They keep their eyes on the sky, watching the stars shimmer and disappear.

Driving east, they wonder about their fortunes. Will they get the celestial show they seek?

Now an eerie fog settles over U.S. 24, thickening in the lonely outpost of Calhan. Yellow headlights glide across the dusty backroads, mysterious white orbs float on ranch lands, and the wind farm looks like a sinister set of blinking red eyes against the sky. But nothing on these fringes of El Paso County can blot out the constellations.

Paint Mines Christian Murdock The Gazette
Lightsabers paint the landscape at the Calhan Paint Mines. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock; The Gazette

Except for the clouds hanging now.

Don’t worry, Mike Pach tells the small group at the destination. “We’ve got all night.”

It’s not just the darkness drawing the novice photographers. Of the five, only one is from Colorado Springs, the rest closer to Denver, all curious about the natural wonder hiding out on the dreary plains.

Here at the entrance of the Paint Mines, it’s impossible to imagine what lies ahead. Their headlamps pierce the fog, revealing only grassy flats. Until they start walking.

Under their boots the ice cracks like glass and the mud squishes, their cameras and tripods in tow through deep and wide gullies draped by snow.

They stop, their eyes widening at the multicolored hoodoos and cathedrals, the swirling definitions of this bizarre realm.

“It’s amazing,” says Colorado newcomer Sisel Lan. “It’s like from another world.”

Indeed, they’ve got all night. Alongside their instructor, Pach, they’re committed through sunrise, hoping by 2 a.m. or so to see the big prize: above the geological fantasy, a frothy Milky Way.

While the Paint Mines park is closed after dusk, El Paso County this year is offering permits for paying photographers to capture the scene like no other. Park managers had their reservations. What if someone got hurt way out there? But they gave special access to Pach and his groups last year, and they were satisfied enough to now open the opportunity for others.

Some nights might require patience.

“I think that’s one of the values anyone who wants to be a photographer has to have, patience,” Pach says. “If someone came out on a night like tonight, they might get here and say, ‘This isn’t worth it. I’m going home.’”

But he knows better. He delights in the experience, just being here in the rare pitch black followed by the bluish hours before the red and gold sunrise.

Pach recently asked himself why he takes pictures, why he’s done this almost his whole life, and what he decided on was something about those moments.

“It’s all about living mindfully. Living in the moment. So when I’m out photographing, that’s really all I’m thinking about. It allows me an opportunity to forget my troubles and to also connect with what I’m photographing.”

In the Paint Mines, it’s connecting with deep time, those millions of years kept by the clay. It was a resource that called to human beings going back to 8,100 B.C., archaeologists having found hearths and ceramics, tools and projectiles belonging to Paleo-Indians and proud tribes thereafter: from the 16th-century Apache, to the Comanche and Ute, to the Arapaho and Cheyenne.

Still today, one might find artifacts and petrified wood from another era. And still, one is struck by the haunting beauty — like a dream, especially in the fog, the wind whistling through the prairie somewhere close, coyotes howling beyond.

“Hey, I see a star!” Adam Ross says as the photographers set up.

Another faintly appears, then another. “I think I can see the big dipper,” Andrew Raaber says.

They keep their eyes on the sky for just a moment. Then the stars disappear behind clouds.

“Can’t control Mother Nature,” says Rhonda Simmons. But she and a friend are here because they wanted to learn from Pach. And they wanted to capture this, something wondrous to add to their collection.

“Someday,” Simmons says, “when I’m old and bedridden, I can look back and say, ‘See, I did that.’”

Pach lends some pointers on composition and exposure, ISO and white balance, shutter speed and aperture. One camera’s timer is blinking red, and Pach covers it with masking tape. There must be no artificial light.

“Everybody ready?” he asks. And with nods, he orders headlamps off.

Silence takes over before excited remarks: The photographers’ screens reveal the finer hues and details of the formations. And they are happy while they await greater moments, keeping their eyes on the sky.

El Paso County is issuing permits to photograph the Paints Mines after dark for groups up to 10. $100 per group. Apply by contacting Sabine Carter: sabinecarter@elpaso.com, 520-6980

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