Millennium Last Light

Cape Mendocino - December 31, 1999

The ancient "Capetown Petrolia" gateway sign at the back edge of Ferndale seemed like Father Time bidding farewell to the 20th century, as I set out to photograph the last sunset of 1999 along the Lost Coast of California.

The world would welcome "Y2K" in a few short hours. Here was a chance to celebrate the very last of "Y1K" with a special picture. Tomorrow I would begin writing "20" in front of the year for the rest of my life. Today I would celebrate the last day of all those years that began with "19".

The road out of Ferndale is called "The Wildcat", the very name itself an invitation to adventure. The mountains loomed up the road, along with the impending new century. A few weeks before, I had discussed a photo idea with Debbie Goodwin, Executive Director of the Humboldt Arts Council. HAC was ready to host its Grand Opening in the newly restored Carnegie Library building on January 1, 2000, and I suggested a picture that would welcome the new century with the last daylight photograph of the old one. She liked the idea. I prayed for good light and planned for the end of the millennium.

I knew the perfect place for the photograph. Just thirty miles southwest of Eureka is Cape Mendocino, a massive prow of land plowing a desolate ocean, where tectonic plates and ships have caused and suffered tragedy. Famous for both earthquakes and shipwrecks, the cape is the most westerly landfall on the continental 48 states. Dry land farther west can be found only by going north to Vancouver Island, B.C. or south all the way to remote Byrd Land in Antarctica. According to my grade-school U.S. geography (before Alaska and Hawaii statehood), I would be able to capture the last sunset of the country and of the century right here in our own county.

Joining me for the New Year’s Eve drive were my son, Ryan, and his wife, Laura. We crossed Cape Mendocino’s steep, southern shoulder as late afternoon light struggled through coastal clouds. As we scouted the winter beach together, scarcely a car was seen along the coastline straightaway called the Mattole Road. No other people were on the rocky shore for miles in either direction. Northward, the Coast Guard Cape Mendocino Light blinked the only reminder of civilization. Ryan helped me tote camera gear westward across rocks and tide pools near Ship Rock, about a mile south of the darkening cape. A hundred yards off the main beach, we found the tallest dry boulder in a seaside rock garden surrounded by tidewater and surprisingly calm waves. Our rocky perch gave scant room for the camera tripod’s three legs as I took light readings and set up my large-format view camera. Increasing winds told us we were at sea.  

I had just put the 4x5 camera back in the case behind me and instead set up the 35mm Leica M6 because gusty winds were shaking the larger camera with every blast. The other camera bag is hanging on the tripod to add extra weight for stability.

Behind me is the northern end of the King Range of coastal mountains, turning green again from winter rains. The small red dot at the foot of the hills (even with and to the right of the camera) is our car parked along the lonely Mattole Road. Ryan Todoroff took the picture while his wife, Laura kept warm inside the distant car.

 Bleak and Breezy Coast

Twenty-five knot gusts made the big camera worthless. It was capturing air better than light, shuddering in the broadside of each northwesterly blast. Out came my trusty 35mm Leica rangefinder camera - small to the wind, big in heart, always ready. Evening light played peek-a-boo around Punta Gorda, a beautiful shoreline, but too far southeast. Ryan kept me company while we waited. The son’s smile was joined by the father’s, both of us delighting in a landscape that had already made us a part of it. But the cape, my western-most landfall, did what it has always done well - looked big and bleak. So did the sky.

I turned away from the brooding silhouette of Cape Mendocino and Sugar Loaf Rock, and took some photos of low sunlight filtering through edges of the huge southern storm front beginning its assault on the continent. I was taking pictures from the most westerly point, but wanted a picture of  that westerly point itself. We waited and hoped the light would move north. The century was fading fast. Ryan needed to pack up the heaviest gear and begin the rocky trek back towards the beach and cozy car. Over the wind, I heard his warning shout that the water had risen considerably over our tide-pool path. Don’t stay too long.

From my rocky perch, fast turning into a tidal island, I could see sunset starting to glow over Punta Gorda to the south. Cape Mendocino itself is at my back, still dark in gray clouds with no hint yet of the brief sunset colors that answered my prayers a few minutes later.                  Photograph by Ryan Todoroff

 

Standing on the edge of the continent, the world was turning the sun away from me as light dimmed on an old millennium. Witness to the moment in the grandeur of sea and sky, I watched and waited for the last light.

Then over the dark cape, texture began to show in the gray clouds. As magenta hues fringed the sky, I swung the tripod head around and cranked as high at it would go for my 21mm wide angle lens to catch more of the horizon The camera compassed northward from high over my head, taking in the enormous panorama. No one behind the viewfinder, no glass to separate me from a reality that fleetingly filled my eyes, we surveyed the scene together. Sea, land, and clouds focused sharply through the lens and refracted cleanly into my soul.

A moment of color

The sky blushed pink. Twentieth century light kissed our coast a last time. The click of my camera in return scarcely sounded over wind and waves, while the massive score of turn and tide continued beneath and all around me. Feeling so small on this global stage, my contribution to the symphony was even less than the shutter’s sound, yet I felt part of the harmony.

Film can capture a moment, and sometimes the spirit of that brief second is released again in viewing the print. But for the reality of watching in real time, the fishing for moments is always catch and release. Just as every other slice of time has passed, this very special one at Cape Mendocino had slipped though my fingers. The count of time was starting 2000, yet I could no more hold that moment than any other of time’s increments, measured in celestial years gone by.

The tide had indeed risen quickly. On the hike back to shore, my tripod became a staff for hopping along stepping stones now surrounded by dark water. The welcoming car was warm and full of family. I hadn’t stayed too long, just long enough. One millennium ended with the sunset; a new one would begin. Light was worth the wait, and always is. The reward became more than a photograph. I saw and tasted the small but sacred moment - a continual gift known as the present.  

Thirty miles south of Eureka, the geographical elbow of California called Cape Mendocino on the Lost Coast juts farther west than any other place in the 48 continental United States. For a more westerly landfall, you have to go north to Vancouver Island in British Columbia or down to remote Byrd Land in Antarctica. Ship Rock on the left lives up to its name silhouetted against the sky, and the lonely light signals on the flanks of the headland. On December 31, 1999 at 4:45pm, Cape Mendocino saw the end of the day, the year, the 1900's, and the 1000's. A brief reddish tinge of light kissed our coast goodbye, and the sun set on the last day of a millennium.

New Millennium, Day One:

I developed my 35mm color transparency film the evening of December 31st , 1999. Early the next morning, I enlarged a 16x20 Cibachrome print, matted and framed it, and hung it in the downstairs William Thonson Gallery of the new Morris Graves Museum of Art for the Grand Opening of the Humboldt Arts Council at noon on January 1, 2000.

 

(The Morris Graves Museum (636 F Street, Eureka) is open Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5 pm, and Thursday evenings until 8 pm. It also hosts "First Saturday Nights Arts Alive!" every month from 6-9pm.)

Ever since this 1999 New Year's Eve seaside experience, I have made the pilgramage to Cape Mendocino to enjoy the last light of the year. For more photographic adventures at year-end and land's end, see my Lympa Log page at:

http://www.northcoastphotos.com/Lympa_2006_12_31.htm

Articles and photographs copyright Gary Todoroff. For licensed use, call (707) 445-8425 or contact him by email.