Chasing the Light


“Fire and Rain”

Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

This sunrise image from the Mesquite dunes is one of my favorites from my recent Death Valley trip, but it almost never happened. There’s a familiar adage among landscape photographers for getting great images: “f/8 and be there.” F/8 is the lens aperture setting (which may or may not be the right setting, of course, depending on the circumstances), but the be there part is something that I almost had to learn the hard way on this morning.

Wind and rain had been drubbing my tent for much of the night before, and when my alarm went off at 4:50 am, there was a steady rain falling and no hint of a break in the sky. I dozed on top of my sleeping bag for a while, thinking there would be no good light for sunrise and no reason to head out to the dunes as I had planned. Maybe 30 minutes later I sat straight up with the thought, “Dang, I’m stupid! I need to get out there and at least give it a shot.” Sure enough, as I quickly collected my gear and jumped in my 4Runner, I noticed a very thin sliver of clear sky on the horizon where I expected the sun to rise. I raced down the road toward the dunes, about 25 miles away, worried that my delay might have already caused me to miss a great opportunity.

When I got to the parking area near the dunes it was still raining, but my pulse quickened as I saw faint sunrays start to filter through the distant break in the clouds. I hustled out onto the dunes, noticing the lines of footprints of two other photographers. It’s still a bit of a hike from the parking lot out onto the main area of the dunes, and I knew I didn’t have much time. I had scouted this area the previous evening, and saw now that to capture the rising sun, get a good composition of the dunes, and stay out of the frame of the two other photogs, I would need to quickly hike around their back flank to the far side. The dunes were starting to take on a surreal glow as I scurried around to the spot I thought would work. The wind was picking up, the rain was still coming down, the horizon was starting to explode with a sweet filtered light, and my quads were burning as I sprinted up the last steep dune with my heavy gear, wet sand flying in my wake.

I got to the crest of the dune and stood stunned for a moment by the sublime scene of “fire and rain” before me. Then I noticed one of the other photographers on top of a dune in front of me (and lots of unattractive footprints), disturbing my planned composition. (AAARGH!) Sometimes it’s nice to include a human element for scale and impact, but this wasn’t going to work. So, I looked around quickly to assess my options, then dashed over and up to the top of the next dune, which seemed to be the tallest one around. I imagine I would have been a comical sight, particularly if replayed in slow motion, desperately sprinting the final yards to the crest of the dune while simultaneously extending and adjusting my tripod legs and attaching my camera.

I positioned the tripod and camera as quickly as I could, awkwardly struggling to stabilize it in the sloped sand, trying to keep the rain off the front element of the camera lens, and quickly adjusting camera settings and composition. I started firing off bracketed exposures, quickly at first, then slowing down as I began to just take in and savor the amazing scene. The EXIF data from my exposures tell me the good light lasted less than 5 minutes, but it was the kind of experience where time stood still for me.

I started to reorient myself to my broader surroundings, and had a sinking feeling as I realized I hadn’t been paying attention to whether there had been any lightning around. I was, after all, standing at the top of the tallest dune in the vicinity, holding on to a metal pole (tripod), in a rainstorm. I had been so focused on the sunrise and golden light in front of me I hadn’t thought to TURN AROUND to see what I’d been missing: a giant double rainbow that was so close I could practically see the wee pots o’ gold on each end! (Duh… why didn’t I think of that earlier? Sunrays coming right at me through the rain?) I spun around and clumsily tried to get a decent photo, but 24mm wasn’t even close to being wide enough, a good composition eluded me, and the rain was hitting me straight on anyway. I resigned myself to just enjoying the moment. The hasty snapshot (of one end) doesn’t do it justice, but what was really interesting was that because I was high up on the dune, the arc of the rainbow wrapped around nearly 270 degrees (all the way around above me, and partially below me). It was like I was up in the middle of a rainbow circle.


The light show ended moments later, and even though I hadn’t noticed any lightning, I decided to head for lower ground. I spent a good 20 minutes back at the car “chimping” at the images on the small display screen, and hoping my processing skills could do justice to what I had just experienced. Most of all, I was just happy to be there on this morning. And if you’re wondering: yes, my aperture for “Fire and Rain” was set to f/8. 😉


Myth and Mystery: Church Rock

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“Church Rock” is a familiar landmark just off the highway between Moab and Monticello, Utah. I’ve driven past this interesting rock formation countless times over the years going to and from my grandparents’ home in Monticello. Last month after visiting Grandpa Ramsay I timed my trip home to be there at sunrise and capture the wildflowers that were said to be the best seen in this spot in 30 years. I assumed early settlers named it “Church Rock” simply because they thought it looked like a church. I was surprised to learn about a week ago that there’s quite a story attached to this area, including the belief by some that it is (or was) the “spiritual center of the universe”!

