FURTHER AFIELD: Southern Utah

We’re heading out on another road trip soon, this time to northern California’s Lost Coast and Redwood forests. We’ve been there before but the deserted beaches, forested mountains, and small towns are calling us back. The oversize scale of the coastal scenery and giant trees energizes us and reminds us how truly small we are, mere specks of passing dust on this great planet.

The trip is bound to generate photographic activity – I anticipate returning home with hundreds of photos because trips always produce a surfeit of images. In fact, there are dozens of decent photographs from the last road trip we took that I haven’t shown yet. In April we explored Southern Utah, another place where nature writes her stories with broad, bold strokes. I don’t know whether it’s the mind-expanding spaciousness of the landscape, the splendid variety of colors and shapes, or the spare, hard simplicity of the terrain that inspires me the most. I suppose it’s all that and more. The desert is surely a photographer’s dream.

Here’s a series of scenic views and close-ups of the high desert from the trip. Enjoy!

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1. On the Burr Trail, “…the most God-forsaken and wild looking country that was ever traveled…I never saw the poor horses pull and paw as they done today.” A pioneer wrote that in her journal in 1882. We followed a slow route of over 100 miles (161k), connecting Route 12, the Burr Trail, and Notom-Bullfrog Road. This remote desert circuit features jaw-dropping scenery and a series of dangerous, tight switchbacks dropping 800 feet (244 m) in a half-mile (0.8 km) of heart-stopping driving on a rough dirt track. We saw very few vehicles that afternoon. Deeply grateful for the privilege of traveling through some of the most extraordinary scenery in the US, we were also thankful that we didn’t get a flat tire.
2. Three juniper berries; Snow Rock State Park, Utah. We prefer less well-known parks like Snow Rock to busy Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The density of the crowds in the big-name parks makes it difficult to feel the uniqueness of these places. When you’re distracted by movement and conversations around you, it’s hard to ground yourself and allow all your senses to function freely.
3. Another view from the Burr Trail – Notom-Bullfrog Road loop. This part of the road is paved. Needless to say, there are no services and no cell phone reception for many miles.
4. An aspen leaf caught in a tangle of twigs at Capitol Reef National Park. Capitol Reef, a sprawling smorgasbord of delectable scenery, is our favorite place in southern Utah.
5. Snow Canyon SP boasts rock formations that startled us with their beauty and delighted us with their accessibility. Visitors can scramble over gentle mounds of Navaho sandstone. Though fun to walk on, the fine quartz grain surface of the sandstone is coarse to the touch, like sandpaper. In places, it looked to me like the wrinkled skin of a giant orange elephant. The white rock is also Navaho sandstone but has less iron content.
6. A view from Hidden Pinyon Trail, Snow Canyon SP.
7. Timber Creek Overlook Trail at Kolob Canyon in Zion NP. We chose to enter Zion from the north side at Kolob Canyon instead of the main entrance to the south. At a maximum 6,359′ elevation (1938m), our sea-level lungs struggled to deliver enough oxygen to our legs. We trudged up this short trail very slowly, stopping to rest on boulders where lizards slithered out of sight.
8. Weathered wooden posts and fences are a common sight in the high desert. This one was in Teasdale, Utah (population 194). We pulled over on the side of a back road when the outbuilding below, one of a cluster of weathered structures, caught our eyes. A woman walking home from the post office stopped to chat. Finding eager listeners, she spun a long yarn about the history of the place, which she had known since childhood.
9. Part of a complex built many years ago by a woman from Scandinavia who spent time in Japan, then moved here to the desert. She even constructed a small teahouse nearby and sometimes served Japanese-style tea to the neighbors. Now it’s all in ruins.
10. Noble even in its demise, this old tree, probably a cottonwood, makes its last stand near a two-lane highway in southwestern Utah.

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12. Curly grass, Snow Canyon.
13. In an aspen grove somewhere between the small towns of Torrey and Boulder.

14. A lichen-splashed rock beside a road in Torrey, Utah. Torrey, population 242, was our base for exploring Capitol Reef. Though it’s very small, it has several hotels, a few good restaurants, a terrific roadside espresso stand, and lots of rocks.
15. A view of Route 12 cutting through Capitol Reef NP, seen from the Hickman Bridge Trail.
16. A spreading cottonwood leans over a roadside creek in southwestern Utah. The smooth-surfaced boulder caught my eye, too.
17. The geological wonders of Snow Canyon.

