7:17 am March 20 (Tuesday)
Great day yesterday! Annie, David, Gerry and I drove out to the Hoover Dam. It is just a little over a half hour from here – not as easy to find the turn off from the highway as you would think given the importance of the structure. We missed it on the first pass, but on the way back, bingo! Long drive in to a well-developed tourist experience.
The landscape around the area is phenomenally barren. Brown rock everywhere. Not boring by any stretch – lots of mountains, hills, jagged ridges. Despite the monochromatic color scheme, the contours of the landscape are endlessly interesting.
It is somewhat of an exaggeration to say that it is all rock (though that is the overall impression). There are plants, too. One that intrigued me was a spiky-looking, rust colored plant. On close examination it looked like the black fabric you find in air conditioning filters… Stiff with holes, not prickly or scratchy. There didn’t seem to be any leaves to speak of, so I am not sure if it is just a desert plant designed to conserve water or if it was in a dormant winter stage. The color was particularly striking.
There were also clumps of yellow flowers mixed in with a white, sage colored plant. Unfortunately, I am totally ignorant of the flowers and plants of the west so I cannot name them for you.
At the dam, we got in line for security (it is a federal facility), and once through that bought tickets for the biggest tour – power plant, tunnels, everything. Only bad part, we had to wait 2 hours until our tour time. We killed time by watching the movie, wandering around in the museum, and photographing from the Observation Deck. Those are all activities a visitor would do anyway, but we got to really draw them out to take up 2 hours. We might have gone to get something to eat, but that required passing through security again, and by then the line was up the stairs and almost all the way back to the parking structure.
Finally 1:30 came around and we went on our tour. The first stop was to see one of the diversion pipes built to divert the water from the Colorado River around the area where they would build the dam. The pipe was closed off for inspection and maintenance, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the noise and the shaking we would have experience had it been on. The pipe was 50 feet in diameter and a whole lot of water can pass through a pipe that size.
The turbines are located at the base of the dam on both sides of the chasm. There were just three of the six we could see on our side working when we were there.Our second stop was to see the turbines.
After the turbines, those of us with the yellow bracelets (the BIG tour-ists) got to go off with a guide who grew up in the dam, so to speak. Her dad was an engineer at the dam and growing up she got to go to work with him and learned all the dam’s nooks and crannies, secret hiding places and more. She was a really good guide – nice sense of humor, good stories and great at answering all kinds of questions.
With her we got to go into the parts of the dam that the inspectors see. Long tunnels, straight and curved, took us to peer out of a vent on the down river side of the dam. We also got to see the center seam of the dam – the expansion joint for the entire structure. Surveyors and inspectors marks were scribbled on the walls, and every so often she would remind us of how much concrete was between us and Lake Mead, or above our heads!
The inside of the dam is actually very pretty. There are terrazzo floors with inlaid designs reminiscent of the Native Americans of the area. It is stylistically art deco (finished in 1935), with gleaming metal doors, marble wall tiles, period light fixtures – all of which are original.
The dam serves to provide water for the surrounding states for agriculture and drinking water through the creation of Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake in the US. The electricity it generates is simply a by-product. It is a by-product which completely pays for the functioning and maintenance of the dam and the visitors’ center. No taxpayer dollars are required to keep the dam functioning.
Finally, after the tour we stopped to get something to eat, and then on the way home stopped to see Lake Mead. We photographed it from up on a hill, which was great because we could see so much. And many things like the marina, which up high seemed inconsequential, turned out to be hugely unsightly once we got down to the shore. Down to the shore we went, though, and unsightly marina or not, the lake was quite beautiful. We had a fairly warm afternoon, no wind, and a partly cloudy sky. The sun and clouds illuminated and darkened various parts of the landscape as we watched. The play of light on the colors of the rock in the mountains around the lake provided a colorful backdrop to the placid, bright blue water.
Leaving the lake and heading back to Las Vegas turned into an odyssey! We decide to return the car on our way and get the hotel shuttle at the airport to get back to the hotel. Easier said than done. We had quite a time with the GPS trying to get her to direct us to the proper Hertz location, which we finally gave up on and had her take us to the airport. By doing that we could follow the rental car signs to the drop off location. Then we asked the shuttle if we could be picked up at the rental car place. Of course, the answer is no. So then we get on a bus to take us to the airport, walk all around in the airport until we find the pick-up place only to discover – no shuttle. We call again, and again. I can’t tell you how long we waited all in all, but I can tell you how cold we got waiting.
