If you’re interested in travel as much as I am, you’ll probably recognise this amazing image. The single figure silhouetted at the end of a stairway that seems to lead into a trail of stairs has an unreal quality which evoked a sense of wonder and curiosity in me the first time I saw it. I was questioning whether it was a real place, or if it was just photoshopped like many other images on the internet recently. The breathtaking photograph was published online a couple of years ago with nothing but the caption: “There’s this place in Ireland where every two years, the stars line up with this trail on June 10th and June 18th. It’s called Heaven’s Trail.” Curious to find out more, I dug a littler deeper. Where was this place exactly? And how could the stars only line up with this trail every two years? Constellations follow an already predicted, annual pattern.
A whole year after the photograph was published the original photographer, Thomas Zimmer, revealed the truth behind the photo. He explained how it had been downloaded without his permission, then shared without credit across the internet, writing, “Now I see my image everywhere floating around the internet with a wrong title, all this nonsense about this place in Ireland and so on. This makes me sad. I try to fight against this ongoing copyright violations, but it is a never-ending story.”
As it turns out, Heaven’s Trail wasn’t the name he chose for the photograph, he actually calls it “My God, it’s full of Stars.” Zimmer also revealed the shot was taken in Germany, not Ireland – at the west coast of the island of Sylt on the North Sea. The arrangement of the stars was a happy accident, not an event that occurs every two years. He wrote on his blog that he was on the island in November, at sunset. He had been shooting from 4-8p.m. without gloves on and his hands were numb. It was dark and there was no moon that night so he decided to leave. His camera batteries were almost empty and he was frozen and hungry, leading him to pack up his equipment and start a long walk back to his car.
As Zimmer was walking over the dunes in the pitch dark, he took one last look back and witnessed the unreal view. “The Milky Way was right above the stairs,” he wrote. “I almost wanted to give up, but then I made a last effort, and tried a final shot.” The first shot he took looked good, but he felt there was missing. “I tried to light up the stairs with the flashlight. Looked better, but not what I wanted. It needed a human being in the image.” Since he was alone, he had to set up the self-timer and ran up the stairs with a flashlight. “I did not notice that the shutter opened while I was running with the flashlight on. So the photo had the last stairs illuminated.” He realised the mistake he made when he got back to his hotel room, but the photo looked so good, he let it be.
The visual poetry communicates the desire we feel when we see the beauty of nature captivating us once again. You feel this sense of desire to visit this place as soon as you see the photo. But without Thomas Zimmer’s story we wouldn’t know that this place exists, in Germany, not Ireland. “Heaven’s Trail” does not exist, but the stairway in the dunes does. You could travel there to see it, but if you are unable to you could find it anywhere else in the world, on any trail through the darkness. You might even find it one day just like Thomas Zimmer did, one clear, moonless night, when the Milky Way spins into view and you happen to look up and see it, perfectly aligned with reality.