Tag Archives: travel

Invitation: A View West | Photography Exhibit March 4

The ad Johnston Architects created for the exhibit opening.

This winter I was offered the opportunity to exhibit photographs of my travels throughout the American West. Now, after a couple months of selecting, editing, printing and framing, the show is coming to life.

I’m looking forward to seeing everyone there:

Open Invitation: A View West
Featuring landscape photography by Jonna Bell

Opening: Friday, March 4 from 6 to 8 p.m.
Exhibit: February 25 through March 25
Johnston Architects, Seattle (map)

View Featured Images

The American West has long sparked our collective imagination. Its expansive landscapes take many forms, frequently succumbing to human presence but resisting occupation. It captivates our senses and defies our comprehension.

The following photographs offer viewpoints of a range of natural forms that endure – rolling prairie hills, a distant mountain range, a frenetic tide – and humble our repeated efforts to intervene. And yet, we persist in engaging. Fields are plowed to the shape of rolling loam, a season of speed waits for water to dissipate, a boardwalk leads to primitive hot springs, a fishing village becomes the backdrop for winter’s churn.

Despite our repeated efforts to negotiate with the land, it persists at setting its own terms… All the while tempting us with an infinite horizon.

In preparing, my respect for those who exhibit regularly has grown significantly. Special thank yous for my exhibit go to:

Mom “Cat” Bell
Anna Bell
Jody Jahn
Richard Beall
David Blair
Stan Laegreid
Sean Watson
Brian Greller
Min Cho
Wyn Bielaska

Traveling through Montreal

Traveling through Montreal for the next few days. First task – learn the proper pronunciation: http://www.facebook.com/vasyfille

On the Road: What’s in a Name? Pt 3

This post is part 3 of 3, continued from On the Road: What’s in a Name? Pt 2

A Road

Seeing their peaceful submission slip away in the three days following the attacks, the Nez Perce retreated from the Camas Prairie south to White Bird Canyon and the village. Now a small town at the base of the White Bird Grade, White Bird has a population that rises and falls near the number 100. The town itself is retired under an expansive canyon bridge that hurdles air-conditioned travelers to their desired destination and is just shy of occupying 0.1 miles.

The Old Whitebird Grade winds into White Bird, Idaho across the Whitebird Battlefield, bringing with it Yellow Wolf Road.

In June the canyon of White Bird is just beginning to see the heat of the coming summer. The crickets bellow their lungs and scratch their knees, trees hide in the streams of spring rain and snakes run their bellies across the black rock. Dewy eyes and velvet noses of a rancher’s cattle search for food by the roadside grave of an army calvarymen. We wind down the hairpin turns of the old grade, past the rolling hills of the canyon. Two days from our arrival the White Bird Battlefield, which has its own history, celebrates its 133rd anniversary but we’re more interested in the road signs that pin to narrow gravel lanes that square plots of land: Baker Gulch Road – named for James Baker, a rancher who was killed in the June attacks – and my favorite, Yellow Wolf Road.

Chief Yellow Wolf. Image from the U.S. Forest Service.

The story of Yellow Wolf is as easily known as the tales of his cousin, Chief Joseph so the street sign strikes my fancy for reasons of proportion. Less like a lottery and more like the painter’s wheel the more prominent players get the broader strokes – Chief White Bird was the area’s leader and so gets the town, the battlefield and later still the highway grade as his landmarks. The rest are left with subtle shading by way of street names or knolls such as the case with Yellow Wolf, a Nez Perce scout and then chief. What eludes me in this area, however, is a color for Toolhoolhoolzote which seems odd: Toolhoolhoolzote was considered the Nez Perce nation’s ‘war chief’, a role more influential it seems than Chief Joseph’s role of ‘administrative chief.’ But again, history has a way of writing itself like a sieve, the more compelling stories rest on the surface.  

What’s in a Name?

Curiosity about the entymology of names that give presence to the spaces around us, like a search for truth, plunges a curious mind into a Rubik’s Cube of fact and interpretation. Rather than sussing the truth, I think the adventure is better served by digging into the story and then simply acknowledging that one exists. That the land before you bore witness to a myriad acts of minutia before you alighted. Shortly after leaving the Camas Prairie to head for Hell’s Canyon I contacted my mother to clarify the location of the Nez Perce crossing from Grangeville into the White Bird canyons. We had assumed it was a place similar to the current highway, a seemingly natural path across a Mount Idaho saddle.  Instead, the traditional crossing was the Grangeville-Salmon road. A winding ascent from the edge of the prairie past the now dismantled town of Mount Idaho and into the forest on the edge of the Gospel Hump Wilderness a land of timber and cougars where teens now light bonfires on the service flats. A road that runs right past my former mailbox.

