Joshua Tree–the Album and the National Park

It seemed fitting that scoring tickets to U2’s final U.S. performance of their Joshua Tree tour in San Diego would be the perfect segue to our visit to Joshua Tree National Park one day later. Their iconic album, filled with haunting melodies and provocative lyrics still resonates, even thirty years after its release. That the two events would collide seemed akin to kismet, providing inspiration for a mash-up of U2 music and National Park imagery.

The Joshua Tree concert and park were magical, and lingering memories of both events continue to sustain my creative drive.

Where the Streets Have No Name

main stage

pair of ocochilla
I’ll show you a place
High on a desert plain
Where the streets have no name


I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For


I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone


With or Without You

all together in the middle

cacti and rock
See the stone set in your eyes
See the thorn twist in your side


Bullet the Blue Sky


fat rattler
In the locust wind
Comes a rattle and hum


Running to Stand Still

3 in the middle stage

7 towers
I see seven towers
But I only see one way out


Red Hill Mining Town

Turn off the lights

desert sunset
We scorch the earth
Set fire to the sky


In God’s Country

blue light

Barker Dam3
Desert sky, dream beneath the desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry


Trip Through Your Wires

Edge and Bono

Desert Sky (2)
There’s a raincloud
In the desert sky
In the distance


One Tree Hill

Bono in a hat

blazing sunset
The moon is up and over One Tree Hill
We see the sun go down in your eyes




folded rocks
He felt the healing
Healing, healing, healing hands of love


Mother of the Disappeared

passing the sheet

White Tank
In the trees our sons stand naked
Through the walls our daughters cry

My thanks to Bono, The Edge, Adam, and Larry for decades of music artistry. And my apologies in advance for crossing the line with my literal and metaphoric interpretations.

Window to a Blue Sky

Ranger Pritchett has a lot to smile about. After twenty years as an enforcement officer at Joshua Tree National Park, he’s recently transitioned to a new position inside the visitor center as a naturalist and he couldn’t be happier. When asked about the park’s attractions and variety of activities, he gets very excited about all the prospects that Joshua Tree has to offer, especially during the off-season, when it’s not “crazy busy”.

He highly recommends a visit to Cottonwood Spring—located three miles behind the Cottonwood Spring Visitor Center—where, miraculously, an underground spring feeds a Babylonian-style garden of large growth trees that frame the azure sky.

twin palms

He draws a circle around Barker Dam on our trail map, and encourages us to hike the loop trail that passes Barker Dam, where the water offers a window to the sky;

Barker Dam (2)

and continues through a thick forest of Joshua trees created to frame the rocks and blue sky;

Joshua tree frame (2)

and finishes with an introspection of ancient Indian petroglyphs carved on a sacred rock that vandals thoughtlessly outlined in paint.


But Pritchett was reticent about suggesting a visit to White Tank campground. When asked why, he allowed, “In my old job, I got called and cornered there all the time. There were just too many people for the area, and once I got in there to control traffic, it was almost impossible to get out.”

But what made it so crowded?” I continued.

That’s when Pritchett criticized the parkitects. “They should never have designated a trailhead through camp site #9.

“A trailhead to what?” I persisted.

“Oh, it’s just the only natural arch in the park,” he mentioned casually. “But I don’t like to tell a lot of people about it. In fact, it’s not even recorded on the park map.”

But he highlighted the area for us on our trail map.

Leah and I were as excited to discover the arch as a Republican repealing ObamaCare. But when we arrived at Site #9, we weren’t alone. A few other couples were also in on the secret, although the trail was not an easy one to follow; the rock path was too easily camouflaged by the desert terrain.

After some unauthorized trailblazing, we located the source of wonder, and scrambled through a crop of coarse granite for a closer look. Looking through a window of the last 80 million years, the endless erosion of wind and water has molded a mini mound of molten magma into a masterpiece.


However, the biggest window was waiting for us at the top of Keys View. The small crowd began assembling at 6:15 pm. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the hazy glow of San Gorgonio Mountain to the north,

the sinking sun

and a mirage of a distant Salton Sea to the south– the two connected by the San Andreas Fault…

Coachella Valley and Salton Sea at sunset

all in preparation for a salute to the sunset over Mount San Jacinto, and the promise of a better day tomorrow.


