Pictureless Places.

For the things I cannot say there are pictures; for the things I cannot picture there are words.

These are the seven most beautiful things that I have ever seen. Originally I wanted to write about only five, but none were dull enough to cross off of my list. Some have images, others do not. Many of them were experienced before I was a dedicated photographer (before I learned to never leave home without at least three cameras, six rolls of film and a couple of spare batteries). Interestingly enough, I have found that my memories of the pictureless places are the most vivid, they don’t have a photographic crutch to help them out. If I forget, that’s it; these memories with me die. This is why I am writing today. The beauty of these places captivated me for a period of time much longer than that typical of today’s instantaneous world. I do not want to forget them, so I am sharing them with you.

7. A Nearly Full Wyoming Moon

It was the first time I experienced the great vastness of a western sky at night. Camping somewhere along the Snake River in Wyoming I ventured out of our one room, waterless cabin to squat down among the foliage in the woods. I wore and oversized t-shirt and purple underwear, no pants, no shoes. After relieving myself I perched my bare feet atop the cool surface of a large rock. The stars are not what I remember, but rather the moon, nearly full, casting sharp shadows along the forest floor. It sat high, swimming in black velvet; I was small and insignificant in comparison. With no one around I questioned my existence until a cool breeze blew loose tendrils of hair across my face and broke me from my reverie.

6. The Top of the Mountain/Hill Overlooking Ballyvaughan in Ireland

I will preface this by saying that I am from the Midwest so my exposure to elevation is limited. I consider the raised bit of land from this particular memory a mountain though others would probably scoff and call it a hill, but since it is my recollection, from this point forward a mountain it shall be.

No matter how I made it to the top, the view would have been impressive, but because my two hiking boot clad feet carried me there it holds a special place in my heart. The first day in Ballyvaughan I looked up at the mountain behind my hostel and told myself that I would climb it. From below it didn’t look all that intimidating and I was determined to view the valley that was my temporary home from its highest point. The last full day of my trip I drug the only other adventure driven human I could find out of bed at five in the morning in an attempt to reach the top. I would be lying if I said that this was an easy feat; there was no path and true to the Burren’s iconic terrain the ground was made up entirely of loose rocks with large foot sized, ankle breaking, crevices. The mountain rose in shelves making it impossible to see the top from the bottom. Each time we thought we had reached our destination, we were surprised to find another story of rock jutting out towards the sky. I have no idea how long the entire climb took, but like anything where the endpoint is unknown, it felt like forever. Several times we debated going back, but we were living a classic example of ‘well we have already come this far’. There was also the fear that we would unknowingly turn around just shy of the top. We pressed on underdressed and dehydrated and eventually made it, nothing above us but sky. There we stood, high enough to see the entire valley, the ocean and across the bay as far-off as the city of Galloway. I am always stunned when I find myself elevated enough to see the shadows of clouds as they dance along valleys, casting darkness upon pastures and homes. It is an out of body experience, seeing where you dwell from a bird’s eye view, you are no longer a part of the landscape, but rather an outside observer.

Once again, I was broken out of my reverie by the wind, this one much more intense than Wyoming’s breeze. Ireland’s weather changes quite literally at the drop of a hat. ‘Expect rain’, they said my first day there, and so each morning I did. We could see the thick dark storm clouds as they formed over the ocean, watching the rain carefully from the distance as it began its descent into town. And so, with much reluctance, we began the trek downwards back towards civilization, a homemade bowl of onion soup and fresh bread slathered in hand churned butter.

