The Rock with Wings

Blending all the frames of the time lapse reveals the star trails above Shiprock (click for full size)

Many of my photographic ventures are purely serendipitous.  Yes, it is important to be at the right place, or the right time, and sometimes both, but there are so many things that can go wrong and prevent the shot that you were planning.  But there are also many things that can happen that are unexpectedly magnificent.  If you have a camera ready and waiting – even for something else—you can capture the unexpected event.

This describes my attitude when setting up a camera for a long nighttime shoot.  Lately, I have been exploring timelapse photography, making exposures every few seconds and then creating a motion picture (mp4 video) from them.  When traveling alone with no fixed plans, I like to head to photogenic landscapes where the skies are clear.  But a joint road trip itinerary with lodging reservations does not permit this flexibility, and I often encounter overcast skies.  I accept this as just one of those challenges to the practitioners of this arcane hobby.

And so, when our homeward-bound trip from a Thanksgiving in Los Angeles took us through New Mexico, and the day’s route ended near Shiprock, a city named for the nearby geologic feature that the Navaho call the “Rock with Wings”, our plans shifted to take advantage of the unexpectedly clear skies.  Although exhausted from a long day on the road, I left the comfort of a cozy Airbnb apartment to go set up cameras in the desert and wait in the cold for hours, hoping to capture something interesting.

But it’s not really all that harsh.  Even when cold, being under clear dark skies is always awe-inspiring.  The moon was up, and well on its way to setting behind the unique north-south rock ridge wall, which acts like a red-carpet walkway for celebrities heading toward Shiprock.  The air was calm, the nearest traffic miles away, and I could set up and monitor my cameras without the usual fears and concerns about predators or other humans.  It was a very pleasant experience under a beautiful night sky.

The “road” runs below and parallel to the long rock ridge leading to the monument.

I spent several hours in this pristine setting, checking and adjusting the cameras, eventually running out of memory and running their batteries to exhaustion.  I headed back to our temporary home for the night where Poldi welcomed and warmed me.

The next day and the week that followed were filled with stormy weather in New Mexico.  I had managed to take pictures on the only clear night of the week.  Serendipity.

Also serendipitous was our visit to Shiprock the next morning, wanting to see it in daylight.  The clouds were moving in, and there was a whipping wind, but the monument was stunning in the morning light.  We turned off the highway onto the hint of a gravel road that heads to the sacred mountain.  Pausing to take pictures, we encountered another tourist, also interested in the fascinating scene.  She was traveling alone, determined and undaunted in hiking the miles to her target along the trail for which her car was unqualified.  Mine had successfully navigated the route the night before, so we offered her a lift.  She squeezed in between camping gear and tripods and we made our way to the base of the landmark.

We learned that she was pursuing a goal to run marathons in every state.  She had just completed one and was preparing for the next, but this was a day off from her competitions and she was doing some sightseeing.  In the blasting wind bringing in the next weather system, we took selfies in front of Shiprock and then safely returned to the main road.  We have been online friends since and wish her the best in completing her marathon of marathons.

Clouds move in as the wind whips us at the base of Shiprock.

Many events from Thanksgiving through Christmas and then both Gregorian and Lunar New Year kept me busy, and it has taken me this long to get back to those images I recorded on that clear calm night.  I put together a time-lapse that I hope captures the feelings of being in the New Mexico desert in such a unique and beautiful setting. 

During the assembly of the film, I encountered a stunning photo of Shiprock and the processional wall leading up to it.  I received permission from its author to use it as a final frame in the sequence.  Please enjoy.

For an immersive experience, click the “Fullscreen” expand icon. Esc to return

3 thoughts on “The Rock with Wings

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