Road: The Weather Abides

Art Journal, The Road

March 13

Blue skies north, south, east and west. I woke up ready to go. I was packing up the camper before coffee was started. Hours later we were still in Bishop finishing up the chores. How I despise the drudgery of the mundane. It is a good thing my husband is here to balance out my nature.
It didn’t matter. We didn’t make over the Sierras. Every route across was closed, pushing us north and east. We crossed into Nevada twice.
The first time skimming the desert. Watching for promised bulls, donkeys and wild horses. Only seeing donkeys. The second, giving up on the day, and setting up camp next to the burbling of Desert Creek, between snow frosted peaks and sage plains.
It looks like we will be driving up to Reno then taking the big road across. I-80, the one one that sweeps right past the historic cannibal marked passage through the Sierras, Donner Pass. How exciting. There will be a window of time we can cross before the next spring snow storm dumps.

March 14

It’s one of those days that can’t be the same day from start to finish. Somehow I blinked and missed the beginning of a new day. We achieved that early start. Saw some of the Mule Deer on their spring migration on our way out (there was warning signage along the roads about this migration).

Our lucky break of the day was finding that Route 88 was open and we could cut out driving north to Reno. And a spectacular drive it was. Coniferous forests and snowy peaks. The weather held.

Kurt picked out a camping location alongside a river. And it could’ve been great. (It wasn’t great). It was the place everyone came to beat on their 4×4’s and burn couches. Kurt looked for another place, a solid 98 miles further.
And…. it was closed for the season. That’s when Kurt chose to drive us into the Mendocino National Forest. I swore I said it was toast earlier in the day. I thought maybe he knew something I didn’t.
It was burned out.
We drove in just at dusk. It was drizzling. An atmospheric fog was rising from the ground. The air was charged with an essence of the underworld. There were guardrails tormented by the fires. Cracks in the land burned clean of vegetation where it looked ready to give.
I wanted to stay even shorter here than the last place. Sleep and go. No coffee or breakfast in the morning, just go.
This landscape was unsettling and I didn’t trust it. Kurt said we’ve done sketchier things. I don’t know about that.

March 15

Another long day. We got out of the burned Mendocino forest and toodled through winding roads roads around the green hills of cow county. I swear the cows here smile at you. New calf’s wagging their tails and playing along the fence lines. Half the horses were lounging on their sides in the emerald grasses.
Ups and downs. All day. Up into winter snow mountains tops, down into spring valleys until we finally hit the coastal redwoods. Then back up again to camp for the night.


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Road: Petroglyphs, Volcanic Tablelands and Ancient Bristlecone Pines

Art Journal, The Road

Stuck in a holding pattern. We could’ve gone east on US Route 6, but that road had high wind advisories for towing campers. We could’ve backtracked south, but that would’ve meant going over territory our eyes were well adjusted to and the location we would camp was also getting hit by the winter storm. North or west, I know where I wanted us to go and that required going over the Sierra Nevadas. And they were getting some winter precipitation.

We stayed where we were. Let it pass, with the early days of March.

March 8
A day of nothing. A blissful nap. Then Kurt changed the oil in the truck and fiddled with things. It’s really something how fast a day can fall away to dusk with nothing tangible to show for it.

March 9
A day to explore. Kurt and I went back up the mountain to explore more of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It was much colder. The temperature dropped to a sharp 19 degrees F from the breezy 50’s in the valley floor.
I mistook the crisp air as familiar home turf and tried to walk a bit brisker than I should’ve. That peppy feeling plunged away fast as I was faced with oxygen hungry lungs for walking just a hundred feet. The only other time I felt like that was in the throes of bronchitis.
Somewhere I read that the Forest was just as interesting down the road from the visitor center. So… we went. And it was fine. Until the road turned down a slope that didn’t get as much sun and then it became a tense mountain ride, downhill on icy snow ruts along a cliff edge. Me, begging Kurt to put on the tire chains while imagining us sliding right off the side, Kurt refusing.
The road got better. On this side of the peak the skies, dark, were filled with snow clouds hugging the mountain valley. We arrived in time for snow, minute hard pellets made from cold skies.

Alone in the valley was a black horse gathering a saddle of snow on his back. I was hesitant to assume he was wild or feral but I can’t find evidence of anyone living up there and according to the internet there is a White Mountain Wild Horse Herd. For now he’s a mystery.
And there where the horse grazed is also where we couldn’t go any farther. The road was snowed in yet with no tracks breaking the way.
On our way out I marveled at how quickly the weather changed just miles down the road. The clouds completely broken up, blue sunny skies.

March 10

If the mountains looked like they were getting precipitation yesterday, they looked absolutely violent today. We were planning to leave tomorrow, but have decided in our best interests to stay another day. Give the Sierras one more to rage it out.
In the afternoon we took another drive to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. It was even colder with a sharp, biting wind. This time there were no rude photographers to shoot around at the old snag on Discovery Trail. Just my husband and I huffing and puffing our way up the trail in thin, cold air.

This snag is often mislabeled on Instagram as the Methuselah Tree, counted once oldest known living tree, but that’s wrong. I can’t find a proper name for it. I’ve found where many say it died about 300 years ago and was about 3500 years old.
What is it about this snag? It is photogenic. It’s fairly easy to find, hanging over the trail. The snag can be isolated in the frame. It’s a primordial memento mori. The opposite of the tree of life in its way. It’s also an exploration of wabi sabi philosophy. The communal celebration of the slow undoing of an ancient the life force. Beauty in it’s decline.

March 11

Cold. Snow. It appears we are adding yet another day to sitting here waiting out the Sierra storms. They. Were. Supposed. To. Be. Done. Yesterday. Couldn’t see either mountain range this morning and this evening the cloud cover over the valley is low, dark and oppressive.

March 12

Reader, that weather yesterday sent me scampering for the cozy happiness of the bed. It felt like Christmas morning in the north. A warm nest to crawl into with a book and nowhere else to go while the earth gets her blanket of snow. Never mind that it’s spring and missing was the smell of a fresh pine, covered in dancing lights, hovering over sparkling presents with tender bows. The skies were heavy with clouds.
We best be leaving tomorrow.

For today though, we checked out some petroglyph sites in the Volcanic Tablelands believed to be created by the Paiute people. Some of them were incredibly visible, others faded, one location dense with symbolic markings. Some locations were visibly marred by modern hands. A name here. A date there. I wanted to find out more about the symbols and read the area was raided a few years ago. People cut some of the petroglyphs out of the rocks and damaged others in the process.
This is always and everywhere. Friends of the Death Valley have put on a social media campaign to raise funds to help them fix the scars left on the playas by people driving on them. We see rocks defaced. Trees and saguaros carved. Fallen sequoias in Sequoias National Park covered in names. The oldest Bristlecone Pines are kept secret because people cannot be trusted.


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Road: People are People

Art Journal, The Road

People are people no matter where you go. The good, the bad, the entitled, the desperate. Kurt and I were just talking about people. Last year we went to Sequoia National Park to stand among the giants. The thing that stood out immediately for me was the fencing around each of the old towers. I imagined hugging, touching, smelling, communing with one of the old giants. That’s exactly what I shouldn’t do.
They have hardly any root structure for their size and no taproot. In an attempt to preserve the trees from the trampling feet of millions of visitors they erected low fences and dismissible signage. Kurt and I sat there on a bench marveling at the impossibility of such life, when the French kids showed up.
I always thought it was Americans who behaved entitled everywhere they went. That’s the trope at least. I was pained watching them clamber around the base of the tree for inane selfies. Heartbreaking for the tree, how many years of this stress could it ultimately take before going down? That’s when another (I’m assuming middle-eastern by accent) gentleman chastised the French kids.
Tonight we were visiting the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. At between 9,500 – 10,500 ft in elevation I really took it easy on the trail. I’m neither fit or at all used to high altitudes. It went ok. I had a brief, mild headache and started feeling dizzy for a little while. I took a lot of breaks and happy dance I didn’t die. Bonus I walked among trees that could pre-date Caesar. Older than the fall of Rome. Older than Shakespeare. Some of the dead ones (they don’t rot very well) could go as far back as 10,000 years. Before pyramids. Before the rise and fall of the Greek City States. Some of the trees seen today could outlive us by hundreds of years, thousands.

