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The Artist's Palette

January 16th, 2020

The Artist

There was just one more location we wanted to explore before heading home after one of our Death Valley adventures. It was February, and Stephen and I had hiked Surprise Canyon to the ghost town of Panamint City. It was a five-mile uphill hike to this former silver mining town that boasted a population of 2,000 people prior to being destroyed by a flashflood in 1876. Surprise Canyon, named for the perennial spring and accompanying stream, was a tough hike. We named the first stretch “the jungle” because it was completely overgrown with lush, green, overhead vegetation. A machete would have come in handy here. Then it was rock, rock, rock and more rock as we made our way up the canyon. Somewhere in this section one rock was carved with these words; HUMAN STUPIDITY HAS NO LIMITS 1997. Nearing the end of the trail a towering brick chimney, used in the smelting process, stands witness to this notorious town that once hosted a dozen saloons. The sun had set and it was dark when we arrived back in camp at the end of the day.

Skidoo, another long-forgotten mining town, was our final stop on this Death Valley adventure. Infamously remembered as the town that hung the same man twice, the drive to Skidoo is a long winding dusty, unpaved trail out to what feels like the middle of nowhere. At the turn of the century, a 23-mile long steel pipeline had been laid to quench the thirst of the Skidoo mill that only produced a few million dollars in gold. Talk about unlimited human stupidity! In 1917 the whole pipeline was scrapped and sold to help the war effort. Ominous dark clouds filled the sky when we finally arrived at the Skidoo ruins. We hiked around the remains of the enormous old timber constructed mill with all of its rusted iron fittings, taking pictures and realizing that the temperature was dropping rapidly, and yes, those were snowflakes falling from the sky. The metal legs of my tripod had grown so cold that I could barely hang on to them and we were convinced that we had each begun to turn blue with cold. Returning to the cab of the pickup to escape the cold, my final comment to Stephen about Skidoo was “I’m freezing in Death Valley!”

Death Valley called my name for many years before I ever had the opportunity to visit this land of relentless heat and the blinding white salt flat that marks the lowest spot in North America. Since then, numerous trips to this legendary Valley and surrounding region have been unforgettable.

Most people don’t think of altitude and evergreens when the topic of Death Valley is mentioned, but one of my most distinct memories is from the summit of Telescope Peak, 11,000 feet above the “sink” as the Badwater Basin far below is sometimes referred to. David and I had camped at Mahogany Flat campground overnight, planning on an all day hike the next day to reach the summit of Telescope Peak. From an elevation of 8,200 feet, the trail begins on the east side of the mountain with the trail head sign reading seven miles to the summit. So, our hike began on a clear, sunny September morning. Countless little black lizards were sunning themselves in the morning heat on the east side of the mountain that morning, and along the way we stopped numerous times to take in the incredible views into the depths of the Valley below. About midway into the trail we came to a wide saddle that provided a view of the Panamint Valley to the west. It too, lay thousands of vertical feet below us. Between us and the bottom of this valley there were enormous steep walled canyons, bottomless in appearance. Continuing along, we began passing trees. One old severely weathered, lifeless tree stood like a ghost sentinel along the trail. There were countless pieces of black rock layered, black, tan, black, tan . . . ; they looked like the pages of old books. Further along there were more trees, living trees; short squat tough looking little evergreens that had that look about them that says we’ve stood the test of time and the elements. Clouds began appearing overhead and their shadows created a fascinating pattern on the barren mountainside. At last the summit was visible. Breathing was difficult in the thin air. David arrived at the summit ahead of me, no surprise; he’s a marathon runner. I’d only been standing at the summit for a few moments when it happened. Out of nowhere a bird, a bird of prey with wings tucked, flashed by us on a steep power dive into one of the canyons below. Far, far below some poor rabbit or squirrel was about to become lunch for a hungry bird. It was an incredible sight! Unforgettable!

When the conditions are right, the clarity of the desert sky is unbelievable. Distances are very difficult to determine because of this. A mountain or sand dune that appears to be just a few miles away, can in reality be twenty-five or thirty miles away. This sense of optical illusion is ever-present wherever one travels in this area. I love the way Mary Austin described this wonderful desert phenomenon “For one thing there is the divinest, cleanest air to be breathed anywhere in God’s world.” Death Valley is the lowest place on the continent, and in this land of extremes one can also see the highest mountain peak in the lower 48, Mount Whitney, 70 miles distant. One October day I hiked to the top of Wild Rose Peak at an elevation of just over 9,000 feet. Conditions that day were perfect, cool temperatures in the shade, comfortably warm in the sun, and there was a waning halfmoon low in the morning sky. There wasn’t even the tiniest breath of wind or a cloud in the deep blue sky overhead when I reached the summit. Glaring white salt, snow-like in appearance shimmered from the Badwater Basin 9,000 feet below me to the east. Ridge after succeeding ridge, in ever lighter shades of grey spread west from where I stood, and there in the distance 70 miles away was the eastern crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The light colored, granite face of Mount Whitney piercing the sky higher than anything else in sight. It seemed close enough to reach and touch! Unforgettable!

Time spent in Death Valley is time spent in an everchanging kaleidoscope of geologic color unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. Walking through Golden Canyon late in the afternoon one Spring I saw yellows, oranges and golds of a dozen shades painting the pigmented hills and badlands. Deeper into the canyon, the Red Cathedral, a massive and intricately eroded cliff surged up into view. A rich reddish-brown run along the apex of the cliff line, interrupted by deep erosion scars. Candy cane stripes of golden yellow and cinnamon brown blanket the badlands below. From the top of Golden Canyon the Zabriskie Point badlands come into view. At least a half dozen shades of brown ranging from dark chocolate to milkshake brown decorate the landscape. In the morning the Manly Beacon peak stands out in a half dozen shades of yellow earth, banana, daffodil, and butter against the distant purple tone of the Panamint Mountains. Wait a couple of hours and all of these colors will have taken on a new look as the sun makes its trek across the desert sky, and at evening the colors appear to glow. Along the four mile long Artist’s Drive is one of the most concentrated areas of geologic color in the Valley. This eye-dazzling oasis of color is appropriately named the Artist’s Palette. A road side interpretive sign describes things like this “Various mineral pigments have colored these volcanic deposits. Iron salts produce the reds, pinks and yellows. Decomposing mica causes the green. Manganese supplies the purple . . . I’ve seen dozens of onlooking tourists stand amazed before this rainbow of rock, and with changes in the angle of sunlight throughout the day the colors take on new nuances of color. Strangely enough just minutes before viewing this wonder I stopped along the road to get a picture of another desert curiosity, only this one was nearly colorless. It was a single plant, a small burro weed growing in an expanse of loose, gravel sized lifeless rock. The leaves of this plant grow at an angle decreasing direct sun exposure and they are pale gray, nearly white in color. I could go on and on about this wonderland of color etched in my memory, but my time and space are limited, unlike the colors I’ve attempted with inadequate words to describe.

It’s the last week of December and I’m thinking about the new year ahead. I haven’t returned to Death Valley in more than a year, and the Valley is calling my name again. I’m hoping to return in the next few months, camera in hand. As Mary Austin put it “None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have a lotus charm.”

Whispers and Fingerprints

December 11th, 2019

I had been telling my roommate for months about the wonders of Yosemite Valley. Off and on we talked about a group of guys doing a camping trip to the Valley so that my roommate from the East Coast could take in a bit of our magnificent Western scenery, after all he had been so excited about going for a swim in the Pacific. I was sure he would be impressed. Time passed and the opportunity finally presented itself. The plan was to leave LA at midnight, drive through the night and arrive at Yosemite Valley as the sun was coming up. It was summer, the days were long. We left the LA area as discussed at midnight and arrived at Tunnel View for the early morning light. We spent our day hiking, planning to camp that night and return the next day. By early afternoon my roommate informed us that he’d seen enough and was ready to head back to LA now. He couldn’t figure out what all the talk had been about. It was then that my roommate shared that Yosemite Valley was “just a bunch of rocks”!

An entirely different thought process takes place within me when I venture into the wild, whether it be Yosemite Valley, Death Valley or simply a nearby hillside covered with wildflowers in springtime.

A few years ago, I made a spring trip to Joshua Tree National Park. It had been a wet spring in California so I was expecting to see some of our famous desert wildflowers. The gorgeous display of shapes and colors I encountered far exceeded my expectations. It was amazing! The variety of shapes and colors and sizes was incredible. I found intense, dark blue flowers, five-petaled rich magenta flowers with white hearts, pumpkin orange colored flowers buzzing with bees and brilliant red blooms on the strange funnel shaped ocotillo bushes. The ocotillo flowers were arranged in a way that reminded me of a sparkler for the Fourth of July. There were creamy white, six-petaled yucca blooms and lime green colored flowers on the cholla cactus. The petals of these flowers looked like torn tissue paper. The flowers of the beaver tail cactus were a fluorescent shade of pink that seemed to glow after the sun set. This is just a small sampling of what I encountered hiking across the open desert. I’ve also viewed some of the world’s greatest and most famous works of art at places like the Norton Simon museum in Pasadena, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Huntington Library in San Marino. The artist who created these works labored passionately to create masterpieces that have stood the test of time and dazzled people for centuries. When I look at a great work of art, I enjoy it, and then I start thinking about the person who created that work of art. Who were they? What motivated them? What else did they create? These same thoughts ran through my mind walking across the carpet of spring wildflowers in the desert.

