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The Wilderness Project

Friday, September 15th, 2017

panoramic image with text and colorful mountains at sunset

The Wilderness Project is my current photographic project, launched earlier this month. Over the next several months, I will document the nineteen federally-designated wilderness areas in my backyard, Riverside County, California.

black and white photo of a slot canyon in the mecca hills wilderness of southern california

Mecca Hills Wilderness

Over the last year or so, I think we’ve become acutely aware of our public lands and what they have to offer. Our national monuments, especially, have garnered much attention, but there is still so much out there to see. The public lands-advocacy group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has declared September Public Lands Month, and I thought it was apropos to launch this project in September. What’s more, many of the wildernesses in Riverside County were created with passage of the California Desert Protection Act, which turns 25 in 2019.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, I wanted to launch this project to know my own surroundings better. As Kenneth Brower (son of famed conservationist David Brower) writes, “There is a language for terrain, just as there is a language for art.” Understanding that language is crucial for the landscape photographer who wants to create personal, introspective images.

Some of the wilderness areas in Riverside County are ones you’ve been to. In fact, the most popular one–the Joshua Tree Wilderness–is one you have likely visited. The San Jacinto Wilderness is another popular hiking destination. However, there are others that you likely haven’t heard of. I recommend starting here as you orient yourself to my project, and consider subscribing to The Wilderness Project by email to get new blog posts as I visit the far-flung reaches of Riverside County.

Thanks for coming along on this journey! Hopefully it will inspire you to get into your own backyard to discover some of its hidden gems.

New Gallery: Oceans as Wilderness

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

As hard as it is for some people I meet here in southern California to believe, I didn’t see the ocean for the first time until I was 21 years old.  I had a summer job working for the U.S. Forest Service to do carnivore population surveys in the northern Sierra Nevada, and on a string of days off a couple of coworkers and I drove to Redwood National Park.  Just outside of Arcata, California was where I put my feet in the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

My first thoughts, in no particular order, were: “Good grief, the water is cold!”  “That’s a lot of water” “How are people surfing in this?” “I wonder how many sharks there are out there.”*  But mostly I just stood in awe at the immensity of the ocean.  I felt calmed by the waves almost immediately, the sounds, the smells.  It’s easy to see why oceans get the attention they do from writers, poets, artists.

Since that trip to the northern California coast, I’ve seen the Atlantic coast in Florida and Iceland, and explored California’s coast extensively.  And although I’ve moved to southern California, and I still don’t spend as much time with the ocean as I should.  However, every time I go, I feel the same way I did when I saw the Pacific for the first time; the youthful wonder I had then stays with me now, in a myriad of ways.

As a photographer, I have tended to focus on the landscapes I identify most closely with.  I grew up in the desert southwest, and continue focusing primarily on that area in my photography.  However, I can’t deny that the ocean has found its way into my daydreams, and I have finally decided that it’s time to add a portfolio of ocean and beach images to my website.

jalama beach sunset and pacific ocean

Oceans are critical to the health of the planet, and comprise more than 70% of the earth’s surface.  In addition, less than 5% of the world’s oceans have been explored.  There are species we have not yet discovered, ones we know very little about, and ones we’re about to lose (or have lost).  To this end, oceans are truly a wilderness, one we should treat with as much respect as our terrestrial home.

montaña de oro beach

I hope you enjoy the portfolio; it’s a growing set of images that I’ll add to as I make what is sure to be more and more trips to the beach.

*When I was little I had a more than a mild obsession with sharks, so that has always stuck with me to some extent.

