hidden gem and incredible geological formation "Monument Rock".
On a whim, I decided that I needed to work on my landscape & astrophotography as both were lacking the detail and composition that I wanted in my portfolio. The problem was finding something interesting near Topeka, Ks. See once you've shot the same creeks, fields, and cows, all your photography starts to look a bit alike, the adventure starts to become repetitive, and the fun begins to drain. I needed something new, something unique. I started searching for two specific things.. Darkness & originality. Darkness was easy, basically anything West of Manhattan, Ks would yield the darkest night sky. As for something original, well that was a little harder. Western Kansas is know as "Fly over country" in other words its so boring there is no reason to stick around, just move the hell along until you hit the beautiful Rocky Mountains. The first lesson a photographer should learn has nothing to do with a camera; as a matter of fact, it is as simple as just exploring the lesser known. Any creative photographer can discover incredible hidden gems with a bit of time, research, and a little adventure.
Monument Rock came along while searching through photos taken near Hays, the largest city in Western Kansas. I had remembered a friend who goes to school out there mention a neat place about an hour west of Hays called "Castle Rock". She said that it "Kinda looks like the deserts of Utah". I opened up google and began searching through images of Castle Rock when I came across a name with a couple quick snaps of something that looked a little out of place in Western, Ks. Three photos of an arch made of a grayish-tan stone surrounded by nothing but fields and hills. No towns, cities, or houses only the stacks and grasslands. I started reading the only text that read "Monument Rock, South of I-70 & Oakley, Ks. Ancient Rock formation sometimes called the stone city or the monument of the west."
At that moment I knew where to go, the only problem was that I had never taken my little s10 with 173,000 miles more than the hour it took to drive to Kansas City. Taking the picture I had envisioned, the arched stone silhouetted by the core of the Milky Way Galaxy, it was too incredible and too important to pass it up. I began making plans immediately and against my better judgement.
12pm November 25th, 2019 | The 7 Hours of Excitement
Leaving Topeka and beginning what I thought would be a very boring trek towards my goal. There is something I never realized about fly over country. It is anything but... I have always slept through the journey West until reaching the Rocky Mountains. Ask anyone I've ever traveled with they'll tell you. I always knew there were wind turbines, and a few hills at the start. It was common knowledge that the fields were seemingly endless, flat, filled with cattle, oil wells, and grassy oceans. What I did not notice until I drove my self was the pure blissful beauty of the entire drive. First there is NOT just a few windmills. Not a few dozen not even a few hundred. There are thousands across the western plains, entire towns were surrounded and powered by these ginormous works of engineering. No one ever told me that Kansas was such a major leader in wind energy. Another thing no one really told me about driving through the Great Plains.
When to get gas...
Seems simple right? Get gas when the tank goes below a quarter tank. Well yeah, that would work if I were driving in a place that had gas stations at every exit and exits every few miles but not in Western Kansas. I stopped at one rest stop two hours into the journey to walk Phoenix, and grab a snack. Of course being a rest stop there wasn't a gas station but I still had 3/4 of a tank and wasn't very worried. In fact this trip should have only taken 4.5 hours to make it to my goal but this journey was about much more than the destination. First off I had my camera ready to go for anything interesting I saw along the way and I stopped plenty of times to try and get some shots off the highway and even off in some random tiny towns along I-70. I also only drove 70mph instead of 75, that doesn't seem like a big deal until you realize doing so adds about 1.5 hours to the drive. It was worth it though, other than driving slower because I wasn't entirely certain if my car could pull this distance off without any issues and wanted to be easy on it, I also found that driving slightly slower made it easier to stare around at my surroundings. Now the reason It took me seven hours was because at this first stop I struck a conversation with a man from Colorado and ended up standing there in the grass talking to a complete stranger for nearly an entire hour. Weird how a chance meeting with a stranger and a simple hello can spark a conversation lasting so long and yet stay so intriguing that both people kind of forget they have somewhere to be. For a moment nothing else really mattered just two strangers talking about our dogs, politics, and just simply life. I swapped my phone number with Bill Strickland and at that we were on our way, he heading home after visiting his son in Indiana, and I heading to a hidden gem to take the photo I'd been planning for nearly a month.
