Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

10 Questions for 2016

Old Paria Badlands, near Kanab, Utah

Old Paria Badlands, near Kanab, Utah

For us older dudes, it’s hard to believe that another year has disappeared into the ether. Gone to the same place as the dodo bird and the phone booth.  Just another piece of history.  Not that anyone is likely to miss 2015.  In the overall scheme of things it wasn’t that memorable.  Crazy, perhaps.  And bizarre.  But we didn’t exactly bring peace and happiness and sanity to the world, did we.  More like the opposite.  Again.

So I have some questions.  About 2016, that is.  Chances are that no one else gives a damn about my questions, but I’m going to throw them out there anyway.  Just because they’re bugging the hell out of me (and I have little else to do).

#10.  Will Fox News continue to shorten the dresses of their female news people so that us old farts can more easily see their undies?

(Not that I watch Fox News all that much.  But it can be amusing.  Especially around noon when I’m getting really bored.  That’s when I can watch the 4 airheads on “Outnumbered” who seem to be trying to see which one of them can wear the shortest dress and put on the most makeup.  If it was me, I’d call the show “4 Hookers on a Couch”.)

#9.  Will the northeastern United States ever get any real snow this winter?

(Not that I’m complaining.  We had enough last year to cover the next decade.  For us, El Nino’s been a good thing.  But it seems kind of weird.  You actually feel a little guilty about it, like you’re cheating Mother Nature or something.)

#8.  Will Death Valley actually have a “once-in-a-millennium” wild flower eruption this spring?

(This one is important to me.  If I’m going to drive 6,000 miles or so – again – I’d like to think that the flower prediction will come true.  A silly wish, I know, but hey, I’m not getting any younger……)

#7.  Will gas prices continue to drop, or at least stay where they are? 

(Yeah, I know.  Another selfish question.  But 6,000 miles at $2.00 a gallon is a whole lot better than 6,000 miles at $3.00 a gallon.)

#6.  Will the Cleveland Browns ever become a real football team again?

(Admitting you’re a Cleveland Browns fan is tantamount to admitting that you’re a loser.  Because that’s all they do.)

#5.  Will Donald Trump win the Republican nomination for President?  Can he actually become President?

(Well, we’ve all been wrong about him up to this point, so why not?  He’s riding some kind of populist wave that the political experts apparently don’t understand.  If he does go all the way I’ll make this prediction: the Trump-led U. S. government will merge with Barnum and Bailey and truly become the greatest show on earth.)

#4.  Will Hillary become the first woman President?

(I’ll vote for her if she wins the Democratic nomination and Trump or Cruz is her opponent, but I’d honestly rather have another choice.  Like Jeb, I think her time has passed.)

#3.  Are all those people who are texting while driving really trying to kill me?

(Really, are they?  Somebody has to invent a smartphone that sends a lethal jolt of electricity through the user if they try to operate the phone while driving.  You gotta admit, it would be fun to watch.  By the way, if you believe in multitasking, you’re an idiot.)

#2.  As a species, are we getting dumber or smarter?

(See question #3.)

#1.  Who’s Rey?

(This is the real question.  The first 9 don’t really count.  If someone could answer this one – correctly – I’d probably pay real money for the answer.  If you don’t understand the question, then you’ve been living under a rock somewhere……)

The Morning Star

The Morning Star, Monument Valley, Utah

The Morning Star, Monument Valley, Utah

“A philosopher once asked, ‘Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?’  Pointless, really…….. ‘Do the stars gaze back?’  Now that’s a question.”

Neil Gaiman

Like the previous “night-sky” images I posted a while back, this photograph was taken just before dawn in Monument Valley, with the East Mitten and Merrick’s Butte in the foreground.  What struck me about this scene was the visible pillar of light that appears to be projecting from the top of the butte to the so-called “morning star” (Venus).  In reality it was light from the sun, still a good distance below the horizon, that created this effect. The view, of course, is to the southeast.

You can also see two other planets in this photograph: Jupiter is the next brightest “star” (below and to the left of Venus) and the reddish dot just above Jupiter is (I think) Mars.  What you’re seeing is a conjunction (or near conjunction) of these 3 planets.  At certain times during the year these conjunctions bring two or more of the planets in our solar system into close proximity of one another.  Well, at least from our perspective here on earth.  They only appear to be on top of one another.  When that happens, it creates a very, very bright object in the sky.  An object that clearly moves with the earth’s rotation.

