Thursday, June 3, 2010


My recent drive down the eastern spine of California's Sierra Mountains was easily the best solo roadtrip I've ever taken, the culmination of a long-held desire to experience that strange transformation from the state's northern frozen plains to its southern depths that burn under the sun. Though I have much more to learn about CA-395, I feel that I've come to appreciate a delightful stretch of highway that had previously been unknown to me. Now I surely understand why this road is often called California's own Route 66 (Yes, I know we have a stretch of the Famed Mother Road, but still…). This time my trip was an opportunity for rest and reflection, but I hope to bring my family this way again soon.

Unfortunately my journey began with disconcerting news.

Planning an early morning drive over the mountains to Bodie, the infamous ghost town that would mark the start of my four-day vacation, I learned that all the mountain passes were snowed over, which seemed odd in the middle of May. I've since learned that some of California's roads crossing the Sierras don't clear until late summer, and then only for a short spell. At once I recognized that my relatively quick jaunt would unfold into a seven or eight hour trudge north to Truckee over the only passable highway. You could say I was a little annoyed. Nonetheless the trip turned out to be surprisingly easy and devoid of traffic, thanks to my willingness to depart well before dawn. Better yet, I enjoyed the chance to visit Lake Tahoe whose choppy waters glowed almost silver under a cauldron of gray clouds. I reached Bodie by around noontime, no worse for the delay.

History recalls a little girl who, sometime in the 1880s, learned that her family was moving to this miserable place set high in the Sierras. Bemoaning her fate to be swept from the relative comfort of San Francisco into a vulgar, windswept mining town, she supposedly inked a gloomy epitaph in her diary, "Good-bye God, I'm going to Bodie." Certainly I could understand this (probably apocryphal) lament after departing CA-395, turning onto a rocky road that turned to dirt over its last three miles. Maintained by the California's park service in a state of "arrested decay," Bodie is the epitome of desolate, a ghost town battered by cold gusts when not otherwise broiling under a furnace sun. Surprisingly the elements and vandals have largely left the town intact in the decades since its original inhabitants, hopefully including that little girl, departed for better climes.

It's a strange thing, wandering the streets of a town turned into a state park. But that's what you do after paying your ten bucks and sticking a paper slip to your windshield. Rangers occasionally offer glimpses into the houses and other buildings, but I chose simply follow my own meandering path, peaking into windows and imagining what life was like on this forbidding plateau. Furniture and signs told of a town that died quickly, and every turn revealed some new, fascinating scene. The only hassle, aside from Bodie's gritty wind and harsh temperatures, is that practically every other visitor shared my goal of taking memorable photos, which meant some jostling. Some folks seemed happy to share vantage points and avoid bumbling into scenes, just as I would do for them. Others seemed oblivious to the presence of anyone but themselves. Bodie's isolation might be a sort of virus.

For this visit, I began my experiments with High Dynamic Range photography, combining multiple exposures at varying apertures per location to produce hyper-saturated and weirdly evocative images. As a result my pictures of Bodie look more like paintings than literal representations, but they're not as fake as you might imagine. Think about it: the human eye can convey scenes of complex beauty to the brain through a process of mechanical compensation. Standing in a park, let's say, your iris dilates to gather color and detail from the grass below and then contracts when you focus on the more brightly lit sky. Your brain integrates both halves (actually, many discrete views) into one coherent whole. Unfortunately even the most advanced camera often struggles with that kind of luminescent variety; it can capture one scene or another, but seldom both, at least not easily. That's why a picture you take of sunset over the water may seem disappointing when compared to the real thing.

HDR offers a reasonable approximation of this sort of complex scene by "stacking" various camera iris-views (apertures) in a manner that mimics what most peoples' brains do naturally. Even better, the technique allows the kind of artistic variation practiced by impressionist painters that enable you to share the experience of a scene, not merely some literal (and almost always limiting) reiteration. Anyway, that's my justification for why my Bodie pictures are so extreme, so photographically unreal. What can I say? These images - with the exception of the graveyard shot below - represent an effort to convey my sense of being there.

