Big Sky Country
In Capturing Context, we share the story behind the image, providing insight into the photographer's approach and experience, and allowing the reader to connect more deeply with the work.
The call of the Rocky Mountains is always near, like a whisper on the wind. It is never far away, and for me the ‘Big Sky Country’ of Montana is at the heart of that calling. It had been almost two years since my wife and I were last in Montana – on the day we were married. As time passed at our home in Minneapolis, I thought often of a photograph I had longed to capture of an old abandoned home we had found on the same day, coincidentally, we were engaged. The house sat on the open plains in solitude, bleached by the sun, resolute just below the Crazy Mountain Range. It was the perfect subject to showcase a great sunset in ‘Big Sky Country’. So when we set up a two-week trip in July 2018, I knew I might get the opportunity I had been waiting for if I waited for the right day.
Our return to the Bridger Mountains was marked by the best wildflower season the mountains had seen in 25 years due to a banner year of snow and a prolonged spring. We hiked almost every single day and took more photos of our daughter in fields of wildflowers than I can count. Each evening I watched the skies and waited to see if the right ingredients would line up for the shot of my dreams.
And what beautiful evenings they were watching the sun’s light fade from behind the Bridger Mountain Range. The only problem was that every evening ended in blue skies with not a cloud in sight, not ideal conditions for photographing the sky. Cloudy days and storms seemed to evaporate into thin air just hours before sunset. Ten days passed with blue skies each evening and I was beginning to worry that the photograph in my mind would have to wait yet again. Then at long last, I watched hopefully as a summer rainstorm amassed over the Bridgers just before sunset and suddenly my window of opportunity opened.
With a kiss goodbye and my wife yelling “Good Luck!” I grabbed my camera and bag of gear and ran out of the house. I knew it was an hour long drive to get to the old house and time was not on my side. As I opened the car’s hatch, I stopped as a double rainbow appeared right in front of me, arching across the entire valley and landing right on the cabin. In that moment, the sun’s rays broke out from behind the storm and illuminated our home away from home in a warm golden light. I took it as a sign of good fortune, snapped a few shots, and peeled off down the dirt road chasing the summer’s fading light.
As I drove east, winding through backcountry roads, I found that I was actually following the rainbows toward the Crazy Mountains – toward my own pot of gold. I sped on, pulling off to snap a few photos here and there from the roadside wherever inspiration struck. I wound my way through the foothills of the Bridgers and back out into the Great Plains where I got my first view of the Crazy Mountains.
The Crazy Mountains are an island range of mountains surrounded by the Great Plains on all sides and no roads cross the range. There are no cabins, ranches, or homes built in them; they are an isolated and wild chain of mountains, untamed and beautiful. The rainbows I was chasing were going to pass right over them as they followed a little rain cloud blowing east toward the plains.
I continued to drive, trusting instinct and memory, and off in the distance, I saw it. Standing solitary in the summer’s golden light with the rainbow falling just to the south of it. The fields east of the old house were covered in pink flowers as far as the eye could see. I smiled and relaxed. The pieces were falling into place; I would get my chance.
As I grabbed my gear and threw the bag over my shoulder, I watched as the rainbows slowly disappeared, evaporating in front of me. The storm was moving off over the Crazies and, as I looked closer, the sky was just beginning to illuminate with the setting sun. I unhitched the fence and hiked into the pasture behind the house to set up for the shot. After a few test shots, I sat back and watched the light begin to play out. As I waited, I watched as a rancher came wheeling out of a driveway further down the dirt road and came speeding in my direction.
I looked at the gate and for the first time noticed a "NO TRESSPASSING” sign marked with bullet holes that I had missed in my rush to set up, and my heart skipped a few beats. The old, white, pick-up truck came to a dusty stop at the driveway entrance. The man stared at me and I looked back and tipped my baseball cap to him, thinking of all the crazy stories I had heard over the years of people getting shot for trespassing on someone else’s land. The driver slowly tipped his cowboy hat and drove off. Relief washed over me and I took a deep breath, refocused, and waited for the sun to set and to see what type of light it would bring.
The sunset began to unfold slowly like a symphony, the sky lit with a tapestry of interweaving colors. I walked around the old home, working with what the light gave me and made the most of it. As I was shooting, the sky and departing storm illuminated into a brilliant pink much like the field of flowers below. It was a spectacular sunset and an easy one to capture into beautiful photos. I was lucky just to get an opportunity to capture the changing light over the landscape, but also to be able to sit back, take it all in, and enjoy the moment that I had anticipated for so long.
In all honesty, the shot I was looking for of the old abandoned home at sunset, with the Crazy Mountains in the background, never really happened. That is, the composition I had in mind wasn’t there for the taking that evening. But in reality, the moment I had been waiting for did happen and that was more important to me. To experience a sunset that beautiful, in that place, was a small dream come true.
Over the years, I have realized that photography has acted as a vehicle of sorts to get me to places like this and to experience more memorable moments than I could count. I can’t say that I would have taken the time to go there otherwise, without the carrot of a good photograph to lure me. To me, photography is not just about capturing a moment in time, it also acts as point of focus to get me up and out into the world to experience moments in wondrous places like these.
As the evening progressed, I realized I had captured enough photos and I decided to simply sit back and enjoy the moment. I walked out to sit on top of the warm hood of my car with a cold beer that I had thrown in my bag, and watched with a big smile as the last of the day’s light faded out over the "Big Sky Country" of Montana.