They varied from twisted gnarled forms to shooting straight for the sky. Many of the Pines were missing all or part of their bark, yet remained alive. Their needles surprisingly soft. The bark-less wood solid and ungiving.
It seemed we had the place to ourselves, then stumbled upon a couple men set up off trail to photograph one of the more famous trees. There was signage all around asking people to stay on trail. Protect the trees that are thousands of years old, from us.
The men, middle-aged, dark in complexion and speaking another language than English, were unfazed by my husband’s emotional outburst while pointing to the signage. They continued to speak to each other in their language. Kurt walked off, while I stayed to try to get some photos. It slowly dawned on me these men were as awful as my husband believed. I wanted to say they were trying for the best angle, but afterwards I realized it wasn’t. There were many, many amazing angles to explore with the camera without going off trail.

Then no matter what I was trying they made no effort to move out of the frame. No offer to move unused gear. They continued to chat. Then one sentence of English looking at the sky “it’s too dark.” That was for my benefit out there photographing without a tripod (I find them stifling and unnecessary).
Usually the people we meet are interesting. Nice. In this case not so much. Often it’s at more popular locations with Instagrammers we’ve seen the worst behavior from people. Garbage strewn sites like Cadillac Ranch. People wrecking delicate ecology in the deserts. Carving their names into saguaros and sequoias.
Me? I went up there to taste a piece of time for myself. Worship at a cathedral of ancients. Possess the essence of the forest through its textures and details, not just capture the most photographed tree. That was icing.

Road: Days When Nothing Happens

Art Journal, The Road

There are more of these in between days than the ones memories are made of. The days that crumble to dust even before your head hits the pillow.
One day I’m left at the camper under the eye of the Eureka Dunes while Kurt drives into the nearest town to air the truck tires back up. Lesson learned about being stuck in sand; deflate tires to 25 lb pressure, problem: that is not good for towing a camper. One day gone to one mission. I read a book and listened to the sounds of rowdy young men set up camp.

One day spent traveling to the nearest town with laundry, Lone Pine. Eating Pizza in the truck while we waited for the clothes to dry. Camping at a campground not entirely open yet. No water, no dump station. The mountains are majestic and have veins of white running down from their tops. A local rest-stop attendant said it’s been dry, the mountains should be solidly snow capped. This new landscape is a feast for the senses.

We learn about Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills. We are there for less than 24 hrs. It’s the Western Movie filming location. Maverick, The Postman, Tremors, Gladiator. It might be the reason I was super confused about my expectations around Texas.
Another day of travel, then chores (fuel, fill water, dump tanks, groceries). On our way we passed a memorial. Kurt asked me to look it up. It appeared “prison-like.” Manzanar Memorial. A reminder of what this country is capable of. A Japanese-American internment camp from WW2.
Camp tonight is on top of a volcanic table…

Road: Chasing the Light

Art Journal, The Road

I can feel muscles that I was sure my body put in stasis. But that’s today. The earnings from yesterday’s minor misadventure.

Yesterday… March 4, 2021… …

Early mid-morning Kurt left the camper to scamper up the second highest sand dunes in the United States and the highest in California, Eureka Sand Dunes. I wanted to wait for evening light. (Here’s where I went back to bed, the glory of a cozy bed to yourself).

The mid-day wasted on and Kurt returned talking of smaller dunes on the other side of the dune mountain we couldn’t see from camp.
Around 4:30 it was time to chase that light. Dunes for me are light studies. They are the high seas waves moving at the speed of eons. Time stopped. Here study the crest, there the ripples, over there see the crests line up in a row. The sand is nearly shadowless at midday. The dunes glow in setting sun. The dunes are dusty blue shadows at dusk.