By four in the afternoon, the time when rangers had begun to warn visitors to depart or face citations, I'd just left the graveyard overlooking town and returned to 395. But I wasn't done with the day. With plenty of light still in the summer sky, I was ready for a bit more sight-seeing, so I grabbed my motel room in nearby Lee Vining and headed to Mona Lake to photograph the area's beloved tufas: weird formations that jut from the green water like a scene from Lord of the Rings.

Once more, I used some HDR magic to convey a sense of being there, especially given the complex detail and sharp contrasts of the tufas that my regular photos could hardly reproduce. While I walked about South Tufa Grove, I met a college-aged girl who recommended that I keep an eye peeled for birds called grebes. She assured me that the birds' golden tufts would be striking, though truthfully I don't recall seeing any. I didn't mind; the day was such a nice departure from my typical afternoons.

After about an hour I returned to town, noticing that a number of businesses advertised being closed still. Perhaps the summer season would not begin until the Sierra passes could be opened. I felt lucky to have a room at all. My lodging, the perfectly comfortable Murphy's Motel, was a couple blocks away from the only available diner in town: a place called Nicely's that plays nothing but '50s tunes. One overstuffed burger later, and a friendly chat with the server, I returned to Mona Lake under a half-moon and nearly froze my fingers to icicles while attempting a long-exposure photo of the stars circling Polaris. After what seemed like endless fiddlings with various settings, I stood in the bone-chilling cold for 15 minutes to get one decent shot. At last I returned to my motel, settling wearily into warm bed after a long first day on the road.

Morning revealed a bright, cloudless sky, and I began the day by watching birds flit among the trees. I was drawn to one that appeared to lead the flock; he was perched atop the tallest limb, boasting his dominance with virile chirps. Ducking out of the cold, crisp air, I returned to Nicely's but found the place filled with a large crew of 50-something bikers, each wearing gaudy spandex and well-fed attitudes. I anticipated a lengthy wait as everyone in the group seemed determined to order the most personalized meals possible in a small-town diner, but the same server I'd overtipped during my previous night's visit was also working the morning shift. He made sure I got a good meal in decent time. While I dug into breakfast, I drifted in and out of conversations shared by locals who were assessing the impact of an unsuspectedly late winter on business. Once I finished, it was time for a walk around town where I wondered what it'd like to own a house in a place that lives by the mountains and the mobility of tourists. Then I returned to 395 and began the brief drive to Manzanar.

For most folks this hot, blustery stretch along the highway, framed by the snow-peaked Sierras, is unknown. Yet Manzanar reflects an important and sobering part of American history, when Japanese-Americans were herded into godforsaken camps amid the fear and frenzy of World War II. Though government officials strained to emphasize that these hastily built cities could not fairly be called "concentration camps," that they were built to protect the Japanese after the shock of Pearl Harbor, Manzanar's interpretive center shows a film that complicates the assurances of all those politicians and generals. In the film, a former resident recalls how the guard towers surrounding the town were fortified with machine guns, only they didn't point away from town; they were fixed inward toward the Japanese.

Historians note that about 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were forced into this camp after being booted from their homes and businesses. Many internees could never forgive the insult; some were even deported to Japan for their failure to swear allegiance to the United States, even though American prejudice meant that citizenship had been closed to them before the war. Other internees departed too, but only by joining segregated military units whose horrifying casualty rates would eventually earn the respect of a nation. Today the camp is nearly barren of original structures, save for a few stone ruins and a gravesite. But the National Park Center is augmenting Manzanar with reproductions of a guard tower and living quarters (currently under construction).

