Goblin Valley, Utah

The trip starts with detailed planning. First, Utah has the darkest skies in the entire US. That is where you want to go. Next involves software. You have to pick a night with a new moon, and where the moon sets after sunset. There are only certain days of the month where that happens. And there are only certain times of the year when you see the core of the Milky Way in all its glory. Then you plan your trip, and hope for clear skies.

I flew into Salt Lake City and rented a car. You have to have satellite radio, because there are no radio stations where I was going.

Salt Lake City is large and spread out. It is like any other modern US city. You notice the suburbs and the thinning developments as you progress. The scenery is stark and beautiful. Even the cars become sparse. You do see lots of RVs with determined looking elderly husbands driving, with their wives sitting next to them.

As you progress things become more and more sparse. They actually have a research facility where they practice living on Mars. Seriously.

As you head further down you see an ominous sign: “No services for next 100 miles.” They mean it. No fuel. No water. No cell phone service if you break down. No radio stations. Nothing. You feel the separation from society. The scenery is desolate, but somehow inviting.

Eventually a town pops up. Hanksville. That was my base of operations for this trip. The area is famous for being the stomping grounds for Butch Cassidy and his gang.

As you enter the town there is a welcome sign. Behind it is a run-down mobile home with some horses and a broken-down pickup truck. One of the rocks in the background looks like a phallus. The main historic feature of this tiny town is that it has water.

I headed out during the daytime to explore my target area. Goblin Valley state park. I was surprised to see a very modern facility with a well-maintained parking lot. Below it was the ancient beach that had eroded into the eerie shapes of the “goblins.” More disturbing were the scattered tourists with kids walking around the odd shapes. Was this really what I came all this way to photograph? I went back to my motel and waited to return before sundown.

I return as the tourists were leaving. For them, there was nothing to see after sundown. I gathered my gear and carefully set up. From the technical side this was my first experience in night time photography. All settings are manual. 20 second exposure. No more or you will get star streaks. ISO 3200. You rely on the technology to bring light from darkness. The wide-angle lens was previously tested to focus at infinity and was taped in place so it wouldn’t move. You can’t focus in the dark. These new cameras are what allows you to get the photos that just a few years before no one could see without a professional telescope that tracked the movement of the stars. All you had to do was get in the right place at the right time and the equipment would take care of everything. All I had to do was wait. Easy.

As I waited for the sun to set, I checked my gear. Fear came over me as I realized that in the total darkness I might not be able to find my way back to the car. I started tracing over the path back, looking for landmarks that I could spot with my headlamp.

The sun set and I waited for the first stars to come out. There were a few clouds on the horizon, but I hoped that I could pull off the shot.

I looked around. I was alone. I had the entire place to myself. There was a campground nearby and all the families retreated with their children. No one wanted to see rocks in the dark. I was elated. I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted – just so long as I could find my way back to the car. The fear of being lost in the dark arose again.

It took almost an hour after sunset for it to get dark enough to see the stars in full. I had plotted where the core of the Milky Way should be from the software. This is the shot that everyone on the internet wants. I brought a compass and I knew exactly where it should be at this time. But it wasn’t there. I had gotten it all wrong. I had somehow messed up. The whole trip was for nothing.

I looked down at my shoes. It was so dark that I couldn’t see them. I had never experienced that before.

I looked around. I could see nothing but the stars above me. There were so many of them. More than I had ever seen in my life. I recalled going over Snoqualmie Pass at night with friends when I was a teenager. We pulled over, and it was the first time I had ever really seen the stars. I remembered that. But there more stars here. So much more. But where was the core of the Milky Way? I couldn’t see it.

I was here, and my camera was here, so I decided to get the best pictures I could, even if I had messed the whole thing up.

I pushed the shutter release. It was set for a 10 second delay. You had to, because the slightest movement of your finger on the camera would ruin the whole picture. I lost track of the countdown. Then the shutter opened. I waited the 20 seconds and heard the shutter close. My heart was beating. I don’t know why. Anticipation, I guess. I pushed the button to review the photo. And there, revealed on the back screen of the camera, was the core of the Milky Way in all of its glory. I hadn’t missed it. It was just something that a human being couldn’t experience with the naked eye. It took the combination of planning and technology to see what no human could see. The hidden expanse that was there for everyone, if only you had the technology to see it.

My heart was pounding again. I was elated. I had done it. All of the planning, and the expense, and I had done it.

Over the next hour, or so, I moved around and looked for better shots. One of the tricks I had learned on the internet was light painting. You take a low powered LED flashlight and you cover it with an amber film, otherwise the pictures will be too bright and harsh. And then, during the 20 seconds the shutter is open, you literally paint the objects in your photo so that the foreground lights up. It took practice, but I got better at it as the night went on.

As the evening progressed, I saw satellites in the sky. I also saw the flashes of planes in the distance. Here I was, literally in the darkest skies in the country, and still, I could not get away from civilization. It was there in the distance. You could never get away from it.

As I wrapped up the photo session I stopped and looked around without the aid of the equipment. Even though I couldn’t see what the camera saw, it was overwhelming. More stars than I knew existed. I looked from horizon to horizon. Even with a wide-angle lens, the camera only took in a sliver. With the naked eye you could see more, but you still could not take it all in. I looked from horizon to horizon. The vastness of it all was overwhelming. Here I was, in some ancient seabed, feeling like a tiny little insignificant dot. The light of 100 billion stars in the milky way and 100 billion galaxies shown down on me. It was too much to take in. A passing thought crossed my mind that there had to be some significance. There had to be some meaning. But there was no inspiration. Just isolation and darkness.

I turned on my headlamp and my world shrunk to the area of the light. I packed up my gear and hoped to find my way back. It suddenly occurred to me I might be able to use my car clicker to find the car in the distance. Sure enough, the signal went through and the car flashed at me. So much for worrying about finding my way back. Technology had intervened to provide me a flashing beacon. The walk back to the car was easy.

As I packed up my gear I turned and looked back. I felt that I was missing something. Should I linger longer? I took a last look at the stars I had only seen once before in my life as a teenager. I didn’t want to go, but I had accomplished everything I had planned to do. I got in my car and turned it on. The headlights blotted out the stars. Even out here, modern technology was contriving to deprive me of the vision the starry sky. But, no matter, I thought to myself. I had preserved a better version of reality in my camera. I reassured myself that the photos were the reason I came here. I drove back to my dingy motel, satisfied that I had accomplished what I had come here to do.