LOOKING (at the) WEST

The West – the phrase invokes associations of vast space, deserts, freedom, perhaps violence, and wilderness. The concept of the American West was just a hodgepodge of TV cliches to a kid like me, raised on the east coast. As I grew older, my fantasies of the western mythos were embellished with San Francisco hippies, surfers, intrepid explorers, and maverick pioneers. That may sound exciting but I wasn’t particularly drawn to the west; tropical places like the Caribbean interested me much more back then. By the time I finally got on a plane heading across the country I was in my thirties and on the way to San Francisco, which is nothing like the capital “W” west of cowboys and red sunsets. In fact, the sophisticated, wealthy, liberal, coastal city of San Francisco wasn’t all that different from New York, where I lived.

If, as some claim, the American West is everything west of the 100th meridian, then it encompasses big cities, deserts, plains, mountain ranges, and even rain forests. But for most of us, the capital “W” west means the desert part with some mountains in the background and perhaps a few Indians on horses in the foreground. For many years that just didn’t grab me.

Until…

It was 2004. My son was in a wilderness school program based in southern Utah. I won’t go into why he was there, I’ll just say that I was desperate and hoped the program would help him get back on the right track. The kids’ families were asked to join them at the end of the month so I booked a flight from New York to Salt Lake City and reserved a rental car. It seemed like a good idea to go early and get acclimated so I poked around Salt Lake City a bit, finding it an intriguing contrast to the eastern cities I knew. It was much smaller and cleaner than New York! But I was eager to head south toward Boulder Mountain, in the wild, high desert of southern Utah, where I would see my son and celebrate his accomplishment.

Soon after Salt Lake City dissolved like a mirage in the rearview mirror, I understood what all the fuss was about. Not knowing what to expect, my drive into the desert was a little like dropping into a void that morphed into pure space, expanding in all directions. The mountains were taller and more rugged, the view wider, the sky higher than any landscape I had experienced. There was room to really see the shapes and colors because they weren’t crammed together. By the time I reached my hotel in the quiet little town of Torrey, I was hooked. Even the view from my room was inspiring. The sheer spaciousness was a tonic for my soul.

The family program wasn’t easy. Each family had its own space up on that cold, tree-studded mountain. There were no amenities, not even a tent, so parents could experience how their kids had been living and kids could show their parents that they could survive without modern conveniences and distractions. Our shelter was two sleeping bags under a tarp propped up with sticks. In the early hours of the morning, it snowed and the tarp collapsed on us. Cold! The kids were supposed to make fires the next morning by rubbing sticks, the old way, but the wet weather made it a struggle. Fire was stolen by more than one camper. Later, there was an intense therapeutic program for everyone, held in a big heated tent, a luxury. In spite of a blazing migraine I got through that long day and in the end, living so close to the bone up there, so far from any human habitation, was tantalizing. The spare landscape, so different from anything I’d ever seen, tugged at my spirit. It felt good to be there.

1. The West?

But

As soon as I returned to New York, everyday life took over and my capital “W” western experience faded. I was busy – over the next five years, I went back to school for a Master’s degree, separated from my husband, moved twice, changed jobs, and began a new relationship. My son still struggled but he was older and I wasn’t trying to manage his life. My own life was happier than it had been in a decade.

Then a day came when, by a quirk of fate, my partner and I found ourselves both out of work. We began to question if we should look for jobs in New York City, where we lived, or somewhere else. It could be anywhere! After talking and researching, we zeroed in on the Pacific Northwest and planned a trip to scope it out. Landing in Seattle, we drove our rental car all over the region, visiting Mt. Ranier, the Pacific coast, and points in between. We liked what we saw so we took the leap: three months later we were in the west.

But we weren’t in the mythical American West, far from it.

The Pacific Northwest is wet, lush, and feels closed in because of the profusion of towering trees. It has its own beauty, which I’ve come to appreciate. In Utah, I had a taste of the classic West – a vast, arid, open landscape that reveals itself starkly. I hoped to experience that again and it turned out that the desert west was just a short plane ride from Seattle. I could access those sublimely difficult places that had been teasing my mind for years.

That’s what we did, making forays to locations like Joshua Tree National Park in California, Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, and Death Valley in Nevada. I posted photos of every trip but a scroll through my Lightroom catalog revealed other photographs that haven’t appeared here and are worth a look. The common denominator is desert, whether it’s the Mohave or the Sonoran. The images come out of my experience of fierce, dry, captivating places. It’s one person’s view of a ravishing landscape.

2. Obstacles. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
3. Straight and Narrow. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

4. Stacatto. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.
5. Western classic. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

6. Salt. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
7. Pale gold. Mojave Desert, Utah.
8. Wind-whipped. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
9. Twist. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
10. Rear-view. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.
11. Precipice. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
12. Fog. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
13. Two coots. Colorado River. Mojave Desert, Nevada.

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15. Impression. Mojave Desert, California.
16. Exuberance. Mojave Desert, California.
17. Candy-colored. Mojave Desert, Nevada.

18. Hard rock, no cafe. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
19. Luxurious decay. Mojave Desert, Utah.
20. Defense. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

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21. Arid ocean. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

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22. Dusk. Mojave Desert, Nevada.

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FARTHER AFIELD: Utah Rocks!

It’s all about geology in Utah. This post zeroes in on the impressive variety of rocks that can be seen in southern Utah. Between April 3rd and 13th, we drove from the far southwest corner of Utah to Torrey, a small town in central Utah near Capitol Reef National Park. We put about 1680 miles (2703km) on our rented SUV, traveling on highways, two-lane local roads, and rough, unpaved roads. We walked through canyons, up cliffs, and along mountain ridges. It was a rock odyssey, from the enormous, ancient formations layered into the distance to the red rock dust on our boots and in our noses. In Utah, the shapes, colors, and textures of rock run the gamut from subtle to bizarre. Going back and forth between spacious, soul-satisfying vistas and mesmerizing details, it was a ten-day orgy of aesthetic pleasure.

