It’s 3:30 a.m. and I’m marching onward through the bare streets of Zermatt with my camera and tripod packed away in my backpack, on a mission to find darkness. Like most places that I travel to, if the opportunity for stargazing presents itself, I have no choice but to attempt a picture. I can’t call myself a night owl, but I’ve slowly grown this intrinsic need and I can’t shake it.
The summer sun has long escaped beneath the horizon to give way to the cold street lamps now painting the dark wood apartments in a drowsy yellow. Deep in slumber, the town is very different from my home in Portugal. We’re fenced by sharp mountains touched with white snow, wooden chalets, old and ritzy hotels, and Swiss flags slowly dancing in the breeze. Other than my purposeful steps on the pavement, the only other sound is that of a group of Portuguese teenagers chattering away into the night. They eye me with confusion, perhaps wondering why a small girl would be walking alone toward the mountains at this time of night, but they don’t voice it. In Switzerland, there’s no such thing as judging a stranger out loud in Portuguese — who will understand you? There are way too many of us around to risk that type of awkward encounter. And yes, it has happened to me before.
With no other souls around, I walk freely without a face mask until I finally reach the edge of town. It’s there that I find a short bridge over a stream and hiking paths that trail like tree branches toward the Matterhorn. This is the target I’m hoping to capture tonight, along with the Milky Way. Noticing a sign outside a nearby lodge that reads 7 degrees celsius and the condensation from my breath, I realize the temperature has dropped significantly since yesterday. I won’t lie, the frigid weather and lack of street lights made my heart pound. And despite being in one of the safest places in the world, I can’t help but feel an intense awareness that I’m alone. I’m assured by the fact that my camera is considerably heavy and the tripod is quite sharp in certain places. I think to myself, “I’ll be fine.”
As I walk along trying to spot the shape of the iconic Matterhorn, I occasionally check an app that shows me where our home galaxy is located. You would think the peak would be very easy to recognize, but the darkness blends the landscape into a homogenous backdrop, even as my eyes grow increasingly aware of my surroundings. It’s as if larch trees become mountain peaks and those peaks become treetops and so on. Above me, the stars grow more and more pronounced, slowly unveiling an endless stream of distant otherworlds. Yet, I’m distracted by the sound of cowbells clanging in the distance. Can they feel my presence? I continue walking at a steady pace, careful not to slip on the wet grass, and finally, decide to set up my tripod. I situate my camera, adjust it to long-exposure mode and click the shutter. As twenty seconds go by, I pause to stare into the abyss above. Click. Check. No Matterhorn, just trees. Packing up my gear, I continue up the slope in search of another spot and again set up, click and wait. As a breeze brushes past, I can feel the cold wetness of the grass seep into my shoes. As I start to shiver, I realize that once again, there’s no Matterhorn, only trees.
Walking on once more, I spot what looks like a clearing and decide to try again. After setting up, I hopefully wait for 20 seconds. By now the cowbells have settled and a deep silence arises. The stars are practically beaming with energy, causing me to pause in wonder at the glow traveling at inconceivable speeds from millions of light-years away to meet me at this very moment. I hear the click and rush to check the photo; there it is. Under the glorious Milky Way and its stream of stars, sits the snow-white Matterhorn.
Of course, I’m not easily content with one picture, so I spend the next hour continuing to capture the light in the dark in all its glory. As I stare into the void, I begin to wonder if capturing these photos is even worth it. I can’t help but ponder my own insignificance amid this open infinity. I start to wonder if those Portuguese kids, so far from their ancestral homes, ever take advantage of this astounding window to the Universe. I begin to feel the distance between this picture-perfect moment and our tragedy-ridden world, the sadness and desolation of the pandemic merely a removed memory. I keep still and hold my breath. As much as I want to stretch out this precious second, I know that time is untamable. Soon the sun will rise and the window will close. I take a deep breath, the deepest one I can manage, and allow the crisp, fresh air to fill every inch of my lungs. Whispering goodbye to the stars, I begin my journey back.
Looking for even more photography-inspo? Check out Landscape and Night Sky Photography in Five Utah National Parks.