But the scenery in the rugged Panamint Range is worth it:
You can view a map of my trip towards the bottom of my first story in this series.
But the scenery in the rugged Panamint Range is worth it:
You can view a map of my trip towards the bottom of my first story in this series.
I arrived below sea level in Death Valley in the early morning after photographing sunrise from near Hells Gate.
You can view a map of my trip towards the bottom of my first story in this series.
The landscape at Zabriskie Point, with its folds and crevasses and cliffs, reminds me of a textile, or maybe even a quilt.
After photographing sunset at Rhyolite, I spent the night in a motel-casino in Beatty, Nevada. This motel-casino was truly a disturbing place, with the constant clink of gambling machines invading the air made fetid and stale by old tobacco smoke. Here’s more about my feelings regarding Nevada culture (an oxymoron). View a map of the area towards the bottom of my first story in this series.
Before the sun was up the next morning I was on my way west on Nevade Highway 374. At the Hells Gate entrance to Death Valley National Park, I took a cutoff past the Wonder Mine. A little above the Wonder Mine, I pulled off by the side of the road to photograph the sunrise.
Rhyolite is a ghost town at the eastern entrance to Death Valley. (View a map of the area towards the bottom of my first story in this series.)
Once Rhyolite was a bustling metropolis with a three-story shopping district, carriages, and fashionably dressed people.
Today there’s nothing but the whistling wind, and dusty signs warning tourists about rattle snakes.
When I visit places like Rhyolite, I am inevitably reminded of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias:
I MET a Traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.”
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Will our civilization–so grand and impressive to us–vanish like Rhyolite and Ozymandias?
Julian, my eight-year old, and I visited Bodie, another famous ghost town, earlier in the year. Here’s the story.
Bristlecone Pines are the oldest living things in the world, and the largest group of Bristlcone Pines are high in the White Mountains on the eastern side of Owens Valley. (View a map of the area towards the bottom of my first story in this series.)
These trees grow best in harsh conditions where it’s hard for other species to compete with them:
A hike around the Methuselah Grove, where the oldest of the old trees lives, is like a visit to God. If ever there were a real temple or church, this is it.
Methuselah itself is not identified by the Forest Service (the ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is part of Inyo National Forest). This lack of specific identification is intended to protect Methuselah, the oldest of all living things, from vandalism and souvenir hunters.
But hiking on the trail around the Methuselah Grove, I felt sentience — ancient, sleepy, wise — and that the eyes of the old ones were upon me:
This picture shows the flower of the bougainvillea. The color of this plant comes from the wonderful leaves, not the small white-yellow flower you can see in this photo.
When we first moved to California and started our garden I was besotted with bougainvilleas. I thought, “How Mediterrean. How exotic! How wonderful!”
In fact, the bougainvillea seems to have originated in Brazil. The plant thrives in climates like the south of France (and northern California), and the French urge to empire was responsible for spreading it around the world in appropriate zones.
That first year, I planted three bougainvilleas I bought at Home Depot. My gardening was in the spirit of Nietzsche’s “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” — my thought was that if the plants had survived neglect at Home Depot, they’d probably do well anywhere.
In fact, I never water the things or do anything to take care of them. It takes a major amount of effort to keep them from becoming a jungle. The thorns on the plant are vicious. I can see now why local gardeners kind of regard the bougainvillea as an alien pest.
On the other hand, this flower and leaves came from one of our original Nietzschean bougainvilleas planted so long ago – and it is beautiful!
Westgard Pass lies on lonely Route 168 between Big Pine and the great open desert country of basins, ranges, and valleys. (View a map of the area towards the bottom of my first story in this series.)
Westgard Pass is closed to commercial trucking (the road is too narrow, steep, and twisting). Beyond Westgard Pass, to the east is a small, isolated college in Deep Springs, a ranch or two in Oasis, and nothing much else in terms of towns or people until you hit Goldfield or Beatty in Nevada, hundreds of miles away.
Oh yes, at the otherwise barren intersection of Nevada Highway 266 and U.S. 95 there are a series of legal whorehouses in the middle of nowhere. Invariably created from a number of pre-fabs stitched together, these hermetic and airconditioned institutions have big signs saying “Brothel,” “Open for Business,” and “Free Parking All Night.” If you are curious about legal prositution in Nevada, here’s the Wikipedia article on the topic, and here’s a site put up by the marketing arm of the legal Nevada prostitution business organization.
As far as I am concerned, human society in Nevada is pretty gross. Stinking of stale tobacco smoke in every room, Nevadans have even managed to make consensual sin with another person look lonely and solitary.
This picture shows Westgard Pass, which I think of as the gateway to the desert, from above.
