Last weekend I slept in a tent in the desert with three friends, squeezed together side by side like sardines, while infants’ wails rang from the tent in front of us and snoring blared from the one behind. The one of two campgrounds with running water in Joshua Tree National Park seems to be pretty popular for Memorial Day getaways. At 4 a.m., our tent was the obnoxious one. My alarm chimed loudly enough for the occupants of all twenty campsites in our area to hear while I fumbled through my backpack to silence it. After savoring a few more moments in our cozy sleeping bags, we climbed out of the tent and craned our necks upward. There, a faint stripe ran from the horizon up across the sky—the Milky Way. The rest of our group emerged from their various tents, and we crowded around the physics majors, who identified constellations in whispers.
I tried to take pictures of the stars but couldn’t get the manual focus right: Spin the focus ring a quarter turn clockwise. Press the button and wait twenty seconds for the long-exposure photo. Oops, too far—both the trees and the stars are blurry. Back a little bit. Press the button and wait again. It’s closer; the stars have some shape now. Back some more. While I spun the focus ring back and forth at minute-long intervals, the horizon began to glow pink and the stars started to fade. Soon, the Milky Way was invisible. It was the first time I’ve been disappointed to see a sunrise. I started packing up my camera.
The photo with the best focus… but sloppiest composition. That’s our tent poking up at the bottom.
I have a problem: When something goes wrong, I feel like everything is wrong. It’s hard to keep my emotions from a single incident from dominating my whole frame of mind. In the past, I’ve dragged myself out of bed into chilly early mornings just for pictures of the sunrise. This time, I was so bummed about the stars being gone that despite already being set up to take pictures, I almost didn’t think of it. Even when it did cross my mind, I thought, no way, I’m going back to bed. The sunrise just stole the sky from the stars. Photograph the sunrise? Ha, what an idea.
I really wasn’t feeling it, but I convinced myself I’d regret not staying up on my only night at Joshua Tree. Ironically, I ended up spending more time and taking more photos of the sunrise than I did of the stars.
Joshua Trees look funky in the daytime, but in a silhouette, this one’s tilted arms are pretty cute.
When I crawled back into my warm sleeping bag, the sky was bright and birds were chirping—loudly, and much too cheerfully for 5 a.m. Thankfully, their good-morning cries didn’t keep me from saying good night. And it had been a good night.