On the Road: What’s in a Name? Pt 2

This post is part 2 of 3, continued from On the Road: What’s in a Name? 


In May of 1877 Nez Perce Chiefs Joseph, White Bird, Looking Glass and Toohoolhoolzote received orders to move onto the reservation designated by the Treaty of 1863 by the middle of June. The Nez Perce had already divided, some consenting to the 1863 agreements, moving their homes onto the grounds centered around Lapwai, and others holding to the tribal norms that no governing body could control an individual’s rights. The treaty had reduced the size of the tribe’s previous agreements with the United States by almost ninety percent – from 7 million acres to just under 800,000. In their place towns and farms sprung up overnight, each with their own hopes and dreams, competing with each other for the dollars of weary travelers and boasting the promise of the new frontier. 

A Town 

From the little town of Fenn to the saddle where it crests Mount Idaho, Hwy 95 makes a sweeping arc around Tolo Lake to include Grangeville, the county seat. If, while traveling legal speeds from Fenn to Grangeville, you happen to glance toward the hills, you might catch the town of Denver. 

Denver Cemetery Road

The intersection of Canyon Road and Denver Cemetery Road marks the way past or through the town of Denver, Idaho, now a field of black loam and wheat.

Located in the exact geographic center of the Camas Prairie, Denver was founded by investors from Moscow, Ida., Pullman, Wash. and the Camas Prairie. 

The investors purchased a total of 2,720 acres from Hon. L.P. Brown of the town of Mount Idaho, selecting 640 acres to be the townsite. In the book The Oregonian’s Handbook of the Pacific Northwest, a mass of information on Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana gathered by the newspaper The Oregonian, Denver is described:

 …it was a necessity, from a commercial standpoint, of a town at this point, that induced its location here. The syndicate, in choosing this point, located a young city that would be easy of access from all points and where it would naturally command the trade of a vast territory that, from its resources alone, must become thickly settled in the near future…The promoters of the new townsite claim that Denver is destined to become the metropolis and commercial center of the Panhandle of Idaho. 

It was hoped that Denver would replace the then county seat of Mount Idaho as “the metropolis and commercial center of the Panhandle of Idaho.” Research into Denver’s dates of creation and demise are unclear but by one account it existed as early as 1863 and as late as 1906. So by all accounts it was well established when the Nez Perce bands agreed to occupy the reservation. It’s hard to stand at the edge of a field and reconcile a town on the GPS with only a canvas of wheat and rape, absent the bustling streets of a metropolis that once claimed its own newspaper, The Denver Tribune, two hotels and a livery stable. Denver’s population reached a bustling 200 when it was just more than a year old. Now the postmaster delivers to addresses designated “rural route” and only a signpost, Denver Cemetery Road, remains. 

Tolo Lake, Camas Prairie, ID

Tolo Lake on the Camas Prairie. The town of Fenn, Idaho, population of around 40, sits about five miles in the distance.

A Lake 

In the twilight of the arrival of settlers and missionaries and left with little alternative, White Bird, Toohoolhoolzote, Joseph and Looking Glass agreed and began to make arrangements to move to the reservation. In early June 1877 a final gathering was organized between members of five non-treaty bands at a traditional camping ground on the Camas Prairie five miles from Grangeville and just eight miles from the reservation border: Tepahlewam or Tolo Lake. 

It was here that White Bird’s band held a tel-lik-leen a traditional, peaceful ceremony in which past triumphs were remembered in salute to a collective history. As night fell on June 14 three young men broke from the band to seek revenge for a father’s murder – a successful outburst that dominoed into more attacks on settlers in areas including Cottonwood, now a town, originally a halfway house, and Grangeville. Of the tel-lik-leen and what caused the men to seek revenge West writes: 

Whatever inspired it, this tel-lik-leen provided the spark that set loose the greatest modern crisis of the Nez Perce people…At some point on the circuit, something happened. By one account, their horse stepped on some drying camas roots; by another, they frightened a child. Someone then taunted Shore Crossing and his honored place in the ceremonial (tel-lik-leen) train: “If you’re so brave, why don’t you go kill the white man who killed your father?”…Overnight, Shore Crossing decided to right the imbalance.

