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The Road to Sightings

The extensive winter rains in Southern California created perfect conditions for a superbloom out in the desert. While there are low-lying beds of yellow and violet flowers scattered on the desert floor, I was attracted to different desert plants. There was the tall spindly ocotillo in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the blooming white flower of the Joshua tree found in Joshua Tree National Park and the Beavertail Cactus found in both locations. These photos were taken from April 7-9th, 2023 and the conditions may still be ripe this weekend. You can check the California Wildflower Report and park website for the current conditions. 

This trip to the Death Valley sand dunes reminded me of a major plot-line in the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia.

In order to capture the WW1 Turkish seaport stronghold of Aqaba. Lawrence derived a solution to lead a 600-mile camel trek through the Al-Al-Nafud desert to attack from behind instead of engaging in a seaside attack of the well defended stronghold.

Photographing the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley posed a similar dilemma. Entering the dunes from the main parking lot meant encountering hoards of visitors to the area. Avoiding hikers swarming the dunes with their enduring trails of footsteps would also require an alternate approach through the desert.

The solution was to attack the dunes from behind. Starting at Old Stovepipe Wells I trekked the four miles in to avoid signs of human life as much as possible. Not quite the 600-mile expedition of Lawrence, however he also had camels!

Fighting with my Lawrence of Arabia hallucinations, the goal of this mid-day march was to be in the heart of the dunes to photograph the magical sunset light.

The warmer light of the setting sun created pronounced shadows accentuating the dips and curves of the dunes.

When the last rays of light fades the magic disappeared, its time for the four-mile return march requiring a headlamp and Google maps to find my way back to the Old Stovepipe Wells. 

Off to the bar for a proper British gin and tonic!

When the fog rolls in, the beauty and mystery begin.

In my previous post I showed views from above the fog, and now I have photos of coastal fog shot in Northern California from Point Reyes up to Arched Rock Beach to share.

The fog adds beauty and mystery to this grove of Monterey cypress located at Pierce Point Ranch.

These trees grow on the northern end of the road of Point Reyes National Seashore, and they need to be experienced in heavy fog. Once the fog cleared even a bit the magic fades.  

Down at Point Reyes Beach South there was a mix of everything from sea spray clouds in the sky and a fog bank rolling in. 

Northern California surfers are a hardy bunch Salmon Creek State Park who dont seem to mind the cold and having a limited vision of the waves as long as they are breaking strong enough to get a ride. When the waves flatten, it is time to head home for a warm shower. 

The fog was so thick at Archer Rock Overlook that I would recommend grounding the seagulls flying around, but they didnt seem to mind.  

The following morning the fog had cleared, and the coast was not the same. 

Frequent flyers and Joni Mitchel are used to seeing clouds from both sides, but for me being above the clouds is still a rare and occasionally beautiful experience.

While visiting the Buffalo National River in northeastern Arkansas I discovered that early morning fog filled the river valley. Above the fog in the surrounding hills was the glorious sight of early morning sun-rays skimming the cloud tops. 

The clouds worked their way through the valley and surrounded the higher tree-covered hill like magic fingers. 

The final image is from the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop near Green River, WY. As expected, this is a great place to view wild horses as well as pronghorn, elk, deer, rabbits, coyotes, hawks, eagles and sage-grouse. 

Most important for this post, there were also early morning fog filling in the buttes. It was very cold (that is frost on the ground) and very beautiful.

Experiencing clouds from the top side is a treat. Next, I will explore being inside the cloud, also know as fog.

I discovered one of my favorite places in the Southwest though a spontaneous comment by my photo buddy Josh Mitchell. After picking him up in San Diego we headed east on one of our joint photo adventures and Josh turned to me and revealed we were kinda close to Mexico and there was this lonesome road from Gila Bend, AZ all the way down to the border into Mexico - did I want to go? This was way back in those ancient times when the ultimate guide to the area was the AAA Indian Country Guide Map. Sure enough there was a road to the border and down into the little coastal town of Puerto Penasco also known as Rocky Point, on the northern edge of the Gulf of California. 

