Variations on Junk

We were breezing through National Park Highway with the winds of Rainier at our backs,

Mt. Ranier

heading through Ashford, WA on the way to Mt. St. Helens (see: Beauty and the Beast),

Mt. St. Helens1

when the sight of a 17-foot grazing giraffe (Aspen Zoe) craning over a split-rail fence caught our attention,

giraffe (3).jpg

causing us to catch a second look.

giraffe head (2).jpg

The open field before us provided a perfect pedestal for oversized sculptures.

garden overview.jpg

The allure of a hidden sculpture garden amid the cedars and firs of the Cascades was galvanizing, and had us hooked.

Big Fish.jpg
Oscar–18-feet long by 12-feet high

We felt magnetically drawn to the magical monstrosities, and compelled to turn into the gravel driveway for a closer look, sharing the parking lot with The Angel from Hell.

motorcycle on a truck.jpg

The gatekeeper was generous, allowing us passage,

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and we were free to roam through Recycled Spirits of Iron Sculpture Park for a small donation. 

I turned to Leah, pointing to the bird…


“Check it out. Toucan get in for the price of one!” I mused.

“Your jokes are a bit rusty,” she retorted.

“True,” I countered, “but at least I beaked your interest.

We paused at our first fish-out-of-water encounter to admire the mechanical calculus of mashing a gearhead, cogs and sprockets together with a wheel here, and a drain cover there, and accented with a fan blade for a fin, and a saw blade for a snout, wrapped around an exoskeleton of grating.

“How many horseshoes do you think it took to fabricate the skin?” Leah wondered aloud.

seahorse profile

We stepped around for a different perspective.


“Why don’t you ask the artist,” volunteered a robust woman wearing a calico print apron and approaching us from the porch. Indicating afar with her pointer finger, “That’s my husband on the tractor out there, just about finishing up the front yard cut. He’d be happy to meet-cha by the garage, cuz he loves talking about his art.”

Dan Klennert was hungry for conversation, and passionate about his process of collecting junk.

Dan Klennert portrait

He walked us through the nerve center of his creative cocoon, where all things junk were separated according to subject and size, and stacked in stalls that reached to the rafters.

There are scores of “works in progress” scattered throughout the warehouse that originated on the whim and inspiration of a stray piece of driftwood, or the basin of a wheelbarrow, or the rotary cage of a lawnmower.

Dan is a junk whisperer of sorts. As he sifts through new collections of scrap that he regularly inherits from area farmers and ranchers, he gets a “tingle of inspiration” when he comes across something special.

“This here’s gonna be a whale,” Dan claims, showing us the sweep of the bough with the sweep of his hand. “And this eagle I got started on, I’m still waitin’ on the perfect piece that gonna be his wings.”

“I grew up in a small town called Crookston, MN,” he recalls, “and as a kid, I loved to draw. When I was seven, my family moved to Seattle. That’s when I started pulling my red wagon around the neighborhood, and collecting things from junk piles. I wasn’t much of a student then, but Friday was always my favorite day of the week, because Friday was art day at school.”

Dan became a mechanic by age 22 and learned from a foreman “how to glue two pieces of metal with a welder.”

“I found a way to put together the two things I loved most, scrounging and art,” confides Dan.

Leah and I continued our tour of the property, where the playful…

stallion (3).jpg

and the whimsical…


intercepted with the spiritual…

crucifixtion (3).jpg

the arcane…


and the carnal…

Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve

But it’s safe to say that Dan Klennert has found his Eden on earth. His four-acre niche has given him a place to park the variations of a mechanical mind that melds an anchor to a sprinkler to imagine a snail, as he earnestly nudges the nuance of ex-nihilo–creation out of nothing.


WPC–Variations on a Theme


Riddle: What does the Trump administration and the Army Corp of Engineers have in common?

Answer: Both tried to drain the swamp and both failed miserably!

At one time, four thousand square miles of southern Florida was regarded as a vast and untapped resource,


but not because of its natural beauty and bounty.

blue heron

Rather, the Everglades was long considered an uninhabitable and hostile environment filled with horrible reptiles,


snout underwater

hordes of mosquitoes, and enough sawgrass to cut a man to shreds;

taking flight

yet, nonetheless worthy of future cultivation and commerce, if only the rich underlying soil could be reclaimed.

By the middle of the 19th century, political dreams and aspirations begat studies and commissions which begat a Congressional resolution that decreed that draining the swamp would result in enormous land improvement, incentivizing developers and homesteaders to relocate to Florida.

After the Civil War, Hamilton Disston, a Pennsylvania real estate magnate bought 4 million acres at 25 cents an acre, and began dredging canals through the mangrove forests with the intention of lowering the levels of the wetlands by reducing the basin of the Caloosahatchee and Kissimmee Rivers.


While the canals never drained the Everglades, the publicity spawned newcomers to the area, who willingly paid Disston $5 per acre–establishing towns like Fort Myers on the west coast and Ocala in central Florida.

Oil tycoon, Henry Flagler took notice, and seized the opportunity to buy large tracts of coastal land to build a railroad, eventually reaching Miami, and encouraging further growth and tourism to fill his grand hotels, from St. Augustine to Palm Beach and beyond.

Fast forward to the 1930s, when the Army Corps of Engineers, under the direction of Herbert Hoover, built a dike four stories high, and 66 miles long on the southern edge of Lake Okeechobee–controlled through a system of channels, locks and levees–shifting the focus from drainage to flood control, in response to deadly storm surge caused by massive hurricanes.

The dike was so successful at holding back groundwater, that 1 million acres of Everglades, now parched and leached with ocean water burned in 1939 after an epic drought. Top soil quickly decomposed from bacteria now exposed to air, causing homes erected during the building boom to lose their foundations, only to be replaced by stilts.

A series of pump stations were built in the 1950s, designed to release water in drier times, or remove and pump it to the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico in times of flood.

pump house.jpg

And so it went throughout decades of mismangement: one problem after another led to one fix after another, with little regard for conservation.

Although Everglades National Park was dedicated in 1947 to preserve a fragile ecosystem that was suffering from explosive growth and systematic water diversion, the Army Corp of Engineers continued to build water conservation areas bordered by canals for intended sugarcane production and thriving population centers, again depriving the Everglades of water, and further shrinking a vanishing ecosystem.