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1. Along the highway near St. George, in the southwesternmost corner of Utah.
2. Detail of a rock face on the Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park.
3. Pebbles, Capitol Reef National Park.
4. Along Cathedral Road, Capitol Reef National Park.
5. Temple of the Sun, Capitol Reef National Park.
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7. Snow Canyon State Park. The dark areas are sharp, medium-sized rocks; I believe they’re basalt lava flow. The dull green areas are covered with tough, desert plants.
8. For thousands of years people have inscribed signs and symbols on rocks to communicate. Over the years, different cultures made their marks on these rocks at Parowan Gap in Parowan, Utah. Interpretations of petroglyphs vary depending on who you’re talking to. To a modern-day Paiute elder a particular series of glyphs may tell a story that’s totally different from the message that a European-American scientist sees.
9. Depressions worn into the rocks hold the scant water that falls here, allowing it to become a lifeline for wildlife.
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12. How could people resist putting rocks into these holes worn into the vertical faces of a canyon? Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park.
13. Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park.
14. Capitol Reef National Park.
15. Along the Burr Trail, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I think these hills are bentonite.
16. Along Notom-Bullfrog Road. We made a long, dusty loop by driving from Torrey on Highway 24 to Highway 12 (a rather remote two-lane road) to Burr Trail Road (more remote) to Notom-Bullfrog Road (seriously remote) and back to Rt. 24. Road conditions and weather must be checked before you set out. Plenty of water and food must be on board too, just in case. We passed only a few vehicles on the more remote sections of the route. The grandeur of this landscape made the strongest impression on me the day we drove that 120-mile (193km) loop.
17. Burr Trail Road rock and juniper trees. It may look like soft sand but walk up to it and you’ll see that it’s really solid rock. The Burr Trail Road passes through Boulder, Utah, a tiny town so remote that it was the last place in America to get mail by mule train. In the early 1930s, a road was built and residents began receiving mail carried by wheeled vehicles instead of pack animals.
18. View from the Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park.
19. Rock detail, Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park.
20. Along the Burr Trail, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
21. Rock detail, Rt. 24, Capitol Reef National Park.
22. Context of the photo above: at the bottom of the frame you can see juniper trees. Most of these trees are taller than people. Imagine how high this cliff towers over park visitors.
23. Bryce Canyon National Park.
24. Some of the rock at Snow Canyon State Park (near St. George) is wrinkled like an elephant’s skin. This is cross-bedded, 173-million-year-old Navaho sandstone.
25. Along Cathedral Road, Capitol Reef National Park.

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Southern Utah’s landscape is harsh, forbidding. Maps tell the story of settler’s reactions with plainspoken names like Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Rattlesnake Bench, Tarantula Mesa, Hell’s Backbone, and Last Chance Desert. Summer is hot, winter cold, and spring rains can bring floods. But the beauty beyond all that, between the dust blowing in your face and the endless miles of cracked earth, is truly sublime. In the last letter he wrote before he disappeared forever, Everett Ruess recalled riding “over miles of rough country, forcing my way through tall sage and stubborn oak brush, and driving the burros down canyon slopes so steep that they could hardly keep from falling.” He enjoyed the beauty of the wilderness and the vagrant life he was leading, preferring “the saddle to the streetcar and the star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.”

This desert land touches your soul.

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25. A view from the Burr Trail, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

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Quotes from Rusho, W.L. (1983). Everett Ruess, A Vagabond for Beauty. Peregrine Smith Books.

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FARTHER AFIELD: Utah

In the fall of 2000, I journeyed to south-central Utah twice, each time for less than a week. I went to support my teenage son, who was in a wilderness program. The second visit included a cold night spent with him and other families high on Boulder Mountain with nothing but a sleeping bag and a rough lean-to for protection from the elements. It snowed that night, causing the tarp over our heads to fall on top of us. Brrr. Warming ourselves next to a campfire amid the vast, open skies of the high desert that morning was definitely a memorable experience. The jaw-dropping drive down from Salt Lake City, the dramatically changing views, the crisp air, and the spareness of life in the high desert moved me. As awed as I was by the power of nature in this place, I was also charmed by the atmosphere of the small town where I stayed after that night on the mountain. Capitol Reef country and Torrey, Utah dug into my soul and worked their magic. I vowed to go back and returned three years later. And yes, it was memorable again.

That trip nineteen years ago was intensely pleasurable because my experiences were so different from everything I’d known as an east coast native. I explored, I hiked to a waterfall, I rode a horse, and I sat down under a juniper tree and painted the towering red-orange cliffs. In subsequent years I often thought about that wild country and the little town at the heart of it – I wasn’t done with Utah’s extraordinary landscape. With the easing of pandemic restrictions, it seemed like travel could feel good again and Utah was the perfect place to go. This time I’d share it with my partner, Joe, who is a wonderful travel companion.

On April 2nd we flew to Las Vegas and picked up a rental SUV at the airport. We stayed in town overnight and set off for Utah the next morning.

Four photos from the plane: low tide ripples off the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham Airport, a view of Lopez Island as we climbed to cruising altitude, Oregon’s beautiful Mt. Hood, and the sere, dun-colored desert outside Las Vegas.

1. Slicing through the northwest corner of Arizona via Interstate 15, we climbed through the Virgin River Gorge toward Utah.

2. In a short time we reached St. George, the city Utahns visit when they’re desperate for a dose of warm weather. By midafternoon we were enjoying a pretty trail through the red rock at Snow Canyon State Park.
3. Storm clouds over Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness, seen from the car on the way to Cedar City.

With dramatic clouds threatening rain but not producing it (as so often happens in the desert), we continued north to Cedar City, our base for the next 3 days. The biggest draw for tourists in that area is Zion National Park, which neither of us had ever seen. But we knew the park would be a mob scene – even on a weekday in April. Not only does the park require you to leave your car in a crowded lot and take their shuttle bus to get to the major hikes and observation points, now they even require reservations for the popular hike up Angel’s Landing. It was spring break and families were everywhere. I was torn but Joe was adamant: after some discussion, we decided to forgo the main entrance to the park altogether. We would explore the less-frequented north end the next day, taking a scenic drive to a short trail that leads to a magnificent overlook. Even that proved daunting for us lowlanders when the altitude challenged our lungs. Plopping down on the rocks as often as we needed to turned out to be as entertaining as the views, thanks to the lizards scampering about.