The attacks continued for three days across the praire. Knowing they would soon meet the retaliation of the U.S. Army, the tribes abandoned their move and turned back to the canyon of White Bird’s village. 

Now infamous for its entombment of a resurrected woolly mammoth and a favorite of local fishermen, Tolo Lake is an unassuming spot on the prairie. A small blue watering hole easily overlooked within the vast fields of rape and alfalfa, barbwire fences and stock horses line the oiled gravel roads leading to the lake. The hum of 18-wheelers on Hwy 95 becomes a lull with the sound-offs of robins and ravens. 

Standing on the edge of the lake, placid to an empty sky one can almost see the grasses trampled by hundreds of horses. Looking north to the unhindered horizon it’s not hard to understand the heartbreak and tensions those assembled must have felt and their desire to create a ceremony around their loss. And it’s easy to imagine what the settlers saw and interpreted. Here the prairie is flat to the horizon, a rare place for a state as rugged as Idaho. Horses grazing three miles away can be seen by a standing man. Hundreds of Nez Perce gathered, performing a ritual ceremony that was, in fact, celebrating past battles, may have easily been interpreted as a cry for war. 

Up Next… “A Road, What’s in a Name?” 

On the Road: What’s in a Name?

Notes from the Road: Grangeville, ID – Before leaving on this road trip I was given a book entitled The Last Indian War by Elliott West. A non-fictional account of the year 1877, West reveals a pivotal time in U.S. history when American Indian nations were driven headlong into the unyielding power of the United States government. Specifically, he details the Nez Perce, the events leading to the Nez Perce War and finally the land that resolved to be the tribe’s homeland, the state of Idaho.

Map of Nez Perce War

Map of Nez Perce War. Click to see full size. http://www.nps.gov

Seizing an opportunity to find out more about the landscape on which our teenage years alighted we took West’s book and a knack for asking questions and planned our first leg to follow the Idaho panhandle across the now finite boundaries of the Nez Perce reservation. This path would take us to our hometown of Grangeville 17 miles outside the Nez Perce borders. There we would cross the Camas Prairie, its purple flowers and retired trestles patched with fields of young wheat and furrows of black loam, and follow Hwy 95 to the canyons of the White Bird Battlefield, home to the battle that launched the Nez Perce War.

Deciding on a Story

With West’s book as companion, we decided to skip the 38 historic Nez Perce landmarks in lieu of elsewhere revelations. We were more concerned about Tolo Lake, Yellow Wolf Road, the town of Denver and others. Places where stories embodied the minutia left off the historical markers or out of the mainstream history books due to simple limitations of space and time. In his book, West writes:

Segmenting time, or periodization, is something we have to do if we want to organize the past and give it meaning. But it’s dangerous. By choosing some dominating event and saying that its period starts here and ends there, we run the risk of neglecting other events that don’t fit well into the scheme we’ve created, and that in turn risks distorting our view of how events have worked and built on each other to make the America we have come to know… History is not the same, no matter how you slice it.

I was very aware that even by reading West’s book, centered on 1877, I was in effect “slicing history.” But that’s a risk I was willing to take. It’s easy to know you live near a battlefield when the road to a favorite beach is impregnated with historical markers. Like some giant historical painter’s wheel or even an epic lottery, smaller stories lend their names to sign posts on gravel roads and prairie knolls by edict of the historical society or the simple weight of history.

And these were what we were after.

Up next… “History, a Town, a Lake”

Do: On the Road with a Childhood Friend

Earlier this spring I received an invitation to join one of my closest and oldest friends on a drive between my home and his. With no agenda other than to explore a loose route from metropolis to metropolis we interspersed detours wherever possible and settled on this weekend to pack bags and commence.

Our path from Seattle, WA to Surprise, a town in the suburbs of Scottsdale, AZ, carries us through Idaho, Nevada and Utah. On our first leg we’ll leave the far western coast of Washington and cross the border into Idaho where the Northwest transitions from Pacific to Inland. From there we’ll pass through an area rich with history that includes the Nez Perce tribe and Basque settlers. We’ll pass into Nevada on our second leg and soon travel east toward the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Utah border. Once in Utah we’ll wind our way through the western side of the state toward the hoodoos of Zion and Bryce National Parks, and finally slip into Arizona. Our most concrete destination is Sedona and we plan to spend at least three days exploring the town and surrounding landscape.

Between the two of us we hold a wealth of familiarity with these five states and will each have a chance to travel between shared stories, guide and guest. I’ll update the Vas-y Fille blog with our experiences but you can also tag along via Facebook and Twitter at the links below.



