Wanting a sunset, needed the storm.

Over the course of the past year and a half there have been many dark moments. Some I chose to never speak of again, as you can imagine when the heart gets broken and the mind gets low there are thoughts that enter your head that, while I recognize their severity, I am not too proud of. While pride hasn’t exactly been at the top of this landscape I do have two boys, who will be men sooner than later, they will experience hard times. I want them to see that surviving these falls is, not only possible, but probable. During this year and a half I have been provided with an array of moments that I hope to never relive such as having my heartbroken, being told that I should be seen by an oncologist, being alone, being fired, and then trying to figure out how I rebuild from losing everything but my boys. It is one moment that was a make or break moment. The one that gave me what I needed to make it through this.

I had been staying in the basement; mind you it wasn’t some dark and dirty pit of despair where I was tortured, it was a decently finished basement that afforded me a table to write and a warm place to sleep. Many have suffered more than I during that time and I will forever be grateful for the intrusion that I made on their lives for that month and a half. I think that I had only been in the basement for a week or two when I went to see a doctor about some concerns I had. This doctor told me that they wanted to refer me to an oncologist to get checked out. While the coward in my head wanted the easy way out and hoped that it was severe and would end the pain I was in, the fighter in me wasn’t sure he was ready to fall quite yet. I was hanging onto the ropes taking hit after hit, with my knees buckling, especially after the mere mention of cancer, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to just lay down. I was back to arguing it out with the angel and devil on my shoulders again, once again that devil was winning but I could still hear the angel. Needless to say my head, which was already spinning from the news my wife provided, the way things ended with her, and what to make of everything that was happening that this news just sent me flying from the edge of the cliff I had already been peering over. I wanted to get in my car and just Thelma and Louise it into a canyon or the less life threatening drive without looking back until I see something beautiful to call home. It was this thinking that got me moving one day.

The weather that day was supposed to be clear so said the three weather apps I checked prior to making my plans. I knew I wanted to get out with my camera and I knew I wanted my day to end photographing a beautiful sunset. I wanted to photograph something beautiful and have it become the moment where I would feel the peace of the skies around me showing me that I would make it through this. My focus was so aimed on my sunset that anything else was going to be devastating. I made sure my camera was charged, I had a playlist set in my MP3 player (yes, okay I still use an MP3 player. I get a lot of shit about that but it has all of my music on it and I don’t want to transfer it over to my phone like “normal” people do. So I guess you will all just have to get over it and recognize that I have my areas where I am set in my ways), I Googled the approximate time of sunset (I think it was around 8pm?), reviewed my driving needs, I only had a couple of cigarettes left and I needed to get gas so a stop would be needed.

I decided to leave at around 11 am that morning. I was going to wander the state first before heading west to get the sunset. First things first though, gas, a drink, and cigarettes. I pulled into the gas station pumped my gas and then went in. The girl behind the counter was particularly friendly and on any other day I would have been more than happy to be friendly back but I was on a mission this day. So I just smiled, at least I think I smiled? I recently discovered that when I think I am smiling I am not actually smiling. I actually investigated this by asking my boys to look at my face while I moved the muscles to stretch my mouth into the shape that life has shown me should be a smile. Slowly I would concentrate on pulling the right side of my mouth up and to the right then the same with the left. It turns out, after my boys regained their composure, from laughing that is, I just looked like I was having a stroke. This explains so much! For so many years I thought I was greeting people on the street with a smile, it turns out they may have just thought I needed medical attention. That was why people shot me weird looks and either start running or reached to check my arm strength while asking me to repeat simple phrases “Yes, the sky is blue, what of it??” I just thought they were weird!  It made so much sense now. Anyway, so I got two packs of cigarettes, a soft drink, and went back to my car ready for my sunset (wow that sounded morbid, “My Sunset”). I drove all over Vermont, east for 2 hours, south for 2 hours, looking around for something to photograph along the way. I found a small waterfall, snapped a few pictures, looked at the sun shining down on a mountain, snapped a few shots, then decided that it was time to start heading up to the edge of Lake Champlain where there were beautiful mountains on the New York side of the lake where the sunsets right behind them, that should give me amazing colors and a glorious end to what has been an eager exploration.

