(In the last episode, we left Ken at the intersection of the 14 and the road to Randsburg, which I now take to get to Trona.)

I crossed 100 miles of unpopulated California high desert, interrupted only by large gatherings of RVs and pickup trucks carrying ATVs and dirt bikes, each group sporting its own flags. They were clearly distinct groups, yet all within a quarter-mile of each other. I wondered why they didn’t all just get together in one place and forget the flags. Probably some old tribal instinct surfacing in this manner.

I had been warned about the road to Trona Pinnacles, and while it was nowhere near as awful as some had predicted, it was an exercise in patience. It took a long while, 45 minutes perhaps, to drive 5 miles on this washboard dirt road with occasional giant ruts and generally bad conditions. The worst part, near the end, had been coated with newly broken rocks, some of which were so sharp I loudly prayed for my Prius’ tires to be spared.

You could see the Pinnacles from the beginning of the road, and from there they looked like nothing much, odd growths from the earth, large erupting zits. Once you were up against them though, they had a compelling and powerful presence. I’d read the place was creepy at night and now I could see why. It was the closest thing I’d ever felt to being in another world, a sere, austere, hostile, forbidding, desolate, harsh world where nothing but tumbleweeds grow. It felt like the final ruins of a vanished world, and in fact that is exactly what it is: these tufa towers, now standing like sentinels guarding an indecipherable secret, once grew in a lake with over 600 feet of water above them.

The place did not invite, so I decided against setting up my tent and waiting for sunset. The temperature was a pleasant 76° and the wind nothing more than a light breeze, so I drove around the dirt roads surrounding the towers and shot what I could. The high-noon light was stark, perhaps appropriately so, but at least these photos were in focus, as I used a different lens:-)

The towers are spread out over a 14 square mile area, and the dirt road meandered around them with many branches, some of which I backtracked and took. From every angle, they looked like guards at the entrance of Hades, warning you against passing the threshold, and I now understand why this has been the backdrop for so many sci-fi movies: it’s a better set than most people could conceive, although I cannot not imagine the travails of driving a honeywagon to that location.

Photos will come later, as it always takes me an eternity to process what I shot. Meanwhile I’m already planning my next adventure. Ibex dunes may have to wait for fall due to the high temperatures, but I have a Memorial Day weekend trip to Sequoia, which I have not explored in earnest in the past, so I’m excited about that. To be continued 

(In the last episode, I tried my new little popup tent in my living room and now took it on the road to (I thought) the Trona Pinnacles and the Ibex sand dunes.)

So the little tent held up! Easy to put up, easy to take down, and back in the bag once again! Whewf. ?

What went “wrongly”, or rather unexpectedly, was the wind factor. Kenneth Root, my co-adventurer on this outing, is a self-professed fairweather camper, and because it was extremely windy that day, he felt Trona Pinnacles would be a disastrous choice. Smart man. My first impulse was to do it anyway and deal with it when we got there, but I’m glad his voice of caution held me back, as it created a serendipitous discovery.

Ken was coming down from Lone Pine and I was coming up from LA, so we tried to think of a different place, where we would get some shelter from the winds and still have an opportunity for some good photography.

We ended up at Red Rocks Canyon, 30 minutes north of Mojave, which turned out to be spectacular. The campsites are right up against magnificent rock formations and open to a vast expanse punctuated by meandering washes and Joshua trees. There were no harsh winds there, although I’d heard they occasionally occurred. An astronomy buff was setting up his telescope there and told me his guywired and weighted canopy had once flown off ?

Instead, we got a warm, peaceful dusk, had French bread and salami with a nice chilled rosé and a night full of stars. Ken lit up some wood in the fire pit, the flames of which projected a swiftly moving orange glow onto the rocks. He had some fun with lightpainting and got some wonderful shots. I was still getting set up, catching a shot here and there but feeling pretty tired, so I went to sleep, and instead of getting up at midnight to shoot the Milky Way as I had intended, I slept through the night.

At 5am Ken shook my tent as agreed so we could shoot at sunrise. Here is where something else went slightly wrong.

Sometime ago, I dropped my prized Nikon 14-24 lens on concrete, which caused the lens’ zoom to get stuck at 18 mm. I lived with that for a while, as the repair was so expensive that I kept hoping the lens would fix itself. Well, there won’t be any more deluding myself, because in the dark, I tripped over one of my tent’s guy wires and the camera flew out of my hands, with lens attached of course.

My camera, a Nikon D800 built like a tank, continued to work fine. What I didn’t realize until I got home and looked at the shots on my computer was that the lens’ focus mechanism got damaged in the drop, and half of my photos from Red Rocks were out of focus, but on the right side only! Time to get creative with cropping, and at worst, a perfect opportunity to go back to that beautiful location.

Once the sun was fully up, we stopped shooting and got ready to move on. Trona Pinnacles was the intended destination, but Ken still thought the wind would be too much of a negative factor, while I still wanted to go there no matter what, so we parted company and I drove on towards Trona (continued in next episode: “Onto The Trona Pinnacles”).