Canyon

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A story about capturing sunrise over the Palo Duro Canyon in Texas.

Waking up for sunrise is never an easy task, and this was no exception. The motel car park was mostly empty apart from a few scattered cars parked outside the faded motel room doors. I threw my North Face duffel into the trunk of my Hyundai Tucson and clambered into the drivers seat. Bleary eyed and slightly drowsy I pulled out of the parking lot. The engine gently rumbled and shuddered in the otherwise silent street. Canyon wasn’t a town with much life, especially not at this time in the morning. I drove past a few more empty motels and deserted gas stations and it wasn’t long before I was on the open road. Ranches and trailers parked in fields passed by my window as I drove along State Highway 217. In the rear view mirror I caught a glimpse of headlights, maybe a truck setting off on its long journey across Texas. I could feel the strong push of the wind as I drove and the sudden force of the breeze took me by complete surprise as the car began drifting into the opposite lane. My grip tightened on the steering wheel and I regained control of the SUV as it battled against the ferocious desert wind. I’d purchased a cheap iced coffee from Dollar General the previous evening and drank it quickly to wake myself up. I wanted to lose the lethargic feeling that always comes with getting up before the sunrise. 

As I pulled up to the entrance of Paolo Duro Canyon National Park I was expecting to see a park ranger requesting the 5 dollar entrance fee, but the cabin was unstaffed and instead there was just a box to deposit your payment. I stuffed the crumpled envelope containing my money through a narrow slit in the side of the box and hurried back to the car. The door was slammed shut by another gust of wind before I’d had a chance to close it myself, and the stationary car was rocked slightly before it died down again. I quickly set off as I could see the morning glow starting to appear on the horizon. I twisted around the winding canyon roads and pulled in next to the main viewing point overlooking the canyon. I put on an extra jumper and pulled my hood up to keep out the chill the wind had brought to this early morning. I grabbed my camera and a 24mm prime as I stepped out of the car and gazed out over the vast rock formation below.

The sky, now shades of pink and blue, was a beautiful contrast to the orange canyon below. I held my camera and focused on the horizon, adjusting the aperture ring to f9 ensuring the entire landscape was in sharp focus. My hands trembled as I gripped the camera trying to get a steady photo. I rapidly fired off several shots in quick succession. The unrelenting wind continued to batter the canyon wall causing huge clouds of dust to fly through the air and into my eyes. I shielded my face from the sting, but it quickly became too much to bare. I ran back to the car, fighting to get the door open and squeezed back into the drivers seat, relieved to have a shield between myself and the fierce wind. The idea of completing a long hike now seemed like a daunting and unpleasant task. I started the engine and continued to drive down into the canyon anticipating that the steep rocky walls would provide some much needed shelter. Unfortunately this was not the case and the weather hadn’t improved so I made the decision to remain in the car for a while in the hope that the wind would lessen. The radio crackled as I searched for a stronger signal but it was hard to find a station this deep within the canyon. I’m not one for waiting and it wasn’t long before my patience wore thin. I bent down to tighten my shoelaces and pulled my jacket hood over my face. I threw my backpack over my shoulder and once again ventured outside into the cruel wind. I had no idea how my hike would turn out, but I knew I would only disappoint myself if I gave up this soon. I steadied my feet and headed for the opening of the trail. As I looked back I couldn’t help but consider: “is all this really worth it for a photograph?” I had asked myself this question many times before and the answer would always be the same: “yes it is”.

Words & Photography by Mirko Nicholson

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