I bring all this up because of the season.  Anyone familiar with Christmas knows the story of the 3 wisemen or magi who supposedly followed a very bright “star” to the birthplace of Christ.  A plausible secular explanation of this event is that the star they saw was either a comet or a supernova or, more likely, two or three planets in conjunction in the morning sky.  An event that would have looked something like what you see here.  Looking at this image one can see that such a planetary conjunction might have appeared to be a guiding light in the sky.  Especially to people who were a little less than astronomically enlightened.

Perhaps a sight like this inspired the story of “The Star of Bethlehem”.  True or not, it is how such stories are born, embellished, and passed on from one generation to the next.  Whether religiously inclined or not, we need stories like this.  At some level such stories are the very essence of our existence.  They are what connects us across both time and distance.  They are the one thing that all humans have in common.  Which makes them kind of unique.  Take away our stories and you take away our humanity.

“Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, and live by love though the stars walk backward.”

E. E. Cummings (“Dive for Dreams”)

 

 

 

Life Elevated

Welcome to Utah, on Arizona / Utah border, US-89N

“Welcome to Utah”, on Arizona / Utah border, US-89N

If you’ve ever visited any national parks you’ve no doubt seen people crowded around the signs near the entrances – taking pictures.  I guess it’s so they can show people that they were, in fact, at the Grand Canyon or Death Valley or wherever.  It’s not unusual to see people standing in line, waiting for their opportunity.

Utah is not a national park, of course.  It’s a state.  But people stop at these signs as well.  We got lucky here (Barbara, my wife, wanted a picture of this sign so we stopped).  She had it all to herself.  Almost immediately, though, a whole bunch of other vehicles arrived to take pictures.  Not to mention a bus.

To me this is an interesting phenomenon.  Interesting because I’ve never seen anyone do it on the New York state border (a State Trooper would probably arrest you for loitering if you did).  I’ve also never seen anyone do it at most other state borders.  So why Utah?

I guess it’s a good question.  Maybe it’s because folks want to remember that they’ve been to Utah.  Or maybe it’s right there on the sign: Life Elevated.  I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it’s catchy.  I suppose it could mean that if you’ve seen all that there is to see in Utah, or at least some of it, your life has been “elevated”.

Personally, I like that interpretation; it makes sense to me.

My Love Affair with Badlands

Bentonite Badlands, Capitol Reef NP, Utag

Bentonite Badlands, Capitol Reef NP, Utah

One of the biggest “discoveries” we’ve made over the last 10 years of travel, I think, is the existence of badlands.  Before that, the only thing I personally knew about badlands was that there was a national park somewhere in the Dakotas that had that name.  I also believed that that was the only place where badlands existed in this country.  I remember my son and daughter-in-law talking about driving through some badlands (on their way to their new home in Las Vegas around that time) and me telling them that they hadn’t really driven through actual “badlands”; they couldn’t have, I said, because the badlands were in South Dakota and they didn’t drive that far north.

My statement was, of course, very wrong and very ignorant.  Badlands can be found in many parts of the southwest (as well as in South Dakota’s Badlands NP).  You can find magnificent examples of badlands in Arizona, Utah, and certainly in eastern California at Death Valley.

And so I keep looking for them.

"Crunchy" slope of a Bentonite hill, Capitol Reef

“Crunchy” slope of a Bentonite hill, Capitol Reef

The Bentonite Hills, just to the east of Capitol Reef NP, is one such place.  And yes, when you get up close to these structures, they look kind of crunchy.  Mainly because they’re essentially made of clay.  And it’s the clay that is one of the reasons that plant life can’t grow in most badlands.  Clay tends to expand and contract significantly when it gets wet, a process that’s not conducive to plant growth in general and seedling survival in particular.  It’s also true that badlands aren’t exactly resistant to erosion.  The top layers will literally wash away during a heavy rainfall.  Which is why you see delta-like formations at the bottom of many badland hills.

Bentonite hill, Capitol Reef

Bentonite hill, Capitol Reef

They can also be very colorful.  That’s because they easily absorb minerals (or so I’m told).  But then I’m not the world’s greatest authority on badlands.  I just like to find them and photograph them.  For the moment I’ll let someone else worry about the science of badlands.