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19. This is Thompson’s wooly milkvetch, or Wooly locoweed (Astragalus mollissimus thompsoniaen) according to someone who identified it on iNaturalist. I saw the flowers at Capitol Gorge, a narrow canyon that slices through the Waterpocket Fold, a hundred-mile-long fold in the earth’s crust that’s about 7,000 feet (2133m) higher on one side than the other. The gorge was a way to cross the giant wrinkle on the earth’s surface for pioneers traveling west.
20. Over the years, many pioneers carved their names and dates on the sides of Capitol Gorge canyon. Some of the earliest European-American settlers in the area made these marks high on the walls of the canyon as they passed through in hopes that flash floods would not obliterate the records. In the upper left of this photo, you can see one man’s attempt to draw his initials by shooting his gun into the rock.
21. Layers of volcanic ash, mud, sand, and silt deposited in swamps or lakes over 100 million years ago make up the softly contoured Bentonite hills. I photographed them from a rough dirt road in Capitol Reef’s north end. Footprints on the delicate surface can take years to disappear so there are no trails over these formations.
22. Extraordinary colors adorn a mountain of rock in Capitol Reef’s Cathedral Valley, a remote area of spectacular, cathedral-like rock forms. This photo was made closer to the main road where there are signs of civilization. After fifteen minutes or so of bone-crushing travel over a washboarded dirt road, hardly any signs of humans remain other than the road itself and the occasional cow wandering through the desert.
23. A wildflower – perhaps Desert mallow – at Snow Canyon.
24. Last year’s seeds still dangled from the trees in April at Capitol Reef.
25. To fly home we had to return to Las Vegas, Nevada, which entailed traveling over desolate, snow-covered high passes. It was a fitting way to exit a region where the landscape dwarfs human activity.

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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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ADAPTATIONS

Life as usual

isn’t.

Routines have changed and I’m evolving, shaped

by circumstance, wriggling into

new spaces, expanding into

unfamiliar realms, making it

mine,

adapting.

***

Just short of four months ago, my partner and I traveled deep into the Sonoran desert, near Arizona’s border with Mexico.  We had come to explore Organ Pipe National Monument, part of a vast desert landscape ranging through parts of California and Arizona, and Mexico.

Slicing across this desert is an international border – a political boundary, not an ecological one. The border is crossed fairly easily by plants and animals, at least while there is no wall. But people – they fight over this line in the sand. Some of them suffer deeply because of the border; many have lost their lives because of it.

The evidence of this struggle is quite apparent in the desert and the small towns, and between border conflicts and a difficult desert environment, it’s clear that adaptation is what every living being must do.

How people adapt or fail to adapt to the political and economical situation here is a complicated story that I don’t feel equipped to tell, except to say that the signs I saw – the border fence and checkpoints, the helicopter that buzzed us when we went off trail, the empty water jugs, the graves and roadside memorials – those signs of struggle were impossible to get away from. In retrospect, it’s almost as if those signs were a portent of the life-threatening change that would throw us completely off balance within hours of returning to civilization, a change that forced us to adapt beyond what we would have imagined.

But as we walked and drove through the desert we were purely in the moment. I was focused on taking photographs. Needless to say, I took a lot.*   Looking through them now, an obvious category is the flora the brilliantly adapted, tough and prickly plants of the desert that tell their own stories of adaptation.  Another group of photographs will wait for another post. Those pictures touch on the stark realities of the border and this desolate, unforgiving country. For now, the plants:

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The familiar looking Englemann’s Prickly Pear cactus (familiar because similar cacti grow in many parts of the US) is found scattered throughout the park. I love the soft green color of this cactus, but in black and white, attention is drawn to the contrast between the round shape and spiky spines, which I find compelling.

The large, multiple-stem cactus that gives the park its name is the Organ Pipe cactus. It’s more common in Mexico but inches onto the southern edge of the U. S. here in the hot Sonoran desert. This cactus and others that are rare in the U.S. are the primary reason the park land was set aside, way back in 1937.

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I’m not big on interpretive signs, preferring to keep fresh eyes and form my own take on things. Once in a while I do read them though, and a sign along the winding, scenic road through the park informs visitors that wind blowing through an Organ Pipe cactus makes a strange and beautiful sound. It was a breezy day so we tried it. Choosing a huge old specimen, we gingerly stuck our heads into the mass of spine-cloaked stems. The sound was enchanting and otherworldly – a kind of breathy, ethereal hum that is perfectly suited to the spare, quiet landscape.