Back on the road and an extra hour of sunlight lost to the day I knew I'd have to book it if I were going to make it on time. See the sun set at 5:04pm sharp but Golden hour would begin at 4:35pm and I couldn't afford to miss even a second of it. It was around 2 o' clock that I looked down at my tank and realized it wasn't just low, it was past the quarter tank and hovering over E. Nothing like a little panic to jump start you on a long drive. I figured the next exit was fine and sure enough a sign saying "Food, Phone, Gas" Thank God. Well not really because I exited to find out that the gas station the sign had mentioned was not only abandoned but had been closed sense 1993 according to one of the locals in this town. He said they drive up to Hayes, Ks when ever they needed gas. Okay, so Hayes is another 20-30 miles down the road, my tank is nearly on the E but the light hasn't come on, the only thing I could think of while re-entering the highway was "Next time I'll have a 20 gallon gas can with me.." because I was fairly certain this tank would not quite be enough. 20 miles, 10 miles, 5 miles, I pass the Hayes sign, 3 miles, the light pops on. Theres the exit and BOOM. First thing I see off the exit, an IHOP sign! Look next to it, a little green gas station! So heres the how this felt, imagine dropping your phone, screen down on a stone floor and praying to all things good as you pick it up that nothing broke. You begin to turn it over only to find that your new shiny glass screen survived with out a scratch! That is the relief I felt driving into the gas station and pulling out the nozzle to pump a sweet 30 gallons of gas into my truck. As soon as its filled I check the time, grab some water, and off again onto the highway, a fresh new excitement in mind and with only one and a half hours till the golden light begins at my destination.
4pm November 25th, 2019 | The Arrival
Nearly there. I've turned off I-70 and have been heading South for 20 minutes. "Turn left in 3 miles" pops up on my phone and sure enough theres my turn. Left on a dirt road heading off into the middle of nowhere, head first and no idea what to look for. "Take the next Right" I haven't seen a house, car, or a single light source in almost 15 minutes. Theres my turn, right down another dirt road and approaching a bend I realize that in every direction except for East I can see for miles. Miles and miles of flat fields of dry grass, dead tumbleweeds, and a hard chalky ground. The maps shows 5 more miles and as I turn around a bend I look over to see the East side around a large hill of stone & gravel, and THERE IT IS. Way off in the distance I can see a city! Buildings towering over the rest of the plains. Sure enough just as the name might suggest a city of stone, a true Monument of the West. Phoenix who had slept most of the trip was obviously picking up on my excitement because he perked up pretty quick after I'd noticed that my destination was within eye sight and my goal only a couple more hours away. As I drive up on the rocks I'm shaking with excitement and focused on finding the arch, grabbing my camera, and jumping out before I lose the light. It's now 4:36pm, one minute into Golden hour. I drove around the monument for about 5 minutes to quickly layout the land and choose my locations before I lose the light. I open the door, let phoenix out, and quickly grab my bag. Camera, lens, Good. Grab the dust rag and take off the cap. Quickly wipe it down and grab my filter. Screw on the filter, dust it with the rag, great now I need my battery. I'd charged all four up the night before and cleared off all of my SD and QDX cards. Slip in the battery, throw in the XQD card. Flip the switch to "ON" and here we go. After a few minutes of tweaking all my settings and assessing angles and lighting I was off. 15 minutes till Golden hour is up. Three weeks of planning, seven hours of driving, 132$ in gas and supplies and we've got 15 Minutes to take as many quality photos as possible before night breaks free. 5 minutes left, I've taken as many shots as I can, spending valuable time assuring focus and lighting is absolutely perfect on every shot, 3 minutes left is there any other shot I missed? 2 minutes, put away the camera. Finally. One single minute left, a minute left to sit down and take in where I am, how I got here, 30 seconds as the sun gets lower and the only feeling piercing through my bones is true happiness, happy that I took the chance with an old car, happy that I'm here with 5 seconds as the last sliver of the sun disappears under the horizon.
Thats something incredible, watching the sun disappear. Like saying goodbye to an old friend knowing with out a doubt you'll see them again in the morning. I look around and begin to walk back to my truck. While I walk I think about all the awesome photos I just got, but I also think about the next phase to this excursion, the reason I'm here... The stellar Milky Way shot backdropped behind the silhouette of that huge stone arch. Walking back I look up at the sky to see if the loss of light has unveiled any stars or planets yet, and like a fist to the stomach all excitement sinks. I'm struck with horror.... I had completely overlooked the possibility of clouds. A stretch of winter storm had swept from the South West heading Eastbound. There were clear skies along the Western horizon but any clouds might ruin the entire plan, reflecting any light, blocking any stars. I had watched the weather forecast, I had planned out the timing of the moon cycle. I'd even figured out exactly when and where the Galaxy Core would land to find that perfect time to shoot my perfect silver lined Astro-Photo. But the clouds were going to ruin everything. Watching them I could only hope that they would continue East before 9pm when the darkness would have hold on the land and sky was in the perfect position for my shot.
I decided to set up camp with the slivers of light seeping over the horizon from the long lost set Sun. Pulled out the tent and the chairs, grabbed my tripods, and ignoring the clouds, begun to position them in just the right angles to catch as much of the landscape as possible. I decided to set up three tripods. The biggest, most sturdy, and best stabilized setup front and center, mounted for my Nikon z6 full-frame mirrorless with its widest, lowest light lens plugged in and ready to go. Next was an older and cheaper stand. I went ahead and mounted my secondary D5500 DSLR with my nifty 50 lens to try and capture as many photos as possible and just incase I ran through my z6's battery life. The third tripod was a smaller gorilla pod setup on the roof of my car with a quick mount to set up anywhere I felt like as quickly as possible. With everything set up and another three hours until the stars were out and ready to be captured I decided that my best course of action would be to lay down in my cab, it was beginning to get cold so I threw on by heaviest coat, gloves, and hat, threw out my blankets in the bed of my truck with a few in the cab for good measure, and finally hopped in to get some shut eye for a few minutes. Nothing better than a downloaded audio book of Harry Potter, big jug of water, and a nice snack, all there is left to do is wait. Wait and hope that the cloud coverage would clear by the time I'd head back out.
