Death Valley 2012: Day 7

I didn’t recognize my campsite when I returned to it on the evening of Day 7. Everything was covered in a layer of filth. I gave my tent a swift slap, and watched as cloud of dust took to the air. What a fitting tribute for the end of my trip.

I squatted beside my tent, and peeled back the rain fly. I knew it wouldn’t be peasant. My sleeping bag was coated in a quarter inch of fine silt.

Death Valley is an unforgiving location. Things might be good for a while, but with the flip of a switch, your luck can change.

I removed the contents of my tent, and shook out my sleeping bag. I pulled the stakes, and inverted it to empty the filth that had gathered throughout the day.

I was done with this trip, and cleaning my campsite only reinforced the realization I had earlier that day.

My morning began with high hopes. Without a shot in mind, I drove to Zabriskie point to people-watch for sunrise. I didn’t bring my camera with me — I had no intention of taking any photos that morning. Sometimes it’s nice not to be a photographer. The obsession of trying to capture every sunrise and sunset makes one lose sight of the bigger picture, and the beauty that surrounds us.

I sat on the wall atop Zabriskie point, and watched as several photographers prepared for sunrise. It was a cloudy morning with a storm on the way.

Zabriskie Point is a classic sunrise location — especially on stormy mornings. It makes for a spectacular show if the rising sun extends its fiery grasp beneath the clouds.

There were the usual photographers with high end digital SLRs and carbon fiber tripods that morning, but not everyone was shooting digital. A young couple from Europe was using a classic Canon AE-1 propped up on the rock wall to take a shot or two.

As sunrise grew near, a family arrived at the viewpoint. A young man in his early 20’s helped their elderly grandfather put on his jacket, while his sister was nervously chatting with their parents.

Despite being skunked on my two previous evenings at Badwater, I knew my luck would turn around. My first 5 days were met with unprecedented photographic opportunities. The three days I spent at the Ibex dunes were still fresh in my memory, and I was excited to take a few shots of the breathtaking sunrise on the morning of Day 5.

It was nice to take a morning off — I hoped there would be a wicked sunrise, and that the photographers around me would be treated to a magnificent show.

The young brother and sister chatted with their parents. They weren’t pleased with the situation, and soon wandered back down the hill.

I checked the time on my phone — 6:56 AM. It was sunrise, though one would never know it. Dark clouds blocked all direct light from the east.

A chilling wind swept over the viewpoint as dark blue clouds drifted past overhead. There was chatter among the photographers that the sun had risen and the window to shoot had passed. As any landscape photographer will tell you, it’s best to stay until you know for sure the light is gone.

I glanced over my shoulder, and saw the family further down on the trail. The grandfather sat on a bench just off the path, and the rest of the family watched as the young man in his 20’s turned away from them. He struggled with something. Another gust of wind swept over the viewpoint, and a cloud of ash was carried away by the wind. Now it all made sense.

There never was a show of light that morning. I returned to my truck, and checked the weather — High wind with a chance of Rain. Great.

If there is one thing that makes large format photography nearly impossible, it’s high wind. Combine high wind with rain, and now you have two things that make large format photography nearly impossible.

I drove north to scout some promising salt flats that held great potential for photography.

It was a pretty wild morning. There wasn’t much rain, but there was plenty of wind and several noteworthy rainbows. It wasn’t anything particularity photogenic, but the novelty of a rainbow in Death Valley was intriguing.

I set out on the salt flats and scouted with my lightweight pack. An hour or two into my scouting trip, I found a interesting foreground composed of various salt pools I nicknamed “The Dot District.”

This location made for a great foreground, but I was unsure what to expect for the rest of the day. It was still too windy to shoot, and the clouds were quickly dissipating. The  skies would mostly certainly be bare by the time evening arrived.

Though the odds were against me, I returned to my truck to retrieve my camera. There’s often a break in the wind just after sunset which coincides with the best light. In the past, I’ve been able to capture some wonderful gradients on the southern horizon in Death Valley — likely a product of pollution, but still very beautiful.

I set up my 8×10 camera with a wide angle lens, all the while fighting the wind through my dark cloth. It was flapping in the wind, obstructing my view of the ground glass, and frequently pulling free of the camera — flooding my eyes with light.

Though the foreground was intriguing, my motivation was dwindling. I’m not one of those photographers that is constantly itching to capture a new photo at any hour of the day. I have many friends who will drop everything and drive to the beach if there is even the slightest chance of a great sunset. That’s not me.

If I’m any less than 100% dedicated to taking a shot, I’d rather not take the photo. There are a lot of decisions to be made with large format, and I need the right frame of mind to be successful

I tried desperately to convince myself that this trip wasn’t over, but I was wasn’t fooling anyone. I was done.

It’s a strange feeling really that signals the end of a shooting trip — a bitter sweet feeling of satisfaction, laced heavily with defeat. It’s the realization that I’ll be able to take a shower and sleep in my own bed tomorrow — but upon my return, I will wish I was still in the field.

I packed up my gear, and hiked back to my truck in the dark. I was confident with my decision to head home early, and I looked forward to enjoying one last night under the stars.

Thanks everyone for following my trip to Death Valley, especially those of you who have contributed so generously to my blog. I truly appreciate it, and I look forward  to sharing the experience of my next trip.

3 Responses to “Death Valley 2012: Day 7”

  1. Steve Perry Says:

    Great blog Ben! Just got back form DV myself – she can be a cruel mistress! Not sure why I keep going back for more punishment, LOL. Out of 5 days, only had good light / clouds twice.

    At least you got some sweet keepers, and that’s all anyone can ask from any trip. I know that if I personally get a one keeper for every 3 or 4 days there, I’m pretty happy.

    Glad you had fun!

  2. Michael Lordi (@Scout327) Says:

    Another fine trip report Ben! Thanks, as always, for sharing.

  3. Laura Says:

    I enjoy these narratives as much as if I’d been there myself. Thanks so much for sharing, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next one. BTW, I signed up for a workshop with David Muench next week in Bishop-could this be Nirvana?.

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