Winter Blues

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February – the shortest month of the year. However, while we are in the midst of it, it seems to be never ending, lingering on and on, day after gloomy day.  Why is that?  Have we forgotten that daylight can extend past 5 pm?  Or maybe all those seed catalogs that begin arriving in the mail and piling up on the kitchen table make us grow ever more impatient for spring as they taunt us with their glossy rainbows of flowers, fruits and vegetables.  IMG_1091Reminding us that there are colors other than brown and gray, that the sun can warm the earth enough for green stuff to once again emerge from the currently frozen, barren soil.  Whatever causes this annoying phenomenon, I have long ago gotten in the habit of planning in advance for this end of winter funk.  Some time in the fall we make plans for a late winter weekend retreat. Not to a sunny tropical destination but to someplace semi-local where we can reaffirm our appreciation for the changing seasons and the beauty that can still be found even in the gloominess of winter’s final months.

This year the destination was the newly constructed lodge at Echo Bluff state park in Eminence, Missouri.  The park is in a beautiful area right in the middle of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways and the Mark Twain National Forest.  Needless to say, we were very excited to get out in the fresh air and do some hiking and sightseeing.

When we arrived at the lodge, we were greeted by the little band of wild horses that like to hang around the park.  I have heard these horses are descendants of once domesticated farm animals that were set free during the Great Depression.  They are now protected by law and are maintained by a local organization to prevent the herds from getting larger than 50 animals.  When this happens, some of the them are caught so they can be tamed and put up for adoption by local residents, where they rejoin their domestic ancestors.  I suppose you could argue that these creatures are really more “feral” then “wild”, but nonetheless there is something rather romantic and nostalgic about the notion of horses roaming freely throughout the countryside.  Yet, the bond that was broken nearly 100 years ago may not be quite so fragile and some of these animals still seem to trust us silly humans, at least a little bit.  I watched as they approached a group of people starting a campfire and was, of course, inspired to attempt a connection of my own. Collage I must admit they look a lot more impressive from a distance.  Up close you can see the ravages of surviving in this mountainous Missouri terrain.  Their manes and tails are tangled up with burs and leaves and they look like they could really use a full-blown spa day, complete with mani-pedi – unshod horses tend to have some pretty gnarly nails.  With freezing rain and ice predicted for the following evening, I couldn’t help but wonder where these poor creatures slept at night.

We were quite a bit luckier, we knew exactly where we would be sleeping.  The lodge is a gorgeous newIMG_0932 log and stone structure, cozy and warm with a giant fireplace in a two-story great room and amazing views of its namesake bluff and Sinking Creek. Our room was on the second floor, overlooking the bluff and creek.  Despite the impending winter storm, it was an unusually warm evening, so we sat on our little balcony, adult beverage in hand and enjoyed the view as the sun slowly sank in the sky and the horses meandered down the creek, wandering off into the night to wherever it is they go.

The next morning was exploration time and we needed to get an early start so we could be back at the lodge before the inclement weather hit.  Sometimes the best trips are the ones with no set plans – you just tend to go wherever the road leads.  This trip was no exception to that rule.  We started off in the general direction of Rocky Falls for no other reason than I saw a sign and it sounded interesting.  Along the way, we saw another sign for Alley Spring.  This I had heard of, so we decided to take a brief detour and check it out.  All I can say about this place is “WOW”!  It was like standing in the middle of a picture Mill 2(s)postcard.  It was so amazingly beautiful.  You don’t realize how color blind the winter gloom can make you until your eyes are once again acquainted with blue water and green plants. This has got to be the most colorful place that Missouri has to offer in these dark, dank months.  A bright red mill, reflected in a pool of naturally blue spring water with lush green plants!  There was even a slight mist floating just above the water. It was simply jaw dropping and pictures cannot do it justice.  I would love to come back here in the fall to see how the autumn color enhances it even further.

Mill 5(s)In the winter, daylight is a limited commodity, so we were forced to press on in our unscripted agenda and continue to Rocky Falls.  At this point, we realized we were truly “off the grid” because we had lost cell phone coverage and I had to rummage through the litter in the glove box and dust off the paper map of Missouri.  This moment always makes me a little elated.  I just love having to unfold that darn map and not have to rely on Siri to get us lost. Our misdirection now depended on my navigational prowess and the cartographical accuracy of Rand-McNally. Onward to Rocky Falls!

