It was as black as sin that night, when I found myself alone, miles from civilization, wondering what happened to my ride home.
My friend Paul and I had opted to head into the mountains, attempting to get away from the light pollution of the city to shoot Milky Way photos. After checking the views at a first vista point we headed on to a second, more developed viewpoint. Although there was a good view with more alpine flowers at the initial stop, the paths were less developed and much riskier – a sandy misstep could leave you sliding down a steep cliff, bouncing to a fatal end. As the core of our shooting experience would be in the dark, this seemed a tad chancy.
The evening sunset provided warm light for a few warmup shots: a field of flowers here, the crater of our principle mountain there, the sun making its departure to the west.
(Click on photos for a larger view)
I was looking forward to seeing the Milky Way. Living in the city, I rarely see anything but the brightest of stars. The prospect of looking into the heavens and seeing constellations besides the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and Orion; countless smaller, unidentifiable stars; the deep black of space; and that misty milky fuzz that hints at the gasses and stars of our own galaxy – this was a sight I hadn’t seen for many a year and had never photographed.
The setting was a sleeping volcano. Quiet now perhaps, but not so long ago, within my lifespan it was a raging inferno, blowing 1300 feet of rock from its top and much of its north side into oblivion. Valleys and ridges in the area were flattened, huge trees were blown down like matchsticks, topography reshaped. A gray wasteland showed the extent of its destruction, and early visits after its temper tantrums had calmed left a feeling of awe at the power and range of the eruption. These days, nearly 40 years later, life has returned to many of the valleys: trees have grown back, animals once again run in its ranges, and flowers attract bugs and photographers.
Dusk. A time after the sun has gone down, but it’s not really dark yet. Photographers call it the blue hour, a time when snapshooters think the sun is down and photos are done, but moody shots are still to be had.
And in that period before it gets truly dark, it’s a good time to get the tripod and camera set up. Automatic settings on cameras don’t work in the dark: autofocus has nothing to focus on, ISO (sensor sensitivity) goes off the deep end, f-stops and shutter speeds are a wild mechanical guess, and all to the goal of returning a picture that looks like it was shot in daylight.
Um, no. It’s manual settings all the way and some, like focus, need to be attended to while there’s still light.
In time it got dark enough for the Milky Way to make a faint appearance and astrophotography began in earnest. After a few shots, my friend Paul had a hankering for the angles at our first viewpoint and told me he was heading over and would be back in a half hour or so. I stayed put and continued shooting.
PETRUCHIO: I say it is the moon.
KATHERINA: I know it is the moon.
PETRUCHIO: Nay, then you lie; it is the blessed sun.
Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun;
But sun it is not when you say it is not,
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it nam’d, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine.
From “The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene V” by William Shakespeare
Is it the sun, or is it the moon? Even when sunset was long past, there was still light in the sky. Enough to throw a shadow, or fool a camera set to expose for stars into believing the moon was the sun.
But the moon set, and the darkness was nearly complete. By this time it was 12:30 in the morning. I was tired, I’d gotten my shots, but after an hour Paul had not returned.
I could not help but remember the treacherous path at that first site and wonder if he’d be coming back at all. I packed up my gear and looked around the site, flashlight in hand. No Paul. I was getting worried. Was it time for a divine intervention? Was there a saint around to help out?
Another pass around the grounds and I found what I thought was Paul’s car in the parking lot. He must be around somewhere in the near black void. Eventually, we crossed paths, much to my relief.
There was a saint around that evening, watching over us. Surrounded by the splendor of the heavens, the mountain itself provided a saintly presence: it was Mount Saint Helens.