5. Hazy Sunshine Over Arizona Cacti

I went, rather quickly, from never having seen a saguaro to having seen all of the saguaro. After a day trip to Tucson, my roommate and I begged to be driven to Saguaro National Park. This national wonder is 142.9 square miles of mountains, cacti and desert terrain. We emerged from our rental van road weary and carsick, in desperate need of some water and probably a nap. After stumbling over my feet for a few minutes my eyes adjusting to the blaring sun, I was blown away to see my surroundings. December in Ohio offers a blue sky or two, but a cloudless grey is much more stereotypical. This was the first time I had ever been anywhere in the winter months that was consistently warmer than forty degrees during the day. It was incredible to see what I have always thought of as a summer haze blanketing the world before me two weeks to Christmas. Golden hour had set in as I experienced a ‘cloudy day’ in Arizona. Saguaro cacti, their arms reaching upwards to the sun, stretched on as far as the eye could see while mountains spread across the horizon, purple tops peeking through the golden fog. My skin was sun-kissed as I stood in my cowboy boots, perched somewhat elegantly atop of a rock, gazing out into infinity, in an attempt to burn my surroundings into my memory.

4. Top of Mosquito Pass

Nicknamed ‘Highway of the Frozen Death’, Mosquito Pass connects Leadville to Fairplay and, at an elevation of 13,185 feet, is one of the highest mountain passes in Colorado. We set out in my biker uncle Paul’s once totalled Jeep Wrangler, Dad and Paul up front, Mom and I in the back. We had no clue what we were in for, my uncle knew better than to tell us before hand. After living through the experience I did some research and found a website that described it as follows: “This road has humbled many egos. It’s not for the sissies and shouldn’t be attempted by novice drivers. The road is in dreadful condition and requires strong nerves to negotiate it”. Their words were absolutely correct, now here are a few of my own.

We drove through the mountain town of Leadville then towards its outskirts and a beautiful valley with an abundance of wildflowers. It was a sunny day in early July, puffy white clouds decorated the sky. We continued to rise in elevation and as we did so the flowers changed. Every so often Paul would stop the Jeep and we would all pile out to explore the terrain: rocks, streams and abandoned mines. The air was so clear, nothing like swimming through the atmosphere of Ohio in July. Without the haze, you could see the entirety of the pass, layers of rocky peaks jagged along the horizon. There were a few other vehicles around also enjoying the pleasant day.

As we got higher, the road grew narrower, at one point extending a mere two inches past the tires of our Jeep. No longer were there other people, and thank God because there would have been no way to get around one another on this little mountain road. The switchbacks grew steeper as the earth grew further and further away. My knee was bruised from where my mother was squeezing it so hard; no seatbelt or rollbar would have saved you from that height. After a never ending afternoon filled with pure adrenaline, unprecedented trust and absolute fear, we reached the summit. Above the timberline, it was the closest to the heavens I had ever been (this trip came two years before my first flight). Amazed that it was snowing, I ran around, gasping for air, picking the wildflowers that somehow survived at such high an elevation. The wind stung my eyes, yet I couldn’t look away from the expanse of mountains that lay below me.

Uncle Paul pulled out a beer and a pistol, shooting them both before our decent back towards the earth.


3. Maine Sunset/Moonrise

I had a set of wheels and from dinner until class the next morning to make something spectacular. I had no clue where to go; I was unfamiliar with the area and only knew of the popular tourist spots. I was also entirely unaware that it was the day before a full moon.

That evening while eating supper under the protection of a plastic awning someone asked me where I planned on roaming that night. I told them honestly that I didn’t know, that the few places I knew of I had already explored. This is when a woman sitting nearby joined in the conversation, telling me of an island she used to visit as a child, how she still dreams of its beauty quite regularly. I was intrigued and with no other plan set into place, decided that I would find this magical Clark Island and experience it for myself.

It took what felt like an eternity to get there. The light was perfect, the kind of summer glow that makes absolutely everything it touches angelic. I couldn’t help but stop at least half a dozen times between there and my destination: farms, meadows, chain-link fences with no-trespassing signs, a foreboding quarry, they all piqued my interest and after stopping to shoot each one I was racing the sun towards the horizon.

