Hunting for a Moment

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.

5,000 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.

I wait.

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.

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