The undeveloped road had an iffy stretch that we made it through fine on our way in. On the way out Kurt made a last minute turn to follow other tracks circumventing the worst spot. It was deeply rutted and particularly threatening coming from the opposite direction. But that was the mistake.
High-sided isn’t a set of words I want to hear again. We were stuck in powdered sugar. Freddie jumped out of the truck and bounced through the dust sending up plumes of puppy joy in the wake of my horror.
Kurt worked to free Baby Grey Whale. Out of the dark came headlights. Saviors? No. They offered use of these plastic thingies to use under the tires. It didn’t work. High-sided.
There is a moment when you realize it’s time to commit to getting dirty. While Kurt jacked the truck up to get wood under the tires, I started digging out under the truck. (Our Cinderella saviors had a midnight Jeep rental curfew).
Once the entire underneath was dug out, Baby Grey Whale drove out fine.
We were covered in grey fairy clay dust head to toe and so was the dog. So was the truck. We left behind dust smudges on everything we touched. Had to wash the dog. No water in the tank. While Kurt filled the water tank I washed off Freddie’s bliss. After showers we were too tired for dinner and crawled into bed with our private aching miseries.

Road: Living Illustration

Art Journal, The Road

The quiet is first thing I noticed this morning. Eureka Valley is secluded. I can compare the quiet to a morning after a fresh snowfall or the time we spent at Crazy Jug Point on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It is the absence of sound that is loud. Even though I can see the ant people making tracks up the Eureka Dunes, it’s still incredibly silent.
A lone raven flew over head where I walked, flipping upside down, twice. I’ve never seen them do that. That’s when I blundered onto an animal’s tunnel system of some sort, I fell to my knees when the ground gave, with no grace because I was protecting my camera, directly into a dried plant covered in sharp plant things, then I was covered in sharp plant things.
I made it out of that. Shaking poky plant things off my pants. Grimacing at the scratching every time I took a step. OK. Then, BANG, a jackrabbit shot out of its hiding brush right next to me like a horse from the starting gate. I squealed, so much for that quiet.
I decided it was time this mighty northern swamp creature used the road before I really hurt myself on this walk. On the way back to the camper it crossed my mind the times I studied the desert illustrations as a kid. To me it was the most exotic place. I mused to myself, how lucky am I to see these desert creatures in real life.

Road: Eureka!

Art Journal, The Road

Kurt and I finally, finally left 29 Palms behind us. 29 Palms has become an energy vortex for us, like Flagstaff and Las Vegas… inescapable.
But we have for now absconded. (Did get one more drive rolling through Joshua Tree National Park at sunset, that was at least nice).

For our first official untethered night we camped out on a playa. I’ve discovered these dry lake beds to be one of my favorite types of geological formation to visit and photograph. The colors are spectacular at each end of the day and the textures are rich yet simple.

What to do for our first post kitten-stress adventure?
Death Valley.
Caveat: I’m thinking there was an easier way to get to our destination, maybe longer, but probably easier, I think there might be something pathologically wrong with us in this way we find the most difficult routes. We drove straight through Death Valley passing up the more popular southern end attractions and campgrounds. The further North the less traffic. We took a gravel road that announced itself as 45 miles to something. That briefly turned to a paved road towards the end, before we turned off for another ten miles of washboard gravel… did we learn our lesson last year with the off-road adventure to the sailing stones? No. Uh ah. Nope. Not at all. We’re even discussing going back.

Waiting at the end of the road for us: tucked under the blue-violet shadows of the Eureka Sand Dunes and the surrounding pale violet mountains, a small campground with bats flitting around it in the dusk.
And a disaster inside the camper. The popcorn escaped its jar in the cabinet, but not the jar, just all of the popcorn. The TV came off the wall, not the TV mount, the back of the TV broke off and I found the TV on the floor. Various other objects on the floor: everything from the medicine cabinet, the new cat litter traveled from one end of the camper to the other, paper cups jumped out of their home and scattered… and some of the spice jar lids popped off.

Road: Soundscapes, Mud Volcanoes and Hammertown

Art Journal, The Road

The freedom of leaving the camper behind and exploring really overtook us for a minute there. Slowed our roll over the weekend. What a novelty to not be the two-bodied wandering snail.

