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In My Element

My original intent with this particular blog was to write at length about my two week foray into the state of Virginia. Now don't get me wrong, it was a refreshing, enjoyable experience. I had great fun exploring, spending some time in a somewhat unfamiliar locale; an area I hadn't visited since 2013, when I shot images for Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. In fact, my image of Mountain Laurel taken on Sharp Top still graces the top of their web page (

The trouble was, the weather didn't exactly cooperate with my plans for capturing vivid sunrises, spring blooms, and dramatic light ray-filled skies; so instead, a brief synopsis to keep from glazing your eyes over.

I first met up with my friend Vanya - a bright, energetic, and lovely young lady who lives in nearby Floyd - to shoot a sunrise at Lover's Leap on Easter Sunday; but heavy fog killed off that idea, so we settled on the familiar, nearby Mabry Mill landmark, where I showed Vanya a few of my photographic "tricks of the trade;" her eyes lighting up in discovering that she too can capture nature on camera as I and many other professional photographers do daily. I did manage one nice foggy, atmospheric shot of the mills while we hung out:

I hope to get together again next weekend with Vanya for a hike in Southwest Virginia, centering on Grayson Highlands, in hopes of better weather. And, lest I forget, in hopes of finding the elusive "Fabio pony;" a wild pony that resides in the area with a mane of hair that humorously resembles the old model and "I Cannot Believe It's Not Butter" pitchman's coiffure. I'm always down for silly, inside jokes, but I digress......

I also met up with my friends Elyse and Wesley a week later as they showed me around the Cascade Falls area near Roanoke. The weather this time was just the opposite from the week before - the skies were too perfect, so dramatic sunset scenes were out, but at least I salvaged a shot of the waterfall while I was there:

Both Elyse and Wesley were great tour guides and great company as well. Along the way to the falls, Elyse told me that I was her favorite Instagram page to follow (; and considering that she has 18,000 followers and is a very good photographer herself (, I took that as high praise - though I did mischievously ask Wesley (who is also Elyse's boyfriend, and who also has an Instagram page) what he thought of such a compliment in his presence. Being a good sport, he took it all in stride, admitting that Elyse often shows him the images that I post. I'm good with that if he is.

As an aside, I also discovered a new soft drink while I was there, simply called "1893," made by Pepsi Cola; ostensibly an attempt to replicate the "bold, original flavor" of your average cola, circa 1893 - boasting fewer, more natural ingredients, and far superior to their current high-fructose-corn-syrupy-flavored concoction (or monstrosity, take your pick). This cola connoisseur was quite pleased, but again I digress....

After the meteorological and photographic disappointment of my Virginia forays, I had begun to feel a bit out of my element. It wasn't a confidence thing, more a desire to once again find some.....excitement to capture, some moody, dramatic, otherworldly beauty that seemed to be evading me as of late. I thrive on finding scenes that stand out a bit from the rest of the herd, as I try and avoid being another in a lengthy conga line of waterfall chasers or photographers who shoot the same tired overlook, waterfall, or landmark to death, with nothing in those images that stand out in a particular way from anyone else. I know Tom Petty once sang that "the waiting is the hardest part," but I was starting to feel a little whiny and grumpy inside. I was looking for "better" and not really finding it.

In the midst of my internal photographic "Sturm und Drang," (a fancy-schmancy way of saying "turmoil," for those of you scoring at home) I had been seeing more and more Bible verses online and elsewhere about the value of patience and "Waiting on the Lord." Think He might have been trying to tell me something here? I know my skull is thicker than most, but even I was starting to think maybe He was trying to get through to me that there was a larger view of things in play rather than just my desire for "better."

Fast forward to Thursday and Friday. I stayed in Gatlinburg overnight Wednesday into Thursday morning, a wonderfully enjoyable experience as I got to walk about and mingle with the crowds and sample some tasty (legal!!) moonshine at the local distilleries (for all my introverted persona and shyness at times, get me into a crowded room with strangers, and suddenly I transform into "Mr. Social" - something I cannot explain to this day, just another aspect of my often contradictory nature).

My thoughts of heading out to Cades Cove Thursday morning dampened when I saw the hordes making their way over, so I detoured instead to a far quieter area, the Tremont portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in search of some dogwood trees hovering over the Little River.

As fate would have it, I wandered up the stream for at least an hour and a half, looking for said dogwood trees. I found one that looked a bit thin but maybe worth a shot:

Finally, I found one a bit more to my liking; and just as I began to cross the stream and set up, I noticed another pro photographer who had set up shop along side the river - and I was walking right into his frame. So I backed off and made my way over to say hello and set up there instead.

