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Anatomy of a desert storm

Monday, April 10th, 2017

“Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.” – Thomas Merton, from Raids on the Unspeakable


Here in the desert southwest, we’re coming off an amazing winter of rain. The color green seems a color more appropriately likened to Ireland than the Mojave Desert, but the grass popping up between very happy creosote and salt bush doesn’t tell any lies: it was a good winter. The big, soaking storms are long gone as we transition into summer, but some spring squalls are still hanging on. Desert rain storms are really quite remarkable; they are swift, powerful, and incredibly rewarding.

You’re sitting on the rock in the late afternoon, enjoying the warmth of the sun, perhaps enjoying a beer after a long day of hiking. Dark clouds hang on the horizon, but they look like they are quite far away. As the wind starts picking up, you realize that your beer bottle might get blown over if you don’t take cover, and that perhaps those clouds weren’t as far as you thought.

photograph of mountain ranges and rain in nevada

Fortunately, you save your beer from a near complete loss, and as you do, you look towards the storm and realize there’s an incredible light show taking place behind it. Backlit virga hangs like tattered curtains and you stand there admiring the desert mountain ranges–which appear in various shades of blue–receding behind the squall. The wind begins to sandblast you and you start to feel the first drops of water hitting your face.

Soon, rain begins to fall in earnest, but this lasts approximately 10% of the entire length of the storm; the whole thing is really just a big tease. The clouds pass overhead, and you look towards the horizon from whence the storm came; any trace of the storm that just blew through has been hidden.  Then, you turn around, and discover what the storm has left you as it moves away into the distance.

photograph of a rainbow at sunset in the gold butte national monument

The sun is setting now, shining on the storm clouds which are no longer backlit. The trailing wisps of the storm catch the light, turning bright orange and pink, while the storm itself maintains its deep, menacing blue. You look above your head to see a rainbow arching overhead, completing this amazing sunset.

The entire thing lasts about 20 minutes and the landscape takes 25 degree temperature drop from start to end. Several times over the course of the storm you’ve nearly forgotten to take photos, but you make images, which you’re grateful for. But mostly you just stand in awe, thankful for what you’ve just experienced, and where you’re standing. This is meaningless joy, and it’s wonderful.

photograph of sunset after a rain storm in gold butte national monument

When it all comes together

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Sometimes in photography, as in life, things just come together perfectly.


I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, located in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico.  The Preserve lies on one of the largest volcanic calderas in North America; this supervolcano (as it’s classified) has the capability of altering weather patterns to the point of causing a small ice age if it ever erupts.  Try to imagine 1,000 km³ of rock and debris spewing from the earth–1,000 km³–I can’t quite wrap my mind around that.

The land was acquired by the federal government in 2000 as a trust, with a board of trustees making decisions about its management.  Still a working cattle ranch, the Caldera is administered using a combination of those policies used in national forests, as well as in national parks.

The thing that strikes me the most is that any event on the Caldera–whether it is hiking, sightseeing, or even hunting–is kept very small.  The idea is to give the visitor a sense of solitude.  Quiet contemplation.  Can you imagine if only 25 people were allowed into Yosemite Valley at a time?  That’s a very novel idea indeed.


Visiting this historic place, I knew I wanted to come home with both memorable and meaningful images.  First of all, I knew I may never get to visit here again, and second, it was important to me to make images of my home state that carried a sense of belonging.  Not knowing exactly what to expect, I hoped for dramatic light, and the time to let the landscape present itself.  Great light is often caused by crummy weather.  Fortunately, I got it.

Arriving late in the afternoon, rain was already beginning to fall from the thunderheads that had been building strength all day.  After looking at the map, we decided on a small pond that looked like it could get good sunset light.  By the time we drove up the mountain to our location, the rain had turned to sleet, the ambient temperature was in the mid-30s, and it was indeed beginning to feel a bit like autumn.

The rest of that afternoon was spent watching the fog rolling through the trees, constantly evolving, moving, transforming the landscape.  I thought of Sigurd Olson as the fog galloped through the trees like a herd of white horses.  The hauntingly beautiful bugles of bull elk looking for a fight came out of the mist from all directions.

A feast for the senses.

Fog and trees, Valles Caldera National Preserve

White Horses, September 2012

As sunset neared, the clouds cleared just a bit, and as I’d hoped, the fog settled in on our little pond, our small corner of the world.  All ours…tonight anyway.  The sky lit up giving us a perfect sunset.  Few things could have made it better.

Sunset on a small pond at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico

New Mexico sunset, September 2012

So it went for the rest of the weekend: New Mexico autumn.  Wildlife abounded.  Rain brought a last bit of summer life to the forest before winter’s grip tightens.  Light danced at the perfect times.  And, of course, green chiles were on the menu.   Thank you, New Mexico, for the perfect start to my favorite season.

Rainbow and thunderstorm in northern New Mexico

Autumn Rainbow, September 2012

Grove of aspen trees (Populus tremuloides) in autumn

Aspen Grove, September 2012

Redondo Peak, Jemez Mountains, New Mexico

Redondo Peak, September 2012

Fog drifts through trees

Fog & Trees, September 2012

Nevermind the Weather

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Recently, in the span of one week, we had record high temperatures in southern California, violent thunderstorms, and very fall-like weather, with rain and nearly 50 degree cooler temperatures than just a few days earlier.  In short, its been absolutely crazy, and some locals have been telling me this is “earthquake weather.”  I hope not.

Stormy skies at the Santa Rosa Plateau

Stormy Skies

What I do know is that I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the sky over the last few days.  I’ve admired a series of gorgeous sunsets, and–like you, I’m sure–I’ve looked at the sky every morning as a hopeful indicator of what my day will be like.  In fact, the more I think about it, we spend a lot of time looking at the sky.  For centuries sailors have looked to the sky before setting sail (“Red sky at night…”); as photographers, we often differentiate a “so-so” photograph from an epic one depending on what’s happening in the sky; most people let what’s in the sky help define their mood, to some extent at least.  So, the sky really does define our days, and our lives.

As much as it influences us, I also think we could learn from the sky.  It carries the weather, but is ultimately unaffected by it, dealing with tumultuous changes easily and unscathed, and in a world that sometimes seems to be filled with our own hurry, hurt, and negativity, perhaps we could all take a moment to look up at the sky, take a deep breath and create our own high pressure system, so to speak.

What do you think?

Beautiful, serene California sunset

Cotton Candy Sky

Wave Abstract

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Lately, I’ve been using Nik Software’s plug-ins for Photoshop and have to admit that I’m loving them.  As a result, I’ve been revisiting some old images in an attempt to breathe some new life into them.  One image in particular that I’ve had in mind is this shot of the Pacific Ocean that I took in April on my visit to Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park.

waves in the pacific ocean, channel islands national park

Wave Abstract, April 2010

In this shot, I wanted to accentuate the detail in the waves, as well as the water texture in both the leading and tailing edges of the waves.  By processing the lower lefthand part of the image as monochrome using Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro and leaving the upper righthand part of the image in color, I was able to accentuate the difference in these areas of the water.

Incidentally, in my last post on my Channel Islands trip, I talked about how intense the wind was.  For most of the night, we dealt with wind gusts of 50-65 miles per hour, with no vegetative cover.  Equipment takes a beating in that kind of wind, and today I received an image from my friend, whose tent we used that night on Anacapa.  These tent poles used to be straight.

bent tent poles from anacapa island winds

The Wrath of Anacapa