Originally published March 7, 2016 – I wake without the alarm, eyes suddenly wide open.
I turn to look at the clock. It’s 4:34 a.m.
Time to go.
15 minutes later, I’m out the door of the hotel. The pre-dawn air is cold and crisp. The nearly-full moon shines down from a clear sky.
I climb behind the wheel of my rented 4Runner and fire the ignition.
I turn right out of the drive, heading away from civilization. In a few miles, I’ve left it all behind.
My headlights carve a bright tunnel, and I chase them, accelerating along the familiar path.
I look down at the speedometer: 80 MPH.
Seems about right; I’ve got to get there in time.
I see the turn coming up, and slow. I make the 90-degree left, and leave familiarity behind.
I speed across the deserted landscape. Miles roll under my wheels.
I have yet to see another vehicle.
I sense, rather than see, the cliff walls rise around me. I feel them close in, narrowing the path.
I check the time: 5:17.
I drive faster. It won’t wait for me, and today’s my last chance.
I pass a sign indicating I’m nearing my destination. My pulse quickens, and I run through the routine in my mind, preparing for the shot.
The road begins to rise, and I slow, navigating the unknown switchback turns. While I cannot see them, I know dangerous drops lurk nearby.
The 4Runner is responsive, matching the hairpins smoothly.
I keep driving, passing signs marking altitude – 4,000 ft.
6,000 ft. Still the road rises.
Another series of switchbacks.
I’m rushing now, pushing the SUV harder, using both lanes of the road. It doesn’t matter; I’m all alone. The seat shifts beneath me, as I fight through the turns, racing ever closer.
My breathing quickens, from altitude and excitement.
5:32. Almost there–hurry!
I see the sign, and turn sharply into the lot. I see two other vehicles; I know why they’re here.
I park, slam the shift into park.
Opening the tailgate, I grab my gear. It’s awkward, but I don it quickly.
I have to be quiet.
I have to be quick. There’s no time left.
I leave the vehicle locked, and stride toward my goal, flicking on my headlamp.
I’ve never walked this trail before, so I move carefully, picking out the markers. The trail is packed sand and slickrock.
I move with almost no sound, approaching my mark.
As I descend along the trail, I become aware of faint voices. I slow my pace, steady my breathing.
For the first time, I notice the cold. It’s 24 degrees, and my light jacket offers little protection.
I take the last few steps, and I’m there.
I quietly set up. My hands are numb from the cold, and ordinary tasks are awkward. I fumble with the clips and fasteners.
I adjust the settings, and check my position. Pre-dawn light begins to pale the eastern sky.
I’ve been planning this for four months.
I’ve driven hundreds of miles to get to this precise spot.
And as the sun rises in the east, I exhale, hold my breath, and take the shot.
Mesa Arch, sunrise, at Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah.