Stepping Into The Light.

Trigger Warning: Dear Mom, don’t read this post.

(I made the mistake of telling my Mom the some of the details of this adventure on Sunday. She asked me to please never ever tell her if I did this or anything like it again.)

Stephens Gap Callahan Cave Preserve (no relation to any Callahans or Stephens I know) has been on my mental bucket list for a few years, from the moment I first saw a photo of it. It is one of those surreal natural wonders that I a) couldn’t believe existed and b) certainly couldn’t believe existed only two hours from my front door. But it requires a permit, you must travel with at least one other person, and there was no way I could take my kids, so a full day where I could take on such an adventure requires a bit of planning to pull off. I tried last year while the kids were in camp, but Noah got strep. But this would be my year.

Oh and also – the whole thing is super dangerous. This is the “real” kind of cave – unlike the thoroughly safe DeSoto Caverns I visited earlier this year, this one is not lit or guard-railed to make it safe, does not have staff to show you what to do, and you have to sign all the waivers acknowledging that you may or may not survive. I very specifically did not Google how many people had died there until after the trip (the answer is three – that I found articles on, anyway.)

I recruited three people to join me – a photographer who interned with me last school year, Jake Marvin, his mom Kim, and his sister Anna. Kim came prepared. A backpack full of water and a bottle of liquid Benadryl – basically what every cave expedition needs (I mean, helmets and a flashlight would’ve been real nice, but Benadryl was just as well.) It was a mile hike to the cave, along which I got a text from my dear husband.

“I’ll always remember you.”

The cave is set up as such: there’s the “pit”, which is a 143 foot drop straight down with a waterfall running through it. The pit faces upward in such a direction that it catches light beams in a most magical way. To the left of the pit there’s a climb-down entrance. We arrived at the climb-down entrance first, and it was so steep looking that I said, “Okay – here’s the pit.”

…until we found the actual pit. At which point I realized that other hole had indeed been where we would have to climb down. This is the pit:

170609f Outside of Stephens Gap_MG_9719

After Jake and Anna completely freaked their mother out by getting way to close to the pit, we headed back to the climb-down entrance.

We began our descent, which wasn’t as steep once we got started. It was, however, quite slippery. There were streams and waterfalls in several places along the entryway, making rocks slippery and unstable. Just as I said “look at all these jagged rocks just waiting to break a tailbone!!”, I managed to slip and fall onto my tailbone. Thankfully I have enough cushioning back there to break the fall with no damage.

As we got lower into the cave, the dancing sunbeams took our collective breath away. As we rounded the corner where we could truly see the scene, we were all in awe.

This is what we saw.

170609 Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9832

The sunbeams were alive, getting brighter and dimmer and sometimes completely disappearing, leaving the cave instantaneously dark. Sometimes they would fade just enough to allow the waterfall behind them to be seen.

170609 Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9772

As water and waterfalls were coming from multiple directions (you can see another waterfall in the right of the above picture), it was impossible to keep our camera lenses dry, hence the droplets on many of the shots.

Since Kim was The Mom of our trip, I sent her to investigate the pedestal – the large round rock upon which the light beams were shining. It was perched on the edge of the pit, about 50 feet up from the bottom. Everything was wet and slippery, and we’d pre-agreed that no one would be going onto the pedestal unless we felt it was safe, even though that was the shot we had come for.

Kim and Anna inched their way around the top edge first, looking for a step down. There wasn’t a viable choice.

170609 Anna in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9783

Jake and I were busy setting up our cameras and getting our angles just right when they finally reported (or yelled, as all of the waterfalls made it extremely loud): the only way to the pedestal was from below. Which meant walking through a stream/waterfall, then climbing up the rocks leading to the pedestal.

Anna tried it first. I give Kim full credit for her allowing of this endeavor. But she made it look easy – somehow. And Anna was the first we got in The Shot.

