Death Valley Field Trip Part 2

Ok, I managed to get a few shots from the trip edited (though by no means all of them) so it is time to flesh out this narrative of the field trip.

It started off well. I got to Beatty, NV where we were staying late Thursday afternoon, met a few of the students for dinner and then drove to the nearby ghostly old ruins of a mining town named Rhyolite for some twilight/night shooting. It started off well. I selected a building to paint with light, the ruins of the “Cook Bank” seemed to project that same feel as some of the old classic ruins of antiquity.

I’ve been here often enough to have photographed enough “narrative” materials to suit me. This time I wanted more, I wanted to capture the sense of mystery and wonder that Death Valley can have; at least to me.   All the way up I was thinking about it, letting my mind wander of the sites and places I anticipated seeing, and trying to find common denominators, not in the visual commonalities of sand, rock, color, etc., but in the “felt” sensations of the place.

I realized that to me the place was a living paradox; an unlikely confluence of opposing concepts. For example, on the surface and at first blush it was a place of timeless sameness: nothing seemed different. The dunes were where they always were, Manley Beacon protected the same turf as always, Furnace Creek seemed unchanged and hot even this time of year, the rocks still inexplicably journey across the Racetrack. It was eternally, reliably, comfortably predictable.

But under that surface, things have continually changed and they have changed substantially. The dunes are more or less where they have always been but their structure has changed and is ever changing as the wind continually creates new topography. Rocks still cross The Racetrack but it is a different set of rocks each season and they take different routes carving their own unique furrows in the playa.

And that first night at Rhyolite showed that even though it is slightly outside the park, the same inexorable march of time and wind and other forces of nature are changing it too. It started as a bare hillside and grew to a rather large and modern (for its time in the late 1800s and early 1900s) city… and now it is slowly crumbling back into that same barren hillside. When I first saw the Cook Bank the walls were intact, the second floor was intact, but now it looks more like some antique Grecian or Roman ruin than a once mighty bank whose owners and managers controlled the lives of those miners and others who relied on them. All of them are now gone and only the wind blowing through the empty windows and fallen stairs whispers the names and stories of those Halcyon days when the pounding of the mill hammers and set the pace for the music of the streets played by train whistles, braying burros, and later the rattling of those newfangled things some were calling auto-mobiles or something like that.

Remains of the Cook bank in Rhyolite, NV, a ghost town on the road from Death Valley to Beatty, NV.  These old ruins remind me of the Greek and Roman ruins of antiquity.

Remains of the Cook bank in Rhyolite, NV, a ghost town on the road from Death Valley to Beatty, NV. These old ruins remind me of the Greek and Roman ruins of antiquity.

I desperately wanted to do a Painting With light version of this shot but it was not to be and I had to keep telling myself that this was NOT my personal photo trip but a field trip where the work of the students took precedence.   It will take a month for the callouses created by having to chew on my tongue go away…

The next morning I tried a dawn shot in Rhyolite but it was not as satisfactory so following breakfast we headed for the racetrack. The Racetrack is the poster child for unexplained phenomena. Like the rest of the place it is eternal yet ever changing.

My last “teaser” post presented a shot of two rocks moving in parallel. But here is one of the normal ones, seen this time from behind and concentrating more on the furrow it has carved into the playa.

View from behind one of the walking rocks on the Racetrack play.

View from behind one of the walking rocks on the Racetrack play.

And here is a student apparently waiting for a good sized rock to move. It could be a very long wait…

A student apparently waiting to catch one of the rocks moving.  Hmmmm, good luck...

A student apparently waiting to catch one of the rocks moving. Hmmmm, good luck…

One interesting thing normally not photographed are the rock trails that end in… nothing. These types of spots are not all that common but they do happen. It is as if the rocks got to the end of their journey, achieved some sort of spiritual enlightenment and then ascended into some other realm.

Perhaps it reached escape velocity as it scurried down the playa...

Perhaps it reached escape velocity as it scurried down the playa…

As for the movement itself, I’m sure there is an explanation for this. Perhaps someone decided to steal the rock though that makes little sense. But then very little about this place makes much sense.

On the way, just short of Tea Kettle Junction, one of our caravan members had a flat tire. They ran over one of the Caltrop styled rocks and it ripped open a tire. Their only spare was one of those abominably pathetic little pretenda-tires (though it had better tread than their now punctured tire) so I turned everyone else loose and we slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y inched our way back down the road and on back to the motel in Beatty. By the time we arrived I was so tired I did not do the re-planned night shot at Rhyolite. Oh well. Perhaps it was an omen that some shots were not meant to be taken, at least by me.

