mojave road trip

Around 10 on the morning of Friday, Dec. 4, I knew I needed to head out soon. The plan, after all, was to get to St. George UT, at the northeastern end of the larger Mojave Desert. And I wanted to make a couple of stops. I did not have much time to waste, however, because I wanted to get into St. George at a reasonable hour, and I would already be crossing a time zone (Pacific to Mountain).

It ended up being a pretty interesting drive, at least in part, although with some seemingly interminable stretches of dirt and grey mountains in the distance. A few scenes, including ones taken in Death Valley near Beatty NV, lying just outside of the park, about an hour northeast of Furnace Creek CA, at the park’s heart. Next door to Beatty is, meanwhile, another NPS property, Rhyolite Ghost Town. I briefly toured the ghost town, then had a tasty pork al pastor burrito from a Mexican food truck in Beatty, as well as French press coffee from a drive-through place (really, a trailer).

After this, I had high hopes of being able to at least briefly stop at Valley of Fire State Park, located between Las Vegas and St. George, and about 15 minutes east off Interstate 15. I had I read about this gem of a state park a few months before in researching places to visit in the region. By the time I got there, it was only going to be open for another hour. So I couldn’t tarry long, but I made it!

I’d read great things about this park, and even my brief drive through showed me that it lived up to its billing. Next time I make it around these parts, I need to go back and spend a bit more time at Valley of Fire. For the record, the property was almost a national park. Today, it’s a state park bordered by federally-owned lands, including the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which I drove through the tail end of after leaving.

One unexpected thing: Making my only siting on my trip of big-horned sheep, the undisputed showstoppers among wildlife in the region. (Read upon my return to Mississippi that a recent visitor complained about losing a shoe to one of the sheep. Park staff later found a shoe matching the visitor’s description within the park.)

After leaving, I took a lovely drive through small towns near here after that (many palm trees around houses, ranches and such, old downtowns) at dusk, before hooking onto I-15 again. I ordered and ate pizza, caught up on emails and such, and soon crashed.

Next stop for the next day: Springdale UT, gateway to Zion.

death valley, day 2

I recorded audio for this last night. But I was up to writing again this morning. Go figure. In any case, here I focus on what is probably the most popular photo attraction at Death Valley, Zabriskie Point. It’s so popular, really, that I found more enjoyment (and amazement at the landscape) in editing the photos later than I did when at the site. The reason: Too many people around with tripods and fancy equipment.

Some folks were likely doing time-lapse photography and video at this, the park’s most famous site, what I called a “screen saver shot” locale. And I could keep my distance. Still, all those folks (maybe 30-40 around at the top of a hill) were making me nervous, so I scrammed after too long. I told some women nearby when I was taking the shot at right, below, that I had more shots than one would have of a newborn, so I was probably good to go. Everyone laughed, and I took off.

The location: Sidewinder Canyon, a not-so-heavily-trafficked site (only me out there around 8-10 on a Friday morning) about 15-20 minutes south of Badwater Basin and an hour from the main visitors center and resort area at Furnace Creek. Some “Star Wars” productions were filmed at Death Valley, and some of my shots from here looked especially Star Wars-ey to me.

What I will always associate with the canyon is, however, its absolute silence that a.m. When I stopped hiking, I heard nothing—no ambient hum, no birds, insect noises, nothing. I’ve never experienced anything like that, and I grew up in a rural area. I mean, out here, the info or influencer age means nothing. I could have screamed “CAN I READ SOME OF THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS TO YOU? DO YOU WANT TO HEAR ABOUT LAWSUITS INVOLVING THE ELECTION?” and no one would have been around to hear it, not even non-human critters, apparently (although I saw what appeared to be rabbit poop around, which likely meant that coyotes were hiding away nearby). I briefly heard the sounds of military aircraft, which I know use the western end of the park for training. Sounds may have bounced off canyon or eastern mountains. Otherwise, I heard only silence.