 

Falls 2(s)Rocky Falls was pretty much just that, a rocky waterfall.  There was indeed water and rocks and a fall, but it wasn’t running at full strength. Probably much more impressive in the spring when there’s a little more water.  We had a short amount of time between other visitors to get in a few pictures, but when a camo-attired horde came roaring up on a dozen or so ATV’s we figured that signaled the end of this particular photo shoot.

Just like that, it was back to the beloved paper map to see what other natural wonders this area had up its sleeve.  And there on the map, highlighted and bolded in blue as a “point of interest”, was Blue Spring.  What could that be? It must be worth checking out if it was truly a point of interest.  So off we drove in search of a blue spring, curving and winding through the back roads of rural Missouri. It was somewhere along this route that I learned how you know when you have actually reached Rural Missouri – it’s the moment when you see a dead, rotting coyote carcass impaled on fence post as a warning to all his pack mates and kin to stay the F*** out of Rural Missouri. Yikes…Doubt there are many PETA sympathizers in these parts.  

Blue Spring is another of Missouri’s natural wonders that lives up to its name by virtue of being both blue and a spring. In my experience, many of the springs in Missouri are blue, so what makes this one different?  Well the signage is happy to tell you!  This is the deepest spring in Missouri (over 300 feet), it IMG_1012.jpgis so blue that the native Americans called it the “Spring of the Summer Sky” and it discharges 90 million gallons of water a day!  It truly is quite an amazing shade of blue.  Blue Springs 2(s)On this, the grayest of all winter days, it was the bluest of any spring that has ever sprung.  The water is so clear, you can peer straight down into its azure depths, where the blueness seems to increase the deeper you try to stare. Even the fish shimmer like sapphires as they dart about in their beautiful little basin of blue.  Definitely another awe-inspiring photo destination to add to the lineup for the Eminence area.Blue Springs 4(s)

Time always seems to fly when you’re having fun. With no cell phone coverage, an outdated map of Missouri and inclement weather on the radar it was time to follow the trail of dead coyotes back to the sanctuary of the lodge where a special Valentines Day dinner was being prepared.

Later in the evening, after enjoying an overabundance of filet mignon, lobster tail and decadent desserts, we hunkered down by the massive stone fireplace to ride out the storm. As the ice began to tap against the windows, we reflected on the adventures of the day and how, with all the stunning and colorful natural wonders that this beautiful place had to offer, we had gained a whole new perspective on the concept of “winter blues.”

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If You Build It, Will They Come?

 

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Our legacy.  Our life’s work.  That one piece of ourselves we leave behind.  An undertaking we are so passionate about we can never put it to rest.  It doesn’t require willpower to motivate us, our visions have a power all their own. An unseen driving force that keeps us awake at night and gnaws at us during the day.  Where does this kind of motivation come from and why do we possess it? It seems that we are on this earth to do more than just merely survive.  We dream. We innovate. We create.  Some of our dreams may seem crazy or farfetched to others, yet to us they are our most cherished possessions and are worth all of the effort we can muster… and then maybe just a little bit more.

Grotto 5.jpgOut here in Missouri – in the foothills of the Ozarks – I came across the remains of the lifework of one man. A man with a lofty dream – a passion that relentlessly consumed him both day and night and led him on a labor of love and a journey of faith that continued throughout his life.

Grotto 33.jpgBrother Bronislaus Luszcz was a Franciscan monk who immigrated to the St. Louis area from Poland in 1927.  In his native country, he grew up watching pilgrims make their way to the Shrine of St. Mary.  These pilgrims would travel hundreds of miles on foot and sleep along the road to pay homage to the Queen of Peace. Brother Bronislaus developed a great devotion for Mary during his formative years, a devotion that never relented.

Grotto 34When Bronislaus came to the United States, he was one of several Brothers who were put to work establishing St. Joseph’s Hill Infirmary – a convalescent home for men, nestled back on a wooded hillside on the outskirts of the towns of Eureka and Pacific Missouri.  It was in this peaceful environment one day in 1937 that Brother Bronislaus embarked on what would be his life’s work – a series of stone grottoes built entirely by hand with nothing more than a sledgehammer and an axe. What remains now is a tribute to his faith and the culmination of over 20 years of backbreaking labor.

