Occasionally the circumstances that lead to great art are more precious than the art piece. Such is the case for many photographers who thrust themselves into compelling situations such as breathtaking nature, rare sightings and dangerous positions. An image may not be the photographer’s best work but it may stick with them for years based on the story behind it. One example of this would be climbing onto a precarious cliff edge to gain a unique perspective on a landscape. Another would be spending an extended period of time in an isolated vantage point waiting for the moment a lioness catches her prey. Each time this photo is viewed by the shooter, the memories stir up and emotions are reignited. A background story elevates a piece of art from a static object to an enduring memory of adventure. I have my own modest adventure story to share.
Five years ago I was looking for any excuse to go shoot with my photographer friend Andrew Hector. A large portion of my motivation and inspiration came directly from Andrew at that time and we always enjoyed merging our creative ideas. Conflicting schedules and a couple hundred miles between our homes pushed us to actively seek a weekend when we could hit the road and hunt for photo opportunities. Our chance came and we settled on plans to go to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Starting in Fort Myers, Florida, Andrew and I rolled out on a Friday night with a road trip goal of catching sunset at the top of Clingmans Dome, the tallest point in the Great Smoky Mountain chain. The photo I was most eager to capture was light rays shining through trees, which was an image I had come to associate with the Smokies due to it’s foggy reputation. We drove through the night and half the next day with only a handful of stops for fuel and to snap some photos of decaying buildings along the country roads. Once our eyes were pleading for rest around noon on Saturday, we parked somewhere in the mountains among other cars who were stopped to enjoy the view and we took a nap in the car for a couple hours. After our nap we were only marginally refreshed but the sun was approaching the horizon and we had a fair distance left to our destination.
With hardly one hour left before sunset, we made it to the final stretch of road leading to the mountain top, Clingmans Dome Road. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of visiting the Smokies, believe me when I say that the roads winding through the mountains are just as captivating as the summits. By this point on our road trip I was on the edge of my seat, overflowing with excitement, surveying the path ahead for any alluring sights to capture. Weather conditions were ideal to produce generous amounts of fog and it was shaping out to be a picturesque Smoky Mountain evening.
The sunlight rays I was so passionately seeking were becoming more abundant as the sun descended further. Heavy fog was rolling swiftly across the road, engulfing the trees then disappearing just as quickly. A few minutes short of the summit I caught a glimpse of some impressive rays at the opening of a trail along the road. I urged Andrew to stop the car and he obliged in an instant. Before he could park, my boots were already stomping out a path in the soft earth leading toward the trailhead. The trees and shrubs were darkened with moisture while the tone of the scene was warm from the sunlight breaching the forest canopy. Wooden logs lined the path to assist with the slight incline of the trail. I snapped as many photos as I could until the light rays dissolved then I sprinted ahead another 10-20 feet to catch up with the fog. Each time I dashed ahead I was only able to squeeze in a handful of shots before the fog rolled past and the opportunity was gone. Adrenaline took over and I continued to chase the light rays up this trail at full sprint, pausing briefly to aggressively press the shutter button on my camera, until I could no longer outrun the fog.
It wasn’t until days later that I would discover that my best photo from this frenzy was one of the last shots I took, but the moment I stopped shooting I felt entirely fulfilled. This 1,500 mile round trip journey crammed into one short weekend was worth all the effort, money and lack of sleep beyond any doubt I may have had. Andrew was jogging up behind me as I turned around and I imagine that he saw an accomplished look on my face. We made our way back to the car and continued to the summit of Clingmans Dome where we photographed the sunset until all the color had drained from the sky.
Clingmans Dome was only the halfway point of our trip as we continued to a hotel that night and had a long drive home the following day, but the culmination of the trip for me was my thrilling run along the roadside trail that led me to my most cherished photography capture. This was a moment in my life that will eternally live on as a 2D piece of art as well as a memorable story.