Tomorrow is my birthday, marking the life ticker at 21 years. As I move on to become a legal adult, I wanted to reflect on 6 of the most remarkable hours of my 184,000 so far on earth. The qualities that have come to define me – a passion for nature, capturing moments and exploring new areas – were all solidified one night at Grand Canyon National Park. There are endless trips and experiences that have contributed to my love of nature. Sunsets, starry skies and glowing forests have painted landscapes ranging from Africa to my backyard in Marlborough, CT. But this moment was different. It validated a holistic view of the natural world that I won’t forget.
Here is that story, and a handful of photos from the experience.
In late August, 2014 I had just finished up two film internships in Los Angeles. To wrap up the summer my buddy Anthony and I set out for a road trip from LA to Connecticut. The plan was ambitious – a 3500-mile route that covered seven U.S. national parks in 6 days. Our first stop was the Grand Canyon.
We were so excited to begin the journey that we couldn’t wait until the morning to depart. Instead we packed up and left at 1am for the seven-hour drive to Arizona. The vehicle of choice was my Subaru Impreza Outback Sport, a faithful beast that first carried me to LA and had since seen Yosemite, Sequoia and Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
The trusty Subaru, who has seen 12,000 miles of road tripping in less than a year
Around 8am we entered the green steel gates to Grand Canyon National Park and began traversing towards the South Rim. After just a few minutes the trees suddenly opened and – “Holy sh*t!” – the canyon was in front of us. I had seen the Grand Canyon countless times in shows, post cards and an infamous Robbie Knievel motorcycle jump, but this was beyond anything I had imagined. The archaic, massive intricacy of it all was astounding.
Our first view of the Grand Canyon
After setting up camp at the Mather Campground, our goal was to put life on hold for a minute and go catch the sunset at Lipan Point, one of the park’s most famous overlooks. After a hearty dinner of unheated, straight-from-the-can soup (this was a road trip, after all) we headed to Lipan with high hopes. When we got there it did not disappoint; the view was stunning.
Anthony takes in the view from Lipan Point
In an effort to isolate ourselves from the public, Anthony and I found a secluded spot about 150 feet from the main viewing area. We were a bit hesitant at first – no one else seemed to be doing this – but it paid off big time with a quiet, unrestricted view. This is the magic of the national parks; all it takes is a bit of extra effort to beat crowds and get a solitary experience.
The first thing I noticed about the Grand Canyon is how vividly you can see weather. I could physically view rain pouring from the bottoms of distant clouds. It was like an elementary school weather diorama come to life.
Rain pours from a cloud head behind the South Rim
Showers visibly cascade down into the canyon
After spending a half hour intently watching rain fall (something I had never done before), the grey sky let forth its first flicker of light. Then, with triumphant God rays the sun peeked from behind a cloud and spewed the canyon with golden light. The sunset had begun!
The first moment where the sun dipped below the clouds
As the sun patiently emerged something remarkable happened – the rain clouds did not disappear. At my New York apartment weather goes through one phase at a time. It’s either rainy, sunny or overcast. However here the rain clouds remained in the canyon, calmly moving to distant regions. We could see the sprinkles of rain coming down throughout the whole sunset. Then deep in the left side of the sky some of them began cracking down with lightning.
Anthony and I sat in awe watching a sunset, rainstorm and lightning barrage happen simultaneously without feeling a drop.
Lightning strikes in a sunset sky
After an hour the sun dropped towards the horizon and gave its most terrific display yet – a 360-degree illumination of pink, orange and scarlet plumes across the skyline.
A six-photo panorama shows the sunset sweeping the sky
The moment was magical. Anthony and I were experiencing an unbelievable showing of nature in one of its greatest amphitheaters. In one corner of the sky lightning flickered, in another clouds showered rain and all around loomed a brilliant sunset. So many different weather patterns were coming together. The lightning felt just as necessary and beautiful as the sun.
At one with nature
The sun then gave its last breath across the canyon, turning the clouds deep purple. Light gave way to darkness, and above us emerged the next gift to behold – a vivid, bright sphere of stars. The Milky Way streaked the heavens as lightning cracked across the horizon with shining tentacles.
Lightning cracks through the stars
The massive sheet of stars stretched all around us, creating a living and breathing planetarium. Shooting stars were streaming through the sky seemingly wherever we looked.
Man vs. sky
We spent hours looking at that sky, marveling at what we had seen.
This was the wonder of the Grand Canyon. The most pure, all-encompassing view of the outdoors I had ever witnessed. It was a progression of events that I could never have never imagined existed, all within a national park that is often written off as a family destination.
The best part is that anybody could have that experience if they visit a natural area and spend the time to watch things unfold.
That night was important to me for a few reasons. First, it helped me decide what sort of career to pursue. I had spent two months working in an LA production offices and driving overnight on weekends to take trips through national parks. The office work was great, but my soul soared when travelling, hiking and shooting video and photos. During that sunset I finally said, this is what I need to do for a living.
Second, it provided an incredible view of what the United States have to offer. While often overlooked, the U.S. has some of the most astounding natural environments in the world. While I’m not one for excessive political pride, travelling through the national parks instilled a deep sense of admiration for my home country. It also made me think if this is within driving distance, imagine what the rest of the world has to offer. The answer to this question is “well, let’s go find out.”
Finally, while nature has been the focus of this story the night wouldn’t have been the same without Anthony. Sitting silently next to a best friend who is sharing a simultaneous, awe-inspiring experience provided a sense of connectedness I had never felt before.
It was man, earth and sky around us, an experience shared on many levels. All I could do was stand by and let the world engulf me with wonder, raising a camera to capture the moment.