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Another cactus seen more often in Mexico than America is the Senita cactus, below. It has a similar growth habit to the Organ Pipe, but the details are different. Older specimens in the second photograph show the Senita’s distinctive hairy looking tops. I was fascinated to learn that a moth has co-evolved with this cactus; both species have adapted to the environment and each other in a complex evolutionary dance. The moth larvae live on Senita cacti and eat the fruits; later, the moth pollinates the Senita’s night-blooming flowers. This cactus can grow tall, to 13 feet.

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Twenty-six species of cactus live at Organ Pipe; all are adapted to life at temperatures ranging from over 100 F to below freezing. Rainfall here is scant and unpredictable. Plants must be able to take full advantage of rainwater when it comes; storing it has proved one of the best adaptations to this environment.

Below is a typical jumble of the peculiar forms of Saguaro, Ocotillo, Senita, Cholla, Brittlebush, Palo Verde tree, and others. They all vie for space in the arid environment, making Organ Pipe National Monument essentially a lush, desert garden.

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Perhaps the most common cactus is the Saguaro, seen here in the foreground and scattering up the hillside to the left.

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Below is an example of the rare cristate mutation on a Saguaro. The cause might be frost, but no one is sure why the cactus sometimes grows in this ornate pattern. In fact, over a hundred other plants sometimes exhibit this abnormal growth pattern too, called fasciation. 

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Cacti can be seen at Organ Pipe in all stages of growth and decay. Both Organ Pipe and Saguaro cacti often begin life hidden under a desert tree such as the Palo Verde. The small tree or shrub provides just enough shelter for the cactus to get a good grip on life. Once we started looking for them, we saw many young cacti under trees and shrubs, like the Organ Pipe cactus growing out of the middle of a Palo Verde, below. You can see a shorter stem in front of the main stem.

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Below is the skeleton and peeling “skin” of a fallen giant – in this case, an Occotillo.

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The fallen Saguaro below pulled the desert floor with it when it toppled, exposing the rough rock it grew in.  Below, you can see the “skin” of a dead Saguaro and the woody structure underneath.

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This oddly beckoning skeleton is probably a Jumping Cholla cactus. Further down, you’ll see a live one.

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Like the native Tohono O’odham people, who have lived here for many generations, cacti have adapted well to desert extremes.  Shallow root systems and flexible “skins” allow cacti to quickly gulp down rain that falls as unpredictably as a cat’s meanderings.  Pale colors reflect away over-abundant light. Spines provide protection from thirsty animals, guide raindrops towards the cactus flesh, and create slender threads of shade on sweltering days. Many cacti can put their metabolism into idle mode to wait out the calendar’s rough spots.

Below, a roadside scene at Organ Pipe where Cholla cacti and Saguaros are set against the Ajo Range. On the other side of the mountains is the 4,340 square mile Tohono O’odham (‘Desert People’) reservation, the second largest in the country.

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Where there’s water, plant life adapts and changes gears.  At Quitobaquito Springs near the border, trees and a wild tangle of grasses edge a pond.

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This harsh land has a strange beauty. The image below is an Ocotillo plant with the Ajo Mountains in the background. The Ocotillo’s peculiar spindly form is an odd favorite of mine. I was introduced to the plant at Joshua Tree National Park in California. It was good to see the Ocotillo’s eccentric scribbles punctuate the landscape again in southern Arizona.

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Some Ocotillos sport striped branches that contrast with new leaves, others don’t. Another adaptation? Maybe. The small, tough leaves can appear a few days after a good rain and fall off in dry spells, the plant going dormant for years if necessary.

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This is Jumping cholla, or Chain fruit cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida). This specimen, with its balanced, formal symmetry, reminds me of Victorian decoration.

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Below is another Cholla cactus, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigloveii). Its tiny, backward hooked spines are like little velcro magnets – get anywhere near them and watch out! They will detach and seem to jump right onto you. Good luck removing them! At Joshua Tree in California I saw a discarded T shirt in a Cholla patch – picking out the spines just wasn’t worth the effort (it would have been nice if they’d packed it out).  This cactus is also known for the way its spines catch the light with a warm glow at dusk.

