Monday, February 22, 2010

Midnight at the Grand Canyon

I watched the sunset earlier in the evening from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, but I wasn't thrilled with my pictures. There was something they were missing, something I could see, but wasn't able to capture. I set up my tent in the forest west of the canyon, and after taking a nap for a couple hours, I put my riding gear on and headed back into the park at almost 1am. The place was completely deserted, and silent. So empty that rather then leave my bike in the parking lot, I rode it all the way down the footpaths and through the buildings to the locations I'd scouted to shoot from. This was a strange feeling in of itself.

But as I started taking pictures, I wasn't having much luck. There were some tungsten safety lights on the buildings that were messing up the colors, I didn't have a tripod so I had to do my best balancing the camera on rocks, which gave always-crooked horizons, and the the full moon wasn't providing the interesting shadows that I'd hoped for. I dicked around with various exposures and stops for about half an hour, getting more and more annoyed that I wasn't able to really capture the spectacle of this place. I didn't know what I was doing wrong, but nothing was coming out the way I wanted.

I got up to leave, and on a whim mostly born out of my frustration with it, I pointed the camera at the moon and pressed the shutter.

This was the result.

I can count on one hand the number of times that I've taken a single shot that upon review has made me verbally say "Wow . . ."

(I know I've said it before, but if you've never done it, PLEASE view these larger. I've taken a gamble and linked to the full-res, 8mp images, although they are watermarked.)

I pointed the camera at something else that had been pissing me off the whole time, a stone tower just to my left that was illuminated by a bright halogen lamp. This was what came out.

(I'm sorry about the overly-obnoxious watermark)

And the moon again after the clouds had cleared a bit.

It turned out that the things I'd been bitching about the whole time yielded what, to me, are some of the coolest pictures I've ever taken. This gave me the motivation to stick around and try and shoot the canyon itself, as well as some tips on what I was doing wrong. I still think my accident shots were cooler, but at least these turned out decent.

Pointing west caught some horizon glow that I couldn't understand the source of. Vegas, maybe? It was almost 2am, far too late for lingering sunlight.

And to the east.

(Arg I wish I'd had a tripod)

Truth be told, the reason I've hesitated so long to post these is that at ANY resolution besides original, the pictures lose most of their punch. I eventually decided to compromise and watermark them, and I'm sorry about it, but it's the only way I could let myself post these at this size. I watermarked them just so that if someone does steal them or hotlink from somewhere else, at least the viewers will know where it came from.

Please, view these on as large and high-resolution of a screen as you can.

If anyone would like full-resolution, uncompressed .tif (or even RAW) files suitable for printing, sent me a message and I'd be happy to get them to you somehow (keep in mind the .tif files are almost 50mb). I'm not trying to make any money or anything, but if someone DID want these for printing, a minor donation of some sort would be appreciated. Or to be honest, just that you like them enough to want the full file would be compliment enough. So yeah, whatever.

The next time I take a trip to the canyon, I'm bringing a wider lens, or a full-frame camera.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Grand Canyon

There isn't anything I can say about the Grand Canyon that hasn't already been said in countless books, and though endless photographs. Language is a woefully inadequate medium to try to convey the meaning of a place like this.

I arrived there with perhaps an hour of daylight left, maybe less. The throng of tourists here at the South Rim was thick, and despite being on the bike it was hard to find parking. Someone did make a comment on my armored jacket as I walked by, saying "Man, whatever you're planning on doing, it does NOT look safe!". I think they assumed I was going BASE jumping or something.

(For scale, those little dots under the spot of lens flare are people)

I wandered around a lot taking pictures from the different vantage points, and the sun dropped rapidly, making shadows even more pronounced.

(Again, those are people next to the lens flare)

Eventually, the sun got low enough that the light changed, and everything turned bright red.

In a flash, the sun was gone, and everything plunged into darkness.

With the sun down, it started to cool off quickly, and I headed east out of the park, into the national forest to camp for the night. I felt I'd gotten some good pictures, but nothing that really struck me as amazing. It was the same views from the same places that everyone else was, and I found myself wishing for a wider lens.

As I set up camp that evening, I set my alarm for 1am, resolving to go back for more photos that night.

It turned out to be one of the single best decisions I've ever made as a photographer.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Through Nevada and into Arizona

My time in Death Valley had ended with me sleeping next to the bike, off in what seemed to be a clearing for storing piles of road gravel. I'd actually climbed well out of the valley by the time I camped, I think I was at over 3000 feet. High enough that it was cool enough for me to need my sleeping bag for the night, rather then just being hardcore and flopping down in my riding gear.

Man, packing up in the morning is WAY faster when you don't have to deal with a tent.

After going east for a while, and stopping in some little no-name town for Gatorade and gas, I crossed the border into Nevada, and a town with a hilariously onomatopoetic name.

Literally the first thing you see after crossing into Nevada is a massive slew of billboards, all offering services that are only legal in Nevada (and Rhode Island, due to a strange bureaucratic loophole)

A few more hours to the south, and I crested some hills to see . . . Las Vegas! In all it's smoggy glory.

