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To The Max

I had great hopes for Sunday morning.

The rain that had soothed me to sleep the night before (and believe me, there's nothing more soothing than falling asleep to the sound of rain here in the Smokies) was scheduled to move out at sunrise Sunday morning. So I dutifully set my alarm for 5:15 AM, with two options for an epic sunrise shot dancing in my head.

As it turned out, neither option became reality, because Mr. "My-body-feels-like-it-got-hit-by-a-Greyhound-Bus" here decided (upon checking my totally geeky radar on my iPhone 5s) that things wouldn't materialize. So I hit the ol' snooze button instead.

Until things actually did materialize, the proof coming when my Instagram friend Beth had posted a brilliant sunrise pic later that morning on her page, with the caption "Hoping my real photographer people are out and about with real cameras now." I knew instantly whom she was referring to.

That would be Mr. "My-body-feels-like-it-got-hit-by-a-Greyhound-Bus-who-has-real-cameras-and-hit-the-snooze-button-and-missed-it-all" here. I might just send that off to Guinness Book of World Records to see if it's the world's longest nickname, or the nickname with the most hyphens, but I digress.

Beth and I chatted briefly later in the day; and she further rubbed salt in the ol' wound by saying, "This morning was great. I was really hoping you were out somewhere with your camera!" .

Nope, homeboy here was languishing in bed, wrestling with Mr. Sandman. If my cameras could talk, they would have screamed at me to wake up and get going, but alas.....

So why did I have that minty fresh "I-just-got-leveled-by-a-Greyhound-Bus" feeling? Well lucky me, I have a lovely little condition known as Fibromyalgia. Some people call it "Hypochondriac's Disease," but I'd love for them to step into my body and see how long they could stand it. Chronic pain is a way of life for me, for better or worse. Sunday morning definitely fell into the category of "worse," or "worser" if you aren't afraid of a grammatical faux pas like me, just to make a point.

After I got my body loosened up (a brisk walk around Lake Junaluska does the trick usually), I thought I would try and salvage the day by heading out to Max Patch Bald for a sunset. The mountain is located about 30 miles from home, about an hour's worth of driving. Thunderstorms in the area saw to it that my plans were scuttled, however. So, I took a chance on shooting at Craggy Pinnacle north of Asheville and came up "snake eyes" instead, hitting a wall of fog as I arrived. I tried to sooth my frustrations with a ginormous Stromboli from Blue Mountain Pizza in nearby Weaverville, yet I found myself still bumming out all the way home.

The one thought that kept repeating in my mental notebook over and over again was something I'd talked about months earlier in one of my "inspirational" posts on my Facebook page:

"You're starting to run out of sunrises, bud."

As I approach forty-five years on good ol' Planet Earth here, the stark realization is this - I'm either at the midway point of my life, or waaaaaaay past the midway point of my life, since God tells us pretty plainly through James not to be too sure about tomorrow:

"Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that." ~ James 4:14-15

So I live my life by that reality. One day at a time, y'all. So you'd best take advantage of the days you do have.

Cue Monday morning. And I sure as heck wasn't going to miss this morning, regardless of how my body felt or how the conditions turned out.

I awoke once again at 5:15, to check my geeky weather app on my iPhone. And yes, I am a total geek, even in my grizzled old age; so there you go. Geek pride, baby. And since I could hone in on individual weather stations in my region from my app, I had certain things I could look for:

One, the air temperature. Secondly, the dew point temperature; and lastly, the humidity. If the air temp and the dew point were within four degrees of each other, with high humidity, the likelihood was that there would be low-lying fog in that area. So I checked the areas around my hoped-for destination, Max Patch Bald - and sure enough, conditions were ripe for valley fog.

So Max Patch would be my sunrise shooting destination.

I got out of bed despite myself; my stiffness and soreness being totally ignored in favor of reaching my destination. As I drove through the Jonathan Creek Valley well before sunrise, sure enough, there was the foggy conditions I was hoping for. The same with Interstate 40 as I was driving towards my exit at Harmon Den - low-lying fog; and as I peered into the higher peaks above I noticed the fog stayed in those valley areas. Things were looking good for a nice sunrise with that sea of fog in the valley.

I arrived at the parking area for Max Patch at roughly 6:15, about twenty minutes before sunrise. A thought here before I go further - if you ever think of experiencing Max Patch for yourself, keep in mind that the road to Max Patch is absolute torture on your car's suspension system; so if your shocks are a little worn, they're gonna get "shocked" a little further from all the bumps and ruts in the narrow gravel road. If your teeth aren't a little loose already, then navigating this bumpy, rutted gravel road should do the trick.

So after I placed all my teeth back in order at the trail head, I grabbed my gear and decided to torture myself further by hiking straight up the grassy hill to the summit - only a quarter mile or so, but I don't refer to it as "Cardiac Hill" for nothing. In fact, on my first visit to Max Patch last summer, I shot some incredible light rays from the top of "Cardiac Hill;" and don't let the scene here fool you - it's steeper than it looks. Even more so when you're lugging about eight tons of gear on your back.

As I staggered up the trail to the peak, I saw the first sign that things were going to be good - a bit of "fire in the sky," so I set up along the Appalachian Trail before the sun rose to catch it all:

And with that sky I also saw what I was indeed looking for, albeit off in the distance - that wonderful sea of fog hovering over the valley.

As the sun rose above the horizon, it illuminated that fog; and that was the time to bring out "The Beast," my old professional Nikon D2X camera with a smaller image sensor that gives me additional "reach," enabling me to zoom in further than my larger sensor D700 and capture the depth of what I was seeing, layer after amazing layer:

The sky above was actually blindingly bright, forcing me to use a filter to "hold back" that brilliant light in order to keep from blowing the exposure. The end result was a wonderful golden sky - something my camera could "see" but my own human eyes couldn't. Another reason why I used the D2X here, as it captures color, depth and texture like no other camera I've ever used, even though it's a twelve-year-old, mostly obsolete camera.

If there's a dogmatic dictum I preach to anyone with ears to hear, it's this: Always, always, always pay attention to how the light affects your surroundings. On top of Max Patch, there are endless possibilities for images since one has an unimpeded view from practically anywhere on the grassy bald (except for the very top, where things flatten a bit). All I needed to do was walk a few feet down the trail from where I shot the sunrise and watch as the rising sun illuminated the blooming trees in the valley below. I simply looked to my right to frame and capture it:

I walked a bit further down the trail and "went wide" in order to catch the Appalachian Trail winding its way up the mountain where I had just descended:

On my way back to the car, I "went wide" again to catch the vast sky and a southeastern view. Hint: use a circular polarizer on your lens to really bring out that blue sky:

I took my time there at Max Patch, exploring all angles and vistas. I had learned my lesson from my time with that large format photographer at Tremont a couple weeks earlier and his boundless patience (see my blog "In My Element"). So not only was I still "in my element," I was doing so without the need to hurry.

But after I came down the mountain, I wasn't through yet. And it wasn't even 10 AM.

On my way back down, I thought of checking out some of the cascades along that bumpy gravel road on my way back to Interstate 40. And again, I took my time seeking out different compositions with both cameras and a variety of lenses, before settling on wide angle views, with everything surrounding the lovely little waterfalls an indisputable green:

The only thing that kept me from staying and shooting longer was the sunlight beginning to filter into the gorge.

But I had my fill, and my fun - a very productive morning of hiking, vistas, and images, getting the "max" out of my morning (okay, terrible pun, but...)

I can't wait to wake up early and do it all over again, soreness and pain be damned....

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