The playlist was a very important set up for this road trip. Music for me is just a way of life. There is a song that can capture any moment. I am a huge Ray Lamontagne fan, his music just speaks to me and has since the day I heard the song “Be Here Now”, it was just haunting. Never before had I experienced a musician that comes out with an album or a song that speaks directly to the things that I am facing. I recognize that I may be projecting a bit and that maybe these songs aren’t supposed to mean what I take them to mean but I have always been of the assumption that the music should mean what it needs to mean to the person listening to it. I made up two play lists for this trip, one if the trip was going well and one if it wasn’t and I just wanted to be frustrated and angry. On the first playlist I had Ray of course, The Allman Brothers, The Beatles, Nathaniel Ratliff and the Night Sweats, The Lone Bellow, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Leon Bridges, and others. The second playlist, the one if everything went sour and I just wanted to be a pouty teenager, pissed off at the world, included Nirvana, Tool, Soundgarden, The Doors, Pearl Jam, The Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, A Perfect Circle, as well as others. It was very important that I had music prepared for both scenarios. For the trip so far I was singing along with Ray and the first playlist for hours. It felt good to sing along at the top of my lungs and just release for a little bit while not not giving a fuck who laughed at me from their cars.

89 is one of two highways in Vermont, you read that correctly, there are two no more, no less. This highway leads you through the center of the state, through incredible mountain views, past lakes, the state capital, and eventually taking you right up to Canada. My exit was coming up and I was starting to get really excited about reaching my destination, one thing though, the clouds were rolling in a bit. In Vermont this isn’t as big of a deal because, if you have ever spoken to a Vermonter about the weather, if you don’t like it, wait five minutes. Still though, playlist one will remain and I will continue to sing, Mother Nature would not dare take this sunset away from me. I exited the highway, took a right and headed towards one of my favorite pull off spots right on the edge of the lake. Driving up the road I watch as the clouds grow darker and darker. They fill in, 360 degrees around me, still I drive, it will be sunny where I am heading, it has to be. As I drive a song comes on the playlist, it is THE song that reminds me of her.

“She lifts her skirt up to her knees, walks through the garden rows with her bare feet, laughing” Ray sings to start the song “Empty”.

We were at her sisters wedding, she was a bridesmaid, she was wearing a blue bridesmaids dress across a small field taking pictures (at the park where we got married) with her sisters. I was on the opposite side of the field, sitting in the car when security came over to their group and told them they had to leave (apparently no one got permission to take the wedding photos at the park). She was walking across the newly mowed grass holding her dress in her left hand so it wouldn’t drag on the ground, in her right hand were her shoes just dangling there by her side, she was walking barefoot. Her long brown hair decorated with baby’s breath along the sides running from front to back with curls that hung down lining the sides of her face. She is smiling down at the ground as if no one is watching. I always saw her though, always. She was laughing at the absurdity of being kicked out of the park and that no one had bothered to check to see if it was okay to photograph there. The bright green grass perfectly exposed the blue of her dress; she just looked so beautiful walking towards me. I reached for my camera but paused and placed it back down. This one was just for me, this shot I cannot take, it was too perfect and I would never be able to capture it the way my mind did at that moment. Back in the car and driving towards the lake, my mood would be shaken with the memory, not fully, but that song and the clouds starting to paint the skies, I did not want this day to end in any other way than how I had envisioned it in my mind. I kept driving.

