In hindsight this image was as much a result of serendipitous circumstances (right place, right time) as it was of the night that preceded it, which put me in the right state of mind to see and attempt to capture it.
Some would say August is no time to visit Death Valley, not to mention drive the long and lonely dirt road to the Racetrack playa. Still, having grown up in hot climates, I am drawn to heat like moth to light. To me there is something spiritual about a silent desert shimmering in the intense light and heat of summer.
I arrived in Death Valley the night before this image was made. By the time I got to this area it was about 10PM, and 110 degrees Fahrenheit (about 43 degrees Celsius). I took a side road towards an abandoned mine, threw a sleeping pad on the arid ground and went to sleep wearing nothing but shorts. A slight breeze ran the hot air over me, which felt wonderful and I fell asleep immediately.
I woke up a couple of hours later as I felt something touching my face. Instinctively I brushed it off and switched on my headlamp. It was a huge yellow scorpion. Scorpion stings are not deadly to most people, but are quite unpleasant nontheless (speaking from experience), so I decided to pass what remained of the night in my Jeep. I reclined the seat, opened the windows and tried unsuccessfully to make myself comfortable. I never quite fell asleep but kept drifting in and out of consciousness for what must have been 2 or 3 hours. Several times I opened my eyes to see ghostly Joshua trees gleaming in the moonlight, not quite human in shape but not too far off either. When I wasn't fully awake I saw things even more bizarre and indescribable.
It was almost dawn when I heard coyotes howling in the distance and became fully awake. The sky was starting to light up and I decided to head down to the playa and find the mysterious Moving Rocks to photograph at sunrise. As soon as I got out of the car, still somewhat dazed from the night and its visions, I was greeted by a large gopher snake that gave out a loud hiss and slithered away. With such an array of experiences so tightly condensed into the previous hours, I truly felt like the only human alive, transported into an ancient desert world. It wasn't a bad feeling, but one of excitement, mystery, and yes - just a little bit of fear.
As the light and heat quickly intensified I found a number of rocks I wanted to photograph and was watching the sky to determine where the sun was to appear. I made a couple of images before first light and returned to this rock which was farther from the rest and the only one with a distinct sharp angle in its path. Something about it connected with the previous night's events and immediately made me think of someone wandering alone in the desert, lost, in search of direction.
As the rising sun crested the mountains, I saw the textured playa begin to glow and deep harsh shadows quickly formed in the thin cracks. I knew this was a hit or miss shot - directly into the rising sun with nothing reliable to meter off. I set up and made just one exposure. A couple of seconds later it was as though someone flipped a switch - the sun blasted the playa with blinding light and the effect was gone.
I had to wait another week before I got the film back from the lab. My exposure, based mostly on guesswork, was blissfully perfect, and this single exposure captured within it everything that I remember about the trip, the delirious night, and the magic of the place in the dead heat of summer.