Barnardsville, North Carolina (Summer 2016)
Casey and I had only known each other for a week or so. We first worked together on a review I did on a new Manfrotto stunt bag. In the hour or so we shot together, I didn't really get to know Casey and could only say that she seemed as caring and intelligent as she is beautiful. I really like developing relationships with people, especially those I chose to work with. The better you know your portrait subject or creative team, the better work you can produce. After our first shoot together, I was eager to schedule another session with Casey and get to know her.
We met in the late afternoon at my house outside of Asheville, North Carolina. It isn't often that I get to shoot near my mountain home as most of my year is spent in Tokyo. Casey showed up on time (rare for a model) and was ready to get to work straight away. We packed a bag and headed towards Barnardsville, a sleepy Appalachian town with little more than a convenience store and a post office. The sun was shining bright but I knew that the mountain humidity would bring rain sooner or later.
We cracked the windows and chatted about this and that. I asked questions about Casey's boyfriend and yoga career and she asked me about my life in Tokyo and what it is like to be a new father. Our conversation seemed natural and it felt as though I was having a conversation with a friend instead of someone I had only recently met.
We tore through Barnardsville at forty miles per hour, five over the town's strict thirty five limit. I knew we were near our destination when I saw the sign that said, "Pavement ends, five miles." Those five miles went quick as we winded up the mountain road, entered Pisgah National Forest, and bumped off the end of the paved road. We snaked our way up the one lane road and the forest canopy became thick. The air was clean and the July heat was no match for the thick trees. Basically, I couldn't ask for a better location for an afternoon portrait session.
Past the first creek bridge was our initial stopping point. Pisgah is my stomping ground and I knew that near this particular bridge was a small cascade that would make a wonderful spot for our first set. We parked the car and hopped into the cold mountain creek. Casey was very patient sitting in the frigid mountain water and was able to stop her shivering lips as she lay upon moss covered boulders. Of course I worked as quickly as possible.
After thirty minutes in the creek bed, we decided to head up the forest road to a clearing in the woods. It is odd finding an empty field in a North Carolina forest. These mountain fields seem so out of place after miles and miles of dense deciduous and evergreen. We parked the car along the road and slid past a forest service gate into the field. We got another fifteen minutes of photographs in the field before I saw the clouds.
Over the tree line I could see the nastiest looking storm approaching. They were the kind of clouds that you expect Lord Voldemort to come out of. With the storm above our heads we quickly popped back to the car and headed back down the mountain the way we had come up. We rolled the windows up and the rain begin to drip, drop, pour. I drove a bit faster to get down the mountain. Flash floods are common in the area and mountain roads aren't exactly known for being smooth. But coming around the last real switchback I realized that the road washing out was the least of my worries.
Right where we had been parked for our cascade set a giant oak tree had succumbed to the wind and had fallen across the road. To the right of the tree, a steep hill that once held the old oak's roots . To the left, a ravine. Normally, the forest service is quick to maintain the roads and to clear trees when they do fall. With the rain coming down, no cellphone service, and night coming I knew that the big tree wouldn't be cut and removed until the next day.
I did my best to complete a twelve-point turn on the narrow gravel-mud road and again headed back up the mountain. There was no other option. As we climbed, widow makers fell throughout the forest and the windshield wipers struggled to keep up with the pouring rain. It was at this point that I realized I had never taken the forest road to the top of the mountain. I had no idea where or if that forest road led to anywhere other than a backwoods campsite (So much for arrogantly thinking that these were my stomping grounds).
The road climbed steadily and as we gained altitude my nerves and anxiety increased. Honestly, the complete wuss in me really came out. I don't do well driving in the rain. Hell, I don't do well driving period. But after forty minutes of gravelly curves and rutted road we reached the peak of the mountain and began the descent down the other side.
Soon enough we came to a T where there were several good ole boys sitting on the side of the road drinking beer next to their old Ford truck. I rolled down the window and immediately amplified my southern twang. After a minute or two of jaw harping with the guys I learned that we were in Burnsville, North Carolina. With my most direct route home cut off by a fallen tree our only choice was to begin the ride home along the state byways. On our way we past beautiful creeks, saw rainbows accented by the sunset, and even managed to find a new road to add to my mental map of the area.
Some shoots are standard without too much excitement or anxiety. Some aren't. While portrait sessions with me are never boring, some truly are more exciting than others.