Some of the most impressive statues I’ve ever seen are in the city of Budapest, Hungary. Walking the streets of this historic queen of the Danube on a summer afternoon is such a pleasure. Everywhere one looks there are magnificent works of architecture and art. There are statues, statues, statues, everywhere exquisite statues. I remember stately lions guarding one of the seven bridges that crosses the Danube, poets and statesmen, and warriors remembered in bronze and stone along the elegant riverside walkway. And then there’s the majestic work of Hero’s Square displayed on skillfully carved pillars and stands of granite. All of these works together, however, cannot compare with the stone work of Yosemite Valley. Visiting the Valley for the first time as a teen was an experience I’ll never forget. The sheer size of El Capitan left me mesmerized. I stared in disbelief at this glorious monolith of stone. The shape and positioning of Half Dome at the far end of the Valley is a display of rugged perfection. Taft Point and Sentinel Dome rest in quiet majesty across from the dizzying drop of Yosemite Falls. I could go on and on about the incredible chiseled and carved scenery of Yosemite Valley. It’s no wonder that John Muir called this place the “grandest of all the special temples of nature.” I see the Sierra Nevada as hundreds of miles of some of the most majestic stone work on Earth, and I wonder. I wonder about the sculptor who seems to be whispering through the stones.

Growing up in Los Angeles I had the experience as a child of visiting the Griffith Park Observatory in the hills above the city. From the outdoor observation deck of the Observatory there is a sweeping view of the city, and at night this view is marvelous. Thousands upon thousands of lights brighten the night sky, and one can make out the city streets with long strings of lights all in lines stretching across the city. This spectacle, however, interferes with the viewing of a far grander and more glorious phenomenon of the night, a star filled sky on a moonless night. A family trip to Palm Springs, also when I was a child, was my first ever experience of seeing the night sky away from the lights of the city. I remember gazing in wonderment, surprise and astonishment into the night sky above me. It was filled with seemingly endless stars and the Milky Way that stretched in a soft glow across the heavens above. There above me were the constellations I’d learned about at school. Where had all this been all my life? Why had I never seen it before? Was it even real? Over the years, I’ve looked into the star filled night sky many times from beyond the lights of the city. What a marvel it is! One night in the Sierras, I saw seven shooting stars streak past in about five minutes time, spectacular! On another occasion, this time on a moonless night in Death Valley, the starlight was so bright that no flashlight was needed around our campsite. The delightful pattern of lights across the city of Los Angeles at night is there by design. The lights were not haphazardly placed or arranged the way they are. They have been deliberately placed where they are for a purpose, the benefit of the residents of the city. When I look into the star filled, inky black night sky I see fingerprints. The fingerprints tell me, this is no accident. All of this was placed with purpose, to cause the human mind to wonder and to question. To wonder, how and where all this came from . . . to wonder about big ideas like infinity and eternity . . . to wonder about God and to ponder our very existence.

Just a bunch of rocks; just a bunch of flowers, just a bunch of lights in the night sky. My mind won’t go there. So, where do my thoughts go when I behold these wonders? Some of the early pioneers of modern science, like Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, believed that God had written two books for humanity to study, Scripture and Nature. When I turn my camera lens on a mountain peak or a sunset or a great vista, I’m trying to capture a bit of that artistry God placed all around us to point us to Himself. I’m hoping to share with others through my photographs, a bit of the beauty of the most talented artist, the most skilled sculptor and the greatest of all designers, God.

Sequoia National Park

September 15th, 2019

Sequoia National Park

When I think about it now, I've got to chuckle a bit. What was I possibly thinking? About 45 years ago my mother practically had to beg my sister and I to go on a summer vacation trip to Sequoia National Park. "No mom, I don't want to go. Why do you want to go see a bunch of trees?" Mom persisted and my sister and I finally caved in. We agreed to go to Sequoia National Park, leaving the concrete world of our home in Los Angeles behind. Oh how grateful I am today that we made that trip!

I remember getting on a Greyhound bus at the terminal in downtown LA. I was about 13 years old. My mom and sister sat a few rows of seats away and I sat down next to a young man who had a backpack. We began to chat and he told me that I was going to love going to Sequoia National Park. This was probably the first inkling I had that maybe mom was right after all.

I'll never forget seeing the Giant Sequoia trees for the first time; it was through the window of a small shuttle bus. The color of the bark was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. It was so red. And then of course the size of these trees was unbelievable! I've read the account of the hunter years ago who accidentally came upon the Sequoia trees while tracking his prey. When he returned to camp and reported what he'd found, nobody believed him. He had to trick his companions into following him into the forest the next day so they could see the trees with their own eyes. Seeing is believing when it comes to the Giant Sequoia Trees.

We had an unforgettable time that week in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park. When it came time to head home, we were begging our mom to stay longer. We had come full circle; my sister and I didn't want to leave.

There were other bus tour summer vacations in the years that followed, Yosemite Valley, Lake Tahoe, and the Central Coast to name a few. Needless to say I was enthusiastic about going on every one of them.

I'm blessed today, decades later, to live just down the hill from Sequoia National Park. It still holds a special place in my heart, and I love exploring it with camera in hand. The High Sierra Trail, Mineral King and the Congress Trail are few of my favorite areas of the park. Later this week I'm headed up to the Lakes Trail for an overnight backpacking trip, and of course I'm taking my camera.