Just a bit further south, in Lone Pine, I grabbed my second day's lodging at the Dow Villa Hotel. Once a famed hotspot for movie stars who were trundled away from the conveniences of L.A. to shoot westerns in the region's photogenic (though oddly named) Alabama Hills, the Dow Villa now attract guests who don't mind tiny rooms and shared water-closets. A motel on the property offers more modern amenities, but I loved the old school hotel, not to mention the much more reasonable price. I didn't even mind before forced to sit in the lobby to grab a wifi signal. After enjoying a tasty lunch at the Alabama Hills Diner and a drive about an hour south to photograph some aging signs, I made my way to the hills for an afternoon hike.

By my reckoning Alabama Hills is primed to be the world's most popular hiking spot - in about 50,000 years. I can almost imagine the future scene. Tourists gathering to marvel at the hundreds, maybe thousands, of arches connecting stone monuments that glow red under the sun. Today the area contains a nice assortment of relatively humble arches among countless surfaces where holes are forming ever so gradually. Millennia of erosion promise more stunning vistas in the far future, but a contemporary hiker can enjoy plenty of winding, adventuresome paths and climbing opportunities. Problem is: I never did find a decent map for the place. In fact, I couldn't get my bearings until a German hiker happened along and asked if we were looking at the so-called Heart Arch. I'd seen him earlier setting up shots with his camera, and I could tell he was a serious photographer, so I was happy to collaborate on our position. I even alerted him to a prime spot to photograph the moon within Heart Arch's majestic curve.

When our paths crossed again my new friend was disappointed; he'd been too late to catch the rising orb in the arch. "Maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity," he reflected. I tried to cheer him up a bit and we began to talk about his years living in California and about Germany's current economic frustrations. His demeanor revived, he proposed that we set off together to photograph Mount Whitney Arch a bit further down the main road. Between our two maps, my generally good navigation sense, and his detailed counting of miles, I knew we could find the spot. That was the idea, at least. But for some reason we struggled to locate the damned thing in the waning light.

In fact, rather than using a pleasant bridge across a rushing river, we settled for a creaky death trap of a walkway whose every shake and groan inspired nervous laughter between us. On the other side we found plenty of options, no arches. What's more, when I'd scout trails on either side of a towering formation he'd recommend that we simply climb over the rock. Finally as the sun hid behind the Sierras and light faded away we admitted that Mount Whitney Arch would have to wait for another day. Only as we said our goodbyes at our respective cars did we even think to share our names. Back in Lone Pine I gorged on a pricy "baseball cut" steak at the town's fancy restaurant and shot some neon signs between gusts of howling wind before turning in for the night.

Sunday morning brought clouds and some dread that the day's trip to Death Valley might suffer from newly overcast weather and maybe a bit of rain. Nonetheless I was determined to see this park that had long been on my can't-miss-any-longer itinerary. Turning off 395, I was amazed by the length of time needed to reach the ranger pay station, and I must admit to being somewhat underwhelmed by the scenery at first. Eventually I began to recognize the subtle colors and awesome vistas of this sublime place, and I grew more excited by my visit. Even better, I saw a coyote sauntering warily along the road the very minute I pulled into Furnace Creek, where I'd reserved a pricy but comfy room. Warm breezes scooted the clouds west, and I knew this would be a great day to see Death Valley.

My afternoon included an hour or so of trudging up the desert's helpfully road-adjacent sand dunes, stopping under occasional reliefs of greenery to watch the wind create ripples across the surface. Thereafter I drove to Badwater Basin, supposedly the lowest elevation point in North America, and joined a small throng of hikers heading toward the center of the five-mile salt flat. Gradually the crowd shrank as fewer and fewer people opted to march across the white expanse. Indeed I considered turning around until another fellow spotted my camera and, just as I'd guessed about my German hiking pal yesterday, presumed I would enjoy photographing something cool. So he told me to keep hiking, that the gentle ridges of salt transform into a thick geometry of hexagonal pads that stand about two inches off the surface. I saw a handful of marchers in the distance, just points against the vastness, and I asked, "About that far?" He squinted his eyes toward the opposite mountain range and confirmed, "Yeah, that'd do it." Figuring I'd already come this distance, I took his advice and kept walking alone.

