Photographing Palouse Falls at night, a second-person essay

Your phone’s alarm clock jolts you awake. Your back aches, but you finally slept well for about an hour and a half, anyway.

You sit up, turn the alarm off, and put the phone in your right cargo pocket of your pants. It’s dark and finally quiet, save for the gusting winds gently rocking your car. Your mind clears, and your heart rate jumps. It’s time to shoot the stars.

You pick up your wallet and put it in your back pocket; your flashlight goes in your left cargo pocket; your keys go in your right-front zipper pocket; your headlamp goes around your neck. Everything’s organized, sequenced; you’ve done this routine dozens of time and can do it with your eyes half closed, in the dark. You open the car’s back door to put on your shoes and step out into the gravel parking lot. Cold air rushes in, defogging the windows. The dome light on your car doesn’t come on–you turned it off a couple of years ago to help save your night vision.

Upward, the sky’s filled end to end with gleaming stars. You take a brief second to admire them, and refocus. You put on your long-sleeve shirt. You pick up your trusty 15-year-old wool sweater that you were using as a pillow and put that on too. You throw on your jacket, which has your shutter release in the right pocket, gloves thin enough to work your camera’s controls in the left pocket. You put on your neck gaiter and stocking hat and slide your headlamp up from around your neck onto your head, over the stocking hat. The headlamp’s still off–you’re still trying to save your night vision, always trying to work in the dark as much as possible.

You grab your backpack and tripod, close the back door of the car, and beep it locked with a twinge of guilt at possibly disturbing campers who were keeping you awake just a few hours earlier.

You start hiking. Quickly the terrain goes from safe and well-traveled to right along the edge of a gaping canyon. Below you–maybe 100 feet–is a 200-foot waterfall flowing at its spring rate–a high volume. The waterfall’s roar blots out every other noise in the night. The white noise of waterfalls and wind occupies nearly all of your senses; your eyes see only basic shapes in the blue-black geography around you land and pinhole lights in the sky. Cold creeps into your body at your extremities.

You can feel a small rumble beneath your feet. You set your tripod down, and as you release your grip you can feel it humming. You inch closer to the edge of the cliff, thinking about the crumbling piles of basalt several hundred feet below. You wonder about how long ago they fell. Two thousand years? One hundred fifty years? Five years? News reports of recent earthquakes in southern California and Mt Hood flash into your brain. You wonder how long the rock below your feet would stay put if the earth started to shake.

You look through your eyepiece; because you’re shooting with a wide lens, the edge of the cliff is in the bottom of your frame. You need to move closer. You turn on your headlamp (there goes your night vision, but you’re not going to risk getting any closer in the darkness), double-check the edge of the cliff again, take a deep breath, and move your tripod as close to the edge as possible. Holding onto your tripod with your left hand so that it doesn’t fall off the cliff, you carefully check the bubble level to make sure its level.

You turn your head lamp off and vow to not take a single step–certainly not a step forward, but also not to the left or directly behind you, where the ground falls away to a large crack, and then, of course, a long tumble.

You aren’t prone to vertigo, but your head swims in the pitch darkness. You can’t escape the feeling that you’re floating in space. The ground is a flat, detail-less black. You renew your vow not to take a single step, to keep your feet planted exactly where they are. Don’t… move…

You line up the shot–your eyes have adjusted, thankfully, and you can just barely differentiate the deep black of the canyon from the not-quite-as-deep black of the horizon.

You trip the shutter, in the dark, alone, and start counting along with the timer…one…two…three…

 

The Milky Way shines brightly over Palouse Falls in eastern Washington

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .