Getting distracted, gaining focus
I did manage to photograph McKinley, bathed in the full moon’s light, but accidently. The road into Lone Pine was desolate, and the Sierras rise so sheer, so abruptly above the town and the entire valley that their presence is impossible to escape. I pulled off onto the side of the road to setup the tripod and see how well the moon might illuminate the nighttime view. No cars passed in the 30 minutes while I worked with the camera’s settings, and had I actually known what I was capturing, Mt. McKinley(!) I would have spent more time trying to frame a better shot. Also, I would have waited in the morning for the light to fully bathe the mountains; I just have more reasons to return.
Driving out of the Alabama Hills and onto the streets of Lone Pine that Saturday morning, I was beginning to get the sense that I had simultaneously over and under planned my trip. I had the right gear and the right intentions, but I sorely lacked real knowledge. I had a list of images I wanted to capture, but I lacked an agenda, and I lacked real boundaries. It’s one thing to be able to wander, and to have no real course, but I was finding myself slipping between the trip I had planned and the trip that was unfolding, and I was genuinely struggling with my choices. I really hadn’t researched where I was going, and because of this I was at a loss as to how to actually handle it all. Looking on other photographers websites and through different social media channels, I was seeing other people’s “perfect” images, and I was getting anxious to produce my own. Most pressing of all was the news that I wouldn’t be getting into Yosemite from the east. The snowpack in the high Sierras was still at a ridiculous depth. Tioga Pass was still closed. I’d heard this, faintly, but hadn’t paid it much credit. I knew the snow falls were heavy, everyone did. But, in my haste to make one list, I’d totally overlooked the logistics for another list. I specifically chose the northern Sierras as a destination because of their proximity TO Yosemite. My campsite was supposed to be a base that allowed me to travel to and from Yosemite those first days. I was quickly realizing that my plans were going to need to change, but I was floundering with how to alter the course.
The route north out of Lone Pine along 395 takes you through the towns of Big Pine, Bishop, and Mammoth Lake. Wanting to begin my explorations I headed north. In Big Pine I saw the route to Ancient Bristlecone. In Bishop, I found a perfect bakery and a collection of art galleries that I did not expect. Stopping for breakfast gave me time to think and redirect myself. I started searching to immediate area for things to see and do. As I browsed different web pages I began to formulate a new plan.
There is an active caldera underneath the Owens Valley, it’s a byproduct of being part of the Ring of Fire. There are dozens of spots in the valley where the heat is close to the surface, percolating through to create small pools and springs which if not being used by the cows, can be very pleasant. I made a note of this and decided these would be worth exploring. I looked into more developed hot springs as well, thinking a long hot soak would certainly help. I found much about Hot Creek which meanders through the valley. Mt. McKinley and the Alabama Hills were now heavily canvassed, but I wasn’t sure going back south was the best option. Mono Lake, with is tufts and cotton candy skies grabbed my attention. Unfortunately the snow was affected most all of the trails and roads going to the west. I’d actually taken my snowshoes out of the 4Runner while I was packing thinking how foolish the would appear. The Volcanic Tablelands were well documented, as was Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Beginning to feel a little more at ease about what I could see and do the next two days, I headed to my campsite finally with a new plan and bit less anxiety.
French Creek is where I was heading and I quickly found the campground and the site and I proceeded to set up a camp. Protected by towering Ponderosa pines and just across the road from the fast flowing creek, I felt I had a comfortable spot for the next two nights. Once the tent and hammock had been assembled and put in their place, it was time to start to look around. I knew I would need to head north to find the thermal region, and Hot Creek specifically. I’d also found Benton Hot Springs during my breakfast research, and as tempting as the “wild” tubs and soaks of Mammoth Lake were at that point, I wanted something that was certain so I headed east.