4. Zion NP, Kolob Canyon section, Timber Creek Overlook.
5.

We live at sea level in a place where the humidity often approaches 100%. We were now over 6,000 feet higher than that, all day and night, with humidity as low as 20%. We hadn’t realized how hard it would be to acclimate to the high desert! The following day we chose an easier itinerary: explore the petroglyphs at Parowan Gap and drive a big loop over mountain passes in the Dixie National Forest. The petroglyphs were some of the best and most accessible we’ve seen but the wind was fierce through the Parowan Gap. I couldn’t resist tossing tumbleweed in the air and watching it bounce down the road like a cartoon character. Maybe I’ll figure out how to get that phone video I made into another post.

We had one more day in Cedar City, a day that for me, began with feeling absolutely wretched. Mornings were getting slower and slower as the thin air made the simplest task a struggle. We weren’t sleeping well, either. Ah, the joys of hotel pillows – they’re never like one’s own! And the air in hotel rooms, don’t get me started on that. So that day we drove south to a lower elevation and by the afternoon we were both having a great time clambering around petrified sand dunes at Snow Canyon State Park. A long, relaxing lunch at an out-of-the-way spot that took us a while to find capped the day.

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The next day we had a long drive ahead of us; we’d be visiting Torrey, the small town in south-central Utah that I fell in love with over 20 years ago. But I’ll save that for later. Needless to say, there are way too many photos to go through and trip impressions fade too quickly. It was an intense two weeks of sensory overload. There was rock above all, in countless guises – smooth, rough, grainy, pock-marked, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, lavender, white, black, warm, cold, shaped into hoodoos, perfect rectangles, and domes, wrinkled like elephant skin, balanced and poised to topple any minute, and solid as the ages underfoot. There were wonderful plants, some rare, some cultivated, all tough as nails. There were scintillating conversations with native Utahans, especially Martha, a 76-year-old native of Teasdale (population 219) who showed us the old tea house ruin. And Curtis and Tristan, proprietors of Dark Sky Coffee in Torrey, whose warm, relaxed hospitality and excellent espresso brought a gleam to my eyes. There were fierce, sandy winds, icy winds out of the north, and calm, sunlit afternoons under Cottonwood trees. There were good meals, especially a memorable breakfast of eggs, bacon, home fries, and grits at the Black and Blue Diner in Las Vegas. There were long, dusty, unpaved roads, miles and miles of them, with horizons that peeled back the story of the earth for us to read. And there were ravens. Everywhere we went we saw single pairs of ravens flying together through the blue skies, slicing them up into then and now, backs shining silver in the sun, feathers dark as night.

Here’s a group of photographs from random moments over the course of the trip. More soon!

6. Capitol Reef National Park.

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8. The car’s GPS says it’s 21 degrees outside one morning as we cross a high pass…many places haven’t opened for the season yet…and a sign in Cedar City announces 29 degrees on another morning. But the sun was warm and most of the afternoons were comfortable.

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12. Joe and our SUV in Capitol Reef Nation Park’s north end.
13. Hickman Bridge, Capitol Reef NP.
14. We awakened to snow one morning.

15. Snow in the morning, wildflowers in the afternoon – amazing.
16. Ancient petroglyphs at Parowan Gap.
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18. Bryce Canyon National Park.

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20. Going from small-town Utah to Las Vegas in one day was a jolt to the spirit.
20. Standing outside and looking up at the waxing moon helped ease the transition.
21. I hope canyon country will be in my rear-view mirror again before too long.

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“…it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in sparseness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

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FURTHER AFIELD: Into the Mountains

Last week we drove northeast to the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, a vast tract of land on the western slopes of the Cascade Range. Our goal was a high meadow set with heather, wildflowers, blueberries, firs and hemlocks, about 10 miles south of the Canadian border as the crow flies. A glacier-fed creek winds through the meadow and widens into shallow lakes where American dippers (gray, fist-sized birds) plunge underwater in search of small fish and invertebrates. At 4200 feet (1280m) the subalpine meadow is far below nearby Mount Baker but it’s a big step up in altitude from life on an island at sea level.

Mount Baker, known as Koma Kulshan in the popularized (and probably incorrect) version of a local indigenous language, is our guardian mountain. Snow-capped all year long, it’s presence graces views to the northeast from different vantage points around our island. When it isn’t obscured by clouds we like to check its mood: sometimes the mountain looks gentle, other times it seems forbidding and fierce. It all depends on how the light hits it, whether it’s ringed with a puffy cloud necklace, how clear the sky is that day, or our own moods – we like to read things into the mountain. As we left Fidalgo Island on a bright September morning, Mt. Baker competed with electric wires that span the bridge, creating yet another scene. It wasn’t a picture postcard view but it was just as real as any other.

1. Mt. Baker/Koma Kulshan from the car as we drive off the island.
2. A distant North Cascade peak shows the scale of the mountain range relative to the lowlands.

It’s a two-hour drive on two-lane roads that pass through small rural communities. The final stretch penetrates thick forest as it climbs on up into the mountains. After a series of hairpin turns the road passes a ski resort before it ends above the timberline at a scenic hunk of rock called Artist’s Point. Fine views of mountain peaks can be seen in all directions up there. But you’re still well below Mt. Baker. For that, climbers need to execute a technical climb on the glacier-strewn peak, which is technically an active volcano. But no worries, it’s unlikely to erupt without warning while research and monitoring stations are keeping watch.

No gluttons for punishment, we just wanted an easy, scenic hike – and what a beautiful day it was for that. We pulled into a lot below Artist’s Point, parked, donned backpacks, hats, and sunscreen, checked our water and food supplies, and set off on the Bagley Lakes Trail.