Close Calls

We arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for the Air Show, but couldn’t park any closer than one mile from the tarmac–where all the action was happening. I suppose if we wanted to upgrade from free to VIP status, we could have enjoyed preferred parking privileges closer to the airfield, but it was a beautiful day for a walk through a military base in sunny San Diego.

I was directed by Marine plebes to a general admission parking lot bordered by McDonalds and Chipotle. Leah and I opted to carry our own lawn chairs and snacks in lieu of paying for grandstand seating or any of the other enhanced options intended to pamper guests, including: a shaded lounge, gourmet food stations, a hosted bar, a commemorative coin, and less-frequented Porta Potties. But bringing our own chairs to the air show gave us more flexibility to move around the base. Besides, it was a beautiful day to schlep a heavy metal chair in a bag through a military base in sunny San Diego.

I think we were midway to the airfield, and steps away from the first security checkpoint when I saw something that deserved a second look through my camera. I peered through the viewfinder to discover the low-battery warning flashing in the frame before the screen went dark. Of course, it was my intention to exchange this battery with the battery charging inside the truck before we headed out, but I guess I was distracted by the notion of walking through a military base in sunny San Diego on such a beautiful day.

Leah found cover under a tree, while I dropped my chair and water bottle and hiked back to the truck to recover the freshly charged battery. Twenty minutes later, I rejoined her and we crossed the road where we were greeted by three security officers in camouflage fatigues.

The ranking officer addressed Leah first. “I’m sorry to tell you ma’am, but you can’t enter a secure facility with that fanny pack around your waist. For everyone’s security and protection, all bags…unless they’re clear…are prohibited.”

It was no use arguing with three people in uniforms on their own base, but Leah objected, “But I’m only carrying my water, my wallet and some snacks.”

The officer continued, “Your choices are to surrender it here and I can let you pass now, or return it to the safety of your vehicle if you still want to own it.”

And that’s when I remembered the graphic that caught my eye before my camera failed.


“Do you have any idea how far it is to our car?” I interjected.

“I’m aware, sir, and there’s nothing I can do about that. Clear bags are the rule for everyone’s safety and protection,” he reiterated.

“I’ve just about had it with this air show!” Leah exclaimed, and stormed away. But she never got very far. She was delayed at the crosswalk by the marine directing traffic.

“I have an idea,” she said sotto voce, as I caught up with her.

We crossed back to the other side of the road, and turned into a nearby barracks parking lot away from view.

Leah removed her black waistpack and emptied the contents. Out came the water thermos, the wallet, and a baggie of pretzels. She loosened the chair bag drawstring, and stuffed the waistpack deep into the chair bag with the fragile pretzels sitting on top.

Cinching the drawstring, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna give them my fucking bag!” she exhorted. With her water in hand and wallet in pocket, we crossed the road for the third time.

I proposed, “They’re never gonna believe that we ditched the pack in the truck and made it back this fast. So if they ask, we tell them that we handed it off to a friend to hold for us. Okay?”

Leah indifferently, “Whatever.”

When we approached the security team, Leah mimed that the pack was gone. “Are you gonna let us in now?” she mocked.

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience, ma’am. I hope you enjoy the show,” he stated sincerely.

“Isn’t there some kind of shuttle for senior citizens?” Leah intoned, playing the sympathy card.

“If you cross to the other side of the road, there’s a golf cart that will carry you and your things to the gate for 3 bucks a person,” he answered.

“How far’s the gate from here?” I asked.

“Straight up this road, ’bout half a mile,” security responded.

Leah outraged, “Are you kidding? Six bucks for half a mile? No way!”

“You’re right,” I reminded myself. “It’s such a beautiful day for a walk, lugging a heavy metal chair through a marine base in sunny San Diego.”

After arriving at the airfield gate, we were stopped by a second security detail dressed in pressed khakis and carrying guns.

“I apologize, but those chairs can’t enter this facility because they’re in bags,” an MP declared.

