Weekly Tramp Blog

  • Lush Desert – Anza Borrrego Desert State Park

    The wet winter of 2016-2017 was one of those that wildflower lovers long for. In California, when they come, the show is in the desert. Features on the CBS Evening News and NPR from Anza Borrego Desert State Park confirmed that the display was epic. Friends who had gone there in prior wet years returned with enthusiastic reports of jaw-dropping sights. I was not going to miss out this time.

    I found an airbnb in Julian, only a one-hour drive from Borrego Springs, but as different as a landscape can be. At an elevation of 4,226 feet, Julian sits at the crest of the Cuyamaca Mountains that drain all the moisture from east bound storm clouds leaving little for Anza Borrego and the desert beyond. 


    Even on my midweek visit, Borrego Springs, the town in the middle of the 600,000-acre park, was packed. I wanted to get guidance at the visitor center, but so did everyone else. I had to park a half-mile away. The repeated advice they gave was to drive a “standard” loop road around town. Sure enough, the most gaudy display I saw was right by the side Henderson Canyon Road. 


    Here are a few shots from that spot. It was lovely indeed, but such a vast park beckons a visitor to quieter corners. So, I ventured out, but a park this size is a feast that can only be weakly sampled on a three-day visit. In my next few posts, I will share some images of simpler beauty away from the busy loop road.  

    Happening By

    In my last post, I mentioned that the main key to getting a good photograph is just being out there and having your camera with you. This photo is a perfect example.

    I was on the road early one morning bound for an Outdoor Writers Association of California conference. On the stretch of Interstate 680 between Benicia and Fairfield, I looked to my right and saw a lovely convergence of sunrise, wetland, and lonely farm buildings that called to me. The hardest part was getting off the busy stretch of highway and onto the frontage road.

    This photo is so peaceful. It takes my blood pressure down twenty points, but right behind me the din of the crowded freeway was deafening. I suppose that is both the beauty and danger of photography. National Geographic and beautiful nature photography select the world’s beauty allowing us to tell ourselves that everything is just fine.

    Maybe so, but nevertheless, I love the beauty.

    Being There

    Many years ago, I decided to nurture my basic interest in photography with a concerted effort to improve. After decades of reading and field seminars, my pictures have gotten better. Yet while I truly enjoy photography, in the end, it is one among a handful of avocations that I pursue only now and then…when I feel like it.

    However hard a person works to become a better photographer, I still contend that the number one requirement for taking good photographs is simply being there (with a camera, of course). Often, when someone compliments me on a scenic photo, I respond with the comment, “In that spot, a chimpanzee could have taken a lovely picture.” And it’s true.

    Never has that fact been more fully and unbelievably verified than in this photograph.

    Our solar eclipse sojourn last August included a visit to Steens Mountain, a curious and isolated 9,738-foot peak in southeast Oregon’s high desert country. We were perhaps a third of the way along the 52-mile dirt road that traverses the mountain when we stopped at an overlook. Kiger Gorge is one of several classic U-shaped glacial valleys that descends the slopes of Steens Mountain. Even a view hampered by smoke from summer wildfires couldn’t diminish the immensity of the setting. The earth fell instantly and steeply away. The lip of the cirque was a crisp edge to a very deep and very broad valley cut by the long gone river of ice.

    As I scampered along the edge of the gorge with my camera, I looked to my left. “What the heck…?” A blond woman wearing a loose-fitting, full length, shiny bright fuchsia windswept taffeta dress stood on the edge of the cirque gazing down the valley. Well, of course. Happens all the time.

    The amazing opportunity that such a juxtaposition presented trumped my usual shyness in such situations. Over I went. And while I did talk to her and her partner about taking her picture there, I took this one before I spoke to them. It is candid and not posed.

    A short while later on the Steens Mountain road, we stopped to help the couple who were standing beside their disabled vehicle (a fancy high-clearance custom vehicle that looked like a cross between a Hummer and an RV). A transmission fluid leak couldn’t be stopped. Only our cell phone had service in this empty landscape. They called a tow truck in Burns, two and a half hours away. It was the young woman’s 40th birthday.

    It was an adventurous day with a valuable photography lesson: When in the middle of nowhere, find a lovely woman wearing a full length fuchsia dress.

    Resurrecting the Tramp

    Yes, I know the middle sun is larger

    Had I named this blog “Annual Tramp,” I would still not have met the time frame of the title. But that was then, and this is now.

    Let me begin the resuscitation with an event that was on all our minds last summer, the total solar eclipse. A good friend approached me about joining him on a road trip to a hidden canyon in northern Nevada. The canyon is just below the path of the total eclipse, so it was natural to shape our itinerary to include it. Years ago, dear friends who travel the world to view total solar eclipses emphatically told me that before I leave this earth, I must be sure to see one. I never forgot.

    Our route north took us through Alturas where we snagged Highway 395. A couple miles before the Oregon border, we stopped at Stringer’s Orchard Distillery and bought some “craft” gin that would fuel the evenings ahead. By the time we got to John Day, eclipse hubbub was all around. The town buzzed and every ball field and vacant lot was partitioned with stakes and police tape into crisp rows of campsites. My companion, an avid maphead, had identified a specific remote location north of John Day, but when we got there, other eclipse viewers had beaten us to the punch. A bit farther north, several miles up a Forest Service road, we claimed a hilltop site with a sweeping view. Perfect.

    On much of our trip, the sky was murky with fire smoke, but eclipse morning dawned crystalline. Having done some eclipse photography homework, we set up our equipment, then sat and waited. Every source I consulted about photographing an eclipse finished with the same advice: don’t let your photography distract you from the magic of the event. And that is a danger. While the eclipse would last for about four hours, totality would be just over two minutes.

    As the remaining slice of sun thinned toward totality, the air chilled. Sunsets have edges – shafts of light here, shadows there – but this was an eerie uniform dusk that evenly dimmed the hundreds of square miles we could see. Going, going, gone. People on our hilltop gasped and called out, and I felt a stirring I checked with a deep swallow and several rapid blinks. Overhead, an astounding jewel radiated needles of pure white light alone in the near total darkness.

    Not even the seven-mile long string of cars waiting to get through the lone stop sign in Long Creek could tarnish the day. The friends who advised me to be sure to see a total solar eclipse were right.

    Junipero Serra Peak

    M-Hunter LiggettA recent day adventure took me back to a special place I hadn’t visited since 2005. Back then, I went there at the insistence of a friend who said the wildflower display there was over the top. This photo confirms his assessment. Once I saw it, I became an evangelist luring anyone who would listen to come see if the scene lived up to my wild claims. No one was disappointed.

    Summit Mdw Tele View-2It is the Big Sur coastline that puts the Santa Lucia Range on the marquee, but I find most trails on the coast side a bit too confining. I feel as though I am walking between skyscrapers in San Francisco’s Financial District; walled in with a narrow sliver of sky overhead. Hidden on the other side of the Santa Lucias is a wide valley that nearly shames the Garden of Eden.

    This past January, I came with my eye on Junipero Serra Peak, at 5,856′, the highest peak in the Santa Lucia Range, but it was the long valley I rediscovered that stole the show.

    The walk up Junipero Serra Peak is twelve miles round trip, and the six-mile walk to the summit climbs 4,000′ feet on a trail shrouded with flesh-tearing chaparral. I was beat when I returned to the car. Of course, with each step up the view grew more spectacular, until finally at the summit, huge stretches of the Pacific and the Santa Lucia Range unfolded beneath me. But my thoughts never left the valley below.

    Meadow 2 Oaks-10-2Like much of the Coast Range, the Santa Lucia’s are steeply corrugated and very rough. But this green valley parted the mountains with a wide twelve-mile long expanse dotted with valley oaks. Every spot was an ideal movie location some idyllic country picnic.

    If the El Niño predictions come true after four years of drought, I am hopeful for a repeat of the 2005 wildflower display.

    Your Landscape


    When I stood here at the entrance to Miter Basin, I was truly amazed. It was so vast and grand, and it had appeared so suddenly. The urge to enter and explore was irresistible; not only the basin floor but the succession of lakes I knew were nestled above. When my wife, Renée, saw this photo, or when she sees any landscape like it, she dismisses it as barren. It holds no allure for her.

    I am interested in the responses people have to different landscapes. I won’t pretend to be a psychologist and guess what they might mean, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they might reveal a good deal about our basic nature. Renée loves a seaside setting or the golden oak-studded California hills. I do too, but they don’t trigger the same spinal tingle that I feel at the likes of Miter Basin.

    I came to Miter Basin with four friends, and I was interested to note that the others set up camp in or near the grove of foxtail pines at the base of the slope you see in the picture. I preferred to plunk down near the middle of the basin so that I could feel the immensity of the landscape and see as much of the night sky as possible (the tent was only in case of rain). Mmmm, I wonder.