Vas-y Fille Facebook Page


Do: Open Water Descent and the Visible Spectrum

Getting briefed on the first dive on Saturday morning. 7 ml wetsuits, hoods, booties and gloves are worn by students.

Getting briefed on the first dive on Saturday morning. 7 ml wetsuits, hoods, booties and gloves are worn by students.

In the grey-blue waters of the Pacific Northwest not far from the horns of the Washington State Ferry and comfortably surrounded by the piers of the Mukilteo T-Dock I’m starting my first open water dive. I’ve heard, through the rumor mill and from seasoned veterans, that the waters off my coastal home are sought after by divers the world over so I’m curious to do my own exploration. I’m bundled cozy in a 7 mm wetsuit, gloves, hood and booties. Other divers, most instructors, layer fleece under dry suits, donning elaborate systems of lights and air tubes in the parking lot beneath the Silver Cloud Inn. The water temperature sits in the mid 50s and the outside air rises to the low 70s as the day progresses, hindered only by a brisk breeze.

This dive, one of four toward completing my open water certification over the next two days (two dives to 30+ feet Saturday and two to 60 feet Sunday), has evolved into a nonreference descent. My ears refused to equalize at 15 feet, so I abandoned the first attempt and returned to the surface with my instructor. On the second attempt we head straight down and it’s a little disconcerting sinking slowly, directly to the bottom, but certainly a trip to experience the full vertical transition. Until we reach the bottom the visibility is limited to about six feet – the span of my arms – making me aware of how much I’m not aware of how far the bottom is from the tips of my fins. So I settle in, letting small amounts of air from my BCD and equalizing my ears.

At depths past 30 feet the world takes on a green glow. Note the neon yellow fins and neon orange whistle against my shoulder. (Photo courtesy: John Sanders, DiveZen Scuba)

At depths past 30 feet the world takes on a green glow. Note the neon yellow fins and neon orange whistle against my shoulder. (Photo courtesy: John Sanders, DiveZen Scuba)

Just below the surface the view in front of my goggles cancels into a fray of broken green and red algae bits that keep rhythm with the wind and wake. Around 10 feet surface sounds retreat, the water begins to calm and a vibrant green glow sets in from above.

Light after 15 Feet

Water is a selective filter of color and as we sink I watch the saturated red on my instructor’s dry suit fade to a dull, murky green. The color becomes indistinguishable from the surrounding environment at 15 feet. Part of the glow I’m now enmeshed in is due to the organic matter in the waters of the Pacific Northwest but another part is due to the properties of light as it reaches below the surface. A little science review before we head farther down: Imagine a tank of clear water 200 feet deep. If we were to suspend a white light above the tank and descend with six colored blocks – each a color from ROYGBV – the water would filter the colors one by one as we dropped deeper into the tank and further from the light.

Water acts as a selective color filter, absorbing light as depth or distance from the source increases. (Graphic courtesy of:

Water acts as a selective color filter, absorbing light as depth or distance from the source increases. At a depth of 60 feet, only 18 percent of light rays penetrate and only one percent reach a depth of 330 feet. (Graphic courtesy of: University of Maryland Space Systems Laboratory)

The loss of color extends sequentially through the light spectrum – like my instructor’s suit, the red block would be the first to lose color followed by orange then yellow – until, after about 75 feet the last block to lose its hue would be violet. Interestingly, some species of clear jellyfish have a red stomach. Since red is the first color to disappear in the visible spectrum under water, the red (or lack thereof) hides the jelly’s last meal.

If you ever wonder why neons tend to be ubiquitous in water activities, here’s your answer: Ultraviolet, invisible to humans and found after violet at the end of the light spectrum, can travel to extreme depths. When a neon color is struck by invisible ultraviolet, it will glow or fluoresce which is why alternate air sources and other items needing ready accessibility are commonly created in neon.
In our subsequent dives the haze began to clear at a depth of about 30 feet and visibility increased to a distance of nearly 25 feet along the bottom, remaining steady as we descended to 60 feet. Green, blue and violet remained and our instructors used their lights to reveal the nuances of the undersea creatures: Brown mottled flatfish, orange penpoint gunnels, kelp greenlings protecting eggs and dungeness crab (all documented by our class) navigate the sand and pebble-covered bottom, relatively unaware of our presence. And if you look closely, sea stars no larger than the nail of my little finger hide between the pebbles beneath the feet of hermit crabs. At this particular location a large geodome made of PVC pipe has been constructed at 50 feet and become host to a number of small invertebrates including copper rockfish. A short distance away the instructors gently pried apart a set of submerged tires treating us to the rare sight of the resident octopus curled in his den.
Even with the understanding of water’s color selective filtering, I wasn’t expecting the green hue. I admit I’m not really sure what I was expecting – maybe a soft, blue-grey-magenta to match the sunrise or a grey-blue flannel hue to match the morning sheen of the Olympic mountain range. I’ve taken a liking to surfing these waters and grown used to the looks of surprise when I mention it. And I can say honestly that what’s on the bottom is well matched to what we experience on the surface of our Emerald City. Green is the color du jour. It’s dark, it’s sometimes tempestuous but when you stop and look just a little deeper, shapes and then colors are revealed that leave you glad you buttoned up and stepped outside.

