Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


March 17 - Barstow, California is not exactly the garden spot of the west but in the pre-dawn light almost anything looks better than normal. That being said, I decided to catch the sunrise at Casa del Deseirto, the old Fred Harvey establishment that has been restored and still stands alongside the railroad tracks on the seedier side of town. The impressive Mission Revival structure with its many arches and Spanish flourishes is an architectural gem nearly lost amidst the jumbled rail yards and sere hillsides around it. I got some photographs of the first light of day reflecting off the rails and into the fine old building.

After that it was back to the open road, following old Route 66 through places like Lenwood, Helendale and Oro Grande. Halfway to Lancaster I began to get the classic view of Joshua trees against the snow clad San Gabriels. I got lost several times on roads where minimal maintenance is the rule but I eventually reached Lancaster and from there continued east on Hwy.138 in search of the Antelope Hills Poppy Preserve, a chunk of California real estate set aside strictly for the preservation and enjoyment of spectacular blooming hillsides full of native wildflowers. Unfortunately, I arrived about two weeks too early for the peak blooms so had to content myself with a few patches of poppies and fiddlenecks. But at least I was finally seeing some flowers.

I was determined to reach the Carrizo Plain that afternoon so I continued west to Interstate 5 and drove over Wheeler Ridge into the broad (and smoggy) San Joaquin Valley. The pace of traffic seemed positively frenetic so it was a real relief to bail out at Hwy. 166, a straight-as-an-arrow, two-lane country road that seemed to go on endlessly. The smog and haze was so thick that I drove at least 30 miles before I began to discern the low range of mountains that held my destination. This is the aptly named Temblor Range which runs directly adjacent to and is a product of the San Andreas Fault.

The southern entrance into the Carrizo Plain is a lonely road indeed. Broad and treeless, flanked by two low mountain ranges, the aforementioned Temblor and the Caliente Mountains to the west. Here and there were abandoned farm equipment, crumbling sheds and small alkali ponds. I was beginning to doubt my initial urge to visit this place. But as the pavement ended and I continued north on a wide dirt road, the magic began to kick in. The hills became softer, swathed in green. The green soon turned to the yellow of unbroken flower fields. Masses of wooly daisies, goldfields and fiddlenecks. The smog began to dissipate and my senses could begin to grasp the immense emptiness and beauty of this place.

That afternoon I camped in a copse of eucalyptus trees in the BLM’s KCL Campground, a primitive little spot with eight campsites, tables, no water, no fees, and plenty of solitude. The campground is situated at the base of the Calientes with unobstructed views in nearly all directions. Only three other sites were taken. I spent the remainder of the day wandering the nearby fields photographing flowers and listening to the endless cacophony of bird sounds, mostly meadowlarks and redwing black birds. Later that evening I was serenaded by a great horned owl who had a nest nearby.

It is a rare event anymore to find a campground that is truly quiet, where your fellow campers seem to have a real appreciation of their surroundings. No barking dogs or blaring radios. Not even a campground host. Clearly the Carrizo is not a destination spot and hasn’t made the pages of OUTDOOR magazine yet....and probably never will. The place exists on its own terms for one to accept or reject. I was totally charmed by the place, and slept an untroubled sleep that night in the back of my car.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

INTO THE MILD - Part Three

March 16 - When we lived in Las Vegas in the late 1990s, the Valley of Fire became one of our primary getaway spots. Only an hour’s drive from the city, it allowed us to leave behind the tawdry, manic energy of the city for the peace, comfort and naturalness of the desert. So here I was once again, waking up to a honey-colored dawn flowing over the cliffs and crags with memories of family walks when my daughter Lindsay was still a toddler.

Buzz, the campground host, had told me the night before that I should check out “Wash #5” on the upper road to White Domes. “Be sure to go upstream”, he said. “You’ll be surprised.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by that as I’d been downstream in Wash #5 many times and while it was certainly spectacular, it was not much different from Washes 1 thru 4. But I learned long ago that one should always listen to campground hosts. They almost always know the territory and are willing to share good information.

