At the entrance to the National Monument there was a one-hour photo lab, an incongruous business next to the tourist-pandering souvenir store. I was surprised to find it there, but evidently there were enough tourist snapshots to support it, so I was pleased to take advantage of its services. I brought in my roll of LE400; it had the one single shot that I took last night when the clouds broke. I was hoping to find out if the exposure was going to be usable or if I should plan on spending another night to try again.
The photo lab was run by two women who were distinctly unexcited to see me– a scruffy long-haired guy who had been out camping the last couple days– coming in with a single film cassette. One of them started to make fun of me because I told her there was only one exposure on the roll. She must have thought I was nuts.
Well, since it was a one-hour photo lab, I came back an hour later and I encountered a completely different response. She was effusive in expressing how excited she was and asked “How did you ever take this picture?” She wanted to know if she could have a print?, could she show people?, how did I?, where did I?…
So this one picture, an orphan on a full roll of otherwise empty film had completely changed her attitude toward me. I was now a rock star, and she wanted me to sign a copy of my latest hit, and so I did. She placed it prominently among her portfolio of prints promoting her one-hour photo lab in this remote and most unexpected place.
After summitting the Shelley Canyon route into the Bighorns, my long-suffering Dodge Caravan had an easier time negotiating the route through the high alpine forest. It had an even easier time descending the thousands of feet back to the prairie, the long sweeping switchbacks delivering an expansive view of the plains.
The ruptured aneurysm of the radiator hose had forced a change in plans and I had to spend the night in a hotel in Sheridan. I was now on my way to Devils Tower, a favorite destination of bikers and aliens. My radiator was full, I was rested and clean, but the sky was filling with clouds of the type that don’t dissipate after sunset.
Devils Tower is an anomaly in the prairie landscape of eastern Wyoming, a hard igneous intrusion into the otherwise soft ancient ocean bed. It refuses to erode away, like the surrounding sedimentary shale, leaving a defiant finger of columnar basalt. The obstinate feature was an obvious choice to become the country’s first national monument.
By the time I arrived the sky had nearly filled with clouds. It looked like I would get another full night of sleep, but I did my reconnaissance, finding the due-south line from the monument so that I could position it in my imagined composition. It crossed a service road, prohibited to public traffic, but otherwise a great viewpoint. Trying to pre-empt the afterhours security check, I found the park official in charge and requested permission to shoot pictures after dark. It was granted, but it looked like the permit would be unused, the sky was completely overcast. After making camp, it looked like I would have some time on my hands.
So far, I’ve been too busy to become lonely. Now, with nothing pressing to attend to, I am left alone with my thoughts, which eventually become thoughts of how it would be nice to have some company. But what companion would tolerate the stuff I do while trying to get a picture? Napping in the car in parking lots, driving down every nook and cranny of a back road trying to find “the place”, putting off food and sleep, having no arrangements for the night’s accommodations, changing my plans on each new piece of information or state of mind, no itinerary, just some vague notion of photogenic destinations and staying under clear skies. These are the things that a traveling companion would have to deal with. Who would possibly want to, along with other challenges, not listed? This hobby, or at least my version of it, seems destined to be a solo activity.
By dusk, the clouds were still dominating the sky, but an occasional hole in them has encouraged me to prepare for the possibility of clearing. Not being sleep-deprived re-enabled my optimism. Returning to the service road and piecing together the star clues revealed through the cloud openings, I finally identified Polaris, the focal point of my planned shots. I setup my tripods and cameras and waited for the sky to fully clear.
Eventually, it did! I opened the shutters and hoped for it to remain clear. I am a slave to the capricious skies. The clearing lasted a little more than an hour; I hoped it was long enough to get a satisfying star trail image.