    Wherever we chose to roll out our bags, each of us was enchanted with Miter Basin. The rim of the basin is surrounded by 13,000′ peaks, and each recess above holds a mountain lake with its own unique charm. Beautiful fall reds colored a ground-hugging mosaic of alpine flora. Daybreak songs of a coyote choir echoed up and down the granite walls, adding to the mystery and magic.

    Leave the psychologists out of it, I guess. Let each of us prefer the part of nature we do without explanation. “Why” isn’t important. The gift of just standing there is enough.



    Baby Grand Scenery

    Creek Bottom LiteOur relationship with nature, even when we intentionally seek it, is usually superficial. Unless the scope is wide and the scenery grand, we tend to tune out. We demand grandeur. If we are not perched on the rim of the Grand Canyon or standing beneath the immense monolith of El Capitan, we often don’t take notice. It’s a pity, for we miss so much.

    Few people are more guilty of this than I am. I tend to discount the landscape around my home as ordinary and unremarkable. It just doesn’t stir my juices. And of course, I would be the first to preach the exact opposite-that all landscapes have their own special beauty.

    StumpRock1But when I open up to it, photography allows me to witness the extraordinary in places I might otherwise dismiss as ordinary. The nature of beauty I find in “ordinary” places is not vast and grand, but baby grand. The wide angle lens generally stays in the bag and is replaced by a normal or telephoto lens. Morsels of stunning beauty are often at my feet, but it doesn’t come easily to me. I have to leave the house determined to look – really look, and then see. The irony in all this is that the photographs I enjoy most are those intimate portraits of a ho-hum subject, that when abstracted from a cluttered landscape, is simply lovely.

    No doubt, I will continue to long for my favorite natural settings and overlook the little wonders near home that I pass without notice. But I will work to remember; to still the internal noise, walk more slowly, look carefully, and see the baby grand scenery all around.

    Earth Shadow

    Earth ShadowIn one of Galen Rowell’s many books about the outdoors and nature photography, I read a surprising and interesting fact about something we can see every day.

    Soon after sunset, look toward the eastern horizon, opposite where the sun slipped from view. On a clear evening, you will see a sight just as you see in this photograph. Notice the line across the sky that separates two distinct shades of color. Below, the sky is a darker shade, kind of blue/purple. Above, it is lighter and pinkish. The line separating these two shades will slowly climb in the sky until it disappears altogether. You are seeing the shadow of the earth reflected back to you on atmospheric haze. If you were suspended in space above the line, the sun would be shining on you. If you were situated below it, the sun would have already set.

    I love knowing this little nugget. It’s not a doozie like a comet or a solar eclipse, but now, instead of just colors in the sky, every evening I feel I am witness to a little cosmic event; a humbling but happy reminder of our delicate presence in an amazing universe.


    Ron on TopI recently wrote a post about adventure; the notion that the urge for it is a greater motivator than we recognize. I suggested that 49ers came to California as much for the adventure as for the prospect of striking it rich. As evidence, I offered the testimony of many who went to a later gold rush: the Klondike in 1898-9. As with the California Gold Rush, virtually everyone returned empty-handed, but most who were interviewed by author Pierre Berton looked back on that time with fondness and satisfaction.

    The idea that adventure is a potent motivator continues to widen and deepen in my mind. I read a lot of history about America’s westward migration from the fur trappers to settlers who loaded their belongings in a Conestoga wagon and lit out for Oregon and California. In the pie chart of their reasons for going, how big a piece was venturing into wild and unknown territory? More than they would acknowledge, I’ll bet. You can’t tell the family you are going west because it would be exciting. You have to be practical: land, climate, a second chance, opportunity. Those things get a chunk of the pie chart, but I suggest the urge to go west came as much from the heart as the head.

    Flip through your own mental scrapbook. What memories bring a wistful smile to your face? Backpacking through Europe after college? Three years in the Peace Corps? That cross country road trip in your mid-20’s?

    Adventure SignWe often buttress our case to do something new and exciting with “reasons,” but more and more, I think the real reason we want to do it is because it is new and exciting; aka an adventure.

    I keep this lovely graphic on a stand by my desk to remind me how important adventure is to a full and happy life. Certainly, the word means something different to everyone. But we don’t need to define it. When you hear a suggestion that at once excites you and scares you…that’s it. That’s an adventure. Go.

    Digger Pines

    M-Oak SilhouetteI’m not supposed to say that. It’s not PC. “Digger” is a condescending term that was used by early Eurpoean settlers to characterize some of the Native Americans in the Great Basin and in California who dug in the soil for roots and bulbs. One of our native pines inhereted that moniker as its common name, but the modern day arbiters of politeness say no, it must be changed. So, the digger pine has become the gray pine, or the ghost pine, or the foothill pine. I like digger pine. It is a good reminder of just how mean and insensitive we can be.

    One thing for sure, the tree doesn’t know or care. It is widespread in California’s hot and dry interior foothills where it often teams up with blue oaks to brighten hills where it is tough to make a living. But digger pines are most striking when the sun bends low and illuminates the tree from behind. The open and airy way the tree carries its needles causes it to light up like a fluffy cloud, or as one new common name suggests, like a ghost. A hillside of backlit digger pines is dazzling scene of airy elegance.

    For years, I walked through backlit digger pine forests looking for a way to capture the scene on film. Though it was a lovely sight, there was no photograph there. I needed something I could hang an image on.

    About 25 years ago, a friend and I were hiking out of the Coon Creek region of Henry Coe State Park. We were descending an open grassy slope. Across the valley, the entire hillside was luminous with backlit digger pines. Then, there it was. Just steps in front of me, a valley oak, its leafless branches tracing an elegant artistry, provided the perfect structural counterpoint to the raft of fluffy pines across the valley.

    This photograph remains a favorite and hints at the beauty of a forest of backlit digger pines.

    Constantly Amazed

    W-Moon-SnagWhether we know it or not, each of us is on a spiritual journey. It’s just part of the job that comes with the gift of human life. Many people pursue spiritual growth with conscious gusto, seeking out the gurus and the masters for guidance along the path. While I admire anyone’s pursuit of greater spiritual knowledge, I am a little put off by the fact that it has become a thriving commercial industry.

    Does a road map along “the path” really require 30+ books from Wayne Dyer, or does he just need a handsome income to maintain his homes and possessions? If we added up all the CD’s, DVD’s, and books offering spiritual guidance, what would the final tally be? Is it really that complicated, or as we often do, have we overlaid something simple with layers of distracting stuff?

    I happened on a quote that seems to peel back the layers and reveal the simple essence: “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; to be spiritual is to be constantly amazed.” What more need be said? The first six words remind us that we take commonplace things for granted and therefore forget they are amazing. The final eight words are the basis for a life-long spiritual practice.

    W-Merced-RefelectionIf you have trouble summoning amazement for everyday things, I recommend lying down beneath the stars on a moonless mountain evening. Consider that all those points of light above you are your nearest neighbors in your home galaxy, one of the billions of galaxies in the universe. We measure the distance those nearest of stars in light years. The universe is unimaginably immense. Isn’t amazing that we are even here?

    At first, it takes a conscious effort to be constantly amazed. But with practice, we might learn to appreciate, moment to moment, that trees, clouds, life, and love are phenomenal, incredible…amazing. As a spiritual practice, it sounds simple and pure to me.




    Was it the Gold or Was it Adventure?


    Adventurer in the Winds

    I have read several histories of the California Gold Rush. A recurring theme is the failure of the vast majority of 49ers to fulfill the vision of gold riches that drew them there. Once the prospectors, who often left prospering businesses and came from privileged circumstances, had exhausted their grubstakes, they were often reduced to a subsistence living as wage-earning laborers. If they could summon the resources to make their way home, they returned as broken and defeated men. Yet the news of disappointed prospectors did not slow the arrival of hopeful men from all over the globe. Why?

    On a recent trip to Alaska, I chose a book about the Klondike Gold Rush The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush by Pierre Berton to help immerse me in wild and adventurous essence that draws us to Alaska. Berton tells of the few who struck it rich, but as with any tale of a rush to riches, the heart of the story is about the majority who returned empty handed.

    Berton’s father was among the many who came to Dawson City in the Yukon in 1898-9. He lingered there for many years after the rush, and Pierre himself grew up there. Because Berton lived in the Klondike very shortly after the gold rush, he was able to talk directly to many of the men who came there for gold and hear their stories first-hand.

    That intimate connection to history allowed Berton to record  a unique aspect of the story. Despite the failure of most of the prospectors to attain the riches they sought, virtually none of the men Berton spoke to regretted coming. Nearly to a man, they valued their time in the Yukon as a grand adventure-the key experience of their lives.

    I have come to believe that a thirst for adventure is a strong force within us-much stronger than we acknowledge, or perhaps are even aware of. Throughout history, many people left the comfort of home to chase mineral strikes around the world. Behind the pretext of seeking riches, I think a huge motivation – conscious or subconscious – was the adventure of it. Home is safe and comfortable, but it can also be boring. As these men lay in bed at night contemplating the trip to the goldfields, were they thinking about piles of gold, or were their thoughts of traveling overland or by sea to a wild and bustling frontier?

