“What the hell’s going on!?” comes a voice behind a very bright spotlight.
“Just looking for a place to camp,” I reply to the light. That seemed easier to explain than “Yes I know it’s late on a stormy night, in the middle of nowhere, but I’m a photographer looking for a place to camp in my truck while I take pictures of lightning and I had no idea anyone was up here.
“This ain’t no place to camp!” the light replies.
Well, technically, yes it is. It’s National Forest land, but I have no interest in pushing the point or disturbing these people, so I turn my truck around and head back down the road, being jacklighted the entire time.
I’ve never been to the east side of Mt. Shasta, so I’m driving backroads on speculation, looking for a high, clear point to photograph lightning and hopefully the mountain. My late start from home five hours ago means it was dark by the time I ended up out here exploring the dirt roads of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. I have cached satellite images on my phone and a regional road map. On the satellite view, it looks much more wide open than the dense forest cover and frustratingly short sight lines that I’m encountering.
Photographing lightning requires an open vista and some distance. Being too close to the storm itself is not only dangerous, but likely means being in the rain that generally accompanies electrical storms, making photography impossible. Flashes regularly light up the sky from one direction or another as cells move through the region, but there is nowhere to get out of the trees. Conceding defeat and crawling into the back of the truck to sleep starts looking better by the minute when I hit an intersection with a weathered sign pointing to the Little Mt. Hoffman fire lookout. Perfect! It hadn’t shown up on the online map. One more reason to have detailed paper maps always on hand.
Immediately past the intersection, the road climbs the small, steep cinder cone in a long spiral, eventually clearing the trees. Just short of the top, a gate blocks further passage. A laminated note from the Forest Service explains that, while it is public property, the former fire lookout building gets rented out to private parties whose privacy we should respect. I had just finished reading the note by headlamp when Spotlight Guy confronted me.
I understand him being concerned about a stranger showing up way out here. Still, no need for him to be a jerk about it. I drive partway down around the cone, out of sight and park on the flattest spot on the steep, narrow road. Unless he shows up with a gun, this is where I’ll be spending the night. Cell phone reception means I can start tracking the storms via the weather radar app again, though the frenetic flashes of lightning on the far horizon tell me everything I needed to know. The lighting is a nearly impossible set of extremes: explosive flashes of lightning and pitch-black, overcast night landscape. But it only takes a few good shots to make it all worthwhile.
Once the lightning stops and the rain begins in the wee hours, I pack my camera and crawl into my truck to sleep. While I usually sleep in the back on a big foam pad, inside the canopy, this time I sleep in the passenger seat. The tilt of the truck on the steep, narrow road means that rain hitting the back hatch drips straight into the canopy. With the passenger seat all the way back and reclined, a pillow for butt support and a foam pad to smooth it all out, it is luxury. Well, compared to pitching a tent.
* * *
Lava Beds National Monument and the region surrounding it is a great big volcanic geology theme park. The next round of lightning won’t arrive until later this afternoon, so I have the morning to explore lava tubes, cinder cones, lava flows and craters in and around the National Monument. With so little sleep last night, I’m too tired to climb to the top of obsidian covered Glass Mountain, so I got the aerial view with my drone instead.
* * *
“No… no, driving all the way over there makes no sense,” I keep telling myself. My mental affirmations do little to counter an overwhelming, if irrational, urge to get in the truck and go.
I’m up on a nice little cinder cone with an awesome view in all directions and photogenic foreground landscapes. Looking east is a small mountain range with a wildfire burning, its sickly orange plume trailing to the north. Goose Lake, which I’ve never seen, lies beyond that. I’ve been watching the existing and projected storm tracks and everything suggests right here is the place to be. But I’m fidgety. I can’t help but consult the apps, the maps and the sky in repeat succession.
You see, I have this imagined photo in my head. A chimerical fancy in a landscape I’ve never even seen: in my mind’s photographic eye, I’m looking west over the lake. The clouds are backlit in the sunset. Lightning creases the sky through the wildfire smoke.
I might have better luck finding Bigfoot.
From studying the topo maps and satellite photos, Goose Lake should have wide open vistas looking westward, especially if I can get up high, but the sunset, smoke and storm would have to line up perfectly. And the timing would have to be right. And I’d have to find an ideal spot and the rain would have to stay far enough away…
All the data and experience at hand suggests I should stay put. This is a great spot. “Besides, I’m too tired to drive an hour and a half. This place is perfect,” I think. “I will even have time for a nap,” I think.
Five minutes later and I’m in the truck headed south and east over the mountains toward Goose Lake, imagination getting the better of me. As it so often does.
* * *
“Now, Australia, that’s the last pristine continent. There are huge places there where nobody ever goes.”
The pontificator is dressed in coveralls, with mutton chop sideburns unfurling down the sides of his face and seems to be in no hurry. I hand him two $20s and a $10 over the counter.
“50 on number seven,” I say. I am in a hurry, wishing I’d gassed up in the last town last night before I left the highway.
He eventually turns to me, takes my money and goes on expounding about Australia to the only other person in the Alturas mini mart as I scurry out to pump gas. The clouds are building fast. The satellite image on my phone shows lightning already starting as the storm heads my way.
Driving up the highway along the east side of Goose Lake, I can see the strikes start. My heart races and my right foot leans on the accelerator pedal. A wide turnout overlooking the lake appears. I get out the cameras and tripods and start firing.
* * *
I’m sitting on my tailgate, legs gently swinging, absorbing the night’s strange poetry of sounds. A mosh pit of coyotes lets out a rapid-fire racket of yips and howls somewhere off to the east. I imagine them dancing in furious circles, singing along to a band only they can hear. Birds I cannot identify occasionally make strange sounds in the night. There is a very slight breeze, as if the air intends to remind me of its presence, but means no harm. The moon will set soon. Nearby, the red light on the back of my camera glows in a steady rhythm, immobile on a tripod. Every 20 seconds the shutter clicks closed and then immediately clicks open for another 20 seconds as it records the storm silently zapping its way into Oregon. I am content, enjoying time alone with the wild things tonight.
At 24 frames per second, I will need about an hour and 20 minutes of this steady clicking to make a 10 second time lapse video. It’s already after 10 PM. I slept a mere three hours last night and I have a 7-1/2 hour drive ahead of me that I would rather not do all in one push tomorrow. I have a prior commitment at home, otherwise I’d chase this fiery beast northward into the night, waiting to see who got tired first. I’m not sure waiting another 45 minutes for this time lapse to finish is worth it. As it is, when I arrive home tomorrow, I will have traveled 1,000 miles in forty-eight hours with a total of eight hours sleep. I decide on a compromise: when the moon sets, I’ll quit.
And, in truth, the photos are just a pretext: I needed the opportunity to clear my head and step back from what has been a long and difficult summer. I also needed to prove to myself that I can still do creative work and that I still have a passion for it that hasn’t been beaten out of me by all the other less satisfying things that have occupied my time lately.
A brilliant fireball of a shooting star burns silently overhead, it’s path lingering in the night sky after its fire blinked out high in the atmosphere. It crossed the sky to the southwest. My northeast-facing camera was unfortunately oblivious to it.
It is mostly quiet now. The coyote band has packed up the stage. A cow in a field somewhere lets out a low, unanswered moan. A very large and apparently curious owl pays a visit, its dark form looping low over my head before disappearing into the night with barely a swoosh of wings.
The air is chilly after the storm. I put on my hoodie and a hat, contemplating the drive home. Just when I think I should stop the time lapse another bolt brightens the northern horizon and I decide to add a few more frames before calling it a night.