Between the Sierra crest on the west rising to heights above 14,000 feet, and the White Mountains to the east — with summits above 12,000 feet — Owens Valley is the deepest valley in the United States. It’s elevation varies, but is typically around 4,000 feet, so you are looking at a valley that is 8,000 feet deep. Deeper, in other words, than the Grand Canyon.
Here’s a photo looking across the valley towards the Sierra crest:
I think that Owens Valley is one of the surpassingly beautiful places on this earth. It is still fairly undeveloped, although beginning to get a little more crowded.
Early last century, the city of Los Angeles engineered a notorious heist of the water flowing through the valley. In some ways, this may have helped preserved the remote, undeveloped, and beautiful feeling of Owens Valley. (Although this was surely not the motivation of the Angelenos, who merely wanted to wash their cars, water their lawns, and fill their swimming pools.)
The photo at the top of this story shows the inner Owens River gorge, which has become a climbing mecca. The climbing spot is to the left and behind this picture.
Further down Owens Valley, the river becomes a gentle creek, as you can see in this picture I took of an Owens River swimming hole in the early morning:
Hot Creek is a cold mountain stream flowing out of the eastern Sierra. Intense volcanic activity makes eddies of hot, bathable water in the middle of the stream.
For me, Hot Creek is a canonical stop in any trip to the eastern Sierra, as it was recently after I headed over Tioga Pass and before I went down into Owens Valley (view a map of my trip).
Despite fairly heavy usage — on a summer weekend there will likely be hundreds of people in the various pools in the creek, the Green Tortoise makes it a regular stop, and German tourists on Harley Davidson motorcycles visit on a schedule — the place is pretty clean and unspoiled.
Hot Creek lies on U.S. Forest Service land, which calls the place a “geologic feature” and plays down the bathing aspect. Signs at the parking lot at the top of the trail down to the creek report various accidents at the creek (dogs have gone into scalding hot pools, and their owners have been hurt going in after them).
There’s nothing like lolling around in 104 degree water for hours to facilitate pleasant conversations with strangers. One of my companions this time was a risk management professional. His job was to assess risk from things like storms, earthquakes, and volcanic activity for clients like electric utilities.
We chuckled together about a risk management consultant placidly bathing in one of the most active volcanic sites in the country. Then he said something I’ve been thinking about since then:
I know it could blow here anytime, but it’s worth it. As a professional matter, the risks you know about can be judged and calibrated. The risks someone doesn’t know about are incalculable to that person — because they don’t know about them. When something you haven’t thought of that is bad happens, you feel blindsided. But this is not a realistic attitude, because everything has a probability.
The sun was just reaching the trees, as in this picture, when I drove through the Valley on my way to the junction with Route 120 towards Tioga Pass. (You can see a map here.)
At the opening to the Valley, where Route 120 peels up and away from Route 140 (which heads down to Merced), I saw a hitchhiker with a backpack headed my way. It’s perhaps appropriate to mention at this point that the car I drive, fondly called “URL” (his license plate — we pronounce it “earl”), was bought with tech bubble proceeds to impress investors, and not as a photographer’s car. Here’s a picture of URL-the-car (taken later on this same trip in Rhyolite-the-ghost-town):
To digress, “URL” is a great car for roadtrips, but not really the thing for navigating tracks in the mountains and deserts (let alone the trackless mountains and desert) . The ideal photographer’s car should be four-wheel drive, have high clearance, not be conspicuous, and have room to sleep in the back.
The hitchhiker was about my age (definitely old enough to know better) as scruffy as only someone can be who has been spending unwashed time on the trail. His name was Mark. Mark smelled bad enough that I inwardly winced when he said he was going up to Lake Tenaya — when I smelled the stink I’d been hoping the ride would be of shorter duration. I powered down my window even though it was morning chill outside.
Things got better when we started talking. Mark was from Idaho. He’d left his car up at the Sunrise lot near Lake Tenaya, and hiked down to the Valley. After several days, he was on his way back to his car.
Mark explained to me that he wasn’t carrying any food to avoid having to deal with bear canisters (and the bears in the Valley). I stopped by Yosemite Creek at a picnic ground to get him some jerky and trail mix. Mark said he could eat as we drove. I explained to him that nobody eats in URL-the-car, and asked him to finish eating before we started driving again. I think Mark thought this was pretty funny — he started asking about my kids, the state of my wife’s car, and how I felt about desert dust.
I asked Mark what he did for a living, and he said he was an investor. Pretty soon we were deep in arcane discussions of Brazilian index funds, energy options, and technology stocks.
Mark said he thought people in their twenties were different from him and me. I asked how, specifically. He said they didn’t have a clue about vaccuum cleaners. (Meaning, I guess, that cleaning wasn’t high on the agenda for young people, and also that they found it hard to follow the linear instruction materials that typically come with appliances like vaccuum cleaners.)