I spent about two hours climbing uphill and exploring slot canyons here, then took off. And took a selfie beforehand, as shown here. Very mostly-doomed-crew-of-“Alien” kind of thing to do, I know.

death valley, day 1

For your listening pleasure–or something like that–I put together some audio descriptions of these. For those who are aurally challenged, please note the following: I took these on Thursday, Dec. 4, no long after getting into Death Valley National Park. (I stopped by Zabriskie Point first, but the mid-morning light looked too strong for photos. Photos of that natural landmark are featured in the next post.) I walked up the trail to the Red Cathedral, a mountain that looks like its name. But most of these were taken on side trails on the return trip, ones where I started to think, Oh, Death Valley is the unconventional supermodel of national parks, I think. Later on, I started to think of it as similar to Lady Gaga. You think it’s this one thing, but then it’s doing the national park equivalent of a duet album with Tony Bennet, or being talked about as Oscar material. That will be clear in the next two galleries, for which I also included audio.

Devil’s Golf Course Description
Badwater Basin
Continued Below!

travel, COVID, and keeping plans

Around Independence Day, I decided to make long-range travel plans, just as I watched half of everyone, it seemed like, traveling across the country by car to various natural wonders. I didn’t have the time to make such a trip over the summer, being involved in a freelance question-writing gig for a textbook publisher. Moreover, I had no desire to drive thousands of miles by car. I’m less a Great American Road Trip person than a Fly or Take a Train to Get Close Then Take a Car Person.

I knew of a place I wanted to go before too long, though: Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, which I had planned to visit before the pandemic began and COVID lockdowns (or quasi-lockdowns) ensued nationwide, and the parks temporarily closed. I also knew by then that a semester of college teaching would be finished for me right after Thanksgiving. A bit of research, meanwhile, showed that flying into Las Vegas would also put me within close range of Death Valley National Park, which I had looked into before my trip to the Sierras and Los Angeles in July 2018. Visiting the park in December would work out well, weather wise.

I went to Delta’s website, then, and used points to reserve a round-trip ticket from Jackson to Las Vegas. By mid-month I had reserved in-park rooms at Death Valley and Bryce Canyon, both on sale. And on a Wednesday after turning in grades, I found myself in the outdoor Sky Deck of the Delta Sky Club at Atlanta’s Concourse F for a few hours, waiting on a flight to Las Vegas, with plans to head out for Death Valley in the morning.

Delta Sky Deck, Concourse F at 12:04 a.m. (Four or So Other People Around by 2:30)

Notable: It was 53 degrees out, hardly the typical weather you would choose for a long layover’s stay at the outdoor deck of an airport lounge. But given events of two or three weeks that preceded my planned trip, COVID was more of a concern than ever before. I hadn’t expected a new “wave” (I choose to think we’re still on a first wave in the U.S.) or a dramatic increase in cases to hit so soon after Thanksgiving. Even a week before the trip, I was wondering if I would have to cancel. Ultimately, however, I had done my research on flying, and what sort of precautions to take while on the road, and cautiously decided to move ahead.

I made a few significant adjustments, however, ones that built upon an earlier plan to make my trip as safe as possible, via means including the following:

