Okay, not exactly what Horace Greeley said, but hey, it’s not his blog. But that’s exactly what I did. On a weekend when my photo buddies in Colorado were all heading into the mountains in search of gold, aspens that is, Friday night found me headed eastbound on I-70 towards the wilderness of Western Kansas. It was a quick trip, less than 48 hours, but in many ways it was a revelation. I learned a lot about the state I was born in, I realized yet another of the things my Dad told me is true, and I got in some photo time.
I was born and raised in Kansas. I spent quite a bit of my formative years traveling around the state. Between Boy Scout camp in southeast Kansas and pheasant hunting trips to western Kansas along with many trips back to visit, I felt I knew quite a bit about my native state. Then a couple of years ago I started hearing rumblings about some geological features in the western part of the state that piqued my interest. First it was Castle Rock and the surrounding badlands. Then I heard about Monument Rocks. Both of these features are within 20 miles of each other so I decided to make a trip out east to see them for myself.
Leaving after work on Friday I knew I would be getting on site when it was dark but that was okay with me. I wanted to do some night sky photography and the images I’d seen online of Castle Rock and Monument Rocks would be the perfect foreground objects. I figured I could get some star shots then catch a few hours of sleep in the car before sunrise. My original plan was to drive to Castle Rock but somewhere east of Colby I changed my mind and decided to hit Monument Rocks first. I knew there were signs pointing the way and figured it would be easier to find in the dark. As it turned out, that was a very good decision. Having now visited both areas I know how to get there but frankly, I never would have found Castle Rock in the dark. And with a new moon, it was really dark. So Monument Rocks it was.
A little bit about the differences of these two areas…About the only things they have in common is that they are both in Western Kansas. Other than that they are completely different as far as how they were formed and, more importantly, the photographic experience. Castle Rock and the badlands have eroded out of a hillside. You start at the top and the road takes you downhill and circles around to the badlands. It faces east and is a great sunrise location. Mid-day and sunset…not so much. Once the sun crosses the brow of the hill, which would probably happen at least an hour before sunset, there is no good light on the features.
Monument Rocks are promontories that shoot upward out of a flat plain. You can see them from any direction for several miles. They have complete access so you can shoot sunset or sunrise and not worry about anything blocking the sun from either direction. It’s also much easier to reach via county roads that any vehicle can traverse. You don’t need 4 wheel drive for Castle Rock but high clearance is a must.
But back to the story: I found Monument Rocks no problem. Set up and did some night sky shots complete with the Milky Way, then stretched out on my bed in the back of the Nitro for some sleep. 5 hours later nature was calling and when I stepped outside I saw the eastern sky was starting to brighten a bit. No clouds around but what the heck, I can make it work. Sunrise was terrific. A few minutes of soft subtle light followed by the “magic 30 minutes” of sunrise. The image on top of this blog is the first one I shot of the sunrise. After sunrise I headed into Oakley for breakfast then on to Castle Rock for some location scouting. Good thing it was daylight…I would never have found the place in the dark. Once I got there, though, I was a little disappointed. Even at 9:00 in the morning the light was already too bright and harsh for any photography. Not only that, the orientation of the rocks would make it a bust for sunset. Definitely a sunrise location. I hung around for an hour or two, exploring the area on foot and napping a little in the car. Around lunch I made the decision to head back to Oakley for lunch then back out to Monument Rocks for sunset.
When I was a youngster and taking day trips with my Dad sometimes we would pack our lunch but most times we wouldn’t. Dad always tried to find a small town grocery store with a meat counter where you could get fresh sliced lunch meats and cheese. He said it always tasted better that way. So I passed up the burger joints in favor of the meat market in the only grocery store in Oakley. Freshly sliced bologna, chopped ham, and colby jack cheese along with a sliced tomato and fresh bread. Dad was right….it did taste better.
Back out to Monument Rocks with a few hours to kill before sunset. More napping in the car, listening to some tunes on the Ipod, a little exploration, and finally it was time to set up. There were some high clouds coming in which is great to add atmosphere to an image. There was also a band of dark clouds at the horizon so I figured it would be a pretty dull sunset once the sunset reached that band of clouds. I set up my shot and waited. The light got golden, the shutter functioned and all was well. Finally the light went dull so I packed up and started back to the car. And I saw it……..
The band of clouds wasn’t clouds at all, it was haze and smoke from a Wyoming wildfire. I had been set up in the shade of a huge rock for my sunset shot and couldn’t see the sky to the east and when I stepped out of the shade of the rock the entire band of “clouds” on the horizon was blood red! I looked around for a pillar to serve as a foreground object and began running that way. Luckily I still had my camera and lens mounted on the tripod so I was able to catch some of the amazing red light. Very poetic…”..Red Sky at night is Photographer’s delight” at least that’s how I think it goes.
Finally the sun dipped below the horizon and everything got dark. I packed up my stuff and headed home. I would like to have stayed for another sunrise at Castle Rock Badlands but, as always, suburban homeowner chores are calling.
So I learned quite a bit on this trip. My night sky images aren’t all I’d hoped for but they are better than the early attempts I made. There ARE things in Kansas besides sunflowers and wheat fields. And my Dad was right about small town groceries. But then, as I get older I realize he was right about a lot of things.
Here’s the link to my gallery of Western Kansas images. http://wcbeanphoto.com/western-kansas
Let me know if you see something you like.