Today, the Everglades is widely known as a network of wetlands,

mirrored water

and forests,

palm apples

not a swamp as was once thought–although it flows almost imperceptibly at three feet per hour out of Lake Okeechobee–and is home to threatened species such as the Florida panther, the American crocodile, and the West Indian manatee. Congressional appropriations are currently earmarked only for environmental projects, with high priority given to restoring the natural flow, but not without political sleight of hand and conservation controversy.

On a recent visit to the Everglades Holiday Park, part of Broward County Parks,


Leah and I took an airboat ride through the canals…


cruising at 60

…in search of alligators which have eluded us since the beginning of our trip (see: Where Have All the Gators Gone?).

But not this time around. Happily, Captain MJ knew exactly where to find them–on the mud flats…

gater on mud

and in the water…

gater in the water

head above water

Afterwards, we marveled at the stories of Paul Bedard, a bouny hunter and trapper who has made a commitment to rescue as many alligators as possible…

Stumpy shows his 80 teeth

from golf courses, backyards, and swimming pools.

no hands!

At the end of the show, we dismissed the notion of having our picture taken with a baby gator, but couldn’t help but be amused by those who patiently waited their turn.

holding a gator (2).jpg

Alternately, while walking through the park, our thoughts returned to Donald Trump,

gater sunning

who pledged to drain the political landscape of government corruption, “and make our government honest again–believe me.”

Yet he continues to enrich himself at the taxpayers expense: with extended stays to golf properties he still owns; and by championing the Republican tax bill–which guarantees his family millions of dollars saved from pass-through deductions, a top-rate tax reduction, and an expanded estate-tax exemption.

No less guilty are three of Trump’s lieutenants: Tim Price, disgraced and outed Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt…

on the beach

all accused of using government funds for personal travel on outrageously expensive non-commercial flights.

Which begs the question: How can they be trusted to swim through the Everglades without harming their own environment?

Moon Over Muddy Mountain

Now that Leah and I are nine months into Streaming thru America, a familiar question often arises from family, friends, and fellow bloggers: “What’s your favorite place, so far?” It still remains the most difficult question to answer. Here’s why:

We’ve covered over 32,000 miles to 104 distinct destinations–with amazing views of beaches, mountains, prairies, canyons, and deserts. We’ve toured cities and suburbs, villages and vicinities, parks and plantations, graveyards and ghost towns.

Thus far, we’ve crossed the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back; we’ve traveled as far north as Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada to the southern edge of Florida within the Everglades; We’ve ascended Trail Ridge Road to the Rocky Mountain tundra at 12,183 feet to the salt flats of Death Valley’s Badwater Road at 282 feet below sea level.

Having slogged through Los Angeles and Miami traffic, we’ve also driven hours through remote regions without a soul in sight. We’ve cursed the crowds at Yellowstone and Zion, and celebrated the isolation of Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks. We’ve witnessed numerous national monuments, and bore witness to monumental tragedy in Las Vegas.

While we’ve camped at some of the fanciest and most expensive RV parks in the country, we’ve also boondocked at Walmart parking lots, always meeting new people from around the world, yet reminiscing with old neighbors we discovered at a scenic overlook in North Dakota.

Despite having written over 80,000 words and shared over 2,500 photographs of our adventures this year, I feel compelled to answer that one nagging question, but forgive me if I pause for a moment longer to filter all the information collected to date…

The one location that stands out over all the others is Valley of Fire State Park–16-miles outside of Overton, Nevada–as much for the solace and cleansing it brought us after the Las Vegas massacre, as for it’s raw and natural beauty.

And from this experience, I’ve reluctantly selected one photograph that captured my imagination and exemplified my feelings–two days after the world grappled with senseless inhumanity.

sheep and moon (4)

May 2018 bring us closer together as we work to build bridges between communities, and discover a path to peace and tolerance.




Cross Beams

Life on the road can be unsettling to the soul, so from time to time–when passing through towns and cities–we’ll randomly take our time to wander through a variety of houses of worship for a healthy dose of salvation and inner peace.

As we’ve wound our way across America, several sanctuaries have stood out for their historical significance, stunning architecture, and their integration into the communities they serve.

The chapel of the Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo, was founded in the early 18th century as a Roman Catholic mission along the San Antonio River,

exterior choir

and distinguished itself as the Shrine of Texas Liberty, commemorating the Battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836, when a 13-day siege ended in the Mexican army’s victory over 189 Texian soldiers.

lone star flag

Originally, the compound was intended as an education center for America’s Indians who converted to Christianity,


but, ultimately the Alamo became a fortress of New Spain militiamen after the Franciscan missionaries abandoned it in 1793.


In 2015, the Alamo was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.


While exploring Big Sky country around Helena, Montana, Leah and I visited the Cathedral of St. Helena,

cathedral exterior

a Roman Catholic parish patterned after the Gothic form of Votive Church in Vienna, Austria,

buttress (2)

and distinctive for its 59 stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments.


Nearly destroyed by an earthquake in 1935, the cathedral was restored to its original design after three years of reconstruction.

rose window

The interior was gilded in time for the Cathedral’s Golden Jubilee in 1959,


and included in National Register of Historic Places in 1980–giving the residents of Helena something to crow about.

rose window perch

Romanesque architecture defines the exterior of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, completed in 1914,

cathedral ext

and attributed to patron Saint Louis IX, King of France.

ceiling of the Narthex (2)

However, the interior reflects from a Byzantine style rooted in soaring domes and mosaic art.


Installation of the Cathedral’s mosaics–which adorn almost every decorative surface of wall, ceiling and dome–began in 1912 and was completed in 1988.

depiction of Pentacost

Twenty different artists collectively inlaid 41.5 million tessarae tiles of 7,000 colors, covering 83,000 square feet, making it the largest mosaic collection in the world.

depiction of Easter

Pope John Paul II designated the Cathedral a basilica in 1997, where it acts as the mother church for the Archdiocese, and seat of its archbishop.

