3 Nov 2014

USA Road-trip - Mesa Arch at Sunrise

Mesa Arch at sunrise - the rising sun creates an incredible orangey-red hue on the underside of the photogenic arch. In the distance, jagged buttes and meandering canyons are silhouetted in the haze of the early morning light. A sunburst explodes from the sun, spreading light beams across the arch.

It's been done by thousands of photographers already, but I wanted to capture it too. I knew it was going to be busy as I'd read about the "crowd" in various photographers' blogs about their experiences capturing this iconic sunrise, so I had an idea what to expect. As a result, I decided that we should try to get there at least an hour and a half before sunrise, if not a little earlier, in order to get a good spot along the edge of the arch. Plan A was this: pack the night before, alarm at 4.30am, leave Moab by 4.45, arrive at Mesa Arch by 5.30 (you can go a little faster in the dark), find a good spot and wait as the other photographers arrive, hubby sleeping in car so he was awake enough to drive later, capture the sunrise at 7.24am and golden hour until about 8.15, then head off on the road towards Boulder. Easy. Job done.

As is often the case with early alarm calls, for me at least, I didn't sleep very well. As the room was stuffy and warm we had the extremely noisy air conditioning on, so I had to wear ear-plugs to sleep through it. I kept dreaming about waking up and heading out, and then I'd actually wake up and look at the clock to see that it was still early - 12.15am, 2.30am etc.. The broken sleep came abruptly to an end when I looked at the clock: a neon 06:00 was staring back at me. I was startled, I couldn't understand what had happened or why we hadn't heard the alarm. I had a vague memory of seeing the clock saying 05:20 and thinking I had another ten minutes until the alarm. Obviously that would've been an hour too late too. I woke up my husband and we gathered the last bits and pieces together and headed off at about 6.10. I felt a little devastated, not to mention disoriented. Here I was, about to photograph one of the most iconic sunrises, and I'd overslept! How was that possible?! Turns out the volume was turned right down on the phone, which was also next to the air-conditioning unit charging, so the alarm was far too quiet to reach our ear-plugged ears.

We made good time and arrived at the parking lot at Mesa Arch to see about 20 cars already there; my heart sank. I felt a little bit more devastated. I raced down towards the arch and was greeted by the view I'd been dreading, a wall of photographers just behind the arch, shoulder-to-shoulder with their tripods leg-to-leg, not a decent spot in sight. When I reached the pack I wandered along behind the line to see if there was any way that I could stick my camera in a gap and get some kind of shot. With wide angle shots this just wasn't going to be possible. I asked the photographers - not surprisingly all middle-aged men apart from one - if there was any way they could move up an inch. The response was a few indignant grunts and tuts. "What did I tell you earlier?" I overheard one mutter to another. "What, that people would show up late and expect a look in?!" I asked, but they didn't respond. The atmosphere was very frosty; no chance for any goodwill here. The first two guys had got there at 3am, followed by another couple at 4ish - they were serious about getting the best spot (but had done some star shots too, so it wasn't all about the sunrise). I'm sure I would have been annoyed if I'd been there for hours and someone rocked up 20 minutes before sunrise expecting to get a good position. In a way it was a relief that I'd overslept, I realised, as if I'd arrived at the planned 5.30 I would've been too late to get the preferred spot anyway; this way at least I'd had an hour and a half's extra sleep which would make the long drive more bearable (and safer!).

The sky was lightening fast. There was a thin layer of cloud on the horizon, hanging over the top of the La Sal mountains in the distance, but otherwise the sky was clear, as forecast. I asked if I could take a couple of shots, given that the photographers weren't actually snapping away, but just standing there, waiting, guarding their positions. As long as I didn't move their tripods, they said, it'd be fine - jolly decent of them. As if I'd move their tripods! I guess they thought I was just some amateur who'd knock their cameras out of the way in my quest for a decent shot. As it was, the tripods blocked out any way of getting a decent composition with the mountains aligned properly; I took a couple of hand-held shots with my camera held above the top of their tripods but they were pretty disappointing.

