One moment I was in the middle of a since-forgotten dream. The next, it was all crickets.
Chirping crickets is sound that I have my trusty iPhone alarm clock wake me with. Following careful consideration, it seems to be the least awful of the provided noise choices to use as an alarm.
It was 1:40 a.m. and time to perform a task that I would consider highly unnatural. That being to get myself up, out from under my warm comfy blankets, leave my sleeping fiance behind, and get dressed in order to venture out into the cold black of the night, just so that I could photograph the night sky complete with Milky Way.
Such is life for astrophotographers. As fun and addictive as it can be, it still hurts each time.
As I stumbled down the stairs desperately trying to get a pot of coffee going, I checked my phone for any messages. I was heading out on this night with two compadres, and I suppose that I honestly was hoping for a cancellation text or two. I don’t operate well at 2 a.m. having very strong beliefs that no one should be awake at such an hour, much less trying to accomplish something and being awake at the same time.
There it was!!! A text from Dan (from earlier the night before) indicating that after a few beers his “ambition was waning.” I could almost feel my head hitting the pillow and excitement was spilling over with the thought that we might pull the proverbial plug.
“We doing this, or no,” I ask.
“Might as well, I’m up,” Dan replies.
“I’m cool either way,” I lie.
I was hoping he’d give in, too. Neither of us considering at all that the third member of our (socially distant) group was already waiting for us at the Shell station where we were set to meet up.
Our planned shot for this dark sky evening was to the old Arizona ghost town Twin Arrows.
The trading post, or what is left of it, sits on an old crumbled up portion of Route 66, roughly 20 miles east of the city of Flagstaff. Opened in the late 1940s, the post included a gas station, gift shop, and a diner. Its iconic wooden arrows were built shortly after and planted in the parking lot so as to lure motorists.
With the arrival of nearby Interstate 40, motorists were moved passed the post with no time to consider a stop, and Twin Arrows quickly declined, closing for good in 1995. A common fate handed down upon many kitschy roadside Route 66 establishments.
The giant arrows still stand, however, in addition to a couple other broken down, long-forgotten structures. The spot has become a target for graffiti artists, vandals, and gapers like us, as it garnered some considerable fame from Hollywood. This was the spot where Forrest Gump “invented” the ‘Smiley Face’ t-shirt as he ran across America. The arrows are visible in the Oscar-winning film.
But, we were here on business. The business of astrophotography!
Our location was carefully planned and on a thoughtfully selected night. Did I mention it was 2:30 a.m.? That was on purpose, too. We wanted the sky to be as clear and dark as possible, with no moon, and at the time of night when the Milky Way would be where we wanted it. Check, check, check.
We arrived at our spot and everything was quite nice with the exception of that really busy interstate 40 right behind us. Interesting, I thought, that the same interstate that brought to rubble the location we were shooting appeared as if it might do the same to our shoot.
On a side note, the truck traffic on this night struck me as a testament to the backbone of our country. That backbone runs at night, and is seemingly alive and well out there on the dark interstate 40, which spans from Barstow, California to Wilmington, North Carolina. We were at this location for a bit over an hour and had at least 60 semi-trucks pass by as they made their way to unknown locations, with unknown goods. All at three o’clock in the morning. A time that no one should be awake, much less trying to do accomplish something while being awake at the same time. I digress. In the end, if the trucks were anything they were helpful as their headlights painted our foreground elements nicely.
Cameras set up on tripods. Headlamps darkened. Focus found. ISO 2000 (to start). Aperture f/2.8. Compositions put together to the best of our ability in the dark. Test shots fired. Images checked. Its a go!
All in all, we had a great time, and feel as though it was a decently successful outing. Would we have liked to have had less in the way of light pollution? Sure. But Twin Arrows had been calling, so we answered.
Upon getting home at roughly 4:30 a.m., I went straight for that pillow and the warmth of my blankets. Checking and editing my images could wait.
A few hours later I woke up feeling pretty refreshed and was ready to plug that memory card into the computer and open Lightroom.
Following some light edits, the first image went up on Instagram because… well because that is what you do in the year 2020, isn’t it? That’s what the “cool kids” are doing, anyway.
For those willing, there is always something to learn each time we venture out with our cameras. Whether that is a new technique, some sort of setting adjustment, or whatever the case may be. This time, for me, I learned that you should always say ‘yes.’ When you have the chance, and good friends to join you, get out of bed. You’ll regret not going a whole lot more than you’ll ever regret saying ‘yes’ to photography.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.