The ties that bind

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

“What holds people together long enough to realize their power as citizens is their common inhabiting of a single place.” – Daniel Kemmis

“Our gadgets and electronic maps read our exact location and desires virtually anytime and anywhere. Never before have we been so located – and yet so lost.” – Bryan Pfeiffer

I recently read an article, “Ghosts and tiny treasures,” by Bryan Pfeiffer.  He uses an example of the way we react to the killing of an individual lion by a trophy hunter, yet at the same time many of us fail to take note of the impending extinction of an entire non-charismatic keystone species like the Poweshiek skipperling, a butterfly.  Pfeiffer makes the argument is that we clearly care about other animals and places, but we have not developed what he calls a “chronic passion” for nature. Martin Litton, who was probably a bit more gruff about the subject than Pfeiffer, argued for years that we don’t harbor enough hatred in our hearts when it comes to the destruction and development of the natural world. Finding my own personal balancing point between Pfeiffer’s passion and Litton’s hatred is something that’s been on my mind for quite some time.

I recently reposted an image on my Facebook page of the Bears Ears buttes in southern Utah.  Reaching almost 9,000′ elevation, the Bears Ears are the high point of the Cedar Mesa and greater Canyonlands area.  Visible from much of the Four Corners region, they never fail to announce that I’m almost home when I drive back to northern New Mexico from my house in southern California to visit my parents.

The mesas and canyons that extend off of the Bears Ears–the Dark Canyon complex, Grand Gulch, White and Arch Canyons–make up some of the most remote, rugged, and spectacular scenery in North America.  As if the scenery isn’t enough, the greater Bears Ears area houses what may be the highest density of archaeological treasures in the country.  There are literally hundreds if not thousands of archaeological sites (ruins, rock art, etc) here, and visitors can gain a tangible connection with the past simply by walking a few hundred feet into this wonderful area.

Bears Ears Sunset

The Bears Ears buttes are the centerpiece of a proposed national monument in southern Utah

Although most of the archaeological sites are Ancestral Puebloan (ancestors of the modern day pueblo people, like Hopi and Zuni), the Navajo and Ute people, who live adjacent to the area on their respective reservations also have stories contained in–and on–this stone.  While the area is receives significantly less use than Utah’s “Big Five” national parks, it certainly isn’t unvisited. In addition to recreation pressures, oil drilling, and human development in general are knocking on the door of the area, and undesirable activities like archaeological looting run rampant.  In response to these potential threats, the Navajo, Zuni, Hope and Ute tribes have come together collectively as Utah Diné Bikeyah, and have proposed the Bears Ears National Monument to protect all of these resources for future generations.

The ecological importance of the Poweshiek skipperling–which Pfeiffer talks about in his article–might not be immediately obvious to everyone, at least not on first glance.  Similarly, the significance of cultural and natural treasures in the greater Bears Ears region may not seem that valuable, or worth protecting.  Thus, on the most basic level, Pfeiffer’s call for us to develop a chronic passion for nature and Utah Diné Bikeyah’s proposal for us to honor the wild landscape and cultural history surrounding the Bears Ears by creating a national monument are really no different.  They both symbolize a commitment to the ties that bind all of us together.

In so many ways right now in the United States especially, we’re at curious place, and the commitment that Pfeiffer and Utah Diné Bikeyah are asking for seems somewhat unobtainable, which is paradoxical to me.  While we want change (look at any social media outlet–not only do we want it, we’re downright angry about it!) and are more electronically connected to the things we want to change than ever before (webcam, anyone?), we seem to have lost the connections that really matter. Connection to place, to other organisms, to each other, is something we desperately lack right now as a people.

Now is the time to preserve not only natural Earth and the ties to our evolutionary history, but our ties to human history. But we need to re-establish our connections to both of them to do that. There is no other way.

I suppose this wasn’t really a blog post about photography, but about connection to a place, which–when present–makes photography more meaningful and personal.  In that spirit consider this the beginning of a dialogue…about connection, purpose-driven photography, and endeavoring to protect that connection.

Thanks for reading.

Muley Point Utah

A photographer in the proposed Bears Ears National Monument

More from the Escalante

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

“We spend our days trying to be big. In the middle of nowhere, though, we can surrender to smallness again and instead find where we fit in the landscape. Out there, where there’s nothing, is where there’s the most to learn.” – Christopher Solomon, A Case for Getting Far, Far Away

In my last post, I briefly described a backpack through the canyons of the upper Escalante River.  This entire area of southern Utah is among the most remote in the western United States.  As a result of this (or maybe because of this) it is sparsely populated; depending on where you’re at, the nearest traffic signal can be hundreds of miles away and the stars in dark night skies vastly outnumber any town lights.