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We were too early to see cactus flowers, except for a few. Below, the bud of a cactus, possibly a species of Mammillaria. Many species of Mammillaria cactus grow in Mexico but only a few thrive in the US, at least in the wild. They are popular as cultivated cacti. Below the flower, a barrel cactus with last year’s fruit, well protected behind a thick ring of sharp spines.

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Below, a rare Elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) wedges its water-swollen trunk and  branches into the poor soil of a rocky hillside. I would have inhaled deeply if I’d known the tree has a wonderfully pungent fragrance, which I learned later online (no interpretive sign for that!). With all the moisture it can store, the Elephant tree can go a year without rain, but it is very susceptible to cold, which is why it’s more common across the border in Mexico. The tree’s tiny leaves arrayed on delicate branches contrast with the tough-barked, swollen trunk. The leaves’ pores open at night, another way to conserve water.

Some indigenous people who used the reddish sap as medicine cautioned that it must be kept out of sight. There seem to be layers of mystery around this species – I was drawn to the tree and I wanted to sit under it for an hour, just feeling its essence. Unfortunately, I don’t usually have that luxury when traveling. I’ll try to remember these lessons for my next trip:

  1. Read up more before you go, if possible
  2. Work in time to just sit and take it all in.

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Another intriguing desert adaptation is the relationship between the Phainopepla, a medium sized bird, and the Desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum). When the bird eats mistletoe berries while perched on the branch of a host tree, the seeds are left behind, typically in a perfect spot for future germination.  This mistletoe is a hemiparasite that grows on desert trees and shrubs. Below you can see the berries growing close up, and Desert mistletoe in a Palo Verde tree.

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I bet that’s a Phainopepla feather caught on that mistletoe branch…

Our own adaptations to changing circumstances – physical, emotional, intellectual – may be less obvious at first glance than those of the plants at Organ Pipe, but they are just as interesting. Let’s hope we as a species can be as successful in evolving with rather than against our surroundings.

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* Taking travel photographs is challenging.  Every time I travel to a new place, excitement takes over. When I get home I realize all the things I forgot to do: I should have used a different aperture, I shouldn’t have left the polarizing filter on, I should have composed more carefully, held the camera steady, checked the exposure, etc. Maybe I should tape a small sign on my camera the next time I travel that says, “Stop. Think.”  The most successful photos above are thanks to practiced eyes and the miracles of digital cameras and software, in spite of an over-excited mind. The less successful ones are lessons.

THE DRY SIDE

Dry side, wet side:

Washington’s two faces.

Lush, spare, dim, bright.

In two hours you can change sides, be

transformed.

The wet side:

Seattle techies huddle over their devices,

abundant rain permanently greens the land

and skies are often moody.

The dry side:

cattle and crops settle

into a spacious landscape of pale-hued,

open-skied desert.

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Last weekend we sped up through Snoqualmie Pass to the dry side,

alert with anticipation:

new places, open spaces.

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The Columbia River:

big hunk of water

set down among towering basalt cliffs.

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Roadside rock:

at sixty miles an hour.

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Wanapum Lake.

A dam on the Columbia River created it. Setting disagreements with damming practices aside,

it is

breathtaking.

Even the details of odd patterns in the rocks fascinate us:

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Only an hour off the Pass, and

we’re already transformed.

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Looking back north, the Vantage Bridge begins to fade.

Onward!

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The Columbia Plateau.

Sprinkled with thousands of lakes, the land

attracts water birds, the

birds attract birders,

and I am not exempt.

Great egrets, check. A pelican, too. But where are my wished for

American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt? Oh well.

The landscape is its own reward.

Late spring wildflowers

and wide open vistas:

enough.

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A delicate beauty, the Sagebrush Mariposa lily

consorts with big sage among

dry grasses.

Sun lover, it beams.

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In harsh desert light

lilies almost hide.

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Showy milkweed.

Like so many wildflowers, it’s bloom is early this year.

Ants rejoice.

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Along Lower Crab Creek, just above the Saddle Mountains.

Old fence

slowly bows

to the ground.

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Lower Crab Creek spills into wetlands, painting the dry land with new colors.

Jubilant Spring growth is softened by somber, gray-green pillows of

fragrant big sage,

with side-notes of deep orange and gold grasses

already gone to seed.

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Big sage sleeps.

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Salsify.

Yellow dandelion-like flower yesterday,

fuzzball of feathered parachutes today.

Fresh breeze makes quick work of the seeds.

