One of our tents under the Milky Way in Moose's Pasture.

I watched the Great American Eclipse from one of the most American places on Earth - a cattle ranch in Sheridan County, Nebraska. The eclipse has been a future event for an eternity now; something we have been thinking about and planning for a long time. When it finally got here, it ended far too quickly. The Nebraska Project has been the air I breath for the last three years. I’ve spent more time in America’s sandhills than I ever imagined I would. In fairness, until a few years ago, I didn’t know the sandhills even existed. I thought - like most people - that Nebraska was a flat land of corn and cows. What I have found instead - the rolling hills, the endless sky, the rugged badlands - is some of the most surprisingly beautiful country on Earth. There is no place I would rather watch day become night than a cow pasture in Western Nebraska. This particular pasture is one of my favorites. I’ve probably spent a total of a month in this particular spot over the last three years. The closest “city” (city being a town of about 8,000 people) is over 40 miles away, so the night sky screams with cosmic beauty. You don’t just see the Milky Way, but galaxies beyond.

Setting up an overnight, motion-controlled time-lapse at sunset.

The field is called Moose’s Pasture, named after a horse called Moose. I never knew the origin of the name until this trip, when we found the bony remains of Moose himself (Moose even made a cameo in the time-lapse video - see below).

This trip was work, but it was also play. We had friends join us in Moose’s Pasture from New York, Colorado and Texas. When Bill and I camp out, it’s rustic. With all the camera equipment we travel with, we pretty much only have space for our tents and sleeping bags. But our friends brought the works -  stoves, generators, tables, chairs, a fire pit, food, a camper and a side-by-side. We quickly turned Moose’s Pasture into a temporary town.

Our temporary city in Moose's Pasture.

Each night we sat under the stars and talked about life and photography. The pasture itself is a technological purgatory - the only cell service available was atop a very steep sandhill - forcing us to enjoy the company provided. We spent a total of four nights in Moose’s Pasture - two before and two after. We wanted to arrive enough ahead of time to map out exactly where the sun would be at the moment of first contact, through totality, until fourth contact. We knew eclipse day - August 21 - would fly by and wanted to be prepared well in advance.

Planning notes for the eclipse

We used a total of 30 cameras and lenses for the eclipse - everything from a 14-24mm f/2.8 to an 800mm f/5.6 on D5, D500 and D810 bodies.

Cameras, lenses and tripods, built and ready for totality.

Not one of us had ever personally witnessed a total solar eclipse before. We had each spent hours researching the different stages, different filters and different settings, but wouldn’t know for sure what would work best until the moment the moon covered the sun. To make sure we got the shots we wanted, we had several duplicate setups with slightly different settings and filters.

Setting up at D810 with a 14-24mm f/2.8 with a 10-stop filter behind some wildflowers.

The lead up to the eclipse was intense. We had every camera checked and double checked and placed in the pasture at least an our before first contact. Once first contact began, we didn’t want to be scrambling for cards, batteries or different lenses. We had cameras pointing directly at the sky, cameras behind a windmill, cameras behind wildflowers, cameras overlooking the valley, cameras on top of sandhillls, motion-controlled cameras.

Our favorite piece of timel-apase equipment - the Cinevate motion-control sytem on their Atlas 200 slider. It's the most solid motion-control equipment available.

We wanted to see the eclipse from every angle. We weren’t just concerned with what happened to the sun, but what happened to the land. What we experienced was not in the literature I read. In honesty, I thought the eclipse was going to be overhyped. It’s the only thing I have heard about - outside general news - for months. And, frankly, for the first 80 minutes, I felt it was. Then, when the sun was about 90% covered, the light took on a silver hue - a color temperature I have never seen - the air temperature dropped about 20 degrees, the wind - which had been blowing ceaselessly - picked up, and the crickets began singing. As the moon finally enveloped the sun a ring of orange appeared on the horizon, the clouds surrounding the moon and sun glowed an eery blue, and a star appeared to the west.

Just before totality I pointed my unfiltered 600mm f/4 toward the sun and captured this image through thick clouds.