  • “Contactless” care rental via Silvercar, an Audi company. Now, while Audi has chosen to close its Silvercar locations and airports and keep them open at dealerships instead, due to decreased travel in the U.S., you can still have the car delivered and picked up at certain airports for a $50 extra fee each time. I chose this option, and it was worth every penny. The only contact I had with Silvercar was via my phone and an iPhone app. No matter how Silvercar is doing now, I think you will see more of this sort of thing in the future, at least for everything but super-budget rentals.
  • Avoidance of The Strip or Downtown Las Vegas entirely, and even outdoor attractions I had hoped to visit, including the Neon Museum.
  • Steering clear of even outdoor dining at any place that looked crowded or appeared to have the opportunity to become crowded. Instead, I relied on pickup or to-go orders, room service (thankfully available for all meals of the day at my hotel in Springdale UT near Zion, the Cliffrose Lodge), and food trucks. Along the way, I even stopped at a fancy coffee trailer in a town of 1,000 or so residents!
  • Opting to stay at only Hilton properties, including the Cliffrose, not only because I could rack up some points, but because I could use its app for check-in, as well as use it as for a key. I also knew that Hilton had company-wide cleaning policies.
  • Otherwise, staying only at park lodges and, in an 11th hour arrangement, a glamping place about 45 minutes south of the Las Vegas airport, in the Mojave Desert (a location where, again, I did not need to talk to anyone in person–arrangements were made online).
  • Remembering some basic rules, including: Avoid crowds, keep my distance, wash my hands, the usual. (The only place that wasn’t as easy to do, but wasn’t impossible: The airport. This wasn’t Thanksgiving week, thankfully. The airport was dead in the morning, but ’90s type crowds developed in the mid-afternoon.
  • And finally: Deciding to spend a much longer layover than I initially expected at the outdoor lounge! Do your research, if you must travel over the next few months, and you might find out about such things. (I just can’t see the sky deck being uncrowded during a holiday travel week, even if the international concourse isn’t that busy nowadays. ) Helps to travel alone, though! A disclaimer there.

For my first night, I reserved and stayed at a nondescript Hilton Garden Inn south of The Strip. After getting there around 8:30, I ordered a big pizza from its restaurant. Then I ate most of it, but kept a few slices for a 5 a.m. “breakfast.” And I headed out for Death Valley at dawn. I went through the drive-through in the next city with services, dusty Parhump (where someone did the “pay it forward” thing for my coffee, as well as a panini that I thought I could use for lunch later on–I was previously unaware of this sort of thing, and baffled by it. I mean, I didn’t think I looked THAT shaggy.).

Within ten minutes, I was seeing this sort of road ahead of me. More exciting things were ahead, and are ahead here as well.

pool season, over

Well, I wasn’t able to do any more blog posts for a bit due to a) A maddening series of computer issues, ones which required me to purchase a new hard drive and reinstall Windows, and b) work, in a semester that’s starting earlier than before.

I do not miss the summer, however, or at least not the temperatures of summer. I’m just starting to get out with the “real” camera again (read, a dedicated camera, not a smart phone), and will post some shots from it. Thanks to the pandemic, however, I haven’t had many events to attend or taken trips for photo purposes. I have one of those planned for December, but I’ve been avoiding crowds.

One thing the pandemic has clearly taught me is that the camera is a way of getting in with a crowd, and studying places and people. I’m not making any sort of introverted images, or ones that involve self-reflection or reflect inner moods, necessarily. If my images do that, and I’m sure they do, they only do so indirectly.

What could seem like a possible exception are photos I took from inside the pool downstairs at my place this summer. I don’t have a thesis or anything for them, though. I just liked the way the shots looked, really, and love the way the pool looks at night.

But I do think they reflect something personal in that I’m a longtime swimmer. I started 20 minutes or more at least three or four times a week starting 2001, after saying sayonara to Big Tobacco. I’ve had periods where I’ve also been into jogging and cycling, and then just cycling and swimming for a bit. I’ve worked with a personal trainer as well. But swimming is my first adult exercise love.

During the summer, meanwhile, I was in the pool downstairs for more casual dips, but still doing flip turns and kicking from below to stir the water up, doing dolphin kicks under water for practice, and the like. Water is so heavy, so powerful, and mysterious, and I enjoyed watching it do its thing in a way I hadn’t in a lap pool.

There is, again, no deeper thing to say here, except maybe that the pool is my Great Escape. And now it’s over for a summer, except for the lap pool (for which I’m ready for more pandemic months, with water shoes, wet socks, and a parka ready so I can get in and out of the gym ASAP).

Oh, also I took a series of photos with a toy shark! Lest we forget. Farewell for the year, downstairs pool.

hiroshima, 2019

About year and two-and-a-half months ago today, I made a one-night’s stop in Hiroshima, Japan. It was all too brief, but memorable in a way that will likely be etched in my brain until I leave this earth. And I was just one of thousands of pilgrims to its Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park passing through daily, this on a quiet, cloudy Friday afternoon and evening.

