Monday, July 6, 2020

A Grand Fifteen Hours

Time with my camera is a very weird thing. I go to take pictures of something...get a wild hair to shoot a particular place or thing....and I am on fire to get there and shoot it. And when it's time to stop, it's time to stop. The energy just goes flat and the pictures feel forced. It has taken me a while to get a feel for this. Many are the times when I over shoot a situation....most of the time actually. I am a chronic over shooter in all situations. Sometimes, taking a single picture and walking away is exactly what I need to do. And sometimes driving all the way to the Grand Canyon, staying for 15 hours, and leaving...is exactly what I needed to do.

My mommy packed my lunch for me. Lunch being left over pizza in a giant zip-lock bag. After two days with my mom in Arizona, I drove the other four hours north to finally see how Grand the canyon was. I left at the time I did for the soul purpose of making it there by sunset. And the drive was wonderful. I did what I normally do on long drives with my camera...loaded up on fast food, junk food, whatever songs my radio would pick up. The older I get the more I enjoy quiet time on the road. I love driving places I have never been before. There are strange plants growing by the roadside and casinos run by tribes I have never heard of . There are small places to stop with only one gas station and a garage full of old tires and car parts. In Arizona there are lot's of cactus and rocks and desert terrain that looks hot even when it's freezing outside. The road to Northern Arizona is cut through rocky mountains and vast deserts full of light greens shrubs and animals that hiss and don't drink very much water at all. And the gas stations sell Subway sandwiches and turquoise jewelry made by the native American casino owners. The sign said "Made by the local Native Americans" I didn't buy any of their hand crafted goods. There was an accident on the highway as I drove North to the Canyon of all Canyons. The road stopped up and the man on the radio kept talking about the economic crisis in Greece and who was responsible for the financial bloodbath that was happening there. The traffic was dead still and NPR talked on while I wondered if I would make it to the Canyon in time to watch the sun set over the massive chasm. My van inched forward and decided to get off at the exit where the local native Americans built their hand crafted casino. The sign said..."Operated by local Native Americans" I pulled into the little gas station next to the authentic gambling establishment. Someone was died on the road ahead. The road was closed because there was a fatality....death in the desert beneath the shadow of a native billboard..."3 dollar breakfast special – 2 dollar blackjack" I waited for a short time and the traffic began to move and I moved with it. I crawled back onto the highway and a man and his walker stood next to a broken down red truck...assessing just how broken it really was. He didn't need any help but he sure looked like he did. A body. A simple thing really. Nothing to see here people...move along. It's strange to me that for all the lookers and rubber neckers of the world that stop and gawk at every little fender bender....it's strange that when a body is just laying there next to a smashed up car with a thin white blanket over it...people don't slow down at all. Nobody actually wants to see the body. Nobody wants to know that someone really did just die. Nobody wants to be reminded that someone who was just drinking Coke and munching french fries an hour and a half ago and is now a traffic delay under a sheet. I sped past the body like everyone else...happy that it wasn't me. It's a twisted logic but it's true. Northern Arizona become greener and greener and turns from desert into forest and trees. It's a neat little transformation you get in one four hour drive. And snow. Snow falls in Arizona and it's pretty like snow is pretty when it's white and coating green things underneath. So after driving by the body I spent the remainder of my drive speeding over snowy terrain to catch a sunset that I wasn't even sure would be very good. It was.
The last 40 miles to the grand Canyon is pretty much a straight line across some bleak looking land that some brave folks call home. As a photographer I would love to live this close to the Grand Canyon. As anyone else....not so much. I stopped at a gas station with a giant grizzly bear statue in front. I paid twenty five dollars for a park pass and fifteen more dollars for a gallon of water, a large can of beef stew, two cans of chef boyardi gunk, and some chewy sweet tarts. In addition to my pizza, these were my hearty provisions. The cans were even pop top so I could just pull and eat. On the last few miles of forest road I saw these beautiful clouds hanging in the air. Having no idea where the Grand Canyon was, all I could do was hope that these clouds were nearby. I like clouds.

