Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Solitude and Civilization

There are several large areas of dunes in California; the best known are in Death Valley and here, in the extreme southwest corner of the state right next to Arizona, are the Algodones Dunes. More commonly known as the Imperial Dunes, because that is the name of the recreational area set aside for all the dune buggies, ATVs and dirt bikes that buzz around burning gas literally by the tens of thousands on any given weekend. Especially in the winter when it's cool, there is basically a temporary city of campers and motor homes each weekend as thousands migrate here to play in the sand. Fortunately, the much larger part of the area is set aside as a pure wilderness... no vehicles or other man made activity is allowed except for hiking and nature watching. So, as peaceful and desolate as this image may look, a mile or so behind from where I took this is all the motorized craziness. Wandering out in this direction, you can barely find another human footprint, but if you look closely in the foreground you can see part of a few prints that look like a coyote had walked by, and we found numerous beetle and bug tracks in the undisturbed sand also. There are no trails, obviously... you can just wander around up and down the dunes wherever you want until you get tired, which doesn't take that long walking in the loose sand. Dangerously hot here in the summer, but winter is very comfortable.
I mentioned this area briefly in a previous post, and have been struggling a bit since then with how to present these; going back and forth between B&W vs. color so many times that I'm not sure which I prefer... depends on what particular day I happen to look at them I guess. For today, I'll show a color image and then maybe a B&W one later... I'm always curious about what people prefer. Since it was winter and the days were short, we stuck around until late in the day to capture the low golden light and deep shadows just before sunset.
You can get a sense of scale and see an interesting shot of the dunes taken from the international space station

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Big Sky Over Owens Valley

After more than the usual amount of research and writing for my last post, I hope no one minds if I keep it short and simple for a few days. This scene is shot from the Whitney Portal road (leads to the main trailhead for climbing Mt. Whitney), looking north towards Bishop and across Owens Valley.  The edge of the Sierras are seen on the left and the White Mountains are on the right, (eastward) towards Nevada. It was a winter day as you can probably tell, though no snow was on the ground down in the valley. This road however, was closed due to snow and ice from the point where I took this. One brave solo backpacker was planning to climb the mountain alone and was trying to convince someone to give him a ride to the normal end of the road, which would have saved several extra miles of hiking, but after walking up the road a bit and seeing the conditions, I had to politely decline. He convinced someone else to try, but they were only gone a few minutes before coming back down, so I don't think he got much help.
Please click on the image for a larger view and be sure to check out lots and lots of other SkyWatch Friday No. 44 links at their home page.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Story of "A Vagabond for Beauty"

A small article in the local paper caught my eye and my interest recently, and after searching into it further, the story began to resonate with me on so many levels that I thought it would make for an intriguing entry. I know that many of my readers are fellow photographers, artists, or nature lovers, so hopefully some will appreciate this as much as me. It may mean more or less to you depending on your experience with art history and the lure of the American West.
"There is a splendid freedom in solitude, and after all, it is for solitude that I go to the mountains and deserts, not for companionship. In solitude I can bare my soul to the mountains unabashed. I can work or think, act or recline at my whim, and nothing stands between me and the Wild."
-Everett Ruess

In November of 1934, a young 20 year old man named Everett Ruess, traveling alone except for two burros and some basic gear, as he had been for much of the previous four years, set out down the Hole in the Rock trail from the town of Escalante, in south central Utah, intending to explore further south towards the Colorado River. He was never seen again after that day... and the mystery of his disappearance became a legendary mystery that remained unsolved for nearly 75 years. What catches the imagination is that he was an extremely talented artist, writer, poet and experienced explorer even at his young age.

Ruess's family lived in Los Angeles and after graduating school, he left normal life behind to wander up the California coast, into Yosemite and the Sierras, sketching and photographing the natural wonders along the way and keeping a detailed record of his thoughts and travels, mostly in the form of letters back home to his family. He explored Yosemite, Sequoia N.P. and the High Sierras in 1930 and '33; Arizona, Utah and Colorado in 1931, '32 & '34. Those letters were compiled into a book called "A Vagabond for Beauty" and form a journal of insights and experiences from some of the most desolate and beautiful areas one could ever hope to see. I have added the book to my Amazon sidebar.. you can click on it to read some sample pages (don't worry, it doesn't cost anything to just look!)