As we head back toward shore I’m handed a weightless, bloated object puffed to the size of a football: A sea cucumber, red by a nearby dive light and marked by small yellow nodes. I carry it a short distance and its name dawns on me: hoi sam. The Cantonese translation to “happiness”.

How to get there: Mukilteo T-Dock

The entry to the diving area is found next to the Silver Cloud Inn in Mukilteo, close to the ferry terminal. From I-5, take exit 189 and merge onto WA-526 toward the Mukilteo Ferry Dock.

Follow the signs all the way to the ferry dock – 526 becomes 84th St and you’ll have to take a right to stay on it after the Boeing field, then a right onto 525 – until you get to the waterfront. Take a right on Front Street (directly in front of the ferry terminal). Head 2 blocks and park next to the Silver Cloud Inn (at the intersection of Front St and Park Ave).

View map


Complete Diving Manual by Jack Jackson
Shorediving.com > Overview of Mukilteo T-Dock
Pacific Northwest Scuba > Mukilteo T-Dock

Black Mountain Dharma

The water tank perched beneath Black Mountain Lookout

The water tank perched beneath Black Mountain Lookout

The drive into Black Mountain was harrowing.

After dozing off on portions of the drive between Joshua Tree and Idyllwild I came too as we ascended the San Jacinto Mountains. Disoriented, a neon hotel tower perched alone in the valley below slipped me into a David Lynch mood. First to my left, now to my right as we navigated the hairpin turns, its hues ran green to pink, blue to red.  

The vast horizons that define the west are frequented by these curious outcries of commercial humanity and I’ve always been loathe to entertain them. They appeal to a taller order of an assertion, though feeble, of humanity’s conquest of the west and its desire to stamp beacons of order and control onto the wild remains. Thankfully its electric totem diminished into the vast horizon as we pursued our flight into the empty quarters of natural space and the forests of Black Mountain emerged as nature’s last word.

Either the GPS inaccurately designated the route or we just reached the tipping point of a long, long day but we wasted almost an hour whittling down our meager measures of sanity, cruising back and forth on the dark cliff sideroad that, come to find out, was miles away from the entry to the OK Corral and Boulder Basin Campground. It is what it is. Harrowing in that taxed mental state sorta way.

But as the coin flips we found our way and I came too on Saturday morning, the campground on display, a shiny new cooking pot just birthed from its shrink wrap. I don’t think… ever? I’ve been in a campground so … new. Fresh dirt, fresh paint, freshly shorn stumps, shiny locks on the bathroom doors. I half expected a set of pillow mints crushed under our front tires. In the center of camp, the caramel scent of Jeffrey pine replaced the last vestiges of desert air and the air carried the chatter of a shadowy corvid mocking the searching bill of a woodpecker.

An imminent sunset viewed from the lookout tower

An imminent sunset viewed from the lookout tower

Here the mountain breezes waft between lodgepole, ponderosa and alpine granite boulders cooling the climbers seeking respite from the valley below. The Black Mountain area lies along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, near the San Bernadino National Forestand part of the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument – a world that has inspired the likes of Ansel Adams, John Muir and Maynard Dixon. USGS analysis shows two separate periods of volcanic disruption in the region birthing alkali olivine basalt aged nearly 12.3 million years in some areas and 3.6 million years in others. And two endangered species remain keen to the terrain: the Southern yellow bat and the least Bell’s vireo a grey-winged songbird of the sweetest note.

Nine Cahuilla Indian tribes still inherit the peaks, the valleys, the agave roasting pits and the network of ancient trails through the area by their ancestors for almost 2,000 years. 1774 brought the first European explorers seeking a trade route between Sonora and Monterey and eventually paved the way for gold miners, cattlemen and in the 1930s peakbaggers destined to conquer the nearby Tahquitz Mountain.