Tomorrow will be a bigger day there, with the marking of the 75th anniversary of the city’s destruction by an American atomic bombing.

A bit of background, since I had not previously discussed anything about my trip on this site: I visited Hiroshima during a two-week tour of Japan in May 2019, on a personal visit. More specifically, I had scheduled a trip to the city to come after three days in Kyoto, about an hour-and-a-half away by a Shinkansen bullet train, and before a trip to a major art festival in the Seto Inland Sea, about four hours away trains and a ferry. I had to leave Kyoto later than I expected, however, and thus everything had to go right on my trip over to be able to see much of museum. But it did go right.

I will keep my feeling about things relatively brief here, in comparison to my journal, where I went on and on and on about the visit. One big of the entry stands out, however: A part where I mention finding myself frozen after reading about a girl’s being stuck in concrete and steel rubble after the bombing, unable to get out while suffering from a compound leg fracture, maggots around the wounds. I could relate, having suffered two compound leg fractures when I was younger. I could feel that pain, imagine the horror of being unable to get immediate aid, out in the humid August air. So I just stood there for a second, with hundreds of other visitors swarming around me, before telling myself to snap out of it and move on.

In my journal, I continued, “Now, upon thinking about this later, I wondered whether this (part of the) exhibit had anything to say about the horrors of nuclear war, specifically. Would such a story stemming from the Tokyo firebombing be any easier to take? What about a more recent drone bombing?”

My answer was partly that the overwhelming nature of the event, and the lack of any warning, maybe made this worse. (Not sure I agree with that now.) Otherwise, I thought the museum’s stressing, toward the end, of the need for world nuclear disarmament and consistent pushing for peace made telling the story here important by or through association.

Hiroshima Victims Memorial Cenotaph

Today, I read that today’s local officialdom has continued the tradition of speaking out in favor of peace and anything that leads to aggressive militarization and war, anywhere on Earth, this time with its mayor speaking out against “self-centered nationalism.” In so doing, the mayor was partly speaking to a domestic audience, given a rise in Japanese nationalism over the past few years, but also an international audience, given a rise in nationalism throughout Eastern Europe, and in China, Russia, and the United States, among so many other countries.

Hiroshima was not the only place where I saw the horrors of war, or anti-war messages during my visit. To the contrary, a week earlier, I visited a huge exhibit of war photography, with prints of shots taken over several decades, from all the major populated continents in Tokyo. The pro-peace message was much the same there as well.

Learning about the seemingly unending horror of what happened in just a short time in Hiroshima, however, had a cumulative effect. This came from going through parts of the exhibit about aftereffects including radioactive “black rain” and the early deaths of people who survived the bombing as children and such. (I had a hard time with evening beginning to watch some episodes of the HBO Chernobyl series, after getting home.)

Outside, however, in the gorgeous Peace Memorial Park people were cycling, jogging, hanging out. Adults led groups of uniformed school children around.

I stopped by my hotel after a bit, then went back out and had oysters (big local thing–these, shown below, were”grilled cheese oysters”) at a lovely little sidewalk cafe about half-a-block from the hypocenter of the bombing.

I had a couple of drinks back at the hotel, then sat up in my tiny room, trying to figure out Japanese broadcasts of game shows and noh theater. I woke up the next day, walked around and gawked at all the usual array of English signs around, even in a supermarket, a “Joe’s American Deep Dish Cafe” on a main drag, and so forth, and the ever-impressive (don’t think I’m joking) array of consumer offerings in the 7-11 where I picked up fancy doughnuts and coffee. By 9:30 a.m, I was gone. But I will always remember.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum at night

night and the movies

How to stay focused in the COVID-19 era? How do you keep yourself from wildly unhealthy doomscrolling, say? Maybe the existing sociopolitical order will completely collapse tomorrow, maybe it will. Or maybe you’ll look at too many articles about a direly important subject du jour, as if you’re going to solve all the world’s or lower jurisdiction’s problems all in one week?