3. Bagley Lakes.
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6. Blueberry bushes cast shadows on a well-worn boardwalk over a wet section of the trail.
7. A gold rush in the late 1890s brought settlers into this wilderness. Soon after that the idea of tourism took hold. Construction on a lodge began in 1925 and a road was constructed up to Heather Meadows, where we hiked the trail around Bagley Lakes. In 1931, the 58-mile-long Mt. Baker Highway was extended to its terminus at Artist Point; the lodge burned down the same year. Three years later Jack London’s Call of the Wild, starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young, was filmed nearby in the Mt. Baker National Forest.
8. Massive hemlocks tower over the meadows.

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10. Bagley Creek’s bottom is littered with fallen trees. The red leaves in the lower left corner are blueberry bushes.

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12. One impressive tree towered over the others, tilting toward the creek. Someday it will topple.
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I was surprised to find that last time we hiked here was exactly a year ago. The blueberries were more plentiful then and the skies were cloudier. It’s reassuring to return to a place you enjoy and take in the same views – but it’s always a little different. I find that reassuring, too. If you haven’t had your fill of mountain images, a post about last year’s hike can be seen here.

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Garden Reveries

What follows is a group of photographs made at gardens in and around New York City in late spring. We spent more time than I thought we would visiting public gardens on our trip back east. Given the vicissitudes of the trip, that was a good thing.

If you know me, you know not to expect an array of colorful flower pictures. I’m as likely to get caught up in the way petals fall onto the sidewalk as I am to admire the flowers.

I photographed garden structures: a bamboo fence, a rose trellis, conservatory windows. And carp – I love to watch fish as they move nearer and farther from the water’s surface, their bodies curving gracefully. There are leaf studies because I could be happy doing those for the rest of my life. A shadow and a reflection or two are here because hinting at rather than spelling out a scene always intrigues me. In that vein several photographs picture something seen behind or through something else. I photographed the way the shape of a Japanese maple tree interacted visually with a cloud-strewn sky. And there’s a flower, too – a lovely peony. But not in color.

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Key:

From an afternoon with John Todaro at Bridge Gardens, Bridgehampton, NY: #1, 3 – 6, 13, 19.

From a stroll on the grounds of Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn, NY: #2, 14.

From a leisurely morning at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, Staten Island, NY: #7 – 10, 16, 17.

From a walk in Norman J. Levy Park, Merrick, NY: #11, 12, 15.

From a walk at Tackapausha Preserve, Massapequa, NY: #18.

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FURTHER AFIELD: Venturing Out Again

After over a year of refraining from overnight travel* we made a brief foray with friends to the other side of the mountains, what I like to call The Dry Side. The western and eastern halves of Washington State are separated by a formidable barrier: the North Cascade Mountain Range, a vast, wild, land of evergreen forests and rocky summits. When prevailing winds roll across the Pacific Ocean and onto land, the Cascades exert a powerful effect on the weather. Clouds mass and stall on the western side of the mountains, releasing rain and snow in a process that creates lush, temperate rainforests and gives Seattle its Emerald City nickname. After dumping all that moisture on one side of the mountains, the other side gets very little, a phenomenon called the rain shadow effect. For Washingtonians, that means all you have to do is travel over a pass to the other side of the mountains and you’re in a different world.

Our friends proposed that we meet in Vantage, a small town situated roughly in the middle of the state. After leaving home at a reasonable hour we drove south, then east on the interstate. We cleared snowy Snoqualmie Pass by 11 am and drifted down the other side of the Cascades, losing 2,000 feet of elevation as forests of Lodgepole pine yielded to open, rolling, foothills as far as we could see. Finally, we reached the mighty Columbia River, where we turned north and then back west for a few miles to meet our friends. Our rendezvous spot was at the base of a series of wide, grassy hills, the site of a network of interpretive trails for Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. You heard me right – ginkgo – and no, ginkgo trees haven’t grown here for millions of years, but petrified ginkgo logs were discovered near Vantage by chance, almost 100 years ago.

2. Gentle hills, gentle colors.

3. Looking across the Columbia River at a spare landscape of rock, grass, sage, and water.

4. Petrified wood

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6. Muted desert colors in the leaf litter.

It was something very American – highway construction – that led to the discovery of the rare, petrified wood pieces now on display at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. A local college professor recognized a rock someone was carrying for what it was when crews began moving earth for a new highway in the late 1920s. Professor Beck rounded up a group of students to get to work and see what else was hiding under the dry hills. The mix of petrified trees they found was strange – Douglas fir (still abundant in many parts of Washington), magnolia, and ginkgoes shared space with species from a variety of habitats. Long ago, water from floods or lava from volcanic eruptions probably transported trees from different places to this spot, and over time, mud buried the trees and kept them from disintegrating. When lava from a major volcanic fissure crept across the area and quickly cooled, basalt was formed, causing the submerged wood to slowly morph into mineral and rock.

One of us, a keen lichenologist, pointed out extensive communities of lichens growing on the petrified wood. Who would have thought that stone could host all that life? But look closely and a whole new biological world opens up in front of your eyes. It was the same thing on the hillside where we hiked – what looked like a sere expanse of dry grass from afar yielded a bountiful crop of wildflowers in shades of gold, purple, pink, and white. All you have to do is walk slowly and examine your surroundings, which is exactly what we did. And frankly, we walked very slowly.

The ecosystem is called sagebrush-steppe and indeed, sage was everywhere, lending a soft, gray-green cast to the landscape. Only 8 or 9 inches of rain falls in the region annually, so plants have adapted to the aridity with low, mounding shapes, fuzzy leaves, pale colors, summer dormancy, and other tricks. The soil is coated with something called a cryptogamic crust, a slow-growing, delicate layer of lichens, mosses, algae, and cyanobacteria that stabilizes and protects the soil. These biological soil crusts are very susceptible to disturbance by grazing animals, invasive grasses, and human traffic of all kinds. We tried to stay on the trail but temptations to gently step off for photographs were hard to resist. Spring is when the rains come and the flowers sprang up like gems in the rough, each one presenting pure color to the dome of blue above. The liquid, warbling song of Meadowlarks drifting over the hills was a treat for our ears. Squeezing a few leaves of sage between my fingers and inhaling the pungent scent, I remembered desert trips from the past. The Dry Side was yielding a feast of sensations.