170609 Anna in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9806

Starting in the bottom left-hand corner of this picture, you can see the rushing water that she had to navigate down. That rushing water goes straight into the pit, so slipping is not advised.  She stayed up there for a few shots, then climbed down and back up to us.

Kim went next – she wore her Wonder Woman shirt for the occasion.

170609 Kim in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9851

She couldn’t hear our photographical instructions over the roar of the waterfall, which led to this gem of a picture.

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 5.34.41 PM

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 5.34.50 PM

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 5.34.57 PM

As Kim made her way back up, I got a bad video of her navigating the water:

It was my turn. I would hate myself forever if I didn’t try this, no matter how frightening it looked from my angle. I set my camera up on the tripod and left it in Jake’s trusty hands. I brought a dress tied to my backpack – I untied it and draped it like a scarf around my neck. And I slowly began my descent through the waterfall. I shimmied from side to side, trying to find the driest rocks and the safest hand-holds possible, but still fully immersing my feet in the rushing water several times. There were thankfully some really polite rocks that offered perfectly contoured handles on the way down. But still, I admit it: I was a bit terrified.

I made it to the bottom of the pedestal and began climbing up. The rocks were of a size that made it fairly easy at first, aside from the fact that they were all covered in mud that was most likely comprised of 24 different types of bat guano. When I got to the final rock of the pedestal, I realized that there was no way up without a full marriage between my legs, hands, and butt and the fairly thick pile of guano mud. So I went for it. I received a full-body mud treatment, but I made it to the top.

I unfurled my dress and threw it over my workout clothes that were now covered in a wet layer of slop. My long dress dusted through the mud. I took out my ponytail and shook my hair loose. I heard cheering from the other side of the ravine – I’m sure it was for my super-glamorous model preparation.

And then I posed. And Jake got The Shot for which I had waited so long.

170609b-with-white-border

As I looked up to the sky, it was every bit as surreal as one would imagine. The sun twinkling above me, waterfalls dripping and rushing from multiple directions, and rainbows dancing in the beams and mist – all only viewable from my current location. I wanted so badly to have my camera there with me – but the wet and muddy journey combined with the extreme moisture of the air around me prevented that option entirely. However, experiencing the moment – staring into that rainbowey, waterfalley, sunburstey canvas – it was about as close to heaven as one can experience on this earth.

This absolutely should be one of the most notable wonders of our country.

170609 Rachel in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9843

Getting down was actually more terrifying that getting up – the foothold I’d used to get onto the rock was not accessible from a front-facing position, and I was not willing to slide down on my stomach. After sitting there for a few minutes not knowing if I’d ever leave the pedestal, I gave myself a pep talk.

C’mon Rachel. You’ve been doing planks and push-ups all year. You’ve even been lifting weights, albeit the lightest ones. You need to put some belief in your arms and lower yourself down. It’s the only way.

I planted both my palms solidly through the mud and onto the platform, then slowly lowered my body down to the next rock I could find footing. For a tenth of a second I thought I would surely slip and slide off into the pit, but I didn’t. My level of adrenaline was off the charts.

I had done something. Something that felt entirely unsafe, at least in my narrow construct of life.

Jake went last. I felt bad because by the time his turn came, my camera was hopelessly moist (something that was giving me no small amount of anxiety, considering I’ve already lost one camera to moisture), and all of my pictures of him had a slight smudged quality.

170609 Jake in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9875

Once even my camera decided to turn him into a ghost…which, honestly, is a pretty awesome mistake.

170609 Jake the Ghost in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9862

The sunbeams “went out” once when he was up there – you can see what it looks like here with just the waterfall:

170609 Jake in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9868

But the beams returned, we got a few more photos, and then he began his descent back down.

170609 Jake in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9877

When we finally all climbed our way back out of the cave, I immediately texted Chris and proclaimed our survival. He was overjoyed that he would have more than just a memory of his wife.