My husband arrived with a can of creamy double espresso, which helped lift my mood. He looked at the crowd and knew I was a bit upset. An older man was hanging back from the crowd a few metres behind the line and milled around nervously. He noticed me scurrying around to see if there was a spot of view available (which there wasn't) and approached me. "I'm going to make an announcement in a minute," he told me, "and ask that everyone steps out of the way for a few minutes when the sun comes up, so that we can all get a view of the whole arch. There's a great view from back here," he said. I gave a little laugh. "Have you met those guys?!" I asked him. "They won't be budging one inch," I said, recalling the hostility upon my arrival. "They're not going anywhere, seriously. They won't move." He looked upset and confused; no announcement was made. Another guy seemed utterly bemused too as he asked me if it was possible to get a picture of the whole arch without the photographers in it. "Here we are, me and my family, coming to see this arch at sunrise, and everyone is in the way! It's a public place surely?!" he exclaimed indignantly, but justifiably. I explained the situation; to a non-photographer it must seem totally ridiculous but to me it made sense, even if it was utterly rude to everyone else who came to "enjoy" the sunrise there.

The underside of the arch was getting brighter and redder by the minute. I had to come up with a Plan B, given that I wasn't going to get the shot I wanted. I'd quite liked the view from the right-hand end of the arch, so I walked over there to see how it looked. It was okay, and besides, I had no other option. A young guy sat quietly looking out at the horizon, away from the rabble behind the arch.

Finally the sun broke through the cloud on the horizon and I could hear the sound of chattering shutters away to my left. I took my shots of the sun coming up with the edge of the arch on one side and a cliff on the other, framing the valley below; the bones of the rocks, someone commented on one of the photos later. I was quite happy with the results, given the circumstances. The sun soon illuminated the edge of the rocks in front of me. They didn't glow like the underside of the arch, but it was still a stunning view.




My husband appeared again and pointed out that a bunch of the photographers had just left and freed up some space. I was surprised to see how many had already gone within minutes of the sun coming up. It was as if they'd got their one shot and that was that, time to move on. I guess there were other decent views further along the top of the island, but still - if you'd been waiting since 4 or 5am, surely you'd wait to see how it looked with that post-sunrise golden light. I managed to get a few of the shots that I'd originally hoped for, from the spot I'd scoped out, and from other angles. One of the remaining photographers said that the light wasn't any good now, but it wasn't that different; it was still hazy in the distance and the sun was low enough to get the sunbursts against the horizon or arch. Without the dense pack I was able to take a series of shots to stitch together into a panorama, capturing the whole arch, rather than just a part of it. A young guy got up onto the top of the arch at one point and started nervously juggling with three balls, his camera videoing the event. The atmosphere warmed considerably with the appearance of the sun and the disappearance of the hostile, competitive crowd.

We left at 8.15am as planned, as we had a 380 mile drive to Boulder ahead of us. Just as well we'd got that extra sleep. The light was lovely as we drove out of the park and back up the 191 towards the I70.

As we reached the Colorado border we caught up with some bad weather that was lingering over the 14,000 ft peaks. The rain held off and we raced along, stopping only to take the scenic drive through the Colorado National Monument National Park and fill the tank. We ate our cereal out of the plastic tub overlooking the canyon below.

The drive along the I70 took us through winding canyons, river valleys lined with autumnal cottonwood trees, across snowy high passes, past endless ski resorts, before finally reaching the turn-off up through Golden to Boulder, at the foot of the majestic Flatirons.

We arrived at our hotel at 4.30pm - a pretty good time given the distance we'd covered. Later on I met up with an old travel buddy, who I'd met in Antarctica 13 years earlier, at the Avery Brewery. Hubby met up with an old work colleague who lived in Fort Collins before joining us at the brewery later on. We tried a good selection of 4oz samples, including a 17% pumpkin ale, before heading to the Mountain Sun Brewpub, the place we'd spent our first evening. It seemed a fitting place to spend the last evening of our fantastic road-trip to the US South-West, before the long flight back to London the following day.

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