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” Leah unloaded. Emphatically, “Then why didn’t those boys down the road stop us at the time. They saw us carrying these bags over our shoulders,” she declared.

I covered my face to hide my grin. This was turning into a huge clusterfuck.

I took a breath. “What if we took the chairs out of the bags, and carried the chairs to the airstrip?” I suggested diplomatically. “Then it’s just a chair and a bag, instead of a chair in a bag.

They looked at each other and shrugged. “No problem, sir.” Followed by, “Please enjoy the show.”

We stripped the bags off our chairs, with Leah being especially careful to reposition and secure the waistpack into the folded seat.

“Thank you for that, now may I please see your IDs?” stated the second officer.

Leah dug her wallet out of her pocket, thumbed through her cards to locate her licence, and handed it to the third officer, who scanned it with his portable reader.

I was incredulous. “You’re not gonna believe this…” I started out.

Leah was glaring at me.

Continuing, “…but my wallet’s in my truck parked a mile down the road, and I’ve already had to go back once to get a fresh battery for my camera. So, there’s no way of showing my ID unless you guys wanna drive me back,” I lamented, “even though it’s a beautiful day for a walk through a military base in sunny San Diego.”

He looked the two of us over. I desperately communicated telepathically that he was putting my fate in Leah’s hands, and that he needed to show some sympathy and mercy.

Surprisingly, the marine announced, “Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the show. Beyond this point, no one’s gonna hassle you for ID.”

Taken aback and winking, “Thank you. You may have just saved my life.”

After clearing checkpoint two, we advanced to the third and final security detail whose job it was to scan our bodies. We emptied our pockets onto the tarmac, and stood with arms and legs locked in a frozen jumping jack, while a soldier ran his wand up and down and around.

“All clear,” he announced.

We collected our belongings, and shuffled along with full arms.

“That was a close call,” I whispered.

“You’re telling me,” Leah laughed. “They would have found my camping knife in my pack.”

We weaved our way around small pockets of people–on the left side of a thinly populated grandstand,


and settled three deep from the front fenceline to see what everyone else had come out to see–the elite precision flying squad known as the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels.

While clearance can be a serious issue when pulling a trailer–and I’ve had my share of close calls with our 28 ft. Airstream: like backing into a sleeve of an RV site with little to no front-end swinging-room; or negotiating a tight parking lot; or backing out into a busy road after inadvertently turning into a dead end–it still can’t compare to formation-flying in a $60 million aircraft with 22,000 lbs of thrust with only six inches separating the wingtips of two F/A-18 Hornets.


After fueling, the fighters lined up in take-off order,

Blue Angel lineup

and took to the sky in a burst of thunder.

delta formation

A variety of formations quickly consumed an hour of time…

2 up 2 down

2 up 2 down1

breaking off

and approximately 4250 lbs of fuel (or roughly 600 gallons) per plane.

4 abreast

banked formation

The Department of Navy estimates an average running cost of $11,000 per hour to fly each plane,


with a yearly operating budget for the Blue Angels at $35,475,000.

side by side

While I’m far from militaristic, it’s impossible to ignore the skill set and nerves of steel of the U.S. Navy’s most accomplished pilots, and their ability to control a mighty military machine for the purpose of entertainment versus destruction.

And that’s what I call a beautiful day in sunny San Diego!

4 across


Channeling the Islands

We are sitting on the water, bobbing on small swells in our yellow kayak while waiting to explore some of the many sea cave options available to us on the southeast edge of Santa Cruz Island, the largest of four northern islands–Santa Rosa, Santa Miguel, and Anacapa being the others–that comprise Channel Islands National Park.

pace setter

With names like Limbo, the Green Room, Neptune’s Trident, Flatliners, and Boatwreck, these grottoes suggest something ominous and sinister to less-accomplished sailors like Leah and me.

The unconventional road to Channel Islands crosses the Santa Barbara Channel from Ventura Harbor via a dedicated ferry chartered by Island Packers.

Island Packers

After boarding the vessel with day trippers and overnight campers, we embarked at 9:00 am for a 1 to 1.5 hour cruise, depending on encounters with sea creatures,

hauling on a buoy
layers of hauled-up sea lions

pair of bottlenose dolphins

dolphin jump

and immense cargo ships entitled to “right of way”.

NYK with dolphin

NYK Argus
layers of containers

Unfortunately, there were no whale sightings, despite being a regular occurrence during summer months, since humpback and endangered blue whales enjoy feeding beneath these krill-rich waters.

After disembarking from Scorpion Anchorage, a short trek past Scorpion Ranch reminded us that this island was once privately owned and operated as a sheep ranch before the National Park Service acquired the eastern parcel during the 1990’s. Machine wrecks layered with rust bordered the road past the ranch house.

dead tractor

dead truck

After layering into our kayaking outfit,

what a couple

we eventually met up with forth-year guide Marc,

Marc the guide

who reviewed safety maneuvers and rowing tips by the launch point.


We entered the water at Scorpion Beach,

Scorpion Beach.jpg

and paddled along the southeastern edge of the coastline toward San Pedro Point, where we visited a handful of caves, each one unique and posing a different challenge: whether it was leaning low while paddling to avoid low-hanging rocks from shrinking ceilings; coping in absolute darkness; guiding the kayak through keyhole passages; or timing our exit to avoid being pummeled by surging water.

entering a cave

approaching sea cave

into the cave

sea cave (2)

inside the sea cave

And of course, there were plenty of seascapes along the way.


rock crops


After two hours in the water, we traded surf for turf, and hiked the canyon loop trail for commanding views of our surroundings. From the Anacapa Passage…

Santa Cruz Island

past a kelp forest…

Kelp forest

…from a wildflower patch…

Anacapa Island

to a chalky cliff at Cavern Point…

Cliff edge

…with a lookout to Prisoners Harbor…

Prisoners Harbor

…and crossing paths with an indigenous creature…the island fox.

fox in repose

Island fox

After meeting a multi-layered sea challenge of kayaking, we boarded the ferry and returned to Ventura–where terra firma meets the ocean, and it’s steady beneath our feet.

Ventura Pier


Big Things Come in Small Packages

“Size matters!” has long been considered a hard fact among those who measure the enormity of things, and eagerly justify the value of their preponderance. Yet all things big begin from most things small, and that’s the long and short of it. While this may come as a relief to many who seem challenged by the limited extension of their personality, it comes as no surprise to sequoias that have sensed this for millions of years.

Giant sequoia trees are native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, where they grow exclusively in protected groves. Every tree starts from a firm cone no larger than a chicken’s egg–

hand and cone

–each one releasing thousands of seeds resembling oat flakes, hoping to take advantage of a litter-free forest floor made fertile by fire.

Flash forward 2400 years, and if the then-seedling hasn’t been logged…

Mark Twain stump

…or besieged by fire (although its bark can be 3 ft. thick to ward off the effects)…

Chimney Tree

the result is the General Sherman Tree:

General Sherman

the largest living organism in the world! While not the tallest tree (Hyperion, a California redwood is 380 ft.), or the widest tree (an Oaxacan cypress tree has a 38 ft. diameter), or the oldest tree (Methuselah, a 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine tree exists in California’s White Mountains), General Sherman’s statistics make it the most massive tree:

Height above base

274.9 ft

83.8 m

Circumference at ground

102.6 ft

31.3 m

Maximum diameter at base

36.5 ft

11.1 m

Diameter 4.5 ft above height point on ground

25.1 ft

7.7 m

Girth Diameter 60 ft above base

17.5 ft

5.3 m

Diameter 180 ft above base

14.0 ft

4.3 m

Diameter of largest branch

8 ft

2.1 m

Height of first large branch above the base

130.0 ft

39.6 m

Average crown spread

106.5 ft

32.5 m

Estimated trunk volume

52,508 cu ft

1,487 m

Estimated mass (wet) (1938)

2,105 short tons

1,910 t

Estimated trunk mass (1938)

2,472,000 lb

1,121 t

Each year, General Sherman gains additional new wood equivalent to a typical 60 ft. tree.

General Sherman1 (4)

Putting things into perspective, the General Grant Tree, connected by Generals Highway and located only miles away in Kings Canyon National Park, is the second largest living organism in the world, at 268 ft. tall with a trunk that’s 1.5 ft. thicker.