We climbed for a fair portion of Saturday in the OK Corral hugging low into the shade and steering clear of the snakes other climbers aroused. Riddled with overhang climbs the field varies from easy warm-ups to super technical grinds, the hardest being the OK Arete a v7 or v8 – way way beyond my finger capacity.

A pink glow settles over the rock, effects of the Southern California wildfires

A pink glow settles over the rock, effects of the Southern California wildfires

Once evening hit we migrated to the lookout tower to catch the sunset in our own Dharma Bums way.  The wildfires sweeping Southern California cast a hazy net over the western horizon wrapping a pink tint around everything within our vision. The pines to pink, the grey granite to pink, the walls of the watchful tower a petal pink.

Watching intently, our faces remained aglow and bore witness to the sun’s last rays as he dropped from the sky and slipped the last long arm under the blanket of the waiting horizon.

Update 07/16/09: Came across the Black Mountain Blogwhich states: “A Black Mountain bouldering guide is on the way… Wolverine Publishing…” You can reach them at blackmountainblog@gmail.com.

Getting to Black Mountain:

From the I-10, between Redlands and Palm Springs, exit on 243 towards Idyllwild. Continue up the road for about 19 miles. You will see a sign for Black Mountain that leads you to the left up a winding dirt road (NF-4S01). Follow this road for about 4 miles to reach the turnout for OK Coral. Continue up the road a few more miles to reach Boulder Basin and the other camp grounds. Boulder Basin Campground features some of it’s own climbing.

The Forest Service lookout tower is a short walk from the BB Campground and offers stunning views of Idyllwild and the surrounding region. A short distance from there is the Summit. Another climbing area is located another mile or two past the BB Campground near the group site.

You can camp at Boulder Basin for a fee, or a few free spots exist a few miles past on Rt 243.

Related Links:

Idyllwild Ranger Station: 909.659.2117 – when we arrived the campground was closed but we were still able to camp two nights. Call ahead just to make sure the gates aren’t closed: www.fsadventurepass.org.

Nomad Ventures- The closest shop for climbing gear is a full-service shop in Idyllwild.

Climbing Magazine’s feature story on bouldering at Black Mountain.

DrTopo.com – free download includes OK Corral, Boulder Basin, Lookout Tower, Town Square, etc.

Ventura Outdoor Store’sblog entry about the Idyllwild region.


The Southern California Bouldering Guide (by Craig Fry) has most of the old problems at Black Mountain along with other Idyllwild bouldering areas.

You can also try Bouldering in Southern California (by Joan Bertini) which does a pretty good overview of the available routes in the Black Mountain field but the images are hard to translate into what you see before you. We spent a fair amount of time wandering and just picking what looked inviting.

Snakes, Scorpions and a Cholla Cactus

Venturing into the Joshua Tree wonderland

Venturing into the Joshua Tree wonderland

Joshua tree has always lent some measure of mesmerizing mystique to my understanding of southern California. I admit I feel last in line with this foray being my first excursion into it’s borders. The park houses three eco-regions with almost 558,000 acres of wilderness and six mountain ranges. And nestled in it’s womb is the Wonderland of Rocks. Looking back on the day I do wonder at our ability to cram so much exploration into one 24-hour period (though not surprised). Climbing was to be the main focus of our tenure here but the heat and a crappy guide book put a cinch on those intentions. This area instills an uncanny dejavu, like the gunslinger towers of southern Utah so ubiquitous in travel lore we’re all instantly feeling familiar.

There's certain security in knowing your crash pad is scorpion free

There's security in knowing your crash pad is scorpion free

My travels are usually accompanied by frequent appearances of the local wildlife but this trip my path has only crossed with a mild tempered rattler in the Buttermilks. Until now.

While assembling the day’s amenities my climbing partner was introduced to the Joshua Tree version of the desert scorpion, quite at home on the black canvas folds of his crash pad. A minute guy to be sure but not for tampering. The smaller the claws the bigger the sting!

After shaking him out and searching the rest of the pads and pockets for hitchhikers we headed to boulder. The Joshua Tree region plays residence to a number of creatures that earn their keep in the desert solitaire. Today I logged a California Common Kingsnake taking refuge from midday sun; a desert rattlesnake stalking a Chuckwalla (and not thrilled to see me, these rattlers are much bigger than their Idaho counterparts); a desert tortoise and four desert jack rabbits.

