I’m not a superstitious guy so I’ve never really totally bought into the idea of Karma. Sure, if you do good things for people, they certainly tend to return the favor…plus you sleep a lot better at night. But the idea of being rewarded in the future for doing a kindness for a total stranger that you will never meet again, well no. I mean, sure that would be nice, but just because if might be nice doesn’t make it so.
Or does it?
I’m not quite so sure now…because of a experience that happened to me a couple weeks back that still has me scratching my head.
I was photographing in the Smoky Mountain National Park and it was getting late. And the weather had turned ugly. Overcast. Rain. Not exactly ideal for a nice sunset photo. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
So I started driving up into the mountains hoping to get higher than the bad weather. Up I drove…but the weather didn’t improve. I got to Newfound Gap and it was still terrible, so I decided to go all the way to the top of Clingman’s dome (at 6643′ it is the tallest peak in the Smokies and the third highest east of the Mississippi).
Well, the weather went from bad to worse as I snaked my little Subaru around the twisted road. Visibility forced me to drop to less than 10 mph at spots (those sheer drop-offs on either side of the road did a great job encouraging caution). Then, I noticed that the rain was weird. It wasn’t clear…heck, it was white! It was snowing!
Hey, I might be a Florida boy, but I grew up in the north and I spend my share of time photographing in the snow, so it’s not like I’d never seen it before. But this was the last day of April…and the temperature had been in the 60s an hour ago. Snow? Really?!
It took me over a half hour to drive the 7 miles to the peak. When I finally got to the top, it was covered in a full-scale blizzard. The wind was wicked and the snow was coming in hard. Clingman’s is usually packed with people…but it was totally deserted Not a soul in sight and the parking lot was empty (it turns out that the rangers had closed Clingman’s: my car was the last one thru before they barricaded the road). I decided that I might as well wait and see if the weather would break. I pulled on my parka, hat and gloves, pushed my seat all the way back and grabbed my book to help pass the 40 minutes till sunset.
BAM! BAM! BAM! My door window shook and I jerked my head around to see a guy standing next to the car. I didn’t know where the heck he had come from and frankly, it startled the crap out of me! He looked pretty rough…kinda like a homeless guy and there was a nice 12″ sheath knife on his belt…not exactly what you want to see when you are on top of a mountain all alone.
But I took a second look and noticed he was in shorts and a thin jacket, shivering…obviously cold…and maybe looking a bit scared. He said his name was AJ and he had been hiking the Appalachian Trail and had just reached Clingsman’s when the storm hit. He and another hiker had taken shelter in one of the National Park bathrooms. AJ said they had no heat and were freezing…and the bathrooms stunk (if you’ve ever been in one of those bathrooms, you know what he meant.) He asked if I would give them a ride off the mountain.
Now, I have never in my life picked up a hitch-hiker. Too many bad stories in the paper. And this was far from an ideal situation. It was getting dark, I was alone, no cell coverage. But I’d been a Scoutmaster long enough to see that these guys were truly hikers…so…for some reason, I told them; Sure, I can get you out of here.
They tossed their backpacks in the car and climbed in…all the time rubbing their hands together, trying to get some circulation back. I took a deep breath and thought I should just blow off the sunset (slight as the chance of seeing one was) and just take them down the mountain to Gatlinburg where they could find a place to stay.
Well, the drive down was as every bit as bad as it had been on the way up and it took us a while to reach the main road at Newfound Gap. We had time to spare and started talking. AJ said I could call him ‘Deju Vu’ (later I learned that his real name was Alexander Devaux). He was very talkative. Heck, even frozen solid, that boy could talk. Jim Buker turned out to be the name of the other fella but he was pretty quiet until he started to warm up a bit later.
When we finally reached the end of the Clingman road, I made the turn toward Gatlinburg. As I did so, I noticed a streak of pale orange out of the corner of my eye. I slowed and noticed that there was a sliver of sky clear to the west peeking under the solid overcast. So I pulled into the next overlook to check it out.
It wasn’t much. But I had photographed from this same spot (Morton’s Overlook) the night before…and knew that the sun would set right in that clear gap above the valley between the mountains. The chances for a decent shot were slim. But the chances were zero if I just got back in the car and drove away… so I asked the guys if they would mind waiting a half hour so I could try a sunset shot. They seemed to be pretty happy campers just warming up in the car and had no objections.