As we walked back on the trail, the full extent of my personal moisture began to take hold. I very much realized what it must feel like to be a toddler walking around with a dirty diaper. Had I thought to bring a change of clothes? Of course not. And so, I drove two hours back, waited around an hour, picked up my kids from camp, and headed home – and a full five hours after emerging from the cave, still a good bit damp, I finally was able to begin the process of de-guano-ing myself.

IMG_8142IMG_8143

I’m positive that the long-lasting effects on my skin will be amazing. And I can’t wait to do it all over again (but don’t tell my mom.)

Hate-Fueled, Lovingly Crafted Christmas Cards.

A couple of weeks ago I got served some sponsored posts that made me very angry.

It was an illogical anger – holiday-induced-insanity even – but it happened.

The first one occurred on Instagram.

IMG_2356

First let me say that I do not follow Melissa Joan Hart. I do not follow any celebrities (with the exception of The Big Bang Theory Cast because they’re funny and I do not really know why I follow them but I do.) The fact that I was getting sponsored posts not from brands but from celebrities really irritated me. At first I didn’t know why it angered me so intensely, until I got the second one – this time on Facebook.

IMG_2394

I don’t follow Melissa Joan Hart at all but I don’t follow Tori Spelling even harder.

Getting two in a row, from different social platforms, really helped clarify what I hated about these ads. Even more helpful was discussing them with Not-Crazy-Renee. Being each other’s Spirit Animal often enables us to articulate the whats and whys behind what the other one is currently hating, even when it’s petty and ludicrous.

So let’s bullet journal the reasons my heart was overflowing with holiday hate.

● I have enough angst and guilt over my short-lived season of family photo Christmas card making (was it 2012 and 2013? Or maybe 2011-2013?) that I do not need celebrities I don’t even like showing up in my feed to humble brag about theirs and remind me that I don’t have it together enough to make that happen.

● Really, Tori? You’re unveiling your holiday card? As though there is a crowd gathered around you with bated breath, just dying to see your Christmas card? Oh wait – I guess since you sponsored the post, that answers the question. You’re going to force us to attend your unveiling whether we want to or not.

● The name of the company that is underwriting these ads – Simply to Impress. Yes, that’s the holiday spirit we’re all trying to get back to. That’s why we send Christmas cards. That’s the Reason for the Season.

● The leather-couch-outside thing is so 2013, Tori. Everyone knows that leather couches do not belong in the grass, especially when accompanied by perfectly coiffed humans in formal wear. And if you’re going to do the leather couch thing, at least do it in a large field, the place where leather couches seem to be indigenous (at least that’s what cultural anthropologists will think when they study their excavated collection of 2013 Christmas cards.)

● And Melissa – it’s super obnoxiously cute that your friends and family know you’re actually Melissa Wilkerson and not Melissa Joan Hart. It’s a good way to show that you’re totally a real person, and not a celebrity bot living a perfect life and sending out Christmas cards simply to impress.

● Tori, how embarrassing was it for you to have to go into your Facebook and BUY a sponsored ad? Isn’t the point of being a B-List celebrity that you have the world’s attention? I mean sure, Simply To Impress reimbursed you for your social media sell-outedness, but tell me – was it worth it? Did that little paycheck really make an even more lavish-on-the-leather-couch-outside lifestyle that much more attainable?

● I love how you both sound exactly alike in your accompanying flowery descriptions. I wonder which lucky intern got to write the copy for both of your posts. (“All you have to do, Tori, is copy my email, hit CTRL-C, and then go to Facebook and hit CTRL-V.”) (“Hey Tori, can you go in and edit your post and take my email address off the very beginning of it? That’d be great.”)

● Who, exactly, are you trying to reach? Are their people out there that will go buy the identical Christmas Card design so they can tell their friends “Oh yes, I have the same Christmas Cards as Tori McDermott. That’s Tori Spelling, for those of you who don’t know her legal name. #SimplyToImpress”

I spent a week hating on these posts in the darkest, least Holiday-Spiritest parts of my soul, then another week hating on myself for not winning at Christmas enough to send out my own Christmas cards. Also because I really LOVE to address Christmas cards all fancy-like. It’s a favorite holiday tradition.