 

“It was a dark and stormy night……”

Storm, Capitol Reef NP, Utah

Storm, Capitol Reef NP, Utah

With all due respect to Snoopy (from the Peanuts comic strip) and his limited literary skills, there aren’t all that many “dark and stormy nights” on the Colorado Plateau.  Which makes getting to see one a photographic treat.

Wiggly rainbow, Capitol Reef NP

Wiggly rainbow, Capitol Reef NP

In my experience, storms in the American southwest differ from more “normal” storms in two respects: First, they’re usually slow movers.  They like to take their time moving across the landscape.  That’s not always the case, of course, but I think much of the time it is.  If you see a storm off in the distance, don’t worry about running for cover or looking for your umbrella.  It’s probably hours away.  Or it may never arrive at all.

Second, southwestern storms tend to dump their rain (if they dump anything at all) over mountainous areas.  If you want to stay dry, don’t go up into the hills.  Stay in the valleys.  Just don’t park your butt in a slot canyon if it’s raining in the hills.  That would be an incredibly bad idea.

Texture, Capitol Reef

Texture, Capitol Reef

And I think that clouds (and storms) have more “personality” in this part of the country.  They’re more aloof, if that adjective can be used to describe weather.  They’re certainly not ubiquitous; they tend to “hide” just over or on the horizon, and they release water sparingly to the parched earth below.  The clouds, lightning and thunder can be ominous, but it’s often just bluster.  The moisture is literally eaten by the atmosphere.

Verga, Capitol Reef

Verga, Capitol Reef

That’s the case in this image.  Rain is coming out of the clouds but most of it never reaches the ground.  That can happen anywhere, of course, but it’s very common on the Colorado Plateau (except maybe during Monsoon season).  You stand there looking up at the sky figuring you’re about to get soaked.  But nothing happens.  Not surprising, I guess, when the dew point is in the 10 – 20 degree range.

You just gotta love the desert……..

There be Goblins Here

Goblin Valley SP, Utah

Goblin Valley SP, Utah

Goblin Valley State Park lies between Arches and Capitol Reef National Parks on one of those routes in Utah where you can drive for miles without seeing another car (my kind of road!).  It lies just to the west of Route 24, a 2-lane road that runs south from I-70 to the small town of Hanksville, Utah.  If there’s such a thing as “rural” Utah, this is it.

You might remember that Goblin Valley was in the news a couple of years ago – 3 Boy Scout leaders decided to topple one of these 200 million year old Entrada sandstone structures because it represented a “safety hazard”.  They even made a video of it and posted it on Facebook.  I don’t know how all that played out but I hope they’re not still working with kids.  Dumb.

A pillar of ancient mud, Goblin Valley

A pillar of ancient mud, Goblin Valley

It is true, though, that these formations are fairly fragile.  You can easily chip away at them, even with your bare hands.  I think if it rained here more often a lot of these structures would have washed away by now.  Fortunately, these goblins “live” in the desert.

Strange shapes, Goblin Valley SP

Strange shapes, Goblin Valley SP

The only downside to this place – and I’m being a little picky here – is that just about everything is the same orange-ish color.  On one side of the park there are some green colored formations (limestone perhaps?), but most everything else is the same color you see here.

 

In the Glen

Lower gorge, Watkins Glen SP, Watkins Glen, NY

Lower gorge, Watkins Glen SP, Watkins Glen, NY

If I have a favorite park in New York State, it’s Watkins Glen.  It’s a place that still brings out the kid in me, a place that can make me forget whatever troubles I might have, and a place that makes me look in wonder, no matter how many times I see it.

Scalloped gorge walls, Watkins Glen SP

Scalloped gorge walls, Watkins Glen SP

The gorge trail, where I spend virtually all of my time, runs about a mile and a half from bottom to top.  Over that short distance Glen Creek falls between 400 and 500 feet as it cuts through shale and sandstone (yes, sandstone, although it’s not red or yellow or even white – it’s just gray).

Cascades and large pothole, Watkins Glen

Cascades and large pothole, Watkins Glen

The deeper you get into the gorge, the more it seems to wrap itself around you.  It’s not just what you see; it’s what you smell and what you touch.  The gorge is always cool and it’s always moist.  Add autumn’s fallen leaves and the smell is intoxicating.  Just wear some shoes that can stand a little water because you’re going to get a little wet from time to time.  But what kid doesn’t like that?