What a lousy city it is. I was thinking about heading downtown to at least ride down the strip, but traffic even mid-day was so awful that I said hell with it, and booked it east.

Yeah . . . you're not fooling anyone.

It's hard to say exactly what makes Las Vegas such a lousy place. It's hot, sure, but so was everywhere else that I'd been. But it's a different feeling. In Death Valley, and elsewhere, it was a pure, clean, natural heat. Vegas felt like a smoggy, dirty, artificial heat, made even worse by the constantly sitting idle in thick traffic.

Everything in Vegas is fake; it's like the whole city is made of plastic. Nothing is real, nothing is substantial, everything has a layer of gaudy makeup and glitz on it and it's only attractive if you're drunk off your ass. Everyone seems to want to go there, yet no one seems to actually want to be there. No one leaves the air-conditioned comfort of their buildings expect for a quick dash to their air-conditioned cars, shops and restaurants spray water from overhead nozzles in a mist over the sidewalk in an attempt to keep all the old people from dieing of heatstroke, and millions of gallons of water are used to irrigate imported plants that have no business living in a desert.

Vegas struck me as another effort by people to beat nature into submission. Rather then accepting the facts of your environment, working with it, insane amounts of energy, are poured into trying to replicate what we have deemed "civilized".

Las Vegas was one of the places that saw the largest inflation during the housing bubble, and subsequently the biggest crash. Prices have dropped in some areas by over 50% of what they were at the peak, and rows of hopelessly generic and bland townhouses sit apparently or unfinished everywhere. It turns out that not many people want to live in a desert. At least, not as many as developers had hoped.

Heading east of Vegas for me to the vicinity of Lake Mead, and the mechanism for supplying Vegas with all of it's electricity and water.

The Hoover Dam

Uh, yeah, it's a big dam. To be honest I was more fascinated by the network of pulleys and cables that look like they're used for transporting heavy loads across the canyon, heavier then the road on top of the dam could support.

Half a mile down the canyon from the dam, a new bridge is being constructed for the new highway that will bypass the road going over the dam. A very impressive site, it was.

Given Las Vegas's propensity to making money off of anything it can, I was hoping that BASE jumping might be allowed off the bridge once it's completed. However, given the proximity to all the power lines from the dam, I find it doubtful.

Going over the dam and to the other side gets you to another observation lot, where you can get a look at the back of the dam and Lake Mead.

Even though that when taken in relation to it's CO2 output Hydroelectric is one of the cleaner forms of electrical generation, I can't help but think how much more beautiful and amazing this place would have been if we hadn't needed to build that damn. Oh well :(

East I went, into the hills of Arizona.

I wussed out of camping for tonight, and ended up in a motel. I BADLY needed a shower after three days spent in really hot environments, I hadn't had one since I stayed in a campground outside of the Giant Sequoia National Park. And hey, it was like $35 a night. I'll pay that for a shower, a bed, and internet access.

Since leaving Death Valley, all the way across Nevada and Arizona so far, the terrain had been hilly, and dry. Very little in the way of vegetation, and what plant life did exist was little and scraggly. Today started out much the same way, as the road followed a railroad track.

Bradleys, I think? Can someone confirm/deny this?

As I got farther into northern Arizona, the terrain got more pleasant. It started to green up a bit, eventually producing real trees.

For a little bit of American Nostalgia, I got on Rt 66 for a while, and found myself chuckling at a slice of time that was from long before me.

I don't think Burma-Shave actually runs these promotions anymore, as most of the signs were vaguely related to road safety or speeding (Slow down Pa | sakes Alive! | Ma missed signs | four and five!)

The towns along the road were doing their best to play up the old west/old-timey America thing, sometimes done poorly, but sometimes done well with a touch of actual history thrown in.

I don't know how or why, but when I was in ~7th grade I had a tee-shirt from this place. All the menu items are somehow roadkill themed or named, but other then that it's your standard greasy-spoon burger place. Although they don't really bother with proper cups.

As I kept on going, the terrain stayed just hilly enough to be interesting, and the clouds painted an amazing patchwork out across the plains.

And now, it's time to head to the Grand Canyon.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Giant Sequoia National Park

After a very botched attempt at meeting up with my friend Siren, I was left in downtown Monteray with a rapidly setting sun. A glance at the GPS revealed civilization for quite a ways in any direction, and by my best guesses, I had maybe 45 minutes worth of daylight left. Fantastic, trying to stealth camp in the dark again.

Stealth camping when it's dark is 50x harder then camping when it's still light out. In addition to the questions of safety, and just being able to see someplace to set up, there's the always questionable issue of legality, trespassing, and making sure you can't be seen. I was in no mind to pay for someplace to camp, but google maps did show Los Padres National Forest, about 50 miles to the south. Back-country camping is usually permitted in any national forest/BLM land as long as you follow some guidelines, so in that direction I headed. At least being on National land removed me from the biggest issues of legality, but I'd still have to find somewhere to set up.

I headed inland through Carmel Valley, and eventually tracked down some road that looked like it would dead end deep into the forest. It was a VERY twisted dirt road that seemed to wind up some obscenely steep grades, but just how high I was getting was impossible to tell on a dark, cloudy night. Once I saw the always-welcoming National Forest sign, I started looking for someplace to camp.

