Trona’s a small gritty mining town in the Searles Valley in the Mojave desert (not far from Death Valley), and I’ve struggled long and hard to realistically show the small bits of it that I see when I drive through on my way elsewhere (as I probably do once or twice a year). I don’t really mean the landscape or the townscape as such; I mean the weird mixture of industry, domesticity, and harsh desert beauty that comes together when you see the junkyards on the edge of town or you stop at the little rest stop on Trona Road (the main drag) or you see the glinting hills and mountains of the Mojave looming behind the plant, or you pass the “Trona Tornadoes” sign on the local high school or the large white windowless Catholic church next to the road, or when you see the Trona Pinnacles way down in the distance. People think of the place as desolate, but it’s much more than that — it’s a real place, a place where real people live and work and go about their lives, not a stage, and certainly not a setting for hipsters passing through taking selfies in front of the plant or […]
This one probably speaks for itself, but I’ll talk over it anyway. This is big country — this is the view from a 4WD trail east of Afton Canyon and somewhere west(ish) of Baker, California, a track that roughly parallels Interstate 15 on its way to Vegas (and the word “roughly” is appropriate here…). I’d stopped and taken a bunch of hand-held photos of the mountains in the distance with a longish (70-200mm) lens on my Nikon D300, but I didn’t hit on the right way to get the full effect of the size, textures, colours, shimmers, and subtle beauty until I had the genius idea (duh!) to actually include the traffic on the freeway below (which was actually a fair way off — this was a longish lens). This is the only one that really works for me, but I really wish I’d put the truck and the freeway a little further up in the frame (the others were better framed but had too many — or the wrong type — of vehicles in them).
When I first got to California, I didn’t know much about the deserts here, but I knew a bit about the old Route 66 and its role in California’s history. I was curious enough about it that when I first visited the Mojave, I drove down the old Route 66 (now known in that area as the National Trails Highway) between Barstow and Amboy (California). Lots of people do that — it’s a popular, easy drive, and if you ever get the chance, do it — some of it’s ruggedly-beautiful, and you’ll see a lot of natural and human history, often within an easy walk of the road itself (and some of it — especially the bits around Barstow and Daggett — will give you a good feeling for the realities of life in the High Desert). Before I did the drive I looked at the map and noticed a string of places with names like Bagdad, Siberia, Cadiz, Ludlow, Klondike, etc., marked along the way on the map. I had to visit Siberia, California! I had to see Bagdad, CA! (The Bagdad of Bagdad Café — except that movie was actually mostly shot a bunch of miles west at […]
I left Winnemucca, Nevada, heading for Utah on Interstate 80 early that morning. It was snowing heavily, and I drove very slowly behind a snowplow along the freeway. There was almost no other traffic going in either direction. I wasn’t too worried about the snow on the road — I have a Subaru and it keeps to the road pretty well — but the visibility was terrible. By Battle Mountain, although it was still snowing, I could at least see maybe a mile in front of me, and the landscape around me was starting to emerge. That landscape was beautifully bleak and stark, almost monochromatic, and alternately flat and jagged. The mist and low cloud accentuated the effect, and I stopped off the freeway several times to get photos of it all. I think this is the best of the lot — it certainly evokes that morning for me — but there are a bunch more that will probably appear here eventually, usually emphasising the contrasts between the flatness and straight lines (like the railways, roads, and power lines, but also the horizon at times) and the sharper, more convoluted and broken lines and surfaces of almost everything else […]
Everyone who’s driven from LA to Las Vegas knows where Zzyzx is, right? You can’t miss the mysterious exit sign on the freeway heading for Baker, and eventually everyone stops or detours at least some distance down the dirt track there (well, almost everyone). And like everyone else, I’ve been there and done that (a bunch of times), and have the pix to prove it. Just like everyone else. So I wasn’t really looking to take another photo of the place when I visited it (again) with a friend of mine earlier this year. And in any case, the light was poor — all those high clouds washing out the wintry light and making for a bunch of missed opportunities. And then my friend stepped out briefly onto the playa (wearing a green scarf on her head because she’d left her hat in the car)…. It’s a striking image — that small black vertical figure striding purposefully away from you on and into a harshly-textured, mostly-horizontal, and almost monochromatic landscape. I didn’t take a lot of other photos that day.
You see the strangest things in America when you’re just driving through — or at least they’re strange if you’re some sort of Anglo-Australian like me, anyway. I took this one last year on my way up US 395 from Barstow, California, to Bishop, California (two poles of my Californian desert experience). Guns are one of those subjects foreigners (even a foreigner like me who is necessarily gun-savvy as a result of working on rural properties in an earlier life) learn never to bring up or discuss in America; the differences between sensibilities on guns is just too great in most cases. But they’re such a part of life here I barely blanch any more when I see something like this.
What amazed me most when I first drove into the Californian deserts some twenty years ago was the junk. I don’t mean the dilapidated houses or buildings, or the ruins — you expect that in a tough environment. I mean the sort of junk people must have deliberately gone out of their way to dump there: television sets, fridges, sofas, mattresses, beds, cars — all dumped or accumulating in the middle of nowhere. You actually have to make a real effort to throw a dead television into, say, the Stoddard Wells ruins — it’s miles down a dirt road from the nearest real settlement, and you don’t just find yourself there in the pickup with an old TV in the back, do you? Ditto for places like Sheep Hole Pass— do people really wake up one morning and think “I’ve just got to throw that old toilet bowl and spare mattress out at Sheep Hole Pass today! Let’s load up the truck!”? And all those dead cars…. Ditto for places like Sidewinder Road near Barstow. Sidewinder Road is where I took my first Californian desert photos. After driving out along Highway 58 from Bakersfield, up and over the Tehachapis and through the town of […]
One day they’ll have the guts to call this what it was — a concentration camp (Manzanar “relocation center”). When I first drove past here more than twenty years ago, there really wasn’t anything marking the place — maybe just a plaque a little down US 395 from the old county maintenance shed, and no one I asked was entirely sure where it was (there were no signs on the highway). No one really ever mentioned it; the idea of it being a concentration camp was deeply controversial. Nowadays it’s being slowly recreated (there’s a new old guard tower as well as the sentry and guard stations), and it’s at least a little on the locals’ minds, if only as a potential tourist attraction, and the term “concentration camp” gets used a little more freely. And it’s got its own rather nice National Parks page for the curious. The thing that’s always struck me, though, is just how physically beautiful the location is: the High Sierra to the west, the Inyos to the east, the desert floor… hell to live in, though, especially in forced camps. I try to visit the place every year.
One of my favourite Death Valley photos, taken a few years ago on the salt pans at Badwater, the lowest point in North America. I think it nicely catches the hot shimmering distances of Death Valley (this was taken sometime early autumn), and that decisive moment when the couple on the left are looking back, videoing the mountains behind me. Everyone takes a photo like this (and we all owe a lot to Richard Misrach‘s “Desert Cantos” when we do it), but this one’s mine, I guess.