Historic Bay

In stark contrast, the Cadet Chapel–a multi-faith house of worship–soars heaven-bound at the Air Force Academy campus located in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

chapel exterior

With 17 upright wings on edge, and piercing the sky at 150 feet, the Cadet Chapel is a stirring example of modern American Architecture.

chapel 2xt (2)

Constructed mostly of aluminum, glass, and steel,

chapel alter (2)

the main sanctuary is home to an Air Force Academy demographic that is primarily Protestant.

chapel int (2)

However, the lower level of the structure houses chapels and prayer rooms for Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Orthodox Christians.

lower level chapels.jpg

The Cadet Chapel was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Twenty-five Year Award in 1996, and was named a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2004.

stained glass ceiling

Also reflective of modern American architecture, and an homage to nature in its purest form is Thorncrown Chapel, nestled in the Ozarks of Arkansas, on the edge of Eureka Springs.


Constructed from the same Southern pine indigenous to the site, the chapel is so integrated into the landscape that it stealthily stands camouflaged by its surroundings,


and represents an inside/outside sensibility, with Arts and Crafts flourishes.

pews and lights

Thorncrown Chapel was named a National Historic Place in 2000, and received the Twenty-five Year Award by the American Institute of Architects in 2006 for design of enduring significance.


The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Georgia is a Roman Catholic sanctuary built in the French Gothic style, and was dedicated in 1876.

St. John exterior

Twelve years later, fire gutted the interior, leaving behind only the walls and towers.

reference sign

Overcoming adversity, the church community quickly rebuilt much of what was destroyed, and resumed inside services in 1900,


while interior decoration continued for an additional 13 years,


to restore the stained glass and organ loft to its original splendor.

pipe organ

Embedded in Savannah’s Historic District, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was awarded landmark status by the National Park Service in 1966.


Lastly, in our effort to somehow balance the preponderance of churches and chapels we’ve toured, we visited Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue in the Historic District of Charleston, South Carolina.


Kahal Kadosh is notable as the country’s second oldest synagogue, and the oldest in continuous use. Established in 1749, Kahal Kadosh grew into America’s largest and wealthiest Jewish community by the end of the 18th century.

historic landmark

A new vision of American Reform Judaism originated at this site in 1824 after parting ways from its conservative Sephardic origins.

1st temple (3)

After Charleston’s fire of 1838 ravaged the city and destroyed the synagogue, a new Greek revival style was adopted for the new structure, with rich interior ornamentation,

Greek Revival

reminiscent of Greek temples.

peeling ceiling

Jewish services, according to reformist rituals and practices, were now conducted in English, with a new emphasis on organ music, and women were encouraged to participate with men on the main floor, breaking with a long-standing tradition of separation and isolation in the sanctuary balconies.

pipe organ (2)

The rich history and diversity of religion and protected religious freedoms in America cannot be overlooked as increased debate centers around self-centered interpretations of our Constitution’s First Amendment.

Moral outrage and hubris abound as politicians and public figures drape themselves in stars and stripes, while preaching to their flock from behind protective glass with handfuls of stones at the ready.

A reckoning of biblical proportion awaits us if we cannot ascend beyond our intolerance, and let each other live as we would have others let us live–in peace and without judgement.


Southern (C)Harm

Charleston, South Carolina has a picture postcard personality with an imperfect and unpleasant past–mostly because Charleston was built on the backs of slaves for nearly 200 years, with nearly 1.5 million slaves passing through Charleston Harbor until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in 1865–yet the appeal and beauty of Charleston cannot be denied.

A tour of Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island offers a historical narrative that addresses the highs and lows of the Low Country from a military perspective.

Fort Moultrie sign

The earliest protection of Charleston’s harbor came from its outlying shoals, forcing ship traffic from the south, and across Sullivan’s Fort.

regional map_LI

Early defense of the harbor relied on a sixteen-foot thick sandwich between two slices of palmetto log-walls that British bombardments found impossible to penetrate. In June 1776, nine British warships were driven off under a hail of smooth-bore cannon fire during the Revolutionary War.

Consequently, Charleston was saved and the fort was renamed in honor of its commander, William Moultrie (1730-1805).

Moultrie grave

In 1794, with the addition of Vermont and Kentucky to the Union, a new 15 star/15 stripe flag flew beyond the sally port…

15 stars (2)

over a newly-styled defense system, with walls of earth and timber rising 17 feet above the shoreline.



In 1804, a hurricane destroyed the fort, calling for Congress to appropriate funds for a Second American System of coastal fortifications, including an 1809 rebuild of Fort Moultrie fortified with brick,

Ordinance building

and the addition of Fort Sumter to its south.

Fort Sumter1

South Carolina’s secession from the Union in 1860 provoked the Civil War. Moultrie was quickly abandoned in favor of Sumter’s stronger defense system. However, the Confederates bombed Sumter into submission three months later, gaining control of the harbor–and successfully defended against a Federal fleet of Ironclads with a string of 32-pounders lined across its battlements–until Charleston surrendered in 1865.

Fort Sumter

Fort Moultrie continued to modernize, and sustained to protect the southern coastline through both World Wars…


…by coordinating all harbor defenses through its Harbor Entrance Control post,

control room

until its decommission in 1947.

Communications room

Sullivan’s Island was also the first line of defense against virulent disease, providing “pest houses” for in-transit African slaves between 1700 and 1775. who were processed and quarantined prior to dispatch to the Slave Mart in Charleston,

Old Slave Mart Museum entrance

suggesting a crude and culpable counterpart to white immigration at Ellis Island.

The Old Slave Mart–now converted to a museum–tells the painful story of America’s darkest days in a straightforward way…

Selling a Slave

offering a self-guided tour through an unimaginable time when freedom was confiscated for a price,

The Price of a Human Being

and families were ripped apart,

museum attendee

so America could prosper.

The buyer

Yet, such a beautiful city has been wrought in the wake of such misery.

Fort Citadel (3)

long piers and bridge

2nd Presbytarian Church

Ravenal Bridge (2)

rainbow row

rainbow row sign

river walk

Waterfront Park

Moultrie Square

waterfront park and fountain (3)

But lest we forget:

This is sign (2)


Nowhere, No Way

A seven-mile stretch of road from the southern lip of Great Smoky Mountain National Park to its tunnel terminus remains a source of irritation for generations of locals, and a symbol of an unfulfilled promise from the Federal bureaucracy,

road to nowhere

which once pledged to replace submerged Highway 288, but lost their way amid a forest of red tape and environmental concerns.