I drove into a quaint New England town closer to twilight than golden hour, pulled into a bed and breakfast’s private parking lot, slung my camera bag over my shoulder and jogged down the lane towards the causeway. You couldn’t drive a vehicle over to the island, but you could walk, and so I did. I made it halfway down the pathway over the ocean when my breath was stolen. Trudging through the largest swarm of mosquitoes I have ever encountered, I was overwhelmed with beauty from both sides. To my left a nearly full moon rose over the water, swimming in a violet sky, dancing on the rippling tide. Rocks jutted out into the ocean and a lone boat sat delicately on the horizon: serenity personified. To my right, as the moon rose the sun sank. Vibrant pinks and oranges swept violently across the sky, their likeness mirrored on a sheet of glass. With each passing second, the sky rapidly changed – the entire experience lasting all of five minutes. I was so overwhelmed by the intense beauty that I was completely incapable of choosing a direction to cast my gaze. Surely I looked crazy, spinning in circles, slapping the air at the onslaught of insects. It was more than worth the scabbed over skin I wore for the next three weeks. Clark Island would be beautiful under any condition, but I feel blessed to have seen it under such a majestic sky, otherworldly colors reflecting off of the water completely flooding my vision.

2. 30,000 Feet Above the Desert at Sunset

When I went to LasVegas, I flew. The way there it was night and the way back I was stuck in the aisle by an awkward fifteen-year-old boy and his soccer coach/father. I didn’t get the chance to see the earth below. Because of this, I was determined to sit by the window on our flight back from Arizona last December during the day.

Mountains from above are vastly different than mountains from below. To dwarf something so great is incredibly humbling, to become a bird, a god over the land. From above they are no longer a definitive object but rather a series of interconnected shapes with razor sharp edges.  As we flew east, out of both the desert and the sunshine, I was mesmerised by the crinkled terrain. The sun began to sink and the bright blue sky that had previously lit the land orange transformed before by eyes: pink to purple and eventually black. What sticks with me is not the sky, but instead its relationship to the earth below. The desert was on fire, harsh shadows breaking through the flames. A single road ran perpendicular to our plane seemingly stretching on into eternity, no other signs of humanity around.

1. Idaho Sunset Behind the Grand Tetons

Maybe this is the best because it’s the first. The first trip out west, the first experience of grandeur, the first time I truly fell in love with wide open spaces. Or maybe it’s the best because it is paired with a good story of pure luck and being at the right place at the right time. Either way, in the back of a tour van, surrounded by potato fields, I saw the most beautiful sight thus far in my life.

We caught a van from Jackson Hole Wyoming into Yellowstone for a fast paced day of tourism and moderate hiking. We saw the sights: Old Faithful, The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake, Firehole River, Artists Paintpots. They were all very beautiful. Then, after a long day in the sun, we climbed into the van to be driven back to Jackson Hole. There are four ways in and out of the park. Traffic was at a standstill, and with a little sleuthing, eventually we discovered that ours was completely blocked. A tour bus had tipped onto its side, killing no one, but injuring a few and causing quite a bit of damage. The only way to clear the mess was with wreckers and tow trucks and the nearest were over an hour away. Two options presented themselves, sit in this traffic for an estimated six hours or leave out of West Yellowstone and take the six-hour detour home; we choose the second.

This detour is how I added Montana and Idaho to my repertoire. We drove quite literally three hundred and sixty degrees around the Grand Tetons (their beauty is wondrous from absolutely every angle). I had been photographing at Yellowstone all day but this trip was before becoming the ‘real’ photographer I mentioned in this blog post’s opening paragraph. My camera’s battery was dead, but even if it weren’t I doubt I would have had the skills at that point in my career to accurately capture the scene. So there I sat, cameraless, in the backseat of a tour van, body twisted to stare out of the back window, sedated by the sun. I couldn’t peel my eyes away. The vibrant green leafs of potato plants made up the entirety of the foreground, the distinctive outline of the Tetons on the horizon being silhouetted as the summer sun sank further and further into their commanding reach. The sky was bright yellow, pink, red and orange engulfing the mountains in its brilliant blaze.

The most beautiful things are seen when nature blinds you by its grandeur, strips you of your humanity and leaves you to exist, just you and your surroundings.

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