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When the wind is too strong for photography, and the light is too harsh

(as it was last weekend in the desert),

take your pictures anyway.

Go with it.

Let the grasses blur and shimmer as they will,

press the shutter,

and breathe deeply.

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Saddle Mountains.

Their furrowed slope eases down into sage and grass,

through ancient lands shaped by fire and flood.

Look hard  –

see the lilies dotting the field;

they’re blooming in the middle of the old sage, too.

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If you come back, it will still be good here.

This sparse place minds its business,

sucks down what rain it can,

bakes in the sunlight. It sings

the old, high-pitched,

buzzsong

of desert silence.

ALTERNATING CURRENT: the GRAND and the DIMINUTIVE

Grand and diminutive,

vast and intimate – these are

my alternating currents.

Five days in the Sonoran desert

allowed me to exercise

my predilection

for absorption in the

distant and near.

 

Sunrise, Sulphur Springs Valley, Arizona :

Weed seeds by the San Pedro River:

 Desert grass in winter:

 

Desert grasses, distant mountains; Cochise, Arizona:

Dried flower heads in the desert:

Going to seed in the desert:

 

The Dragoon Mountains:

An unidentified flower at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix:

Roadside grasses and the Chiricahuas:

Soaptree yucca (Yucca elata) and power plant, Cochise, Arizona:

Sulphur Springs Valley from the Chiricahua Mountains:

Mesquite with granite outcrops at the Amerind Museum in Dragoon, Arizona:

Desert plants:

 

Evening at Whitewater Draw, Arizona:

The southeastern corner of Arizona is a fascinating mix of varied desert habitats, subtle colors, wide open spaces and amazing mountains. For our trip, we flew down to Phoenix, where we picked up a rental car and drove to Tucson. At the lively Union Public House, we enjoyed a wonderful evening with old friends from back east who just happened to be in Tucson that week. The next morning we drove southeast along Route 10 to the Sulphur Springs Valley, where gravel and dirt roads led us the final miles to our little hand-built adobe cottage in Cochise, hard by the Dragoon Mountains. Each day we explored the valley and the mountains on either side of it. I will post more photos soon!

 

 

 

 

Desert

About 125 miles east of L.A.,  a harsh but delicate desert land has been preserved as a national park. It’s called Joshua Tree, after the odd, tree-like yuccas that grow there.

Rock, wood, leaf, spine, flower, lizard, vulture –

the adaptations of form and function to place

seem more than one can begin to understand.

On my first day at Joshua Tree I explored the northern end of the park.

The next day I traced the main road – all 60-odd miles of it, to the southern entrance.

It was a slow journey of many stops, and as I neared the park’s southern border I was hot, thirsty and hungry.

More important, water and gas were running low.

There are no stores or gas stations in the sprawling park, so I left in search of gas, water and food.

And then re-entered.

Heading back north, I drove the long, sloping and winding two lane road with one eye – OK, often two eyes – out for the subtle colors and striking shapes I had quickly come to associate with Joshua Tree.

I stopped frequently.

I took photographs.

Eyes.

Open.

Wide.

Pulling over and stepping down a well worn, boulder-strew path sheltered by gnarled branches felt like climbing straight into a fairy tale. My gaze switched back and forth between the big picture – those fantastic rocks, the distant vistas, the big trees – and the close at hand – a lizard disappearing into shadow, a barb on a cactus, sunlight playing on flower petals.

The strange Smoke Tree (Dalea spinosa), whose twigs can photosynthesize (!) made a soft haze of palest gray green from afar. It leafs out only for a few weeks of the year.

And the pretty Desert Bluebells (Phaecelia campanularia)  was difficult to photograph in the blazing, harsh sunlight, but I couldn’t resist that blue!

Twisted textures of ancient oak bark

invited lingering.

A cactus, warmed by late day sunlight:

Opuntia basilaris.

The name’s rhythm tripping a staccato

ping, ping, ping  –

like the tiny barbs that march

across its surface.

 

Everywhere, boulders were improbably piled and balanced on ancient weathered rock.

Another Opuntia cactus glowed cool blue-green in the shadows.  Named O. englemannii, after German immigrant George Englemann, a medical doctor who explored America’s western flora, its fruit was eaten by indigenous people. But the tiny spines on the fruits, called glochids, have to be removed first!  This attractive cactus was brought to Africa as an ornamental and is now a noxious weed in Kenya and South Africa.