Fontana Dam begat Fontana Lake in 1941 after the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)–in concert with the Army Corps of Engineers–built a hydroelectric plant for ALCOA in consideration of the military’s demand for aluminum essential for aircraft, ship-building, and munitions during WWII. Consequently, communities and roads disappeared under the high-water reserves, and townspeople lost their land and their livelihoods.

In exchange for losing Highway 288, the displaced people of Swain County were promised a road north of Fontana Lake–through Great Smoky Mountain park lands–for continuing access to their ancestral cemeteries left behind, and compensation for relocation assistance. However, most of the 1,300 citizens who resisted the move never saw a dime after ultimately fleeing the rising waters.

Thirty years later, after building 7.2 miles of road and a quarter-mile tunnel, appropriated funds had dried up and the project stalled. By 2003, the National Park Service eventually revealed a feasibility study listing several considerations for public debate, and in 2007, issued a 13-page report detailing the government’s position, electing the No-Action Alternative:

The No-Action Alternative would forego any improvements to Lake View Road with the exception of routine maintenance. Under this alternative, there would be no changes to the existing conditions within the study area. No compensation would be provided in lieu of building the road. NPS would continue to provide transportation across Fontana Lake for annual cemetery visits and would maintain current  amenities, policies, and practices of GSMNP.

Subsequently, Swain County sought a monetary settlement, demanding $52 million from the Department of Interior for defaulting on the original agreement. Yet to date, only $12 million has been paid, thus generating a pending lawsuit for the balance of money owed.

After learning about the history, Leah and I decided to make the pilgrimage to see this road for ourselves. We departed Bryson City on a dreary autumn morning, surrounded by mist and brisk winds that had us zipping up and foraging for hats and gloves from a backseat storage bin.

The drive along Fontana Road took us through bucolic farms and pastoral settings.


autumn cows

We followed the lightly traveled road until we reached the park entrance, and continued along a windy incline dotted with shrouded overlooks of the Tuckasegee River below us.

We knew we had reached the end of the line when we crossed over Nolands Creek,


and encountered a barricade of steel poles that barred us from approaching the tunnel around the bend.

lakeshore trail

The ¼-mile tunnel was dark and dank. And while a flashlight was a handy accessory for navigating the rutted road and avoiding scattered animal feces,

tunnel opening

it became an essential tool for spotlighting the pervasive high school graffiti that randomly “decorated” the oft-covered whitewashed walls–

tunnel to nowhere

–most of it, a reflection of egocentric teenagers flexing their hormones…

fuch grafitti

tunnel grafitti

wall cracks

…but in other cases, the graffiti represented a cathartic release of current political expression–

Fuck Donald Trump

–bringing new meaning to an erstwhile patch of pavement.

As advertised, the “Road to Nowhere” terminated on the back side of the tunnel,

Tunnel End

casting a glimpse of an uncertain future fraught with empty promises disguised as good intentions.


Parhelic Circle with Sundogs

While enjoying the exhilarating views of the Great Smoky Mountains from the vantage of Andrew Bald’s grassy slopes, a narrow ribbon of color caught my eye just as the clouds were parting on the right side of the sun. I knew I didn’t have much time, so I refocused my attention on capturing my discovery through the lens of my camera, while trying not to blow-out the exposure by shooting into the sun.

right side

“Ooh, a rainbow,” I thought, “That’s cool.” I turned to the few hikers present, now relaxing after the trek down from Clingmans Dome.

“Did anyone else see the rainbow?” I asked around to no one in particular.

Their casual shrugs spoke volumes. Glancing back to the sky, I understood their ambivalence; the rainbow had already vanished.

After a snack and a brief respite, it was time to start up the mountain before darkness descended, but not without one last look as I was leaving the clearing. That’s when I noticed–if only for an instant–a reciprocal slice of color on the left side of the sun…

left side

…and then it was gone. Leah and I ascended the trail in sufficient time for photographing a glorious sunset over Clingmans Dome, and nothing more was considered, until it was time to construct the post, On Top of Old Smokey.

While putting my thoughts together with the TV running in the background, I became distracted by a local meteorologist from Charlotte, who was standing in front of a projected image submitted by a viewer that looked very similar to photographs I had recorded on Andrew Bald.

And then he replaced the image with this graphic:

parhelic graphic (2)

while giving a brief explanation of the earth science behind the phenomenon of a parhelic circle with flanking sundogs.

That’s when I realized I had captured something special…caused by sunlight refracting off tiny ice crystals in the atmosphere, and creating a larger halo around the sun.

I returned to the file to re-examine the photographs, and wondered–by chance, and given limited resources–if I could stitch the two views together using Windows Publisher to reproduce the full effect, even though the photographs of both sides of the sun were taken minutes apart from two different viewpoints and parallax.

While the technique is purely experimental, I believe the result comes very close to interpreting “what could have been” had the clouds not interfered with my “rainbows”…

parhelic circle with sundogs

…all of which makes for a more remarkable discovery, given the Great Smoky Mountain smoke.

On Top of Old Smokey

A side trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Asheville takes only an hour, but the payoff is timeless. Admission is free, but the views are priceless.

The National Park straddles North Carolina and Tennessee, with Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in Tennessee, and a natural boundary between both states. The park is situated within a day’s drive for 60% of the nation’s population, making it the most popular of all National Parks, with over 9 million visitors per year.

The park can be accessed through a dozen different gateways, with Sugarlands Visitors Center being the prevailing entry point from the north side through Gatlinburg, TN. But Leah and I approached the Great Smokys from the south, and entered via Oconaluftee Visitors Center, the heart of Cherokee Nation.

Once there, we took our time strolling through the Mountain Farm Museum on the banks of the Oconaluftee River…


farm garden

elk field fences


…before driving north on Newfound Gap Road–stopping frequently at the many overlooks–to gaze across Carolina’s side of the Blue Ridge Mountains,



and preview our next destination, Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet elevation.

Clingmans Tower LS.jpg

A dogleg turn onto Clingmans Mountain Road took us through short winding turns as we climbed the Appalachian Trail ridgeline, eventually leveling off at an over-sized parking area with trails radiating from the top of the bald, and views extending a hundred miles.