The stone for his monuments was locally quarried and dropped off on the site by the dump truck full.  Each grotto is uniquely decorated with trinkets that were donated for such a purpose by faithful followers and fans.  Pieces of old costume jewelry, sea shells, pottery, loose change, broken bottles, small porcelain statues and many other objects were all artistically arranged and set into the stone. The variety of items are amazing and endless.  Nothing went unused.

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At this time, the area was very remote and much of Bronislaus raw materials were limitedSt Francis Grotto.jpg to what was on the monastery grounds, so he became creative with his own unique construction and adornments. He raided the infirmary’s kitchen and confiscated pots and pans.  Cake pans shaped like lambs and rabbits became molds for the concrete animals that sit at the feet of St. Francis.  Jell-O molds, cupcake tins and discarded light fixtures were the basis for the floral decorations that embellish the corners of his tributes to St. Mary and St. Joseph.  Colored glass bottles set into recesses along the walls became makeshift stained glass windows.

grotto collage 2.jpgAnd so he toiled for 22 years. Clearing land, breaking stone, mitigating through trial and errGrotto 15.jpgor, honing his skill. A slave to his own labors, each monument became more elaborate and fantastic than the last. Then one day, just after his 66th birthday, Bronislaus was beginning construction on his newest grotto, in honor of Our Lady of Fatima.  It was a hot day in the summer of 1960 and Bronislaus was recovering from a bout with the flu when he was overcome by the heat.  He managed to make his way across the courtyard to where the statue of St. Mary stood sentinel in the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Grotto.  Collapsing on the stones at her feet in the August afternoon sun, he lay gazing up at the statue of his beloved Madonna. Her outstretched hand reaching to take him back home where he would toil no longer. Later that day, when he did not return to the monastery for evening prayers, the other Brothers came to look for him, a trail of tools led them to his earthly remains. This very spot is now marked with a seashell, to honor his memory in the place of his own creation. His vision was now a reality, his accomplishment and his legacy.

Grotto 21.jpgHowever, the fact still remains that Bronislaus wasn’t finished, his accomplishments were not completed, nor would they ever be no matter how long he lived.  When you look around the rest of the grounds, you will see them dotting the landscape here and there.  Grotto-less statues of Saints awaiting their turn to be humbled by the unique creativity of one man.  In his mind there would never be a last grotto.  As long as he was still alive, the construction would have continued.  You see, once you find your life’s work the only thing that ends it is your death.  No matter what your passion – there will always be another animal to save, another mouth to feed, another picture to paint, another novel to write, another song to sing.  It’s not the completion of the job that is satisfying, it’s the doing.  Grotto 13.jpgWe climb the ladder one rung at a time but never reach the top.  It’s like a magical beanstalk that keeps growing as we climb. The end appears to be within reach, but we can’t quite get there.  No matter how much we do, it’s just not enough. There’s always something bigger, something better around the corner.  A new idea, another adventure and so we surrender ourselves to this work.  We just do it, for no other reason than doing it makes us feel fulfilled.

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So here remains the culmination of the life’s work of one man.  To me this place is an inspiration, it has a rustic beauty, an uncommon charm but also a hint of sadness.  Did Bronislaus expect pilgrims to come from hundreds of miles away to worship at the shrines he created?  Perhaps he did; perhaps they did at one time.  But now these architectural feats of local stone, loose change and random artifacts are falling into disrepair.  There is no funding to pay for their upkeep. The Archdiocese does not give money for repairs.  The only caretakers are the handful of remaining Franciscan Brothers who are still at the monastery just down the road.  The infirmary closed its doors in 2008.  How long before the monastery follows and no-one is left to oversee this hidden gem?

Grotto 32.jpgIn a way it’s quite bittersweet when you think about it, we spend our whole lives working on the things we love – gardens, artwork, music, poetry. Yet for all the joy these things bring us, for most of us when we go…these things will go with us.  They will be lost in time, succumb to the elements and be given back to the earth.  Maybe a few pieces will remain for a while with the people we loved, the lives we’ve touched.