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7. Investigating plants and rocks.

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9. Petroglyphs that would have been lost underwater when the Columbia River was dammed were moved a mile downriver to reside at the interpretive center. The display sparked a conversation among us about the universality of symbols.
10. Spring green in the form of little “paws” on Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata).

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The next day we crossed the river to hike at Ancient Lakes, a landscape of towering basalt cliffs, canyons, and mesas scoured out by Ice Age floods that left basins of water behind like scattered pearls dropped from a broken necklace. This complex environment has more interesting features than we had time to investigate that day; our eyes, ears, and noses were well stimulated.

We met at a civilized hour (three of us camped and two didn’t – guess which two didn’t!), crossed the Columbia River and headed to the Quincy Lakes Wildlife Area, part of a million acres of land managed by Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. We were still in sagebrush-steppe habitat, a hot-in-summer, cold-in-winter land of poor soil that was once occupied seasonally by Native Americans. Much of the surrounding land is now irrigated for wheat, potatoes, apples, wine grapes, livestock, and other crops. Thankfully, the unusual landscape at Quincy Lakes is relatively intact and available to anyone who has the time and wherewithal to look.

Speaking of looking, the first thing that caught our eyes when we stopped at a parking area was four White pelicans soaring high overhead in the cloud-paled sky. As we watched them circle round and fly off to another lake I thought about the squadron of White pelicans that spends five months each year on Padilla Bay, just minutes from home. They still seem exotic to me and hopefully, they always will. After looking around a bit we decided to continue on to a place down the road that two of us remembered from previous trips. By the time we settled on the right spot to explore, it was lunchtime. We perched on rocks overlooking a spectacular array of waterfalls, wetlands, ponds, and distant mesas as we ate hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, and snacks. The ticks, rattlesnakes, and unrelenting sun of warmer months were absent. We set off down a trail across a dramatic tableau of canyons, cliffs, and ridges, and soon lost ourselves in wildflower and lichen discoveries. One of the best surprises for me was finding tiny Shooting stars (see the photo below) hidden in the grass beside the trail. I associate this plant with wetter conditions close to home. I was amazed to see it in this harsh environment but when I thought about it, the place where I’ve seen Shooting stars before is rocky with thin soil and dry summers, like Quincy Lakes. Still, it was a sheer wonder to see this beautiful little flower wafting in the dry desert breezes.

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11.
12. The results of volcanic eruptions that occurred millions of years ago delight the eyes today.

13. Sage is everywhere, dead and alive.

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16. I jumped with excitement when I saw little frog’s eggs in a shallow stream, like perfect, pink pearls, and so vulnerable. Sights like this make my day.

17. Power-lines on the horizon are a reminder that civilization isn’t far away.
18. This year’s blossoms rise from last year’s faded, crinkled leaves. Like #8 above, this is a Balsamroot, probably Arrow-leaf.
19. Down was easier than up.
20. Hats, walking sticks, sturdy boots, water, and curiosity….we’re prepared.

21. The last scene was the kind that makes you promise yourself that you’ll return.

We had to turn around for the long trip home sooner than we wanted to that day. We had filled our souls with the unaccustomed sensations of The Dry Side: Meadowlarks, Magpies, Balsamroot, sage, and burnt orange vistas, both gentle and rough. Maybe best of all was the pleasure of stretching one’s mind out over wide expanses of open space in the company of good friends. Here’s to more venturing out!

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*It had been well over a year since we traveled: the last trip we took before the pandemic stopped us in our tracks was to Vancouver, Canada, in November 2019. That year we took three other trips: a three-week foray through northern Europe in April, a road trip in eastern Washington in May, and another road trip through Oregon and northern California in September. The year before that (2018) we flew to Las Vegas to see Death Valley in January, took an Oregon/California road trip in April, and spent a week in Los Angeles in October – in addition to moving house in July! In 2017 we traveled to New York, central Oregon, and southwest Arizona and made numerous day trips around the state. We took the freedom to go where we wanted when we wanted for granted.

The pandemic changed everything. The enforced absence of travel, the radical limitations of our social lives, and the general tone of the world had a profound effect on me throughout 2020, more than I realized until we ventured out for a brief jaunt over the mountains. Suddenly the reality of 2020 was set in relief against the possibilities of seeing other places, being with friends, and feeling the freedom of the open road. The hectic pace of travel we maintained previously had ground to a halt in 2020. We entertained thoughts about a possible trip now and then but in the end, we decided to be safe and stay put for fifteen, long, quiet, months. I became so accustomed to life at home and its circumscribed rituals (most of which I appreciate) that I found myself missing my own bed, my routines, and my home after being away for only two days! Missing home is definitely NOT my typical response to travel.

But we’re getting back on the horse and already planning a trip to Boston and New York next month. After that? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? We don’t know what the next year will bring.

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FURTHER AFIELD: An Afternoon in the Mountains

I’ve been longing to go up into the mountains. On a calm Monday two weeks ago, the smoke had cleared and the weather was favorable, so we headed out to the North Cascades for a stroll around a pristine alpine lake. At 4300 feet (1310m) Bagley Lakes isn’t the highest hike in the Mount Baker area, but for us, it was a welcome change of scenery, from an island at sea level to a mountain’s dramatic peaks and valleys.

1. On the way. The first glimpse of mountains in the distance is always exciting.

2. Mt Shuksan and Hanging Glacier, seen from Heather Meadows on the flanks of Mt. Baker. At the lower left is White Salmon Lodge (a ski base).