    Ron on TopEinstein said everything is relative. Adventure is too. For an agoraphobic person, a trip to the corner drugstore is a challenging adventure. For others, it is a Himalayan peak by an unclimbed route. For the rest of us, it is somewhere in between. I just know that we don’t get enough of it.

    A favorite song of mine (by Keb Mo’) points out that we are Victims of Comfort. We complain about the smallest inconvenience. In comparison, adventure is a lot of work. According to Klondike Gold Rushers, the effort is worth it.


    A Good Wildflower Year?

    W-Goldfields1I am never quite sure what the exact recipe is for a great spring wildflower display. While I enjoy botanizing in California’s Coast Range and in the Sierra, I know just enough to be dangerous. I’m likely to concoct some groundless theory and assert it as fact. But based on the significant rainfall we have had thus far, I wonder if this spring could be a memorable one.

    Sierra PrimroseNaturally, rain is a must, but there have been many so-so spring blooms after a wet winter; other factors certainly play a part. It makes sense that during the recent drought years viable wildflower seeds have not received enough water to sprout. Perhaps through the sparse blooms of recent springs that seeds have been accumulating waiting for a winter like we are having now. With an average amount of rainfall during the rest of the California winter, maybe we will see a spring bloom like 1997.

    M-Hunter Liggett LiteDo you buy it? I may be way off base, but it sounds good.

    I do know that seeds can remain viable for many years – even decades – waiting for the right conditions. The spring following the 2007 Lick Fire that burned nearly 48,000 acres in Henry W. Coe State Park, some hillsides were covered with whispering bells, a species that hadn’t been seen in the park for fifty years.

    I’m guessing, but I am hopeful. I will keep an eye on the various wildflower hotlines (here are two: http://theodorepayne.org/education/wildflower-hotline/ and http://www.desertusa.com/wildflo/ca.html). This might be the spring for a long-awaited trip to Anza-Borrego.

    We’ll see. Keep your fingers crossed.

    Guided Tour of Early California

    Menjoulet CanyonIf you have ever wondered what California looked like before 38 million of us engineered it to meet our needs, allow William Brewer to take you on a guided tour.

    In 1860, California’s state legislature named Josiah Dwight Whitney State Geologist and directed him “to make an accurate and complete Geological Survey of the State.” The first man Whitney appointed to the survey was William Henry Brewer, a man he had never met, but who came so highly recommended, he chose him sight unseen.

    Over the next four years, the survey traveled the length and breadth of California. Whitney only occasionally joined the field survey team as his leadership responsibilities kept him tied to his San Francisco base. But Brewer was an ideal field leader who chronicled day-to-day events in regular letters sent back east to his brother, Edgar. Those letters have been compiled into a wonderful volume called that creates a vivid picture of a an unsullied state. Imagine Los Angeles, a city of only 3,500 souls. Or Monterey, population 1,500. During his descent of the Salinas Valley and his time on the Monterey peninsula, he is constantly concerned about the threat of Grizzly Bears.

    Central Valley Wetland Lite

    In early California, after a wet winter, one could almost row from the Coast Range to the Sierra foothills

    I am early in my third reread of this book, and I am excited about what is in store. If you know some history of the Sierra, you know the story of the famous traverse of the Sierra by Clarence King and Richard Cotter that led to the ascent of Mt. Tyndall. Still regarded as one of the great mountaineering achievements, King and Cotter climbed Tyndall hoping it was the highest peak in the range. When they reached the top, they were disappointed to see a higher peak in the distance; Mt. Whitney. King tells an exaggerated death-defying tale of his climb of Tyndall (I can confirm this as I have climbed it by the same route. It is a simple scramble.) in his classic book “Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada.”

    While the assembled letters make this volume eminently readable, don’t quickly flip the pages. It is a book to linger with, to steep in like a tea bag in warm water. You will be truly transported to time never to be seen again.

    Humphreys above BishopTo mark the 150th anniversary of the survey, Tom Hilton has created a blog (http://upanddowncalifornia.wordpress.com/) with posts linking dates 150 years apart. He includes maps, photographs, and links to related historical and natural history resources.

    While California has changed dramatically, the California Geological Survey just wasn’t that long ago. My 96-year-old mother has lived 2/3 of that time span. Amazing. It just wasn’t that long ago.

    Open Space and Freedom

    Distant Nevada Mtns

    Keeping us Free

    I have just cracked Ian Frazier’s book On The Rez. I have always admired Frazier as a writer, but steered away from this book for the very reason he states on page one that readers might be deterred: the story of the lives of present day Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation seems bleak.

    It has quickly become apparent that in his hands, bleak will become bright and interesting. He is a master. After only one chapter, he has dazzled me and turned some of my long-held beliefs on end. In that opening chapter, Frazier reframes the story of European/Indian interaction to show how Europeans have adapted to Indians ways, not how they have been forced to adapted to us. He cites many examples, but the one that has stuck with me is the role Indians played in shaping the freedom we enjoy in the United States.

    What the…? I know. I had the same response, but bear with me.

    Frazier points out the tendency across all American Indian traditions toward “disregard for titles and for a deep egalitarianism.” He further writes, “Thee Indian inclination toward person freedom,…made for endless division and redivision among tribes.” When tribe members couldn’t get along, some left and went on their own. To make the point, Frazier lists the many subcategories of Sioux, a result of groups diverging to pursue their preferred way of life.

    When Europeans came to the New World, they had no experience with freedom or democracy as we know it today. Through history, they had lived under the rule of potentates. Frazier says, “In the land of the free, Indians were the original “free”; early America was European culture reset in and Indian frame. Europeans who survived here became a mixture of identities in which the Indian part was what made them American and different than they had been before… Thanks to Indians, we learned we didn’t have to kneel to George III.” He cites Benjamin Franklin’s admiration of the confederacy of the six Iroquois nations who remarks what a fine (and new) model it might be for a union of states.

    What lay beneath the Indian “inclination toward personal freedom” and decentralization of power that rubbed off on European settlers? According to Frazier; open space – lots of open space. If you aren’t happy here, you are free to go over there. And for early settlers in America there was a lot of “over there.”

    I have always been aware of the great personal sense of freedom I feel in wide open spaces, but I never thought of open space as a force for freedom across society as a whole. Frazier skillfully connects the dots from the Indian influence on early European settlers to the principles set down in our Constitution; the founding document of the world’s first democracy.

    This adds a new dimension to the significance of open space. It’s not just a sanctuary of peace and personal freedom. The DNA of freedom as a force in the world resides in open space. It was born there and is sustained there.

    Path to a Favorite Photo

    W-Chorten-CholatseAt the Sherpa village of Gokyo (15, 580 ft.), we decided to split up. My sister, Scott, and one porter would decend the Dudh Kosi drainage to its junction with the Imja Khola, then ascend that river to the village of Dingboche. Rather than go down and around with them, I would go with our guide and a porter over Cho La, the pass that connects the two drainages, and we would reunite at Dingboche. Our guide had never been over Cho La, but it all looked straightforward.

    We parted ways just below Gokyo. Ratna, our guide, the porter, and I crossed the Ngozumpa Glacier and began our ascent of the pass. It was steep, but pleasant going under a bright sun over solid rock footing. At the top of the 17,780-foot pass, things changed. Instead of rock, we were now walking on a glacier. Instead of sunshine, we were wrapped in a low cloud dusting us with gentle snow flurries. But, no problem; the route was clear and there was a gentle magic about walking through a delicate snow flurry in the Himalayas.

    We reached the lone trekking lodge at Dzonglha (15,912 ft.), our destination for the day. All of the lodges we had stayed in before were primitive, but each had a coarse quaintness and a bright open feeling. Not this one. In a room so dark it felt subterranean, I rolled my sleeping bag out on an unclaimed portion of a long common sleeping pad where all visitors would spend the night. The luxury of resting after the day’s effort trumped any concerns about the accommodations.

    Ratna came in and tapped me on the shoulder. The porter did not feel well, and we would have to pack up and go lower. Ratna carried the porter’s load, and I carried Ratna’s load so that the porter could walk unburdened. The pace of the earlier snowfall had increased, and now it was nearly dark. Off we went.

    Our destination was Tuglha, about three miles and 1,000 feet down the slope. Each of us walked through the snowy darkness in our own envelope of silence. After a while, it was clear to me we had walked longer and farther than the distance to Tuglha. Where were we, and where were we going? I can’t remember the conversation I had with Ratna, but all we could do was keep walking. Finally, I heard nearly the sweetest sound I have ever heard: Yak bells. We were just outside Lobuche. Instead of three miles, we walked five. Instead of dropping lower, we climbed higher.