General Grant1

Although Sequoia National Park shares billing and borders with Kings Canyon National Park–to its north and west–it’s easily the more accessible of the two, with 18 miles of corkscrews and whiplash hairpins, climbing 5000 ft. in elevation from the foothills, until the Giant Forest trails can be appreciated.

Along the way, a view of Moro Rock–a granite dome-shaped monolith–beckons the adventurous.

Moro Rock panorama (2)

Moro Rock

A steep 1/4 mile climb up four hundred rock-cut stairs…

Moro Rock approach

to the summit…

stairs to the top of Moro

offers a forever-hazy glimpse of the serpentine road and Ash Peaks to the west,

view from Moro Rock east

and amazing panoramic views of Kings Canyon’s dominant saw-toothed ridgeline to the east,

Sierra Nevada range

which unfortunately obstructs the 14,494 ft. peak of Mt. Whitney, the highest point of the lower forty-eight.

Crystal Cave is another large attraction wrapped up in a small package that’s deserving of attention. While not the largest cave–with a network of only three miles of which 1/2 mile can be toured–it is a jewel of marbleized and crystal formations that reaches back in time nearly two million years.

A scenic 1/2 mile hike along a cliff trail of potential obstacles and hazards (poison oak, rock falls, and rattlesnakes) down to the miniature falls that begets Yucca Creek…

water fall into Yucca creek

becomes the watering hole for fifty amateur spelunkers who gather before entering through the iron spider gate.

spider web erntrance

Immediately, the presence of water dominates the cavern. From the flume of rushing water over a bed of blue and white marble at the entrance,



to the drip, drip, drip of ever-growing stalactites,


and the ripple across the calcite-rich pools that spawn glistening pearls and terraced ridges.

calcite pool

The three major rooms of Crystal Cave offer a bounty of formations packed into tight spaces…









…proving once more that bigger is not always better, and true value cannot be measured in increments of worth.

It’s easy to get lost in the details. It’s the basis of most disagreements. It’s the bellwether of how people are judged. It’s the downfall of many photographers. Taking the time to see the whole problem, the total person, the bigger picture gives us the confidence to believe that big things come in small packages.





California Potpourri

After leaving Yosemite behind, Leah and I strategically home-based in Petaluma, and ventured along the California coast, from San Francisco to Point Lobos Natural Preserve and places in between.

Our collection of brief visits are best detailed through a series of images that more easily reveal the scope and variety of the scenery we enjoyed.

Sonoma Valley: Bezinger and Chateau St. Jean Vineyards


terraced vineyards

rows of vines (2)

grove of grapes

fruit on the vine

Chateau St. Jean

John Muir Woods: a hike on the Canopy View Trail

Bohemian Grove

rotting bark

View from Panoramic Road


squirel tail

a mouth of weeds

San Francisco: a ferry ride from Tiburon to the Ghiradelli Chocolate Festival

Golden Gate


Coit Tower

who's watching whom

SF beaching


Carmel Beach: a stroll to Pebble Beach

Carmel Beach

tidal pool

where's my ball

10th green flag

Pebble Beach

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: hiking from Whalers Cove to China Cove until sunset



China Beach

lonesome tree

Point Lobos rocks

Sunset coast

Sunset cove

pelican sunset

We’ll be back.



Knock, Knock

We are anchored at RV site #1 at Pine Mountain Lake Campground in Groveland, CA, the closest town (albeit 24 miles away) from Yosemite’s western gate. The sites at PML are terraced on a steep hilltop better suited for mountain goats, although there is 50 amp power and a water bib, should goats ever feel the need for air conditioning and a shower.

The pop-up caravan at site #2 has just packed up and pulled out, leaving us completely alone and feeling somewhat relieved. After being cramped for so long at so many “RV resorts”, it’s nice to enjoy the breathing room that comes from having space on both sides of our home, when more often than not, RV parks keep us closer to neighbors than a Grey Poupon commercial.