It had to have taken close to three hours to do all that, so we weren’t back at the hotel until almost 7:30pm. We had dinner at PF Chang and were in bed exhausted by 10:30.
This morning, we got up and met up with Raul (our teacher for the next week) and the rest of our group: El (a friend of Raul’s), Carol and Isabel. A long van ride through some really beautiful country was the highlight of the morning. Rocks everywhere, mountains covered with snow in the background, desert plants of usual color literally dot the flat land along the road and stretch off toward the mountains, eventually forming what looks from the distance to be a solid mass of vegetation. My favorite? The gold.
Also fascinating for me were the hardened “toes” of lava at the end of the ancient flows. I could imagine a huge animal covered by the rock with just its feet poking out. I don’t think Hollywood’s monster designers would lack for create inspiration in these hills.
We provisioned along the way with water, snacks (especially for early am) and libations (hopefully only for evenings!). We arrived here at the hotel about 11:00 am got settled and met for an orientation about the week ahead of us.
I am so excited about this week. Though Tenerife is similar in many ways, I cannot wait to see Death Valley and the other sights of this area. Already I am in love with all the mountain views and I so hope I can get some good shots!
1:42pm March 21 (Wednesday)
Well! Where to begin…Yesterday afternoon we headed out around 2:30 pm for “Devil’s Golf Course”. It is a strange name but appropriate for a strange place. The landscape is definitely desert – nothing but rocks, gravel and, I suppose, sand. We drove into the center of Death Valley – not to the lowest point in the valley but to the lowest part of the plain that sits between two mountain ranges. This is the part of the valley where all the water rushes and collects when it rains. I have no idea how often that happens, but the effect when it does is spectacular. Everywhere the water sits until it evaporates is covered with salt. The salt crystallizes into these odd shaped spaces with irregular borders.
Those ridges are jagged! Walking on it, you can’t help but feel a bit squeamish and guilty about breaking and crushing the delicate formations. There are towers and holes, built and filled with salt crystal forms that probably never repeat. The effect is harsh and unwelcoming. The sun was well out and warming us more and more by the minute. People were shedding clothes until the sun went down and then re-dressing against the night cold of the desert.In addition to photographing the salt, we also watched as the sun set and the mountains turned colors. Not to the naked eye, but in the camera, the mountains turned blue (almost as if the white balance had been changed to incandescent before taking the shot). One of the hardest things about taking pictures down there was the vastness of everything. The place is just so BIG. We commented on how quiet it was…wondering if the quiet is part of the scale – that it is so big that the sound is just lost.
I took some time to try to shoot through the culvert under the road, and discovered that the ground (salt) is actually moist. My jeans soaked up some of the salty water and got stiff and while as they dried.We stopped a second place where the salt looks like a flowing river. In some of the pictures it would be easy enough to think it was snow.
After a couple of hours there, we had dinner in a bar in Furnace Creek before the drive back over here to Nevada, where we are staying.
This morning, I got up at 5:00 am (Gerry isn’t feeling well so he stayed in bed) and by 5:30 we were on the road to Zabriski Point. Boy was it cold. Tripod under the arm, I walked up to the viewing platform to watch the valley come alive in the sunrise. What a gorgeous event! The light changes almost constantly as the sun rises. It lights the valley before the sun even gets there, but once the sun does, the rocks and sky start to turn pink. Eventually the light gets to the valley floor silhouetting the rocks in front of us, and turning the scene a beautiful orange and black. Again the scale of the place is just unimaginable it feels so big!
Our second shoot this morning (and mind you this is all before breakfast!) was in a place that our schedule called 20 Mule Pass. We had to take a one lane gravel road (this one smooth compared to the jiggle massage we got the night before on the salt flats) curving in and around the rock formations, striped with deposits of borax. The ground isn’t really rock – it is rocky material that crumbles and crushes fairly easily but maintains its shape even as erodes. It is volcanic so perhaps it is a mix of rock and mud – that is what it looks like.
Here the rocks were tan, black, brown and stripes of green. Lots of contours that were beautiful in the early morning sun, long shadows exaggerating the effect.
Back to hotel about 8:30 and we have breakfast followed by very little time to edit pictures and prepare for our one-on-one critiques. That went so-so, I think for most everyone. Raul focused in on a problem with my exposure and that needs to be fixed in my camera. I just hope it isn’t a problem with my eyes – I feel like they have been giving me a lot of problems lately – but let’s hope this isn’t their fault.