    M-Himalayan Pass

    Cho La

    The next day, the porter was fine. We marched down the lightly snow-dusted valley to Dingboche where we rejoined my sister and Scott. Over lemon tea at a village tea house, we shared our misadventures and then found lodging for the night. The next day, low clouds chilled the morning air, but as they began to dissipate, they luffed and danced on the surrounding peaks revealing them in the most artistic and spectacular ways. As I walked through Dingboche, I looked up to see a Stupa appear in front of Taboche and got this image; my favorite from the trip.

    Fall Again

    Aspen Trunk Forest LiteI envy the sensitive souls that truly feel the energy or “vibe” that pulses through our world. What a gift. Apparently, I am cursed with a thick shell because very few channels come through, and when they do reception is sketchy. But fall is different. Whether I am feeling some distant yearning or it is just my imagination, I have a physical response to fall.

    If I had to characterize the feeling of fall in a word, I would say it is lazy. Summer winds have died down and the hills are as quiet and still as a museum painting. The heat has eased and temperatures are ideal. On such calm and lovely days, fall feels more than lazy; it feels sleepy. I can’t help but think Maple Color widethat an instinct from my distant primal past is awakened in my DNA urging me to start digging a den and prepare for a long winter nap. Granted, it could be my imagination or some other sensation. I have ruled out old age or lasting effects from the 1960’s. No, I’m pretty sure it’s my DNA talking.

    And why not? Look around. The DNA in all of nature’s other creatures is preparing them for repose, or in the case of annual plants and some insects, death. Another cycle is drawing to a close. But this recurring sleep/death process is punctuated by a gaudy display. On a recent trip to the Rockies, I was surprised by the a hillside of maples I did not know lived there. This is not New England.  It is Idaho.M-Vineyard Detail

    Even in my area, where fall colors are modest, a careful eye finds lovely surprises. Years ago, I made this image in a nearby vineyard.

    Enjoy the beauty and the fabulous days. If you feel a little lazy – even sleepy, don’t worry. It’s just your DNA talking.

    Can I Buy You a Beer?

    B&W Bristlecone Lite

    Excuse me, do you have time for a beer?

    When I am on the trail, I often run into people or “lower” life forms that impress me. I am moved to think that it would be great to sit down with those creatures and talk. Not talk actually, but listen. There is something about the people that venture into the wild and the things that live there that fascinate me and arouse my curiosity.

    To wit: When my son and I walked the John Muir Trail, we regularly bumped into Rose along the way. Rose was from England, she was approaching middle age, and she had come to the United States by herself to take a 220-mile three-week walk through the Sierra wilderness. Only a very special woman sits on her sofa in England and says to herself, “I think I will go to America and walk the John Muir Trail alone. Yes, that’s a good idea.” I would like to sit down with that woman, have a beer, and just hear what she has to say. Rose, I am not going to talk, I am going to listen. I want to hear the musings of a spirit like yours.

    Another woman, Joanne, who lives in my home town divided the John Muir Trail into four sections and hiked one each summer for four years. This past summer, Joanne completed the last section of the trail. That means she hauled a pack over 13,200-foot Forester Pass, then walked another twenty-five miles to the summit of 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney. Joanne is 82 years old.

    Wouldn’t you, wouldn’t anyone love to sit down with Joanne and simply listen to her say whatever she chooses to talk about? I know that in the course of drinking a beer or two with Joanne or Rose I would be immeasurably enriched. How could it be any other way? What’s more, on the trail, I frequently meet people with bright spirits like theirs. In a world where it is easy to lapse into cynicism, the people I meet like Rose and Joanne make me proud to be a member of the human race.

    This beer-buying urge even occurs with creatures, trees in particular. Have you ever walked past a massive tree on an exposed alpine ridge gnarled and twisted by ages of holding fast against hail and snow pushed by a raking wind and wondered what it has seen during its life? Pick any bristlecone pine from the White Mountains. The Methuselah tree, still alive and well there, was 3,000 years old when Jesus was born.

    What have these ancient monarchs seen? What do they have to teach? I would like to know. My gray matter is extremely thick, but very slowly I am beginning to learn their language. I will never be fluent, but I will continue to listen.

    Yosemite in October

    Light on SaplingsIt wasn’t long ago that outside Yosemite Valley, you could expect to nearly have the park to yourself in October. I remember several fall trips to the top of Cathedral Peak where I was almost alone. Nevertheless, I enjoy the park this time of year. Things are quieter than mid-summer, and there is something special about the lazy feel of autumn days against such a powerful landscape.

    Maybe sixteen years ago, my son Drew and I backpacked into Young Lakes, a lovely spot about six miles out of Tuolumne Meadows. On that occasion and one other, I had tried to climb Mt. Conness and failed. With Drew, we simply went to the wrong mountain; 12,057-foot White Mountain, not far away. Another time, on a quick trip up from my sea level home, I simply didn’t have the poop. Despite my 64 years, I hoped Conness would be within my trudging range this time.

    Ragged Pk ReflectionEither way, it would be lovely, and indeed it was. Yes, the flowers are gone, but so are the bugs and most of the people. And the golden hue of the willows and the grasses is a magic all its own. There is something I love about sitting in my Thermarest camp chair, wrapped in my down bag, headlamp on, comfortably reading a book while inches away my water bottle is slowly freezing. I feel like I am getting away with something so comfortably ensconsed in such a wild and magnificent setting.

    I made it to Conness with very little whining and barely a tear shed. My entry in the summit register was the only one that day. Among the three Young Lakes or going up and down Mt. Conness, every sight took my breath away.

    Glimpse of the Past

    It must have been a sight to see. Two hundred years ago, the Great Plains nourished Serengeti-like herds of bison and pronghorn. The Rockies were bursting with wolf, beaver, grizzlies, moose and other mammals that fill the journals of the first Europeans to come to the American West. Now, the west that seemed so vast is fully mapped and managed, and most descendents of the long gone herds are confined to a few parks and preserves.

    Sunrise Moose LiteWhile the lost wildlife of the wild west is fuel for sad reflection and even cynicism, a recent road trip lifted my spirits and gave me a glimpse into that vanished past. Though it is mostly limited to locations circled on the map, within those boundaries there is still beauty and amazing drama happening every day.

    We camped by the Madison River. The night before, we had taken a walk past the beaver lodges and dams near the shore. As we left our campsite the next morning, we decided to take one last look at the river. Good thing. The low fog cast a gentle morning spell and revealed shifting silhouettes of the conifers across the lazy river. Softened by the fog, an orange disk rose through the pines warming the steel-gray setting. Just as still and peaceful, two moose stood motionless in the middle of the river. I have never (nor am I likely to again) seen such a sight. Utter stillness and peace in a moody monochromatic setting; cool fog, warm hazy sunrise. Man, oh man.

    Wolf Kill liteIt wasn’t there when we drove through the Lamar Valley the day before, so we knew it happened last night. An elk carcass lay near the road, its chest cavity empty and its ribs picked clean. As I stared at the scene, I shuddered at visions of the drama that occurred right here only hours before. At the prospect of seeing one of the culprits, we walked the open slopes a short distance away. Sure enough, a wolf pranced along the top of the next knoll. I can’t say for sure, but he seemed to exude a cocky self-assurance and the satisfaction that comes from a full stomach.

    No question, we have corralled and tamed what remains of the wild west. But get up early, look around, and you might catch a glimpse the wild that once was.



    Denali1Stop! Can I get off?

    From the Kantishna Roadhouse at the end of the 92-mile road into Denali National Park, I boarded a van heading out for a guided hike on the McKinley Bar Trail. As we climbed out of the Kantishna Valley, Denali came into view beautifully reflected in a perfectly still Wonder Lake. Up ahead, we came to peaceful Reflection Pond, another stunning foreground to Denali in the early morning.

    I couldn’t stand it. I asked our guide if she would stop the van and drop me off.

    Photography is a double-edged sword. The dogged pursuit of a perfect image can sometimes distract a person from being fully present in a breathtaking setting. On the other hand, photography often expands our vision allowing us to see a place in a whole new way. Denali is usually obscured by clouds, but on this peaceful morning it was visible from base to summit. I could not let such an opportunity pass.

    Denali Detail1

    On a short visit to Denali National Park like ours, one is usually on a shuttle bus or part of a group. Time alone is rare. Out of the van, I enjoyed a rare moment of solitude in the midst of a silent immensity-not simply to photograph Denali, but to wander the tundra at my whim. Between impassable thickets of alder, I was able to drift freely through the reddening bearberry, blueberry, and dwarf birch bushes in any direction I chose.

    On this morning, I enjoyed the best of both worlds. I got photos of Denali that pleased me, and I was able to relax and enjoy the setting like a tea bag steeping in warm water.


    Kodiak, Alaska

    WJ ErskineI grew up next door to my paternal grandfather, a crusty fellow not prone to bouncing grandchildren on his knee. While he had a nice home in Mill Valley and lived a comfortable life as a blue-collar worker, he apparently harbored jealousy toward his brother Wilbur Julian Erskine for his financial success, because I never heard about the Erskine history in Kodiak, Alaska until much later.

