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I left the oceanside trailhead at Pensacola Beach at 4:30 in the morning and walked east along the edge of the barrier island that forms this section of Gulf Islands National Seashore. I was looking for a place where the light pollution is all but nonexistent. The sand was so fine that I left my hiking shoes behind in favor of some old Crocs, which spread my weight like snowshoes; the tiny, pure-white grains squeaked under every step. A few eager birds sang, but the loudest noises were the rush and retreat of ocean waves. The Milky Way spread out above, more vast even than the ocean, with the crescent moon rising beneath. Hiking this beach at night is one of my favorite things in the whole world: You never know what you’ll find, from tiny pearlescent shells to skittering ghost crabs to headlamp-lit glimpses of the emerald-green water.
After I’d walked about a mile, the moon and the Milky Way lined up. I pulled out my camera and switched off my headlamp. It was so dark that I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I took a couple test shots with longer exposure to dial in the composition and see the shoreline when my eyes could not. Working quickly before the pre-dawn twilight hour outshone the stars, I clicked away. One shot, then two, then seven, and the panorama was done. I took a deep breath of salty air as light began spilling over the bright sand, watching the daytime colors of the seashore come slowly to life. Mission accomplished.