As I stand back at a distance and survey this place on a Sunday morning in late July, I can see the sun rising through the trees just behind the very grotto where Bronislaus breathed his last breath.  I can envision him looking down through the sun’s rays and smiling at the beauty of it all.  The hills, the trees, the grottoes, the country side.  The essence of his soul will always remain in this place.

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In the end, I suppose it’s not really the creations that we leave behind that matters, it’s the inspiration we evoke in others when they come to understand the joy, the hope and the passion that we lived by. So will they come?  They may after all, maybe not in droves, but it only takes one spark to rekindle a long lost flame.

Grotto 27In memory of Brother Bronislaus Luszcz. August 4, 1894 – August 12, 1960.

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Urban Explorations – Soulard on a Saturday

Soulard Market 9(s)Hiking through the woods, observing and photographing all the beautiful flora and fauna is definitely my favorite past time, but sometimes it’s also fun to observe my fellow human creatures in their less than natural urban environment.  Like their woodland counterparts, these creatures must also forage for food and drink. What better place to observe this urban phenomenon than in the historic Soulard neighborhood, merely a hop, skip and jump from downtown St. Louis.

One of the main attractions here is the Soulard Farmer’s Market. Definitely a foraging hot spot, people Soulard Market 8(s).jpghave been buying and selling their goods and wares here for over 200 years. It’s one of the oldest farmer’s markets in the United States, dating back to 1779 when it was an open air market where local farmers gathered to sell their produce. The original building was erected in the 1840’s and was replaced in 1929 with a Renaissance style structure.  While colorful fresh produce abounds here, it’s not the only option. There is so much more to be had in this market – from baked goods to fresh meat, and handmade items like soaps and jewelry – the list goes on and on. 

There’s always something interesting to see. The sights, sounds and smells will keep you intrigued for hours. It’s impossible to leave this place with an empty stomach or an empty shopping bag.

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Brewery 2(s)Next we attempted to enjoy a short hike through the urban landscape, but the heat and humidity of a 90+ degree summer day in St. Louis got the better of us and it wasn’t long before we worked up quite a thirst. Lucky for us, this neighborhood also houses one of the most famous watering holes in the world. Actually, it’s the headwaters of an endless river of amber liquid that serves as the main artery to millions of other watering holes throBrewery 4(s).jpgughout the world.  Founded in 1852 this is the headquarters and original brewery of Anheuser Busch and the famous line of Budweiser beers.  There couldn’t be a more perfect way to beat the heat and conclude this urban adventure than by taking a free tour of the brewery and enjoying a complimentary sample of ice-cold brew.  

After a successful day of foraging in the urban environment, we came home feeling satiated and satisfied.  With all of its exciting sights and sounds, the occasional trip to the city can be a lot of fun. But I must admit, the hustle and bustle of the crowds and all the noisy traffic tends to wear me out, and at the end of the day it just feels so comforting to return to the more familiar flora and fauna of my peaceful little country home.

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Barbed Wire and Broken Dreams

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A Tour of the Missouri State Penitentiary

It’s been called the “Bloodiest 47 acres in America” by Time Magazine.  It’s been the subject of many paranormal investigations.  Its doors were open to inmates from 1836 to 2004, making it the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi River.  And now, the Missouri State Penitentiary has opened its doors once again – for tours.  Most importantly private photo tours.  When my friend Kathy and I heard this announced at our photo club meeting we were immediately intrigued.  Well, maybe a little more than intrigued, we were pretty much on a mission.  Halloween was approaching and the tours were filling up fast. Getting in on a private photo tour before they shut down for the winter was our number one priority.  I have to give Kathy kudos on this one, she took the lead on the event planning and did a fantastic job. 

On a crisp autumn morning, the week before Halloween we began our voyage to Jefferson City, the capital of the great state of Missouri, to see where some of the worst citizens society has ever known called home.  Pretty Boy Floyd and Sonny Liston were inmates at one time and James Earl Ray escaped the prison in a supply truck a year before assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. Forty of the inmates who died within those walls were put to death in the institution’s gas chamber.  Haunted or not, this place was going to be downright creepy.

We arrived on the Amtrak train in Jeff City several hours before our tour was scheduled, which was good because it was at least a mile uphill trek to the hotel and we were dragging all of our camera gear as well as our luggage.  We toyed with the idea of calling a cab but decided we probably could use the exercise and soldiered on. 

