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Lay of the Land

Friday, September 9th, 2016

“To rise above tree line is to go above thought, and after, the descent back into birdsong, bog orchids, willows, and firs is to sink into the preliterate parts of ourselves.” – Gretel Ehrlich


The entire summer seemed busy, but August flew by at an unusually rapid pace. My son and I drove from California to New Mexico to visit my parents; on our way out there we broke up the drive by spending a quiet and welcoming night at Navajo National Monument in northern Arizona. Four days after getting home from that trip, my girlfriend and I left on a trip to the north coast of California, visiting friends and family along the way. That leg of our travels culminated at South Lake Tahoe (I know, it’s not the north coast. Don’t ask.), and my dropping her at the airport in Reno to fly home.

From there, I drove south to eastern California, picked up Jackson Frishman at his house in the Deep Springs Valley, and we headed to eastern Nevada to backpack and photograph some Great Basin mountain ranges. By the time I got home from my second trip, my car had more than 3,000 new miles and I guess you could say I really got the lay of the land.

Over the years I’ve spent outdoors, I’ve become acutely aware of moments where time seems to stand still and that particular snapshot in time seems to transcend all others. In those particular rare moments, I’m overcome with an almost indescribable peace, feeling as though there’s no other place on earth I would rather–or should–be. I imagine that Buddhists would describe these moments as feeling very much like Nirvana, when one’s soul is freed from continuous rebirth, thus permanently taking its small place in the world. Put another way, these moments represent true peace.

I’ve always liked the above passage by Gretel Ehrlich because I think perhaps she used tree line as the metaphoric “rising above,” which has always seemed more eloquent than any way I’ve found to describe the feeling. My August travels only took me above topographical tree line a couple of times, but I felt like every turn of the journey somehow took me above Ehrlich’s metaphorical tree line, and I am indeed very fortunate for that. Here are a few of my favorite images from the last month or so.

engineer-mountain-wildflowers

Wildflowers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

navajo national monument sunrise

August sunrise in northern Arizona.

fort-bragg-coastline

Coastline along the rugged north coast of California

mendocino headlands sunset

A foggy sunset along California’s north coast

white mountains california

Sunrise over the Deep Springs Valley, California

white pine mountains sunset

Sunset on Currant Mountain, Nevada

Adventures in the Sagebrush State

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

In early August, Jackson Frishman and I were able to get out for a short backpack in the Toquima Mountains of central Nevada.  Although I’ve been interested in the lonely and desolate central Nevada mountain ranges for several years, I hadn’t really been able to explore them until our trip; Jackson was nice enough to give me a great tour.

The entire Basin and Range Province–which occupies most of the American West–is characterized by steep mountain ranges alternating with arid valleys.  In central Nevada, where the Toquimas are located, this pattern is especially pronounced.  These ranges were formed not by crustal plates pushing together, but rather by their separation.  Big blocks of crust acted like icebergs as the West was pulled apart, and one end tipped up, creating a mountain range, while the other tipped down, contributing to a basin.  Despite the common mechanism by which these mountain ranges were created, they are diverse in terms of their ecology.  The White Mountains of eastern California are at the western edge of the Basin and Range and are quite dry, with sparse vegetation (save for their eastern slope), but the other high ranges in Nevada (the Toiyabes, Toquimas, Snakes, etc), are surprisingly lush with beautiful aspen groves and verdant streams and rivers.

white mountains from fish lake valley

Jackson and I planned to climb Mount Jefferson, which is the tallest peak in central Nevada.  Driving across western Nevada to the trailhead, we watched thunderheads build all afternoon.  As we packed our bags, rain drops started to fall, and by the time we hit the trail, we were in a full-on downpour.  We continued onward in the rain through a mix of sagebrush and aspen–two species I’m not used to seeing together.  After about 2,000 feet and three hours of climbing, the rain got the better of our spirits (and our body temperatures) so we set up the tent to climb into the warmth of our down sleeping bags.  Once the rain stopped, we hiked a little further up the trail and saw that it had been snowing not far above us on Mount Jefferson.

