Last night I had big plans. In the context of what other people might be doing with their Fourth of July weekends these plans might seem humble, but it was photographically ambitious nonetheless. My goal was to get as far away from any light as possible and take a series of 30-40 second photographs of the Milky Way as it rose out of the south-east and marched across the sky. Stacked together and put in motion, these pictures would make a time lapse movie.
After driving away from the small town of Newellton, where my mother’s family is from, for about 15 mintues, I turned down a gravel road flanked by corn fields. I drove until I had a decent view of the south-east and was well away from any lights. Night photography is a solitary endeavor. You have to make a concerted effort to get as far away from other people as possible. You set your camera up with the aid of a flashlight, but once you start taking pictures you want to prevent any non-astronomical light from entering the frame. You basically go to a whole lot of effort to sit quietly and alone in the dark.
As I was setting up said camera and preparing myself for several hours of doing nothing an enormous blue flash lit up the corn field and gravel road. My first thought was “Who the hell would use a flash out here?” I suppose we are inclined to see the world through our own experience. Though there was no one else around, my brain just assumed that someone was popping off a flash somewhere amongst the corn rows.
In fact, no one was taking flash photos of me setting up my camera in what would prove to be a futile effort to photograph the Milky Way. A big, honking meteor was breaking to pieces and burning up in the atmosphere behind me… in the one place my then active camera was not pointed. This meteor burned a bright blue, like a full moon that had not so much risen as been briefly turned on. It then plowed across the sky leaving a yellow and red trail of flaming debris that careened off of the main meteor-train like pool balls after a break. Without any hyperbole whatsoever, It may have been the most amazing thing I have ever seen.
The remote spot of gravel road I had selected ended up not being as remote as I thought. Cars kept coming by and completely ruining any chances I had of getting my Milky Way time-lapse (you can see the effect of a car’s headlight showing up in a long exposure night shot above). I wish I could say that it was the meteor, but it was just a Chevy truck.
So, what does this tell me? There are the obvious lessons about best laid plans going astray. I could kick myself for not having gotten a once-in-a-lifetime photograph. But, the point is that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Some astronomy enthusiasts spend their whole lives hoping to see such a thing. The chances of being in a dark field, directly beneath an extremely rare astronomical event are so small and this meteor was so spectacular that I just count myself lucky for having seen it at all. Of course, I do see the irony in having my camera pointed the other direction as this rocky visitor from outer-space came flaming by. How many other people were in the meteor’s path and set up for taking pictures of the stars… my guess is very few. But, regrets like that are a waste of energy. Its better to just be satisfied with having seen such fleeting beauty and to again be shown, in continent spanning proportions, that there is value in sitting by yourself in the dark from time to time.
As a side note, I have been reading on some forums this morning about other people who saw the meteor. Sightings came in from as far north as Missouri and are spread from Texas to Tennessee. And one other thing, I was turned around when I set my camera up. Initially, I wasn’t pointing toward the Milky Way at all, if I had been I would have gotten the shot. I guess lesson number two is, always bring a compass.