Another year, another 365 photos of Chimney Rock

January 1, 2019

Sharon Henderson spent a full year in the orbit of Chimney Rock, circling its base, reading the Panhandle sky, searching for the right moment between clouds, spire and setting sun.

Then: The click of her camera. Again. And again. Dozens of clicks. Some nights, hundreds.

When the light finally leaked out of the sky, she would climb into her car for the drive home toward Scottsbluff, ready to return the next day.

Sometimes, she’d go in the mornings, capturing the sun rising on the monument and the farm buildings or horses or sunflowers in the foreground.

But she’d always go. The photographer and a partner shot Chimney Rock every day in 2016, posting their work for thousands of fans who followed their Facebook page, CR365.

Henderson learned not to worry about monotony or duplication. She could never shoot the same Chimney Rock twice.

“There are tons of different ways to do it,” she said. “All you have to do is walk five steps in any direction to change the way the view looks. And, gosh, out there, you have miles and miles to walk.”

She learned her followers wanted her to tell them a story, too. If she described what it took a get a shot, or what she was thinking at the time, her photos would get more likes, shares and comments.

And when 2016 ended, and she didn’t have to drive south anymore, she learned how much she needed to.

“I was so lonely for Chimney Rock. I was used to doing it every day. It was my baby.”

She’d see Chimney Rock photos on other Facebook pages — such as Nebraska Through the Lens — and find herself getting jealous. Like it was her rock, she said. “I still feel really possessive and attached to it.”

Which is why she knows what she’ll be doing Jan. 1, 2019. And the next day. And the next.

* * *

It started as a personal challenge, Henderson and a photographer friend pledging to shoot a picture of the Oregon Trail landmark — the tail of Nebraska’s quarter, a regular on its license plates — every day for a year.

It became an expensive, time-consuming commitment. She burned through gas driving more than 30 miles a day, juggling her day job with the setting sun, racing to get into position.

But it also became a hit. “I didn’t realize the love people have for this monument,” Henderson said a month into the project. “It reminds them of home. The coolest messages and letters are from people who don’t live here anymore. They see the pictures and it makes them homesick.”

The number of followers grew. To 1,000, 3,000, 4,500. Including Michelle Coolidge, at the time mayor of nearby Bayard.

Coolidge has deep, abstract thoughts about Chimney Rock. It’s a symbol of the past, of the pioneer history of Nebraska, where the land is still carved by their wagon wheel ruts.

But it was also a signpost to the future. Pioneers viewed it with hope, the midpoint to their destination. An affirmation of their struggles so far.

And it still is, in a way. Coolidge once helped a friend with a marketing slogan for the region and she came up with this: We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re halfway there.

Chimney Rock is also important to western Nebraska and the area. “The region is very proud of the landmark, Bayard in particular — it’s in our backyard, and we take a certain kind of pride in ownership.”

It draws thousands, many from other states. She’ll be driving and wonder why those in the car in front of her are pulling to the shoulder. And then she’ll realize they’re looking at Chimney Rock.

She didn’t know Henderson until she saw the rock’s photos on Facebook, and she became a fan. She found herself wondering what Henderson would shoot next. She liked watching the passage of time, the changing of the seasons, framed around Chimney Rock.

And she was impressed Henderson could find so many distinct photos of the same static piece of sandstone.

“It’s like everyday life: no matter how something seems constant, there’s always a different way to look at it,” Coolidge said. “Sometimes you’ve got to change the angle or change the light.”

Last month, Coolidge asked Henderson to wake before the sun, to meet a semi carrying the Capitol Christmas tree from Oregon to Washington, D.C. The truck was following the Oregon Trail, so a photo with Chimney Rock seemed natural.

The photographer was nervous — orchestrating troopers and deputies and the tree’s escorts to get the trailer in position — but her picture of the tree and snow-dusted rock went viral. More than 10,000 people liked it, shared it or had something to say about it.

It felt good to make Chimney Rock a star again.

* * *

After the 2016 project, Henderson announced a new plan — a year’s worth of sunsets at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

It didn’t last. It just wasn’t the same, she said, and she found herself slipping south a few times a month, pulled by the gravity of Chimney Rock.

Earlier this year, she was telling her story to a writer for Nebraska Life magazine when he suggested she resurrect the project. Maybe call it CR365 2.0.

That was the push she needed. “I got a happy, skippy feeling,” she said. “I’d missed it a lot.”

She’s not sure she can afford to visit the rock every day — she has thousands of never-before-seen pictures to post if necessary — but she’ll try.

Because she realized how important the project had been for her health.

It kept her active. “I was crawling around out there, doing some hiking, lots of walking. It was really good for me physically.”

It was good for her spirit, too. She relished the drive down, anticipating what she’d find with her camera.

“And I’ve always said that time spent out there was always the most tranquil part of my day.”

Look at Chimney Rock photos taken by Sharon Henderson:

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