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have all the all the answers, finding doomscrolling and social injustice and dysfunction issue pieces and videos hard to avoid right now, despite being busy over the summer. (More about what I’ve read below, with a couple of links.)

I can say, however, what has helped keep me sane, in an era when I can’t just bring my camera out and take shots of anything and everything: Old movies. Unlike about half of everyone else, I haven’t been watching many television series or new docs since mid-March. Instead, I’ve watched a couple of older movies a week, on average, usually late at night.

I started the movie watching for a couple of reasons. First, I knew I would be without cable late this summer, given that my condominium complex is no longer providing it with monthly fees. Comcast, meanwhile, decided to add Turner Classic Movies, which I loved, to a higher tier. Consequently, early on this year I paid for a couple of months of the higher tier, and recorded as many movies of interest to me from TCM as I could, thinking they tie me over until later. Now that I no longer have cable, I am getting TCM selections through HBO Max, and other classic movies and art films through the similarly outstanding Criteron Channel.

And the surfeit of cinema is one of the reasons I say that the stay-at-home season has seemed so surreal. Things are falling apart outside our front doors. The entertainment and accessible film options, though, have never been better.

Anyway, some of my favorite finds have included:

Night and the City (1950): While this classic film noir’s story is not particularly original or notable, the atmosphere it creates through its immediate post-World War II setting, design, and photography is like no other in film. It’s seedy but alluring, a portrait of the poor and depraved but uniquely glamorous. Or something to that effect.

I was so inspired by the lighting and photography in the film that I tried to imitate with self-portraits I took downstairs. The first homage is at the top of this page, with the other below, with screen shots/stills of Richard Widmark from the film for comparison.

The other major find was Saint Jack (1979), a once-seeming comeback film for director Peter Bogdanovich. It was based on a novel about an American trying to run (or at least start) a brothel in Singapore, and getting recruited for a CIA schemes, ultimately rejecting them. It is not a spy thriller, however, or an action film. It’s a character study, and a week-in-the-life story. It also just happened to be filmed on the sly, and captured an older, decaying yet romantic and wild-looking Singapore, before it underwent dramatic, rapid upward mobility. The film was banned in Singapore for decades, I read later, but has since become a festival favorite there. And it has a following, with a book about the film selling for a premium online and off. The plot was hard to keep up with, I found, but I never once wanted to turn the TV off when watching it. Again, the atmosphere carries the day.

Otherwise, I loved these:

Tokyo Olympiad (1965), via Criterion Channel (including a version with informed commentary).

The Red Shoes (1948), via TCM.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), via TCM.

I may cover some others later, but have to save something to keep me from doomscrolling on another day.

Today’s Media for Thought

  • “The Sociologist Who Could Save Us from Coronavirus,” from Foreign Policy. Some of this I think you would need to have read the book to fully appreciate. I have no read the book. Still, it was easy enough to get most of it.
  • “The Fabric is Torn in Oxford” from the nonprofit Mississippi Free Press. I thought this Part I was much stronger than this series on Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) fundraising’s Part II, which gets lost in the weeds of byzantine academic politics, how a PR effort might have gone better, and seeming score-settling with or one-upping of a competitor. Part I also doesn’t tell you nearly enough about how the Houston fundraiser Blake Tartt made his money and reputation (the gigantic Memorial City development in Houston, for one), but it does provide an unsettling look at efforts to keep troublesome university donors happy–in this case at one with a school that once made more of a big deal out of stressing an old south and Confederate-tied image–made it central, even, just before and during the Civil Rights Movement years. Then you see this intersect with Trump.
  • The Axios interview with Trump. Must watch, if pain-inducing.

that time again?

After more than a year of avoiding this blog, thanks mainly to thinking, Well, the writing and photos get more attention on social media, I have changed my mind. Sure, photo posts will get more attention at social media. But social media, particularly Facebook, has gotten on my last nerve in COVID-19 crisis era.