As I drove, passing signs for turtle crossings, I made sure I kept an eye on the road to avoid killing a future sewer ninja, though my windshield was not cooperating. Drip, drip, drip, the sky was starting to piss a rain that screamed of needing a prostate exam. I refuse to turn on my wipers though because this cannot be happening. I see the signs for the pull off area I was waiting for. Pushing down on to initiate the signal that I would be turning left shortly, a pit began to grow towards the top of my stomach, the rain was picking up. As I applied the toes of my right foot to the brake and prepared my turn I looked around to see if anyone was there.  It was pretty empty but for a car down at the far end, the opposite end from where I wanted to be. This would be “my spot”; no one else could ever claim it. If I had a flag I would have planted it and that would have been my moon landing. I made it, after 4 and a half hours of driving, I reached my destination. I drove down the left side of the dirt parking area, did a u turn so the drivers side of the car was facing the lake, slowly I pressed the brake, pressed down on the clutch releasing the car from drive, and pulled up on the parking brake. I was parked, in my spot, by myself, time to light a cigarette, turn up the music, and let what was sure to be just a little sprinkle pass.

As the rain began to dissipate and the clouds initiated their break from covering the sky I quickly grabbed my camera. A family of geese was waddling right by my driver’s side door on their way to the water. I watched them for a few moments allowing them to take their steps down the dirt path into the lake before I opened the door ever so quietly. Once they regrouped in the water I lifted my camera and took the first shot, by the side of the lake, where the clouds would surely give way so I could have my sunset. 10 pictures of the geese family wading their way out to where ever it was they were looking to end up. Some small birds began coming out of hiding, landing in the trees that lined the large body of water hoping to grab some dinner for the night. While snapping a few shots of these birds I noticed a few bright spots in the clouds. They were thinning; I could almost see the sun. The clouds were making these beautiful swirling patterns in the sky, with light breaking through some of the thinner spots creating an amazing blue color while the thicker swirls created a dark contrast. I would stare at the sky for 20 minutes and just watch the clouds move and dance as the first storm passed, the first storm though; there was a second one shortly behind it. I watched as the beautiful blues closed in on each other, the darks spots in the sky were swallowing the blues whole it seemed. Back to the car, reach for a cigarette, turn back on the playlist (playlist one) and watch the rain coming back down.

During these 25 minutes of rain I decided to eat the sandwich that I had purchased earlier, sip on my soda, and just loose myself in the music. There was a lot of time to reflect on 18 years of time spent with her, on the way things ended, on my health (yeah the smoking of the cigarettes was happening while I was worried about the possibility of cancer, never claimed to be a genius), where I was going to be a year from now, two years from now, and my boys. I missed my boys. I worried about what her leaving me would do to their trust in love and relationships. I worried that they would avoid ever letting themselves fall completely for another, fearing being hurt as they had seen happen to their father. I worried that they would hate their mother or me for this happening. Time to light another cigarette. The window cracked (the smokers crack I call it, where the window is open about an inch.  Only smokers open their windows that little) a bit to ash my cigarette and let the smoke escape, the inside of my car was getting wet, as was my left leg and arm. It didn’t bother me though, the rain was going to end and the sky was going to provide me the best sunset I had ever seen. I was sure of it. This second rainstorm was passing; I hit the windshield wipers once to see how quickly the windshield filled back with rain. It was fine enough to head back outside.

Camera in hand I watched as a large hawk glides over the lake searching, I assume, for prey, but maybe he or she was just wasting time as I was, looking to watch the sun drop down behind the mountains. A few shots of the hawk were taken. The sky now had this soft smooth look to it, dark right above me but in the distance, over the NY side of the lake, the clouds were bright and lighting up the mountains, turning them a fantastic blue grey. I reeled off 20 shots from a variety of angles, using different exposures and lenses. It was short lived though; the third storm was starting to spit at me a bit. It was like Mother nature knew I was starting to feel like this may finally work out and she just wanted to let me know that I was not the one in control, nor would I be for a while. Back into my car, back to the pack of cigarettes, music on, but I wasn’t going with a playlist this time, just going to put it on shuffle and let the MP3 player take me where it wanted to take me. First song, Alice in Chains “Confusion”,

There’s no time to give at all
I cause you grief and blow my hatred
Further in your mind
You reach, I run, you fall
On skinned knees you crawl

I want to set you free, recognize my disease
Love, sex, pain, confusion, suffering
You’re there crying, I feel not a thing
Drilling my way deeper in your head
Sinking, draining, drowning, bleeding, dead.

