Killer Photos

The hazards of angling for a better selfie.

 Illustration by Dermot Flynn

I have climbed up to Buzzard Rocks atop the Blue Ridge in far northern Virginia and, sure enough, there are about a dozen buzzards soaring high above me. It wasn’t much of a hike—maybe a half-mile—but I wasn’t looking for a workout. I just was itching for some nature and a fine view for some deep pondering, and maybe a killer photo. 

My wife doesn’t like when I hike up to Buzzard Rocks to take photos—a fall would mean certain death, and I do have a tendency to fall off rocks when I’m trying to take photos. Last year, I slipped off a large rock while taking a photo near the Continental Divide in Colorado. I slid 20 feet down a mountain until I was stopped by another large rock. Two years ago, I was trying to get a better angle for a photo of a creek in Arizona when I slipped and slid about 15 feet into the creek. I learned nothing from the falls because I was uninjured by both and actually fell to superior locations for more pleasing compositions. The bigger the fall, the better the photo, right?

Her warnings are frequent and dire, likely because she’s the National Park Service’s environmental protection specialist for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Lately she’s been getting lots of emails about what seems to be the new big thing in outdoor recreation: people falling to their deaths in national parks while taking selfies. She lectured me this spring when people fell in Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks within days of each other. This summer, a few more Americans tried a little too hard for the perfect shot in America’s parks, so I heard about each of those. One story she forwarded had an amazing statistic: Since 2011, more than 270 people have fallen to their deaths worldwide while trying to get a slightly better angle for their selfie. Last year, staff at Shenandoah National Park even expanded their efforts to educate visitors about the dangers of selfies with both large animals and high cliffs.

From Buzzard Rocks, I can see the northern edge of Shenandoah National Park way off in the distance, but I’m going to struggle to get it in a photo. I brought my full-frame Canon 5DS but only one lens—a massive 11-24 wide-angle. Basically, I’ve just lugged a 4-pound camera kit up a mountain, and it has no chance of capturing distant landscape features. Buuut, I think if I stand close to the edge of the largest boulder and extend my right arm holding the 4-pound camera, I could get a neat image of me standing over what would appear to be a couple-hundred-foot drop. (It’s actually only about 40 feet. Straight down. To a jagged granite boulder.) Anyway, I could get the forest on the west side of the Ridge and the sprawling Shenandoah Valley, and maybe even the now couple dozen buzzards that are circling much lower in the sky above me.

I wonder what that’s about. I figured the buzzards—I’ve always called them “turkey vultures,” but this isn’t “Turkey Vulture Rocks”—would have left because the winds have kicked up considerably.

Looking around, I realize there’s a towering storm cell closing in on my location. The cloud is billowing up and flattening at the troposphere and roiling in deep blue and turquoise near the ground. Sporadic raindrops slowly darken the massive boulders. The wet lichen seems to glow atop the slippery rocks as the winds increase and the storm becomes even more menacing.

But it’s also more visually interesting. If I could just stand on the tallest rock holding the 4-pound camera at arm’s length and finagle things just right, then I could get a photograph of me standing on the now-luminous granite and deep green lichen surrounded by an impressive drop, bent trees, about two dozen circling buzzards, and a cloud that looks like it might be dropping a tornado. The fact that the northern edge of Shenandoah National Park will barely be visible in the background might not matter much.

Oh cool! Lightning! If I can hold this position while the 4-pound camera automatically fires every few seconds, I might get a bolt of lightning in my photo of me standing on a wet boulder in 25-mile-per-hour winds at the edge of the longest drop at Buzzard Rocks!

Which increasingly lives up to its name. As about a dozen buzzards soar in a tightening circle directly above me, six have landed on rocks and trees along the edge of the boulder field. They’re probably just tired of fighting the wind, or maybe they’ve spotted dinner somewhere? Probably not, though, because they’re pretty much just sitting there watching me. They must be interested in photography.

Ooooh. Wait a second. Scientists claim that turkey vultures don’t do this, but this is the third time in my life that I’ve seen them appear to congregate around me when I was doing something adventurous that might have looked deadly to a bird that eats carrion. I don’t think they’re resting; I think they’re playing the odds. 

Well, sorry guys. I’m not what’s for dinner, at least this day. The rain is picking up. I need to get the camera covered, and I’m late starting our own meal back home. There will be no awesome photo. I’ll have to save my idea for another day.

And you’ll have to wait a little longer to eat this fool. 

This article originally appeared in our October 2019 issue.

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