Sure enough, the hike was worth the effort. Strangely, even as the sun beat down on me, I eventually found that each footstep kicked up a tiny burst of semi-frozen salt water whose every crunch produced the only sound I could hear. Standing at the middle of all that flatness, I realized that the wind that hugged the mountain range had died away. I reveled in the silence. Taking a few photos, and seeing how the people I followed remained tiny dots advancing toward to the other side of the plain, I advanced until it felt right to head back. I made it only about halfway across, but I felt a quiet sense of pride as I rejoined the parking lot crowd, imagining myself as a long-distance hiker returning from a lengthy, solitary journey. Almost near the end of my walk I saw a sign bolted on the mountain 282 feet above me: "Sea Level."

Driving back, I detoured along Artist's Palate Road, enjoying enough dips and hairpin turns for a roller coaster ride. Then I heeded out of the park in search of Rhyolite, a ghost town recommended by a ranger who shared my appreciation for ruins. Located across the Nevada border, Rhyolite contains the remains of a general store, a school, a three-story bank, and a handful of other sites. It would be a perfect place for some nighttime light painting, but I needed a meal first. So I headed to the nearby town of Beatty and ambled into the Sourdough Saloon. Walking into the bar, I faced the outstretched paw of a burly dog. I accepted his greeting, with some reservation. The dog's tail wagged but his eyes grew narrow with menace. One fella explained, "He's just a bit skittish sometimes." "Me too," I admitted.

After sundown I returned to Rhyolite and spent a couple hours playing with long-exposure techniques. The clouds above were nearly invisible in the darkness, but my trusty D5000 caught bluish-purplish wisps that streamed like water. The collapsed bank, a sad ruin in daytime, became a mysterious figure under the stars, especially once it was lit by the glow of my red-gelled flashlight. I tramped over crumbling stone and painted several drafts of a portrait until I seeing an image that seemed just right. Returning to the empty road that would take me back to Death Valley, I stood atop the blacktop under the desert stars and felt the breeze race through my hair.

My final day on the road seemed sure to be a boring straight burn west to I-5, followed by a brain-numbing northerly drive back home. But much of the day actually turned out to be quite nice. I began with a visit to Pearsonville, self-proclaimed "Hubcap Capital of the World," where I photographed a fiberglass Uniroyal Gal. Oddly enough for a roadside aficionado, I'd never heard of this mid-century highway icon that was supposedly modeled after Jackie Kennedy. Later on, I'd photoshop the image to create a super-saturated look that reminds me of fifties-era postcards.

Departing 395 and turning west on CA-178 I flew by fields of Joshua Trees and, even better, seas of wildflowers that climbed the hills lining the road. Every few minutes I had to stop and take photos, especially at one spot where a splashing white-capped river beckoned me off the road. I saw two other guys poking their way across the rocks near the water, and I joined them. It was a nice day for a swim. Right about then an official-looking dude pulled off the road and warned us not to attempt the rapids. He was jovial, but serious too. In fact, he said he'd stopped because it looked like "we'd found another dead body." We newcomers looked at each other and grinned: No swimming today.

By lunchtime I made my way to Bakersfield and, sure enough, the trip was essentially over. Verdant mountains and sparkling streams had emptied out into a hot valley. Passing alongside sweltering subdivisions and low-slung strip malls, I saw at least 30 separate police cars, trucks, motorcycles, and unmarked vehicles racing toward some trouble on the edge of town. I ducked out of the action to consume some regrettable fast food and then turned north on the interstate. The next four hours seemed to stand still, though my odometer marked the race of my car's motor that brought me closer and closer to home. By dinnertime I lugged my gear into the house and felt like I was waking up after a long nap. I was happy to be back in Scotts Valley, but I missed 395 already.

Photographs by Andrew Wood

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