So I lit out for the upper road just as the sun was rising above the lower cliffs. No one else was even out and about yet so I had the White Domes area all to myself. I spent a good deal of time photographing that first meeting of sunlight and sandstone along the rim. Then I parked at Wash #5 and headed upstream, walking through soft sand and prickly mesquite. When I’d gone about a quarter of a mile, I came to what I think ol’ Buzz was talking about. The wash was suddenly squeezed in by curving canyon walls resulting in a sinuous, shadowy slot. I was hemmed in on both sides by marvelous swirled and banded sandstone resembling pulled taffy and glowing amber with that first morning light. There were places were I had to crawl on hands and knees to get through but the photo ops were well worth it. The place was truly magical.

I spent a good deal of time in that little paradise but knew I’d have to move on if I were going to invade the heart of the Mojave. So I reluctantly left Valley of Fire behind me, taking the scenic North Shore Drive into Las Vegas to avoid the ugly interstate. That still left much of ugly Vegas to traverse but I took a short break at a Trader Joe’s on the west end of town where I bought some feta cheese and french roast, drove a few blocks to look at our old house on Copperleaf Lane, then continued on through the scenic drive of my old work place, Red Rock Canyon (filled with hordes of tourists enjoying the balmy weather). I kept thinking back to my quiet morning in Wash #5.

My original goal for the day had been Afton Canyon, just west of Baker, California. This is one of the few places where the Mojave River surfaces, creating a riparian habitat in what some call “the Grand Canyon of the Mojave”. I endured the long drive on Interstate 15, dodging drivers in a hurry to get back to L.A. after some fast times in glitter town. West of Baker, as advertised, I found the road to Afton Canyon, a typical graded dirt track that wound for several miles to a nearly-deserted campground, an intrusive railroad trestle, and the anemic Mojave River. I was Immediately put off by the stark campsites, pit toilets and lack of shade. Furthermore, the road continuing into “the Grand Canyon of the Mojave” was under about four feet of water at the crossing point. So I got out and wandered a bit along the waterway, took a few pictures, then realized that I be happier in a decent motel room. So I drove another 30 miles to Barstow where the east Indian fellow at the local Travelodge had a room for rent.

While I hadn’t completely decided it yet, I was feeling pretty strongly that I just might forge further west the following day to reach my ultimate goal....the place I had been curious about for the last several years, a lonely piece of California’s great Central Valley known as the Carrizo Plain.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


March 12 - With the seventh coldest winter in Grand Junction’s history still holding firm, I wasn’t about to wait for the first day of spring to take off for warmer climes. Besides, the forecasts all said another storm was imminent so I saddled up the ol’ Subaru and headed out on a clear, crisp Friday morning. Driving the interstate was a necessary evil until I reached Hwy. 24 where I could finally get onto an empty, two-lane blacktop, heading nearly due south toward Hanksville and the snow-covered Henry Mountains.

My sense of anticipation was palpable as I turned east through the badlands of Caineville and the cool canyons of Capitol Reef. Beyond that point were a string of small Mormon towns, lost in time and still locked in ice. Torrey, Loa, Bicknell, and the tundra-white summits near Koosharem where Otter Creek was still flowing under the snow.

Keep driving. Through the volcanic rocks of Kingston Valley; through Circleville past the boyhood home of Butch Cassidy; and farther south through Panguitch, Hatch and Junction. Soon I was following the Sevier River through bucolic ranchlands and farms. After 380 miles, I reached my first destination....Kanab, Utah, once known as “the greatest earth on show.” This is the town that hates the federal government and wants to decommission the local Grand Staircase National Monument, but at the same time thrives on tourist dollars from the thousands of visitors coming through to enjoy their federal lands.

March 13 - I spent the morning hours driving to a used bookstore in Orderville where I bought about two dozen, great old pulp paperbacks. Got back to Kanab before the predicted snow storm hit with a vengeance, and hunkered down at my friend Mike’s house. That evening we watched Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.