    I have since learned that the Erskine House in Kodiak is a National Historic Landmark. It is the oldest building in Alaska and dates back to the Russian presence there. Many of the streets in Kodiak are named after family members, and Erskine Mountain is just outside of town. One would think that living next door to Wilbur Julian’s brother, I would have heard about this.

    Wilbur Julian Erskine was an employee of the Alaska Commercial Company that supplied and outfitted ships, settlers, and communities throughout Alaska. He was busy supplying miners in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. In 1911, Alaska Commercial Company sold their Kodiak concern to Wilbur and it continued as the W.J. Erskine Company. Two books written by his son, Wilson Fiske Erskine, tell of the family’s adventures (including the 1912 eruption of Katmai volcano that turned day into night in Kodiak) at a time when settlers were taking their first precarious steps into a truly wild Alaska. This photo of the Kodiak waterfront shows the roof of the W.J Erskine Company. The house behind with the white gable dormer is the Erskine House.

    In a couple of days, Renée and I leave for an Alaskan vacation. Like all visitors to Alaska, we are going for the natural grandeur, but it will be fun to climb Erskine Mountain and touch a little bit of family history.

    Mt. Tallac Challenge

    Jean and Greg

    Clouds Rest

    The last two years in my newspaper column “Getting Out,” I have challenged my readers to join me on a big hike the following summer. Our prep hikes begin with a New Year’s morning stroll and throughout the spring we gather to build our strength, but mostly to just walk together. The year-one target was Clouds Rest in Yosemite. Seventy people came and virtually everyone reached top and completed the 13+ mile loop. Just a few weeks ago, forty-five people came to Lake Tahoe and reached the top of 9,738-foot Mt. Tallac.

    A serious mountaineer will scoff at the accessibility and the popularity of these objectives, but most of us are not serious mountaineers. Most of us are regular flatlanders who work nine to five and spend more time on the sofa than we should. Given that context, I have been truly moved by the people who have come on these hikes for several reasons. Each trip has involved taking valuable vacation days from work, driving 4-5 hours, making motel accommodations-all for the pleasure of pushing one’s self through a gut-busting trudge to a mountain peak.

    Summit Portrait2Poll passers-by at any street corner. How many people would sign up for that?

    Of course I failed to mention all the rewards: the view, the pride, time in nature. If you were blessed to be born with this “chip,” you understand. If you weren’t, you won’t.

    I have seen many of these people – uncertain at the prospect – push through to realize they can do so much more than they thought. For some of those who met these challenges, it was just a long hike, but for many it was a transformative moment. What a joy to witness.

    I salute you.


    TV Commercials

    W-Bolinas-ViewAs I visit different places looking for special natural settings, I recognize some of them as settings for TV commercials – cars mostly, but sometimes it’s viagra, or the latest thing we aging males have to worry about…low testosterone.

    Here are three places that you might see as a TV commercial backdrop. This is a view from Bolinas Ridge on the edge of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County. Not so much a view “of” the commercial site, it is a view “from” it. But I have noticed this view in the background of one ad. On two recent visits to Bolinas Ridge, a CHP car blocked the road. I had to wait. They were filming a TV commercial.


    Mt. Whitney, Lone Pine Peak, and the Alabama Hills have been the setting for countless movies and are still a popular backdrop for car commercials in particular. Remember those three parallel ridges sloping down to the right on Lone Pine Peak and you recognize it during a time out (or between innings) of you favorite sporting event.

    W-Long-Auto-V-of-FI just returned from a visit to Zion National Park, and on my want back, I stopped to visit Valley of Fire State Park about an hour east of Las Vegas. I loved the way all shades and shapes of sandstone bulged above the endless reaches of sagebrush and creosote bushes. They say that about 45 days a year, film crews are here shooting commercials. The 1966 movie “The Professionals” (starring Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, and (thump, thump…thump, thump) Claudia Cardinale) was filmed here. In fact, remnants of the set are still there.

    Keep an eye out. These spots are on TV all the time. Better yet, visit these places. Advertisers film there because they are fantastic.

    Early Snow in Emigrant Wilderness


    Last fall, I was several miles into the Emigrant Wilderness when an outbound person on horseback mentioned that he had heard weather was on the way. I had checked the weather before leaving and felt he must be wrong, but I began to keep a careful eye on the sky. In the afternoon of my second day, the wind picked up and high cirrus appeared. I went to bed that night under threatening skies, and sure enough, just before sunrise snowflakes fell on my sleeping bag. Soon it was snowing hard, and not knowing whether it would be a dusting or a big dump, I packed up and started out.


    Getting out was an uncomfortable process. I was walking off trail, and I had difficulty finding way past a shear 80-foot drop. The normally fast footing on the granite was getting slippery, but I found a way down to Relief Valley. What began as a struggle ended as a delightful walk through striking fall color  made more beautiful by the gathering snow. A chimp could take lovely photos in a setting like this.

    Magical Mists


    Along the coast or in the mountains, we hope for great views.  Nothing stirs the soul like standing alone under a vast landscape that stretches from horizon to horizon.   But sometimes the natural world has other ideas.

    In Northern California, we know a roiling fog bank can spoil a seaside sunset.  In summer, hot air from the Central Valley will race up the Sierra slope and condense into a thunderous tumult that does far more than just obscure the view.  Mists, whether seaside fog or mountain thunderheads, can erase our hoped-for view and reduce visibility to a matter of feet.

    But all may not be lost.  Years ago on a photo seminar, Dewitt Jones told me that while you may venture out to photograph scenic views or wildflowers, God may not be doing views or wildflowers that day.  It is up to us to adjust and find the day’s featured attraction.

    I have often gone out with high hopes for grand views only to be disappointed by a shrouded landscape.  Then I remember Dewitt’s advice, and I release my expectations and look again.  Sometimes, there’s magic.
    W-Foggy-Oak-RidgetopThere might be beams of soft light streaking through thin wisps that suggest some angelic presence.  Maybe, as the fog recedes, it luffs through the treetops and collects softly in the creases of the coastal hills.  Or maybe the show is simply the changing scene as the warming sun melts the morning mist.

    My job is to arrive without expectations.  It may not be the one I hoped for, but the show is always on.

    The Sky

    Sunset SwishThe wonders of nature are always a delight to see, but often not close at hand. Wildflowers only bloom in certain areas – usually, somewhere else – at certain times – usually, some other time.  Animals don’t sit still.  They fly away, run away and they migrate.  The mountains, the deserts, or the seashore can be hours away.

    But wherever you are, the sky is always above you.  Look up and it is there.  At night, the stars don’t dart into the bushes, but lazily drift by staggering our imagination.  Light moves fast, but some of that light is pretty old by the time it reaches us.  On a clear fall night, you can see our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda.  That light left 1,000,000 years ago.

    The drama of the daytime sky depends on the weather, the time of day, and where you live.  But there is usually something cooking up there.  California’s lowland skies are not the best place to look for sculpted cloud shows, but it is surprising what is out there at sunset if we bothered to walk outside now and then.  This photo was taken one evening above my house when I happened to step out with a camera in hand.

    How many do I miss?

    Just You

    W-Evolution-Lake-TentA manic rush of hail drummed the ground sheet we pulled over our heads as temporary shelter against the sudden cloudburst.  My son and I scooted under the cover of a whitebark pine, but the tree’s struggle against timberline conditions left only a few sparse branches and little protection.

    It was day 12 of our trip down the John Muir Trail, and we had not experienced a single day without rain or hail.

    Confronted with this predicament at home, we would simply step inside, take off our wet clothes, and turn up the thermostat.  Problem solved.  But in the midst of this hail storm, our shelter was rolled up in our packs.  We had wet and windy work to do before we would enjoy warmth and comfort.

    I truly believe that moments like this in the wilderness – truly alone, where one’s hold on basic comforts is so tenuous – change a person in a profound way.  In our day-to-day lives, we face few situations that are elemental – where our resourcefulness and ingenuity can mean the difference between life and death.

    We venture into nature to see the world just made.  Out there is deafening silence, staggering beauty, and restorative peace – maybe even a glimpse across the transcendent void.  But we also get a chance to test ourselves against the challenges that a powerful and indifferent force can summon.  Get through a fearful crisis in the middle of nowhere, and watch yourself grow.

    A Privy with a View

    privy-with-a-viewGotta go? Well, here’s a privy that strikes out on convenience, but has a fine view.

    Part of Pinnacles National Monument, Chalone Peak is not visibile from the park’s day use area, but it is an imposing site when viewed from the Salinas Valley near Soledad and King City. Look for it’s bulky pyramid and secondary peak east of Highway 101 when you travel through. That’s a fire lookout on top.

