On a Tuesday, after an uncomfortable business meeting, I decided to take a vacation, giving myself 2 days to prepare for my departure. Where would I be going? No idea. Winter had started setting in, with several days below 32 degrees, with some light snow and I had a pretty shitty summer. I needed some warm weather, adventure, and quality “me time.” I chose to randomly drive south until the weather was warm like summer again.
On Thursday I had to make a trip running errands from my house in Mercer to Johnstown, PA followed by Pittsburgh before I could even start the actual journey. Also, since it was “Light Up Night” in Pittsburgh, I wasn’t going to throw away the opportunity to shoot that since I would be there anyway.
At 11:00 PM on Thursday I left Pittsburgh and headed for this very specific spot in West Virginia. Bear Rocks, in the Dolly Sods Wilderness of West Virginia is one of the most spectacular places to visit on this half of the country. Every time I go to on an adventure here, the craziest shit happens. The weather here is totally unpredictable, the terrain is rough, and I’ve never gone on a trip to this place without breaking things, or breaking myself.
So fuck it, I’ll just drive up the scary dirt road covered in snow at 3:00 AM after having been driving or very active since 8:00 AM almost non stop. I could barely keep my eyes open, but I reached the top and slid my Cabela’s tent cot out of the back of my jeep and set it up right there in the parking area next to the vehicle.
Dolly Sods is the highest plateau east of the Mississippi River with altitudes ranging from 2,644 ft. to 4,123 ft. The sweeping vistas and lifeforms here are normally found much farther north in Canada. The distinctive landscape of “the Sods” is characterized by stunted trees, wind-carved boulders, heath barrens, grassy meadows created in the last century by logging and fires, and sphagnum bogs that are much older.
Any sleep I thought I might get wasn’t happening. It was 20 degrees with a 60-70mph wind battering the tent cot so bad that even though I placed it on the opposite side of the Jeep, it felt like the wind would blow this fucking thing right off the mountain at any moment! I spent the next 2 hours listening to the wind violently shaking the tent cot. It was so loud that I’ve slept better next to railroads with trains blaring their horns from 100 feet away.
The sky was completely overcast when I arrived. Had it not been for the noise and wind I would have slept right through the sunrise, only waking when I felt like driving out of here. Instead I jumped out of the cot at 5:00 AM, wrestled the wind and the 100lb tent cot back into the Jeep, and hiked to this very specific set of rocks I knew about from past adventures.
The rock formations you see have these pools carved into them from hundreds of years of water freezing and thawing, slowly chipping away at the stone as it expands and contracts, leaving drainage ruts leading to the edges of the rock where the water has the path of least resistance. I am not a geologist but this shit took a long time!
This is when the suffering you endure as a travel photographer pays off (and yes, I hear the tiny violin playing in the background as I say those words).
Because of my willingness to hang out up here in the freezing cold, the little pools were filled with ice! About 20 minutes before the sunrise, the clouds began to break. As the sun began to rise, it turned into the most spectacular sunrise I’ve ever seen. Take that with a grain of salt because I am a night owl. I have witnessed many more sunsets than sunrises in my lifetime!
As the sun was about to rise, the clouds lit up in this BRIGHT orange pattern! Each strip of clouds lit up in sequence, almost like watching a light show at a rave. The only reason I was tripping while watching this was due to my lack of sleep!
Even though I had a 10mm lens on the camera, I had to take almost 30 photos and stitch them together into this panorama. This was the only way to acheive an image that was truly representative of what I saw. the light on the rocks and ice pools was perfect for the 10-20 seconds it took for the sun to completely rise, and then quickly flattened right out losing it’s depth in comparison.
Two days after spending a night on this wind swept, almost treeless rock I woke up on a beach in Naples, Flordia to make up for that crazy night.
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