I want to be Annie Leibovitz.
That’s my goal. To be surrounded by the rich and famous, taking still images forever immortalized on the cover of Rolling Stone. How I want that life. I want to be on every socialite’s party list, hob-nobbing with celebrities begging to be the subject of my next photo shoot. I want the grand studio in the middle of Manhattan filled with pretty-boy assistants jumping at my every request.
Imagine being the boss over the highest paid actors and actresses in the world, making them do whatever I want for the sake of the session. I want to be the toast of the photography world. I want to be the toast of the art world. Heck, just to be the toast of the town in general! What could be more perfect that that?
Anything’s more perfect that this, I thought as I looked up at the blue sky mottled with ominous dark clouds. Yeah, that’s what I need. To get caught in a downpour before I get my stupid tent up.
I clutched the collar of my coat, shivering against a non-existent wind. I tapped my pockets feeling for my map and compass, unconcerned about getting lost. If anything, I was good at keeping track of directions.
The heavy backpack filled with camping gear weighed me down mentally as well as physically, the annoying regular creaking straining my already tense mood. I placed a hand on the second, smaller pack strapped to its bottom. The last thing I needed was my camera to get damaged. It was the only reason I was here in this isolated place, away from prying eyes and the nearest convenience store. The area, so pristine and isolated, the only way I was allowed in was by hiking. No vehicles of any kind were allowed near the area much less in it, not even a helicopter.
I bet if I was Marty Stouffer I could have gotten a helicopter, I thought with a sarcastic snort. But I’m not Marty Stouffer. And I’m sure not Annie Leibovitz either.
Annie would not have been caught dead taking this chintzy assignment, ‘Native Plants and Wildlife of the Thorn Mountain Wilderness Area’. I was on my way up. Feh.
National Park Magazine gave me the assignment, not that I was ungrateful. I was going through a professional dry spell before they called. When all a company has to do is grab a book of stock photos to illustrate articles, I found my talent and skill less than appreciated. At least computer jockeys never need to do on location shoots.
The magazine’s objective was to remind people who never even went to their local park that national parks are worth preserving. Aren’t the flowers pretty? Aren’t those baby animals cute? Send a check. I could only thank goodness the editor gives his readers more credit that I was willing to. He could have used any generic landscape pictures and labeled it as ‘Thorn Valley’ and people would have believed it.
I had been granted a special access permit and had four days to take my pictures and return to headquarters or rangers were going to find and remove me. They are serious about keeping this place protected. I’m sure they especially don’t want a creatively drained photographer to trash the place in frustration.
Why couldn’t I’ve been an attorney like my older sister Abby? She was working for the Assistant DA back in New York and accomplishing more than I was at this moment. As good as the money was, this assignment couldn’t be over fast enough.
Dog barking up ahead snapped me out of my disillusionment, reminding me that this wasn’t the perfect place to wallow in self-pity.
“Eddie!” I yelled up ahead. “C’mere boy!” The dog barked again, bounding through the crunching leaves. “Come on! I don’t need you getting lost.”
At that a black and white Border collie jumped out of the brush. I was glad they allowed me to bring Eddie or else I might go stir crazy. In retrospect it might not have been such a good idea since I’m sure he’ll make shooting wildlife a bit difficult. Hopefully I’ll be able to control him enough.
Looking up again, I realized I didn’t have much time to settle in before dusk. The dark clouds floated overhead, making me say a silent prayer against their gathering. Before this trip, I watched more Weather Channel than any human being should be allowed, making sure the week I had to do this was free of bad weather in general. But even the Weather Channel was known to be wrong once in a while and the gray clouds above reinforced that fear.
I was getting tired of walking which surprised me. Combined with the stress of having to work on top of spending four days “roughing it”, hiking wasn’t as fun as I was used to it being. Finding a clear spot in between some trees, I started to make camp.
I was thankful that it didn’t take me long to set up the small tent. Getting my gear inside I snacked on a health bar to tide me over. For what seemed to be an eternity, I sat in the center of the tent, half-napping as I sat up. I could hear Eddie’s disgruntled yapping at failed attempts to catch whatever small animal crossed his path. That didn’t stop the Border collie from trying though.
I set up a small folding chair made of waterproof fabric stretched on an aluminum frame. It doubled as a table for my camera so it wouldn’t be on the ground where I could step or roll over on it in my sleep. I dumped out the endless rolls of film.
If I were lucky, half of the exposures would yield useable images. Half of those images the magazine would take. And only a fraction of those would ever see print. If I was really lucky, I could sell some of the rejected photos to other magazines. The thought started a fantasy about National Geographic publishing a multi-page spread with my photos. My camera wasn’t even loaded.
I was beginning to notice how sweaty I was getting. Despite the warm spring weather, I was told nighttime in the woods was surprisingly cold. I opted to overcompensate rather than die of hypothermia.
Pulling off the red and black sports coat, it fell behind me in a noisy polyester pile. An unbuttoned flannel shirt followed it, dumped with equal disregard. Finally comfortable in jeans, a white tank-top, and the tan hiking boots I had purchased just for this occasion, I sat cross-legged for a while longer, savoring the cool air.
There was a rustling on the front of the tent. The sound startled me until a big, black and white fuzzy head poked through the front door slit. Eddie panted, his wagging tail waving his entire body. I smiled relieved it was him instead of the bear I thought it was for a split second.
Cuddling his head I looked into his brown and blue mismatched eyes. Eddie licked my face, trying to force himself into the tent all the way. In his hyper state that was a big no-no. I didn’t want the playful dog to collapse my only refuge in the vast preserve. He would have to wait until his energy fell to a level I could keep up with.