Mt. Baker is a favorite destination for hiking, climbing, snowboarding, skiing and other recreational pursuits. The highest point that vehicles can access is at the end of a series of steep switchbacks that climb the mountain’s north side. The final 2.7 miles is under snow most of the year and only opens in the summer. It takes road crews two to six weeks to dig through the 30 – 50 feet of snow that falls up there. Depending on conditions they could finish in May, or it might be August before the last section opens up to visitors.

At the end of the road is Artists Point, a huge parking lot with an array of trails leading into the rocky wilderness beyond. Even on a weekday in September it’s a very popular place, so we decided to leave the road before the top and hike a little lower. It was a good choice; our trail wasn’t deserted but it wasn’t busy either. We had some space.

As we set out on a loop trail around lower Bagley Lake, I could feel the anticipation building. When I’m in the mountains my feet want to leap ahead, my mind races and my spirit soars. I have to consciously bring myself back down to earth – at least enough to sense the rocky path under my feet. Over and over that day, I reminded myself to watch where I stepped, slow down, and be careful. And over and over again, I felt the exhilaration of simply being alive in such a beautiful, humbling place.

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5. There were blueberries everywhere!

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7. For about 8 months each year this lake is under snow. Unofficially, the Mt. Baker ski area is said to have the highest snowfall of any resort in the world – on average, 53.4 ft (16.3m) per year. The mountain summit is 8 miles away from this spot, as the crow flies.

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11. This old tree has seen weather that I can’t imagine.

12. Battered by the elements, Douglas firs still stand tall.

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Here’s a link explaining how these amazing rock shapes form. The rock reveals the volcanic origin of the area and in fact, Mt. Baker is an active volcano. In 1975, Koma Kulshan (an indigenous name for the mountain) emitted steam when magma intruded somewhere deep under the mountain. The steam melted a huge hole in the glacier at Sherman Crater, below the summit. A stunt pilot was enlisted to fly scientists as close to the active crater as possible so they could photograph and study it. Seismometers were installed and campgrounds below the active crater were closed for the summer, but thankfully, no eruption occurred. Now, systems and procedures are in place in case the mountain erupts. The local county sheriff’s website has instructions for what to do in case of an eruption, noting that there WILL be warnings, in the form of “days or more of increased earthquakes.”

15. Like a giant’s building blocks, these enormous rock cubes tumbled down during some long-ago disruption, landing in a lush bed of wildflowers and grasses.

16. A sturdy stone bridge crosses the spot where a creek connects upper and lower Bagley Lakes. Two straight-sided boulders nearby offered a fine spot to sit and devour my lunch. Just beyond the bridge American dippers (small, dark gray birds) actively pursued their own lunch – under the water.

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18. Fallen trees in every stage of decomposition litter the steep hills. This one was adorned with sprightly Lady ferns (Anthyrium felix-femina).

19. A parting view of stately Mt. Shuksan, a 9,131 foot-tall massif (i.e. not a volcano) that’s beloved by climbers, with 14 different ice and rock routes to the craggy peak. We will leave that for the technical climbers. They get the supreme views but we get the blueberries.

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FURTHER AFIELD: The Boulder River Trail

The green island where I live is brimming with lush parks, but as much as I enjoy the beauty here, my restless spirit keeps spinning dreams of the mountains, where up is higher, down is lower and vistas are rugged and vast. Late summer is a perfect time to venture inland, to places like Mount Baker in the North Cascades or Hurricane Ridge, high in the Olympic mountains. Those two places have been teasing my brain for months and we could visit either one – they’re two or three hours away. But it’s prime time for visiting parks and crowds don’t appear in the pictures in my mind. When the summer frenzy abates there will still be time for those trips. In the meantime, last week I was looking for an alternative, an easy hike that doesn’t require too many hours on the road. I came across the Boulder River Trail and we decided to give it a go.

The trail leads through a forest surrounding the rushing waters of Boulder River, which tumbles down from a remote lake, high up on Three Fingers Mountain, where three jagged peaks rise 6,500 feet above sea level. Following an old railroad grade on the side of the canyon, the trail enters the Boulder River Wilderness, where 49,000 acres of forests and mountains are distinguished by wet conditions (twelve feet of rain annually), thick vegetation and steep terrain. The river plunges down three separate waterfalls on the way to its confluence with the larger Stillaguamish River. One of those waterfalls is the big draw for the hike.

The first waterfall is noisy Boulder Falls, which can be heard but can’t be seen without descending off-trail through thick woods. The next waterfall is the prettiest and at just over a mile from the trailhead, requires the least effort. Some sources say it has no name but others call it Feature Show Falls. Just don’t disagree about the directions and I’ll be fine!

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1. The road to the trailhead is overhung with mossy Bigleaf maple trees.

2. A peak at part of the waterfall

Feature Show Falls is a lovely, 180-foot-tall double cascade that runs all year, unlike some waterfalls that dwindle to a trickle in summer. The hike isn’t long but you pay a price for that: the trailhead is at the end of a pot-holed, gravel road. Happily the road is only four miles long. Many Pacific Northwest trailheads can only be reached after navigating cratered roads at a snail’s pace for at least an hour. The relatively easy access and non-strenuous hike appealed to us. Even better, a mile up the road there is a well-built vault toilet with lots of toilet paper and a door that locks. Just when you need it!

We were relieved to see only three cars at the trailhead when we arrived on a Thursday morning at about 10:30. We set out under a stunning canopy of moss-hung Bigleaf maple trees, with golden light angling down from high overhead. Our packs held plenty of water and snacks and our masks were stuffed in our pockets. I had a new, wide-angle prime lens on my camera that I was eager to use. Unfortunately, I had left a circular polarizer on it the day before and didn’t notice it until well into the hike. It’s frustrating, but who hasn’t done that? If I’d known the polarizer was on the lens I would have turned it for the best effect. In some cases I would not have wanted it – our forests can be very dim, even in summer. Some photos were beyond saving and others needed a lot of help in Lightroom but, c’est la vie!

