Five Cairns Picture of the Week

If you’ve ever hiked a backcountry trail, you know about cairns. They’re the road signs hikers use to stay on track. They’re simply piles of rocks high enough to be seen and reassure travelers that they’re following the right path. According to Wikipedia, cairns have been around throughout time all around the world.

I don’t know who has the time to build and maintain these stone piles, so I’ve concluded that it must be the Pixies. If you think about it, who else has the skills to precariously balance rocks on top of one another that magically survive wind and rainstorms? You never see humans stopping to build them. Yeah, it’s definitely the Pixies.

The markers confirm the obvious on some trails—like this month’s hike up the Little Granite Peak trail. The steep climb from the parking area to the first flat was like tromping through a rain gutter. Runoff and traffic have carved a trough that’s easy to follow. On the other hand, where trails traverse slick rock areas, cairns will reliably mark the easiest path. When I hiked to Coyote Gulch in Utah, there were long sections of trail where I had to stop at one of the cairns and look for the next one before I went any further. Later I found that the markers kept me from having to scramble down treacherous cliffs.

Another time that I remember cairns saving my butt was on the outing to Cedar Mesa. While Queen Anne waited in the truck, I hiked down into Cigarette Canyon to get this shot of Fallen Roof Ruin. She insisted that I leave the keys with her. After reaching the canyon bottom, I only had to trudge a mile before I spotted the ruin nesting high in the cliffs. Paying no attention to my route, I scrambled up the smooth sandstone wall with my camera and tripod.

Fallen Roof Ruin - Built high above a canyon floor, these ruins were a strenuous hike to get to, but a treacherous path down.
Fallen Roof Ruin – Built high above a canyon floor, these ruins were a strenuous hike to get to but a treacherous path down.

After getting my shot, I started my descent, but what I saw scared me. It was one of those steep hills where you could only see the first few feet before the ground plunged out of sight—like the first hill of a roller coaster. I had visions of rescuers finding my skeletal remains among the ruins because I became trapped there. Anne would surely get bored and drive off, leaving me to rot alone. But as I searched for a way down, I spotted a pile of rocks to one side, so I headed toward them. From there, I saw more cairns that made a zigzag pattern down to the bottom. Thank God I didn’t have to make Anne put down her book and get out of the truck to find me.

Five Cairns - This little cairn didn't like the way you looked at her, this little cairn didn't like the way you spoke to her, this little cairn hated the way you bumped into her, this little cairn thought you smelled, and this little cairn went "wee, wee, wee," all the way to the police station.
Five Cairns – This little cairn didn’t like the way you looked at her, this little cairn didn’t like the way you spoke to her, this little cairn hated the way you bumped into her, this little cairn thought you smelled, and this little cairn went “wee, wee, wee,” all the way to the police station.

So, imagine my smile when I reached the first intersection on the Little Granite Mountain trail and saw five miniature cairns lined up on top of a boulder the size of a small Toyota. This spot must be where the fairies had a picnic. It was off the path behind some bushes, so these weren’t actual trail markers. They were left by the little people having some mischievous fun.

You can see a larger version of Five Cairns on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week, we start a new project, so come back and see where the road leads us.

Until next time — jw

Sierra Prieta Afternoon Picture of the Week

I broke down and bought one of those dorky bicycle helmets. Not the pink and white one that Anne picked out. She only liked it because it came with a Hello Kitty backpack, ideal for carrying my Capri Sun juice boxes. Mine’s bright silver with a black visor, and when I wear it, I look like the cartoon character in Pearls Before Swine—Jeff the Cyclist. Women swoon when I ride by.

I didn’t buy a helmet as a riding accouterment; it was a practical choice. A couple of weeks ago, I fell off my bike and landed on my head in a neighbor’s front yard. Don’t worry, nary a scratch, so I got up and finished my ride, but I was all over Amazon the minute I got home.

The bike was an innocent bystander in the crash; the real culprit was my balance. I’ve had dizzy spells recently. They’re caused by the microscopic sand particles in my inner ear balance thingy—the vestibular system. Some of the particles in my ear have escaped, and when I tilt my head, they brush hairs and set off dizzy spells—vertigo.

As I was climbing the hill on my morning route, I looked down at the chain to see which gear I was in, and when I looked back up, my head started spinning. The spells usually only last a short time, so that I thought I could power through, but the bike kept drifting toward the left curb, and I couldn’t control the steering, so I stopped to get off. If I get dizzy at home, all I need is to touch a wall for balance. There was no wall in the street. I was on my way to the ground before I knew it. I landed on my back, and I pounded the gravel with the back of my head. I sat up and checked for anything broken or bleeding. Then, I glanced around to ensure that no one had seen me before continuing my ride when I found none.

I’ve already seen my doctor, and she gave me exercises to round up those little buggers, so I’m doing better. There are a few recalcitrant grains that still run loose in my ear, but we’ll get them back in their cage eventually.

The dizziness was a concern on this month’s hike, but I wasn’t affected on the trail. I guess that the strenuous exercise kept it at bay, but I touched every boulder and tree along the way to be safe. When I reached the top, I was rewarded with views like in this week’s image.