While bouldering and trying to sort our anything but guidance book we met a rep for Flashed climbing gear based out of Calgary, BC. Flashed is assembling maps, photographs and beta for climbing spots around the world and compiling the info into downloadable iPod guides. View available ‘Podguides’ here. Cool idea. My heartrate elevates when I see technology tracking back to nature in such a simple way.

The Cholla Garden under a rising moon

The Cholla Cactus Garden under a rising moon

A few hours in, thwarted by the guidebook and the heat we move to do a roving tour of the park. That would be roving tour with a backdoor entry of course! Check out our route on the Google trip map and note, you’ll definitely need 4-wheel drive and high clearance. Nothing the FJ couldn’t handle but anything less… This scenic route begins at Gold Crown Road off Hwy 62 a few miles east of Twentynine Palms. Here you’ll find a 4X4 playground with short ascents that keep the tires churning and will break your hitch if you can’t get traction (Utah was the scene of the first broken hitch, and now somewhere in Joshua Tree lies another). Gold Crown Road passes through the Old Dale Mining District (a few site remains can still be spotted) and crosses from the Mojave Desert into the Colorado Desert while ascending a saddle in the Pinto Mountains. There it turns into Old Dale Road and hairpins its travelers on a steep high clearance descent into Pinto Basin. Once onto Pinto Basin Road you’ll pass the Ocotillo Patch and the Cholla Cactus Garden.

A nice little personal story: The Cholla Cactus Garden entrance hosts a dire warning sign to steer well clear of the cholla cactuses. Which I did. But caught up in my enthusiasm of photographing the rising moon behind their scruffy arms I may (or may not) have touched my right tush cheek to the ground. A few shots later what started as just the tiniest of pricks became an uncomfortable itch accompanied by a needle-like poking. There’s a certain comedy in spending the next 15 minutes with your already short shorts hiked to expose your tush to the bright halogens of an FJ’s headlights so your climbing partner can diligently inspect the area for a cholla’s transparent little stinger. Just imagine if you will. On a dark desert road. As the moon rises. And laugh.

Vas-y Fille!

A very vas-y fille moment!

That sucker extracted we pulled over as the last rays of sun became just a distant memory on the desert horizon and set up shop for some starry night photography. This eve is quickly stacking up as a highlight of the trip thus far. Setting the shutter speed on my camera to it’s longest exposure I got some incredible night shots and will post them here to share. I’m certain a handful of them are prime Vas-y Fille imagery!

At this point we’ve decided to forgo spending a Friday night in Joshua Tree – judging by a pass through the campsite the crowds have descended – and head to Black Mountain. We’re used to long haul late night drives as you already know and this one will put us into the Black Mountain campsite around midnight to 1 a.m. I guess I’m still a bit out of whack with the days of the week I still feel like we have a whole trip extended before us even though we’re nearing Saturday. We’ll spend the rest of the weekend climbing and camping at Black Mountain – two nights in a row at the same campsite? A novel concept! And then Sunday eve venture into San Diego.

Related Links:

Flashed: Climbing gear
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park Map

Camping under a Joshua Tree moon

Camping under a Joshua Tree moon

Racetrack Eureka

This particular morning breakfast was prepared with the assistance of a  squadron of flies intent on sampling whatever we pulled from the cooler. Enough! At that rate breakfast was no longer ours and, derailed from our appetites, we packed up and left quickly. Here, just inside the borders of Death Valley we get our first glimpse of the Yucca (or Joshua) Tree. It starts with one, stumpy lonesome questioning his choice of root and soon a few more parade into view. At an elevation of about 3,000 ft. we hit the nirvana of Yucca, healthy and vital sprawled across the land until, as we descend, their numbers dwindle and we’re left with a few stragglers and our last man standing at just under 2,500 ft.

Our choice of backroads into Death Valley National Park takes us first into Eureka Valley (home of the 700-ft Eureka Dunes) and past the comically named Crankshaft Junction and Hanging Rock Canyon and onto Big Pine Road. Crankshaft Junction is aptly adorned with a number of rusty, you guessed it, crankshafts and… I’m going to say some of those items are not crankshafts. Our first stop is to check out the sulphur mines which means we return to the truck coated in a fine green dust. Eureka Valley and it’s national park namesake attachment, Death Valley, stretch on forever to the horizon and even though we’re doing roughly 50 mph, I can’t shake the sense that we’re making no progress across the valley floor. So, having scoured the scenery and finding that it doesn’t change much right now, I shift my curiosity to crawling the Web. Here’s the most intriguing tidbit I found: the mystery of the moving rocks.