Clingmans Dome view

Thinking that views might be even better at the very top–allowing us to see over Mount LeConte–we trekked half a mile up a very steep asphalt path to Clingmans Observation Tower, albeit knowing it was closed for repair until next year.

To our surprise, families were scaling the spiraling ramp to the tower.

Clingmans Tower

Looking around, there were no views to be had at the base. We were surrounded by a dense growth of evergreens without breaks. Sacks of concrete were stacked under the column with flimsy, yellow, KEEP OUT tape tied across the tower entrance.

Scores of visitors-turned-violators stood around the column base, determining their next move. Should they make the ascent or not? Yes, the tower was officially closed to the public while undergoing repair. But was it too risky to breach the ribbon barricade? There weren’t any park rangers present, but maybe there were cameras? What a moral dilemma!

“I’m not going up there,” exclaimed Leah. “There’s a reason that tower is closed.”

“But look around us! Where are the views?! We hiked up here expecting to see something, yet there’s nothing to look at, unless you want a closer look at this fir stump,” I argued. “And what about everyone already up there? If they really wanted to keep us out, then why didn’t they secure the entrance better? Why didn’t they use fencing instead of tape?”

Leah was adamant. “I’m still not going up there, and I don’t care about everybody else! It’s not the right thing to do.”

I offered Leah my Roy Moore rationale: “But it ain’t illegal if ya don’t get caught!”

I deliberated carefully…

…and ducked under the tape. I couldn’t help myself. I wouldn’t deny myself the views I had come all this way to capture.

The 45-foot tower was completed in 1959 to give unobstructed 360° views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, and it was showing its age. The concrete pathway was separating from the wall in places, and patches of rebar were visible along the way. But did it warrant closing while in the midst of being repaired?

tower panorama

Probably, but not until I had the chance to document the landscape. I scurried up the ramp with the intention of quickly getting my shots, and hurrying back down, just in case I should be noticed.

Tower base

Tower ramp

On our way back down the trail, several families on their way up the trail, paused to catch their breath and ask, “Is it worth it? Is there anything to see up there?”

“It all depends on how good you are at following orders,” I’d answer cryptically.

But our day wasn’t done yet. It was only three o’clock, and we hadn’t hiked more than an easy mile. We’d been told by a park volunteer at the Visitor Center that the two-mile trail to Andrews Bald–which intersects with the Appalachian Trail–was a worthwhile hike with amazing views at the end.

trail sign

So, we took her advice, and set out down a narrow, terraced ridge capped by embedded logs as steps–to keep the erosion to a minimum–until it turned to saw-toothed rocks and twisted roots, and occasional mud in low lying places.


“You realize that it’s now getting dark around five, so we’re not gonna have much time before we have to turn around,” Leah warned. “And climbing back up this hill is gonna be a bear!”

“Sunset’s at 5:30, but as long as we’re out by five, we should be fine,” I replied. “Besides, there’s no way I’m gonna miss the sun going down from up top!”

We made excellent time down the mountainside, and crossed onto Andrew Bald, a grassy clearing with breathtaking views. While Leah was making new friends, and photobombing their picture,


I was focused on the sky, and that’s when I realized that the sun had created something remarkable.

Andrews Bald

That slivered arch of a rainbow crisscrossed by contrails was an elusive sundog, a small portion of an optical phenomenon caused by sunlight refracting off tiny ice crystals in the atmosphere, and creating a larger halo around the sun.


The excitement of capturing this meteorological moment was enough to propel me up the mountain and back to the parking lot with plenty of time to prepare for sunset. But the look on Leah’s face after emerging from the hike told a different story; her feet were achy and her knee was throbbing.

 While she retired to the truck to relax and seek shelter from the bite of cold air moving across Clingmans Dome, I stood steadfast on the edge of the mountain, camera in hand, taking a front row seat to nature’s second act.


almost sundown1


sundown panorama (2)


sunset sky

Almost immediately, all the visitors who stood shoulder to shoulder, drifted back to their cars and trucks to wind their way down to the bottom of the mountain road in the faint tinted light of dusk.

If only they had stuck around long enough for nature’s curtain call…

Sky on Fire


Tempus Fugit

When I reflect over the past eight months on the road, it’s a focused blur. Like the miles that melt behind us as we’re cruising on the Interstates, our side-view mirrors only serve to remind us what we once observed before it’s gone in an instant.

“Did you see that?!” has been a common cue while driving, that could come at any time. It could be a natural phenomena like a double rainbow, or a dramatic change to an underwhelming landscape, or a man with no teeth whose nose touches his chin passing us in his hot-rod Mustang convertible.

Whatever the case may be, we usually have just a moment to react and make a meaningful connection before we’re on to the next moment in time. Our experience may be filed into memory, but memories can be sketchy, ambiguous and subjective.

“What’s your favorite place so far?” is a question that unquestionably comes up when meeting friends or strangers who hear about the progress we’ve made on our year-long odyssey. It’s also the hardest question to answer, considering the nearly 30,000 miles we’ve covered en route to 90 different destinations.

Leah and I often joke and reflect about our day at its conclusion, just to gauge if our recollections match.

“Was it a top 10 day for you today?” I’m likely to ask.

Certainly more than 30 times to date, she’ll respond with, “I don’t know if it was ‘top 10’, but definitely among the top 20.”

Looking back–with help from impressions of places from past posts–I’m now ready to answer the question, and reveal my top five favorites thus far, in chronological order.

1) August 2, 2017: Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada–Athabasca Glacier

Herbert detail (2)

Athabasca Glacier currently recedes at 16 ft. per year, and has lost over half its volume over the past 125 years.

Glacier water

2) August 21, 2017: Corvallis, Oregon–Total Solar Eclipse


Totality of the eclipse lasted one minute, 40 seconds.

partial eclipse (3)

4) August 29, 2017: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

cinder cone1

The 750 foot ascent up the 35% grade of loose gravel to the rim of the Cinder Cone took 35 minutes.

cone crater panorama (2)

4) October 4, 2017: Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Sunset over Rainbow trail

7 minutes lapsed between the sun setting behind the Muddy Mountains to the moon rising over the Valley of Fire.

sheep and moon (4)

5) October 14, 2017: Albuquerque, New Mexico–Balloon Fiesta

lighting it up

The hot air balloon was aloft over Albuquerque after 13 minutes of inflation.