I showed the ranger my park ticket and she let me in. There was a half hour of light left and I was grateful to have made it in time. I pulled up and jumped out of my van anxious to grab my gear and find the canyon. The Canyon was a five minute walk from my car and it was a humbling thing to witness. Even if you don't believe in God you will believe in the Grand Canyon. It is an overwhelming reminder of how small we really are. We can gaze at the stars and ponder the universe and realized how tiny our planet is...how small we are...how vast the universe is. But standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon is different. You are faced with vastness and space and an overwhelmingly large area unlike any other place on earth. Earth...not space or the universe...but right here on earth. Standing there, you realize that even if you never looked to the heavens for a cosmic size comparison....you can still feel small right here on earth. You can still feel that we live on a very, VERY large planet full of things that have been here for billions of years. Forget the universe. Standing there and seeing the Grand Canyon...the earth blew my mind. I know that our planet is small compared to most others...but compared to just me....it's monstrously huge...and I am nothing.

The first major overlook is the best one. After stopping at dozen different overlooks around the park I can tell you this. It is also the best one because when I walked down the stairs and out onto the gated platform there were clouds hanging low over the canyon. Big fat juicy bastards that can do nothing but add to a picture. Because taking your camera and pointing it down into the canyon is a great way to get a shot that I'm pretty sure everyone has taken. I did this with a lot of the overlooks and the pictures were all boring and flat. That's why clouds are fun...they are one of a kind backdrop material that you get lucky to find...or you don't. I went into total and complete over shoot mode. I didn't want to miss anything as the sun was setting behind me. The sun was casting a gold glow across the canyon that slowly turned red and pink over the next twenty minutes. There are only so many angles you can find on an overlook point filled with 20 other people trying to take pictures too. The clouds looked so cool I didn't know whether to frame the shots with more canyon or cloud. It's the Grand Canyon for petes sake...but the clouds were grand too. And the German people were stoic in their pictures while the Chinese kids laughed and teased each other, each with their own tiny point and shoot camera...pointing and shooting the earth at her finest....while the girl with the purple hair and piercings stood at the edge and let me in close when I wanted a pictures from her angle. I left the main overlook and tried to make it to the next one over before the sun fully set. It was empty when I saw it across the way but the overlook was full of people by the time I got there. I loved listening to the Chinese tourists laugh. They sounded like they were having a lot of fun with each other and laughing about stupid jokes you make up on long trips. The jokes that you never laugh about again later...you just laugh about the fact you thought they were funny while you were tired and traveling.

The sun left to shed light on others people and it became very cold as the snow turned into ice and my pizza called to me from the ice chest behind the drivers seat. I stuffed myself with pizza and thought of my mom and the nice visit with her that I just ended. I love my mom. I also love my van. My van contains all that I need for any trip...a nice Swedish foam bead, lots of blankets and pillow, my gear, and as much junky food as I can afford. There is a scenic drive in the park that has several stops along the way. It was mid-week and winter so there wasn't many people in the park at all. I decided to find a stop and camp there all night to catch the sun rising in the morning. I picked a stop and pulled in to sleep. The moon was almost full which made shooting the starts impossible. During a long exposure the moon washes out the entire sky making the shot look like someone turned on the lights. I was restless and wanted to shoot some pictures but there was nothing to shoot. I wandered around for a while taking pictures of the snow banks under the moonlight. But the pictures were flat and the energy was wrong so I went to my van and tried to sleep. Tried is the operative word here. I was exhausted and yet I could not sleep at all. Hours passed and I lay warm and comfortable in my van parked just feet from the Grand Canyon...and sleep would not come. I finally drifted a little but I never really slept deeply. And then something happened that has happened to me before. It's like someone poking me or suddenly screaming. I just wake up and look around as though something urgent was happening. I sat up and looked out my window to see that big fat moon sinking towards the horizon. It was beautiful.

