Four months without a rain drop. Now a storm was finally coming in. A big one. Soft, diffuse light begged to be honored, courtesy of the now-unfamiliar cloud cover I hadn’t seen in months.
I hastily packed up my photography gear and told myself I needed to get in a few hours of shooting. The textures of historic Virginia City and wild horses in the sagebrush were in my sights. Yet my to-do list was screaming at me and my head had already scheduled every minute of my day to address its tasks.
The chance to photograph horses in the rain is rare, though, especially so close to home. I would regret letting it pass by, not only for the unique weather, but more so for not living my values and not reclaiming the things I have let slip lately.
Into the storm
So I set out, camera pack nestled in the passenger seat as I quickly slalomed the curves of Six Mile Canyon up to Virginia City. After a couple of hours stomping around soaking up the textures and colors of C Street’s gritty historic boardwalks, I descended from the hills to find the horses in the valley below.
The storm was approaching slowly. It was menacing and powerful, almost taunting, as it crawled towards me. Yet cloud-dappled sunlight bathed the edge of the hills. Sure enough, the horses were easy to find. A large herd grazed cautiously in the sagebrush, carefully eyeing the approaching tempest.
Even with 600 mm of focal length to work with I couldn’t get close enough from the car to truly capture their spirit. I would have to set out on foot. I approached slowly, of course, and not too close. They are wild animals, after all, and respecting their space is crucial.
They grazed, faces buried in the brush so that I couldn’t get a decent shot. The air was utterly still—the calm before the storm. I began to think my excursion was worthless. Then the wind arrived in a sudden gust. The horses all turned their backs to it. It was no surprise but now all could I see was horse asses. Feeling frustrated and deflated as heavy raindrops pattered the thirsty soil, I lingered a little longer to simply admire them before walking slowly back toward the car for shelter.
With my foot an inch from the accelerator I gave them one last forlorn glance; a moment of grief for an unrealized desire. Suddenly they ran, hooves thundering into the hills. That meant a renewed opportunity for me. I followed slowly, tempering my excitement as I navigated the nonsensical web of dirt roads carved into the sagebrush. I caught up with them, securing the best position I could without disrupting them.
So there I stood in the driver seat of my trusty Subaru Forester, muddy boots on the upholstery and my torso sticking out of the sunroof—watching, shooting, understanding. We all considered each other in this surreal place on the edge of the storm. Heavy rain drops pelted us as the sun shone just a few hundred yards to the north and a thunderous downpour obliterated the view of Highway 50, a few hundred yards to the south.
I kept waiting for the torrent to overtake us and end my time with the horses. Hunger and fatigue were becoming hard to ignore but I didn’t want to squander my limited opportunity. I thought of my mentor, Bill Lea, and the time he’s invested in getting to know the habits and behaviors of bears. Countless hours in the field have led him to become an authority on them and helped him create stunning images. If he’s taught me one thing, it’s that this effort requires investment. So I stayed on, cold and wet, to learn about and admire these wild horses.
The fruits of the labor
Five hours after I made the impulsive decision to face the storm, I returned home, exhausted. My stamina is clearly not what it once was or what it needs to be for a day like that. I’m moderately pleased with the tangible results, the photographs. I’m more pleased with my huge leap in understanding the horses and their behavior.
My biggest victory, though, was getting out there and doing it. I stopped making excuses and exercised skills that have been atrophying at an alarming rate. It would have been easier and more comfortable to stay home. But having embraced the opportunity, I know now that it’s always better to stand in the rain with wild horses.