Shakedown Cruise for Rocinante II to the Bristlecone Pines

This past long weekend has been both the maiden voyage for the little VW Westfalia I leased from my friend and sometimes shooting partner (especially for food photography), Cynthia Sinclair (one of the very best sailing photographers on the coast and a terrific portrait photographer as well), and the 2018 Bristlecone Pines Workshop.

Why the little camper?  My bigger Coachman, Rocinante (the one in the banner above), is wonderful, I love it when parked for a few days in a place with full hook-ups.  But honestly it is a bit much getting around sometimes, such as in parking lots or pull-overs to take photographs.   Consequently I find I do not take it out as much as I’d like. So I’ve leased this little camper and have been upgrading it to better serve as a photographer’s and teacher’s home and classroom on the road.  In another entry I’ll get into specifics if anyone is interested but this entry is intended to be more about the trek itself. ,

I left San Diego at 0730 Thursday and first then headed over to pick up a participant who needed a ride since her Miata would be beaten to death on the last road legs to Crooked Creek. I picked up Osia (who is not only a terrific award winning photographer but an amazing architect) in Pacific Beach, then set a course North on I15. 

At Victorville, I made a last-minute decision and braved the reported construction near Adelante — and found it to be overestimated and only  a minimal delay. We arrived at our first destination, Randsburg, only about 15 minutes behind normal. We ran into some of the participants already there who were shooting in this Living ghost town.  I’ve got a number of photos from there in previous posts.  Started by gold miners from South Africa, it, and its sister town, Johannesburg, were some major centers of activity in their day.  After some shooting there,  we went on to the first night’s stop, Ridgecrest, home of the famous China Lake Naval Weapons Station.  We did NOT shoot there.  It is a place that shoots back…

For dinner, I had bragged about my favorite steak and BBQ place but I am sad and embarrassed to report… it was awful. After dinner that evening we went to the Trona Pinnacles for some evening shooting. This is such a weird collection of tufa towers it is truly other worldly. The cloud cover prohibited deep sky shooting so we returned for an early evening. 

 Friday morning we went to Lone Pine and did a fast tour of Alabama Hills, Movie Road, and then up to Whitney Portal. There had been a fire raging near there and the whole area was shut down but it was reopened by the time we got there.  The little van with its Subaru engine had done wonderfully up to that point.  I’m not sure the original little 1800 cc VW engine would have even made it up the long and very steep portal road grade. The Subaru had no difficulty; but by the time we made it to the parking lot at the top it was approaching overheating.  When I stopped I made the mistake of just shutting the engine off rather than letting it circulate a few minutes with no load on it in the cool air.  Take this as a lesson: what happens is now the non-moving coolant just sits in place in the hot engine and expands… a lot.

The Subaru engine is a “Boxster” design just like the VW so it fits perfectly in the rear engine well but unlike the old T2 series vanagon, the T3 (this is a 1982 version) does not have an external access but rather requires you to get to all the engine stuff from the rear cargo area (which means unloading it).  This was a blessing in disguise because by the time I got the back cleared out and the engine cover off it had cooled down some and I lost only a little more coolant when I (carefully and with gloves on) opened the reservoir.  I added coolant, ran the engine to pull it back in, then added a little more to the fill line, checked the oil (it was up at the full line) then started re-loading the back.  I got finished at about the time participants were returning to head back down and on to the Bristlecones.

(As an aside, I confess that spooked me a little so on the climb up out of Big Pine, where we stopped to top off the fuel, up toward Eastgard Pass and then on to the research station at 10,100 feet, my eyes was glued to the temperature gauge.  But it never even approached an overheating stage and made the climb like it was nothing.   I had checked and filled everything before leaving San Diego so have no idea why it had a problem at Whitney Portal but suspect that since the air temperature in the Owens valley was already near 100 F and we drove straight from there up the Portal Road, that must have contributed to it. Judging from the antifreeze stains in the Whitney Portal parking lot, I was not the only one…)  

However, while there I got a call from the WMRS (White Mountain Research Station) liaison warning me that the highway out of Big Pine to the road into the Bristlecones was flooded and closed. Good grief, this was like the tick infestation nightmare of a couple of years ago, all over again.  First the construction scare, then the fire scare, and now this…???  But it was an error, the road WAS closed but on the other side of the pass and we had no real  problem driving there.  

After dinner I gave a presentation on deep sky photography and painting with light.  Some of the participants wanted to go out and start shooting but I’ve learned, from sad experience, to not let them do that so soon after arriving at 10,000 feet.  Keeping that in mind, I forced them to endure a presentation the first night.  I often bring a guest instructor but this time it was just me. 