To my right sits Racetrack Valley, a dry lakebed whose north end boasts a rock formation known as the grandstands. Rocks from this outcropping and others often break off and fall to the lakebed below. Once having fallen, a number of the rocks meander their way across the lakebed. That’s right, they meander. And though no one has actually witnessed these journeys, their tracks are well documented. Here’s a large photo of a series of tracks. Early explorers in the 1900s attributed the movement to magnetic fields but later speculation points to rain as the culprit. Apparently if enough rain wets down the lakebed and is closely followed by a strong wind, the surface of the lake (a fine clay) becomes extremely slick. And voila! I’m a smidge skeptical on this theory since a number of the photos you can find show rocks of the same size very near each other, yet moving in different directions. Mystery it is.

View to Artists Palette on Artists Drive

View to Artists Palette on Artists Drive

Once entering Death Valley attractions abound. Though stark and rather nondescript other than ‘dark’, the Ubehebe Crater and it’s cohort are a quick, recommended detour – let’s face it, craters of this dimension are a less than frequent site for most of us.

Further down the road you can pick up a guide at the visitor’s center and pick through what is most interesting to you. We linger at the Artists Palette and swing by the crystallized salt field of the Devils Golf Course. Note the accompanying photos. At Badwater Basin – named by a miner whose mule wouldn’t drink the water from the pond – the elevation sits at 282 ft below sea level, the lowest in the U.S. When you arrive look east across the highway to the cliff wall and you’ll see the line marking sea level. It makes me smile because less than 36 hours before I was eating a Cinco De Mayo dinner in Mammoth at 8,000 ft and passing by Mt. Whitney at 14,000 ft.

If you look west across the flats to the mountain range, you’ll see Telescope Peak which sits at 11,049 ft. Rumor has it that a few lucky souls have skied from the top of Telescope Peak to the final snow line, picked up a waiting mountain bike and rode to the bottom of Badwater Basin. I’ll keep researching that opportunity!

Looking south across the crystallized salt landscape of Devils Golf Course

Looking south across the crystallized salt landscape of Devils Golf Course

The backroads of southern California are a mecca for dirt path adventures and off road vehicles abound. A few miles past Badwater we’re flagged to the side of the road by five dirt bikers lingering at a crossroads. They’d somehow lost contact with their chase vehicle and spent the last three hours parked at that intersection in 107 degree heat. We hadn’t seen their chase car and my concern peaked when I spied empty soda bottles leaning against their bikes. Having spent a fair portion of my own childhood on dirt bikes in the desert, dehydration is a risk you don’t want to take while operating a motorized vehicle. We refilled their containers to a round of thanks and a bit of wonderment. They were Canadian and apparently we were the first non-rental, U.S. plates vehicle to pull over when they waved. They’d consumed their last drops almost two hours earlier and were loath to tell the number of cars that had chosen to pass them by.

Baker and the Greeks

Shortly thereafter we returned to our own off road excursion, thankfully leaving the freeway to follow a ribbon of dust leading out of the park. Between the Black Mountains and Confidence Hills at Ashford Mill ruins we headed south on Harry Wade Road to bypass Shoshone en route to Baker. This 26 mile washboard stretch doesn’t necessarily need high-clearance, just a clenched jaw and good suspension – the faster you travel over washboard, the smoother the ride!

If you’re viewing the horizon at this moment yes, that is the world’s tallest thermometer rising up ahead. If you’re browsing the map instead then you’ll note a marker for The Mad Greek’s Diner in Baker. And if you do a Google search you’ll start to see the fame this joint has acquired. It’s a mishmash of Greek, Mexican and some threads of Americana and, come to find out, the wait staff speak a fair number of languages to accommodate the tourists. We stopped, we ordered from the sky-high menu behind the counter, we ate. And I would say the sight and scene is more intriguing than the food. Among the myriad signs extolling the virtues of ancient Greece sat tourists, truckers, a few migrant workers and a sprinkling of transvestites. Mishmash indeed.

That’s our dinner for the day and shortly outside of Baker we turn into the 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve. This is the last leg before we reach our next destination: Joshua Tree.

Related Links:

National Park Service: Map of Death Valley National Park (PDF)

More information about the Death Valley region – pictures, background etc. And, if you’re of the off-road intent they feature a 4X4 page.

4X4 Routes in the Mojave National Preserve: Over a thousand miles of off road routes are open for exploration.


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