Next, Raul showed us how to take and create panoramic shots. Technically, the process is pretty simple since the software does the actual stitching of the images together. Much harder will be creating an interesting photograph. That requires thinking first and taking pictures based on a plan.
Skipping lunch today (late breakfast) but we’re heading out for another short in about 20 minutes, so I am off to prepare.
I am obviously on a new schedule now. I can no longer post in the morning because we are getting up at 5:00 to go out and shoot at the earliest light. We’re usually back around 9:00, but then we have breakfast (service is slow) and then we have to prepare for our critiques (takes an hour and a half or so), then a shower (!), and only then can I can sit down to write what has transpired recently.
So, back to yesterday afternoon. Yesterday, we had a long hike and shoot in the dunes. The area of dunes in Death Valley is about 14 square miles. It doesn’t look like it – but once you start walking, they never seem to end. Of course, the dunes are beautiful. As the sun goes down and the shadows lengthen, everything takes on a magic feel. The black in the shadows contrasts with the highly lit areas where the sun hits the sand, creating fantastical shapes. It is a lot of fun to photograph. I wish we could have gone a bit later, and stayed a bit longer since the best part was at the end.
I had a wonderful surprise as I walked in the dunes – I saw a kit fox!
It really wasn’t at all scared of me and practically posed so I could take his picture. I also saw a little lizard – a really fast little lizard! He was all white, the same color as the baked-dry mud he was scurrying over.
The baked-dry mud is really interesting, too. There are patches of it in most of the low spots, at varying degrees of depth and reveal. They really look like the floors of ancient ruins, and it is fun to think that perhaps they are and we just think they are baked-dry mud. Wouldn’t that be cool?
The first impression that hit me as I left the parking lot and headed out into the dunes is the smell of creosote. These dunes are dotted with mesquite and creosote, and where you find the plants, you also find flies and gnats. You’re better off braving the blazing sun. It is hard to take pictures and swat bugs at the same time.
I walked about a mile into the desert, to the largest dune. The going was alternately difficult, in loose, sinky sand, and easy, on hard, crusted sand. The crusted sand would break under your weight from time to time, reminding me of how much I liked to walk on hard, crusty snow when I was little. It, too, would break under your weight every now and then.
Unfortunately, I got confused with the time, and thinking we were told to be back at seven, tried to keep track of the time with the clock in my camera. I wasn’t sure the clock was correct, but I knew we had about three hours. I got all goofed up with my arithmetic and the 24-hour clock and ended up back at the bus an hour before everyone else. It took me awhile to figure out that the others weren’t coming, so I eventually set off again, this time sideways to the dunes. Now the sun was going down, and I began to see the beautiful shadows of the dunes, and the way the shadows really reveal the texture of the sand. Nice!
Everyone came back in a bunch and it was then that I realized I was an hour off. Oh well, I guess I learned that I should take my phone which has a more reliable and easier to read clock.
Dinner was at the same place as the night before – there aren’t a lot of choices! Food was ok, just as before, but definitely not a place you would return if you had any other option. I ordered a margarita and that was a waste of money – If it had any tequila in it, it would come as a surprise to me. All I could taste was seriously watered down margarita mix. I had another yummy “black beer” (another referring to the night before) called 1554 Black Ale.
Gerry missed the entire day yesterday, but said he was feeling a bit better when I got home. He did indeed make it up and out for this morning’s shoot. This morning we were back in the salt flats from the other afternoon. I wasn’t really sure what there was to shoot again – I felt that we had pretty much exhausted its potential in the afternoon shoot of a couple of days ago. Some people did get good shots, but I really didn’t. The shocking thing about the morning shoots is how cold it is. The afternoons are hot and the mornings cold. I guess that is the desert.
Our second stop this morning was just a bit further into the valley, passing through the salt flats. Here we came to a point in the valley where the water actually collects and it remains fairly moist. There were almost no salt formations, but there were salt rings on the sand and in some places a salt trail. The ground was like solid (as in cement solid) mud. Looking to the horizon, the plants seemed pretty dense, but once amidst them, they were actually quite sparse. Again, the scale of this valley is deceivingly immense.