However on the way back along the Racetrack road, the late afternoon sun was lighting the Joshua Tree forest and wildflowers.

Late afternoon light on the Joshua treats and wild flowers along the Racetrack road.

Late afternoon light on the Joshua treats and wild flowers along the Racetrack road.

Along the way was a nice shot of a rattlesnake that had innocently been trying to cross the road but went back along the berm to the side. I was unable to get out to get my camera since my door was inches from it but other students got some portraits. It was quite pretty with a rust colored background and lighter yellow lines making up the diamonds.

We also stopped at the Ubehebe Volcanic Crater. I have taken lots of shots of the crater itself so this trip I was more taken with the patterns and shapes created by the light and shadow along the side rims.

The rim of the Ubehebe Crater

The rim of the Ubehebe Crater

The next morning we were up at an ungodly hour and headed in the dark to Zabrisky Point to welcome the dawn.  Well, us and an army of photographers all waiting on the overlook for the dawn to crest and light up the land forms to the west including the famous Manley Beacon. As the sky grew lighter this dawn patrol was already lined up just waiting…

The moon watches as photographers take their positions awaiting the dawn light to illuminate Manley Beacon and the Panamint Mountain Range from Zabriski Point, Death Valley

The moon watches as photographers take their positions awaiting the dawn light to illuminate Manley Beacon and the Panamint Mountain Range from Zabriski Point, Death Valley

I’ve taken a number of panoramas and mosaics of this scene – in fact one of my very first panos was shot here using medium format film and 12 shots for a slightly over 200 degree view. But this time I was high centered on the main player, Manley Beacon itself. When the sun did break through over the mountains to the east it first hits this rock outcrop like a big pointer and makes it glow in the dawn light. The angles, ever changing over the year, are critical but we were lucky, this time it was nearly perfect as it isolated this great tooth from the foreground and background.

Dawn light makes Manley Beacon stand out from the surrounding terrain like a giant tooth.

Dawn light makes Manley Beacon stand out from the surrounding terrain like a giant tooth.

I considered turning this into a black and white but the more I looked at it the more enamored I became with the color.

We then had breakfast at Furnace Creek Ranch. Around the parking lot are a couple of old Borax wagons and attached to one is a giant steam tractor. I’ve shot the tractor before but again, this time was looking for something different. So here are a couple of details. The first is of some of the rivets on the boiler.

A detail of rivets and pipe from the massive boiler of an old Borax Wagon tractor.

A detail of rivets and pipe from the massive boiler of an old Borax Wagon tractor.

And the second is a detail of the hub on one of the giant wheels.

Rusty hub on one of the giant tractor wheels.

Rusty hub on one of the giant tractor wheels.

We then shot at Twenty Mule Team Canyon and I shot two mosaics using a Nodal Ninja spherical panoramic head. One was a 33 frame and the other a 58 frame view but as I’m writing this have not had a chance to assemble them and the massive reduction in size here would not show up their full glory anyway.

We were all tired from late nights and early mornings so took it easy the rest of the afternoon and then went back into the park and to the Mesquite Dunes for late afternoon light. Death Valley has several areas of sand dunes but this easy to get to set is one of my favorites. It covers a huge expanse. The main dunes you can see in the overview are quite tall as well.

Overview of the Mesquite Dunes near stovepipe wells, Death Valley NP

Overview of the Mesquite Dunes near stovepipe wells, Death Valley NP

The next morning, Sunday, our last, we stopped at Badwater for another dawn shot. The walked on and now polished salt looked like ice and I could not relax when walking on it, expecting any moment for my feet to go sliding out from under me. Again, the simple design of blues and pinks as the dawn light hit the Panamint Range to the west attracted my attention.

It looks like ice, but is actually salt polished by people walking on it at Badwater, Death Valley.

It looks like ice, but is actually salt polished by people walking on it at Badwater, Death Valley.

I then turned south and headed home. It was a beastly trip for me since I was having a very hard time staying awake. But I did make it, finally. I went in, fell into bed, and had the first full nights sleep in days.

And now, for something completely different…

I had given my advanced light class an assignment to incorporate something not real into a real situation. A few years ago when judging at the San Diego Fair’s international Photo Exhibition I was given a pen shaped like an astronaut in a space suit. When prepping for this trip I found it to bring along to play with if the opportunity arose. Sure enough, when shooting in the Twenty Mule Team Canyon and opportunity presented itself and I captioned it, “…Mission Control scientists were completely surprised by the first pictures coming back from the Mars exploration team.”

The Mision Control scientists were surprised when they received the first photos back from the Mars exploration team.

The Mision Control scientists were surprised when they received the first photos back from the Mars exploration team.

 

Say Goodnight, Gracie.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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