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.
Some years ago I was driving home from an afternoon excursion into the beautiful rural areas of Minnesota during the fall harvest. The sun eventually sank below the corn fields and the evening sky took over as the moon rose.
There was a delay in our travel home while I stopped and took pictures of this unusual composition: the moon in a twilight sky behind the steeple of a local church and its cemetery. I don’t believe there was a guiding hand directing me to that place and time, but I recognize a unique moment when I am in it.
In the years since, I have attempted to capture the moon in this magic moment, but it turns out to be a difficult project. I recently learned why at a seminar led by Mike Shaw, one of the pioneers in making modern nightscape photos. His advice and recommendations led me to try this composition on the St Croix River, the optimal timing being one day before the full moon.
The new bridge over the river was a long time in the planning, and long overdue for replacing the old lift bridge that chronically clogged the traffic in Stillwater. The old bridge is now dedicated to pedestrians and bicycles; the new bridge hosts walkways and overlooks, making for a pleasant “loop trail” from Minnesota to Wisconsin and back.
I practiced the photo shoot for several days prior to the key event and witnessed lots of fishing and boating activities on the river. I also watched big river boats taking their passengers out for dinner cruises, returning after sunset. The beautiful fall weather held, and I was able to once again photograph the rising harvest moon dressed in the beautiful colors of twilight.
I assembled a time lapse of the experience. It’s a one-minute sequence. I hope you enjoy it.
There was a second wide spot in the road at the south end of the playa; we parked and continued our explorations. This time we found stones sitting on the surface of the lakebed. There were not many, and we had to hike a mile or so to find them. Some sat happily contemplating their position in the uniform semi-infinite plane of mud cracks. Others showed a faint trail of disturbed, and now solidified mud, leading to their current position. These were the famous sailing stones!
Life highlights are those you can list on a single hand. They are indelible events that exceed the normal range of our experience. They may include a first kiss, the birth of a child, recognition of a career accomplishment, or the challenging hike to reach a beautiful mountain pass. This is the story of adding one more of those outlier life experiences to my list.
Years ago, I had read about the geologic mystery of the “sailing stones” on the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Death Valley is an intriguing place and not just because of its ominous (and deserved) name. It is a geology and biology classroom, displaying the impacts of volcanoes intruding on sedimentary layers that have been shape-shifted into ribbons of colorful escarpments with water and wind-eroded features. Somehow, the valley has fallen below sea level, and the water, when there is water, dissolves minerals from the mountains and finds its way to the bottom, where it evaporates and leaves the residue behind as a salt flat.
In the spring, the water also nourishes an intense flowering of desert plants, desperate to reproduce. For a few brief weeks, colorful plants and flowers adorn the roadsides and cover the otherwise barren hills. I have been to Death Valley during this season, during a “superbloom” following an unusually wet winter. It was a stunning display of flowers in this otherwise arid and nonviable setting, something I had never expected to see. As impressive as this floral show was, I had really hoped to visit the famous sailing stones on the playa.