1.3 Crossing the Prairie

Even as one exits daily life, its anxieties drag along. I headed west on highway 12, a route that could take me to Montana and beyond. The interval between rural Minnesota towns was a consistent five miles, a day’s round trip in the days of horse-driven vehicles. Although I had no need or desire to stop, I found these distances between  oases of civilization annoying–my progress seemed so slow. As I crossed into South Dakota however, and the distances started getting longer, I found my tempo slowing to match. The rhythm of the car on the pavement was beginning to seem more natural. I had no appointments or obligations, other than my desire to reach Washington for the Table Mountain Star Party.  And even that was not an obligation, I could change my plans at will!

Go west!  Ride the road and make my plans on the run. I could go as far as I wanted, stop where I felt like it, and make my way, my way. And like the title of the book by William Least Heat-Moon, I was traveling the blue highways. Except by the conventions of today’s maps, the lesser traveled roads are marked in red, not blue. The two-lane roads serviced the rural business, farms and ranches, and the segments between the small-town hives of activities became longer as the hives themselves became smaller.

In my mind’s eye, I pictured a composition of a windmill in front of night sky star trails. Windmills, once a common but neglected artifact of an earlier technology, had become historical oddities, replaced by invisible electric machines. Most windmill structures had been dismantled and removed from the terrain.

I realized the windmill’s current status as a rarity after thinking about how to set up the shot. I needed an intact windmill, not near any security or residence lights, and a reasonable distance away from any road traffic, but still accessible to my camera and tripod. I wondered if any windmill that I could see from the road would ever meet these conditions. And then I realized that I wasn’t seeing any windmills. Where were they? How could the very icon of a farm have disappeared? And just during my short lifetime!

Eventually, as I drove for miles across the agricultural heartland, I did come across the occasional windmill.  It usually hugged a barn or farmhouse, sometimes even bearing the security lamps that have sprung up at every rural residence in the last decades.  I began to wonder whether the isolated dark windmill that I needed even existed.

The sun entered its late afternoon angle. I checked my maps to find a possible place to camp for the night.  The sky was clear and maybe I could take my first night pictures of this trip. I was an uncertain half-hour from a state park when I caught sight of a silhouetted windmill, apparently a short distance down a gravel road. As usual, some buildings were near it, but were these abandoned buildings? With nothing but fields and pasture around me, I drove past at highway speed. The processing in my brain finally caught up to what I had just seen, and I moved to place a marker for the location.

I have a global positioning system (GPS) receiver on the dashboard of my car, a generous gift from my mother-in-law.  With bemused skepticism that such a gadget would ever help me get unlost, she accompanied her gift with a magnetic compass.  I’m pleased to tell her I’ve been sufficiently lost to need both.

The GPS is a wonderful accessory for this trip. With the push of a button, it records my exact location on the planet. As I drive it displays a small map of my wanderings in its electronic breadcrumb format. When I “place a marker”, a small symbol shows up on the map. The symbol for my windmill drifted behind me on the display as I continued my drive toward what I hoped would be tonight’s campground.

Lake Louise is the famous beautiful alpine lake in the Canadian Rockies, but here was Lake Louise in South Dakota, also beautiful, a state park oasis in the agricultural vastness of the prairie. I set up my tent and a small telescope and was visited by curious campers, including a young amateur astronomer eagerly setting up his new telescope and hoping to try out more than his single eyepiece. I let him try some of mine and was impressed at the skill this thirteen-year-old had in locating his favorite objects, even as the sky was still darkening.

By the end of twilight in the summer, it is actually quite late at night, and most campers are in bed. This is the start of prime time for me. I must decide how to spend the few precious hours of darkness before dawn. I could set up my big scope and work on prime focus technique, but that’s a lot of setup and everything is so carefully and tightly packed I’m reluctant to start down that path.  I could take some wide-angle shots of the Milky Way, another project in the works. I could look for photogenic areas around the lake for taking startrail pictures.

Or I could drive back and find that windmill and see if it really is in a dark setting. This is a bit of a risk because if it isn’t, I’ll have spent over an hour driving around not taking pictures. On the other hand, it could be the only windmill west of the Mississippi that qualifies for my composition and I will have passed it by. I pack up and start driving.

I cannot say enough about the merits of surveying a dark sky site during daylight. The world somehow changes when the sun goes down, and the more you know about an area, the fewer surprises and hazards you will have when you later set up in the dark. In this case I had no choice. The only thing I knew about this windmill was a flashed mental image of driving past it on the highway. Now that it was dark, I couldn’t even see it to find it.

Dakota skies are some of the darkest I’ve ever known. And with no moon, no nearby towns, no farmhouse security lamps, there is no visual signal from outside the range of my car’s headlights. This really was the dark setting that I needed; now where exactly was that windmill?

I’m fairly certain that I would have given up, or at least spent much of the night looking, had I not placed my GPS marker earlier. My current location on the glowing map drew closer and closer to the symbol where I knew the windmill would be found. I turned on the gravel road and, still not actually seeing it, drove to where it had to be.

I had to turn off the headlights and let my eyes adjust for a moment. I could make out the abandoned buildings, and then finally the tower, its outline apparent only by the eclipsed stars behind it. 

I got out of the car and experienced a feeling I often get when I strike out at night to take pictures. It’s the “What am I doing here?” feeling, a complex mix of doubt, fear, and foolishness that must be overcome in order to keep pursuing the image in my mind that brought me here.  And therein lies the antidote: I tell myself, “You’re this far, you might as well make something of it.” This usually causes me to focus on something concrete, like extending a tripod, or loading some film. As soon as I busy myself on the details of setting up, the larger impossible context of why I am there soon is forgotten.

Only to be recalled when there are setbacks in the dark.  Like encountering the barbwire fence, nearly invisible. Now I have one more emotion to add in the mix, guilt, over trespassing  in someone’s pasture at midnight. There was another bout of hesitation, this time overcome by working the puzzle of how to get over the wire. Now I’m committed, it’s too late now, I may as well go all the way and take my equipment into the field

I navigate the field, avoiding the cow pies and find the windmill. Concentrating on the task at hand, positioning the camera, focusing, connecting a dew heating strip, setting the aperture and refocusing takes my mind off of the unfamiliar situation. When I have fussed over it long enough and decide to accept the barely visible composition in the viewfinder, I open the shutter and step back.

It seemed as if I had found the only intact windmill on the dark Dakota prairie. The bright stars of the Big Dipper are seen above the abandoned farmhouse.

The exposure will take an hour or more. The air is humid, filled with the omnidirectional sound of crickets, and distant thunderclouds on the horizon occasionally glow with silent lightning. I suddenly have nothing to do but stare in wonder at the brilliant sky full of stars. So many stars I have trouble finding the constellation patterns. The Milky Way stands out as a river of light across the sky. “Stark raving dark” is a description I have heard for such conditions. This is the reward for persevering through the little obstacles along the way.

I spent the rest of the night making trips back and forth between the car and the windmill, scaling the fence each time, setting up another camera, making several exposures on each until a golden crescent of moon climbed over the eastern horizon. It was accompanied by Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, and the Seven Sisters star cluster, a conjunction that had been forecast months earlier, but I had forgotten.  Too bad, I might have tried to capture it on film. It was a beautiful scene, one that marked a dramatic end to an auspicious first day of my Nightscape Odyssey.

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3 thoughts on “1.3 Crossing the Prairie

  1. Pingback: 1.2 Preparations | Thor's Life-Notes

  2. Pingback: 1.4 When Sabbaticals Collide | Thor's Life-Notes

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