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3. This forest was logged many years ago. Western hemlock, Douglas fir, Western redcedar and Bigleaf maple are all plentiful. Slopes are very steep but timber is valuable, so back in 1909, eight miles of railroad track were laid into the woods here. It’s hard to imagine how they did it. Further into the forest, the trees were spared because the going got too tough.

4. We admired this well-worn boardwalk across a wet section of trail. It’s made with thick planks of Western redcedar, once felled and split for cedar shakes and shingles but now left to grow tall and play its part in the great scheme that is life, here in this one particular slice of our earth.

5. Setting off.

The trail is mostly level as it traces the old railroad grade cut into the face of a steep slope. Nature proceeds unhindered here. Trees fall and rot in place, returning nourishment to the soil, with its wealth of fungal networks that in turn, nourish the plants above. Of course, some trees fall right across the trail and if they’re too big to remove, you have to climb over or under – whatever works. We were awed by the size of the fallen giants, especially two conifers that fell across the trail right next to each other. There was very little space underneath them but they seemed way too big to straddle. I handed my pack and camera to Joe and took the awkward way, crawling under the log. A pass of the packs and it was his turn. At times like these, I think, “Will this be the moment when the big earthquake we are overdue for finally happens?” The funny thing was, on the way back we noticed that someone had cut large notches in the tops of the two trees, making it practically a walk in the park to climb over them. We hadn’t studied the situation well enough on the way out, or maybe we’re just not experienced enough to know to look for those handy notches. Swinging up and over wasn’t so hard and it was much nicer than crawling across sharp rocks!

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6. The first of many trees to duck under or climb over, this one doesn’t need notches because there’s plenty of room to walk under it. The tree further down the trail can be walked around.

7. Another place I don’t want to be when the big earthquake hits. The notch is near the rock on the right; the second tree is hiding behind this one.

8. This piece of tree trunk plunged into the earth like a spear and then stayed there. I pushed and it hardly gave at all. It must have hit the ground with formidable force.

9. Sword fern shadows, a gentler side of the forest.

10. Like someone having a bad hair day, this frond on a Deer fern (Blechnum spicant) twists and turns every which way. Deer fern has two kinds of fronds – spore-bearing and sterile. The bright green sterile fronds usually grow low to the ground, like in the photo below. The spiky fertile fronds rise from the middle, standing straight up at first but contorting into wild shapes when they’re ready to release their spores. Yes, deer eat these ferns.

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12. A Pine white butterfly (Neophasia menapia) moved slowly enough for me to get a sharp image but in the end, I like this partly blurred one better. By this time I had switched to a macro lens.

13. This sculptural arrangement of roots and rock consists of at least one mature Western redcedar tree growing on an old, Western redcedar stump that grew on a large rock. To give you an idea of scale, the rock is big enough to sit on comfortably, with your feet barely touching the ground and your head two feet below the top of the stump.

14. Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) flourishes on moist rock walls. Unlike Sword fern and Deer fern, it’s not evergreen and the leaves were getting ragged. It’s not white, of course, but is fairly light in color, especially compared to evergreen ferns. I’m fond of the circular growth pattern.

15. Vine maple (Acer circinatum) prefers consistently moist environments so I rarely see it where I live. I was happy to see it growing here, even if some of the trees (technically they are large shrubs) were insect-ridden. Vine maple’s closest relatives are Japanese and Korean maples and like them, it is a graceful, delicate tree.

16. The forest is full of old trees; many of them have rotted. This mushroom, probably a Red-banded polypore (Fomitopsis pinicola) was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. Black and white emphasizes the sinuous curves.

We heard the enticing roar of Boulder Falls, then rounded a bend and climbed an incline. Feature Show Falls was in range. After all, we were hungry so we must be near the end! We had taken far longer than the other six or eight hikers we saw. There was so much to admire – moss-covered trees disappearing into the canopy, filtered sunlight picking out leaf details, late-blooming wildflowers, six kinds of ferns, a dark, hollow tree with white, dew-dotted mushrooms inside it, huge stumps with loggers’ springboard slots cut into them…and finally, the waterfall appeared through the thick foliage. The trail had narrowed and footing was precarious in places. As we picked our way carefully across rocks and roots, we glanced across the deep ravine, getting bits and pieces of the falls. Eventually we arrived at a wide opening on the side of the ravine. A conveniently placed log offered a spot to sit while we ate lunch and listened to wild streams of water tumbling down 180 feet of rock to the Boulder River below. A rough trail leads steeply down to the river but we were content that day to just sit and listen.

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16. There were no vantage points to see the whole falls, top to bottom and right to left, without descending to the riverbed. I worked with what I had. This view is through the moss and lichen-covered branches of a Bigleaf maple tree.

17. The air was cool and fresh and filled with tiny insects flying back and forth in the charged air next to the falls. Leaves fluttered from breezes let loose by the force of the water. Fine threads glinted and wavered, catching the light – they were spiderwebs, strung high over the river from tree limbs. Only the rocks were still.

18. A view through graceful Western hemlock branches.

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FURTHER AFIELD: Snow-covered Mountains and Moss-draped Trees along Route 20

Driving east from where I live you can be in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range in under a half hour. Keep going and you’re high in the rugged Cascade Mountains. Continue over the passes and you leave the mountains behind for the dry, shrub-steppe country of eastern Washington.

The road I’m talking about is Route 20, also called the North Cascades Highway. Each winter it closes near the highest point because of avalanche danger, and it doesn’t reopen until May, or even June. You can’t follow the the road all the way over the passes now, but it’s still worthwhile to drive east on Route 20 as far as possible for some mountain scenery. That’s what we decided to do on a bright, sunny day in February.

1. I took this photo through the windshield when we were far enough east (and high enough) to see snow on the roadside. We continued east to Newhalem, a tiny company town centered around the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, a series of dams supplying electricity to Seattle. The road is closed about 9 miles further up. People who live in Winthrop, on the other side of the pass, have to drive south and then west to get to Seattle in the winter, a four-hour plus trip.