    It’s a nine-mile round trip and a 2,000-foot climb from Bear Gulch to Chalone Peak, but the gentle gradient and the cool weather of winter take most of the bite out of those numbers. And the view from the top is breathtaking. All the world seems to be beneath your feet.

    Air quality was poor on this visit, but another time when things were clear, Monterey Bay, even the Moss Landing stacks, were crisp on the horizon.

    Go before it gets hot. And visit what must be a contender for world’s best view from a privy.


    Path of the Padres

    W-Menjoulet-CanyonWhen I first heard about the Path of the Padres trips, I was skeptical.  They are given by California State Parks people at a site near Los Banos.  I’ve been to Los Banos.  How great can the trip be?

    Fabulous, it turns out.  Tucked away in the Coast Range is an unusual and spectacular valley you’d never imagine was there.

    The trip traces a portion of the route taken by Native Americans and early missionaries from San Juan Bautista to the Central Valley.  We began by boarding a pontoon boat on Los Banos Creek Reservoir in the hills south of San Luis Reservoir that putts up to the inlet where we continued on foot.  After a couple mile walk up lovely Los Banos Creek, we stopped for lunch before turning back.  Our guide made us welcome to climb the hill above the creek for a view farther up the valley.  He failed to mention the majesty of what we would see.

    The Diablo Range is rough corrugated country, rarely giving way to wide open spaces. But after a short steep climb up the hill, we were treated to a spectacular view of Menjoulet Canyon, an immense open breach in the hills.  Perhaps a mile wide and reaching several miles up the creek, this amazing canyon cradled a 576-acre Sycamore forest that Department of Fish and Game biologists call “the largest and most intact natural community of its kind left in California.”

    Whatever its bonafides, it was staggering.

    In 2012, trips will run every Saturday and Sunday from March 3 to April 29.  They will begin taking reservations on February 1 (Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, 9:00-3:00), and I understand they go fast.  Information and reservations may be made at (209) 826-1197.  I couldn’t find information on the web, so if you have questions, you have to call.  Try after 1:00 pm.  Even then, it may take a call or two to get an answer. Keep trying.  It’s worth it.

    Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

    Poison Oak PortraitI have written before of my special admiration of the photographs of Freeman Patterson.  Most of us believe we must travel to exotic places to make extraordinary photographs – Yosemite, Zion, and the like.  But Patterson demonstrates time and again that great photographs await us in our backyard, or for Patterson, even in his kitchen while baking cookies.

    I have never been very good at it, but it is a noble goal.  Certainly it would teach us to see and appreciate the “common” sights we take for granted – to see with beginner’s eyes as the Buddhists would encourage us to do.

    Motivated by Patterson’s books, I walked out my back door looking to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.  I was fairly satisfied with this shot of a poison oak bush behind my house.

    I still prefer the exotic places, but this practice is like going to the gym for photographers.  It makes you stronger.


    LP-Whitney SunriseI guess one of the things that keeps bringing me back to the east side of the Sierra time and again is the dizzying volume.  It’s big.  In the middle of the Owens Valley, one loses all sense of distance.  Looking north and south, the landscape disappears when the curvature of the earth hides what is beyond the horizon.  East and west, peaks rise over 14,000 feet. In between, the sheer volume of open sky leaves one feeling small and insignificant, yet delighted.  W-Bridgeport-Valley

    Here are a couple shots – one of Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine Peak, one of Bridgeport Valley – from my last visit.  They feebly hint at what can only be truly felt by standing there.


    What Nature is Doing

    W-Leaves-On-IceA couple weeks ago, Dave Sellers and I set out for the eastern Sierra seeking gaudy displays of fall color.  Based on past experience, our timing should have been perfect, but nature doesn’t always keep a crisp schedule.  The early storm, the changing weather – we couldn’t figure it, but up high or down low, it just wasn’t happening.

    DeWitt Jones once told me, “If nature isn’t doing what you’re looking for, look for what nature is doing.”  So, I started to look down rather than up, and I found this little bit of color gathered sweetly just for me.

    Worries and Hopes

    W-Mather-Pass-PortraitWhen my son Drew and I hiked the John Muir Trail in 2003, I worried about the worst and hoped for the best.  I got both, but from directions I didn’t expect.

    Drew came reluctantly, and I worried that he would have a miserable time and lobby hard to bail out early.  He was eighteen years old and faced “issues” far beyond the normal teenage difficulties.  How would he handle twenty-one days in the wilderness with, of all people, Dad?

    My hopes – I should say my expectations – were for the usual summer Sierra weather and all that comes with it: sunny days, perhaps an occasional afternoon thundershower, and sleeping under the stars.

    Drew was a fabulous companion.  We were perfectly aligned in our simple daily activities, not at odds like at home where parents enforce boundaries and children test them.  We both wanted food, comfort, and to get further down the trail.  All our efforts were toward those common ends.  We were a team.  My worry was groundless.

    W-Marie-Lakes-Sunset1But where was the great Sierra summer weather?  It was lousy!!  It rained or hailed on all but six of our twenty-one days on the trail.  We waited out torrential hail and rain that was not just passing through.  We rarely spent a night under the stars.  Every night, we squeezed into a snug two-person tent, read to each other, and listened to the tapping.

    The foul weather put me in a sour mood, and it was Drew who was there with a hopeful word.  That’s supposed to be my job, but he proved to have the only sensible attitude about something over which we had no control.  I pouted, he comforted.  I was impressed.
    So, bad weather gave me some great gifts.  Behind all of Drew’s crazy behavior at home, I saw that there was a rock solid person.  And once or twice, the drenching clouds would slide apart, let some light in and dazzle.

    We completed the trail fit, thinner, and still friends – maybe better friends.

    Mountain Vista

    W-Lyell-Sunrise2I knew it was up there; I just hadn’t taken the time to go. And I knew that sunrise would be the best time to record it, but that meant spending the night. Today I would set aside all the reasons I hadn’t gone to photograph Mt. Lyell and Mt. Maclure from the Kuna Crest and go.

    Above Tuolumne Meadows, on the way to Tioga Pass, is the Mono Pass trailhead. From here one can take day hikes to a variety of sights along the Sierra crest: miner’s cabins, alpine lakes, Sierra bighorn sheep habitat. It’s only a few miles to historic Mono Pass which drops down Bloody Canyon to the Mono Basin.

    As you walk that gentle trail toward Mono Pass, the Kuna Crest is the high wall on your right. The Lyell fork of the Tuolumne River and the John Muir Trail are on the other side. At he end of the Lyell fork, Mt. Lyell and Mt. Maclure reach to over 13,000 feet. I was chasing the view of those peaks from the Kuna Crest.

    I walked the Mono Pass trail for only a mile or so until Mammoth Peak (not Mammoth Mountain) was on my right. There, I turned right, left the trail, and made my way up. The sights along the way were classic alpine Sierra settings: just-born creeks twisting through high alpine meadows brightened by gardens of heather. All this sat softly beneath a steep slope of granite scree. The juxtaposition of delicate beauty and the cold indifferent rock above was striking.

    I scrambled up rock, then across a snowfield to the ridgeline. Then, a short ramble to the crest.

    Amid the jungle of boulders that comprised the summit, there were several flat sandy spots that would easily accomodate my sleeping bag. I rolled out, sat, and just looked. On my left, Lyell and Maclure with their bright glacier looked back at me. Straight ahead was Tuloumne Meadows and all the familiar peaks of the Cathedral Range. On my right, Tioga Pass and the Sierra crest. I sat and watched until the sun set.

    The next morning, I rose in time to get my shot. I was back at the car by lunch time. The picture is a favorite, but it was one of those outings where everything was perfect, especially the sitting and looking.


    W-Bridgeport-Iris-StreamI love the little town of Bridgeport.  It sits in an unlikely valley, huge and perfectly flat, at the foot of the eastern escarpment of the Sierra north of Lee Vining on Highway 395.  At first glance, there’s not much there but a short 25 MPH stretch of the highway.  But the setting and the little I know about it’s history give it a special something.

    This town of 575 people became the county seat of Mono County by default.  In 1861, the California legislature designated Aurora the county seat until two years later when it was determined that Aurora was in Nevada.  The Bridgeport County Courthouse, built in 1881, is a stately Victorian building that still does county business.  Look for it behind John Wayne in the original True Grit.  The 1947 film noir classic, Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, was also partially filmed in Bridgeport.  I saw it on TCM the other night.  What a kick.

    W-Shepherd-CarvingBridgeport is also known for cold winters and often makes the national news with the country’s low temperature.  The average low temperature in January is 8 degrees with a record low of -31.  Most folks don’t spend the winter in Bridgeport.

    But the main attraction is the beautiful setting.  In early summer the valley floor is carpeted with irises.  With Sawtooth Ridge, one of the most beautiful portions of the Sierra crest as a backdrop, it’s stunning.  Bridgeport is also a gateway to other Sierra gems.  My favorite is Buckeye Creek in the fall.  Bright yellow aspens glow in a wide valley beneath rugged peaks.  Look for carvings in the aspen trunks left by shepherds nearly 100 years ago.


