Recently I made my annual springtime pilgrimage to Palouse Falls State Park to enjoy the solitude of the night sky and the wild roar of the waterfall. I told the gas station attendant in Ritzville where I was going. It was 10 p.m. and he was intrigued.
He asked if I was going the next day and I clarified that I was going that night because I am a night photographer.
He gave me a nod and a knowing glance, as though I’d used a special code indicating my plans to eat psychedelic mushrooms and dance on basalt pillars. He told me about a guy who fell off the falls and how he helped fish his body out of the water. I guess maybe that guy also was a “night photographer” who did a little too much “photography” that particular night.
I took his warning to heart and headed on my way.
When I arrived at 11 p.m., I noticed the Aurora Borealis was hovering on the northern horizon. I headed to the observation deck and for the next three hours I took long exposures and waited for the galactic core of the Milky Way to rise over the SE horizon.
As the night wore on, the northern lights faded and I grew restless. I remembered my rule of never going back to the same place where photographic “magic” had happened before, which is why I almost didn’t go to the park at all that night. The falls had already given me an amazing offering of beauty from that same spot the previous year. It felt a little greedy to ask for more, but I also know that Palouse Falls is especially generous.
By 3 a.m. I thought about packing up and heading home, but I wondered what the Milky Way would look like from the west side of the canyon. I worked my way around the rim, taking a series of exposures, one of 25 seconds for the sky and another of 10 minutes for the landscape.
The galactic core was impressive and I was able to get it in the frame with the falls.
When I arrived at the iconic spot from which 90 percent of Palouse Falls photos are made – the spot where so many photographers have camped out that there are three indentations in the basalt rock from the feet of the tripods – I could finally see what my artistic muse had been prodding me toward. Before me, the falls and the Milky Way Galaxy were both descending to earth at the same angle, a celestial and terrestrial convergence of epic proportions.
I quickly snapped a shorter exposure for the sky, then opened the shutter for the landscape, and left my camera to gather up light from the pitch darkness of the canyon below.
I lay down on the ground and looked up to the sky and waited. I felt a small, steady rumbling in my back, the vibration of the earth from the powerful impact of the falls. It’s a tiny continuous earthquake in the heart of the Palouse.
As I soaked in the beauty of the stars, a bright object appeared in view, almost certainly the International Space Station, careening through the sky at a steady and purposeful 17,150 mph.
We dream about what it would be like to be them, looking down on earth from space. What an amazing sight that would be. But in that moment for me, looking up at them was the dream as I took in the mystery and miracle of the solar system from earth.
This amazing sight was just a short drive from home, with no need for rocket boosters or billions of dollars, just a 1998 Subaru Forester and a $30 Discover Pass to visit Washington’s State Parks.
After five hours of taking pictures I closed the shutter on my camera for the last time and walked back to my car, hopeful that my last picture might be my best. In retrospect I think it was, not only for the picture but also for the process that got me there.
I stopped by that same gas station in Ritzville to fuel up on coffee and junk food for the trip home. My friend’s shift had ended. I imagine if he had been there he would have asked me how things went. I would have confided:
“That ‘night photography’ is good stuff man. You wouldn’t believe what I saw out there. It was a total trip. It was like the earth was spinning, and there were these vibrant colors dancing on the horizon, and I stood on the edge of the cliff and it was like there was an abyss that went on forever below me, and there was this constant roaring in my ears. … It was intense, like really intense. You know what I mean?”
He would give me another knowing glance and a nod as I got on my way, knowing that every word was true.
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