2. In the distance is the Picket Range, seen from the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center in Newhalem. This section of the 789-square-mile North Cascade Mountains may not have the highest peaks, but those mountains are every bit as rugged as they look. Reaching the remote Picket Range requires a long, tough slog through steep, densely vegetated terrain just to get to the bases of the mountains. If you’re in tip-top shape and are an experienced climber, for $2050 USD you can join an 8-day alpine climbing expedition to the southern Picket Range in August. You’ll need to bring your own ice axe.

3. Zooming in on Pinnacle Peak (left, also called the Chopping Block), Crescent Creek Spires and the Rake. These peaks are so remote that the first alpine traverse, taking ten days, wasn’t accomplished until 1963. First ascents of individual peaks in the Picket Range were made from 1931 through 2004.

4. We were intrigued by the windblown, clean rock of Inspiration Peak (7900 ft) to the right.

5. Behind the viewing platform the cool, mossy forest of hemlock, alder and fir was quiet in the afternoon sun.

6. Rt. 20 follows the Skagit River down from several lakes in the North Cascades, where the river is dammed after passing the US – Canada border. Fifteen miles below Newhalem we pulled over for a closer look at the river. Here in Marblemount, a boat launch at the confluence of the Cascade and Skagit rivers makes a pleasant place to stop. Just downriver, Bald eagles congregate in December to feed on river salmon. I’ve seen more eagles out my living room window than I have along the Skagit, but maybe I wasn’t there at the right time. In any case, being near the river always refreshes one’s spirit.

7. This magnificent old Bigleaf maple tree (Acer macrophyllum) grows next to the river. It carries a heavy load of moss, ferns, lichens, fungi and is probably home to lots of insects, too. It looks like its been through the wars – half of its massive trunk is broken off and dead, and a clutch of great, heavy limbs spreads towards the sky on one side.

8. Looking up into the hairy armpits of the Bigleaf maple. The biomass of mosses, ferns and lichens on trees like this can be four times that of the tree’s leaves.

9. A close-up of the thick jowls of moss living on the old tree, along with elegant Licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza).

10. This section of dead bark had a large fungus growing on the inner bark and moss edging a piece of outer bark.

11. As the sun lowered it lit up garlands of moss that sweep all the way around the tree’s heavy limbs.

12. Red alder (Alnus rubra) trees dotted the river banks.

13. The alders were covered with different fungi in beautiful patterns resembling a map.

14. Another example of decorated bark, from the Newhalem Visitor Center. A sapsucker drilled rows of holes into the bark of this conifer tree.

15. I saw these tracks, which I believe are River otter tracks, on the sandy riverbank at Marblemount.

16. Near the alders the ground is matted with last year’s leaves and tired grass stems, a rich, decomposing brew that will nourish this year’s plants and animals.

17. The river bottom was a tapestry of soft green, gold and rust-colored rocks, and the water was clear as can be.

18. Every time you look at the river bottom it’s a little different, as ice-cold water races over the rocks on the way to the Salish Sea and the light bounces off the surface of the river, reflecting variable skies above.

19. Black and white seems to suit this roadside view of an old homestead nestled in the snowy Cascade foothills that we saw on the way home.

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EXTRA!

At the risk of destroying the illusion of paradise on Route 20, I give you this: the Marblemount Boat Launch honeybucket and a big puddle. I can’t vouch for the cleanliness of the interior.

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You can read about traversing the wild Picket Range here.

FURTHER AFIELD: In Munsterland

Munsterland is in Germany, part of the North Rhine-Westphalia region which is famous for its castles and manors. Last April we stopped here to visit friends as we drove across Germany, from Cologne to Hannover. We didn’t cycle from castle to castle (a popular regional pastime) but our friends’ home is a castle in its own right, a haven where we felt secure, well cared for and enveloped in hygge. The small town we stayed in is probably like many others in the region, but wandering through the village and past the edges of farms around it was a magical experience for us. Meeting up with someone you know who lives in the place you are passing through brings a refreshing dose of reality to a journey. For a few hours you feel less like someone tasting bits and pieces, and more like someone who is connected to the culture and nourished by the landscape.*

Now, almost a year later, the brief time spent with friends in a far-away place already feels nostalgic. You’ll see that in these photos.

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1. On the outskirts of the village.

2. The lambs and the ewe ran away from us; Easter was less than a week away.

3. One way to sheer sheep.

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4. Little Kusebach flows south, passing near the center of town. This small section of of the stream looked blissfully unmanicured to my eyes.

5. A copse rises in the distance.

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6. This is a Kleiner KohlweiƟling butterfly, native to Europe and introduced inadvertently to North American back in the 1850’s. We call them Cabbage white butterflies. The flower seems to be a willow (Salix) of some kind. Whatever their names may be, butterflies and flowers are happy things to see in the Spring.

7. It looks like a cherry or apple tree. In my mind it’s a tree deity, guarding the fields for another season.

8. Friends

9. These old buildings in the heart of the village once housed tools and machinery for a local farm.

10. Walking through the village.

11. Magnolia trees scattered missives at our feet.

12. St. Antonius Church.

13. Streets and steps throughout the town were immaculate.

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14. Birch catkins dangled over the pond.

15. The tender unfolding of Copper beech leaves was another reason to smile.

16. It’s Buche Kupfer in German.

17. Ben, Ule, Joe

18. Kusebach again, a darker version.

19. Trees leafing out and their reflections.

20. Clematis buds
21. More reflections in a pond behind a restaurant.

22. Later, the woods whizzed by in a haze of Spring green and deep umber.

23. After leaving our friends we spent a long afternoon driving past fields of mustard, tall, bare-branched trees and signs we didn’t quite understand. Eventually we reached Hannover, where we spent the next day with another good friend. Photos from that day are here.

*Another view of Munsterland from someone who lives there can be found here, at Ule’s blog: Ule Rolff, Texte und Fotografie. She is, of course, the person we visited. We’re indebted to her and Ben for making us feel so welcome.

If you need a translation, try this site – you just select your original and target languages, then cut and paste the url into the navigation bar and click “translate.”

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