This road is through one of the most lonesome desert regions so empty the Air Force uses a section as a live fire and bombing range! This is followed by Ajo and Why, towns as small as their names, and just beyond I discovered the hidden gem of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Like most people heading through the park we were on a mission to make it as fast as possible down to Baja. Unlike most I noticed we were driving through fields of backlit saguaro cactus with hillsides as a background. I later learned these saguaro are much older and taller than the ones you can see in Saguaro National Park on the east and westside of Tucson, AZ. These cactus are in a flatter area and it is difficult to get a similar background to provide backlighting on the needles. If you really want great photos of the classic western icon saguaro cactus - Organ Pipe is the place to go.

Josh and I had our Mexico experience drinking margaritas while eating ceviche. Then we blasted back through the park on other adventures. I logged it into my memory bank to return one day. We returned years later in a car and ended up in a cheap motel in Ajo, but recently I returned in a more stylish and convenient way in my adventure van using this as a combination photo and camping vehicle.

This trip was with another friend Glen Allison who was hot on learning to shoot landscape astro photography and Organ Pipe was a prime winter location. The idea is to find an inspiring location while including a nighttime sky of stars or the Milky Way galaxy. We spent much of the day scouting for the best pair of cactus on the Ajo Mountain Drive with a background looking north including the Polaris star. We returned not once - but twice to capture the scene with the swirling stars.

Glen was on a mission to master this nighttime shooting, but I couldn't resist all of the other beauty that I was seeing including this set of saguaro cactus adjacent to our nighttime shooting location. The puffy white clouds were great for this sunset shot but it meant the clouds obscured our star field later in the evening. 

After double checking every other cactus on the drive we returned to our original star swirl location and I still couldn't resist shooting the sunset behind  the same cacti pair.

There are actually fewer organ pipe cactus than saguaro cactus in the park, but the saguaro already have their own park. This is the northern extreme of the organ pipes range and it is the only place in the US to view large stands of the species. I happen to be attracted to cactus that are in their decaying state and here is a dead organ pipe in between two young saguaros. 

The beauty of having a small adventure van is the ability to sleep in the park campground and easily drive off and go in the morning to use it as a shooting platform. The campground in the Monument has parking spaces nestled in between a healthy collection of cacti. Right behind our campsite was this organ pipe that looked increadable lit using my van's tail lights. 

I have yet to return to Rocky Point, yet I continue to be drawn to the beauty of Organ Pipe. Many people never make it down here because it is so far away from other parks. Being on the border also means you will see many US Border Patrol agents. You may also have an opportunity to view the border wall up close. Depending on your viewpoint this is either a big beautiful wall or an environmental scar across the desert. You can even add-on a quick trip down to Mexico while now viewing the route on your smartphone using Google maps. 

I started with the basics of shooting, developing and printing black and white photos. As I progressed working for newspapers and publication at first, they all printed black and white images as well. At this time, I was a purist even going as far as filing out my negative carrier to create a black border around my frame in order to "prove" that the image wasn't cropped. You can see an example in my Freeway series. 

This all changed when I was hired by the SW Florida Gulfshore Life magazine that ran multiple features in color every month. Fortunately, the basic skills of composing and framing in black and white served me well during the transition. I would even go as far as saying that being a good black and white shooter is an essential foundation to being a good color shooter.

When I had B&W film in my camera I thought in B&W and switched to looking for color when I had Kodachrome in my camera. There was a learning curve, the exposure was more precise and it took longer for the Polaroid test shots to develop. The next change was digital. You no longer needed to decide what film to choose. The sensor captured a full color image, and I essentially became a color shooter. I even loved images that had minimal color as seen in my White Sands series.

I was thinking in color when I shot this Death Valley National Park sand dune series and they remained as color images through the entire processing phase. But something wasn't working, the color became a distraction, and as I experimented with options the shapes and textures the B&W versions became more appealing. The color seemed to get in the way of viewing the light, shadows and forms of the shifting sand.