8:37pm November 25th, 2019 | Better than a Dream
Waking up surrounded by the howls of Jackals. It's definitely something you'll need to get use to out in the middle of the plains dessert. Through out the night I heard hundreds of howls in every direction. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little jumpy walking around in the empty darkness, everyonce and awhile shining my light around the darkest patches of grass praying that the reflections of 20 pairs of little eyes wouldn't be reflecting back at me. 8:37pm, I woke up from the sound of distant howls and begun to making my way out the door. As I step out I'm looking down at the ground. Turning off my light knowing that as I look up I will be met with one of two possibilities. Dreading empty voids in the sky giving away the presence of a cloud covered night I open my eyes and raise my head to the sky...
Putting into words the celestial madness that is masked behind the city lights, hidden away from the majority of the population. Well to describe the way the night sky glows in the darkest areas of the world is simply impossible. English fails me. Every petty problem you have ever had, that argument you had that morning, the coffee you spilled on your new shirt, that meeting, assignment, or deadline thats been eating at you all week, none of it matters when you stare up under the vastness of the true night sky. You realize your problems are nothing in the face of something so much more endless than any life on Earth. Nothing makes you feel so small like standing under the trillions of tiny sparks that ignite the sky, time stops, no problems exist, just the vast void of light and dark, you, and your endless thoughts finally set free and allowed to run wild. For a moment the Universe has lined up for me, for this photo. Every second of planning has lead up to this moment and its not guaranteed for a moment longer. Flip on the camera open up my aperture, adjust my shutter, crank up my ISO, frame the shot one. last. time... and then...
Click.. The shutter opens.
Standing there starring out at the landscape I spent so much time to get to. Trying hard not to move, not to breathe, looking to hard at the camera might make it shake and nothing can ruin this photo. I start to think about every shot following this, I'm thinking about wether or not the camera will capture the photo to pin-point accuracy. Am I in focus? Was it to bright? dark? Will it save, export, import, adjust, download, upload, and print perfectly? Click... The shutter closes the screen ignites. Sitting their on my Nikons 2x3inch screen is the moment I had spent so many days thinking about captured in nearly perfect light, focus, and composition. The silhouette of the greatest towers back dropped by a scene taken straight out of Star Wars, colors mixed together saturating the sky with and aurora of light that even the human eye can't see but a camera can both see and show off, pinpoint sparks of light that journeyed for a billion years with a final destination of reaching my cameras image sensor and the retinas of my eyes to be frozen as the memory of a single moment in time. Relief, excitement, happiness? There may not be a word that can describe that feeling and as if the Universe was winking at me a flash of light washed over the ground around me. For a moment every thing is lit up as if the Sun had suddenly just popped back into the sky at high-noon. As quickly as the light flashed it was engulfed in darkness.
What the Hell was that!? I jerked my head and to my astonishment, I watched the end of a massive meteorite enter our atmosphere, explode, and leave behind only a wisp of a trail of still glowing star dust. If everything leading up to that photo was the work, and the photo was the payoff, then this was the extra credit, the 100th customer, the golden cherry on top of the entire adventure.
(The Image pictured at the bottom of this Page.)
I spent the next few hours shooting more photos. I tested new techniques such as "Painting with light" (pictured in the photo directly above)
where you use a flash light and a long exposure to light up the foreground of the photo while also capturing the starry background. It took a couple of tries to get right but in the end was one of my favorites. I also decided to attempt a self portrait which captured the night sky along with my camp setup and even captured my shadow as I attempted to jump into the frame last second. After a few hours I begun putting away my gear, and then laid down in the bed of my truck. I took in my surroundings, the stars, the 3 or 4 shooting stars that sped through the sky every few seconds, the distant and not so distant howls of jackals. The stone and grass tinted the fresh pollution free air with a hint of chalk and citrus. I fell asleep in my truck that night with my spirits higher than I had ever felt before. I closed my eyes knowing only one thing. I could never let anything stand in my way of any vision or idea I have, doing so sacrifices a feeling of pure freedom and happiness and after all, thats the meaning of life isn't it? To capture a piece of freewill and a slice of happiness and share it with the world. Not to help someone satisfy the need to chase happiness, not to free them and their minds, but instead to push someone else into seeking that feeling by showing them its possible. By saying "heres my proof, look at this photo, and listen to its story." After all who says a photograph is only worth a thousand words?