The next morning we were awake long before daylight, continuing up the trail towards Mount Jefferson.  Trail builders in Nevada don’t seem to believe in switchbacks, so while steep, the ascent didn’t take long.  Not long after sunrise, we found ourselves in a bowl around 11,000′ looking up at three bighorn sheep rams making their way across the peak above us.  Hiking further up onto the plateau that separates the different summits of Mount Jefferson, we spotted many more bighorn ewes and lambs.

In hopes of spotting more sheep, we walked across the plateau between the Mount Jefferson’s south and middle summits.  Ahead of me as we topped a small rise, Jackson stopped suddenly and said, “whoa.”  I immediately assumed sheep, but a small band of wild horses was just as surprised to see us as we were them.  After spending about an hour with them, we headed south again, towards the highest summit of Mount Jefferson.  Jackson has some great images of the horses here.

As we left the horses I happened to stumble across a small, nearly perfect arrowhead.  This portion of the Toquimas is part of the Alta Toquima Wilderness, which is named for the Alta Toquima archaeological site, which we weren’t far from.  At an elevation of about 11,500′ feet, this site is the first evidence we have that early Americans were settling relatively permanently at high altitude as early as 1 AD (this gives some interesting background on the site and its discovery).  Permanent high altitude settlements are rare in North America, as opposed to places like Peru, Tibet, and Ethiopia.  After photographing the arrowhead we left it and went on our way.

Arrowhead in the Alta Toquima Wilderness

Although we spotted more bighorns in the distance we were unsuccessful in getting a close look (one curious lamb did come fairly close to us for a good look).  After summiting, we hiked back to camp to pack up, then back to the trailhead.

bighorn sheep lamb

After leaving the Toquimas we explored the Monitor Valley which is located east of the range, and the Toiyabe Mountains just a little bit before heading back home.  Even though it was a quick visit to the, it was interesting to see how different they are from the Toquimas.

sunset in monitor valley nevada

south twin river toiyabe mountains

The Basin and Range isn’t an easy place to photograph, in fact I found it quite humbling.  Although I was surprised by the number of (unpaved) roads on our visit, the “best” viewpoints are not easy to get to. The abundance of roads isn’t necessarily matched by an abundance of trails, making access a bit tricky and perhaps left for a time when you’re feeling ambitious.  That said, the payoffs are pretty big.  Jackson and I had complete solitude during our visit to the Toquimas, we saw incredible wildlife, and got to briefly experience of a bit of culture.  That’s not bad for an overnight backpacking trip.

Revisiting the White Mountains

Friday, July 27th, 2012

Just a few posts ago, I mentioned how I spent several summers working in the White Mountains of eastern California when I was in graduate school.  The Whites are an interesting mountain range.  Comprising the eastern border of the Owens Valley, they are certainly imposing, with California’s 3rd highest peak (White Mountain Peak, 14,252′) as well the highest point in Nevada (Boundary Peak, 13,147′), but despite their prominence, the Whites are visited far less than the nearby Sierra Nevada.

The Sierra is a relatively wet mountain range, receiving anywhere from 20-80 inches of precipitation a year (for the arid west, that’s wet).  The Whites, in the rain shadow of the Sierra, stand in stark contrast, fully embodying the characteristics of the Basin and Range province, to which they are included–dry, windy, desolate, and strikingly beautiful.

Detail of a bristlecone pine trunk

In the Details, July 2012

I have always loved the Whites, primarily because the lower elevations remind me of my home in northwestern New Mexico: piñon-juniper scrubland and sagebrush dominate the landscape, giving way to primarily lower-growing sage above about 8,000 feet.  Deer, coyotes, wild horses, pika, and marmots are common here.  However, the real draw–accounting for the bulk of visitation–is the presence of the Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva).  With the exception of organisms that self-replicate (clones), bristlecones are the longest-living organisms on earth.  One tree in the Whites, Methuselah, is estimated to be 4,500 years old.   If the Whites have a persona of incredibly difficult growing conditions, then the bristlecones fit that quite well.  Their gnarled trunks and otherworldly shapes are a favorite of photographers.

Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) and summer storm clouds

Weathering the Storm, July 2012


After nearly seven years away, I recently returned to the White Mountains.  Walking around in the ancient bristlecone pine forest is an act of humility.  Before leaving on my recent trip, a friend and I had a conversation about life and the value of living in the moment.  This conversation was heavy on my mind as summer storm clouds moved through the Whites at sunset, giving these grand trees an equally grand backdrop.

Of all things on earth, these trees have given their best shot at living forever, and even they can’t quite do it.  Once they die, the dry air preserves them leaving funky skeletons on several hillsides.  What advice would they give, after 4,500 years, to someone just starting out?  Would it be to live in the moment, to not let the little things get you down, and to hold close the things in life that make you deeply happy?

I’m anthropormorphizing a little bit more here than my contract allows, so I’ll stop.  Suffice it to say, I think that’s pretty good advice.

Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) and storm clouds, California

The Sentinel, July 2012

We spent one night at 11,000′ in the bristlecones, and I was reminded of a few things that have kept the White Mountains on my mind all these years:

  1. Yes, it can snow in July in California.  Even if only for a few minutes.
  2. The White Mountains are the only place I’ve ever experienced altitude sickness (manifested by trouble sleeping).  I attribute it to the dry air.
  3. The warm-toned trunks of the bristlecones contrast very nicely with stormy skies.
  4. Everyone should experience quiet like the Whites afford once in their lifetime.
  5. Everyone should experience a night sky like the Whites afford once in their lifetime.

From a photographic point of view, I find it amazing that several images can come out of one place in a short amount of time.  This is probably due to luck, inspiration, and visualization, but I have been updating my portfolios with new images and have added several from the White Mountains.  Please visit my Mountains and Intimate Perspectives portfolios to see these and other new images.


It’s funny how some places can be a huge part of our lives, exit for several years, and then re-enter.  I guess they never really leave us.

Sunset in the Patriarch Grove of Bristlecone Pines

Pastel sunset, July 2012

Birth Day

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Almost four years ago, I watched as my son was born, and have been witness every day since as he’s discovered the world.  Although there are some perceptions of the world we’re born with, we, to a large degree, come into society as a clean slate.  We experiment, learning what works and what doesn’t, we form relationships and opinions.

Yesterday, I celebrated my thirty-third birthday.  I feel fortunate to have a comfortable life, an education, a healthy family, and to have experienced some of the most amazing places on this planet.  Yet, even after thirty three years, I’m surprised at how much I still have to discover about myself.  It seems that the best relationship I continue to form is with myself.  During the course of my life, I’ve known joy, love, and have sadly been confronted with loss.  I guess you could say I’ve lived a full life, and although I still have much to learn, I do know a few things without question.

Some of my most life-shaping decisions have involved not settling for ‘good enough,’ forcing me to go in search of ‘can’t live without.’  Never settle.  Keep looking for it, whatever it is, until you find exactly what you’re looking for.  You’ll know it when you find it.

For me, the wilderness has always been a place to heal, to recover from pain and loss.  For many of us, this is true.  If that’s the nature of loss, what then do we do to confront the loss of nature?  We have to ask ourselves this question seriously, and come up with viable, thoughtful, and long-lasting responses.  With each passing year, our time to provide a lasting legacy grows shorter.

Finally, a contemplative question.  Yesterday on Facebook, someone sent me a birthday wish that really caught my attention: “Don’t know you personally, but know you through your photos. Not much difference, I don’t think.”  I know that in my art, it has become increasingly important for my voice to be heard.  What does your art say about you?

