New Year's Sunrise- Bryce Canyon

January 18, 2021  |  Bryce Canyon National Park

I’m rarely late for a sunrise. Well, okay… photographically speaking. Sunsets are often a different story, when obligations of a day grow long and keep you distracted until suddenly that golden hour light sneaks into your periphery and demands that you drop everything and scramble for the show. With a sunrise though I always try to get there early. To get in place while the world is yet dark and still. There’s such peace in those quiet moments of anticipation, and so often the best color comes just before the sun breaks the horizon. On this day, however, I was cutting it pretty close. I’d spent the night in Panguitch, a little town about twenty miles northwest of Bryce Canyon National Park, and thought I’d packed up that morning and left with plenty of time. The GPS on my phone chose to guide me toward a random point along the park’s border though, which had me miss the turn that leads to the actual entrance road. By the time I realized the mistake I’d gone ten miles in the wrong direction. Add the ten miles back and those quiet moments of anticipation were spent instead on curse words and labored breathing as I powered through a speed walk from the parking lot to the canyon rim.

This wasn’t just any sunrise- it was a New Year’s sunrise. The daybreak of 2021. I have a tradition of going out to photograph the first dawn of every new year. I see it as an opportunity not just to celebrate new beginnings, but also a chance to greet the transition in a personal ritual of reverence while doing what I love. Some of my favorite memories while taking pictures- and my most cherished of celebrating New Years- come from these shoots. But this year the practice was in question, and to be completely honest, it was in doubt well before my GPS led me astray. I’d been debating for weeks where, and even if, I’d go out to take pictures on New Years morning this year. I know I’m not the only one that 2020 left in a funk. And beyond motivational struggles were concerns of the financial. The idea for Bryce was there- I’ve always wanted to photograph a sunrise over the hoodoos- but even being a lot closer now in Logan, the park’s still nearly a six hour drive away. That would mean a couple tanks of gas and a motel room, coming off a year that was in no way kind to the pocketbook either.

Considering the alternatives though, nothing was really stirring me. I absolutely could have found something much closer- but back to the mental struggles I thought that maybe setting out to photograph a scene that had been a long time goal might do me some good. Conversely I was questioning if I even wanted to go out at all, if it even meant anything to me anymore -which is indicative of the slippery slope that I’ve been on. Reflecting on the last year, and especially the last ten months or so when it’s come to my photography, I’ve too often made excuses and allowed myself to settle as the victim of circumstance. While much of that has been situational, because of the pandemic and beyond my control, I also let myself slide into abject complacency. Through a lot of introspection I’ve come to realize and recognize this, and I know that if anything is going to change I need to hold myself accountable. Ultimately, choosing to go ahead with this trip was symbolic as much as anything, as I saw it as a chance to set a tone of renewed determination for the year to come.

Rushing toward the edge of the canyon to position myself overlooking the famed hoodoos of an area known as the amphitheater, conditions didn’t seem especially promising. I walked through scattered pines beneath a gray blanket of clouds that didn’t show signs of catching any color at all. But I was okay with that. In nature photography you come to learn that dues are paid at a rate of sometimes dozens of subpar outings for one that turns out to be a hit. I was ready to hang my hat on the pride of that symbolism mentioned above, knowing that even if the sun didn’t appear, at least I had tried. I was starting the year in a national park instead of off moping somewhere, and it’s hard to find fault with that. About twenty yards from the edge of the rim though I caught my first view of an orange glow in a slender gap between the clouds and the horizon, and knew right away something special was shaping up. I quickly located where the sun would first appear, then set up my tripod and watched an amazing scene unfold.

First things first, let me show you the compulsory shots. My first glimpse of the sun as it cleared the horizon, and the moment it set the canyon aglow…

The sunrise itself, and the way the landscape lit up, was absolutely spectacular. These photographs- in terms of quality for future prints- aren’t so much so. Shooting into the sun isn’t ideal and the cloud overhang created a dynamic range that far exceeded my camera’s capabilities. (I’ve never been one to blend images- all of my photos to present have been taken as single exposures. But as I grow as a photographer and want to add the skills to my arsenal that allow me to make the most of every opportunity, I’m accepting more and more that these are techniques that I need to learn. These images further that point.) But like I say, capturing these first rays of dawn of a new year are more of a personal calling than anything, so my focus wasn’t so much in what might become a polished image as it was on watching, documenting, and appreciating the moment.

