Significantly Insignificant

The film maker Ridley Scott once posed the question:  "How can you look at the galaxy and not feel insignificant”?  On the night of May 27th, 2014 in the heart Grand Teton National Park, I came to understand Ridley's inquiry very clearly.  In this case, the word "clearly" had two meanings for me.  First, I came to clearly appreciate the perspective from which Ridley's question was born from.  Second, was the visual clarity of the scene that played before my eyes on that memorable night:  The Milky Way galaxy and what appeared to be all of its 400 billion stars that make their home in our small galactic neighborhood of the universe.

The disappointing reality is that living in the Midwest significantly hinders opportunities to see the Milky Way galaxy because of the light pollution and the humidity.  Occasionally on clear, cold winter nights when the moon is not present in the night sky, it is possible to get a glimpse of the galaxy.  On such nights, I occasionally get up at 2 or 3 am and drive to remote areas near where I live and am able to get a muted view of our galaxy and the dense portion of the Milky Way, referred to as "the core".  At the very least it is worth losing a few hours of sleep to see the star fields of a clear, cold night sky and a meteor or two.

For the last several years, I have made numerous trips to the western part of the US to explore the wide open spaces and capture the grand landscapes with my camera.  During more recent trips I have discovered myself looking for opportunities to view and photograph the night sky in addition to typical daylight photography.  My latest trip to Grand Teton National Park promised to offer optimal opportunities for night photography with minimal light pollution and excellent chances of good weather.  For those familiar with GTNP, I had a tentative goal in mind to capture one of the iconic log barns on Mormon Row with the Milky Way prominent in the night sky.  This goal was inspired by a similar image captured by one of my favorite photographers, Dave Black.

Mormon Row is a historic district within the park that is comprised of a row of homestead structures that date to the early 20th century.  The most notable of those structures are two log barns, which are advertised as the most photographed barns in North America.  My favorite of the two is referred to as the "Corral Barn" as there is a split rail fence corral which encompasses the barn lot.  Mormon Row itself is actually a dirt road that is located in an area within the park referred to as Antelope Flats.  Antelope Flats is a primary grazing area for a large herd of Bison.  I learned that there are more wildlife related fatalities in Grand Teton due to Bison charges than Bear attacks.  Something to keep in mind if wandering around in the dark...

May 26th was my first full day at the park and it was a successful day of photography and exploration.  The weather had been perfect with purple-blue skies, white popcorn shaped clouds, and intense mountain sunshine pushing the temperatures into the mid 70's.  While catching up on some emails from work and enjoying an early dinner on the patio of the Snake River Brewery, I checked the weather app on my phone.  It was forecasting clear skies for the overnight.  The weather in Grand Teton is somewhat unpredictable but I decided it would be worth getting up around 2 am and checking things out.  So, I finished my Cobb Salad and headed back to the lodge for an early evening.

The alarm on my phone woke me at 2 am and I peered out the window to check the sky.  Even with the interference of the parking lot lights, the stars were abundant.  So I grabbed my camera gear and headed out into the night.  The drive to Antelope Flats is 25 or 30 minutes from the town of Jackson.  As I put the slumbering town in my rear view mirror, I could sense a level of darkness that I was not accustomed to.  The moon would not rise for another couple of hours.  Any sources of man-made light were now rare sightings.  My headlights seemed incapable of spilling light outside of their direct beams.  As I was driving my way through the blackness, I glanced at the outside temperature indication on the dash board.  It read 36 degrees F, a full 40 degrees cooler than when I was enjoying the sunshine on the patio of the SRB nine hours earlier.  Mountain weather at its best...

I pulled off at a parking area just off Antelope Flats Loop Road onto Mormon Row.  A few hours later this parking area would be full of cars that had transported photographers with intent of capturing the barns at sunrise.  I know that because I was one of them the day before.  At this hour, it was just me.  As I exited the car, I was greeted by a slap of cold air scented with sage and pine  My eyes were watered a little from the cold dry air as I grabbed an extra jacket to put on.  I was going to need it.

As my eyes adjusted to the cold darkness, I looked around for signs of the buffalo herd.  I am not sure what I could have seen in the blackness, but I did take comfort in the observation that it was profoundly quiet.  I then glanced up to survey the sky for any signs of cloud cover, which was my primary concern for the success of the photograph.  What I saw affected me in a way that could be compared to the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the front door of the farmhouse after it lands in Oz.  I was still in Wyoming but it was now a very, very small place.

Standing on that dirt road staring up at the blanket of the universe, things that are generally nebulous to me became clearly defined.  I was standing in an alpine meadow located on the northern half of an undistinguished planet orbiting an average sized sun which was one of 400 billion stars in a galaxy that was one of 170 billion such galaxies thought to exist in the observable universe.  The starlight that was now striking my retinas had traveled for tens of thousands of years to arrive to me at that moment.  Two things became overwhelming apparent:

1.       I was very insignificant.  I was nothing more than a flaked off skin cell of a sub-atomic particle of an atomic particle if such a thing existed.  I was existing only for a Nano-second in the galactic timeline.  Gee, I guess those emails that I was catching up on a few hours earlier were not so significant either.  Being down-sized in regard to my own self-importance was actually a relief.  Right-sized would be a more appropriate term.  A liberating perspective that I would serve me well to maintain.

2.       There was something very big, powerful, and important “out there”.  There absolutely had to be.  This reaffirmtation also was a relief and a comfort.  I should not have to see the Milky Way to be reminded of this but it definitely was a worthwhile refresher course.  

Oh yea…  I had a picture to take.  If I could see the Milky Way perfectly with my naked eyes, surely I could pull off capturing this photograph.  I grabbed my gear and made the short walk to the corral barn.  I set up and captured a series of images using a flashlight to “light paint” the barn itself.  Throughout the series I noticed the how the Milky Way was rotating more vertically as time passed.  Of course it was actually the Earth rotating, but eventually I got a composition I was happy with.  It is still one of my favorite photographs.

The sun would be coming up soon, so I packed up and headed to a spot on the Snake River called Oxbow Bend.  It is a classic vantage point to photograph Mt. Moran reflecting off the river at sunrise.  I arrived early and had time to watch the darkness turn into “alpenglow” on the mountain.  It was a good time for my own reflection.  French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur once said, “On a cosmic scale, our life is insignificant, yet this brief period when we appear in the world is the time in which all meaningful questions arise”.

I still have a few questions left…

Milky Way over the Corral Barn by Steve Leath