The wind carved waves of sand into futuristic architectural constructions and revealed an endless range of sculptural shapes to discover. I was endlessly surprised. As I climbed the dunes to capture the overview image on top, I discovered the ripples with the blowing sand on the edge of the ridgeline. I needed to shoot it first before marring the pattern with my footsteps.

Climbing the dunes forced me to give up control of my view and I needed to be open to the discovery of highlights and shadows falling in ways that I would never plan, but just seemed to work.

The panorama from a morning's sunrise at Zabriskie Point also won me over in black and white over the original color capture. 

When I'm out shooting with my friend Josh Mitchell he is constantly changing the look of his camera's preview image by altering the color temperature settings or shifting it to B&W so that he can recall how he felt as he was shooting. 

I was a color purist and always left my setting to respond that same way as daylight color film, but now my eyes have opened to the beauty of black and white again and I may need to return to my B&W roots. In this case it just seemed to work.

On a more recent trip to Death Valley color returned. which do you prefer? 

After finding the perfect Joshua Tree, Glen and I focused on a set of rocks that we discovered near the Jumbo Rocks campground. It turns out that this was the same area where I visited in a snow blizzard in 2005 where I somehow managed to find this rock and juniper tree pair.  

Over the years I've tried to find this location on my own without success, but this time I decided to ask a ranger and was informed that the location is known as "Penguin Rock." I personally don't see a penguin, but I love the location and decided to revisit the site after dark, but as the moon was rising.

Shooting involved a scramble up a hill with some minor rock climbing and I still don't know how I managed to find the location in the blinding snow, but the scene is worth revisiting again and again in different weather and lighting circumstances.

After witnessing the moonrise on my penguin rock and juniper tree, I ran over to join Glen down the road to shoot the stars behind a great stack of rocks that we found. When I arrived the moon was still hidden behind the hill and we shot until my second moonrise. We were close to the campground and the rocks are lit by campfire lights and passing cars. The arcs in the sky are the stars streaking from the rotation of the earth and the laser-like streaks are from passing airplanes.

This nighttime shooting is really better suited for the summertime where the temperature would be 80 degrees and we could be in our camp chairs sipping beer as we monitor our one hour exposure period, but fortunately we have the travel van and we start our shot sequence and run back into the warm van to drink wine and make dinner and check to see if the exposure sequence worked or not. This evening the moonrise was a surprise, so my star trails are shorter and I didn't use the frames where the moon is blasting into the lens. 

A big thanks to Glen Allison for getting me started on shooting what is called landscape astrophotography. There are many purists who make a science out of their shooting of stars and galaxies while I'm enjoying stumbling around breaking the rules and making interesting images. There's more to come from one of my favorite places, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. 

This photo series are from a trip out to Joshua National Park with my friend Glen Allison who is excited about learning real landscape astrophotography and I'm more interested in getting out in the desert and seeing what happens when you pull your camera out after dark instead of putting it away. 

While he is concentrating on getting everything right for after dark, I can't help shooting during the traditional magic hour of sunset. Glen created his version of the Joshua tree including the spiral around the North star.  My photo from the same location simply focuses on the tree.

I'm still learning about this multiple exposure thing and I didn't have my camera set on bulb and my full series didn't fire. The fun part is working with a new set of light inputs. In this shot there is the setting sun on the horizon on the left, the moon creating tree shadows and passing car headlights lighting up the Joshua Tree. It creates this wonderful randomness of lighting effects with odd star streaks thrown in for fun. 

I shot a backlit version of the sunset as well, but this backlit moonrise shot was more interesting because it allowed for the inclusion of car headlight and taillight streaks with headlight lighting of the tree.

Glen and I spent much of the day teaching for the perfect Joshua Tree, but adjacent to this tree was on of my favorite distressed trees. This one also looked good backlit on my iPhone test shot and with some added headlight light painting and car light trails it became an interesting coda to the evening.

Night two in Joshua Tree up next followed by catching up on posting my latest six months of travel shooting. Much more to follow.