Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cryptic Messages from Signal Hill

"A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective." (Sun-tzu) 

17:55 hours (5:55 PM). We swerve off the asphalt and onto a gated desert road, past the sign warning, “ROAD CLOSED, SUNSET – 6 AM.”

18:02 The official southern Arizona sunset. A brilliant red fire fills the western horizon. If I captured that one, I mutter to myself, they would accuse me of “photoshopping.” Better to just avoid that scene.

18:07 Another turn down another side road and, 1.62 miles from pavement, we reach the parking lot without incident. Less than 100 meters north is a small hill, sitting right out in plain view. And on top, there’s a pile of boulders covered with dozens of 1,000-year-old Hohokam petroglyphs. “Signal Hill,” they call it.

But what’s this? There’s two civilian cars in the lot. Can’t they read? I covertly stash my camera gear on top of a picnic table and wait. Tracy walks the dogs. Eventually, two groups of loud teenagers return from the sunset, each one armed with a point-and-shoot digital camera. One carries a tripod. I shake my head – the photo addiction starts so innocently.

As they load into the cars, I slip up a side trail, carrying my tripod tight to my left flank lest they spot me and wonder what I’m up to. By the time they pull away, followed by Tracy in our big white noisy diesel camper, I’m halfway up the trail leading to the hilltop. Just past the sign that says, “DANGER – RATTLESNAKES.”

Alone at last. I briefly study my target – a spiral pecked into the desert varnish on a stone face about 18” across – and I break out my gear under a thin crescent moon. I scouted this location a few weeks back and devised a plan, but the teenagers set me back 13 minutes. Now I’ll have to set up and focus in the dark.

Signal Hill Spiral Petroglyph (c) John Ashley
Spiral petroglyph of Hohokam origin on Signal Hill, southern Arizona.

18:38  First test images. I set up to photograph a 20-minute star trail while briefly light-painting the petroglyph with my headlamp. But the LED bulbs are too cool, too blue for this job. I'm crawling on hands and knees to reposition the tripod as low as it will go, and my headlamp clatters away into the darkness. Stumbling back to my pack to dig out the backup flashlight, I remember that it has a nicer, warmer color. Much more appropriate for these old rocks. I reset the camera and restart the light painting, again, this time using my flashlight.

A few planes pass overhead, too high to spot me, but several fly right through my image. I curse the pilots and restart the camera each time. A mile to the west, a dozen coyotes howl in a dozen different keys.

19:00  Suddenly, a cell phone rings out into the night, extremely close to my location. I freeze. Slowly I pat my shirt pocket and realize that mine is missing. Must have fallen out while I was fumbling for my headlamp. Trying not to trip over the tripod, I track down the noise and answer my phone. It’s my accomplice, checking on progress. Tracy was reading a book a few miles away when she found herself surrounded by four elderly campground hosts. It looked dicey, but she sweet-talked her way out of that situation and was calling to double-check my ETA. Everything’s under control, I assured her, and I’ll be done in less than two hours.

19:08  Headlights appear in the desert where they don’t belong. Quickly, I lay the tripod on the ground and slip around behind the hill to watch. But the lights have disappeared.

Just as well, I sigh. High, thin clouds are forming, and most of the stars are already blotted out to the north and west. To the southeast, clouds are floating over the small city that lays hidden behind those low mountains. The city lights paint the clouds orange as they pass over, but lots of stars still shine through.

Again, I reposition my camera and tripod, gamble on the focus distance, and shorten the exposure. This time I incorporate the fast-moving clouds into the composition. I shoot several 60-second exposures, long enough to capture the color but short enough to avoid too much star trailing – I hope. Just as the clouds reach their peak, their orange glory, my first camera battery dies. The clouds dissolve and begin fading away while I’m digging around for my second battery.

20:16  Mostly clear, starry skies return. I reposition the tripod, again, and aim my camera south to capture star trails that – if my aim is true – will form a rainbow above the spiral petroglyph. I start a one-hour exposure.

20:27  The headlights return! This time they race past two possible turnoffs and head straight for Signal Hill. Have they spotted me? From the roof of a green and white SUV, a spotlight blazes a beam left and right across the thin patches of saguaro and mesquite. They’re almost at the parking lot below me.

I curse in your general direction, Border Patrol! (No disrespect intended – I wanted to be a cop once – but I don’t have time for this.) I shoulder my dark-green pack, pocket the headlamp, and admire my decision to wear a black coat and skullcap tonight. I leave the camera and tripod. They're sitting higher now but still low enough that they can’t be easily spotted from below.

Signal Hill spiral petroglyph (c) John Ashley
A Border Patrol SUV drives through the right side
of a 60-minute star trail / light painting exposure.
The spotlight jerks across my hill, and I crouch behind a small boulder before slipping off to the east flank. The SUV swings around the parking lot and I slink back to the west face, keeping close tabs on the law. It’s not that I’m doing anything wrong. My camper is waiting somewhere on the proper side of the closure sign, beyond the gate. The area is closed to vehicles, true, but the sign doesn’t mention hikers, much less nocturnal photographers. I’m on the right side of the law, technically speaking, just doing my job.

What concerns me, however, is the thought of some well-armed Border Patrol agents who might be just a little bit over-eager to “take down” a photographer mistaken for a drug runner. I’d hate to surprise a couple of young men like that. Also, I don’t want to lose an hour of work (and potentially much more), trying to explain the nuances of nocturnal photography while staring into a spotlight. It would also be undesirable to be spotted in the dark, miles from anywhere, carrying a long black tripod that could be confused for something else. Finally, there's a thin chance that I might know one of them, a good friend's husband, and it's always embarrassing to be held at gunpoint by a friend.

The SUV and spotlight aim southeast, away from me. My phone rings. I stand and answer, suddenly realizing that the light on my face was very bright, and rather unflattering. I duck down behind a cactus. Code orange, too hot, can’t leave until situation improves, don’t call me I’ll call you.

21:48  Haven’t seen the lights now for 30 minutes, ever since they disappeared behind the next ridge south of my location. I make the call. Job’s complete, I’m hiking towards the rendezvous point, over.

22:15  I climb aboard the intercept vehicle, heart racing from my short, dark jog. Tracy yawns, and both dogs are asleep. We turn and drive our old camper south into the night. Over the first hill we pass a Border Patrol SUV idling on the roadside, headlights on.

22:30 hours (10:30 PM). Arriving at a safe location, Tracy goes to bed while I walk the dogs around a cluster of expensive motor homes that are camped in a peaceful, well-lit and tastefully-landscaped casino parking lot. One less image stuck in my imagination, one more hard-earned photograph. Another night in the days of a nocturnal photographer.


  1. What an amazing and well written post. I really want to go take photos this minute. Cheers!

  2. Love reading about two of my favorite people's adventures. Keep em' coming, miss ya.


    PS very cool photo, can't wait to see it in person.

  3. Fantastic - enjoyed reading that post. Very well written - it was almost like an engrossing spy thriller!