After though…

The sun soon disappeared for a couple of minutes, enveloped behind dense clouds, but it didn’t take long for it to blaze through thin patches above the dramatic landscape and create some otherworldly views. The wind picked up and added to this already phenomenal atmosphere, with blowing snow diffusing the ever-changing light. What followed was a blustery cold morning, but some of the best photographic conditions I’ve had in a very long time. I don’t know that my captures, or any, could do it justice, but here is some of what I saw…

I stayed and shot for about three more hours. It felt good to be out with my camera again. To absorb myself in my surroundings and feel the elements- to let the sights and the cold wind trade turns in taking my breath away. To engage with the landscape, feel my feet on snow and rock, hear the pine needles scratch against my coat as I ducked under boughs. To see intentionally with purpose and presence, rather than as a sidelined spectator to a world passing by. It had all been too long- and I know I’m the one to blame- but it felt good to be out there taking pictures again.

In addition to a thousand or so photos, I also shot some video clips over the course of the morning. This is something that I’ve been meaning to do for awhile- I want to share more writing and video to compliment my photos and offer a deeper look behind the scenes. Here’s a little movie I put together from that morning at Bryce Canyon.

It was probably about 45 minutes after I left the park, coming off a curve on a winding mountain two-way when it happened. An oncoming Ford Bronco crossed the centerline and drove headlong right toward me. It was one of those things that plays out in an instant, yet I still see every detail. The faded beige paint and patch of rust on the vehicle’s hood. The sweater draped over the headrest of an empty passenger seat. The smile on the young woman’s face, probably about thirty years old, as she gazed unaware into the phone held in her free hand. I locked up my brakes, winced at the shrill echoing howl, and braced myself in the surreal time-lapse realization that it might be the last sound I’d ever hear. The young woman swerved. Somehow we missed each other. I still don’t know how. She veered hard and I ended up skidding to a stop in the bank of plowed snow up against a guardrail. It was over that quick. We both continued on our way.

The incident left me, I think understandably, pretty shaken. It should have ended in a head-on collision. There’s no doubt in my mind. How an accident was avoided- she was so close, both vehicles were moving so fast, I can still see the grill of her truck as I dropped my head and closed my eyes- it seems to defy laws of physics and reason. Now I’m not making this out to be some kind of a profound sign from the heavens. I don’t think there was any divine intervention, or a guardian angel looking over me with a message that my potential on Earth isn’t through. Maybe that was so for the other driver and I was just a lucky beneficiary, but I struggle to think that way anymore. However, I do remember what was going through my mind just before this. Guilt. I was beating myself up pretty badly, watching the gas needle drop and calculating that I’d have to fill up again before getting back. I was feeling anxious over upcoming bills and how I will struggle to make ends meet.

It’s not that I’d spent frivolously on the brief overnight trip. I’d driven straight there, and stayed in the cheapest motel I could find. I heavily considered trying to find a place to camp or just sleeping in my vehicle, but with sub-zero overnight temperatures, I knew I’d only shiver through a restless night and not be at full capacity the next day. (And I’ve made that mistake before.) I brought all my food with me and fought off the ever-present urge to include stops at other parks, or turn this into a longer road trip. In fact the only time you might say I splurged whatsoever was in stopping at the NPS gift shop and buying my son a book- but that’s another tradition, and not a regret. No matter how tight money gets things like that are important to me to do. Otherwise it was a pretty straightforward no-frills trip- and with my love for national parks and they being an important element of my portfolio, I do have to get out and hit the road from time to time. I just felt guilty, even after the incredible experience, for allowing myself this indulgence; knowing it would be a further strain with things being really hard right now.

Close calls always have a way of putting things into different perspective though. After I pulled away from that guardrail, after I’d slowed my racing heartbeat and calmed the post-adrenaline trembles, after I collected myself enough to just breathe and drive, I thought again of that morning and the sunrise. I thought about how unaware I was of how close it would come to being the last I would ever see. And of course that’s something most of us never know. Nor do we set our priorities based on that reality. We think we have time, that we’ll have other chances… but most of us will never know when our last sunrise will come. So the guilt I was feeling was largely replaced again by gratitude. Now not only in having witnessed something so incredible, but gratitude for if it had been my final sunrise, or becomes the last dawn I will greet on a New Year’s Day, at least I could be proud of how I welcomed it. At least I was out there trying to reignite a spark in my soul. At least I was doing things genuine to my spirit. Not because I felt entitled, or didn’t care about consequences. But because deep in my heart, even through any depression or hardship, I still know how fleeting and precious life is. Deep down I still know that we have to make the most of the time that we’ve got.

There will always be things to beat ourselves up over. But strip those away and an innocent truth remained- I was out there trying my best, giving my all, and appreciative for the blessing to do so.

Maybe more than anything that’s what should set the tone; for this new year, and whatever is to come.

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