Balloons over Albuquerque (2)

Although each adventure is fundamentally different from the others, collectively, they represent before and after transitions.

The ephemeral existence of each event is temporary in its own special way, with its own time-stamp carved in soap. Fortunately, the moment can be captured and preserved in words and pictures, lest there be any doubt that something significant happened in our lifetime.


Rebel Yell

The Civil War has gotten a lot of attention lately.

Politicians, generals, and TV apostates have sought to revise history.

Glory seekers and glory hounds have wrapped themselves in the Confederate flag as a cause célèbre.

White supremacists have co-opted the Black Lives Matters movement to launch a new low in elevating hatred and racism.

Relitigating the reasons behind the Civil War, and embracing the symbols that have inevitably blurred the battle lines continue to divide a nation 150 years later, where civility and social progress seem all but forgotten.

And what of the 620,000 who gave their lives to protect their way of life–to defend the practice of slavery or the belief that freedom belongs to everyone?

Many remain lost yet honored beneath the trenches and earthwork fortifications throughout Dover, Tennessee.

fall leaves


Their sacrifice is memorialized at the Fort Donelson National Battlefield: in its monument to fallen soldiers;


Conferate memorial

in its ramparts overlooking the Cumberland River;

cannon defense

rampart cannon

and at the Dover Hotel surrender–which was an important turning point for the Union Army, and the advancing popularity of Brigadier General U.S.S. Grant.

Dover Hotel

History sheds light on the past to give us a direction toward the future. Otherwise, as Winston Churchill has stated,

“If we open a quarrel between the past and the present we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Arch ‘n Bunker

“Please don’t let it rain,” I beseeched the angry sky.

After savoring four months of dry weather from Oregon to Arkansas, we arrived in St. Louis at the same moment a cold gray funk had arrived for Halloween. Leah and I had put off our visit to the Gateway Arch in our hope that conditions would clear, but our window of opportunity had narrowed with a rainy forecast predicted for the following day. Running out of options, we bit the bullet and pulled the trigger.

Tickets to the monument are available at the Old Courthouse–headquarters for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial,

Old Courthouse

and historic location of the landmark Dred Scott trials–where an ordinary man took extraordinary measures to free his family from the indignities of slavery, by bringing suit against the United States of America.

Dred Scott

A walk inside reflects two hundred years of history. Directly beneath the dome and the 33-star flag (dating back to July 4, 1859)…

Old Courthouse rotunda

…rests a 3-foot diameter flagstone amid the pavers–the acoustic sweet spot of the courthouse–where orators would stand to speak and be heard from top to bottom,

2nd flr view

and throughout the wings.

flag and columns

Stairwells lit by skylight…


stairs thru the door

carried us to higher floors, providing a peek of the nearby Arch,

stairs and arch

Arch thru courthouse skylight

and a recreation of the courtroom that memorializes where Louis D. Brandeis was admitted to the Missouri bar on November 21, 1878.

Brandeis courtroom

After a brief detour around a barricaded green space currently under construction, we arrived at the south bunker beneath the arch…

Arch against the sky

Arch curvature

scratches and weld

that houses walls of exhibits documenting construction from 1963 to 1965,

ediface sculpture

and more importantly, access to the carriage cars that carry visitors to a viewing gallery 630 feet above the city.

pod control

After a four minute ride, we emerged from our pod,

cable pod2

into an enclosed ramp with multiple portholes overlooking east of the Mississippi,

Mississippi Riverboats

and unobstructed views westward, beyond St. Louis.

St. Louis panorama

As we drove through St. Louis drizzle the following day, we were never far from occasional glimpses of the Arch shrouded in rain clouds.

While I never had a sunny day to capture the full beauty of the simple architecture created by Eero Saarinen, I could still bask in the warm glow of an iconic structure that celebrates the spirit of American exploration.

Gateway Arch




Nature Under Glass

Exploring Tucson, AZ provided two very different opportunities to experience nature–Saguaro National Park and Biosphere 2–with one generating more interest than the other.

We reserved a site at Catalina State Park’s campground…

Catalina Mtns

to be equidistant between the two National Park districts: Rincon Mountain (RMD-east) and Tucson Mountain (TMD-west). Why two districts? In the 1960’s, concern over RMD’s cactus forest showing a decline in new growth, prompted conservationists to acquire a stand of ancient saguaros to the west of Tucson, separating the two districts by an hour’s drive.

Leah and I began our journey at TMD, at first, through a meandering exurban road that eventually led to an unpaved, rutted, and narrow scenic Bajada loop drive covering five miles of Tuscon Mountain foothills. A stop at the Desert Discovery Trail brought us within no touching distance of magnificent saguaro cacti measuring over thirty feet tall.

key light saguaro (2)

Each specimen appears unique, sprouting limbs in different places, and contorting in all directions,

desertscape (2)

giving relevance to Native American claims that these are people standing among the sand and rocks.

Desert Trail

Their petroglyphs across Signal Hill are a testament to their long-standing occupation of the territory more than one thousand years ago.

petroglyph and mountain1

signal hill petroglyphs

A memorable hike along the Valley View Trail slowly ascends a ridge, offering dramatic views of Avra Valley’s saguaro-sprawl, with Picachu Peak in the distance.

Avra Valley and Picacho Peak

With temperatures reaching into the high 90’s, we avoided all other trails–requiring a minimum of three to four hours of dedicated strain–in favor of cross-town traffic delays that minimized our allotted time to visit RMD.

Once at the eastern park gate, we roamed the paved eight-mile Cactus Forest Drive, switch-backing into higher elevations, with warm western sun casting a golden hue across the desert, turning a forbidding vista…


mtn garden and sky

into an inviting playground,

western sun across the desert

protected by a standing legion of cactus totems.

rincon mtns


The following day, we turned our attention to an experiment in the remote reaches of the Sonoran Desert,


originally conceived in 1984 to “research and develop self-sustaining space-colonization technology,” and leading to two highly publicized missions between 1991 and 1994–where teams of eight were sealed into a self-sustaining environment for two-year terms and monitored for their “survivability”. Scientists named it Biosphere 2.



rincon range


Presently, the University of Arizona has assumed stewardship of the facility, turning its focus toward research on climate change–mimicking diverse ecosystems, such as the ocean,

ocean habitat

the rainforest,

rain forest

and coastal fog desert,

desert habitat

all managed under controlled conditions.