At the same time, the crisis era has left me adrift as far as my favorite pastime, which was photography. Travel isn’t sensible this summer, as the positive rate numbers clearly show. I’m not dining in at restaurants, no matter how often I’m encouraged to do so via restaurant accounts at Instagram. The brunch drinks look nice. But no thanks! I’m not going overseas, not going to blues festivals (which aren’t happening anyway), not taking photos of friends or people modeling or posing for me.

I was traveling around for photos a few times a year right up to the day the lockdowns began in the United States. Witness these photos from San Antonio TX, taken during the second week in March. I can remember washing my hands all the time them, and freaking out when briefly finding myself in a crowd, making sure I got out of it quickly. Then came hearing from others about how all this was overblown, once the Houston Rodeo was canceled. (I disagreed.) That was it for me for the year, it turned out. I later canceled a planned trip to Southeastern Utah for May.

One of my last restaurant meals, at the Hotel Havana’s Ocho in San Antonio TX

So I’m back here at the photo site blog. I am not sure what all I want to do with it. Still thinking that over, something I don’t have that much to time to do–or won’t have soon enough. What I do know is that I strongly opted against making this a now-standard sort of static photo portfolio site. I’m not in the photo biz professionally.

Otherwise, I thinking that a) I want to look for subjects that can get me to take photos here and there, or use old ones, say, while giving me a creative outlet for writing as well as photos, and b) I want to do my little part in bringing back an Internet outside of social media, news media, and business-oriented and professional sites and such.

Many people keep talking about the how the old normal wasn’t that hot, or wasn’t working at all. When, then, continue to act like we can just type our way into something new and better via the same dysfunctional platforms? Why not go out on our own?

Not that I want to set too high of a bar here or anything! More later.

kings canyon: hiking day

Well, it took me long enough to get to the last day. I finished the last entry, which covered the day before, about a week-and-a-half ago. (I had just been hiking at the eastern edge of Yosemite in that entry, and then drove toward Kings Canyon again.) 

In the interim, I went to an academic conference in Boston, taught classes during the week, and suffered my way through a sinus infection that left me with muffled hearing. No fun!

Now on to the subject: My last day, which I spent hiking–about 13 miles total. Most of it was spent on the Mist Falls Trail, and out-and-back that takes you about 9 miles total. And it’s beautiful for almost every foot. 

I referred to it to people I met on the trail as “preposterously gorgeous.” Here was the beginning. 

I mean, that’s pretty enough, right? The thing is, it just kept getting better and better, in a way that I thought was hard to convey through stills. The only way I thought I could give you some idea was just to throw as many decent photos I have of the trail in there.

Now, let’s keep going.

Around here, you had to take a left, and head toward the falls. And not long after that, you started hearing the unmistakable sound of a mountain river. 

The trail, meanwhile, started getting consistently steeper and rockier.

And there you were, standing on nothing but rock, staring out into the canyon.

After a bit, I found myself at the Mist Fall (but not as quickly as you might think here, to see the time jump), and it was time for a lunch. I put my feet in the water. Had a cranberry chicken salad sandwich and such, then headed back.

Once I got finished, though, I didn’t want to stop hiking. I remembered that there were other trails just a mile or so up the road from Road’s End (the end of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, where the Mist Trail began), near the Zumwalt Meadow trailhead.

I took one of these afterward, for another few miles. This easier trail, which hewed close to the byway for a bit, was an out-and-back to Roaring River Falls–which is more easily accessible via an asphalt trail nearby, but… I wanted to hike more.

That was about it. I drove back through the park and the Sequoia National Forest again via the byway, turning off only to make my way to a panoramic overlook near the John Muir Lodge. It was hazy out on the horizon, however, probably due to smoke from the Ferguson Fire, near Yosemite.

This was also, I should note, a wildly weaving route, and getting down it–after hiking another two-thirds of a mile or so to get to the overlook–made me feel a bit cranky. I was getting tired, and it was time to head toward my next top. That was Fresno. 

I only really saw the hotel I was staying at there. I had a shower, ordered a takeout pizza, and went to sleep. Then I got up at 4:45-ish and went to turn in my rental vehicle, and head to Los Angeles again.