I got my tripod and quickly put my clothes on. On the little walkway out to the overlook I could see the big moon sinking into the dark canyon below. There is a quiet that is only to be found when the world is dampened with snow. If you have lived in snow, then you know what I'm talking about. It was that kind of quiet as I stood there with my tripod set up and the moon beaming down on me with her beautiful gold light. The light was gold because the moon was behind some thin clouds. Shooting the moon is not technically a very wise thing to undertake as a photographer. Most photographers who want the moon in their pictures to look good, cut and paste it in from another pictures. The problem is that either the moon is properly exposed and foreground is totally dark...or the moon is a blown out star burst and the foreground is lit. If you use nothing but a single shot on a setting moon there is a very...VERY...tiny little window of time when there is a balance and the setting moon looks normal and the foreground is lit by the moon. I have found that balance once before on a beach in California and I have shot for it ever since. I stood seeking balance on the edge of Gods greatest creation. I slowly walked along the path and stared at the sinking moon trying to frame it over the snow and next to the trees. It was going down fast and getting more dusty colored behind the thinly veiled clouds. As it set over the edge of the canyon I laughed a little as I took the pictures. Nobody who ever saw the pictures would have any idea that the moon was setting right into the Grandest thing they would ever see. The last pictures I took were of a single tree growing right on the edge of a one mile drop straight down into the canyon. The light was fading and allowing the stars overhead to show up on film rather than wash them out. It was amazing to me. There was such a perfect balance between the moon and the stars. And the dusty orange moonlight set into the canyon while the stars shown bright and pure. I cried. The moon was gone and the sun was going to rise exactly behind me in about fifteen minutes. That meant I had fifteen minutes to take pictures of stars.

Shooting the stars requires much equipment that I do not have. It also requires experience, which I have little of. But I do have a camera. And I do love trying to push my camera to the limit and grabbing some star shots when I am in very dark places like the Grand Canyon...or the Sierra Mountains. As with the moon, star shots are not easy for two reasons....you can't see them through the view finder so focusing is hard....and they are pretty boring to most people. How can you shoot the stars with something interesting in the picture other than just ..the stars. I turned around from the exact spot where I took the final moon set picture and started to shoot. It was cold and beautiful and serene to me. I was doing nothing but looking to the heavens and framing tiny little pieces of sky with my tiny little camera. The exposures were long like they have to be for star shots...but not so long that the stars in the pictures streaked. I took several shots that were beautiful when the very first blush of sunlight lit the horizon. When I say very first...I mean it....you could hardly see it with your naked eye at all. As I took the pictures something strange happened and nature showed me another lesson in balance. With just a tiny bit of light on the horizon it wasn't enough to wash out the stars. It wasn't enough to make the exposure too bright. It was just enough to actually catch a sunrise and the milky way together. My little camera sat on the tripod and I stood with it while the sun and stars were in perfect balance. It only stayed like that for about 3 or 4 minutes until the sun was too bright and washing out the sky in the long exposures I was doing. It was strange how fast the balance shifts between day and night. You notice it nowhere more precisely than through the lens. Of all the shots I took that night of the moon and the stars and the blushing sun...only a few came out. Only a few had the stars in focus and the moon the same as my eyes were seeing it. Only a few looked the same as they did when I was taking them. There was those magic tipping points. Those points when the heavenly lights were in perfect harmony and neither was brighter than the other. The earth turned that night and it was lovely and beautiful and good. I turned with the earth and for a small window of time the earth was mine and the heavens were too. We were all together that night standing on the edge of magnificence and dancing together in natures sweet balance. As the sun crept up and hid the stars a tourist pulled up with his camera to catch the sunrise. As he walked up I said, "You just missed a very cool moon set."

My trip was done. I felt it. The sun was rising off to one side of the canyon and I wanted to find something cool to frame it with. I drove along the scenic route trying to find something to shoot with the sunrise but feeling compelled to shoot nothing. I would love to say I took some other great shots...but I didn't. I drove around for two hours stopping at all the overlooks pointing my camera down and shooting. Blah. No clouds, no stars, no moon, no cool light....but a canyon. As Grand as it was, and amazing it is...you still need something more in the picture than just the canyon. Even the Grand Canyon needs perspective. Especially the Grand Canyon. I arrived and was shown how tiny I am on this planet...how old and majestic nature is on this earth. And then I spent the night being shown true majesty by the eternal heavens and the balance of God's creations beyond this tiny little canyon. After poking around for a few hours I got in my car and left. The Grand Canyon gave me what I needed. I was there for exactly fifteen hours and I left with an altered sense of perspective that was truly humbling and some pictures that I am grateful to have. Next time I'll stay for a whole day.


Grand Canyon Rain


The Last Of The Day Light



The Last Of The Moon Light


The First Light Of A New Day


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