Sandia Mountains

I know how Captain Ahab felt while searching for his white whale. The passion, the drive, the commitment that transcends all else to achieve, at all costs, a singular aim. Unlike Ahab, however, reaching my goal didn’t cost me a leg or anything else; instead, it was quite the opposite. I was not chasing an elusive whale. I was stalking the Sandia Mountains, which were right there in front of me every day, taunting me. Defying me to create a fantastic photograph of them.

Let’s back up a moment to add context. And we’ll see how this scene went from this so-so photograph to something extraordinary.

This modest scene would soon turn into an incredible one.

Here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there is a picturesque mountain chain to the immediate east of the city—the Sandia Mountains. These mountains, reaching 10,678 feet tall, might not be the tallest, but they dominate the skyline all the same. We all, every day, look up at the mountains and enjoy the view.

The Sandias have a nifty trick up their sleeve, too. If the conditions are just right at sunset, they will light up and glow a beautiful red color—watermelon red. Some days it will be intense, others subtle, but this variation gives the mountains their character. And “Sandia” means “Watermelon,” so the glow truly is the mountain’s namesake.

Naturally, this is a prime topic for any local photographer, myself included. How could it not be?

And therein lies the rub. The mountains are there every day, impossible to miss. It is easy to photograph them. Simply point your camera to the east, and there you go. Wait until sunset, wait until the glow appears, and you can’t go wrong. But there is far more to it than that, of course. Far, far more.

I wanted a different photograph of the Sandias and far from an ordinary snapshot. I wanted it to be unique and genuinely capture the essence and glory of the mountains. Those moments and those days don’t come along very often. And they are impossible to predict. So many conditions have to come together, and, for me, at least, the window of opportunity is relatively narrow for the photograph I pictured in my mind.

I knew I wanted dramatic clouds. Many days at sunset, whatever clouds are around the mountain will dissipate with the setting sun. The scene starts out beautiful, but as the sun slides toward the horizon, the clouds drift away, and what was magical becomes ordinary in the blink of an eye. I also wanted to showcase the fall colors. Why? I don’t know. It is just how I wanted it to look. I don’t want much, do I?

So, most days, I would look at the mountains, the sky, and the forecast and try to decide if the day would work out for me. I often gathered all my equipment and headed to one of my favorite viewpoints. Every day I would stand there and watch the mountains as the daylight began to fade. I was set up, ready to make the perfect photograph. And inevitably, the day would end with an average scene. It is here that I began to compare myself to Captain Ahab. He couldn’t catch his whale. I could not make my perfect photograph.

The next day I would start the process over again. And this went on for a very long time. I would have driven myself crazy if I wasn’t already there.

One day, though, I thought all the conditions would line up. The fall colors were at their peak in one spot in Rio Rancho. The golden colors were exactly the shade I was looking for; although some leaves had fallen, most remained. The day was also cloudy, and clouds in the sky were essential to my vision. But, working against me, it was a very windy day, and the clouds were becoming thicker throughout the day. This would prevent any sunset colors from appearing.

I visited my chosen spot in mid-afternoon to give it a good look—that’s the photograph at the beginning of this story. I wanted to be 100% certain of my viewpoint should the end of the day work out, so, like so many days before, I did my initial scouting earlier in the day.

So, I headed home and waited.

As the afternoon wore on, though, conditions worsened for me. The clouds continued to become thick and heavy. The wind picked up. The perfect conditions would not come together, and I would be disappointed again. Still, the eternal optimism in me won out. I once again packed up my gear and headed out. I made it to the location quickly enough, but as I suspected, it would be a bust. The mountains were now mostly in shadow—they would not light up tonight. The earlier breeze was now outright windy. The clouds were heavy. At least I would enjoy the mountains, all the same.

Sunset arrived. I stood there silent, grateful for the fact I was there but forlorn at seeing another opportunity slide by me.

Indeed, the most magical thing happened.

Right after sunset, the sun somehow found a way to slip through the heavy clouds. The right side of the Sandia Mountains began to glow their beautiful watermelon color. Huh. Didn’t that beat it all? The sunset was going to tease me; in any event, it was far too windy to create meaningful photographs.

Against all odds, the glow began to creep more to the left. Now, half the mountains looked really lovely. And the clouds started to light up, too. Still, the sun was now well below the horizon, and the scene would collapse at any moment.

Except it didn’t. It continued to get better.

In the blink of an eye, the mountains glowed with a vibrancy I didn’t see very often. The watermelon red was reflected in the Rio Grande River in front of me. And the clouds offered their own version of reds, providing a perfect counterpoint.

And miracles of all miracles, the wind dipped to a strong breeze. I had, quite literally, seconds to pull off catching my whale, er, make my photograph.

And I did.

Sandia Sunset

Sandia Sunset

The result is Sandia Sunset. Against all odds, I finally made the photograph I had pictured for so many years. I caught my whale. I achieved a photograph that, to me, captures the glory of the Sandia Mountains.

You can purchase Sandia Sunset here, and always enjoy the view!