1,000 Words (or less): The Milky Way above Black Mesa, Oklahoma

The Milky Way as it descends below Black Mesa, Oklahoma. 20 second exposure at f/2.8.

A goal of mine is to visit all 50 US state high points. From the lowest - Florida's Britton Hill at 345 feet above sea level, to Denali in Alaska standing 20,310 feet tall, and the 48 somewhere in between, all are weighted equally. As of this writing I am stood atop 13 (I tried to do New Hampshire's Mount Washington and Colorado's Mount Elbert both in late Autumn and had to turn back both times).

In summer of 2015 I was living in New Mexico and took a four day weekend to make a road trip to hike New Mexico's Wheeler Peak and Oklahoma's Black Mesa. Having finished the hike up the 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak, I made the several hour drive to the remote western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Black Mesa State Park, located about 13 miles southeast from the actual state high point, is one of the most outstanding dark sky regions in the United States. Around 10 or 11 PM I got out of my tent and made the short drive to Black Mesa Preserve, which is where the trail head to the high point is. Stepping out of my car into the empty gravel parking lot, the Milky Way was instantly noticeable in the southern sky, even though my eyes were not yet completely adjusted to the darkness.

The darkness was total. Not a single artificial light could be seen, not a sound other than the wind and bugs was audible. Being born and raised in suburban Florida, this was a level of sensory deprivation that I was absolutely not familiar with. Any strange noise from beyond the light of my headlamp would cause me to quickly turn and find the cause of the sound. Maybe I was a little nervous being all alone, miles from the nearest town, probably an hour from anywhere with reliable cell signal.

Grabbing my tripod, camera, and remote shutter, I positioned myself in such a way that the central band of the Milky Way was seemingly sprouting from the peak of a nearby mesa. At the time I was very new to night time photography, and it took several attempts before I got my settings dialed in: 13mm, f/2.8, 20 seconds with my Tokina 11-16. After 30 or so minutes taking pictures and relatively pleased with my results, I headed back to my tent to get some rest - having woken up at 5 AM to hike New Mexico's highest point had definitely wore me out. Oklahoma's high point requires an 8 mile round trip hike with zero shade, and I knew the August sun would heat things up quickly, so I needed an early start the next morning. It was time for bed.

The next morning I made it back to the Preserve sometime after 6 AM and made quick work of the hike. The high point itself is indistinguishable from the surrounding mesa top. Without the obelisk and bench marking the spot, you would never know you were the highest person in Oklahoma at that moment.

It was time to make the seven hour drive back to Las Cruces, and then to figure out how to actually post process a Milky Way photo properly. I found a great video on Youtube which explained much of the process to me. Being a rookie when it came to Photoshop, this video was extremely helpful in getting good results from my Black Mesa trip. After several tries to get an image that I felt was exciting but not "overdone" I ended up with the photograph seen above.


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