Still, the night sky we had been promised never happened. While it got significantly darker, it was nowhere near the darkness we had read about. All the cameras we had setup to capture that darkness had to be quickly changed. I yelled some unsavory remarks and ran to each camera, trying and failing to change them all; all the while being sure to look around myself for at least a moment to take in the scene. Totality seemed to last for a split second. Looking back at the time stamps in each camera, it lasted for two minutes and thirty one seconds, but in the moment it felt much shorter. Once totality was over I cursed myself for missing so badly on the dark exposures - most of the frames were pure white. Completely unusable. Everyone told me not to worry about it, that it was impossible to predict something I had never experienced. Still, when you spend so much time and energy to get something right, getting it wrong stings. That sting was relieved a bit the next day when I opened up a file from a 35mm on a D810 I had directly under the windmill and found the picture I had been hoping for. The one wide angle frame I got of totality. A picture that would not have worked if it had gotten as dark as I had planned on it getting.

My one wide-angle frame from the midday moon.

I stayed up late the night of the eclipse processing time-lapses. Deadlines don’t care if you’re in a wifi-less pasture. The next morning I woke up to everyone packing their things at 6:30am. I sleepily said my goodbyes before going back to bed (bed being a small thermarest and a sleeping bag). When I emerged from my tent 2 hours later, Moose’s Pasture was empty. The cadre of friends had left. The event we had been anticipating all year was over. I walked over to my small gas burner and made coffee. Then I sat on a pelican case by myself - the chairs and table had left with the early risers. I took a deep breath of the unseasonably cool morning air. The stress and adrenaline from the day before melted away and I was left with deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the incredible experience, the friends that made Moose's Pasture a temporary home, and the time I have been lucky enough to spend in Nebraska's beautiful sandhills.

When Mrs. Ethel Kennedy called to tell me that the depth reporting class at University of Nebraska I was teaching along with my longtime friend and colleague Joe Starita had won a Robert F Kennedy Journalism award, we talked about several things. Most especially, we talked of the power of the work these young journalists had done, the situation in Pine Ridge, and a little about another young journalist and the impact of winning an RFK. From the RFK announcement of the 2017 awards: “The Wounds of Whiteclay: Nebraska’s Shameful Legacy,” Depth Reporting Class with Professor Bill Frakes and Professor Joe Starita, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For nine months, a dozen University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism students focused a bright light on Nebraska’s darkest spot. Whiteclay - a village of less than a dozen people with four liquor stores that in 2016 sold 3.5 million cans of beer, which flowed illegally into South Dakota’s nearby dry Pine Ridge Reservation. The students’ multimedia project used in-depth stories, haunting photographs and compelling video to expose the lawless environment, rampant fetal alcohol syndrome, human trafficking and unsolved murders that ultimately helped force the revocation of the beer store licenses by Nebraska’s courts on April 27." This is journalism that makes a difference. It's impact will continue to grow through the years as change happens through work done because of the information presented. Its' what we do. The award-winning project can be found at: www.woundsofwhiteclay.com The first time I visited the RFK awards I was young. I was on the staff of the Miami Herald. My winning entry then was about my friend Missy Koch, a University of Miami student who was diagnosed with cancer. For a year, I followed her journey, from leg amputation to recovery, and we published a 25-page story in the Miami Herald Sunday magazine on Christmas day 1984.     Missy and I share something unique, powerful. I was with her during a very intense year of her life. We were friends when we started, and that friendship got progressively deeper and stronger through the year.   We've stayed in touch through the years. I have incredible respect and appreciation for the way she sees the world. That hasn't changed in the four decades I've known her. She's a wonderful combination of smart, strong, sweet, feisty and tough. Missy and I talked long and hard before telling her story.  She had a tough painful road ahead of her, but knew she would prevail. She wanted others to be able to be empowered from what she was going through, I wanted to show her strength and how very intense and delicate it all was. Missy's done much for many in her life, and I need to call her today; to see how she’s and her husband Todd are doing and where their kids are in their journeys.  


Missy's husband Todd has written a fine book about Missy's story:
 "Run to Win: The Trials and Triumphs of Missy Koch Billingsley."

It's Christmas. And I'm on a plane. No Santa out the window, but we are racing the setting sun, and the view is liquid visual goodness.

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I've spent the last 8 days mostly off the grid, trying to relax, enjoying spending time with my daughter Havana showing her a part of the world I love.

This is a family tradition, although H and I have changed the distance parameters some.

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When I was very young Mom and Dad would load us into our old Ford and drive across the barren, wind blown landscape of Nebraska in December headed to family gatherings. It was quality bonding time, we talked and read. They explained the world through the lens of plains people, albeit extremely well educated ones — both formally and informally. That stuck with me and I've always seen travel as an opportunity for learning.