Beneath nature’s museum lies the technosphere, a myriad of pipes and wiring,

recycled air conditioning

channels and ducts, tubes and cables, and other facilities necessary for vital operation.

An ingenious dome-shaped lung…


connected to the glass enclosure by tunnels…


allows for air expansion caused by ever-changing pressures within the sealed structure.

The scope of the facility is a marvel, boasting double redundancy for all power and life support systems.

power supplies

A common question on the tour, “Why is it called Biosphere 2? Was there another Biosphere before this one?”

The docent is keen to respond, “Yes. Another Biosphere exists, where random, haphazard and uncontrolled experiments called living are carried out on a daily basis, but we commonly refer to it as Earth.”



When They Go Low, We Go High, Part 2

October’s arrival has ushered in cooler weather, granting a seasonal pardon from the intense summer heat. Today’s forecast for Death Valley is expected to peak at only 101° F, which is still good news for lizards, Steve Bannon, and cockroaches, but less ideal for humans.

We awoke to the sounds of early morning buzz around Stovepipe Wells.

A steady stream of early risers traditionally flood the park before the sun becomes too forbidding. Fortunately for us, they will likely swarm to the iconic hot spots, which only accounts as a pen stroke of Death Valley’s complex signature.

We started the day with an off-road expedition to Mosaic Canyon’s serpentine passage…

Mosaic Canyon mouth.jpg

Marble Mosaic Canyon

…and we hiked until we reached the foothills of the Panamint Range. It was a worthy addition to yesterday’s collection of geologic gems.

Marble Mosaic Canyon1

From there, we took the historic high road through Emigrant Pass, and back to a time of survival–when pioneers and prospectors competed against all that nature could muster. But nothing could dissuade or discourage the hardscrabble men and women with ardent dispositions, and the promise of a gold strike.

Today, the desert is littered with claims. In fact, there are more abandoned mines in Death Valley than any other national park. But one mine is special, and it belonged to Pete Aquereberry.

Eureka Mine (2)

He gained control of the claim after winning his 1907 lawsuit against Shorty Harris, an entrepreneur, a raconteur, and bona fide con-artist, who later built a castle at the top of the valley and filled it with museum-worthy art.

When all the other mines and miners faded away, Pete continued to pull gold from the ground for forty years,

busted rails

mine tunnel

and refined it through his cashier mill.

mine mill.jpg

Fortunes were made and lost in turn-of-the-century boomtowns like Skidoo, Ryolite, Leadfield, Ballarat, but Harrisburg was different. Pete continued to live in his ramshackle cabin until his death in 1945.

Aguereberry cabin.jpg

home exterior


mine housing

Two-hundred yards up the hill, an overgrown path leads to a graveyard of rusted appliances, oil drums,

barrels on the desert floor

and a bullet-riddled 1948 Buick Roadmaster, an elite automobile at the time of post-war production…

Desert car

Buick front end.jpg

…that sits abandoned in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada…

car interior

and without a reason or a clue of ownership.


However, beyond the mining camp, and up a primitive road at 6433 ft. above the valley floor lies Aguereberry’s everlasting “Great View”,

Aquereberry Point panorama

better known today as Aguereberry Point, where the air temperature soared to 70° F. Even better was having the mountaintop to ourselves,

Badwater Basin1.jpg

Aguereberry Point.jpg

until a team of law enforcement rangers unexpectedly crashed our party. After chatting awhile, we took our cue and continued in search of the Charcoal Kilns without really knowing what to look for.

Turning east on Wildrose Canyon Drive, we followed the road until pavement turned to gravel, and eventually narrowed to passable traffic. One moment we were driving through high desert, and when we turned the corner, we found ourselves inside a lush forest of piñon pines, as if we’d been transported to another part of the country.

The air was crisp and smelled of sage. Dead ahead was a string of ten identical bee hives–making for a very different kind of Rockettes chorus line.

Charcoal kilns.jpg

That’s when Leah and I realized that we’d found the kilns.

Charcoal kilns1

Quarried from the mountainside, these imposing structures built in 1877–and used for only three years–still have the stink of creosote permeated within their stone walls. The cones are perfectly symmetrical, and the inside acoustics sound amazing.

inside the kiln.jpg

Our trip continued past the kilns and up a high-clearance mogul run that was barely one-way-wide. Just then, an Accord barreled down and around a craggy corner faster than anyone should, and came to a skidding stop at the sight of me. It seems we were now engaged in a friendly game of chicken, so I made the first move and crept up the mountain in his direction. Perhaps he presumed that I was pulling off the road to give him a chance to pass, but there was less than no room for him to clear me. He was beaten, and he knew it, as he backed his Honda into a clearing, allowing me to pass. We exchanged fleeting glances, and I realized that winning right-of-way was more of a victory for the truck.

The road topped out at Mahogany Flat, where a lone camper was listening to Ruby Tuesday on his personal speaker, and a middle-aged couple had just completed their hike to Telescope Peak–a fourteen-mile round-trip to the highest peak in the park at 11049 ft.

While our hearts were willing, we were in no condition to start such a big hike so late in the day. But with assurances of great views from two senior hiking superstars, we walked for a mile until we reached the first clearing. While it was good enough for Leah, I wanted more. Leah stayed back while I continued to the second clearing, no more than another ¼-mile ahead.

And that’s when I finally understood the park.

Telescope Peak

Leah and I had visited Death Valley seven years ago, and had a completely different experience. For one, it was February, and it felt like we had the entire park to ourselves. The other oddity was when it rained; it brought a sudden eruption of wildflowers to the desert, and turned the Basin into briny ponds of unusual colors and strange lifeforms.

This time around, we elected to pass on the Twenty Mule Team Borax exhibit, having seen it years ago, but it came up again in a strange conversation on our way down from Telescope Peak. For several miles, we’d been passing scattered piles of shit along the road, and wondered about its origin.

