* * * *
The drive from Northern California to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is about twelve hours. When Don Smith and I scheduled our (first annual) 2012 Grand Canyon Monsoon Mayhem tour, the plan was to leave dark-and-early Monday morning, which experience told us would get us to the canyon just in time to photograph sunset Monday night. But with the National Weather Service forecasting waning monsoon conditions as the week progressed, it looked like Monday afternoon might be the best time to capture our prime goal, lightning. So on Sunday morning we decided to leave that evening, drive as far as we could, then drive the rest of the way Monday. Doing it this way would allow us to arrive by mid-afternoon with a full night’s sleep. Fueled by Starbucks and a steady diet of classic rock, Don and I made it all the way to the acclaimed Route 66 hot-spot, Barstow, California (the gateway to the Mohave Desert).
Monday morning we escaped the desert before the heat kicked in, and by 2 p.m. were rolling up to the Grand Canyon South Rim. After surveying the skies, we pointed the car east, along the rim, toward Lipan Point, a favorite photo spot about forty minutes away. Somewhere near Grandview we encountered a cell that delivered lightning and sheets of rain, a harbinger of what was in store. Though the Grandview cell was behind us, Lipan Point greeted us with looming black clouds that spit occasional raindrops that sounded like ripe grapes striking the roof, a car-rocking wind, and thunder separated from its flash by mere seconds. Hell hadn’t broken loose yet, but it was sure rattling the cage.
We’d counted on a little time to recover from the drive, but there’s nothing like urgency to reveal how unprepared you are. As a Californian (at the sound of thunder, bewildered Californians rush outside), I’d never had an opportunity to use my lightning trigger (an electronic device that detects lightning and fires the shutter in milliseconds); Don had forgotten to pack most of his rain gear. And neither of us had given adequate thought to the impracticality of our plan to avoid electrocution by setting up our expensive tripods and cameras at a popular Grand Canyon vista (in the height of tourist season) while waiting out the danger and discomfort of a thunderstorm in the security of the car. With the storm bearing down on us, what followed was a Keystone Cops swirl of activity—out of driving clothes and into wet-weather gear; extract and attach (and figure out) lightning triggers; find a suitable view comfortably removed from teaming tourists; meter and compose a scene—that culminated in a frantic retreat, sans cameras, when a much-too-close lighting bolt ripped a Niagara-size hole in the sky.
For the next five minutes our cameras couldn’t have gotten more wet if we’d have put them in a shower. Warm and dry in the car, I was suddenly gripped by visions of my wind-tossed camera and tripod plummeting into the Colorado River (5,000 feet below), so when the lightning paused, I mustered the courage rush to the rescue. (I think Don did the same thing, but at that point it was every man for himself.)
As I toweled down my gear back in the car, the wind and rain slowed to a more manageable pace. Unsure of how long our window of lightning opportunity would last, Don and I headed back out, this time in different directions and (somewhat) more prepared. I opted for the best composition that offered the possibility of distant lightning, turning my lens toward a gray curtain of rain a fair distance up the canyon, toward Desert View; Don, who was having technical problems with his lightning trigger, headed a little west and pointed his camera toward a nearby cell that was already flashing behind us.
For the next hour or so I heard my shutter respond to a half-dozen or so bolts in the direction of my composition, a good sign, but since the lightning trigger disables the LCD replay, all I could do was cross my fingers for success. When the electrical activity quieted, Don and I reconnected and traded notes. Though he’d resolved his technical issue (I’ll let him elaborate), he was similarly unsure of his success.
Lightning or not, we agreed that the sky was far better than anything we see in California. As we chatted, the sun appeared and a vivid double rainbow arced above Desert View—back to work. Lightning trigger off, I was happy to be back more familiar territory—trying to work a rainbow into an already magnificent scene without dodging raindrops or lightning bolts.
Because the rainbow touched down south of the rim, finding a composition that featured both the canyon and the rainbow required a wide shot that included close foreground elements. I wasn’t crazy about the shrubs and rocks immediately beneath the rock outcrop I was on, so I stood back from the rim a bit and hid them behind the more interesting texture of my grooved and weathered limestone platform.
For the rainbow’s thirty-minute duration, I moved along the outcrop, capturing about sixty combinations of foreground and sky, horizontal and vertical, wide and tight. I finished with many, many images that make me happy, but chose this one because (right now) I think it offers the most balanced combination of all that made the scene special: the warm light on the Grand Canyon’s south wall, the rainbow (duh), the rugged character of the limestone supporting me, and the saturated, arcing raincloud responsible for the moment.
That great start to our adventure was made even more memorable when Don and I, at the risk of spurring an international incident, selflessly declined the advances of two young German women seeking a bed for the night (seriously).
Viewing on my laptop back at the hotel, I was thrilled to find four frames that included lightning. Given all that was in store the rest of the week, my excitement at four frames now seems a little overdone, as was Don’s frustration that his technical problems resulted in a day-one lightning shutout. By week’s end we each had more than fifty lightning captures, most coming at the North Rim on an action packed final day that shrunk the beauty of this first day to a distant memory. Stay tuned….