Alice in Chains always could get me lower than I wanted to be, this song and the lyrics, which seemed to be sung directly to me, were not helping, so I skipped it. The damage was done though. My mood was starting to shift. Sitting in this black 2007 Honda Civic that I had to buy because she took the new car we just bought together, for the both of us, knowing we would be together well past the time we paid off the loan. I leaned my seat back and waited, lighting another cigarette my frustrations were creeping in. I just wanted a sunset. 30 minutes in the car, no signs of this rain stopping. I am sinking further and further. One hour, now I am in tears. I am sobbing in my car. After this past six months I didn’t think I had any tears left to give but I did. I buried my face into the sweatshirt I brought just incase it got cold. It felt like hours of just releasing my fears into this old ratty sweatshirt, the one I had to stitch the front pocket back on because she grabbed for me while playing football with the boys and tore it almost clean off. I cried for so long that, not only had I not realized that the rain had stopped, but also that two guys in a Ford Mustang had pulled up behind me to go fishing. I sat there for a moment, hoping I didn’t look like a complete nutter, trying to breathe deeply and hoping to compose myself.

I opened the door, lit another cigarette, and stared out at the sky. Large puffy clouds with blues and grays in various shades spread throughout the sky, a few pictures taken.  To my right, hovering just over the far mountain range, the sun was illuminating the thinner clouds. It looks like someone had put a thin sheet between the sun and the mountains, which were shinning green with moisture. I stood there though, not reaching into my camera pack to start shooting, but to watch, just like I had when she was walking through that grass. The moment that I had waited for was not going to be the one I wanted, in fact it was going to be far different. It wasn’t going to be bad, it was just going to be different. There would be no magnificent oranges, no yellows, purples, or even blues with this sunset. It would be a little grey and the green of the mountains, that’s it. It was beautiful though.   I stood there, hardly realizing that behind me the Mustang fishermen were quickly packing up and dark scary black clouds were slithering upon me once again. Still though, I wasn’t moving. I was there to watch the sunset and that is exactly what I was going to do. I put my camera back in the car, I light another cigarette and watched as my shoulders felt the drops hitting them sparsely, then not so sparsely, and then it was a downpour. I wasn’t going back in my car though, the dark clouds had yet to reach the fading sun behind the sheet and sinking just behind the mountains now. It didn’t take long though before it was over, the darkness had stretched the entire width of the lake and my sunset was gone.

I slowly slid back into my car, soaked, turned the ignition and cranked up the heat. I just sat and let the rain encompass my car for a bit while staring out the side window. I could feel tears running down my face, at first I thought it was the rain escaping the top of my bald head, but then my vision blurred. I came out here to photograph a sunset. I came out here to experience something that I wanted to be beautiful. I am not in control; I have no say, just like with these aspects of my life. The life that gave me rain today when I wanted a clear-skied sunset, but in between? In between each rainstorm I got to photograph something beautiful, something that only I had photographed or had seen aside from the birds, the hawk, and the geese, everyone else left. My wife leaving, my rainstorm, the way we separated, my rainstorm, and the health concerns, my rainstorm. While the clouds of these storms may have covered the sunset, it wasn’t always raining, and I wasn’t always trapped in a small confined space, such as my car, as it felt like. There were times when beauty would shine right through these clouds; I just had to make sure I looked up once in a while to see it. I had to recognize that something beautiful could present itself between each storm like the welcoming arms of a friend who opened his home to me, like conversations with my boys while cooking together, like a Gibson SG, like geese taking their babies home, and like the clouds that swirled and puffed up with grandiose colors crossing the lake, that I sat next to for five hours, hoping to see a sunset.

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