It’s a shame how infrequently I get to visit the ocean. Living in western Iowa, we are about as landlocked as anybody in the United States. We used to visit my grandparents just about every winter in south Texas, where we’d always make our way down to South Padre Island to enjoy the pre–Spring Break calm-before-the-storm, but they’ve recently decided to stay put in Ashland, Nebraska, year-round. It’s awesome for being able to see them whenever we want, but lousy for making our annual visit to the coast. When I really started getting involved in photography, about two years ago, I started paying more and more attention to photo-sharing websites, such as Flickr, and many of my favorite landscape photographs have, of course, been of faraway seascapes at sunrise or sunset, with a dramatic sun-kissed sky and the surf rushing through the frame. Don’t get me wrong; we have amazing sunsets here, but it takes some work to get a nice view of one—typically a good long drive up to one of the lookout points along the western ridge of the spine of loess on which we live. But as for sunrises, forget about it. You might think of the Midwest as a depressingly flat and featureless expanse of cornfields and blue sky, and you’re mostly right, but to the east of our house is a ridge of relatively steep bluffs for miles, so it’s very rare that I get to see an unobstructed view of the sunrise.
This brings me back to my earlier discussion of U.S. Route 1, the highway that joins all the principal Keys. When I started looking at the Florida Keys on the map, there grew in me a romantic little spark as I envisioned all the opportunities for viewing and photographing sunrises, sunsets, moonrises, and moonsets. Seven days spent in the Keys meant 28 times I could watch the sun and moon make their entrances and exits, first ascending from the glittering depths of the Atlantic Ocean and then plunging out of view into the Gulf of Mexico, in an endless, resplendent circuit.
I might sound a little crazy to you at this point, but I assure you, I’m no crazier than the throng of tipsy tourists, street performers, and natives in Key West who congregate on Mallory Square every single evening to cheer, drinks in hand, as the sun drops slowly beneath the horizon. For some, it almost invariably marks the end of another gorgeous day in the Florida Keys, while for many others, it marks the beginning of a long drunken night ahead on Duval Street.
Below is my pictorial tribute to my brief love affair with the hours between dusk and dawn in the Florida Keys. Most of those hours were spent with my amazing wife, while she waited patiently as I stopped time and again to set up my tripod for yet another view and click of the shutter. One such night has become one of my all-time-favorite memories, when we watched invisible stars through my telephoto lens for hours on the beach, the sky as dark as I’ve ever seen it—so black that stars were visible all the way down to the ocean’s horizon line. And one morning, it was just me, a few early joggers, and a great egret watching the chalky, rosy glow intensify over the mangroves east of Key West. I’m glad I had my camera with me.