Prison Front 1Entrance to the Missouri State Penitentiary

Later that afternoon as we were walking towards the other side of town, we began to see the stone edifice of the prison off in the distance.  As we approached, it cast a very looming and imposing shadow.  I could never imagine what it would feel like to close that distance under different circumstances and be faced with a 30 year stay instead of just a three hour tour.

During our un-incarcerated stay, we were allowed into several different areas.  We started off in the women’s prison, photographing the catwalks and cells. We saw the dark chamber where unruly women had been put into solitary confinement. 

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Where the women were incarcerated at the Missouri State Penitentiary

 

Next we were brought to death row where we were introduced to a new guide.  Mike had worked at the prison for most of his life and ended his career there as the head warden.  Listening to his stories really brought the notorious past to life.  Riots, murders, suicides, escapes, executions – all the things that made prison life much less than a walk in the park. 

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Death Row prison cells

 

Continuing on from death row, we went to A-hall which is the oldest building on the site, having been opened in 1868 to house post-Civil War criminals.  Inmates had painted over most of the windows in the cells in an attempt at climate control during the oppressive Missouri summers.  We seemed to be in this building the longest, and there came a point when I just needed to get out into the fresh air. It was depressing and dirty, certainly not a place made for lingering. The atmosphere and the air was dank and stale. How many pictures of cells that had once been occupied by murderers, rapists and thieves did I really need anyway?

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A-hall at the Missouri State Penitentiary

 

Our visit culminated, quite fittingly, at the gas chamber where 40 of the inmates made a more permanent departure.  This is a very uncool place with some of the worst juju ever. We saw the benches where the witnesses and members of the press watched as the condemned gasped his last breathe of lethal air.  We were even allowed to enter the chamber and sit in the chair if we so chose. I declined that invitation. There was no way I could do that without having nightmares for at least a week.

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Gas chamber at the Missouri State Penitentiary

 

Since ours was a private tour, we had been allowed to walk around each building on our own.  While it was interesting, it was also quite disturbing.  There were times when we each went our separate ways, photographing different areas, and I found myself standing alone in the prison ruins.  Nothing will make me appreciate my freedom more than looking out of a grimy window at a now neglected and overgrown exercise yard, surrounded by high fences topped with coils of barbed wire, and being thankful that I could leave any time I chose.  I felt a cold chill wash over me when I wondered what it had been like when it was fully populated with prisoners behind all of the barred cell doors that now stand open. 

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While I had gone into the penitentiary with the sole intention of getting super cool spooky prison pictures, I left with a new found appreciation for just how wonderful my life is and how fortunate I really am.  Being within those walls, roaming the buildings and the grounds, listening to the stories of the horrors that had occurred there, brought me up close and personal with an aspect of our society that I would have preferred to remain ignorant of.  This prison may now be an interesting piece of history to visit, but trust me there is not a soul on earth who ever wanted to live there.

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Thanks to Mike!  Our tour guide and former head prison warden.

 

 

Journey to the Center of the Earth

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One weekend last August we decided to pack up the camper and head out to Robertsville State Park.  Anyone who has ever suffered through a St. Louis summer knows that August can be hot, humid and downright miserable.  I’m not a big fan of heat and humidity so rather than spend the evening in front of a campfire, we nestled into the cozy air conditioned haven of my little Koala camper, drank some beers and listened to oldies on my iPod.

The next morning we were in store for yet another hot, humid and downright miserable day.  What to do?  We really wanted to go hiking and enjoy the outdoors, but Mother Nature had decided to turn St. Louis into her own personal blast furnace for the weekend.  Lucky for us, Missouri is also known as the Cave State, and caves are a comfortable 57 degrees year round.  What a wonderful respite from the oppressive summer heat!

We headed west down highway 44 towards one of the most spectacular caves in the US.  Onondaga Cave is a national natural landmark located in Leasburg, MO. The state park was less than hour drive from the campground.

After a brief informational program and a lesson on White-nose Syndrome, a disease that is affecting cave bats, we were allowed to descend into the cave for a tour that would cover a mile of underground passageways and last a little over an hour.