A small waterfall in the gorge, Watkins Glen

A small waterfall in the gorge, Watkins Glen

Like any worthwhile gorge (or slot canyon for that matter), Watkins Glen gets dark in a few places, even in the middle of the day.  You might even call it “spooky”.

A turn in Glen Creek, Watkins Glen SP

A turn in Glen Creek, Watkins Glen SP

Almost certainly the most well known spot in the gorge (and the most photographed) is Rainbow Falls.  This series of cascading waterfalls, with adjacent plunge pools, is near the top end of the gorge with a walking bridge that crosses the stream and leads to a parking lot and picnic area.

Rainbow Falls, Watkins Glen SP

Rainbow Falls, Watkins Glen SP

I honestly don’t know why they call it “Rainbow Falls”.  Maybe, if the sun’s position is right, a rainbow forms behind the water that drops near the walkway on the left.  If that’s the case I’ve never seen it.  I do know, however, that you’re likely to get wet there.  As will your camera gear.

Cavern Cascade, Watkins Glen SP

Cavern Cascade, Watkins Glen SP

Cavern Cascade is actually near the lower end of the gorge.  Since the walls around this waterfall are concave, you can walk underneath the falls (so long as you don’t mind getting wet – again).  Because the walkway is narrow, setting up a tripod isn’t easy.  And believe me you need a tripod.  But if you do you’re going to block traffic.  Except for this particular spot.  There’s a small area just above this part of the “trail” that’s out of the way and pretty much in the dark.  Nobody knew I was here until they walked past me.  Some of them were clearly startled when my tripod and I suddenly became visible.  That was kind of fun…….for me, anyway.

Sand Dune Arch

Sand Dune Arch, Arches NP

Sand Dune Arch, Arches NP

Sand Dune Arch is not nearly as well known as Delicate Arch (you won’t see it on any Utah license plates), but it’s far easier to get to.  It sits between two large sandstone fins at the end of a very short trail.  Walking to it is a lot like walking on a beach, a beach with very fine reddish sand.  And if you visit this little arch in the middle of the afternoon you might see the “glow” effect, where light reflected off the fins give the arch and surrounding sand an orange / red appearance.

If the Stars Align, Keep Shooting

Early morning, Delicate Arch, Arches NP

Early morning, Delicate Arch, Arches NP

There are times when it seems like the stars align perfectly and everything falls into place.  If you happen to be a photographer, this is, of course, a very good thing.  All you have to do is keep moving around and pay attention.  Keep the camera close at hand.

Unfortunately, the opposite can happen as well.  And we all know how dry those dry periods can be.  They ain’t fun.

Right now I seem to be on the good side of the equation.  The trip west was great.  I really like quite a few of the images I captured (an unusual outcome for me – I usually feel like electronically tossing the lot of them when I get home). Then, when we finally did get back home, I found that fall hadn’t ended in western NY yet and, wonder of wonders, the weather was still warm.  So off I went into the Finger Lakes region.  More photographs!  So at least I’ll have something to do when the cold and yuk arrive.

The image above is one of the trip photographs that I really like.  The subject – Delicate Arch (in Arches NP) – isn’t the reason why.  There are literally millions of photographs of this arch (a few of them mine).  I like this photograph because of the woman standing beneath the arch.  While standing underneath the thing isn’t at all unusual, standing beneath it and looking to the east (in my direction) is.  People normally pose for friends on the other side – to the west.  At most those people are maybe a hundred feet away.  Heck, she probably couldn’t even see anyone where I was.  This image was taken with an effective focal length of 420 mm.  A normal view from the east side looks like this (at 50 mm):

A "normal" view

A “normal” view

As you can see I wasn’t what you’d call close.  I have no clue who she might have been waving to or posing for.  But it sure wasn’t me.  I’ll take it, though.  It certainly adds scale to the arch.

If you ever happen to be in Moab, Utah be sure to visit Arches and take the western trail to Delicate Arch.  It’s moderately difficult, mostly because it’s kind of steep.  You’ll be trying to suck in a little oxygen when you get near the top.  But it’s a worthwhile climb.  For the best photographs, go mid to late afternoon when the sun is on the western side of the arch.

