The campsite hums with snoring and the rustling of sleeping bags. My footsteps crunch across the gravel, loud as burglar alarms, and when I reach the empty blacktop I’m quiet as a thief. The grey and white land in front of me is blank, hushed by the stillness that signals the coming of a new sun in the Badlands.
The light loom on the horizon is walled out by an escarpment of eroded land, standing silhouette, making a miniature Himalayas in the dry air of South Dakota. Sharp peaks, smooth contours and alien crooks, sharpened by the rising sun. This is going to be spectacular, I think, and flick my camera on.
I leave the road and push into the cracked contours, praying the rattlesnakes are all in their burrows, huddled in the earth to keep warm as the early morning dew drapes this land without echoes.
I find the perfect spot and sit down to wait. My mission is to capture the triumph of the sun bursting clear of those jagged Badlands peaks – a prehistoric image in an ancient land. I’m surrounded by millions of years of geological movement, land made and unmade over and over, creating wing tips of arid sculpture on the green prairies roamed by Native Americans and settlers. The sun will illuminate it all with that golden hour light, and it will be all mine, alone.
The sun’s getting higher, brighter, closer to breaking free of the peaks. I’m in a flap. My spot’s wrong, too close to get a good picture. I stand up, brush the dust from my trousers and lope across the flat land to a stubby little hill covered in tufts of stubborn grass. A lone power line tree stands at the summit, its wires sagging down then up to the next tower like a ski lift. This’ll be better, I guess, and set my gear down for the picture.
No. I’m too far away. And the sun’s coming now. Bugger! I run back to the spot I was before and stop half way – a good compromise. And there it is, the sun busts from the black peaks, an orange line that grows to a crescent, a semi-circle, an orb, higher and higher, a fast ascent in parallax to the fixed ground. I track the light in my viewfinder and hit record, capturing the moment – but somehow missing it.
I get back to the wide-awake campsite where Carmen’s brewed coffee and the grey nomads surrounding our tent are cooking up big breakfasts on hotplates built into the sides of their Winnebagos. “Was it worth it?,” she asks, yawning and stretching.
I wish I could have said yes. I got the shots. But I feel like I missed the show.
A few weeks later we’re in Monument Valley in Utah where five square miles of vivid red buttes create the signature look of the American West. On the first morning I wake in blackness and hustle Carmen out of the car for the sunrise. “Bringing your camera?” she asks.
I leave it behind. Some things are better simply experienced, not captured.
Then again. “Maybe bring yours. Just in case…”