Until we had to stop the truck.

dumb ass.jpg

And then we knew what had become of the Twenty Mule Team.

baby mule.jpg



How Low Can We Go, Part 1

Death Valley is known as a land of extremes. From atop Telescope Peak (the highest point in the park at 11,043′) it’s possible to see the highest point in America (Mt. Whitney at 14,505′) and the lowest point in North America (Badwater Basin at -282′)–all from the same spot. The Panamint towers on the west hold onto snow for three months of the year during winter, while the valley below is the driest place in North America, with annual rainfall under 2 inches. Temperatures have ranged from 134° F to 15° F at Furnace Creek’s weather station.

At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley is the largest National Park outside Alaska. The park is 140 miles long and demands reliable transportation due to its vast and unforgiving character. Nearly 1000 miles of pavement and dirt roads provide access to numerable sights, but the conditions are so punishing, that picking and choosing what to see and do requires reasonability.

With only two days to see the park, Leah and I split our tour around the park’s extremes: on day one, we’d drive the busy low elevation roads–where the weather reigns hotter than anywhere else in the western hemisphere–to explore highlights to the east; and on day two, we’d travel the remote off-road trails to the west, in search of cooler mountain air.

To make it easier on ourselves, we parked the Airstream on an expansive open gravel lot at Stovepipe Wells, where a dozen other trailers and coaches joined us as we listened to early morning howls from a pack of coyotes hunting the birds that frequent the septic pump at the far end of the campground.

A restless night gave way to a convenient start the following day, with a quick trip (almost unheard of in this National Park) around the bend to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.


Wandering out to the highest ridge at 100 ft. can be arduous, as the shifting sand will swallow every step.


However, better traction is available in the dune valleys, where the hard crust anchors the creosote and mesquite shrubs.

Mesquite Sand Dunes

We continued past Furnace Creek…

CA-190.1 (2)

until we reached the Golden Canyon. With the sun arcing across the eastern sky, we wove our way through the passage,

canyon opening

always hugging the canyon walls where we could for a chance at shady salvation.

canyon shade

While the sun was relentless, it was the scenery that left us breathless.

Einstein rock

Golden Canyon spur

Cathedral Red Rock

Back in the truck with the air conditioning cranked to recovery mode, we took CA-190 past the Artists Drive detour, and turned onto a last ditch road that resembled the landscape. At the end of the quarter-mile was a large clearing smack in the middle of an alien landscape called Devils Golf Course*, an immense arena of jagged rock salt deposits turned into land mines that makes for hazardous hiking.

golfcourse panorama.jpg

Devils Golfcourse1.jpg

While no one can ever prepare for surviving in extreme heat for extended periods of time (by now it was now 103° F), we were ready to take our chances in Badwater Basin–the hottest and deepest place in America.

Walking onto salt flats that cover 200 sq miles sounds as overwhelming as it should,

Salt Flats (2).jpg

…yet the impression of watching people walk out so far they almost disappear, helps put the enormity of Badwater Basin into perspective.


Leah and I u-turned from this point, and back-tracked to Artist Drive–nine miles of looping and dipping black-top that weaves through narrow rock channels until it opens onto a gargantuan portion of Neapolitan ice cream known as Artists Palette.

bowl of gelato

Five million years of eruptions altered by heat and shaped by wind and water has produced a spectrum of colors across the slopes. On closer inspection, the colors are surreal.

Artist's Palette

Palette detail

While the truck had enough fuel to carry us another two-hundred miles, Leah and I were running out of gas. As we’d ride from one spot to another, we’d repeat the same refrain throughout the day: “Oh, wow! Did you see that? That was amazing! How is that even possible?” We were living on fumes of inspiration.

We closed the day with a visit to Zabriskie Point,


a magical setting that showcases the harsh beauty that makes Death Valley so unforgettable, and a place that can awaken the hibernating soul within us. Some go so far as to breach the safety of the overlook, and climb closer to the edge to symbolically feel closer to their personal truth.

One such group of chanting and meditating hippies was seated on plush mats near the cliff edge, their diaphanous silks of many colors flowing in the hot breeze. They were seemingly oblivious to the large number of amateur shutterbugs who were standing on the observation platform and complaining about their compromised view of the Badlands.

Since I believe that we all share the same view equally, I took a narrow path down to where they were sitting to set up my camera shot. I nodded politely as I crossed their viewing angle, and bid them hello.

“I’ll bet their grumbling up there about how we’re spoiling the view for them,” declared the Elder.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going on,” I indicated, “but the light won’t be like this forever, so ‘I’m not gonna waste my shot.’

Zabriskie Point

Elder stated, “Y’know, if they were that bummed out, they’d come down here the same as you”

Setting up my shot, with my back to Elder, I commented, “That’s true, but many aren’t as bold as you, and just as many can’t physically make the climb down here. Figure it out!… While you’re praying for world peace, you’re also ignoring the needs of people right behind you.”

“I guess that’s true,” noted the Eldress.

I took the shot…

Zabriskie panorama

and hiked back to where Leah was standing.

“Y’know that group of hippies below us? I think they’re leaving,” I announced.

“That’s gonna make a bunch of people happy,” predicted Leah.

When I saw them rolling up their mats, I figured that like me, they probably had enough heat for one day, or they finally came to their senses before the heat robbed them of their last strand of reasonability.

* Not a Trump® property yet, but the family is working on it!

Old Point Loma Lighthouse

Everyday for 36 years, Captain Robert Decatur Israel, the lightkeeper of Old Point Loma Lighthouse would ascend the narrow winding staircase to the glass tower at dusk. With an outstretched arm, he’d light the pilot and adjust the flame that lit the passage for sailors returning to San Diego Harbor. On a clear day, the coastal beacon could be seen from 25 miles out.

But there was fatal flaw in the design. On March 23, 1891, the flame went out forever in favor of another lighthouse built closer to the Pacific Ocean–below the frequent fog and cloud levels–and under the original elevation of 422 ft.

The National Park Service has restored the lighthouse to its original 1855 glory, under the purview of the Cabrillo National Monument,

Old Point Loma Lighthouse1

and protects its five foot French fresnel lens in a protective capsule on the ground floor.

window through the prismatic lens offers a window to the San Diego harbor in the distance, and a second window back in time, where a volunteer in vintage costume brings lighthouse history back to life.

Old Point Loma Lighthouse (2)



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.


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.