Saturday morming we were at Patriarch Grove (well over 11,000 ft.) when all hell broke loose from the sky. A lightning strike on the mountain next to us started the action followed by a downpour, heavy hail, heavy wind, serious thunder and lightning sent us s rambling For the cars. It rained 6 inches in ten minutes and hailed/sleeted nearly two feet in the same time.

student at Pat grove-blog

Participant lining up a shot at the Patriarch’s Grove in the Ancient Bristlecone Pines National Forrest.  All of my shots, unless noted otherwise, have been taken with a little Canon “S120” point and shoot camera.


wizard tree for blog

This is one of my favorite trees left in this grove.  My subject of “Bones of The Patriarchs” has finally disintegrated and gone back into the earth.


bcone detail

The trees are ice blasted into fantastic shapes and patterns.  I took this shot to illustrate the complexity but in fact I see 3-5 separate images hidden in here that need their own creative expression.


b-cone cones close for blog

Here is where it begins — a tiny bristly seedling.  These small cones carry the DNA of some of the oldest living organisms on the planet.

As I often tell students, some of the best photos are made in the worst weather. However I confess I’ve never been in such a downpour of rain and hail. In the time it took me to run around the vehicle I went from bone dry to drenched to the skin.  But wet or dry I was having a great time!  When the storm cell passed the sky was left with dramatic clouds, and wet surfaces that were color saturated. I’d get wet to see that beauty anytime. 


tree in ridge 02 for blog

While some of the participants ran for cover, others — and I — drove back along the ridgeline overlooking the Owens Valley above Big Pine and Bishop where there are always incredible views in the forest and rock outcrops along the edge.

van at overlook 01 for blog

The little van at an overlook to the Owens Valley and Sierras.  The flat item on the roof facing the camera is a 100 watt solar panel.

Osia at outcrop for blog

Osia shooting at one of the fascinating rock outcrops.

Sunday was our last day in the Bristlecone Pines forest.  But I was not even close to ready to come back.  So we went back to Lone Pine and Alabama Hills for some incredible evening shooting.  Monday, on the way back, we stopped at Fossil Falls and at the giant red cinder cone.  Then, alas, there was no more delaying possible so it was time to really head the little camper south and towards home.  My take on the VW has been all positive.  I need to do a more thoughtful packing job if I’m not alone and there are a few other improvements in the works.  This was NOT a camping trip (that will be next)  but more of a shakedown trip to see what it is like driving a distance.  The ONLY issue was heat (not the engine issue but just air temp in a vehicle with no internal air-conditioning).  So, since it is scheduled to go in for another spate of work next week, I just put in a request to see if there is a way to install a roof top A/C like the one that l have on ‘Big’ Rocinante. 

Oh, about the van’s name?  Well Cynthia called it “The Beast” but, to me, that simply doesn’t seem to fit its personality.  I’ve not decided on its name yet, but one of the workshop participants who has ALSO gone with me on treks in ‘big’ Rocinante, called it, ‘Rocinante, Jr’.  Hmmmm… Not sure that exactly resonates with me.   I’ll have to think about it.  It may wait until a good paint job calls forth its real sprit   .

van at cinder cone for blog

Here’s the van at the large cinder cone near fossil falls

This all has helped me make a decision.  At school, following a scheduling blunder by me, the admin wizards decided, apparently on data retrieved from a Tarot Card reading, that the Landscape Class no longer has enough interest to students, and so, for the past year and a half, it has not been allowed to be offered.  It serves no purpose to show how silly that is so it has helped me face reality and simply offer the location fieldtrips from that class as workshops and “host” them at school, just like our presentations with Adobe, etc. help prop up our photo foundation, give some skim to the district (if they also decide a photo workshop is somehow related to the program’s mission… which would be… uh… photography education, and in that way, rather than give the money to the school to disappear in the state’s financial black hole, take it home… 

This is sounding better all the time.  Let’s see… that way the students get educational events they want, the program gets repair money it desperately needs,  it frees up classroom time and schedules for those other advanced courses we are not allowed to run, lets me teach and interface with students without having to grade them, and allows me to shoot in some great spaces with my expense covered, something that does not happen when I do them as class field trips. 

Yep, this is sounding better by the moment.





About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to Shakedown Cruise for Rocinante II to the Bristlecone Pines

  1. gene wild says:

    Sounds like it turned out to be a good trip. Lee didn’t sound to encouraging at lunch Sat. …
    Never underestimate the power of a pocket camera 🙂

    • ndking says:

      Lee can sometimes see only the one small dark cloud in an otherwise bright sunny sky. But life is too short (in my opinion) to live it scared of negative possibilities. THe trick is to avoid those bad things you can and learn how to handle those you can’t avoid, and in the end, realize, as an actor friend told me, “Partner, this ain’t no dress rehearsal.” And accept what the mountain men sometimes said, “Sometimes you eat the bear — sometimes the bear eats you.” Or as I’ve also heard, “Ships are safe in harbors but that’s not what ships are made for.” And of course that ignores issues of hurricanes and tsunamis.

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