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My Obsession With Nightscape Photography Started With Depression

Posted by John Scarr on
My Obsession With Nightscape Photography Started With Depression

TRAILS OF PERSPECTIVE

The Power and Thrill of Adventure 

That’s right. A giant black hole of empty sadness drove me to abandon my previous life “plan” of being a wannabe punk rocker city kid with one foot in the grave for a much more glamorous life of being a poor couch surfing traveling artist.  

Initially, I was inspired by the stories I read as a kid. Stories about adventures to places where people are not. Untouched and unbridled wild spaces. No rules, no one to tell you what to do, or when to do it. As a kid, that was exactly where I wanted to be.  

Somewhere in the process of growing up I lost that sense of wonder and excitement that I had experienced through those adventure stories from my childhood. Losing that feeling bothered me so much that one day I left to find it.  

Within the first year, I had swam with sharks, hiked volcanoes, been extorted by Balinese police, and bicycled 1,000 km through the mountains of New Zealand. My passion for adventure grew with every trip– I wanted to find a way to share that experience in a unique way. This is where Updates from Space was born. This particular story drops in on an early trip that helped launch my career as a storyteller/visual artist and led me to even stranger experiences.  

I left Minneapolis with $180 in my bank account—just enough to make it to Badlands National Park and back. Earlier that day I was “window shopping” for clear skies through my weather app and noticed a three-day period with clear skies over South Dakota. That was all I needed to jump in my car and hit the road. 

I remember being caught off guard as I stepped out of my Mobile Office Unit, also known as a car. For the first time in eight hours, I wasn’t being bombarded with the sounds of the road. The silence was disorienting. I was surrounded by a martian landscape and the brightest stars I had seen in a long time.  

It was nearly impossible to pick out the constellations. The Milky Way stretched across the sky, and the Dark Horse Nebula was fully visible to the naked eye. There are few places where I’ve seen stars as bright and colorful. I took a few pictures while I waited for the sun to rise and the park station to open. I ponied up the entrance fee and was on my way to the backcountry trailhead. On my drive in I saw a herd of bighorn while driving through the east entrance road, followed shortly after by a handful of coyotes running through the prairie plains—a sign of things to come. 

I found camp about two miles in. Backcountry in the Badlands is especially difficult when it comes to multi-day trips. All water sources are so mineral-dense that filters can’t process it. I carried two and a half days’ drinking water along with my winter camping gear. The temperature was forecasted to hover around 20 degrees at night and there are no fires allowed in the park. That means more layers, thicker sleeping bag, and an extra closed-cell foam pad. It also means more calories to maintain body heat; more calories means more food, which generally means more water—not to mention my camera gear, which was with me every step of the way. All in, my pack at the time weighed close to 80 pounds. 

I woke up around 11 p.m. to moonlight shining through my tent. Something—most likely a 12-foot-tall humanoid space monster waiting to ambush me and harvest my organs—is rustling through the tall grass. I tightened my grip on my ‘comfort knife’, just in case. Hearing something outside my tent is never not terrifying—especially when I’m alone, miles from the nearest road and even further from human contact. I waited, listening in total silence. An owl hooted nearby, and I jumped. Whatever had been outside my campsite scurried back through the desert prairie brush. I’m not sure how long I sat motionless in the dark—I’ve always felt like time moves more like a dream when I’m alone in the wild.

Howling. 

Not the somber call of a wolf, but the yip-howl of a coyote. It was close. Then another howl, followed by a few more. Some quick math, fueled by my panic-brain, concluded there were at least 200 prairie-sniffers surrounding my tent. If at any point in this story, you find yourself wondering how someone can pull an all-nighter driving and hiking, sleep for 3 hours, and then shoot photos until 5 in the morning—it’s called adrenaline and it works better than coffee. In reality, it was probably closer to 30 coyotes and most of them were in the gully a half mile west of me.   

I ate something that resembled breakfast, drank about three cups of instant coffee for good measure, and set off to shoot some locations I had scouted on my hike in. It had been quite some time since I had been isolated like this—and not necessarily in geographical terms. Back in 2015, I bicycled 800+ miles through New Zealand by myself. At the risk of sounding like a total hippie, there was something profound about spending days on end without human contact—no phone, no schedule, and no obligations. The impact on my mental health and overall outlook was immediately noticeable. 

I made it back to camp around 5 a.m., slept for maybe four hours and woke up to throbbing eyes and a hellish sleep deprivation headache. The day came and went with that same dream-like timelessness I mentioned earlier. I tracked coyote footprints to the scene of a feast: remnants of a deer—mostly fur— signs that there was some kind of struggle in the thick clay-mud. I was looking at a story. One moment recorded by nature. It felt like someone was talking to me, but when I listened there were only muffled tones of the wind howling through the dead prairie grass. 

The original inhabitants of this region, people of the Oglala Lakota Nation—held beliefs that were formed around the natural world. The sun, moon, and stars played a major role in their lives, culture, and spiritual practices. When a person dies, they believe that one of their four souls heads south following a path called Wanagi Tacanku or Spirit Path, commonly known today as the Milky Way Galaxy. Their stories of creation were also rooted in nature—the first Lakota person, Tokahe, was lured out of a village under the earth by a spirit, Iktomi, in the form of a wolf. The location of the underground village is today known as Windcave National Park. I felt like I was catching a glimpse of why nature played such a prominent role in their cultural beliefs.  

I woke up around 11 p.m. that night, more coyotes yippin’ around camp. Not as scary as the first time but it still made me jump. I set my camera for a time-lapse and wandered off down a trail. 

A ways down from where I set my shot up- I heard the same rustling that woke me up the first night, I jumped- again. And there they were. Quill Pigs. Despite my imagination, it was not an organ harvesting alien monster making that noise. It was a prickle of porcupines waddling through the tall grass. That was the terrifying noise I had heard outside my tent.  

I may have been exhausted, sore, and possibly delusional; but I was smiling. I slept better that night than I had in quite some time. Three days ended abruptly. It felt like I had been back there for a month. I was in my own world and all of the sudden- here I am back on the road to Minneapolis and a dead-end job that allowed me to disappear once in a while. It started like it began—no music, no words, only the noises from the road. When I did eventually turn on the radio, a reading of a poem by David Wagoner began to play. This line in specific stopped me in my tracks. “Wherever you are is called here, and you must treat it like a powerful stranger.” My ears turned off. I turned the radio off and started planning my next trip on the drive home. 

About 8 months later I received an email- one of the photos taken on this trip placed first in the “Humans in Nature” category of an international contest and would be published in their next issue. I owe at least part of my long-running and wildly-challenging passion to this trip.  

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Read more of our stories in Issue 18 of Lake and Company

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