I asked Mark why he thought he knew about twenty-somethings. He said he winters in the south of India, spending $1.23 a day, and spends a lot of time with young people on the beach in India and at Burning Man.
I think Mark was missing what the social scientists call an intervening variable: the people who end up on the beach in Southern India, or at Burning Man, of whatever age, are less likely to be interested in vaccuum cleaners than people walking the corporate path. When I was much younger, I had a girlfriend I thought very exotic and intriguing because she had spent a great deal of time hanging out in India. She was inordinately fond of her bong from Goa. And she certainly didn’t have a clue about vaccuum cleaners, or cleanliness. QED.
But Mark was truly right about one thing that is usually very hard for wealthy people to grasp. He said, “I think having too much money can really isolate you from important life experiences.”
For example, most millionaires don’t hitchhike. If Mark were one of them, he and I wouldn’t have met, and I would have missed getting to know a fascinating soul.
It’s hard for me to remember all of our wide-ranging conversation, but I do think that the most important for Mark was that people should avoid being trapped by their habits, and avoid getting stuck in a narrow rut. In his view, having money is a potential trap — as is simply following habits reflexively. He said, “If you are getting stuck doing the same thing without thinking, move to another city.”
I dropped Mark off at his car (a battered camper with Idaho plates) and stopped beside Lake Tenaya to photograph the reflections shown at the top of this story, in a previous blog story, and here:
On my trip, I left Yosemite Valley and drove across Tioga Pass. (I’ll write more about this segment of my journey in another blog entry.)
I stopped at the west end of Lake Tenaya for a little down time in the sun (would you believe I was going to read a copy of the New York Times I had picked up in the Valley?) and encountered the wonderful reflection, enhanced a bit with my polarizer.
I’ve been asked a number of times rcently how I process my photos before I upload them to flickr. So I thought I’d write about what I do.
It takes me roughly an hour an image. Often, this is more time than it took to take the photo — more evidence to me that digital photography is a cyborg, one part photographer and one part computer.
There’s nothing that says that you have to do anything so elaborate. For the most part, a Jpeg image straight from your camera will look OK. (But you should know that the Jpeg format automatically sharpens and adjusts the color and contrast balance of images — something that a good human operator can probably do better.)
Here’s how I processed this image (and most of my photos) for display on flickr. (As you may know, I use flickr as the image management software behind this photoblog.)
First, I have my camera set to capture all photos in RAW and Jpeg formats. The RAW version — which is unoptimized but provides all the information from the original capture — is what I’ll use, because I do a better job of finishing a photo than the Jpeg algorithm.
But it is useful to have an initial Jpeg capture because this will tell you (at least most of the time) what the finished image will look like a little better than the RAW version.
I use Adobe Bridge software to scan images to see what came out well enough to bother with. As I said, mostly the Jpeg version gives one a better quick impression of a photo than the RAW version.
You can use the Bridge to tag (and later on filter) photos for quality as a kind of sorting system, but I usually don’t bother with this. Instead, I jot down on a pad of paper the images I am interested in working with further.
Once I’ve settled on an image for further work, I open it in Adobe Photoshop. (Note: I use Photoshop, but for everything I describe in this entry you could use the far less expensive Photoshop Elements with almost exactly the same effect.)
When you open the RAW image in Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements), you can make many adjustments. (See my earlier entry for more information about opening RAW images in Photoshop CS2, and a related piece about processing digital photos.)
Generally, and this is based on my personal preferences, I tend to make the color in my photos more dramatic before I open them by upping the color temperature, tint, and saturation.
I also go for a more dramatic effect by upping shadows and contrast, and compensate by also upping brightness and the exposure.
But all photo conversion effects when converting the RAW image need to be monitored sensitively. It is easy to go too far.
It’s useful to know that once you get the RAW conversion right for one photo in a set (taken in the same light conditions), you can use the same settings for the rest of the photos — by telling Photoshop to use the previous conversion rather than the camera defaults, or by selecting a previously converted image to use as the model for the conversion.
Once the converted image opens in Photoshop, the first thing you want to do is save it off as a PSD file (Photoshop’s native format). You want to be sure to do this so that the original file is never touched by your manipulations.
Next, if the image is to be cropped, use the Photoshop Crop Tool to crop it.
The next step is to adjust the image levels by choosing Image > Adjustments > Levels. The idea here is to manually adjust the histograms represnting the R, G, and B levels to eliminate color outliers that either show spikes in the given primary color, or do not show any color at all. Here’s the Red level pushed in to eliminate the spikes at both ends (you’d also push the ends in if no color at all were shown at the ends):
You need to be a little careful with this. If adjusting the level for a given RGB primary color makes the image less pleasing, then you should also tweak the color using the slider shown in the center of the Levels dialog.