This year, after some negotiations that may or may not have involved a big city place Havana thought she preferred, we settled on Iceland. The land of poets and musicians. Seals, glaciers,  and coffee. The Blue Lagoon, terrific style, and ponies.

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It's an isolated land packed with raw beauty. Gorgeous vistas everywhere. 

The weather is, to be polite, inconsistent. When it's good it's very, very good. When it's bad, it's very, very…. well you know. 

Be out on the longest night of the year, watch the clouds part, and the Northern Lights appear — swirling, dancing and racing across that Nordic sky, and your life will gain a dimension previously unknown. Powerful, beautiful, visceral.

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It's so intriguing to me that these people who love a rugged, turbulent, constantly moving landscape are so bound to books. 

This place is all about literature. They have a long tradition of formal storytelling.  They rely on well stocked bookshelves  to get them elegantly through the heavy dark nights. There are simply books everywhere, it's glorious.

Per capita they may have greatest music scene on the planet. There is an independent music store, 12 Tonar, that is worth the flight across the ocean to visit.

When you visit this country there is a quiet respect. Knowing smiles.

It's not fancy. It's clean, strong, safe. Solid, hardy, filling food. Clothes made for subsistence — constructed to last. In those ways, it's exactly like my native Nebraska.

People bond through common interests, connection with each other.

Havana is a learner. She'll be 16 in February and already many if not most of our conversations are about politics, world religions, writing, and graduate school — far deeper things than I was thinking about at her age.

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I was concerned with the ratio of men to women on campus — she thinks about student to teacher ratios. I was focused on formal education as a means to an end. For her all education is the process, the learning for the sheer joy of learning.

We are heading home now, richer for the experience. I know there aren't so many of these father/daughter trips ahead, and I miss them already. 

Lakota homeland

Strange flight tonight.

Leaving Nebraska for likely the last time in 2016 — (yikes, “Leaving Nebraska” sounds rather like a poem about death).

In any case, my work demands that I have always had to spend huge chunks of time away from this good land where I was born. Although I know I'll certainly be back, getting on a plane headed out always makes me melancholy. The wide open spaces and wide open, heartfelt people are a mainstay of so much of my favorite images.

It wasn't a bad night for flying. Good music, great literature, smooth skies. Ready to devote myself to 10 days of writing and editing before the skies beckon again.

I'm listening to Ben Folds, a recommendation from NPR. I've been a fan for years, but watching a Tiny Desk concert — what a treasure those are — caused me to put Folds high on my music rotation. Plus, I really like his initials.

While traveling today, I've been devouring Sherman Alexie's fine book, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.”

I had spent a good chunk of the early part of today in Lincoln, reading about Standing Rock and DAPL. So the conversations in this book are especially moving and not a little surreal.

When I settled into my North Florida bound flight from Atlanta, I was in a fine mood until one of the other passengers studied the Stetson I was wearing and said snidely, "is the Urban Cowboy look still a thing?"

I resisted the temptation to comment on his ridiculous suspenders and presumptuous bow tie. Instead, I simply smiled and adjusted the collar of the shirt that I had bought, along with everything else I'm wearing at Young's in Valentine.

He grimaced and asked plaintively where I was from would require such headwear on any day save Halloween.

My personal heaven actually.

Lakota homeland

Arnold Palmer. The King. He’s the reason golf became a huge spectator sport. His grace, laugh and skill on the course were legendary, and the legions of Arnie’s Army followed him everywhere.

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Arnold Palmer

In 1997, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent significant surgery and radiation therapy treatment that lasted for seven weeks. Seven or eight weeks later he was back on the links, his home course of Bay Hill. I, along with a horde of media, followed him on his first practice round. He loved to work on his clubs and during practice would not only hone his game, but also his clubs. After 9 holes, he went inside to do something with a club and he asked me to follow him. He always loved photography and his Nikons and had a new one he needed some help with. He had noticed I had a pair of brand new bodies and wanted to talk shop. We weren’t long, but I showed him a couple of functions that would make his photographic life better. When we rejoined the assembled throng for the second nine he turned to me, offhandedly swinging his arm like he was hitting a drive, smiled and said, “Thanks for the help, I think you’ve got me straightened out.”  I just smiled and said, “Anytime, totally my pleasure.” Off he went to the 10th tee, but I noticed a bunch of the writers staring at me. I realized that they thought he and I had been talking golf swings, they had no idea he was asking about cameras. They instantly asked, “What did you tell him?" I smiled again, and said, “That’s between me and Arnie.”

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