And then, in a flurry of inspiration and dark-mindedness and manic preparation and fancy writing, I decided that I would, indeed, send out a small batch of Christmas cards.

I took my list from the previous years and pared it down a good bit, then asked my blog readers if they would like a Christmas-Ish card. Because really, these Christmas Cards had to be wantedthey best arrived anticipated, not out of the blue and unexpectedly.

I hurriedly ordered a new batch of my favorite creation of 2016 and then ran over to Hobby Lobby and bought decorative stickers.

31FCED96-5B45-43E2-A84D-6B92467E72B4

Then, attempting to make each of the cards unique, Noah and I set out on a holiday deco-fest, while Ali preferred to watch in wonder.

IMG_2776

Sloppy the Squirrel and Crunchy the ‘Possum were redeemed, one by one, into a beautiful celebration of the holiday season.

1E7D2F78-3C1B-497C-95F5-1725BFF8A908

Because nothing says Jolly like a ‘Possum and her oils.

5FA86BDE-9DFF-4D0E-AAD4-F837BD42C284

I have never in my life had so much fun with Christmas Cards, giggling as I created each one – especially when I realized that Crunchy was able to hold a small gift.

IMG_2782 2

IMG_2788

My envelopes were just fancy enough to hopefully hide the unexpected turn of events that would be found within,

IMG_2785

And I knew that my goal was to add some levity amongst all the cards that my friends and blog readers would be receiving this season.

IMG_2786

Lest you miss the gravity of the moment, this is a story of redemption. Because just as Crunchy and Sloppy had been redeemed for the holidays, so had Melissa and Tori, along with my Happy Holiday Heart. Because yes, I despised them and their obnoxious sponsored posts, but ultimately they drove me to the cheeriest Christmas card making of my life.

So thank you, Melissa.

And thank you, Tori.

And even thank you, Simply to Impress.

I am certain that this outcome was your exact intention.

Editor’s Note: If you didn’t receive a card from me this year, I apologize. I sent out a much smaller batch than usual due to the labor-intensity, the limited number of cards on hand, and not wanting to cause any queasiness in those who hadn’t been slowly immunized to my sick sense of humor. If you would like to receive a card, albeit late, email or message me your mailing address. Maybe Crunchy and Sloppy can be repurposed for New Year’s, Valentine’s or Easter. If you would like your own set of non-holidayed Roadkill Note Cards to send out to your friends and family, they can be purchased here – with 100% of the profits being donated to The WellHouse.

All the Answers: Notes on Choosing a Camera.

In my recent round of Ask Me Anything, Sheri asked what kind of camera I use. Since I was planning on blogging about this soon anyway, I decided to give this question its own post.

So you remember a couple of months ago at the beach, I broke my camera. Or rather, the most evil humidity broke my camera.

And since I run a ministry based on my photography, I had to replace said camera as soon as possible.

I spent several days angsting over what camera to buy, and how much it was going to cost, and the fact that I’d need all new lenses if I bought certain cameras, and HOW MUCH IT WAS GOING TO COST.

But. It had to be done. And I’d been wanting an upgrade anyway, and now was clearly the time to swat the Accountant Conscience off of my shoulder and just do it.

So then it was down to which one. I’m a Canon girl, so that narrowed it down. I wanted to move to the professional line and I didn’t want a used camera, so that narrowed it down to three. The 7D Mark ii, the 6D, or the 5D Mark iii (In cost order from least to most expensive.)

I then marked the 7D Mark ii off the list because it wasn’t full frame, and if I’m moving up I might as well do it right. Even though that meant (whimper) buying all new lenses (slowly. Over time.)

