I’m still trying to figure out Arizona. I’ve lived here for a year now, and for the most part, stepping foot outdoors between June and October is pretty much out of the question. We’ve had a few weeks straight of 115 degrees, even breaking a few records this year at 118. Is that even habitable? And I know what you’re thinking, “Sure, but doesn’t it get cool at night?” Nope. It doesn’t. Might drop down to a balmy 105. But there’s yet another wrench Mother Nature likes to throw in the mix. July and August are monsoon months, which means thunderstorms, dust storms and cloudy skies out of nowhere—when all other indications point towards calm, clear skies. This is great for a variety of reasons, but not for trying to find the Milky Way. Enough besmirching Arizona though. Don’t let these summer months fool you, Arizona is beautiful year-round. It’s just sometimes easier to experience it November through May.
A few weeks ago, we had one “clear” night, which happened to fall on the new moon, so I planned to go out. I’m new to Arizona, but I know from experience that a clear night according to the forecast can change in an instant, so I hoped to find a good window. I filled my Camera Pro Pack with pretty much every piece of equipment I have and loaded it into my truck. Two bodies, five lenses, my tripod, a book of empty SD cards and a drone. The majority of which, I realized at the time, I likely wouldn’t use, but there’s nothing worse than thinking in the moment, “I should have brought ‘blank’”. I threw in some dog treats and extra water for Chauncey, my companion for the evening, and headed out to Saguaro Lake. We get a lot of light pollution living even 30 minutes outside of Phoenix, so a 45-minute drive really helps clear up the night sky. You’ll see, however, on the right side of some of the night frames, the ambient city light bleeding into the edges of the images.
I knew with the chance of cloud cover that I wanted to do something a little different than I normally do. So, I did a little map recon and found what looked like a little bend in the highway passing the lake where I might capture the taillights of cars leaving the lake and the Milky Way in the same frame. I pulled up, parked and walked under the light of a headlamp with Chauncey only to discover a huge, impassable ravine between me and where I planned to shoot from. Sometimes aerial maps can let you down. I changed up my plan and scrambled up a little knoll to another location and just worked with what I had. Chauncey did a great job of keeping away rattlesnakes, tarantulas and who knows what else, letting me focus on getting the shot. When I got back, my wife Amber teased, “You were scared, weren’t you?”. But how can you be? There’s something majestic, almost spiritual, about being under the stars in complete darkness and seeing the inanimate come to life in a long exposure. I don’t think Chauncey understands, but he’s happy to tag along.
The circumstances of this outing weren’t ideal, and within minutes I had clouds rolling in which disrupted the shoot. But I did what I could with what I had and loved every minute of it. So, pack up your bag and just get out. Even if you don’t get the frame you want, you won’t regret it.