Escalante River Sunset

The Escalante River and its tributaries have cut sinuously through the sandstone in this area below the Aquarius Plateau.  As I said in my last post, it’s rugged country, but its matched perhaps only by the mettle of the area’s first explorers*.

As an underscore to the already remote nature of this country, about a century after the Escalante-Dominguez expedition, Major John Wesley Powell came through this area (roughly) on his Colorado River expedition.  He named the Henry Mountains, which are not insignificant, and are visible from much of southeastern Utah. The Henries were the last mountain range in the contiguous United States to be named and explored (the Navajo call them Dził Bizhiʼ Ádiní–mountain whose name is missing).

Henry Mountains Sunset

Grand Staircase Sunset

There are certainly places you can go in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument where you would feel anything but alone, but there are far more that would give you a feeling of complete isolation.  I can’t help but think that perhaps searching out that feeling of solitude–taking time to listen to the deafening silence–is something we should do from time to time.  I’m grateful there are still places like this for us to do just that.

*Father Silvestre Vélez de Escalante is regarded as one of the first Europeans to have explored this area as part of the Escalante-Dominguez expedition in 1776.  Before reaching this area, they were forced to kill and  eat their horses while searching for a crossing of the Colorado River (the place where they eventually crossed is now known as the Crossing of the Fathers, which is underneath Padre Bay in Lake Powell).

A Golden Idea

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

“There is growing awareness of the beauty of country … a sincere desire to keep some of it for all time. People are beginning to value highly the fact that a river runs unimpeded for a distance… They are beginning to obtain deep satisfaction from the fact that a herd of elk may be observed in back country, on ancestral ranges, where the Indians once hunted them. They are beginning to seek the healing relaxation that is possible in wild country. In short, they want it.”  — Olaus J. Murie

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.  If you follow the same online circles as I do, you’ve seen the coverage, the essays, the photo contests, etc.  Indeed, setting aside land to be protected  and remain–in the words of the act’s primary author, Howard Zahniser–“untrammeled by man,” is a noble notion and its golden anniversary is one worth celebrating, despite the criticism the idea has received by wilderness deconstructionists.

Looking through my photography from 2014 as well as through the years, I’m struck by how many times I’ve found myself in a designated wilderness making images.  This certainly hasn’t been intentional but I realize how much the landscapes protected by this legislation have impacted me.  Making images has been incidental to the the feeling of being…home…I’ve found in these wild places.  Our wild landscapes deserve our respect, protection, and our rabid defense if some of it is to remain intact.

One of the highlights of my summer was a trip into the Ansel Adams wilderness with my good friend Jackson Frishman.  One day, as I complained about writer’s block on my blog, Jackson gently reminded me that sometimes you don’t need to write a lot–the images can speak for themselves.  I’m not sure I have a lot to say about wilderness that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll take Jackson’s advice here and just show some recent images, made in celebration of wilderness.

Ansel Adams Wilderness reflections


John Muir Wilderness sunrise

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

San Gabriel Mountain Cascade

I’ve never thought of myself as a sentimental person, but over the years the meaning of Thankgiving has become more important to me.  Simply put, it’s a time to give thanks.  It’s the beginning of a season in which we celebrate the notion that giving is more satisfying than receiving, that being kind and generous can be an everyday thing, and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

I have been to the mountains a few times this autumn, but haven’t made very many images.  These are from an outing to one of my favorite canyons a few weeks ago.  I was a bit late for the peak of fall colors, as many of the sycamore trees had already dropped their leaves en masse, leaving bare trunks prepped for winter and piles of leaves on the ground.   Perhaps not the most photogenic situation, but it didn’t matter.  It was an opportunity for me to give an early thanks and get ready for the season ahead, filling me with reminders why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

Here’s wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving–I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

San Gabriel Mountain Cascade

The Preservation of Us

Monday, July 15th, 2013


I never thought I’d roll an ankle so badly that it would bring me off my feet, but as I hit the ground after slipping from the curb, I let out a cry of both frustration and pain, certain I’d broken a bone.  Suddenly my typical Saturday morning run had become anything but, as I sat there trying to figure out if I could move myself or not.  In an instant, visions of every single hike and backpacking trip I had been planning for the summer ahead flashed through my mind, and suddenly vanished.