I got the tripod and camera set up. It wasn’t quite freezing anymore but it sure was chilly…and a nice sleeting rain was falling. I shuffled my feet back and forth over the next 20 minutes as my fingers slowly went numb. I stole envious glimpses at AJ and Jim in my warm, dry car and realized that they were probably a heck of a lot smarter than me.
Just then the sun slid into that clear slice of the sky. I looked into my viewfinder and took the shot:
I thought, well…that’s a nice image…but certainly not worth standing in the freezing rain for 20 minutes.
But then, a couple of seconds later…the…valley…below…me…EXPLODED!
I’d never seen anything like it. One second everything was dark and monochrome…but a moment later crimson sunlight was brilliantly ricocheting across the fog-laden valley in a riot of color. I heard the car door open and AJ or Jim blurted “Holy Crap!” (well, maybe something a bit stronger than that). Vehicles driving by hit their brakes, swerved over and camera phones started clicking while voices excitedly pointed out the view in urgent tones.
I know that some of the most dramatic landscape photographs are taken during poor weather or clearing storms. I’ve taken more than a few shots in those conditions, but this scene was on a whole different level of magnitude.
I was shooting quickly. Checking my focus…making sure my settings were right…trying different compositions.
But, it didn’t last. In less than 4 minutes…it was over.
The sun stumbled below the horizon and a dark, heavy shroud fell upon the valley. I shook my head in wonder at what I had just witnessed and broke down my gear.
AJ and Jim were excitedly talking about the sunset when I got back to the car. I turned over the engine and pulled onto the road. Then I looked in the rear-view mirror, caught their eyes in the reflection and said: ‘Thanks.”
They furled their brows and said ‘What are you thanking us for?’
I smiled and told them that if I hadn’t picked them up, I would still be on top of Clingman’s praying for a break in the clouds. I would have missed the single most glorious sunset of my life. I owed them a debt of gratitude.
Karma, Good Luck, Dumb Chance? Heck, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I was grateful. Because I will carry the memory of those 240 seconds for the rest of my life.
Technical Notes for Photographers
- All these photos were taken on a tripod with a Nikon D800E mounted with a Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8. The only exception was the iPhone shot of the snow covered bathroom the hikers were huddled in.
- Since I knew there was going to be a widedynamic range, I set camera for 7 shot auto-bracketing. This gave me images ranging from -3 exposure to +3 for each shot.
- During processing, I selected two frames of each 7 shot group (one overexposed and one underexposed) and hand blended these in Photoshop. I tried some HDR, but the results looked ‘fake’ so I went with the more subtle hand-blended option (even though the results still don’t look subtle!)
- I had the shot pre-focused and composed before the sun made an appearance, so all I had to do was trip the shutter with my remote. However, the challenge I did have was water droplets on the lens from the rain (despite the lens cap). As a result, I had to dry the lens between each shot (I carry a big microfiber cloth with me for just this type of problem). But I still had some ‘spots’ on my images I had to remove with photo shop.
- I ruined a few shots with bad focus. Even though I had pre-focused, I managed to bump the focus ring when wiping rain off the lens.
- No, I didn’t check the focus after every shot on my LCD. But I will next time.
- I used an ISO of 200 and kept my lens at f8 (its sharpest setting). I shot in aperture priority and let the camera select the shutter speed. I set the camera on manual focus and used my Live View feature to make sure the image was sharp from front to back.
- Morton’s Overlook is a wonderful sunset spot during the spring and summer. The sun settles in the valley that stretches before you with mountains on either side. By fall, however, the sun is out of position for good composition and you will want to seek out a different location for your sunset shot (like Clingman’s or the overlooks on the last 20 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway).
- I set the camera on Auto White Balance, so those intense colors aren’t the result of a ‘Vivid’ or ‘Cloudy’ setting.
- Frankly, I still get a bit uncomfortable when I look at that first photo of the sunset exploding over the valley…even though I didn’t saturate the reds, it sure does look like I did. For those of you who also think it is a bit much, I’ve done another version in which I subdued the colors (especially red).