Here’s the gist of the story according to a couple wikipedia articles: In the early 1930’s, a spiritualist named Marie Ogden–a wealthy, well-educated widow from New Jersey–had been traveling around the country lecturing, gathering followers, and receiving “divine revelations” through her typewriter. At a lecture in Boise, Idaho, she announced a revelation directing her to establish a religious colony dedicated to “the truth.” Soon after, she and her followers purchased land in Dry Valley (location of Church Rock), which she indicated would be the site of Christ’s second coming, and began an ascetic commune known as the “Home of Truth.”

She purchased the county newspaper, the San Juan Record, made herself editor, and tried to recruit new followers through sharing stories about her revelations (received through her typewriter). The utopian Home of Truth commune grew to about 100 people under Ogden’s leadership, and part of the “myth” of this story is that her followers started to hollow out the inside of Church Rock to use as a place of worship. Ogden had revealed that this area was the “spiritual center of the universe”, and that those closest to the “Inner Portal”–centered in her living quarters–would be spared in the coming apocalypse. If you look closely at the photo, you’ll actually see a small dark opening at the base of the rock. The truth is that a local rancher, Claud Young of Monticello, contracted to have the 16′ x 24′ area blasted out with dynamite to store feed and salt licks for his cattle.

Things got really interesting in 1935 when a member of the group named Edith Peshak died of cancer, in spite of Ogden’s promises of a spiritual healing. Ogden claimed in a San Juan Record article that she had been communicating with the deceased Peshak and that the woman was in a state of purification and could soon be brought back to life. According to Ogden, Peshak was only “mostly dead” and this is where the writers of The Princess Bride got the idea for the Miracle Max scene (ok, I made that up just now). Investigating authorities found Peshak’s body well preserved, reportedly having been washed three times a day in a salt solution and “fed” milk and eggs by injection (didn’t make that up). The investigators decided to leave the body with the colony, determining that it was not a health threat, and since other residents in the area were in possession of old mummies of indigenous people they had found in dry caves (what?! I guess 1935 San Juan County was progressive in its views on mummy possession. Because who doesn’t want their own mummy anyway?)

Things really fell apart in 1937 when Ogden began writing again about the woman’s imminent rising, still claiming that the woman was not actually dead. This time investigators discovered that the body had been cremated by Ogden soon after the prior inquiry, and all but seven remaining followers abandoned the Home of Truth. Ogden continued to support herself by publishing the newspaper, and through teaching piano lessons to the children of Monticello. (MOM!!! Did you, your siblings, or any of your friends take piano lessons from Marie Ogden?!?) She died in Blanding, Utah in 1975. The Home of Truth is now a ghost town, with remains of buildings visible on private land near the road that leads to the Needles area of Canyonlands National Park.

I had no idea about any of this until about a week or two ago, but I wonder if this Church Rock print will be worth more if I tell people it’s of the spiritual center of the universe? 😉


P.S. The image is a “focus stack” of about 7 frames, combined to achieve sharp focus from front to back.

Sacred Places

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“Many of the tribal peoples of the world recognize that there are four places in nature where you can find deep peace and remember who you really are. One is in the deep woods; one is in the desert; one in the mountains and one near the ocean. ”

Angeles Arrien, “The Second Half of Life” transcript

Where are your “sacred places” where you can find deep peace and remember who you really are?

A couple weeks ago I took a quick trip down to Monticello, Utah to visit my grandfather. Grandma passed away in July and he’s alone in the house now without much family nearby so I thought I’d go hang out with him for a bit. He put me to work on the farm and pretty much wore me out, but on the drive back I stopped to capture a few landscape images.

I decided to visit a place I’d never been before in the “Island in the Sky” area of Canyonlands National Park; a remote location called “False Kiva.” It’s well known to landscape photographers, but you won’t find it on any of the park maps. Technically it’s an archeological site and the national park personnel don’t really want many people going there to disturb it, but it’s not hard to find directions if you do a little searching online. It is a human-made circle of stones hidden high up in a protected alcove overlooking the canyon hundreds of feet below. The “False” kiva name is due to the unknown origin and purpose of the stone circle.

If you know where you’re going the trail isn’t hard to follow, as parts are marked with small rock cairns. But I followed a “false” trail at the beginning and wound up at the top of a huge cliff about a thousand feet above the canyon floor, probably directly above the False Kiva alcove. There I found a young Asian couple who had also taken the wrong path looking for the site, and after consulting my directions backtracked a little ways to find the right trail that wound down the rocky cliffside. The couple walked with me for a few minutes, then decided to stay back as they weren’t certain of the path and looked a little worried about where it was leading. The late afternoon sun was hot, the trail rocky and steep in places, and my seasonal allergies were in overdrive, but I found my way down the rocky cliff face then up to the hidden alcove. It’s the kind of place that you don’t know you’re close until you’re right there.