The roads, when needing to cut across the valley, follow the same philosophy as the roads I’d already encountered, they simply follow the land. Needless to say, no route is really direct. The plus side to all of these curves are not just entertaining routes, but incredible scenery. The circuitous routes also cause you to slow down. And this really is a good thing. There is a large crest and another smaller valley that separates the Mammoth Lake region from Benton Hot Springs. But more Ponderosa stands, and 360 degree mountain views and rolling scrub made it completely worth it. Benton Springs in nothing more than an intersection at the bottom of a hill. Of the 20-some buildings that surround the stop, half are empty. The others, a small dairy farm, and the Hot Springs are all from the early 20th Century. “Charming” is just a complete understatement. Turning right at the stop would take you back to Bishop, staying left would lead you to Nevada and ultimately Reno. The really interesting aspect of this is the fact that U.S. Highway 6, the one that travels through Denver, travels through Benton and ultimately ends in Bishop. It would create an incredibly direct route, though much slower, and certainly more visceral than the sterile but efficient Interstate system we prefer to use. The Benton Hot Springs though are loose collection of cabins with small hot pools that are reserved by those staying in the cabins, or by appointment only. Needless to say the idyllic soak, in the warm California sun didn’t occur that day at this spot. But, I have someplace new to return to, given the opportunity.
So back into “my” Valley I headed, this time thinking I would start to look for the little, wild pots of water and the infamous Hot Creek. This upper Owens Valley has been the water source for California residents and farmers to the south for multiple generations. Mammoth Lake is just one of the many reservoirs that dot this water delivery system, but the backdrop to it all, the real source is that very snowpack in the Sierras that were now blocking my transit. The dozen or so little areas where hot water bubbles to the surface are scattered along watershed of Hot Creek, before it flows into the Owens river. Some of the pools are neglected, some are simply streams and others have been improved over the years. As few as four and up to a dozen will fit in the different locations, and the routes between are dusty winding two tracks. I found one that I was able to enjoy for some time on my own, and the hot water was a great relief. But exploration was my mood that day, and I hadn’t had my camera out since the earliest light. The Hot Creek Geological Site used to allow bathing, but it has since been closed because of fluctuating water temperatures. You can still visit and walk down to the creek, and there are many compositions to be made with either a lens or canvas. Small pastures and derelict structures also dot the valley and drainage. The pastures to the north are quite lush, and Wild Iris clumps burst from the fields.
The day of driving and exploring had grown long. I missed capturing a sunset that evening, I was too preoccupied with finding dinner and finding my way back to Bishop. One of the galleries that I had read about during breakfast was located in Bishop, and I wanted to revisit it. Additionally, a feature in the area that I had read about many years before, but had completely forgotten about was near Bishop. Galen Rowell, a photographer from the region whose work I recognized, but knew nothing about personally, had last lived in Bishop. Rowell pioneered the genre of “adventure photography” in the 70s and 80s. Rowell had started as one of the many vagabond climbers attracted to the heights of Yosemite and the Sierras, but began documenting the efforts and routes he and his peers were tackling. Soon his work was being published in Outside and National Geographic and a career was launched and a new way to take photographs was born. Even though he eventually moved away from the Sierras, he decided to return to his roots and opened up a the gallery in Bishop. He was killed in a plane crash, along with his wife who was piloting the single-engine plane in 2002, but they both left behind a legacy of art and philanthropy in the region that will long outlive them. Mountain Light Gallery is a part of this legacy, hosting artist work and providing workshops , as well as being a repository for Galen’s work. It is is strange to feel a sense of loss for something I didn’t even know. But seeing this work, the gallery and reading of his accomplishments brought about this sense of loss. Wonder and inspiration were also part of the experience, but the loss was there, too.