It’s all about place, and geography!  What defines and integrates into one place may be a poor guest in another place.

 

Barker Dam, constructed over a hundred years ago by ranchers, beckoned. I will have to return another time to see the Bighorn Sheep that come here, and I didn’t see the petroglyphs either. But I was well satisfied by the magic.

There was just enough moisture

for willows.

Catkins gathered sunlight,

their glow drawing me from across the pond.

A little mud on my shoes? No problem!

 

The rocks were painted with sun-glow

as the sun slowly fell away

behind a ledge.

Tree gods

perched at the edges

of the circle of stones,

tying water

to sky.

 

Plunging sun

moved the colors around,

creating a new palette every few minutes.

And behind me,

a full moon.

Subtle light,

Gentle simplicity.

Satisfied and full of the impressions of the day,

I head back to the car

and out of the park.

The next morning I had to leave…

but there’s always another trip.

Desert Spring, Take Two

My first day at Joshua Tree National Park left me eager to go back and see more. I had a better idea of the lay of the land so I knew what I wanted to see but I would still leave plenty of time for serendipity. (Photographs from Day One are here).

It was Saturday, and the local Farmers Market was in town. But first I wanted to photograph the Jimson Weed (Datura) blooming beside an outbuilding in my host’s yard. It was so pretty in the morning sun, living up to one name – Angel’s Trumpet. But if I ate it I would likely experience another name for it – Devil’s Apple!

Joshau Tree may be a small town but the Farmers Market is choice. True to their reputation, the California-grown vegetables looked bigger than life and super fresh. Too bad I couldn’t bring some home with me, but they wouldn’t have survived the heat of the car.

 

The desert beckoned…

Desert Sand Verbena, Abronia villosa, a common flower on the sandy ground near the road.

The park’s northwestern side, where I entered, is Mojave desert habitat – Joshua trees, junipers, yuccas, cacti, and spectacular boulder formations dot the rolling landscape.  As you head south through the park along the two lane road, over the course of 60 miles the habitat gradually morphs into Colorado desert. With its lower elevations, it’s a spare-looking  landscape dotted with creosote bush and highly adapted plants like the spindly Ocotillo.

I wanted to see both habitats so I planned to spend the day slowly making my way south, returning on the same route, with a side trip to Barker Dam if I had the time.

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A tough Pinyon pine casts shadows over the sensuous monzogranite rocks. The crazy rock shapes are the result of millions of years of slow erosion.  Weather works its magic on old trees in the desert, too:

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Everywhere, flowers bloom against a backdrop of the skeletal remains of trees that spread pale, twisted branches  across the sandy ground. This is a type of Phacelia – its flowers bloom from tightly curled cymes.

This magnificent oak commands the landscape – the cars give you an idea of its size.

Deep blue desert skies behind the doughy shapes of boulder piles kept drawing me off the road. This rock has an inclusion of different rocks running right through it, allowing enough water to be retained in the crevass to allow wildflowers to take hold.

Another crevasse provided just enough water to grow a yucca, at least for awhile. Some rock faces are bright with assorted lichens.

It’s a very spare landscape, but life finds toeholds, and flourishes.

About half way through the park, an extensive patch of Jumping Cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia fulgida) draws the eye. Not only is it covered with spines, but each spine is covered with tiny barbs, making it very painful and difficult to remove. I saw a sweatshirt abandoned on a fence near the Cholla Garden – it was bunched up into a ball from a close encounter with one of these pretty but dangerous cacti.

Nearby, a bee worked its magic on a Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) flower.

Desert Bells (Phacelia campanularia) graced a dry ditch near the road.  (For the botanically inclined, notice the tightly curled cymes again, with bell-like flowers arising off them – diagnostic of the Phacelias).

The road had dropped down a series of long hills, bringing me to the Colorado desert habitat.   The boulders were mostly gone, as were the Joshua trees.  Now,  the Ocotillo’s (Fouquieria splendens)  spindly branches swaying in the desert breeze were the only large feature in the landscape, other than the distant mountains ranges. It’s brilliant red flowers are hummingbird magnets – how strange it was to see a hummer out here in this harsh environment. (Wish I could have reacted in time to photograph it!)

