Thanksgiving weekend 2013. I didn’t really have anyone to celebrate with, so I made plans to hit Trona and then Death Valley for a weekend of camping and photography.
Having made several trips to the Trona Pinnacles already and getting less than ideal conditions or just blowing the shot, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it, or waking up at 1am to make the drive there before sunrise. While I’d normally be in a panic to get out the door as soon as possible, this time I hit the snooze button at least a couple of times, didn’t get out of bed till my girlfriend called from the Philippines, took my sweet time in the shower, and didn’t really feel the need to rush while packing my camping gear (which I should’ve packed the night before). The forecast called for heavy clouds and thunderstorms, but if it was like any of the other times I’d been there, I’d just get thick clouds and the sun would get socked in at the horizon. I didn’t hit the road till past 2.
Fast forward 3 hours later, and I’m going as fast as I can without flying off the road, keeping my eyes on the sky, and watching the distance on my GPS dwindle down way too slow. It was still about an hour before sunrise, but the sky was already catching strong hints of red in the distance. I already knew what a big mistake I had made. I was going to make it for sunrise, but by then it would be too late. Seeing how the color was evolving, I knew I had to be there at least 30 minutes before the sun peaked. That wasn’t going to happen.
By the time I turned off the highway and onto the 5-mile dirt road, the ground was already reflecting color. The sky had turned from dark grey to reddish-magenta, and then to an intense crimson red in mere minutes. I couldn’t believe my eyes as the landscape was slowly enveloped in a soft pink glow. Pink! It was unreal! It was mesmerizing to the point that I didn’t realize I was driving 50mph on a rugged dirt road. As the road curved, the vehicle began skidding on the loose rock. Surprised, I eased my foot off the gas and accepted the fact that I was about to miss the most insane sunrise I’d seen all year. The light was still going off as I entered the main section of the Pinnacles, but it would still be at least 5 minutes of slow crawling before getting to the formations I wanted to shoot. There was a guy in the distance with a tripod, and I just had to smile. Yup… that guy knows what time it is. I felt so stupid. At that moment, I was the worst landscape photographer on the planet. After making my way across a couple of dry washes, I drove passed him. We exchanged greetings, and I hurriedly drove to some comps I’d previously shot. I had missed the best of it, but I figured I’d at least try to salvage whatever was left. The skies above me had already mostly faded, but there was still some light in the distance, so I grabbed a 70-200mm to compress the distant sky into the scene. Shot for about 5 minutes and I was done.
The gentleman with the tripod approached a few minutes later, and I came to find out it was Marc Briggs. We decided to grab breakfast in Olancha, and later that day, I met up again with him and Jean Day in Death Valley. They ended up adopting me for the holiday weekend, and they showed me what the true meaning of Thanksgiving was. I had the greatest time in the desert hanging out with them, and whatever disappointment I had at Trona was quickly forgotten, along with the photos, which I really didn’t take a look at again until just a few days ago. Seven months was all it took for me to appreciate that I’d managed to capture some decent light that morning.
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