When the Mountains turn Yellow

Small pond near Frisco, Colorado

Small pond near Frisco, Colorado

While I love the fall colors of western NY, with all of the reds and oranges, I have to say that the color we saw while driving through the Rocky Mountains (in both September and October) were some of the most impressive I’ve ever seen.  On our way out to Utah, Nevada, and Arizona we spent most of our time on I-70, which in Colorado means crossing the mountains between Denver and Grand Junction, a very familiar route for us.  We did it a little later than normal this year – trying to avoid the heat in Utah and Nevada – so I wasn’t sure about the timing for color in the mountains.  I needn’t have worried.  The aspens and cottonwoods and grasses were amazing.

I-70 near Frisco, Colorado

I-70 near Frisco, Colorado

Full disclosure: Interstate 70 was anything but “amazing”.  This major U. S. artery – from Ohio through Colorado – has been “under construction” for about a decade.  And in some areas in the same places.  I fully realize that much of this construction is absolutely necessary.  Like many of our roads and bridges I-70 is literally falling apart.  But does it take this many years to fix?  I don’t think it took that long to build the damn thing in the first place.  In any case, if you plan on heading across country anytime soon, avoid this road (especially in Indiana and Illinois – although most of Kansas isn’t too bad).  Take I-40 (to the south) or I-80 (to the north).  But stay off of I-70!  The orange signs,  orange cones, orange barrels, and flagmen will drive you nuts.

I-70 in Colorado

I-70 in Colorado

The good news is that the inconvenience of road construction, and all of the orange signs and cones, was more than outweighed by the brilliant yellows and oranges of the mountains.  In many respects these photographs are a poor substitute for what we actually saw.

SR-12, Boulder Mountain, near Torrey, Utah

SR-12, Boulder Mountain, near Torrey, Utah

Boulder Mountain is not part of the Rockies.  It sits just to the west of Capitol Reef NP and south-southwest of Torrey, Utah.  At its highest point it’s about 11,000 feet high (so it’s not exactly little).  SR-12 crosses the mountain on its eastern side.  I’ve talked about SR-12 in previous posts; it is, to me, the most interesting and enjoyable road in the continental United States.  It runs about 125 miles from its intersection with route 24 in Torrey to a point just west of Bryce Canyon (where it meets US-89).  If you’re a photographer, you could live at any point on this road and spend multiple lifetimes exploring it.  Among other attractions you’d have: Boulder Mountain, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, the Burr Trail, Calf Creek Falls, Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Kodachrome SP, Red Canyon, etc., etc.  We’ve been down this road many times and I haven’t even begun to see all that’s there.

Cow on the road, Boulder Mountain

Cow on the road, Boulder Mountain

One of the interesting things about Boulder Mountain is that it’s a “free range” area.  During warm weather months, ranchers put their cattle up on the mountain where they’re free to go pretty much wherever they want – including walking across or in the road.  So it’s a good idea to be careful.  Especially since the road can get fairly curvy along the way.  If you come around one of these curves too fast bad things can happen.  This guy, for example, seemed a little put out that I wanted to get by.  The cows, by the way, are rounded up and brought to lower elevations for the winter (presumably with fences).

Great Sand Dunes NP, near Alamosa, Co.

Great Sand Dunes NP, near Alamosa, Co.

Just before heading east and home, we drove across southern Colorado on US-160.  It was along this route that we saw some of the most jaw-dropping displays of fall color.  None of which we photographed.  But that’s another story.

US-160 passes through Cortez (Mesa Verde NP), Durango, Pagosa Springs, and Alamosa on its way to I-25.  Its highest point is at Wolf Creek Pass (almost 12,000 ft.) between Pagosa Springs and South Fork.  It was on either side of the pass that we were simply blown away by the color.  There’s no way to verbally describe it.  In all of our travels I’ve never seen anything like it.

If I only had a picture (or two)………

Great Sand Dunes NP is worth visiting, if for no other reason than seeing how high sand dunes can actually get.  I love White Sands NM in New Mexico, for example, but the dunes here literally dwarf them.  I think the tallest dunes here are 700 or 800 feet high – and people climb them.  I don’t know if you’ve ever tried climbing sand dunes, but it ain’t easy.  It’s mind boggling contemplating how all that sand actually got there.  I didn’t bother climbing these because the wind was strong when we arrived and just kept getting stronger.  I didn’t feel like getting sand-blasted and I’m guessing my camera didn’t either.  I’m still cleaning sand out of the Jeep.

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