The road through the park has no services (and often, no cell phone reception).  I was running low on gas and water, and there were many miles ahead of me. The single ranger station at the south end of the park was a godsend – I pulled over, replenished my dwindling water supply, and asked where the nearest gas and food were. It was just about 5 miles out of the park – a truck stop, called Chiriaco Summit. The promise of gas, food and even a Foster’s Freeze (a local ice cream fav) sounded really, really good at this point!

After gassing up and standing in line for a fabulous thick chocolate milkshake, I wandered next door to a courtyard holding a shrine – an unexpected oasis. And strangely enough, a few steps further down there was an old airport. Built for General George Patton, it is now the General George Patton Museum.

So if you’re ever traveling between southern California and Arizona on Highway 10, Chiriaco Summit is the place to rest.

 

 

Speaking of rest, I think this is enough for one entry. Soon I will post more from Joshua Tree, including a lovely full moon that rose over the desert.

 

 

 

 

 

DESERT TRIP

It’s been two weeks since my short but intense trip to Joshua Tree National Park, a desert reserve a few hours east of L.A. (or if you’re really unlucky, 4 and a half grueling hours from L.A.).

The California desert is about as far away, climate-wise, as you can get from where I live.  If you only have a few days and a limited budget, it’s a welcome, dramatic change of scenery. And it’s only a quick plane ride to L.A. followed by that (rather nasty) drive.

I was lucky with the weather on the flight south – skies were clear and I was treated to an iconic West coast punctuation: major mountains of the Cascade Range. First up was Mt. Rainer, our lovely, clear day companion, then Mt. St. Helens, the rascal volcano, followed by Oregon’s severely sculpted Mt. Hood, and many more.  Geological drama! I love it. (phone photos below are Mt. Rainer & Mt. Hood)

 

Eventually, L.A. sprawl took over. After landing I made my way to the rental car counter. I had brilliantly secured my GPS in the very bottom of my bag, so I rummaged around and pulled it out.  Touching “CA” for state, and then typing in my destination – “Joshua Tree” – I was ready to roll.

Quickly the drive became tedious; at only 2:30 in the afternoon it was too early for rush hour, but it was stop and go traffic with nothing to look at but ugly walls and suburban malls.

After a few hours of that I HAD to stop!  The choices were limited but I noticed a sign for In ‘n’ Out Burger. That rang a vague bell. It would be fast. I went for it.

Pulling off the freeway, I found myself at not just any In ‘n’ Out Burger joint, but at one sharing a lot with – are you ready? – the In ‘n’ Out Burger University!   How cool is that?  I caught the sign reflected in my windshield, California palm trees included free of charge.

And the In ‘n’ Out University! How irresistible!  Gotta get a shot of that.  It turns out that the original In ‘n’ Out was just down the street.  That’s my order sitting on top of the car…

Back on the road, burger in my lap, I suffered through more traffic.  But it was made bearable by a fabulous, crunchy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside burger.

Traffic finally improved as I came to a narrow section of highway between mountain ranges, where the wind whipping through the pass has prompted the building of innumerable wind turbines.  For $35.00 you can treat yourself to a windmill tour of these monsters and learn all about them. Amazing, huh?  But I had other ideas…

By the time I cruised into Joshua Tree on scenic Rt. 62, the sun was setting behind the mountains.

I grabbed a bite to eat at a Mexican restaurant in town and found my airbnb, a low slung home on a dirt road a few miles from the park entrance.

OK, that’s not the airbnb, it’s one of several outbuildings on the property. I like those simple structures.

And I’m not a fan of angels but this one, secured to the fence that surrounds the property, was pretty photogenic, I thought:

Not to mention that outdoor tub, seen in an earlier post. Altogether it looked like a decent location, and after exchanging pleasantries and discussing breakfast with my host, and I collapsed into a clean, firm bed.

Indoors.

The next morning I was eager to get into the park but first, my host took me on a quick walk around the property – her cacti were just beginning to flower:

A big Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) plant bloomed next to the shack. This is the plant indigenous people used medicinally and ceremoniously to contact dream helpers.

On to the park, after a quick stop at the local gas and grocery store for snacks and water.

Joshua Tree National Park is a large desert basin that encompasses both Mojave Desert terrain and the hotter Colorado, or Sonoran Desert lands. I entered on the northern side and spent my first day exploring the Mojave. What struck me most powerfully were two things: the Joshua Trees and great piles of monolithic rocks.

The gritty, dry surface of the rocks makes them ideal for climbing.

Joshua Trees are not trees – they’re overgrown yuccas with deep roots and trunk-like, fibrous stems. Some live hundreds of years.

