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This photo took some time to get right, and it took about eight drive-bys at 1 a.m. My boss, GySgt. Leo Salinas, dropped me off near the stop sign, and took off in his Jeep so I could do a few practice shots to get it looking just right. I stood there alone in the middle of the desert with no protection and thousands of dollars of camera gear. I started to feel uneasy. I had this image in my head of a wanderer with an eye patch and a beard creeping up next to me as I pop my flash for the shot. No kidding, like a bad 80s horror movie. I stood there for sometime conjuring this wild story for no reason at all. When my gunny stopped, I noticed lights in the distance rushing toward us. I didn't find out who or what those lights were because I insisted we just take off. Don't judge me. I never like scary movies.

Photo by Cpl. William J. Jackson

Out of my element: 2 days, 10 hours, and all I got were these two photos

26 May 2012 | Cpl. William J. Jackson

The moon was bright and it illuminated the desert landscape around us. Cars raced by in the distance as the distinct pop of the camera’s flash echoed on the rocks at my back. The cold was setting in and the night had just begun. ‘This is going to be harder than I expected’ I told myself.

It was ten o’clock and the sun had set in Joshua Tree National Park. It was the first of what turned out to be a two-night photo adventure in Joshua Tree. We didn’t really plan anything out. Actually, the only plan was to take photographs of the park at night. Which turned out to be more difficult than I originally thought.

For someone who shoots more video than take photographs I jumped at the chance to go photograph JTNP. I’m an avid hiker, camper and I love the outdoors but I’ve never brought my camera. I felt overwhelmed and out of my element in a place I would normally call my element. I pushed the feelings aside because we had just pulled up to our first hurdle.

The small group of rocks near Lost Horse Mine was a great place to stop. I had shot this scene before, months ago, just for fun with no tripod, flash or any clue as to what I should be doing. I was literally just pulling the trigger and seeing what comes out.

That is exactly what it was like Saturday night, except this time I had a tripod.

It wasn’t more than a half hour at this spot before we picked up and went. We planned some of our best shots at that spot. Before I knew it, it was 1 a.m. so we headed back home with a few shots that would work.

The park is different at night. It’s more serene. Time seems to drift by rather than rush at full speed.

Day two was something else. This time the plan was more grounded, it had some thought behind it. Hike Ryan Mountain and shoot the city lights.

I bummed around all day before the photo shoot. I knew that if I was going to get up that mountain at night with a 30-pound lens, full backpack and a tripod I would need to pretend to be ready.

7 p.m. hit and we set through the park towards the glooming stairs that lead to the trailhead of Ryan Mountain. That was the destination but it wasn’t the only stop.

Through the North entrance of the park there were all the amazing rock formations. We stopped on the side and trekked a good ten minutes into the desert before we hit the boulders.

The stop made me realize that I’d rather be hiking and climbing than taking photos. At least I knew how to hike and climb. Again I pushed the thoughts aside because we had hit the parking lot at the base of Ryan Mountain.

I pushed first. The moon was bright again so I turned off my flashlight and climbed with the moonlight. Every now and then a light from my boss’s flash surrounded the area.

I walked without a purpose. I was just there taking in everything.

The stars were burnt into the blackness of the night sky and I couldn’t look away. The crickets were singing in the distance. My boots were hitting the ground in rhythm with the crickets. The clanking of my camera gear brought me back to reality.

In the end I wasn’t really there for work. What really mattered is I found a place to relax.  I got away from the burdens of life, so they say, for a few minutes. It took another night that strangely wandered off until 2 a.m., stress and more work than I thought but it reminded me of why I chose to be a journalist.

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Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms