Everything looked right. I had checked the weather - clear skies and cold. I had checked my Golden Hour app, and it was forecasting a 9/10 for the lighting. I was prepared. The alarm went off at 3am, and I rolled out of bed in the little cabin we were staying in just outside of Jackson, Wyoming. The night before, I had laid everything out and packed the gear I needed for the sunrise shoot and placed it all on the kitchen table. I quietly got ready, moving through the house as quietly as possible to not wake the family.
I had told my wife the night before that I likely wouldn’t have any phone service for the morning, but should be back into good reception around the lunch hour. If she hadn’t heard from me by one or two in the afternoon, she should be concerned. This is a normal conversation we have when I go out into the backcountry or far away from civilization for a photo shoot. And with everything ready to go, I walked outside into the cold morning darkness, loaded the van, and hit the road.
The destination was the Green River Lakes, near Pinedale, Wyoming. The drive from Jackson was going to take around three hours, with two of those hours being a two-lane highway the final hour being a washed out dirt road. The plan was to drive to Green River Lakes, park the car at the boat ramp, and hike a ways in the dark to the spot I had predetermined would be where I would get one of my bucket-list shots: the red and golden sunrise on the face of Squaretop Mountain.
Wyoming is quite a haul from California, so being that I was shooting in Jackson for the week I figured it would be worth the middle of the night drive and the treacherous dirt road to land the shot. The lakes are much closer to Jackson than they are to the Bay Area, so I meticulously planned my shoot as I always do. And again, everything looked right.
The drive in the dark on the two-lane highway was empty except the occasional antelope or deer, giving me anxiety as I passed each set of reflective eyes. Then there was the dirt road. It was as slow hour of avoiding rivets, washes, and holes along this dry and dusty road to the lake. I passed a few hunters along the way as they made their way to their remote deer stands. After exactly an hour, I pulled into the lake’s campground, which was empty. I passed through the campground to the shore of the lake, where I parked the car in the dark and guessed as to what the view exactly was in front of me. The night was totally dark. No moon. Yet, no stars.
In the darkness I couldn’t see exactly what my situation was. I had to wait a bit for a little light to enter the sky. I could tell there was some mist over the lake, because my headlights were hitting what seemed like a wall of fog and mist. I expected there to be some fog, so I wasn’t surprised. After all, it was sixteen degrees outside this morning and the lake was yet to be frozen, which wouldn’t occur for another several weeks.
If you paid attention in high school science, which apparently I did not, you’d know a fact about water and air. When cold air passes over a warm body of water, the air above the water (which tends to be warmer due to evaporation), will mix with the cold air and create fog. The unfrozen Green River Lake was obviously warmer than the freezing air, and sure enough, we had fog. Yet it wasn’t until my surroundings began illuminating that I was able to see the severity of the fog.
I was inside of a steam pot. Visibility was maybe twenty or thirty feet. I couldn’t see anything across the lake. I couldn’t see Squaretop at all. I couldn’t even see the tree line on the shore to my left and right. Literally, nothing. This is why there were no stars in the dark. I was under a massive layer of fog, blocking the sky.
Sitting quietly in the van, I debated the level of optimism I was going to be comfortable with. I am a realist - I’m not pessimistic, nor am I optimistic, typically. I try to just accept what comes and have rational responses. This is a skill I acquired in 2005, when I went through an anger management course as an elective in college while learning about psychology. My grandfather was a golfer, and I once heard him tell me golfers were the most optimistic people in the world. There could be a major storm coming in while they’re on the fourteenth hole, and they’ll think they’ll just wait out the passing cloud. I wanted to tell myself the same thing - the fog will burn off as the sun comes up.
I waited. It actually seemed to get worse, not better. I continued to wait. More fog. The sun then came up, and while I could see its golden light in the fog, I couldn’t even see the sun. It was at this moment that I admitted it to myself - this photoshoot has failed. No amount of planning or preparation was going to change this reality. It was always going to be this way, governed by the laws of nature. There was nothing I could have done, other than paid better attention in high school over twenty years ago. Yet instead of that reality, my reality was driving back to Jackson without the shot.
Was this a failure? By the definition of a goal, yes. Totally. And I can confidently tell you that, because I’m ok with it. I’ll say it like this: I’m fine with failure. Sure I came back with an empty SD card, but the rest of my experience was the same as I had planned. I woke up on time and made it out. I navigated the dirt road without getting a flat tire or destroying the rental van. I made it to the shore of Green River Lake on time for sunrise. Then I made it home on time, as planned. And I made it home with a bit of an education about future shoots involving lakes and cold mornings.
Failure is part of creativity. If every adventure is a win, then the win becomes normal. Anything that gets normalized loses its value. It loses its impact on us. Creativity is all about risk. We put ourselves out there when we create. Sometimes the risk can be great, even life or death. Just think about some of the dangers photographers, videographers, writers, and adventurers have experienced to fulfill a vision. There’s also the risk of rejection. What if you pour your heart and soul into something and no one cares, or worse, people hate it. Creativity is risk, and risk by nature shouldn’t always lead to a win. If it did, it wouldn’t be risk, it would be certainty. And nothing kills creativity like certainty.
My photography and adventures come with a level of risk, and I accept that. Earlier this year I was shooting in the Canadian Rockies a bit too early in the summer, and had poor weather, empty and frozen lakes, and snowed-in trails. I didn’t anticipate that when I planned the trip several months before. Nor could I have had certainty with weather and sky conditions as I shot around Jackson, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and even Green River Lake. I play the hand as it’s dealt. Sometimes it pays off, like my time in Grand Teton and Yellowstone that same week. Epic sunrises and sunsets everyday. And I even unexpectedly ran into a pack of wolves while in Yellowstone.
Those are wins. Squaretop was a loss. You win some, you lose some. But to try to create with certainty feels like a greater loss than a failed photo shoot. The failure at Squaretop was situational, and out of my control. But if I stop taking risks to create something wonderful, then that failure is on me, my heart, and my soul. And I never want to just be certain of anything - I want to take everything with an element of faith. That is a creative life worth living.