Hughes Mountain Nightscape by Lonnie Gatlin

June 19, 2018

The Milky Way kisses the summit of Hughes Mountain in Washington County (Image by Lonnie Gatlin).

About a month ago, I was hiking around on top of Hughes Mountain when it occurred to me that my friend, Lonnie Gatlin, a skilled astrophotographer, could get a great image of the night sky over the mountain’s rocky summit. Later that evening I called her to share my idea and she was immediately on board. First, she would have to do some research to determine when the Milky Way would be perfectly situated over the summit and sometime before that evening we would have to do a daytime scouting trip to determine where we would set up for the shot.

Our scouting trip went well as we made our way to the summit on a beautiful Saturday morning, joined by my friend Bill. The only glitch of the morning was when Lonnie, laden with camera equipment, took a spill on the way up the mountainside. Bill and I were quite relieved when she quickly said, “I’m okay,” from the floor of the trail. We helped her up and continued up the trail, not knowing that she had lost one of the bolt assemblies to a tripod leg. It was foggy on top of the mountain, making for some magnificent views and Bill even found a nesting nighthawk, a great bonus to the morning. Lonnie chose a prime location for her nightscape as well as a couple of alternate locations, all with the magnificent columns of granite in the foreground. We were set!

While we were hiking around, Lonnie noticed the missing parts from her tripod. We considered tracing our steps back to the summit but decided it would be to no avail. When we finally started back down mountain, it wasn’t long before Bill stopped and bent over to pick something up. It was right where Lonnie had fallen in the dark that morning and Bill retrieved all of the tripod parts including a bolt, washer, nylon bushing and nut. We never thought we’d be so lucky and it was high fives all around.

Over the next week or so, Lonnie had one more task — to obtain a special use permit from the Missouri Department of Conservation to hike up the mountain in the middle of the night as the area is closed after dark. Eventually, Lonnie notified me that she had the permit and that conditions should be perfect the following Saturday night. We were set to go!

Unfortunately, as often happens, the weather forecast changed so we scrubbed “Operation Nightscape” that Saturday afternoon. It was not until the following Friday night that Lonnie and I finally set out on our adventure after about a month of planning.

We departed my house at about 9:30 P.M. and we were making our way up the mountain in pitch dark by 11:30 P.M. I didn’t even bring a camera; I just wanted to watch Lonnie at work and Sherpa as much of her gear up the mountain as I could carry. Although we both had headlamps, I led the way with a flashlight Lonnie loaned me called a bat light, made by Ozark Trail. It was the best darn flashlight I’ve ever used with an amazing adjustable beam. I plan to have at least two of them in my kit as soon as I can get them ordered.

As we proceeded through the deep, dark woods, I mentioned to Lonnie that we might see a copperhead in the middle of the trail at some point. Missouri’s venomous snakes are highly nocturnal and Hughes Mountain is known for its reptile community. Lonnie scolded me at the possibility of my prophecy becoming self-fulfilling. “Let’s not hear anymore about copperheads or rattlesnakes,” was the gist of her reply.

When we finally broke out of the woods to the open glade on top of Hughes Mountain, we proceeded to the summit as I have done many times before. Unfortunately, the mind plays tricks on you when navigating an open area at night with a flashlight. Long story short, we took a rather circuitous route to the top but we made it in plenty of time for Lonnie to set up for the Milky Way. While we were on top, I mentioned to Lonnie that I had the trailhead at the bottom of the open glade marked in my Garmin 62, so we wouldn’t have any problem finding it on our way back down.

It was a perfect night for photographing the Milky Way and I was impressed at all of the details Lonnie had to work out to obtain the featured image. We used a few tiny lights, each not much more than an iPhone screen to slightly illuminate the granite columns which made an otherworldly foreground to Lonnie’s beautiful image of a million stars above. It was such a fascinating experience!

Around 2:00 A.M. we packed up all the gear and started down the mountain. As before, the rocks and shadows played tricks on me as we bushwhacked back to the trailhead at the edge of the glade. Finally, I decided to check my GPS unit, the one I’d mentioned to Lonnie before on top of the summit, but to my surprise, the batteries were dead. It turns out that the rechargeable batteries I had installed in the unit right before departure were not charged. Whoops!

After some nervous laughter from both of us, Lonnie expressed her confidence in my ability to find my way back to the trailhead. Unfortunately, a few minutes later, Lonnie took her second fall in as many visits to the mountain. When I turned around and found her on the ground, she informed me that she had made a mild face plant into the rocky glade. An inspection revealed a few scratches but Lonnie was none the worse for wear so we forged on.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved to find the trailhead shortly after Lonnie’s fall. We were home free, or so we thought. As we proceeded back down the trail through the woods, it wasn’t long before I stopped dead in my tracks and said, “Copperhead!” Yep, there it was, a three-footer, right in the middle of the trail. Lonnie joked that my talk of copperheads had actualized just like she said it would. After a minute or two we gave the beautiful creature, albeit a little creepy in the middle of the night, wide berth and proceeded down the trail.

We made it to the 4Runner about 20 minutes later and I couldn’t resist saying, “I hope we don’t wreck on the way home.” Lonnie didn’t appreciate my sense of humor.

By the time we made it back to Union, it was almost daylight. Lonnie said she wanted to return to the mountain soon, if not for any reason but to do the round-trip hike without falling.

Joyce said I was sound asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I dreamed about galaxies and copperheads. Another adventure was on the books. Good times!

Thanks for looking,


Don’t forget, tickets go on sale July 8 for my presentation at the Bryan Haynes Gallery in Washington, Missouri on Saturday evening, July 21. I’ll update you as we get closer.

Email:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

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America is beautiful. I vote to keep it that way.



4 comments on “Hughes Mountain Nightscape by Lonnie Gatlin”

  1. Interesting…and well-written…story behind two images (I am also including your snake image!). Thank you, I enjoyed it very much.

  2. I know a woman in northern Michigan who specializes in photographing the night sky (and lots of other things too). I took a class from her and learned some of it, though on our day the sky was cloudy and we ended up trying to photograph at night during a sleet storm. Entirely different story. But I appreciate this post because it shows you that these kids of shots are not just lucky or happenstance. They take a lot of preparation and sometimes scraped up body parts. Thanks for sharing. Her work is stunning.

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