After breakfast, I tried to hurriedly edit my pictures but ran into all kinds of technical problems due to the amount of processing capacity the creation of panoramas takes on my computer. Eventually, I had to shut it down, right in the middle of importing the pictures from this morning, and then had a hell of a time getting through them because of their being duplicated in the import. AAARGH! Couple that with Gerry asking me how to do everything and then not following my instructions and, you can probably guess – it was not my best morning.
My critique was better than yesterday. Now I am erring on the side of too dark – still much better than too light. But I really need to think more and take my time. I have so much s**t, that half my problem is just trying to find one decent shot to show Raul.
Rest-time now, we are leaving again at 2:30 for the afternoon shoots at Golden Canyon and Artist’s Palette. The names themselves are evocative, aren’t they? Can’t wait to see what we find there. Of course, I will be thinking more and shooting less, trying to produce something of better quality.
11:22 am March 23 (Friday)
This morning I had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I am going to start there and then go back to yesterday afternoon (which was also beautiful).
This morning, as usual, we were up and in the van at 5:30 am. We were on our way to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the western hemisphere. We were racing, so it seemed, to get there and it was fast approaching dawn. The sky was gorgeous…we have clouds today and they are showing faintly pink in the darkness. Once in the valley, the mountains are just beginning to take on the pink tones, mixed with dark purple, and slowly definitions in the rock surfaces are coming out.
By the time we got to Badwater, it was getting pretty light, so we hurried out onto the salt flats to see the dawn. OMG! At one precise moment everything around me was yellow and pink – the very air! The sky was glorious, but the truly incredible part was the color of the air or the light, and the fact that it was completely surrounding me. This is absolutely a must do in Death Valley. I would get up even earlier to be there just to experience that again.
The other extraordinary thing about Badwater was the wind. It was strong enough to blow me several feet and you know I am not a dainty person! It would come in the huge gusts and everything that wasn’t held down would fly. It was hard to take photos with the tripod because the camera would shake so much in the wind.
Badwater, so named because the water there is very salty, is the place where water actually pools in the valley. We did see standing water, a large puddle about the size of a tennis court (remember size estimates are deceiving here!).
Yesterday afternoon we shot in three different places and it was all about color. Our first stop was Golden Canyon. The canyon is unbelievable. So much rock! Majestically reaching for the sky, huge walls of rock tower over you. It was fun to walk with Annie and talk about all the shapes we could see: stegosaurus, howling wolf, horse’s face and best of all the “god of the canyon” scowling down on us from on high!
I managed to wander into one of the side canyons that was almost completely in the shade (important because as on the other days, the sun is hot in the afternoons). In the shade, the stones did glow with a golden color living up to the name.
Next we ventured to a place called Artist’s Road. This area is a wall of stone created during the time the area was a huge salt lake (and we’re not talking about a couple of years here). The colors that are now visible are the different layers of sediment that formed in the lake: Red, black, green, tan, pink, and yellow. The sedimentary rocks have been uplifted by the movement of the geologic plates so that most of the stripes are now close to vertical. The effect is stunning. We had to trek up to the top of some lava flows in front of the wall, and Annie and I remarked about how thankful we were that we were in hiking boots. So many of the tourists we see are in such inappropriate footwear it is a miracle they can see anything. The ground here is very unforgiving – hard stone, loose gravel, razor sharp salt, mud and more. Hiking boots are the way to go.
The road into the area of Golden Canyon and on to Artist’s Road is a single lane (paved, thank God!) windy, twisty, turny, steep ups and downs – very fun! And very scenic. Just as you begin to wish Raul would stop and let us shoot, he does. The final place was called “Artist’s Palette”. Again the beautiful colors in the stone, here large areas of a single color much like the way an artist will set up his/her palette. We waited for the sun to get down low in the sky – the moment at which the colors start to glow, and the basic rocks turn golden. It was magical and fun to experience it in a group of people, friends and strangers, all there to see the same thing at the same time. How it creates that emotional bond between the viewers that you inevitably feel is something I enjoy, even if I can’t understand it.
Finally last night we had a decent dinner! The restaurant was quiet, the menu varied and extensive (for a steakhouse there were any number of fish and vegetarian main courses to choose from). We must have all been feeling the glow of a good day (or perhaps the beer we drank in the van on the way there) but it was a cheerful meal, full of story-telling about other workshops we have all attended and some of the funny things that happened.
And a final note about this morning… The story is a long one, about a pesky ranger who dogged us yesterday and then caught up with us this morning. What a jerk he turned out to be.