As luck would have it, I came across what looked to be a self-service campground! Hooray! Toilets and things! The place seemed to be totally empty, and the little info sign didn't even have one of those self-service pay boxes. It appears that this campsite was free, which is the best sort of campsite for a cheapass like me. I set up the tent in the light of the bike's headlight, and went to sleep.

The next morning allowed me to take stock of where I was.

Yup, the whole campsite was completely empty. It was a primitive site, no running water, and only pit toilets, but that was all fine by me. And hey, the desolation and emptiness meant that I didn't have to bother getting dressed when wandering across the campground for my morning pee.

Heading down out of the forest, it was apparent just how high up I'd come

The road looked to have been graded VERY recently, so while it was free of potholes, it was fairly loose and really steep in places. Most of the time was spend in 1st and 2nd gear, engine braking the whole time.

This would have been awesome on a dirt bike or even a supermotard.

My goal for the day was to get across the central valley, into the Sierra Nevada mountains, and later in the week Death Valley. With that in mind, I headed out of the coastal range and into the flatness that is Central California.

Sometime Mid-day I stopped in some little town that looked like it had been built only for the housing bubble. The whole area was brand-new and nearly empty. It was hot, but I parked the bike next to what little shade I could, and checked up on the internet while waiting for my pizza from a Little Ceasers.

Heading farther east, I passed what looked like an abandoned military base. Looked like it would have been an awesome place for some paintball wars.

I rushed through Fresno (Ohmigawd that place really is the butthole of the state) as the sun was setting, getting to the Sierras just as the light was changing.

I made it to the entrance gate at Giant Sequoia National Park about half an hour after sunset, and inquired about camping rates in the park. Most of the campsites were full, the rangers said, that the ones that still had spaces were upwards of $20 for a night. Goddamit, would I be camping if I was made of that kind of money?

Anyway, I turned back through the little town that bordered it, and started looking for someplace to camp. Stealthing it probably wasn't an option anymore; everything was fenced, there were houses everywhere, and it was quite dark. I asked in at some of the motels, but NOTHING was cheaper then $80 a night. I finally made do with a state park campground for $12. I rolled in well after dark and set up in the completely deserted half of the place. The southern portion of the grounds had full hookups and were PACKED with R/Vs, but the no-services north side was totally empty. If I'm going to pay for someplace, there isn't much more I could ask for. Showers, fresh water, and no one else around.

I packed up my things, took a shower, and headed off into the Giant Sequoia National Park.

The road going through the park was wonderfully twisted, although there was too much traffic to really make much use of it. 50 years ago, there was a small town up here, complete with gas stations, hotels, restaurants and everything. But sometime in the 70s, the park service went on an aggressive campaign to remove things like that from inside the parks, and return as much of them to nature as possible. The few buildings that remained were moved and altered to have minimal of an impact on the surrounding ecology. Now all that remains is an information visitor's center.

While the Coastal Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, and the Bristle-cone Pine the oldest, the Giant Sequoia is the largest, in terms of shear bulk. The current world-record holding tree, nicknamed General Sherman, contains 52,584 feet of wood in it's enormous trunk.

Unlike the record-holding Coastal Redwoods, of which the specific location of the tallest tree is kept secret for fear of damage from tourism, the largest Sequoias are well-marked. And with that identification does come comical hoards of tourists, all jostling and taking turns getting their picture taken in front of the tree.

Bleh. This wasn't why I came to the forest. I didn't even bother trying to get my picture taken, and headed off to what on the map appeared to be a more secluded grove of trees, a couple of miles away.

It was a nice walk through the forest, and even though it was a beautiful clear day, 95% of the people in the park seemed to congregate at the record-holding trees. I now understood the reasons for keeping the location of the tallest Coastal Redwood a secret; to really enjoy this place, you need to respect all of the trees, not the few specifically gargantuan ones. Even the smaller trees dwarf everything around them, again giving a real problem getting an idea of scale.

Giant Sequoias need a lot of water to grow, so they'll often be found surrounding low-laying marshy areas where water collects, or near slow-moving rivers and streams. Even viewing them from this distance, across this marsh, they seem like any other tree. But getting up close makes it hard to fit their size into your head.

The only way is to take pictures of other people, next to the trees from a distance. You see that little yellow dot at the base of the tree? View the image full-size, that's a guy and his family. These trees are BIG.

Even though California has a habit of lighting itself on fire pretty frequently, once these trees get of size, fire doesn't affect them much anymore. Their bark is VERY thick, and wet, with very little oils, and serves as a perfect insulator. And their branches are so far above the ground that the flames can't get anywhere near them. In fact, the trees NEED the fires to reach their size; the fires kill off scrub brush and smaller plants that compete with the trees for water, and the ashes form a nutrient-rich addition to the soil.

Any damage that the trees do sustain from fire are quickly healed, with the bark growing over the scars.

Again, scale.

Note the silhouette of the person at the base of the trunk.

These parks really did turn me into a dirty, tree-loving hippy.

But how could I not be, after trees like this?

For those interested in continuity, the next entry would be here: