December 17, 2012
I awoke after just four hours sleep, much like I had through an endless stream of nights for weeks before. There was something different this time, though. This time the alarm didn’t have a chance to sound. This time I was up without grumbling or hesitation. This time, Badlands National Park waited just ten minutes to the south and the sun was merely an hour from breaking the horizon. This time I rose out of passion, not obligation.
I checked my phone and the morning temperature read eleven degrees. I rifled through a duffel bag, looking for the perfect combination of clothes to layer for warmth; a bit frustrated that the selection process wasn’t as intuitive as it used to be. It’s been a little while since I’ve been out in sub-freezing temperatures, and longer yet since I’ve given much consideration to layering. I was more than ready to change that as I stepped out into a frozen South Dakota morning.
The Badlands are somewhat familiar to me; as familiar as a place twelve hours from anywhere I’ve ever called home can be. While I’ve never spent more than a night there at a time, the park sits at about the midway point between Tipton and Whitefish. I’ve stopped frequently in passing. Driving down the empty two lane blacktop toward the park entrance I noted an impending glow in my peripheral on the eastern horizon, and scraped my memory bank for a place to set up. I passed the park gate, a site of delayed anticipation where motorists wait in line to pay entrance fees on busy summer afternoons but was now little more than a pair of flashing lights and a vacant frosted over shack.
Within the park boundaries I hesitated at each pullout. Was this the spot I was thinking of, or was it a bit further down the road? I stopped several times, then drove on, only to turn around and check again. Jumping out of the car I scoped the darkened landscape, searching for the perfect rock spire to silhouette against what I hoped would be a spectacular dawn. I pictured a sky streaked with magnificent purples, red and gold and a composition that showcased the Badlands, jagged and jet-black, stretching to meet the sun on the horizon. Several times I hurried out, crunching through ankle deep snow, zigzagging back and forth only to second guess and race back to the car. I knew I was losing the race, but even as the first sliver of light broke the horizon indecision left me chasing my tail.
In reality, the scene I had envisioned never came to be. The sun rose as a yellow orb in a cold emotionless sky. I waited, focused intently on the east trying to will some sense of the dramatic. I snapped a few shots but was left unsatisfied. Stopping myself just short of frustration, however, I came to terms with the moment. Was I really foolish enough to feel entitled to a “better” sunrise? Of course not. I took a breath, stopped shooting, and began to look around. For the first time I realized how absolutely silent the morning was. Even back home on the farm it wasn’t this quiet. Even there, if you listen closely, you can pick out the sound of a grain dryer, or a dog barking, or the dull rumble of a distant train passing in the dead of night. But here, there wasn’t any of this. Just complete silence as I stood motionless; watching my breath escape with a timid exhale. The sunlight continued to strengthen, adding subtle definition to the shadowed earth then painting the ridgelines aglow. Trading discontent for awe I quickly forgot my expectations, and marveled at the beauty all around.
The skyscape I’d envisioned wasn’t born entirely of my imagination. Several years ago when my cousin Gabe and I were heading back to Big Sky Country for the winter we stopped and camped in the Badlands. That evening we went for a hike and were scrambling around on the rocks when a sunset developed like few I have ever seen. Colors like I have never seen. It was a special moment that I will never forget, simply a magical sight. At the time all I had was a cheap point and shoot film camera, and without the skill or equipment I came nowhere near capturing an image that could serve the moment justice. And honestly, even now I still couldn’t. Nature’s grandeur can never really be duplicated, and now that memory has been enhanced with emotion and time. Just the same, (other tangents aside) that night set the bar, creating a definitive Badlands scene in my mind. In it I saw immense photographic potential, and I’ve been stopping in hopes of an encore ever since.
But things rarely work out that way. Maybe that was a once in a lifetime occurrence, maybe dawns and dusks in the Badlands bring shows like that every time I’m not there. Regardless, this morning served a good reminder. As photographers, or nature lovers in general, we really need to avoid getting caught up in expectations. Every moment spent outdoors brings something special, but you have to be open to what is given you. Develop tunnel vision and you’re bound to miss something truly remarkable. I knew this. I’ve known it for a long time. But somewhere in the excitement of finally being able to get out and shoot again I let those lessons get away from me, lost my patience for a spell.
All part of shaking off the rust.
Once I regained my composure things got better. I allowed myself to become absorbed in my surroundings and enjoyed my time in the park. These shots I ended up with won’t win any prizes, but they wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t taken the time to stop and look around. And while I would have loved to have spent the day the Badlands, once the sun was up I had to move on. Cris was waiting for me back at the motel, and Montana would be in our sights in just a few hours more.