Yet, despite the constant flux of RV park populations, and the proximity of rigs from stall to stall, there is an unwritten code of ethics that’s very reassuring–where neighbors seem to respect the property of others that typically extends beyond the footprint of one’s camper. Unattended grills, bikes and lawn chairs are a large part of open-door living at campgrounds, and are seldom disturbed by others.

However, when left alone, the isolation can be disquieting and peculiar, leaving us to wonder what it’s like to be on our own.

After breaking camp by mid-morning, the enervating 100 miles of stop-and-go driving from June Lake, over the Tioga Pass, through a crowded Yosemite NP to our final destination at Pine Mountain Lake took up most of our day. Ordinarily, after setting up, a secluded mountain setting would invite us to open our windows for a crisp cross-breeze of fresh air, but Groveland had served up a helping of haze with a side a smoke, giving us little choice but to button-up the Airstream to protect us from the effects of fires in the forest.

Leah was first to bed, while I spent some time editing photos for the blog. I don’t know exactly what time I fell asleep in front of the computer, but I was startled awake at 11:30 pm by a knock on the door, followed by a weak plea for help.

Shaking off the groggy feeling, I turned up the lights and fumbled to unlock the door. Had I been more coherent, I probably would have ignored the distress call, and filed it under “too weird for worry”. But instead, I reacted otherwise.

“Are you in some kind of trouble?” I asked, cracking the door a few inches.

A disoriented rail of a woman with pulled-back hair and dressed in black spandex workout gear was standing by my door.

“I’m lost, and I need a ride home. Can you please drive me to my house?” she pleaded.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, growing increasingly suspicious of her request, and feeling angry that I may have put Leah and myself in jeopardy by answering the door.

“My husband and I had a disagreement and he dropped me here, and I have no way of getting home. I live on the mountain, but I don’t know where I am, so could you please drive me home?” she reiterated.

She didn’t appear upset–just confused, but so was I.

When Leah and I began preparations for our year-long adventure, a common question among friends and family was, “Are you taking a gun with you?”

My response was always the same: “Are you fucking crazy?” But now I’m not so sure.

“I’m not from around here, so I don’t know how to get you home,” I asserted. But what I was really thinking was: “You’ve got to be kidding if you think I’m leaving Leah behind, while you ambush me outside the Airstream or on the way to your home.”

“Then will you let me use your phone so I can call someone?” she suggested.

I anticipated the question. “I’ll be right back,” I announced, closing the door. I reached for the phone I recently replaced two weeks ago, switched on the exterior light, and re-opened the door to find her drinking from a large water bottle. I wondered what else she was hiding on the other side of my door.

“Since we don’t know each other,” I volunteered, “how ’bout I dial the police for you, and you can ask them directly for help?…”

She hesitated as I entered 9-1-1, “…Cause it sounds to me like this warrants a call to the police.”

“Sheriff’s office, what’s your emergency?” answered dispatch.

Switching the phone to speaker, I offered, “I’m calling from Pine Mountain Lake Campground in Groveland, CA. A woman has knocked on my camper door who claims that she’s lost and unable to find her way home. Are you able to help her?”

“Is she still there?” asked the dispatcher.

“She is, and she’s asked me to drive her to her house somewhere nearby,” I confessed.

The dispatcher took over. “Are you alright ma’am? Are you hurt in any way?”

The stranger responded, “I’m okay. I just don’t know where I am is all, and it’s dark, and I don’t know how I’m gonna get home.”

The dispatcher continued, “Can you tell me your name and where you live?”

“My name is Amber and I live at 20247 Longview St.,” claimed the knocker.

“Were you born in 1964?” asked the dispatcher.

“Yeah,” responded Amber.

“Well, this office is not a taxi service, Amber, but if you like, I can offer you the numbers of a few local cab companies who can get you home,” suggested the dispatcher. “Is that a good option for you?”

Amber, dazed, “Sure.”

To Amber, “Be right back.” I let the door slam behind me, and I scrambled for a pen. The dispatcher dictated phone numbers for three taxi services and signed off.

Getting back to Amber, “I’ve got three choices here. Which number would you like me to call?”

“I don’t have the money for a taxi. Can you just tell me the direction to the main road?” asked Amber.

