This weekend I took off on a solo stargazing mission to Death Valley. I had hoped that my guests would decide to come, but unfortunately this didn’t seem to appeal to them. The couch was calling and the allure of Netflix was too great to overcome. I had packed an inflatable mattress, a chair, my guitar, a traveling amp that doubles as a speaker, two blankets, a flashlight, and my Nikon D500, but it wasn’t enough. My guests decided to stay in. Reasonably so since it was steadily creeping closer to midnight and Death Valley, California is roughly two hours drive from Summerlin, Nevada. They shuddered at the 6-hour estimate I gave for the total trip. I would not be deterred though. The conditions were clear and the moon was setting at 2am, which meant the heavens would open for roughly two and a half hours in all their glory. This wasn’t the first time I have had a whimsical last-minute adventure and it won’t be the last, but my guests were horrified. Much to their chagrin, I bid them farewell and threw the last of my supplies into my shoulder bag. When I left they were eyeing me with fearful concern for my sanity. Fuck it, I thought, as I connected to the Bluetooth and turned on the “Sepia Toned Tunes” playlist in my iTunes. Some people just don’t understand what ‘me’ time is all about. A playlist carefully curated and uniquely qualified for long, quiet car rides. The melancholy voices of Nancy Sinatra and Nico filled the car like warm water as the lights of Vegas dimmed in the rearview mirror.
It was a terrific ride. The quarter moon glowed in the sky like an incandescent sugar cookie someone had taken an overzealous bite out of. It kept getting oranger and oranger as it slumped behind the purple desert horizon. Finally, there was nothing left except for the open road and me. I rolled down the window and stuck my head into the wind to see the sky. Yup. Diamonds of all shapes and sizes and colors.
The highway narrowed and after about an hour I was the only one on the road, which was either incredibly well maintained or incredibly underused. I’m leaning towards the ladder. This may come as a great shock to some, but there isn’t a whole lot of civilization in Nevada once you leave Las Vegas. I passed a large brightly lit complex that was a correctional facility at one point. Could the prisoners see the stars? Then there was an Air Force base in a town called Indian Springs. Other than that I barely even passed a gas station before I hit the state border. Once I crossed over the scene became even more rural and the road undulated up and down as if I was rolling along the back of a great mythical snake with a yellow stripe down its back.
The original ‘plan’ was to go to the Harmony Borax Works to do some photography of the structures and stars, but as luck would have it, there was a sign on the side of the road that said Dante’s Peak: Closed for Construction, so obviously I went there instead. It was late in the game to start improvising and the thought did cross my mind that it might be closed due to something dangerous. Wondering how this was going to turn out, I pulled up to a gate and parked the car in the dirt. As soon as I stepped outside darkness swallowed the world. I fumbled around in the trunk until I could get my hands on the flashlight. It was dark. Really dark. I slowly scanned what I could of the scenery with the flashlight. There were large mountains and dunes that blocked out a large portion of the sky. This meant I had climb if I wanted to get the full experience. So climb I did. One hour of scaling the steep incline and I finally reached a promontory. The sandy slope was constantly shifting under my feet and I was carrying far more random shit on my back than was absolutely necessary. Once I did reach the top though, the view was exalted. I triumphantly snapped open my folding chair and turned on some music. If anyone was wondering, Nancy Sinatra sounds as good on top of a mountain as she does on the Burmester sound system in an S-Class. My eyes adjusted and, like a gentle acid come up, the stars crept closer and closer until they were dancing before the tip of my nose.
Since waking up is the most difficult part of my day, night photography has been a huge part of my ‘portfolio’, but this was the first time I had shot the stars before. There are a couple of things that I learned, which prepared me a little bit, such as, using the lowest ISO possible (this reduces the grain the shadows sections), using the lowest shutter speed possible (a few 3-5-10 seconds seemed to be ok, but I have been warned that the stars actually move a lot faster than we notice and a long shutter will show this) and shooting with the timer setting (this will make sure that the camera moves as little as possible when the shutter is released). Now I know that forgetting your tripod is pretty common, but it was just flat out stupid considering I remembered to bring a fucking inflatable mattress and a carton of La Croix. I wound up lying on the ground and balancing the camera on various rocks. It’s a good thing it was dark because I looked like an idiot. Luckily the Nikon D500 has an adjustable LCD screen on the back, which can be angled up and down or my face would have been in the dirt.
I took probably 150 photographs over the course of an hour or two. For those of you interested in taking some photos of your own I will throw in a bit of info about getting the settings right. It took me a while to dial in the settings and I kept having to check the playback for noise in the shadows. To make sure I would just find a dark patch in the photo and zoom in as much as I could because you really can’t figure out what the hell is going on with the tiny LCD screen. Stick to the histogram if you want to know if you are doing things correctly and keep adjusting until you find something that works. In the end it really comes down to just getting better. Try and learn something new every time you pick up the camera.
I don’t remember the ride home to be honest. Some part of me is still sitting on that mountain smoking camel crush menthols and laughing underneath the endless night stars. As of now, I’m not sure which part that is, but I will let you know when I go back to find out.