He was decidedly "old school," shooting large 4x5 format film - nothing digital, just a funny-looking wooden box with a shiny opaque screen in back and an equally old school Nikon lens bolted to the front (he gets bonus points for shooting Nikon). No delete buttons, no digital cards, no nothing, everything was manually adjusted; so he HAD to get it right in camera, otherwise he was wasting precious film.

Our problems weren't compositional as much as conditional - the sun would peek through, giving off uneven light, and when the sun hid behind the clouds, the wind would pick up, making a long exposure impossible without blurring my subject. The only movement we wanted in our shots was from the water. We needed everything else to be perfectly still, or we risked blurring tree limbs and foliage.

So we waited. I fidgeted and squirmed as usual as the wind blew, and I thought several times of packing it in to shoot further upstream out of the wind. But I stayed instead, watching a master craftsman at work; someone who had years of experience and was successful in his field. He knew what he was doing, and he knew he would get what he was after. He was confident the wind would die down and the light would even out. Many times he placed his thumb on the trigger, but never pressed it until he knew the time was just right. This guy was a perfect case study in patience and persistence. I was furiously making mental notes of it all.

And about 45 minutes after I arrived (an absolute eternity for me) the wind died down, the time was right for shooting, and I managed several frames, including the one you see here:

This was a lesson tailor made for me, as I like to move quickly and "get in, get on with it, get 'er done, and get out." And God was showing me to wait, be patient, stick it out, and His timing would be right on.

Friday was even better.

After a busy workday punctuated by rain, I sauntered over to the local Chinese buffet for dinner (close your eyes and say to yourself, "It looks like chicken, tastes like chicken, therefore it must be chicken. Plus it's tasty."). The rain was still falling as I took a gamble that the skies would clear out enough for an epic sunset, one I had been waiting for for what seemed like forever now. I have the pleasure of living and working only minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway, so I zipped on over, post haste, which is more my speed anyway.

As I entered the Parkway towards Waterrock Knob, I ran into a wall of fog, along with those pesky rain showers. But as I gained in elevation, things began to get interesting, and I stopped at one of the overlooks to see the skies brightening and coloring up as I approached the high point of the road:

Thinking, "This could be really good," I carried on until I came around one of the sharp curves in my ascent, and saw this, looking east:

Aaah, the elusive double rainbow! I parked at a nearby pulloff and sprinted to the opening where I spotted the rainbows, quickly setting up to catch the epic scene just in time. And yes, this 45-year-old guy sprints. Though I look like I'm moving in slo-mo or pulling a pack of Clydesdale horses behind me when I do so, but......

The rain picked up again just before Waterrock Knob, which was engulfed in clouds and fog. I wouldn't be getting anything interesting from there:

Now, it was decision time - do I go back and see if I could improve on my rainbow image, or head over to the other side to see if the skies would indeed become epic. I decided to move on to the west side of Waterrock, setting up at a favorite spot of mine, Woolyback Overlook - one that isn't particularly shot to death, and offers a wide array of possibilities for shooting.

When I arrived however, those same low hanging clouds I encountered at Waterrock were moving across the sky at Woolyback, obscuring the view of the remaining sunlight:

But those clouds were moving at breakneck speed, and soon, the entire vista was wide open as the sun set. And that's when things really got good:

I zoomed out as far as I could with my mid-range lens, and then decided to go full wide angle as the incredible colors began to emerge after the sun hid beyond the horizon:

All I could muster as I shot was a simple "wow." Nothing more to explain here, this was as epic a scene as I had experienced in quite some time. And my patience, persistence, and waiting was rewarded as well.

But looking back at the last several busy weeks, a greater lesson emerged from all of this - it turns out that I had been "in my element" this entire time after all. I had been fretting on the end results - the images - rather than my adventures as a whole. And I can safely say that my recent adventures have been a rip-roaringly wonderful time, spent with friends, meeting new people, learning some lessons along the way. This is the "big picture" God has been showing me. And indeed He did bless me with some "keepers," photographically speaking. But they weren't necessarily the most important thing. Seeing His blessing and favor in my life, and giving Him the glory for it all was the most important thing.

I hope to do this as long as God lets me. As a friend once told me, "This is a season of your life, all this traveling and shooting. Not many people get to do this, let alone make a few bucks from it from time to time. Embrace it, and be thankful for the experience." I'm really having a great time during this season. It was interrupted and distracted for a while when I foolishly decided that dating was more important; and after one disastrous long distance dating relationship that ended quite badly a year or so ago (complete with mutual acrimony), it left me off balance and searching for a while. But there were some valuable life lessons that came from that debacle, setting the stage for my current life now, and enabling me to be much more ready for the right woman - in God's timing, and in the season He chooses. Another "waiting" thing He's teaching me.

But for the moment, I'm loving this particular season of my life. So if you don't mind, I'm going to participate in it some more. See you 'round!

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