“Ferretti Road is at the bottom of the hill. You can’t miss it,” I declared, and double-locked the door.

From the “bedroom” Leah called out, “What the hell was that all about?”

“I don’t even know where to start, but I hope she’s gone,” I asserted.

“Maybe we should bring in the bear spray from the truck as a precaution,” Leah recommended.

“Only if you get it,” I replied.

“Fuhgeddaboutit! I’m not stepping out there,” exclaimed Leah.

At Leah’s suggestion, I called Pine Mountain Lake Association security, who completed a sweep of the property, but came up empty. Their promise of an increased patrol through the night was reassuring, but the peculiar notion of ever enjoying peace and quiet as a solitary guest in a campground now seems highly overrated.


Thank You for Not Smoking




When will this smoke finally dissipate? I already know the answer…the question was rhetorical. As of today, 74 fires are burning out of control across the western part of America.

fire map of Western states
Current Wildfires

Extreme Smokey

Fires are currently active in nine states throughout the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Here is a breakdown of the acreage burnt so far in active wildfires reported by the National Interagency Fire Center since Aug. 28:

  • Arizona, 1 wildfire, burning 48,443 acres
  • California, 22 wildfires, burning 354,316 acres
  • Colorado, 1 wildfire, burning 1,405 acres
  • Idaho, 19 wildfires, burning 248,141 acres
  • Montana, 26 wildfires, burning 544,583 acres
  • Nevada, 7 wildfires, burning 111,379 acres
  • Oregon, 9 wildfires, burning 146,418 acres
  • Utah, 1 wildfire, burning 5,097 acres
  • Wyoming, 2 wildfires, burning 4,766 acres

For those active fires reported on since Aug. 28 it amounts to 1,464,548 acres actively burnt or burning.

Leah and I have been in the fire zone for over a month–always one-step ahead of the next outbreak–but fire finally found us at Yosemite National Park. Today, the evacuation of Fish Town was lifted, but steps are still being taken to prevent fire from invading Yosemite’s sacred Mariposa Sequoia Grove. Fortunately, Merced and Tuolumne groves remain unaffected.

tunnel tree (2)


fallen tree1

fallen tree

The air is filled with smoke. It’s impossible to ignore…it permeates everything. And nothing stays clean overnight after the ash quietly coats every surface by morning. With the winds blowing, mountains appear…

Tioga Peak (2)

twin peaks

Mt. Dana

Mt. Hoffman

and disappear under a gauze of gray in minutes.

El Capitan

Cathedral Rocks

Fairview Dome1

On a good day, the sun will sometimes break through,

smoky sun

if only to tease the highlights from the shadows.

Tenaya Lake


tree balanced on rock

Bridalveil Falls2 (2)

But the sky is fickle…

smoke clouds

It leaves us waiting …and wanting more, with no guarantee that the sun will return–until it means accepting the best of a bad situation.


Perhaps waiting has value if it slows us down, and gives us a little more time to appreciate what’s in front of us.

El Capitan and Cathedral (3)

Fire in the Hole

I’m standing on the rim of the Cinder Cone volcano at the northern edge of Lassen Volcanic National Park, and steadying my camera against sustained winds whipping across the crater. My biggest fear at this moment is not for my safety, but being unable to properly memorialize my euphoria in a sharp photograph.

While there is no comparison to the energy of B.F. Loomis’s exposure of Lassen Peak’s 1914 eruption,


the thrill of standing on the precipice of a monument created by the forces of nature…

cinder cone

should be testament to Lassen’s National Park worthiness.

But getting to Lassen Peak was a thrill of a different kind. If the shortest ground distance between two mountains is a crooked road, then 50 miles of US-299 through the Trinity-Shasta National Forest qualifies as a marathon winner of zigs and zags, and unlike any other road I’ve driven since our trip began more than five months ago.

It had to be the most rising-and-falling-and-winding-and-grinding-kind-of-road that went on and on for more than an hour. Rarely would 100 feet of straight road pass us by before we’d follow a familiar pattern of maneuvering to the right and then pulling the truck to the left and then turning the wheel hard to the right, and leaning around the bend into a corkscrew, only to continue all over again.

