Hoarfrost on prairie and tree. Photo by W. Scott Olsen.

The Grace of the Bright

Prose + Photo Gallery by W. Scott Olsen

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Available Light: A Series on the Photography of Place

The warnings had been clear and many. There was a storm coming into Denver. The evening news forecast a difficult morning commute.

I was going a great deal farther. I had to leave early.

Signs over the highways warned of ice. Heading north on I-25, hours before dawn, I could not see the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. I could not see Mt. Evans. I could not see North Table Mountain, Eldorado Mountain, South Boulder Peak, or any other peak, which was disappointing because I had arrived just the night before, well after dark, and could not see them then either.

At their very best, road trips are visual ecstasies. I live on the prairie and was looking forward to seeing mountains, if only from a distance. Oh well, I thought. I thought I knew what was coming.

To avoid the weather, but also to avoid highways I have driven often, I chose the northern route. Denver to Cheyenne. Route 85 out of Cheyenne to Spearfish. Spearfish to Belfield. Belfield to home. One day’s drive from Denver to Fargo, just under 1,000 miles. I was looking forward to high desert, the American steppe, the vastness and quiet of the Great Plains in winter.

Sometimes photography is the reason for a road trip. Sometimes the road trip comes from some other need and the camera is an act of hope, a wish for serendipitous insight or beauty.

Hoarfrost on flat landscape, with sunrise. Photo by W. Scott Olsen.

In Cheyenne, I left the interstate and headed east just as the sun was beginning to light the horizon. Under a clear sky, I could tell there had been fog. The ground, the fence lines, the sage were all coated in hoarfrost. As the morning brightened, it also glittered.

I stopped at a farm road and took out my camera. Hoarfrost is fleeting. I knew it would be gone as soon as the temperature rose and I wanted to capture this version of a diamond daybreak.

But then, back on the road, I had another surprise. The fog had not lifted. Instead, it was rolling east. I could see the low bank of clouds some distance away. It was difficult to tell how far. Miles went by. First a dozen. Then a hundred. The fogbank left rime in its wake and every turn left me astounded, either smiling or hitting the brakes. Image, then another image, then another. I knew I was running late but running was not my goal. If it is possible to linger in a temporary beauty, I was going to find a way.

Near Spearfish, South Dakota, the fog finally dissipated. In the middle of a dry winter, the earth to every horizon was brown. Brown, and huge.

Sometimes photography is the reason for a road trip. Sometimes the road trip comes from some other need and the camera is an act of hope, a wish for serendipitous insight or beauty.

I did make it home. Late, yes. In the very dark, with the grace of the bright.

Available Light | The Grace of the Bright
Gallery by W. Scott Olsen

Images in this gallery may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:


W. Scott OlsenW. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad (NDSU Press, 2016). His individual essays have appeared recently in journals such Kenyon Review OnlineCrazyhorse, Lake Effect, North Dakota QuarterlyUtne Reader, Frames Magazine, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Lensculture.comThe ForumPlane & PilotAOPA Pilot, and elsewhere.
View additional prose and photography by W. Scott Olsen appearing in Terrain.org: the full Available Light series, plus On the Shortest Day: The Northern Prairie + Siberia (with Valeriy Klamm), On Seeing New York: A Photo Essay, Chasing Clouds, and River Flying in Winter: The Sheyenne River.

All photographs by W. Scott Olsen.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.