The thick smear of clouds that concealed the sky all day is beginning to tear apart. I drop responsibilities at the office and head for my camera, a device I haven’t touched with purpose since October 31. I don a winter hat and down parka and turn for the hills, where I arrive about an hour early. I’m usually rushed chasing sunsets.
I saunter through shin-deep snow and watch shadows gather in the foothills to the east, the clouds developing subtle hues of pink, and when I arrive at the mesa’s flat-topped summit the sun is shimmering though snow-dusted sagebrush, the long shadows in the foothills creasing the landscape with contrast.
The wind whips across the mesa, carving intricate designs in the snow and cutting cotton bluejeans with its bite. Sunset is still a half hour away, and twilight another 30 minutes past that, so I set about walking the mesa’s periphery along the top of its 20- to 50-foot tall sandstone cliffs, snapping photos as I go.
Later, as the sun’s final sliver slips below the western horizon, I set up a tripod in the same location as my prior Summer Solstice quarry, then stand in the wind and wait. Two bald eagles rise from the valley and lift into the gathering sunset on a stiff northern wind. I switch lenses and shoot four photos, long enough for my fingers to numb. I return the camera to its bag and shove my hands in my pants, and then wait for the city lights to twinkle, for the landscape to turn black, for the western sky to ebb, for the first faint traces of stars to emerge above the frozen desert.
It takes a long, long time, far longer than I guessed, and the temperature continues to plummet. I pull the down hood over my head, put my hands back in my pants, and begin hopping up and down, up and down, back and forth, up and down–trying to keep my circulation flowing while I wait.
The landscape eventually fades to black, and I know I’ve got only one chance at taking this photograph, which will consist of about six frames shot at between 20 and 30 seconds for each frame. The cold is milking the final energy from my camera’s batteries, and my internal batteries are fading, too. I pull my hands out of my pants and begin to work: first frame, second frame, third frame. Shit. My finger can’t feel the buttons on the camera anymore. I lift the tripod, and the camera freezes a frame of my runny nose. Put the tripod back down. Repeat the process. Third frame, fourth frame, fifth frame. The cycle continues until I’ve shot eight frames over the course of 10 finger-numbing minutes.
I return home, and after taking a long, hot bath begin processing images. The twilight photo I struggled through the cold to obtain is a bust, not even worth sharing. But I am pleased with a half dozen others that materialized while waiting for the sun to set. It’s an oft-repeated mantra, but it’s often true. Living is about the journey, not the destination.