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cave new 10(s).jpgWhat I liked most about this cave was that its natural beauty was allowed to speak for itself.  There were no cheesy laser light shows or holograms projected on the walls. Just amazing natural formations that have been shaping and evolving under the surface of the earth for centuries.  There were stalactites hanging from the ceiling, stalagmites growing from the floor, and the columns that are created when these two formations eventually meet up and merge together. IMG 6741 Joyce Onondaga small The path meandered along a crystal clear underground stream where we viewed flowstone, dripstone and something our guide called ‘cave bacon’.  All of this was really quite lovely, but the most extraordinary thing of all was a place called the ‘Lily Pad room’.  Wow!  I’ve toured a lot of caves and I have never seen anything like it. It was an underground aquatic wonderland.  It gave me a sense of being magically transported to another world with a foreign, yet fascinating landscape. Lily pads made of stone seemed to float on the surface of the water; beneath the surface cave coral grew in brilliant shades of greens and blues.  We hung around, taking pictures in this stunning venue until the guide pretty much turned out the lights on us. 

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After about an hour of exploring the subterranean scenery we emerged top side into the bright sunshine of a Missouri summer day. We rounded out our visit to Onondaga Cave State Park by photographing the beautiful native butterflies as they flitted around the gardens outside of the visitor’s center.

Soon we were at the campground and back in the air conditioned comfort of my cozy little camper. Scrolling through the photographs and reminiscing about our day, we decided we had come up with the perfect way to beat the sultry St. Louis heat and still enjoy a nice nature hike.

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Elephant Rock Stars

Stars 1-1(s)One of the most difficult and therefore, obsessive challenges for me has been photographing the night sky. But I’m persistent if nothing else and I will not let a few celestial bodies get the better of me. What makes star photography even more difficult is that the conditions must be perfect. It needs to be a moonless, cloudless night, in an area far from any ambient light and last but not least, you need to have something interesting in the foreground. Long exposure photography also requires that everything is setup correctly on the camera. Something I often forget in all of my star struck enthusiasm.

On an unusually warm day last December all the stars aligned – the skies were clear, the weather was beautiful and the moon wasn’t due to make an appearance until well after dark. The question remained, where to go? And then it dawned on me, Elephant Rock State Park. What a perfect vantage point!  High up on the rocks the stars would be at our fingertips and the silhouettes of the large granite boulders would make an interesting foreground. This time I would do it! I felt confident that I would finally accomplish what I had long sought after.

We decided to take advantage of the amazing weather and make a day of it. We packed the cooler with brats and beer, grabbed the Smokey Joe and a bag of charcoal. Loaded up the IMG_2064camera equipment and headed south down highway 21 towards one of the most beautiful areas in Missouri, the Arcadia Valley.

After a couple brews and some yummy bbq’d brats, we moved the car outside the gate to avoid being trapped IMG_2067.JPGthere all night, packed up the camera gear and headed towards the parade of granite pachyderms at the top of the hill. The views didn’t disappoint. With the camera on the tripod pointed out over the Arcadia Valley, the highest mountains of the Missouri Ozarks beckoned off in the distance. I checked and doubled checked all the camera settings. The only thing left was to wait for the stars to come out.

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And come out they did. At first it seemed they would never make an appearance, but as we gazed up into the darkening sky, one by one we would see them twinkle into existence. The darker it got, the more there were. We watched in wonderment as the sky completely transformed and filled with stellar elegance. It was as if we were standing beneath an ebony canopy with a million tiny pinpricks of light shining through. This was nature at its finest, and we were humbled by its raw beauty. We looked straight up and there was the Milky Way. Even a man-made satellite slowly, but steadily, streaked its way across the sky.

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I tried my best to capture what I could, it was overwhelming how amazing it was. Perched at the top of a hill made of solid granite, we were completely surrounded by so much natural beauty it would never fit in one frame. It would be impossible to do this ethereal scene justice with a mere photograph. Each shot took a minimum of 30-seconds and then an equal amount of time to write to the camera. We did a 5-minute and a 10-minute exposure as well, hoping to catch some movement and trailing in the stars.

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Eventually, we had to bid adieu to the geological wonder beneath our feet and the heavenly bodies above. With flashlights in hand, we climbed down and headed back to the car. I knew that even if I hadn’t gotten that perfect celestial shot, this was definitely an experience never to be forgotten. The awe and wonder of this night was something I knew I must experience over and over again.