The things/thoughts/etc…

  • On Saturday the campground filled with people. For comparison the campgrounds in Texas were limiting capacity for social distancing in already spread out campsites down meandering roads. Joshua Tree National Park campsites are set up for efficient space use, not privacy.
  • It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to the sounds of people. I listed the noises. Acoustic guitar. Radio. Laughter. Stories. Campfire. Child talk. Child barking. The family calls the child chipmunk. Car doors shutting. Generators. I was pleasantly shocked to find it soothing. I’ve been so isolated for so long.
  • A nap. Those are always wonderful. One of life’s great joys.
  • Felt like picking up the paint brush. First time since the kitten tragedy.
  • On Monday we went in search of a cracked road. Found The Hammertown event in the middle of the desert. Superb. Just what I always wanted to find. It was over (thankfully) so we drove part of the course (maybe I shouldn’t of been so thankful, that was rough) looking for the cracked road. Passed a guy picking up vehicle particles. Turned out the fault line lied just out of reach on military property.
  • Tuesday. Another drive to the Salton Sea, to the south end. Looking for mud volcanoes, which had to be on private property. Other sites: apocalyptic seascape, obsidian outcrops, Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge, geothermal power plants.
  • Sunset at Keys Lookout. The sky, mountains and Salton Sea in the distance all shades of pink.
  • Wednesday travel day. Time to mosey on out of Joshua Tree.

Road: Avoiding Humanity on Back Canyon Roads

Art Journal, The Road

The things:

  • Little Box Canyon a smaller version of Box Canyon and connected to it. Steep bright tan walls full of holes and nests. Looking closer at the cliff-like walls, a sandy texture containing a variety of smoothed rocks.
  • A noticeable section of canyon wall showcasing the forces of shearing when the earth moves.
  • Box Canyon. You can see the slow waves of the earth’s movement. You think she’s still compared to water, it’s just that we live such short lives.
  • Painted Canyon a more popular site. At the end of the psychedelic canyon drive a hiking trailhead with too many cars parked to be worth the look.
  • People masking in their own cars with the windows rolled up. A phenomenon on the spectrum of people reacting to Covid-19.
  • An orphan trail into Joshua Tree National Park. It does not connect with any of the other park roads. Crosses through an area that burned and up to a little mountain peak. We had the sunset all to ourselves.
  • A Great Horned Owl sitting upon the yellow line in the great vast darkness. Looked directly in the headlights before taking his silent flight into the desert night.

Road: Digging for Ancient Cockroaches in the Marble Mountains

Art Journal, The Road

By cockroaches I mean trilobites. You cannot tell me it didn’t cross your mind. As usual there was an easy blacktop way to get to this place, Mojave Trails National Monument Marble Mountains Fossil Bed, and there was the way Kurt brought us.

First off we drove away from Joshua Tree National Park by highway, then corner-less desert road, valley lined with pink-purple mountains and creosote bushes. Then drove down a washboard dirt road running along a train track line. There was a crushed car with bullet holes abandoned. An isolated salt mine operation. A defunct mine operation, the derelict buildings graffitied and a foundation suspiciously fixed up with a tin roof. One-hundred percent sure someone is squatting there.
Social Distancing at its best, we had the site to ourselves. Trilobites were not laying around ready to be plucked off the ground like daisies. Fantasy popped. We climbed around near cliff edge. (Yes, this is/was/always a bad idea for me. I can’t trust my own feet to stay under me on flat ground). One question led to another idea, which guided our feet up higher on the site of rocks and shale piled up by decades of diggers. (Belly flips, higher, don’t look down).
As the sun lowered we found a spot that produced. We sat in shards of desaturated grey-green shale and picked out pieces from the mountain side and opened the layers of shale like oysters, looking for our strange pearls. The color of the shale reminded me of the clay sludge I escaped from at Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea.
I felt the light change in an instant. The Mountains glowed softly pink. I looked up to a sky illuminated in pinks and reds. Kurt and I climbed down and as we left the sky deepened to an implausibly redder shade, the kind that cameras can never capture.