I haven’t always been able to say this, but in my thirty-third year, I rather like the person I’m getting to know.

Colorful Sandstone at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Sandstone Kaleidoscope, January 2012

 

Desert Sentinels

Friday, November 11th, 2011

In the deserts and canyons of the southwest, water can be tough to come by; as a result, charismatic megafauna that rely on that water are often elusive and secretive.  The desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) is a widespread, but uncommon resident of the southwest.

They truly are sentinels of the desert; on any given afternoon in Joshua Tree National Park,  you might see one surveying the landscape from atop a granite boulder.  In southwest Utah, they return to the canyons from the high country when the temperature starts to fall.  In the desert communities around Palm Springs, they illustrate the interaction between man and nature very well; bighorns have taken to eating ornamental cactus and other plants, so large fences have been erected to keep them out (which is ironic, because some people would pay to see a sheep!).

Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in Joshua Tree
Desert Sentinel
Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The interaction between humans and bighorns isn’t a recent thing, though.  In fact, humans have been interacting with them since the southwest was first settled, probably thousands of years ago.  If you take any interest in rock art at all, you’ll quickly find that bighorns were a ubiquitous subject of prehistoric artists.  Indeed, I wonder if the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples who lived with these animals found them just as captivating as we do today.

Fremont River petroglyphs, capitol reef national park, utah
Badly weather damaged petroglyphs depicting desert bighorn sheep
Wolfe Ranch Petroglyphs, Arches National Park, Utah

In some ways, the desert bighorn sheep embodies the spirit of the west: it is largely solitary, is resilient, and has shown a great ability to adapt to the desert environment.  Its a true steward of the ecosystems it thrives in.  The Desert Bighorn Council is a great resource to learn more about the biology and conservation of desert bighorn sheep (they list links to many local organizations as well).

Photo of the Month–August

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Sometimes, its the small scenes that really grab you, draw you in, and move you.  Indeed, the intimate landscape is often the grandest.  I made August’s photo in Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park, where a tiny mineral deposit in the sandstone stopped me in my tracks.  It took a few different exposure settings to get the effect I wanted: to really accentuate the fine lines in the deposit, making them prominent in the frame.

Abstract sandstone image in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Dendritic Connections, April 2011

At the time I made the image, as well as now, this little pattern reminds a neuron–our brains are made up largely of billions of these cells, each one connected to the other by thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of other connections.  In this way, information travels in the form of electrical impulses from cell to cell.  While biologists understand the basics of how information is transmitted, they do not understand completely how information is perceived and interpreted.  It is clear, however, that perception is an incredibly complex trait.

Although the basics of perception are probably quite similar between individuals, we only have to look around to see that everyone is different–we’re all uniquely us.  As such, it is logical to conclude that our brains all interpret scenes, beauty, differently.  If you’re reading this, you probably agree that art is subjective, but rather than simply accepting it, I find great joy in knowing we all see the world differently.  There are so many ways of seeing; that’s a fact worth celebrating.

 

Photo of the Month–April

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Sometimes choosing an image of the month is really easy, but this month its rather difficult.  I just returned from a fantastic trip to southern Utah and Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.  Of course I wanted to capture some new images, but it was a time to clear my head, shake some of winter’s cobwebs out of my skull, stretch, and welcome spring on the Colorado Plateau.

The added bonus of revisiting some favorite locations in Utah was discovering someplace new and wonderful.  Among landscape photographers, Valley of Fire State Park, near Las Vegas, has been getting a lot of buzz lately, and for good reason.  To say this place is amazing is an understatement.  If you love colorful vistas, sandstone, and interesting geology, you need to pack your bags and go now.  It really is that spectacular.  And, there are a lot of unexplored areas waiting to be discovered.

I don’t have a Valley of Fire page set up yet, but I’ll be sharing some new images over the next few days, and will tell you when you can view the gallery.  Until then, I hope you enjoy this lovely sunset.

Dramatic sunset at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Candy Land Sunset, March 2011