March 14 - Sunday was a free day, of sorts, and the welcomed start of Daylight Savings Time. I hadn’t planned any long distance drives and Mike couldn’t hike with his bad knee, so I decided to go it alone with some further exploration of the Paria Plateau. Big puffy clouds filled the sky and all traces of yesterday’s frantic snowfall were gone. And the Paria welcomed me as it always does with swirly red sandstone and wildly psychedelic erosion. I spent several hours roaming through small slot canyons and amongst giant toadstool shaped rocks. It was a landscape of memory and mystery. And the photo ops were amazing. This area is really the quintessence of the Colorado Plateau region. Later that evening, Mike and I treated ourselves to a viewing of Bad Day at Black Rock with Spencer Tracy and consummate baddies Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan. It doesn’t get any better than that!

March 15 - For me the real journey started on Monday morning when I said goodbye to Kanab and headed out for the lower deserts. I stopped for breakfast at the Thunderbird Cafe in Mt. Carmel Junction, an institution ‘round these parts. I’m pretty sure that my waitress that morning was a gentile as she was soft spoken, brunette and sincere, unlike the saccharine, disingenuous, blonde honey who effusively greeted me when I entered. On my table were the usual Mormon “humor“ books one finds in southern Utah such as “Old Timers & Alzhimers” (sic), a collection of vastly unfunny vignettes on the hilarity of dementia. Nevertheless, the meal was good and the day was clear.

The east rim of Zion National Park was still covered in snow but it gradually disappeared as I dropped into the canyon, almost 42 years to the day since the first time I visited here (see my blog Get Off the Pot for details). In spite of all the tourists, this place never fails to enchant me. I can almost always ignore the crowds and just look beyond....or walk beyond. But I was on a mission to get warm so I didn’t linger long. I forged my way through the hideous urban mess of Hurricane and St. George, two communities that have utterly lost any charm they may have had twenty years ago to the onslaught of rampant and unchecked growth.

On the Interstate once again, I dropped down through the spectacular Virgin River Gorge into Littlefield, Arizona and 70 degree temperatures, the warmest weather I had experienced in nearly four months. I was focused on reaching the Valley of Fire State Park near Overton, Nevada so it was pretty easy to ignore the gambling come-ons of Mesquite and the beat-up, monoculture of creosote bush in the surrounding landscape. But this was it. I was finally on the edges of the Mojave Desert as I drove into the campground at Valley of Fire, I was looking forward to the days ahead in this hard-edged terrain.

(For the sake of brevity (and because I am falling so far behind), the next installment will be posted soon).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stay Tuned On Most of This Same Station.....

2550 miles in 10 days! A blizzard in Kanab, Utah. Early morning reverie at 280 feet below sea level. Fields of flowers on the Carrizo Plain. Hard core country music at Mike's Diner in Mohave. All this and more in the next installment of Into the stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Last fall when I decided to develop a coping strategy to get me through the winter doldrums, I had no idea that I would be subjected to the seventh coldest winter in the history of the western slope. It began with a record-breaking snowfall on December 7 (a day that will live in weather infamy), followed by a brutal cold snap for ten more weeks and a stubborn inversion layer that stayed firmly ensconced in the Grand Valley.

What was my coping strategy, you might ask? In a nutshell, it was trip planning. I was determined to break away from winter’s grip in the early spring and head for the deserts of southern California. That involved a bit of research, lots of reading, and best of all, a chance to look longingly at lots of sunny photographs of dry, open terrain. I pored over all those evocative names like the Calico Mountains, Kelso Dunes, the Antelope Valley. And I charted out a course that would take me to places such as Valley of Fire, Afton Canyon, Saddleback Butte, the Carrizo Plain and, last but not least, Death Valley.

The colder it got outside, the more I perused my map collection inside. I read The California Deserts by Bruce M. Pavlik all the way through, and I looked back at my collection of desert slides and photographs. And, I must say, it did help a bit though I could never have anticipated how deeply this winter would hang in there.

Another important aspect of the journey for me is the fact that I am traveling solo. A chance to catch up on quiet time, be more reflective, and to concentrate on my photography. As I get older, it seems more important to be able to still be independent, camping out with just the basics, keeping a loose agenda, and seeing just where my comfort zone has moved to over the years. So I hope to challenge myself just a bit.

So here I am on the brink of departure. Yesterday it snowed here. Rain is expected through Thursday. I hit the road on Saturday. Through it all, I hope to write about the enlightening moments, and to photograph the sublime scenery of the southern deserts. So stay tuned.