    Kibbie Lake

    Lake Erratic ViewWhen I heard a Yosemite ranger tout Kibbie Lake as the finest overnight backpack site in the park, I sprang into action.  I avoid backpacking in the Yosemite because of the crowds and generally head to the east side, but it’s a long haul.  If Kibbie Lake has the spectator value, reasonable solitude, and is two hours closer to home, I’m in.

    W-Kibbie-Shooting-StarsA little snooping around the web was encouraging, so Dave Sellers and I synchronized our calendars and set out.

    Kibbie Lake sits just inside the northwestern boundary of Yosemite.  In fact, the trailhead is also an entry point into the southern reaches of Emigrant Wilderness which borders the park there.  Since the trailhead straddles two juridictions (Yosemite NP and Stanilaus NF), a permit can be obtained from either source.  But Yosemite is beyond the driving route to the trailhead.  Since you will pass by the Stanislaus NF office in Groveland, it’s more convenient to get your permit there.

    Past Buck Meadows on Highway 120, turn left onto the road to Cherry Lake.  A twisty-turny 30 miles later, over the Cherry Lake Dam to the end of the road, you will finally reach the end of the road.
    From the get-go, I was skeptical, but Kibbie Lake scored high.  The hike was moderate (4 miles, 500 feet elevation gain), the setting had all the Sierra bells and whistles (granite walls, lovely streams and gardens), and while there were other campers nearby, we were always alone.

    W-Azalea-CascadeHighlights:  Approaching the lake, we met and followed Kibbie Creek.  Wild azaleas exploded along the creekside over the last 1/2 mile or so – fabulous.  Once at the lake, a short walk to the left, I found a rowdy, tumbling creek.  It’s a great place to sit in the sun and watch the resident water ouzel dip and dive through the splashing water.

    Two thumbs up for Kibbie Lake.




    Local Exotic

    Sunset Oak CoeThe exotic and truly magnificent places in the world are always somewhere else – or so we tell ourselves.   Let’s face it –much of our daily life is a repeating pattern of events that have become habit, and we perform them in an inattentive way.  It’s only natural that just as our lives have become “the same old thing,” so do our surroundings lose their wonder.

    Of course, the main reason “somewhere else” seems exotic is simply that it is different from home.   It is so fresh and new that we see it with beginner’s eyes.  Awakened from our stupor, our half-shut eyes widen like saucers to take in every detail of a new and different place.

    El Toro Rainbow


    Where we live, wherever it may be, is special; we have just forgotten how to see it for the first time.  I struggle to remember that and make it part of my practice.  When I want to photograph, my first thought is that I have to get out of town.

    These two photographs remind me that I’m all wet.  One was taken just steps from my front door on a stormy evening.  The other was taken near Eric’s bench at Coe State Park very close to home.  I am sure a similar sight can be seen there nearly every night.

    Chasing Spring

    M-Tioga Rainbow1The flatlands are drying up, so it is time to start chasing springtime up the mountains.  Highway 395 on the east side of the Sierra is my preferred portal to alpine country, and Tioga Pass is the most direct route there.  But when will Tioga Pass open?  After the record snowfall this past winter, it will likely be later than usual; I heard one report that it may not open at all.

    But Tioga Pass is more than just a route to somewhere else.  There are several places close to the road that are drop-dead gorgeous.  I had seen another photographer’s pictures of Gaylor Lakes, a short walk from the pass, and I decided to look for myself.

    From the small parking lot just inside the Yosemite entrance at Tioga Pass, I shouldered my camera gear and made the short steep walk through oxygen-poor air to the ridge above.  The view from there overlooks a shallow valley scoured clean by a long-gone glacier that cradles Gaylor Lakes.  Beyond the valley are the peaks of the Cathedral Range  – a stunning view.

    I set up my tripod and sat patiently hoping for something special as the sun moved lower in the western sky.  It was lovely to watch, but nothing developed that was particularly pixel-worthy.  In an idle moment, I turned back toward Mt. Dana, and nearly did a back flip.  While I sat in a stupor gazing over there, look what was happening over here!

    Man, I snapped into action like an EMT at a 20-car pile-up.  Gotta catch this before it passes.  I love this picture, but honestly, a chimp could have taken it.  It just shows that the trick is to just go out there…and every once in a while, turn around.

    Spring Wildflowers Again

    W-Goldfields-Meadow-FoamThe Sierra foothills along the lower portion of the San Joaquin River have been chopped off.  Over time, these hills have eroded down to a resistant stratum of basalt leaving behind a community of flat-topped hills with surprises hidden from view.

    A couple of springs ago, a friend invited me on a day trip to this region.  We would visit one of these table tops reputed to be a wildflower bonanza.  I’ve heard that before.

    The trail left from a Forest Service parking area near the town of Auberry.  We edged slowly down through a lovely display of flowers to a bridge and crossed the San Joaquin River.  Then, up, up, up, but with each step the reach of our view brought superb rewards.

    Finally, we left the trail and made a direct line toward a passable notch in the steep layer that guarded the flat hilltop.  All at once, the “up” disappeared and a big bunch of riotously colored “flat” appeared.

    W-Goldfields1If you chase wildflowers, you have been disappointed with tales of gaudy displays that didn’t pan out.  But like the fisherman who chases stories of the perfect spot, we always go, because this may be the one.  This was the one.

    I am not enough of a botanist to explain the abundance here, but we walked for miles across this flat summit through a staggering quantity and variety of flowers.  The extent of the display left us all groping for adequate superlatives.

    I am sworn to secrecy as to the identity of this particular table top, but the Sierra Foothill Conservancy (www.sierrafoothill.org) conducts hikes to many such spots throughout the spring.  It is a day well spent.

    Spring Means Wildflowers

    W-Wildflower-HillCold weather has delayed the onset of spring color, but it is coming.  Over the years, I have enjoyed spending time with knowledgeable people who have taught me about plant families and the morphology of flowers.  But whether you enjoy studying them or just looking at them, the big prize will always be that special field awash with color – a scene where you can’t believe your own eyes.

    Despite many spring road trips, I have seen such a sight only a handful of times.  This was one of them:

    Ironically, this hillside is only a chip shot away from Interstate 5 on the Grapevine near Gorman.  It is a mecca for photographers looking for that photo calendar shot.  As much as I like this photograph, you will notice that the poppies haven’t even opened yet.


    Snow at Coe

    Coe Snow Close OakWinter’s back.  After a couple of lovely spring-like weeks, the weather man is calling for rain and cold temperatures.  Word is that the snow level may drop to 2,000 feet which would dust the hills that enclose our valley here in Morgan Hill.

    Two winters ago during a similar cold rainy session, I lay in bed listening to the heavy steady rain, knowing that up at Henry Coe State Park, it must surely be snowing.  I rose in the still-dark morning, tiptoed through the bedroom gathering warm clothes and  camera gear and headed out.  I nabbed a foo-foo coffee at a weirdly empty Starbucks and twisted up the hills through the rain.

    Coe Snow Oak


    My wife says I operate on Erskine time – always early.  Indeed, it was still dark when I arrived a Coe headquarters, but I had a great time watching the snow fall furiously through the twin cones of my headlights sipping my foo-foo coffee.
    Coe Snow TrailThe snow never let up as the sky turned slate gray which cued me to gear up and go.  I headed up the Monument Trail to Eric’s Bench – a magical spot even without the snow’s soft kiss.  Like a pinball, I bounced this way and that trying to capture every lovely sight.  It was a grand morning.


    W-Everest2Two weeks after 9/11, I boarded a plane bound for Kathmandu and a trek to the Everest region of Nepal.  My sister, Christine, had been there before, and had developed a relationship with an outfitter there with whom we would stay while in Kathmandu.  In their exchange of pre-trip emails, Shankar suggested that we come a month earlier to avoid the influx of trekkers that come in October.  While the Solo Khumbu region might be quieter then, there was the risk that clouds from the waning summer monsoons might obscure our view of the mountain.  When Christine asked me about going early, I said that, while I love solitude in the mountains, I would sit in a sold out Yankee Stadium for a clear view of Everest.

    Fast forward to several days into our trek.  On the last steep climb up to Namche Bazaar, there is one spot with a narrow view of the very summit of Everest peeking over the Lhotse/Nuptse ridge.  I looked up in amazement and pointed it out to a descending trekker who had spent the past two weeks in the region.  “That’s the first time I have seen the mountain,” he told me.  Thank God we waited.

    After the first couple of days of our trek, the weather was perfect and we were treated to great views of Mt. Everest from a number of locations.  But from the outset, we knew the best view, conditions permitting, would be from the summit of Gokyo Ri.  Finally, one icy morning in the village of Gokyo (15,500 ft.), we left at sunrise for the 2,000-foot climb to Gokyo Ri and our hoped-for view.  I was pleased at my strength on the steep climb to this elevation, and even more pleased at the reward awaiting us there.  Calm air a warm temperatures greeted us atop Gokyo Ri.  The view of Everest was clear and magnificent.  An occasional small wispy cloud would appear, then dissolve, as if to add a bit of magic to the view.