He was one hell of an accomplished writer for his age and was fearless about introducing himself to some of the most established artists of the day. One early trip took him to Carmel, CA where he describes seeking out Edward Weston at his house there... exploring the Point Lobos area and doing artwork with Weston's sons, Bret and Cole and sleeping in their garage. He later stayed with renowned western painter Maynard Dixon and his then wife, photographer Dorothea Lang (who took some of the best pictures of him), as well as photographer Ansel Adams.

He made drawings for reference, then back home in Los Angeles would work them up as linoleum block prints, very simple and graphic, which he could in turn trade for necessities on future travels. There is a site devoted to his artwork and writings here. Probably he was far from reaching his full potential as an artist and who knows how good he might have become had he lived past 20 years.

Some of you who saw the movie "Into the Wild" may think Ruess's story sounds kind of familiar; there is indeed an eerie similarity between Everett's life and that of Chris McCandless decades later, in fact Jon Krakauer devoted a whole section of his book to Ruess for that reason, although it was not covered in the movie. It seems they both wanted to leave their old selves behind: McCandless traveled under the name "Alexander Supertramp" and Ruess is known to have carved "Nemo" ("nobody" in Latin) at some of the places he camped in the desert.

Now, the last chapter of his story is complete. Researchers at the University of Colorado have used DNA from some bones discovered recently, 60 miles from Escalante, to verify that the mystery of Everett's vanishing is pretty much solved. As has been proven many times, events rarely happen a vacuum... so in the early 1970's, a Navajo man named Aneth Nez was told by a tribal medicine man to unburden himself of a secret that he had carried since his youth, when he sat up on a ridge one day and witnessed some Ute Indian boys chase down and murder a young white man to steal his belongings. Not wishing the body to be left exposed and alone, Nez went down and buried it in some nearby rocks. He told the story to his granddaughter and she in turn just last year relayed it her younger brother, who made it his personal mission to search the area his grandfather had described, at last finding bones and some other artifacts along with his grandfather's saddle, which had been left at the scene because it was covered in blood. This part of the tale is written up with great detail this month in "National Geographic Adventure" magazine and you can read part of it for free on their website. There was also a documentary film made in 2000, numerous magazine articles have speculated about Everett's fate, musician Dave Alvin of the Blasters and others have written songs about him and there is in recent years an annual art festival bearing his name in Escalante.

I guess my fascination with all this lies in the overlap of names and places from this tale with many of the same ones that have been influential to me personally. You could say Weston and Adams are two of my idols and I can only imagine how great it would have been to meet them at a young age... and I have been awed to experience even briefly some of the places that Ruess was so devoted to, especially the Grand Staircase region of Utah where he ultimately ended up staying forever, as he would have wished anyway, I'm sure.

"I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities."
... as to when I revisit civilization, it will not be soon. I have not tired of the wilderness... It is enough that I am surrounded with beauty... This had been a full, rich year. I have left no strange or delightful thing undone I wanted to do.
- from the last letter Ruess sent to his brother, dated November 11, 1934.

Oh yeah,... my two pieces (both are linked to larger versions for this post): for the color one, I caught the early light of a winter morning on some bare cottonwood trees along the Virgin River in Zion Canyon. The monochrome image is of Metate Arch in the Devil's Garden, found about 20 miles down Hole in the Rock road, south of Escalante, and very likely a spot that Reuss passed on his last fateful journey.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Red Canyon in Monochrome

Wikipedia lists more that 70 canyons in the U.S. named "Red Canyon", not surprisingly most of them in the southwest, but this particular one is located on the road to Bryce Canyon, and is only about 9 miles to the west of the national park entrance. Many people don't bother to stop here; the landscape is extraordinary enough to produce "oohs" and "ahhs" but probably that makes everyone anxious to get to Bryce, so they whiz on through.  It's worth stopping for more that a quick roadside snapshot, however.. it's got some lonely trails to hike and fantastic scenery if you turn off the main road for a bit, plus it's totally uncrowded. There's no entry fee and it's open to mountain bikes, horses, ATVs, camping... you can pretty much do whatever you want.
The famous outlaw Butch Cassidy grew up near here and is said to have used it as a hideout on occasion... you can see why. If you were familiar enough with this area I don't think anyone could ever find you.
I made this shot in bright mid-day sun, so the deep blue sky and the bright red/orange rocks exposed through a polarizer produce a kind of infrared effect when processed in monochrome. 
Be sure to visit Aileni's Monochrome Maniacs index every Monday for a weekly list of B&W submissions from around the blogosphere.