Feeling rested, my pent up resentment gone, I decided to peruse outside. I’d better get used to it or the shoot was going take longer than it needed to be. Much to Eddie’s delight, I crawled out from the tent, stretching my 5’5″ frame. I breathed deeply the clean air, all sorts of noises surrounding us from singing birds to the wind rustling the leaves above.
I was used to the quite that came with not living in the middle of a large city, although I did prefer the hustle and bustle. I imagined how my sister would have liked it. She probably couldn’t survive a half-hour without her tailored suits, leather briefcases and that cell phone glued to her hip.
My mind rambled. That big-shot DA she worked for, what was his name? Jack? I remembered meeting him once when I visited her at the office. Not long enough to really get to know him, though. I found myself smiling. He was cute for an older gentleman with thick eyebrows matching a gray mop of hair that looked like it almost got combed. What topped it was his boyish, if not mischievous charm that attracted me to him immediately.
Too bad he was much older than I could safely date. Yeah, too old. I shook my head, letting out an embarrassed laugh. I couldn’t believe I was thinking this. The man could be my father. A really cute father. Another laugh escaped. I decided it was time to get some work done before my thoughts really got out of control.
I went back into the tent. I loaded up the manual camera, placing a couple more film rolls into a pouch strapped to my belt. It was warm enough so I left my coat and flannel shirt behind. They would only be cumbersome. Getting my bearings, I mentally marked the campsite, snapping the compass to my belt. I called Eddie who bounded joyously by my side. With camera in hand we made our way towards the clearing up ahead. I was ready to make history, even if it was in my own mind.
Photography is meditation to me. The minute the shutter starts snapping the rest of the world ceases to exist. All that is real is what is portrayed in the lens, subsequently captured forever on film. Wildflowers were the topic of the day since Eddie insisted on driving everything that could run or fly away. If it wasn’t with his incessant barking, it was his uncanny ability to find anything to harass. It wasn’t too terrible, though. Thanks to him I was able to capture great action sequences of pheasants in flight and rabbits jumping in terror.
I never realized how many different flowers existed until I had to photograph every single one. My jeans were already getting covered in soil, making me glad I brought an extra pair. I underestimated how dirty everything would get in such a short amount of time. Even my tank top wasn’t going to hold out for four days.
Fortunately the best thing about being secluded is the ability to get butt-naked to wash clothes in the nearest river. Now it was just figuring out how bad I was going to let my clothes get before resorting to that. Rivers may be convenient but not temperature controlled. I shivered at the thought.
Shadows were getting deeper, causing a lot of distraction. I had ended up away from camp longer than I planned. As the sun began to set, I studied my domain. Thorn Valley was about five miles long, running nearly straight north to south. A lake nurtured the valley with a wide rushing stream feeding into it. At least I knew where the local Laundromat was.
Beyond the Valley rose a range of gray, mist shrouded mountains. The highest being the imposing Thorn Mountain, with its distinct triangle shapes. For that first moment, I was in complete awe of my surroundings. A gentle breeze swept dark red strands of my hair into my face.
As I looked at the valley again, the long casting shadows enshrouding the landscape, I ended up with an odd feeling I couldn’t pinpoint. It wasn’t a bad feeling, just something was out of place. I took a few more photos of the area. Maybe when they were developed something would show up, or not as the case could be. Either way, I lingered as long as I could, searching my brains for answers until the sun hit the horizon. Eddie came up to me quiet and tired. So was I.
We made haste back to camp, racing the fading light. I may have a compass tempered with a good sense of direction but I didn’t have my flashlight.
We made it back without incident, beginning to feel the chill in the air. I unrolled my sleeping bag, positioning myself so Eddie would sleep nearest the opening.
As darkness enveloped the valley, I was glad I had brought the dog with me. To hear how noisy the forest was at night was quite unnerving. Thoughts of being attacked by wild animals as I slept flashed through my mind.
If it weren’t for my flashlight, I wouldn’t be able to see anything in front of me. The lack of light did have one benefit. The sky was alive with twinkling stars, more stars than I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t help but stare, overwhelmed by its sheer beauty.
Pressing the glow function on my watch, I was surprised at how early it was compared to how tired I felt. Back in the city, it was quite common for me to stay up working until 4 or 5 in the morning. Here it was barely 8:30 in the evening and I was falling apart at the sight of stars in the sky.
Creeping back into the tent with Eddie in tow, I slipped out of my clothes and put on a toasty-warm pair of long johns. It was blissful lying down, snuggling into the sleeping bag. I kept my eyes open, trying to see in the pitch darkness to no avail. Eddie curled up, letting out a deep sigh. My eyelids grew heavy as I lay there listening. I never went camping before so this was a first experience. So far so good.
Sure enough, the dog started snoring.
I let out a sigh of my own. Why is it that the snorers always get to sleep first? I tried to concentrate on the miscellaneous rustling, chirping, hooting, whatever other noises I could. That probably wasn’t such a good idea as I started thinking about bears. The rangers assured me there were no bears in the valley as they preferred to live closer to the mountains. Just the same though. I should still take the same bear-proofing precautions just in case.
I could see it now. No bears in Thorn Valley until I happen to be there. I started thinking about worst case scenarios. It didn’t last long. Thinking became difficult, then before I realized sleep had given me better things to do. Thankfully it was deep enough that I didn’t hear Eddie’s snoring all night. A bear could have attacked and I wouldn’t have noticed. Nothing like hating your job to really tire you out.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently.