I'm waiting in knee-deep snow for a natural light show that may or may not happen. So are hundreds of other photographers. Any parking space within a half mile of good vantage point was claimed three or four hours before show time.
We're all waiting for the setting sun to light up Horsetail Falls, a thin thread of a waterfall that occasionally glides down El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. For a few weeks in February, if the conditions are just right, the setting sun will make the waterfall appear as if it were on fire.
There's a very narrow window of opportunity. The sun has to set at just the right angle. The western skies have to be relatively clear. The seasonal pond at the top of El Capitan that feeds the falls has to have enough water in it. And it has to be warm enough that the water can actually flow.
If it doesn't happen, I will have "wasted" an afternoon. If it does happen, I'll get an amazing image I'll never be able to sell. Hundreds of photographers today would get the essentially the same image, and in the years before us, probably thousands more have too.
So waiting, it seems, makes no financial or, frankly, even artistic sense.
You can probably tell by the image at the top of this post that the conditions didn't work out for me. The best I was able to do was get this image of a few wisps of golden clouds hanging near the summit of El Capitan. But I'll gladly try again someday.
There are some photographers who argue you shouldn't waste your time with anything that's already been done. And on some level they're right. Most of my favorite nature experiences involve some degree of solitude. The once-in-a-lifetime encounter with amazing light or wildlife and the resulting images are mine and mine alone.
But I also believe that some places and some experiences are so great that they should be shared. These days, the "fire falls" may not break any new artistic ground, but it can light up your passion for photography and nature.
When I first began photographing nature, I longed to visit places like Yosemite and see with my own eyes the amazing sights I had seen in the books made by master photographers. My images didn't even come close to matching their work. I didn't break any ground that first trip as I shared popular viewpoints with others seeking the same thing. But Yosemite broke new ground in me. It inspired me to look for and capture beauty wherever I went.
I met a few interesting people that day. There were a couple of photographers who were obviously disappointed: "I wish I could finally get an image of it so I can cross if off the list."
And I met a couple who brought their young son to the El Capitan picnic area — the prime viewpoint. Their camera was a tiny point-and-shoot. They took a few photos, but that clearly wasn't their goal. They had seen the fire falls a few years ago. They were so overcome with awe that they've camped in the Yosemite Valley every President's Day weekend since for the opportunity to see it again.
They were smiling as they walked back to the car even though they didn't get to see the "fire falls" this year. They were in such a great mood they offered to shuttle me, my wife, and my gear back to my car that was parked two miles away.
They had a great weekend. They spent the first part of the day hiking to Mirror Lake. Their eyes grew bright as they talked about seeing this much snow in the Yosemite Valley, a first for them.
They had a great nature experience. Sometimes those of us who do this for a living need to be reminded why we took this up in the first place.
For my part, I had an amazing Yosemite trip. I got to photograph dramatic snow storms from Tunnel View. I saw the full moon set over the Merced River with feet of fresh snow on its banks. I got to watch a family of deer play in the frazil ice below Yosemite Falls.
My time there filled me with awe and inspiration. Essentially the "fire falls" did all that, even though it never was lit when I was there. Some places are amazing like that, which is why we should visit them, even if they've been done before.
(I'm overhauling my photo website. In the meantime, you can see my favorite images from this Yosemite trip at my Living Wilderness Facebook page.)