Once I’m satisified with my manual adjustment of levels, I generally put the image through Image > Adjustments > Auto Levels. If I’ve down everything right, this doesn’t have too much impact, but does kind of smooth things out. I also try Image > Adjustments > Auto Contrast and Image > Adjustments > Auto Color to see what they do. But be careful: more often than not Auto Color produces a lousy effect, and I have to undo it.
Next, I work on detail areas of the photo (if there are any). This usually means removing imperfections and artifacts with the Clone Stamp Tool and/or slightly adjusting the color in specific selected image areas using the Selective Color dialog (Image > Adjustments > Selective Color).
The photo is now almost there, but needs to be sharpened. To do this, first I apply the Unsharp Mask (Filters > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask). I sharpen it somewhere between 50% and 70% with the radius set low (between 1 and 2 pixels). Then I use the Smart Sharpen filter (Filters > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen), shown here:
I don’t use Smart Sharpen at a high percentage – no more than 30%. And I watch the impact of the radius setting carefully. The higher the number of pixels used in the radius setting, the more apparent sharpness. But setting the radius high — above 5 pixels — actually causes information to be lost, and can lead to a sort of weird fuzzy-but-sharp look. So you need to be careful with this.
When you are happy with it, save the image in its PSD format. It’s now ready to be archived, and you can used the PSD version if you ever want to make a print or reproduce the photo via Photoshop.
To make a version for flickr, save it as a Jpeg using the highest possible resolution.
Next, upload it to flickr. I use the Flickr Uploadr, a bit of software that you download from flickr. But be somewhat warned: this software is officially beta, and sometimes acts like it! It’s nice that you can upload multiple images at the same time with it.
People use flickr for many reasons. For example, my primary use of flickr is for image management. But I’m also happy to be part of the wonderful flickr community. As part of the community, once your photos have been uploaded to flickr, you should tag them, organize them into “Sets,” and add them to flickr Groups to share them with others. Two good flickr groups for this purpose are 1-2-3 and Macro-1-2-3.
Happy but foot weary I came down the trail from Vernal and Nevada Falls, determined if it was before 3PM (I didn’t have a watch with me) to stick to Plan A. Plan A being to get on the shuttle bus, find my car, and drive up and around to the country near Glacier Point.
At an elevation of 7,000 or more, this country would stay bright (and photographable) much later than the Valley.
Once I got up there, I decided to hike up to Sentinal Dome, which is about a mile from the road and has a view extending west to the great California valley and east to the Sierra Crest.
This view of Yosemite Valley sinking into sunset and shadows is from the summit of the dome, as are these photos of rocks and blasted trees:
When I saw the sun shining newly risen at the top of Vernal Falls, I couldn’t still my wandering feet.
“Onward,” they said to me, “and upwards!”
Where one’s feet go, one’s soul must follow. And so I climbed the Mist Trail, a giant stairway that brought me past the rainbow (and other wonders).
The postscript is that once on top of Vernal Falls, I couldn’t just stay there but must needs climb higher – to the top of Nevada Falls and more wonders.
You can take the boy out of the macro, but you can’t take the macro out of the boy!
On my recent trip there were great stark desert landscapes and autumn aspens on the eastern Sierra slope (I’ll soon be posting some of these), but not much in the way of close-up opportunities.
So today I grabbed Phyllis, the kit, and a picnic and headed over to Blake Garden for a little lunch and photo-macrography.
I spent the first couple of nights of my road trip in Yosemite Valley.
I stayed at Curry Village for $29.00 per night in a canvas tent. Delaware North Corporation (DNC) runs the place along with all the concessions in the Valley. It’s a wonder that DNC can’t even keep the place moderately clean. The food is so awful that David and Jennie Curry, who founded the place as a way to let working people enjoy nature, would turn over in their graves — the early Camp Curry was known for its fine food!. (More on Camp Curry…)
DNC and the Park Service must have a cozy relationship made up one part cronyism, one part shared ideology, and one part kick-backs. My own experience of nature was marred by a loud exhaust fan that ran all night. Although this subject is worth some serious investigative reporting, enough ranting! I had a great time anyhow.
At this time of year (mid-October) the Valley floor only gets sunshine in the middle of the day, say about 10 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon.
I woke to a beautiful day! My plan was to photograph late afternoon and sunset from Sentinal Dome and Glacier Point, but I thought I’d start out by stretching my legs and walking up to the first bridge on the Vernal-Nevada Falls trail.
Oh, I should mention that the big Valley waterfalls were mostly dry. Yosemite Falls was not flowing. One ranger told me that tourists regularly requested that he “turn the waterfalls” back on.
Anyhow, I walked took the shuttle bus to the trailhead and walked the mile to the first bridge. I was alone in the early morning shade. I looked up. Sunlight was hitting the top of the falls. It was time to take out my camera and tripod!
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