Epilogue (from the future, 2020)

The kitchen table holding rolls of film of various types and sizes, some already developed and sleeved, others containing latent images awaiting their delivery to a film lab.  Also shown are my observing notebook and journal.

It has been a wonderful time-trip to go back and review my journal entries, voice memo transcriptions, collected travel brochures, and observing notebooks to recreate these stories.  Some of the material was outlined and posted on an early web site, but the impact of 9/11 a few weeks after my return from this trip, combined with the urgencies of daily life with my active family, derailed the project.  My notes and artifacts have been hibernating these years since in an ignominious cardboard box. 

The film that I brought home was processed by a professional photo lab and carefully organized into sleeves and folders and correlated with my observing notes.  The images that stood out became popular prints that I presented at art fairs and exhibits the following year.  The others kept silently in their folders in my file cabinet until I looked for supporting images for these stories.  I have enjoyed scanning them and discovering pictures that deserve more attention.

My notes from immediately after my return offer some advice.  Though today I do not recall it this way, my last night in the field with the windmill was recorded as a miserable experience, a disappointment of trying to reach a closure by recreating the first pictures from the outset of my trip.  Maybe seeing a successful film image a few days later, erased that negative emotion.  Today I enjoy reciting the story of being lost in the hayfield; at the time, it was just too frustrating.

In my notes I wrote that I took too much stuff and my plans were too ambitious.  Today, I’m not so sure.  My internalized boy scout motto, “be prepared”, provided the tools and materials when I ran into trouble in the wilderness– situations that could not be solved by a quick trip to the mall for repair items.  There were many times that I was glad to have the resources that I had brought.

As to the ambitious plans, they might have been a setup for disappointment, but I no longer see it that way.  I am appreciative for all of the experiences and opportunities that presented themselves.  Maybe this is just a way of life for me; there is far more to learn than I can possibly take in.  In the years since, I have learned to live with this limitation.

The road trip format– travelling every day– was not particularly good for deep sky work.  Because of the high overhead for setup and alignment and focus, it would have been better to stay in one location for several days.  I made the error that first-time travelers to Europe often make:  trying to fit everything into a whirlwind tour.

In the end, because I couldn’t do everything, I had to prioritize.  I favored shots that couldn’t be made from near home—so the startrails with unique foregrounds took priority and the deep sky shots that could, in principle, be made from anywhere on a clear night, were secondary.

Today, GPS is ubiquitous.  At the time, before cell phones, specialized receivers were required.  I had an early model, a gift from my mother-in-law who rolled her eyes about the whole concept but took pleasure in my delight at receiving it.  The GPS receivers were quite primitive by today’s standards of localized maps that show you the nearest coffee shops and the route to get to them; instead, they displayed your numerical latitude and longitude and could record markers (waypoints).  They could also show a trail of breadcrumbs of your recent route on a blank background.  If a major city was nearby, the display would show a mark and a label for it.  Still, as limited as it was at the time, GPS was a terrific aid to my efforts.

In the days before smart phones, there were “personal digital assistants”, PDAs, and I owned a Pilot, that hosted helper programs before they became known as “apps”.  One such program, Sol-2, told me the local sunset, twilight, moonrise, and moonset times based on my location, which I could enter by reading it from the GPS unit.  This was extremely beneficial for my nighttime photo planning.  Today of course, all of this is available from your pocket computer/smart phone.

I have often referred in these stories to the difficulty of getting enough sleep.  With the demands of cross country travelling, and nighttime photo shooting, sleep is postponed until it can’t.  I learned that an hour or two nap is extremely beneficial.  Even if not fully sleeping, the momentary metabolism slowdown of just resting seems to help. 

The solo time on the road was a contemplative opportunity.  My mind wandered over many topics as the miles rolled by.  Most of those idle thoughts went unrecorded, with no subsequent loss to society;  others I made notes of and have tried to convey in these essays. 

The opportunity to undertake projects like this do not occur often.  When they do, they are not always apparent.  I am indebted to my wife Vicki, who recognized the moment for what it was and encouraged me to embark on this adventure.  She saw that this was exactly the right thing for me; I encourage everyone to support the dreams of their partner.

And for those of you reluctant to embark on something that is outside of your usual style, I encourage you to push past the discomfort and seize the moment. 

Consider the lesson I learned from the visit with my old classmate (Tillamook Friends…).  That story was the result of wondering if I should take a tangent trip to Tillamook to meet him. The easier choice would have been to not go, to stay in my introvert’s comfort zone and get back to my solo photography.  But had I not taken that normally untaken option during that summer trip long ago, I would not have renewed a friendship that then lasted until he passed away last year, and I would now be regretting the missed opportunities to have shared in part of his fascinating life.  

It’s another reminder that life is short.  When risky or expensive or uncertain opportunities come up, take them.  Most people regret the trip not taken. 

And when you find yourself under a clear night sky, take a few moments to look up at the stars and contemplate our place in this corner of the universe.  We are blessed to be here, to have a life to fill with experiences and activities, and to share them with the people we love.

Thor Olson
October 2020

Nightscape Odyssey
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11.2 Devils Tower in an Hour

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.

An hour in the shadow of Devils Tower, and an hour at an incongruous photo lab.

Nightscape Odyssey
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3.4 The Quest for C-41

Note from the future:
The invention of photographic film, a light-sensitive emulsion on a flexible strip, along with the access to photo labs, allowed photography to become widespread and popular throughout the entire 20th century.  But there were distinct limitations associated with film that simply don’t exist in modern digital photography.  The limited number of exposures that could fit on a roll of film was one of them, requiring careful consideration of what scenes were worthy of each precious frame.  There was also a need to keep the film safely stored away from direct light and at the right temperature and humidity.  But the most severe limitation was that there was no “preview”; each exposure was taken on faith, because the film needed to be chemically developed and printed before the success (or failure) of a shot could be determined.


I was now a week into my travels and had experienced the luck of good weather and had succeeded in making a few exposures of the night sky from my small arsenal of cameras.  Some of them were astrophotos taken at the prime focus of a telescope, and others were time exposures of the landscape rotating under a starry night.  I was starting to complete entire rolls of film (although admittedly, some were quite short—only 12 exposures.  But even if the film had not been completely utilized, I was eager to find out if my settings and techniques were working.  I would happily wind off the rest of the roll to see if those first few exposures yielded successful images.  But that meant that I would need to find a place that could develop them.  

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1.2 Preparations

My family has never travelled light. The weeks prior to my scheduled departure were hectic as I figured out how I could transport all the usual camping equipment plus telescopes, cameras and tripods. I had a very ambitious list of photography projects which required nearly all of my accumulated gear. I might not be able to try every experiment on my list, but at least I would have the right stuff with me.

A mental calculation showed that all of it couldn’t possibly fit into my minivan, even using the cartop carrier that we had overflowed into in previous years. I also had to keep in mind that I would, for part of the time, have two passengers, including my teenaged son who had recently grown into a large-scale young man. Hauling a trailer was a skill I didn’t want to master. Acquiring a larger vehicle was not an option. So I decided to add additional cartop storage. I went out to find a left-handed version of the  “Yakima Rocket Box” I already owned so I could carry them side-by-side on my roof. Alas, they no longer made them in their original white color; the new ones were black.  I hesitated, but after learning that there was only one remaining in stock, I decided that this was actually a desirable feature; I would be able to distinguish them by their color… for all those moments where I might otherwise be confused about where I had stowed what. Ok, maybe it’s not a strong benefit, but I didn’t need much to make the purchase decision.

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