    I Don’t Really Wonder

    Lone HikerI wonder what they did today in Vermont?  Or Chicago?  Or Buffalo?  According to the news, it’s been chilly lately.

    I went for a walk on the beach today.  A large part of old Fort Ord near Monterey is now a new state park.  Miles of beach, sand dunes, and cliffs with hardly a soul, except for this guy.

    W-Beach-and-CliffIt was a stunning day:  temperatures in the mid-70’s, clear skies, and a gentle breeze.  The surf was as big as I have ever seen it in California, perhaps as high as 15 feet.  The offshore breeze hollowed out each wave into a massive glassy tube and tore a rainbow-lit mist from the lip of each one.  The sanderlings scampered up and down the beach following the last foamy gasp of the surf.  Brown pelicans drifted along the face of the huge waves angling away just before the final curl and plunge.

    Sitting on a sandy knob above the beach, it did not take much effort to imagine that I had just “discovered” this beach and was the first person ever to see it.  It stretched for miles with nothing to indicate that anyone else was nearby.

    I wonder what they did today in Rapid City?

    Going Home

    M-Bolinas Ridge2The town I grew up in has changed.  The stores have been replaced by trendy shops.  In place of simple restaurants, there are now fine dining establishments, and the town’s new residents are folks who know the difference.  They know which ones have the best food.  They appreciate the finer things.

    But they don’t know the short cut to Mike’s house.  They didn’t play mud football on rainy days at Boyle Park or search for golf balls in the ditches at the muni course.  They didn’t help Gene, a little league coach and mailman, sort packages at Scout Hall when the post office needed the extra space over the holidays.  They didn’t build forts on the hills above our house.

    I don’t fit in there any more, but it’s OK.  I know the town in a way these people never can.  When I visit, I have to look past the new chic in order to see the unpretentious town I grew up in, but it’s there.  It’s fading, but it’s there.  If  you’ve been around awhile, I am sure going home is like this for you too.  Who’d’ve thought the day would ever come when we’d be recalling the good old days?

    This scene is on a ridge not far from home.  I’m not sure the new folks know it’s there.  My dad’s ashes are spread nearby.  It seems like a nice spot to spend eternity – at least I hope it is.

    Cathedral Peak

    W-Cathedral-PeakCathedral Peak is an iconic summit visible from nearly anywhere in the vicinity of Tuolumne Meadows.  What’s more, this elegant spire can be easily climbed in an afternoon by any fit mountaineer willing to do a little rock scrambling.

    The first ascent of 10,911-foot Cathedral Peak was by John Muir in 1869 by what is called the Mountaineers Route.  Inspired by his climb to the summit, he wrote, “How often I have gazed at it from the tops of hills and ridges, and through the openings in the forests on many short excursions, devoutly wondering, admiring, longing!  This I may say is the first time I have been in church in California…”


    W-Cathedral-Peak-ViewI say the route is easily climbed and that is true, except for the summit block.  To scale the last 15 feet, you must swing out onto a rock shelf on the sheer side of the peak – one step to the bottom.  From there, you must make a Class 4 move to the top of the small knob at the very summit.  Kinda spooky for a non-technical climber.  You decide when you get there.

    If you skip the last 15 feet, who cares?  The view from the summit is lovely.  Muir is right.  It seems from here that one can touch the face of God.

    Alpine Country

    W-Great-Sierra-Mine-Window-ViewThere’s no place I would rather walk than in Ann Zwinger’s land above the trees.  The spacious views and clear bracing air, the naked rock dotted with pincushions of ground-hugging flowers, the new snowmelt trickling in mountain creases, resting a moment in high mountain lakes before continuing on – all of this harmonizes in a way that is better felt than adequately described.

    But to live there?  Not a chance.

    I recently visited the remains of the Great Sierra Mine above Gaylor Lakes a short walk from Tioga Pass on the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park.  The mine sits at 11,000 feet on the very crest of the Sierra with views down both sides of the divide.  Rock, rock, and more rock.  Other than the wind-trimmed krummholz of whitebark pines, there was nothing there to soften the scene.

    W-Great-Sierra-Mine-ViewAs I walked among the rocky ruins of miners’ shelters built there in the late 1800’s, I tried to imagine daily life in this environment.  It is a place of stark beauty that is enchanting in the small doses enjoyed by a visitor from the flatland, but all day, every day, the beauty must be trumped by the pervasive starkness.  The day I visited was lovely and still, but it is not hard to imagine the winds and brutal weather that rake this spot.

    So, I gained a new appreciation for the softness of the lowlands that I always seek to escape.  “Down here,” our homes are safely nestled in green rolling terrain, and that feels good.  But “up there” never stops calling for another visit.

    Yosemite Valley in Winter

    M-Gun Sight2To most of us with easy access to Yosemite, the idea of visiting the park passes with the onset of winter.  But my most enjoyable visits there have been in the middle of winter.

    I enjoy photography and the idea of Yosemite Valley draped in snow has always danced in my mind.  One recent winter, I kept a careful eye on the weather reports waiting for a powerful winter storm to pass through.  Because the valley is fairly low (4,000 ft.), it takes a strong system to leave a great deal of snow on the ground.

    Finally, a good storm hit northern California, and on its heels, I grabbed my camera and tripod, and set out for the park.

    My day there will always have a page near the front of my mental scrapbook.  Chains were needed to enter the valley and snow was everywhere in great heaps.  I stopped along the valley road, shouldered my gear and walked through fresh thigh-deep snow down to the Merced River in search of a special scene.  Once there, my concentration on photography was interrupted by a powerful realization:  The din of traffic and human hubbub typical of Yosemite Valley was missing.  The silence was absolute, interrupted only by the glass-crashing sound of ice sloughing off of El Capitan nearby.

    W-Icy-Merced-RiverI was truly experiencing Yosemite Valley as though I was the only person there – even the first person there.

    These are two shots I like from that day.  After the next big storm blows through, think about calling in sick.

    Olmstead Point

    M-Olmstead-Jeffrey-1024x680dBoth the best thing and the worst thing about Yosemite National Park, perhaps any national park, is that everyone goes to the same predictable places.  Waterfalls, granite domes, and vista points attract gobs of people while a hundred yards away, you are likely to find virtual solitude.

    This is particularly true at Olmstead Point, one of the most popular turnouts on the road from Crane Flat to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite.  The view naturally faces down Tenaya Canyon toward breathtaking views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome.

    Few people turn around and venture up the bare granite slope across the street.  There are a variety of sights near and far to delight a wanderer there.  Huge trunk-twisted Sierra juniper grow out of narrow fissures in the granite slab.  Dense clusters of ruby red Mountain Pride penstemon are placed just so, as if according to the plan of some Japanese gardener.  Views of Tenaya Lake and Tenaya Peak appear as you approach the top.

    W-Olmstead-JuiniperThe Jeffery pine above was photographed near sunset at the top of this knob.  The Sierra juniper below was just a lovely sight on the walk up.
    I was alone only a few hundred yards from the Olmstead Point parking lot and lots of cars and lots of people who never crossed the street.

    Backpacking. Why?


    • Carry everything you need on your back.
    • Walk miles over tough terrain.
    • Breathe oxygen deficient air.
    • Sleep on the ground.
    • Crap in a hole.
    • Eat just-add-water food.
    • Bugs.
    • Altitude sickness.

    Who needs this?  Backpacking.  Why?

    This question is a classic example of those that elicit the remark, “If you have to ask the question, you probably won’t understand the answer.”  Never deterred by short odds, let me take a brief stab at it.

    Perhaps the best and briefest answer is in this photograph.  You cannot see sights like this at roadside rest stops.  And if you could, it would not include what this photograph cannot fully convey.  Use your imagination to expand this rectangle into a sphere that fully envelopes you.  The utter stillness, the complete silence, the warm light, the immense reach of space, completely surrounded me on this morning.  I was well off the trail, far away from anyone.

    The magic and the mystery that this photo implies were palpable.

    Add to this scene the sense of nervous vulnerability one feels in the wilderness.  Nasty weather, equipment failures, and injuries can be real, even life-threatening, problems.  When you face such a problem, what are you going to do about it?  In today’s world, we confront few elemental situations where our resourcefulness profoundly matters.  Here, a phone call or a flip of the thermostat won’t cure your discomfort.  You have to find a way with what’s on your back.

    I truly believe that a moment like this in the wilderness – truly alone, where one’s hold on basic comforts is so tenuous – changes a person in a profound way.  Such moments expand your sense of self and awaken in you the magic of the world.

    Backpacking?  That’s why.  There’s a price, but the dividend is priceless.



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