In spring, they bloom:

Wildflowers at Joshua Tree are scattered about and best seen while walking amongst the rocks. This tiny Wooly daisy is easy to step on; the pretty desert dandelion is taller – enough to sway in the slight breeze, but I put a stop to that!

Flowers can blend into the arid landscape, but a closer inspection often reveals intense color. Desert globemallow:

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A pretty red flower blooming on a cactus was reason enough to climb up for a closer look…I climbed up,

…and found the gorgeous Claret cup cactus, Echinocereus triglochidiatus.  (Echino- means prickly or spiny, like the Echinoderms, or Sea urchins).

Another cactus, which is more common in the southern part of Joshua Tree, is the very photogenic Teddy Bear Cholla, Opuntia bigloveii.

There’s my car in the distance, on the main road through Joshua Tree. The rocks were really fun to clamber around on – you can see that rough texture – very grippy!

Off in the distance, a snow-capped mountain made me think about climate extremes. Here in the desert, annual rainfall averages 4.5 inches/yr. Where I live it averages about 37 inches/yr. It must be cold up on that mountain, but it was pretty hot in the sunny dessert, even in March.

On the way out there were more crazy-beautiful rock formations. This one had me thinking of dough, or potatoes :

 

 

I drove back into town for a break from the sun, picked up a brochure about the area, and learned that only a few miles away there was a vast sculpture installation. It’s the work of artist Noah Purifoy, who died at his home out here from a fire in 2001.

It definitely sounded like something I would like. I set my GPS for the coordinates of two named roads near where the installation was supposed to be. Around and around I drove on dirt roads in the desert, until I finally came upon this sign:

Turning down the dirt road, I located the site, and spent the next two hours spellbound by this man’s work – but that’s a story for another time!

Well OK, just one:

After a dinner in town I saw this on the way home: the full moon rising over the desert: a fitting end to the day.

Beyond

This week’s Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge is “Beyond”.

In the fall of 1934, a young Californian turned his back on city life and set out into the wilderness. As he traveled he wrote vivid letters to family and friends,  and carved block prints of his surroundings, mailing them whenever he crossed paths with a post office. Sometimes he sold his prints for supply money.  A profound restlessness led him to explore deeper and deeper into the wild. In the Sierra Nevada he abandoned himself to the “utterly, wildly, tumultuously effervescently joyful” mountain scenery, and in Navaho country he learned to speak the language and sing the songs of people who had lived on that land for many generations.  Though he appreciated the stimulation of Los Angeles and San Francisco, he chose the hardships of traveling alone in the wilderness over the intellectual company of his  city friends. A true mystic, he often sensed “the brink of things”.  Every day contained surprises as he reveled in magnificent wastelands, unnamed canyons and long summer days in the high country with no people in sight.

His final trip, at the age of 20, was into the deeply wild, desert high country of southern Utah. He found his way into the small town of Escalante by trekking over the mountains without a trail. He saw a movie in town and shared venison with locals around a fire. He wrote that riding into the red rock country was like coming home again.

The last letter anyone received from him was dated Nov. 11, 1934 . He spoke of dwarf, twisted pines and towering orange yellow cliffs, a rough country of sage and brush and canyons so steep his burros could hardly stay, lest they all tumble. He wrote of strange tinges of unreality on what seemed like “the rim of the world.”  And he warned that there would be a gap of months between letters, because  “I am exploring southward to the Colorado, where no one lives.”

He was never heard from again. The gap was permanent, but Everett’s dream of going beyond lives on.

For close to eighty years people have tried to find him but every clue turns down a blind alley. He leaves us letters and prints; many are collected in a small, wondrous book by W.L. Rusho,  titled Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, 1983, Gibbs Smith, Inc.

Finding Everett Ruess by David Roberts, Broadway, 2012, is a newer biography of Ruess.
Ruess truly went beyond during his short life, and though many have tried to find some physical trace of him, he has moved beyond us.  But he is not beyond us in spirit.

These photos were taken in the general area where Ruess was last seen. Please forgive the poor quality – these are scans of old snapshots taken with a small camera when I visited southern Utah. If you have a chance to go there, do. If you have been there, you must know of the deep spiritual release that Everett Ruess found in this extraordinary country.

More about Ruess:

http://everettruess.net/about.html

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The WordPress Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/weekly-photo-challenge-beyond/