So then it was between the 6D and the 5D Mark iii, of which there was a $1,000 price difference. I didn’t want to pay more, but at the same time, again, if I was buying, I wanted to buy what I needed. The deciding factor came down to actually holding the cameras. Thankfully, that made it really easy: the 5D Mark iii was FREAKISHLY heavy and so wide that it was very uncomfortable to grip in my dainty lady hands. I did not need a camera that would knock me off the hill I was shooting from.

This was quite relieving, because it saved me $1,000.

So ultimately, I went with the 6D with an L lens – my first in Canon’s upper echelon series of lenses. I also used some credit card points and a buyback of my broken camera to also get a wide angle L lens, which is the most necessary extra lens for the kind of shooting I do.

(For reference, my old camera was the Canon T4i, which was in the upper end of their consumer DSLR line.)

I was pretty excited to try out my new camera, but also very, very scared.

Because you know what all the people say…`

“It’s not about the camera – it’s about the photographer. A good photographer can take great pictures with any camera.”

What if I’d just paid a ridiculous sum of money to take the same quality of photos that I’ve always taken? It was a fear worth fearing.

I put it up to my face with much fear and trembling. I shot. And shot some more. And realized that I was going to have to relearn all my normal settings for this new full frame deal. And I shot some more.

And from the second I zoomed in on my first picture, I knew.

All those people who say “The camera doesn’t matter”? THEY ARE LYING.

OH MY GOODNESS AT THE DIFFERENCE.

t4i-6D-comparison.jpg

My old test of “is this picture clear or not” was “can I read Wells Fargo?”. With the new camera, not only could I read Wells Fargo, but now I could see the individual panes of glass behind Wells Fargo, which stunned me, considering how greatly I had to zoom in to see it.

For perspective, here’s a shot from my normal perch,
150810e-Buildings-of-Birmingham

And here’s the Wells Fargo building zoomed all the way in:

150810e-Buildings-of-Birmingham_thumb10_thumb_thumb.jpg

And the new photos print crisp and gorgeously.

I was now able to get night shots like I’d never dreamed of getting (without a tripod),

150813e-Night-3.jpg

150907j-Night-Reflections-at-Railroad-Park.jpg

150907l-Reflections-of-Blue.jpg

I also managed to grab my first ever lightning picture on the first attempt (I have taken thousands of pictures in the past trying to capture lightning),

150810b-Birmingham-Electrified.jpg

And the level of detail I could get was just thrilling.

150819b-Lily.jpg

Everything about the new camera has made me very, very happy.

150821-Railroad-Park-in-the-Mirror.jpg

And of course I love how I can capture the children with it, as well (whether they love it or not is not important.)

_MG_9948

_MG_9955

_MG_9977
MG_1890.jpg

MG_0750.jpg

The best new feature of the 6D, though, was a feature that was a complete surprise to me, as it wasn’t explained very well in the specs. The 6D can create its own wi-fi network, meaning that I can easily download pictures from my camera to my phone. This is game-changing for me, since I’m usually taking sunset pictures and sharing them immediately. My previous strategy had been to share my iPhone pictures immediately, then edit my real pictures and post them later on my website. Now I can post my real pictures immediately, and I’ve found myself not even taking iPhone pictures when I’m shooting for Picture Birmingham.

Also cool, the app that connects the camera with my phone allows me to see the screen of my camera, adjust all the settings, and remote shoot from my camera using my phone.

IMG_3440.png

In this family shot, I’m holding my phone behind Ali’s head to remote adjust and shoot the photo with my 6D.

2015-Family-Beach-Trip_1

If I had realized the 6D had this feature, it would have been hands down the obvious choice for me (the 5D mark iii does not have it, as it is an older model of camera). The ability to download instantaneously from my camera to my phone is infinitely valuable, besides the remote shooting capabilities (which is just added fun.)

Needless to say, I am beyond thrilled with the 6D, and I’m excited to see what all I can do with it through Picture Birmingham to further support The WellHouse.

150813f-Through-Birmingham-FLIPPED.jpg

More answers coming tomorrow…feel free to ask follow-up or completely random questions!