The drive was exhausting, but at least we left the smoke behind us. We were now basking in sunlit blue skies without a single cloud.

The park was uncrowded, and it didn’t matter why, but I suspect that families were now tackling teachers’ homework.

After an orientation at the Visitor Center, we strolled around Manzanita Lake for centerfold views of the mountain.

Lassen Peak and Manzanita Lake

Taking the highway deeper into the park, we passed Helene Lake,

Lake Helen and Lassen Peak1

offering a peek at Lassen’s desolate peak.

Lassen Peak and snow.jpg

Since the trail to the summit rises 2000 feet in 2.5 miles without shade–which is not my idea of fun–we continued to Bumpass Hell, named after an early 20th century guide who stepped through the crust of a fumarole while doing his job.

The namesake trail provided commanding views of Brokeoff Mountain and Diamond Peak.


We found it odd to be crossing snow in the middle of August under a searing sun,

summer melt

but the park receives snowfall averaging 40 feet per year at the higher elevations.

Once over the ridge, the sweet mountain air was replaced with the pungent scent of sulfur bleeding from a hellish valley of hydrothermal activity:

Bumpass Hell

complete with requisite spurting mudpots,

mud pop

hissing fumaroles venting from angry rocks,


and brilliantly colored hot springs…

hot springs

Bumpass Hell2

mineral rocks

Bumpass Hell1

…collecting in a milky stream of hot minerals.

Sulphur Spring runoff

Absolutely gorgeous!

The road to the south entrance of the park took us past the defunct commercial Sulphur Works,

Sulphur works3

Sulphur works1

boiling mudpot

before we u-turned to catch the westerly light on the Chaos Crags,

Chaos Crags

and fawned over the stillness of Reflection Lake.

Reflection Lake

It would be hard to top this day, unless it was from atop the Cinder Cone, and that’s where we traveled the following day.

After a drive through dense forest and pastureland to the northeastern corner of the park, we turned onto a dusty hard-packed road terminating at Butte Lake, where a delta of trails branched out for a closer inspection of the Fantastic Lava Beds…

Fantastic Lava Beds

–a heap of sharp and shiny lava rocks rising to heights of 50 feet or more–forming an impenetrable barrier of blackness.

Lava beds and ash

We trudged through shifting black sand bordered by groves of Ponderosa pines for nearly two miles, until we reached a clearing with a view of the cone.


“I don’t think I can make it,” Leah admitted. “It’s too steep for me, and it’s completely exposed, but you should go for it.”

The winding trail up the side of the cone was sloped at a 35% grade, the sharpest possible angle that cinders can stack before rolling downhill. It was going to be very challenging. The ascent over crushed cinders mixed with coarse sand was harder than I presumed. With every step, the gravel swallowed my boots to the ankle.

slow and steady climb

But I was undeterred. The power to continue came from the constant revelations brought by every foot gained along the way,

Lassen peak and lonesome tree

and the promise of something more spectacular by climbing even higher.

Lava beds and Butte Lake

I could follow Leah–becoming increasingly smaller–as she took the detour around the cone, just as she was watching me shrink in size from the base of the volcano.

from the base
glare from Leah’s iPhone

After scrambling most of the 750 feet to the trail’s vanishing point, a whirling wind confronted me from the blind side of the cone, stopping me in my tracks, but offering an amazing overview of the Painted Dunes and Lassen Peak in exchange.

Lassen peak and painted dunes panorama

I imagined a walk through the dunes, taking time to examine the explosion of color, while wondering if camera sensors were sensitive enough to record such an array of wonder.

painted desert1

And then I reached the top of the cone!!

cinder cone crater

The wind at the top was relentless, but so was my need to circle the cone. Nothing was more exhilarating than having the cone to myself (although I would have willingly shared the summit with Leah had she been able). The magical feeling of surveying the terrain from all sides was awe-inspiring.

the cone

cater and peak

And then I discovered that the Painted Dunes continued on the other side of the volcano.

painted desert4

painted desert5

painted dunes

I really didn’t want to leave. But after exploring the area, the only thing left to do was to take the long trail down to share the experience with Leah, and yield the cone to a new arrival.

the long climb