I was the only one at the site, and I just stood there a little stunned for a few minutes as I looked out over the expansive valley below. The amazing view, the complete silence (except for the sounds of my breathing and heart beating), and the unique feeling that surrounded the site made me completely forget about the camera and tripod I had been carrying and just enjoy the peace that enveloped me. Simply stated, this felt like a sacred place.

I’ve had similar feelings at many other sites. Delicate Arch, Angel’s Landing, Yosemite Valley, Pearl Harbor, the Lincoln Memorial, Bryce Canyon, LDS temples, the summit of Pikes Peak, and Martin’s Cove are just a few off the top of my head. These kinds of places are often unique, awe-inspiring, and/or associated with important experiences, facilitating calm reflection and eliciting feelings of peace, power, and reverence. I’m also grateful that sacred places don’t always need to be situated in unique or dramatic settings. My backyard patio, car, living room, and office (among other ordinary places) have all been sacred sites for me at times, when my mind is right. As I think about this, perhaps one of the greatest life skills a person can develop is to be able, in any setting, to quickly set aside the trivial and mundane things that often occupy the mind and transition to a state of openness, reflection, and reverence; to be able to “find deep peace and remember who you really are”; to make wherever you are a “sacred place.”

Back at False Kiva, I did get around to setting up my tripod and recording some nice images of this unique location. I took my time and had been there alone for over an hour when the young Asian couple finally arrived. They had backtracked to the very start of the trail and then found their way. I enjoyed talking with them for a while, then left to let them enjoy the serenity of the scene with just the two of them.

Reflecting on my visit to False Kiva has made me feel grateful for sacred places in my life.

If you don’t mind sharing, what are some of your favorite “sacred places” (in nature, or otherwise)?


The Best Season is (Always) Now


“Remember then: there is only one time that is important–Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”
— Leo Tolstoy

Do you find yourself looking forward to a particular season of the year? For landscape photographers, autumn’s kaleidoscope of color is pretty hard to beat. As my kids are heading back to school this week, I started thinking about the great photographic opportunities I’d like to pursue this fall. Zion National Park (pictured above) is always high on my list. I’m also committed to capturing more of the autumn color in Utah’s high country this year. And, I scored an online lottery permit to visit “The Wave” (Coyote Buttes, Northern AZ) in October(!).

By nature I’m a very future-oriented kind of guy. I’m really good (gold-medal Olympian good) at setting goals. Not as good at achieving them. My whiteboard at work mocks me daily as the unfinished projects and as-yet unattained goals stare down at me in disapproval. This strong “future bias” has worked its way into my photography, sometimes in unhelpful ways. For example, spending too much time thinking how great my photography will be when I get that dream lens (maybe the sweet Canon 24mm L tilt-shift lens?!), or when I own a $900 Gitzo tripod, or after I’ve purchased all the Guy Tal ebooks on photography, or…. (I could go on for a while).

We’re probably each vulnerable to different forms of the “I’ll be happy when…” trap. Maybe it’s: when I get that raise, or when we get a new house, or when I get my teeth whitened, or after my boss retires, or after I retire. For some, the issue is more one of dwelling unhealthily in the past: revisiting disappointments, second-guessing choices, suffering from the abuses of others. Much of the work done in my business of clinical psychology is about helping people develop a healthier orientation to the past and/or the future.

Recently (in the past year, particularly), I’ve been focusing a lot more on savoring the present moment. I still work hard toward my goals and still let the past inform my current decisions and actions, but being fully present and engaged in this moment has made a big difference. One of the men I admire most in this world, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, explained it this way:

“The happiest people I know are not those who find their golden ticket; they are those who, while in pursuit of worthy goals, discover and treasure the beauty and sweetness of the everyday moments.”

It’s made a big difference practicing this kind of present-moment awareness on a regular basis. Savoring the infectious giggling of my 4-year-old daughter as I tickle her, appreciating that I have a healthy body that can climb mountains with relative ease, watching my wife while she’s not looking and seeing that she’s more beautiful than ever, studying with fascination the veins on a leaf, feeling thankful for air conditioning while my car is stuck in traffic, recognizing that my current camera gear is much better than I deserve…. Even during the inevitable mundane and difficult tasks that are part of life it’s possible to “make room” for the distress or discomfort, “connect” with the moment, and move forward, acting in the present in ways that benefit the future. Someone who has cultivated the habit of making the most of every “now” can look back on a past of great moments lived, and has ensured the best possible future for themselves.

I’m still looking forward to the great photographic opportunities this fall, but as far as life goes, my favorite season is always NOW.


P.S. Resources along these lines I’ve found helpful in the past year:

The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

Living in the Now by Gina Lake

Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zin

And one more quote for good measure:

“Present-moment living, getting in touch with your ‘now,’ is at the heart of effective living. When you think about it, there really is no other moment you can live. Now is all there is, and the future is just another present moment to live when it arrives. One thing is certain, you cannot live it until it does appear.”
— Wayne Dyer