Mountain Spirits, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Photo By Brian VanDenzen

Nearly every October, I journey into the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado to bask in the warm days and crisp, cool nights of fall, and to find that quiet inner peace that a moment of high country autumn light and shimmering aspen gold can provide to the soul. While the San Juan Mountains offer some of the most famous fall vistas in all of photography, I now look more for lesser-known scenes than the iconic autumn locations that draw so many photographers to these mountains.

On a cold, rainy Friday evening in mid-October, I drove up to Molas Pass near Silverton, Colorado, parked along a forest road, and slept in the back of my truck. As the rain continued all night heavily, I slept restlessly, wondering if the Saturday morning sunrise would materialize. Upon waking two hours before dawn, the area was enveloped in fog that I doubted would clear before first light.

Nevertheless, not wanting to miss a peaceful morning in the autumn high country, I layered up and hiked a short distance to a vista of an old miner’s cabin I had scouted numerous times over the years. I knew that from a certain spot in the trees, an old two-track dirt road would make a nice leading line toward the abandoned cabin and the distant mountains. And I knew there was a stand of aspen sitting behind the cabin—a stand that I hoped would still show its golden, shimmering fall color this late in the season. The various compositional elements were all in place to make the autumn sunrise image I envisioned, if only the fog would lift enough to allow morning light to stream through the scene. I sat quietly in the cold, fog-shrouded woods as the time for sunrise came and went without the warmth of the sun. While disappointed in missing the golden sunrise light I had envisioned, I was warmed by the sound of a bugling of elk somewhere far below in the mountain valley.

Finally, about 90 minutes after sunrise, the fog began to dance intermittently with beams of penetrating sunlight. I was fortunate to see a column of fog lift from the valley and above the golden aspen trees immediately behind the cabin, illuminated by a beam of sunlight from the east. As I was preparing to shoot, I thought that the deep contrasts of a black-and-white image would best capture the moment and the question I had contemplated most of that foggy morning: What was the spirit of the people who built and lived in that lonely, one-room cabin, hard on the side of a rocky mountain meadow?

Perhaps, like the decaying cabin, their spirit was nothing more than a fleeting moment, lost with the lifting fog. Yet on that foggy, cold autumn morning, I believed from deep within that those mountains still remembered their spirit. OP

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM at 70mm, Singh-Ray 3-stop graduated neutral density filter, Lee circular polarizer, remote shutter release, Gitzo GT2542LS Series 2 tripod, Acratech GP ball head. Exposure: 1/60 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 160.

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