One of Rowell’s pioneering photographs was an image of Sky Rock. Sky Rock is now well documented, but it’s location is kept quiet. It is a petroglyph panel etched on the top of a large boulder out in the Volcanic Tablelands north of Bishop. Because the site is so vulnerable, and because other archeological sites in the areas have been vandalized, the exact location of Sky Rock is just not shared freely. It is on public land, and it it completely accessible, but you won’t find anyone who will tell you where it is. I felt with the bright moon rising, I might be able to capture a nighttime image of the petroglyphs. The problem is, the tablelands themselves are more than 10 miles wide and 15 miles across. It only has one marked north/south road to bisect it, and the routes that take you into the tablelands are faded and barely used two-tracks. I first looked to the west, attempting to triangulate the petroglyphs. It is a beautiful and surreal landscape. Quiet really doesn’t justify the surine feeling that permeates the tablelands. It is higher than the immediate surroundings, the Owens River flowing along its western flank, and Fish Slough flowing along its eastern flank. With a camera on my back, I left the 4Runner to hike towards what could have been a promising set of of rocks. I walked for 20 minutes before a I came to the end of the outcropping. Light was fading and the moon wasn’t quite over the horizon when I turned around to head back towards the 4Runner. It was dark when I finally reached the car. I should have been but wasn’t deterred by the fading light. I drove north scanning for routes in the opposite direction. Roads populated my gps and I turned onto the first path I could. I stopped and scoured every rock and feature for the next two hours. But as my eyes became heavier and heavier it became apparent that I wouldn’t be finding Sky Rock tonight. Archeology wasn’t on the itinerary when I set out on this trip, but when I realized how close this site was, and that I wasn’t going to exploring Yosemite from the east, I had to scratch this itch. Back in my tent for the night, with the breeze playing in the high branches and the creek crashing along the rocks, I was contently asleep without any concerns or regrets. I wanted to wake early, explore the tablelands some more and visit the Bristlecones in the new day.
5000 years of history. This was one of the biggest surprises, delights, shocks of the entire trip. I’ve seen many petroglyphs panels, and stumbled upon some that few know about. I won’t say where it is. It took about six hours to find it. I’ll show Andrew and Tanner where it is, when we take our trip to see Methuselah and Hyperion.
My sleep pattern always becomes a bit erratic during summer. I tend to miss the sunrise, which is a shame, unless I’m camping somewhere that gives me the view of the horizon. Hunkered in my Ponderosa grove allowed me to sleep past the first break of dawn, but I was quickly packed and ready to take in the new day. .
I have developed a vision for posts and fences. I’m not sure why, but the long line and the distant horizon just appeal to me. There’s a solitude and a uniformity, and disconnected connection that exists in them. My favorites to photograph are of course old, and worn, but still connected. A solitary post, blanketed by winter’s snow, a string of posts tethered by aged yet durable wire, each has their mystery, their majesty. Driving through the north end of the Tablelands the elevation is considerable higher than the southern end near Bishop. This affords an expansive view of the valley and Mt Tom. This portion of the Tablelands is ranch land, and it’s crisscrossed with many different fences and posts. It felt easy, and natural to stop at one of these intersections and use Mt Tom as the background to these mythic boundaries. As I drove south through the Tablelands I could see the ridge that holds the Ancient Bristlecone Forest, which was going to be one of my destinations today. I made my way into the lava fields and turned off the main road with a better sense of what I was looking for. The road came closer to the southern edge of the lava fields before abruptly diving down, then right and left, and climbing again. Passing through a narrow rock passage, a BLM sign suddenly appeared. I nearly missed it, and backed up quickly once my wits were about me. Out of the car and climbing over the blocks of granite, I squeezed between two boulders that would seem to have been set in place. Scrambling up and over, a sense of awe washed over me as the background that I’d be focused on and been dissecting the previous day’s clearly came into focus. The boulders along the ridge are apartment size, I’m always struck by how perilously then can be perched, but how completely anchored they are. The surface of Sky Rock is flat, but it has a gentle angle from it’s north to south edges. And, it’s littered with glyphs. It is utterly breathtaking.
