Since starting a new job in July I had not taken any time off. Normally a few months of work without any time off straight is completely normal but four hours of daily commute had begun to really take a toll on me. Since my weekdays were, and mostly still are, completely taken because of work the weekends have become my last vestige and only time to pursue photography. Combine these factors with the turning of the seasons from Summer to Fall I decided to take a couple days off and travel up near the California-Nevada border and explore the Eastern Sierras.
I had planned the trip to be completely solo with the focus on getting back to the roots of why photography is important to me. It had been quite some time since I'd gone out and really delved into landscape or nature work. Additionally I wanted to treat this as a time to scout out future locations, campsites, and destinations along highway 395.
Over the years, and through much reading about photographers such as Ansel Adams and John Sexton, I had heard many great things about the sights and destinations along US-395. Bodie ghost town, Mono Lake, and June Lake are just a few to name. From further research I also discovered that October is considered a prime time of the year due to autumn colors, chances of snow covered peaks, and often fewer tourists.
The first day I drove straight to Bridgeport, a cute and quaint old fashioned town at the northern peak of my trip's path. After finding my campsite I drove out and located a local hot spring. Given the Sierra Nevada's formed from a giant state sized 'batholith' of magma that cooled over millions of years, there is quite a bit of geothermal activity. I spent that first sunset and dusk relaxing in a 102˚f hot spring taking in a direct view of the mountains. The word magical doesn't quite do that evening justice.
I devoted the next day completely to the Bodie Ghost Town. After spending the night sleep in the back of my car because of a frigid rain walking around the perpetually decrepit ghost town was very welcome. I made three laps around the gold rush town, the first shooting color film in my Pentax, the second with my big Graflex shooting 4x5 sheets, and the last with the Pentax again but with b/w film. Each format and film dictated the style and look of my eye. I shot handheld with the Pentax completely working with either a circular polarizer or deep orange filter. With the Graflex I naturally used a tripod, but chose to aim for timeless, or perhaps more traditional, compositions, like those a photographer 100 years ago might choose. The previous night's rain brought a wonderfully dramatic, tumultuous, and foreshadowing sky of rolling cumulus clouds adding a wonderful level of depth to all my images.
I had actually been to Bodie before, back when I was 12 years old. I went with my good friend Patrick and his family. Obviously not much has changed aside from a very modern and built up main parking lot and bathroom facility. Walking around with more mature eyes and senses I noticed how 'domesticated' or perhaps modernized the park has become. The paths around town and between the buildings are very worn in, as are many of the artifacts that are accessible to guests. This provided a little bit of challenge with finding unique and more authentic angles.
Leaving Bodie brought me back on US-395 and a fresh afternoon rain shower. Driving down the highway the view soon opened up onto a small valley of magnificently bright fall dazzled trees. Taking advantage of a broad shoulder allowed me to quickly shoot most a roll of color film with my Pentax of the this sublime vista. It was as if the saturation dial of reality had been tweaked up, the colors were amazingly vibrant and majestic.
Further down the road a slight turn opened into another grand vista, but this time of mountain-eye-view of Mono Lake and Lee Vining. Pulling over again I took a few moments and shot several more frames. This part of California is right in the middle of the transition between mountain and desolation. Like all transitions, it combines many of the qualities and features of both; large mountain peaks, forests of evergreens, expansive and roaming hills, and an immense sky.
Continuing along the highway I turned off the road and made my way toward my campground for the final two nights in June Lake. This off-shoot had to be the most gorgeous drive of the trip. The road first passed close by the edge of the Sierras but then meandered into a steep sided valley flanked by fall colored aspen which gave me a new definition for the color yellow. It was as if I went from being awed by the immensity and power of the mountains to then being cradled by each intimate detail of every single part. I could feel the cool moisture of a burbling creek and late season sunshine on my skin. Walking through groves of color the smell of wet vegetation and pine needles invaded my senses. Put simply a very transcendent and 'momentous' place.
The next morning I was again greeted by frigid rain, but this time at 6am. Deciding that my car has a wonderful heater and is dry I left camp hunting for coffee shops. A few hours later, caffeined up with a full belly, I drove back along the way I entered. As I went through the portal that separated the steep valley from the mountain road I caught my first glimpse of snow. That frigid rain that drove me out of camp had been the first snow of the season on the mountain peaks. Just enough snow had fallen so that each spine and peak jumped like you could almost touch it miles away.
After exploring and photographing the fresh snow I found myself at Mono Lake. My plan for this last day was to scout in the afternoon and return at dusk. I ended up making two laps that afternoon, the first with my dSLR shooting miscellaneous video clips and the second with the Pentax.
I have a feeling that Mono Lake is the closest I'll ever be to walking on another planet. It has a unique blend of desolation and oddness that emanates an eerie yet comfortable vibe. The water is a deep neon green and hyper saline. The tufa structures add the most interesting and odd sense to the area. Exploring around and noticing how some structures transition into the water can be oddly unsettling at times but nonetheless fascinating
That evening when I returned to make a last lap of my favorite spots I was surprised to discover that I was now one of about fifty photographers hiking around with professional equipment. After befriending a fellow large format shooter I learned that there were two photography workshops in progress at the lake. Most notably was that one of them was led by John Sexton himself, I guess I really did come to the right place. After dodging and avoiding walking through other photographers compositions I captured my last five sheets of 4x5 and made my way back to camp.
With a touch of sadness I left early that next morning for home. After a last minute decision I took Tioga Pass and drove through the edge of Yosemite. The previous day's snow had been plowed allowing my Ford Fusion to navigate the pass without too much worry. I drove past, and occasionally stopped, at several turnoffs to explore snow covered creeks and small alpine lakes. The trip was officially over and the thoughts, worries, and stress of life began creeping back into my mind.
This was not a life changing trip, not that I expected it to be. However I feel that I gained quite a bit out of it. I experience some of the most magical 'moments' of my life, as odd as that sounds. Everything had fallen into place perfectly for each location I went to. There was a subtle yet pervading level of serendipity throughout each of little excursions. There are just so many special places of magnificent beauty and I feel that I only caught a sideways glance.
Experiences like those I had on this trip bring things in my life into perspective, making me challenge previous thoughts and look differently at others. I suppose any vacation of value is supposed to do so, but this was different. I can't help but feel I grasped the edges of something deeper in my mind and about myself, but as I sit here six weeks later I am uncertain of what that would be. I think I just need to go back and find and reunite myself with those thoughts.