“Maybe it isn’t that bad,” I thought to myself as I got to my feet and started to limp towards home.  “Maybe I can get it to loosen up if I walk for a while.”  It sort of worked–in my stubbornness, I ended up running nearly 5 miles home, but as soon as I took my shoe off, my ankle swelled to the size of a softball.  “That’s no good…I really should go to the emergency room.”

Fortunately there was no break, just a sprained ankle.  As I left the emergency room, I wanted to ask, “So, how long until I can go backpacking?”  I decided that this wasn’t the most intelligent question a person on crutches should be asking, so I kept it to myself.

I’ve been rereading Jack Turner’s The Abstract Wild over the last few weeks; I read it for the first time right after high school and it is one of the few books I have revisited more than once.  Everywhere you look today there is literature about why this wilderness and that wilderness should be protected and preserved.  Turner’s book focuses on the experience of the wilderness rather than the wilderness itself.  How do we interact with wild places?  He asks, and answers, in very clear terms why we need wilderness, and what it comes down to has nothing to do with the place itself.  It’s the experience.  We need wild places for our own well being.  I think this is the wildness that Thoreau referred to in his now famous quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

In many ways, I find myself living a life I did not always intend on having.  It’s not that I don’t want my family or my home or my job, or that I am trying to run from adult responsibilities.  However, I am a worrier by nature, and in the rush, rush, RUSH of everyday life, I find it increasingly absurd that I worry about things which I have no control over.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.  Those words echo through my head because I realize that while some people may feel anxiety over going into the backcountry (you know…survival and all that), my worried mind becomes calm.   The longer I am away and the further from roads I go, the more quieted I become.  Wilderness makes me kinder, gentler, sweeter.  This must be a coveted quality: no other place I can think of, and only a select handful of special people in my life have ever had that affect on me.

So it was that as I sat there that morning with my ankle throbbing in pain that I saw my precious trips to the wilderness slipping away.  The nearest trip was only 15 days away–a much anticipated backpacking trip into the High Sierra with an old friend.

Over the next few days, I was largely immobile. My crutches frustrated me, my foot bruised worse, and I just did not see how a backpacking trip would happen.  I spoke on the phone with my friend who, understandably, had reservations about heading into the backcountry with someone who could get reinjured very easily.  We decided to go on a “test hike” four days before our scheduled departure.  In the days leading up to that test hike, I rested as much as possible (despite what my overactive brain was telling me to do), and I began to heal noticeably each day.  While I still had to be very careful where I placed my feet, I managed to get through a 6 mile test hike with no problems.  We cautiously agreed that the Sierra trip was on.

Four days and 45 miles later, with the help of an amazingly solid ankle brace, hiking poles, and the patience of my friend, I finished our trip with zero pain or discomfort.  I joked with another friend before leaving that the backcountry always seems to “heal” me, and while I am pretty sure the backcountry had nothing directly to do with this, I was active, careful, and in a positive state of mind–all of which are ingredients for a properly functioning immune system.

I’ve said before that the wilderness is where I go to heal, both figuratively, and now literally as well.  However, what strikes me more than anything was my state of mind on my drive home.  With so much weighing me down before leaving, I felt remarkably free of burdens, worries, or fears.  I think this happens somewhat naturally when we boil life down to its essentials:

wake up,

make food,


make food,

go to sleep,


Yes, we need wilderness, but we must interact with it as if our lives depend on it.  Because they do.  Talk about putting things into perspective.

In wildness is the preservation of us.

Fin Dome at Sunrise, Kings Canyon National Park