Heading back through Bishop for breakfast, albeit a little late, a new contentment washed over me. Even though I wasn’t see the sites and capturing the images that I’d been planning and dreaming of for the previous six weeks, I felt that being adaptable and patient had also rewarded me with some truly unique experiences and images. Resting into, “it doesn’t have to go as planned” was helping me maintain my balance and perspective. It was helping me adapt to the changes in plans, scenery and emotions. One thing I had yet to do was to take the time to sit in hot water, literally. I’d missed out on Benton Springs the day before, and while I did hop into some of the smaller pools that I’d found near Mammoth Lake, that didn’t qualify as really soaking. South of Bishop is the Keough Hot Springs. There is a small roadside pool, just like up north, but there is the older, developed pool leftover from the California’s road-trip past. It wasn’t too crowded this particular Sunday afternoon and with warm and hot areas to soak in, as well as an open canopy, it was an easy place to relax and digest all that had gone on in the past week. At this point I’d spend three nights in my tent, and three nights in the 4Runner. I’d travelled close to 1,800 miles, witnessed sunsets in three different national parks and in two of the of the most noted sites in the southwest. I’d had coffee and breakfast and lunches in dozens of charming bakeries and restaurants, and I’d taken close to 500 images, which I hadn’t even begun to think about editing or even viewing. Sure, I’d been documenting my stops with my phone, and sharing those out to social media, but this trip wasn’t about “documenting,” it was about “capturing.” I really want photography to be the next part of my life. Traveling, capturing serene and beautiful images, sharing them, that’s what I want in my life. So yes, I hope to sell the images I’ve posted. I hope to travel to art fairs and have people ask me about where I’ve been, and why I shot that particular scene, and I want my photos to move them. Being a parent, and an educator, those have been more rewarding than I ever could image. But sitting there, in the bright sun, feeling the heat of the water release days, if not weeks worth of tension and soothing my chaotic mind, I did realize that I WAS doing just that. I was capturing, I was sharing, I was adding photography TO my life, and that there was a fundamental change going on. Like all change it is rarely obvious when were are in it, and there is a certain amount of back and forth to it. BUT, I was actually on a trip, and my intended interest and goal was to just take pictures. I was dumbfounded as I sat there in the water, rolling that thought over and over in my head.
The Ancient Bristlecone Forest happens to sit in the White Mountain National Forest on the eastern side of the Owens Valley. When planning my trip I knew I would be close to it, but I also knew it did have a lot of snow, like Crater Lake and the Lassen Volcanic field, but with the change in itinerary I decided that I would at least drive up to it, if not do a full exploration of it. After my soak it was time to explore. The sun was still high in the early afternoon sky as the route began to climb up the White Mountains. The elevation gain was rapid and as I’d become accustomed to, very twisty. Soon enough I was on a knife edge traveling north while looking down on top of Lone Pine, Big Pine, and ultimately Bishop. The visitors center for the park sits in a small, sheltered saddle, but it’s also at 11,000 feet in elevation. So even though the sun was still shining brightly, the combination of elevation and winds brought the temperature into the forties. I hadn’t dressed nor brought along clothes for an hour long hike, at this temperature, with a setting sun. It became apparent that finding the park’s prized residents, Methuselah and it’s cousins, wouldn’t be an option. This thousand plus year-old trees are some of the oldest living creatures on the planet. Methuselah is not actually the oldest in the grove, but at more than 4,800 years, that is still damned remarkable. The park rangers were as helpful as at any stopped I’d enjoyed so far, and they assured me that other, interesting views would be found on the road to the northern end of the park. They cautioned that the snow would stop my progress, but that the sites would be no less special. There are many, many of the Bristlecones scattered along the windy and rugged edge, so finding an interesting overlook and composition wasn’t going to be an issue. But, it didn’t seem necessary. Yes, I took some photos, more to document than to create, but just being in the presence of these trees really was enough. This is a landscape that truly has not changed for thousands of years. It is one of those places that humans just don’t go to. We can’t conquer it, and it offers so very little that we can use. Sure, miners and prospectors did cut some of the trees down for their timber, but as inaccessible as the ridge, that wasn’t a big issue. No, there was contentment just being there. Stopping and taking it in, and not worrying about it being “a moment.” It was timeless, though it may be someone else who sees it again.
Back down to the valley floor I headed so that I could be ready for the morning. I would be driving to my next stop on Monday, Jamestown, and with the weather likely turning to rain overnight, I didn’t want to chance a water-soaked packing experience in the morning. I lingered in Bishop to wash the car and eat, and thought about heading back to Sky Rock to capture it in the sunset’s glow. But the high clouds over the Sierras were not going to allow that. Looking north as I left town I could see the cotton-candy colors to the north, I was hoping they would hold out for the morning, as this is one of the attractions of the famed Mono Lake, which anchors the head of the Valley. This along with the Tufas, make for a landscape that is not of this world, and that would be my first stop on my journey to Yosemite.