Sierra Prieta Afternoon - From the top of Little Granite Mountain Trail you can see south all of the way to the Weaver Mountains.
Sierra Prieta Afternoon – From the top of Little Granite Mountain Trail, you can see south all of the way to the Weaver Mountains.

I call this picture Sierra Prieta Afternoon, and in it, you’re looking south from the hilltop. Beyond the eroded granite boulders, there are three mountain ranges. The closest peaks—the ones with color—are the Sierra Prieta. The next range—the one that has the large rounded peak—is the mountains around Kirkland and Skull Valley. Finally, along the horizon on the left-center is a glimpse of the Weavers. Our home is down on the desert floor on their far side—four thousand feet below the point I was standing.

You can see a larger version of Sierra Prieta Afternoon on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week, I’ll finish with a whimsical thing I found on the Little Granite Mountain Trail, so be sure to come back.

Until next time — jw

Prescott Basin Picture of the Week

There’s a growing trend in the comedy routines that Queen Anne and I watch on YouTube’s Dry Bar channel. The bits poke fun at young people for not knowing about obsolete things my generation regularly used. I’m not sure if the joke is at the youth’s expense or if it’s simply us old farts complaining about change again.

To give you an example, one performer asked a teen in the audience to explain the relationship between a pencil and a cassette tape (the kid didn’t know what the tape was). Another was about the phone books we used to get each year. The fact that we had to look numbers up on our own was mind-boggling enough, but they couldn’t comprehend that the books were primarily used at grandma’s house as a booster seat. Finally, hold up a 10’ curly phone cord and ask a young person why it existed.

I uncovered another lost phone tradition this week after talking to a particularly annoying salesman. It’s known as the old 40mph-hangup. I learned it from my dad back in the age of unenlightenment. It has Zen-like qualities and resembles a marshal-arts move, but it more closely mimics the grace of a baseball pitch. I’ll try my best to describe it. After you’ve had your fill with the person at the other end of the line, you scream a final taunt—after all, you must have the last word—then as you lift your left leg, you begin to swing your right arm in a full roundhouse motion and slam the handset onto the cradle. It should bounce at least once. I saw my father shatter an old black Bakelite phone we were renting from Ma Bell. Although this hang-up never accomplished anything productive, it always put a satisfying exclamation point on your lunacy.

With remote handsets these days, they took away that small joy of life. No matter how hard you mash the End button, it’s silent. Your adversary doesn’t know if you hung up or the phone dropped the connection. I don’t own a smartphone, but vigorously swiping at the screen can’t be any better. Maybe someone could write an app that plays a recording of a loud car crash before disconnecting. That would come close. Kids don’t know what they’re missing.

Now we have to find another channel to drain all that excess adrenalin. I could have run up and down the Little Granite Mountain Trail a couple of times with that pent-up anger. I wouldn’t have even broken into a sweat by the time I reached upper flats. Instead, I had to stop constantly until the pounding in my ears subsided.

Prescott Basin - You can see miles in any direction from the flats on the Little Granite Mountain Trail, like this view of Prescott to the east.
Prescott Basin – You can see miles in any direction from the flats on the Little Granite Mountain Trail, like this view of Prescott to the east.

It was at one of those rest stops that I got this week’s featured image. Close to the trail’s top, it begins to flatten, and you can finally see above the trees. After I passed this Alligator Juniper, I stopped for a rest. Here, I could see Prescott in the distance below, so I couldn’t resist snapping a photo. The view was hazy from the humidity, so I’m sure it would be spectacular on a clear winter afternoon. I call this photo Prescott Basin. I hope you enjoy seeing it.

You can see a larger version of Prescott Basin on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week, we’ll walk around and take in more views from the top of the trail, so I hope to see you then.

Until next time — jw

North Weaver Shadows Picture of the Week

This is Augusts’ final post; the doves are skittery, there’s football on TV, and my astrological markers are lining up. Hmm—what do you think Mother Nature’s trying to say? For me, these are all precursors to summer’s end and the time when Arizonans will once again emerge from their dens. If we were smart, we’d form a committee to dress up a ground squirrel in a tux, call him Congress Cecil, and have him predict how many weeks of extreme heat warnings remain. The days will still be hot for another month, but soon the evening temperatures make being outdoors tolerable.

I should explain the skittery doves and astrological marker. September 1 is our state’s dove season, so doves begin to move to where the houses are because they have a better chance of not being shot. The day after hunting season closes, the doves return to the open desert and won’t be heard from until they get horny in the spring.

And yes, just like the ancient Anasazi, I have a special marker that precisely tells me when the spring and fall equinoxes happen. I didn’t carve a light-piercing spiral in sandstone as they did; instead, I use Bruce’s—my across-the-street neighbor—roof. Its ridgeline runs east-west, and on the mornings of the equinoxes, the sun comes up from its peak as I enjoy my coffee on my front porch. Y’all should come to join me on September 22. It would really freak out Bruce to see hundreds of people staring at his house at dawn.

North Weaver Shadows
North Weaver Shadows – With help from the setting sun, cumulus clouds cast shadows on the Weaver Mountains.

As I said, this is the last image in my August cloud project. The monsoon took a vacation this week, so the sun’s brought the heat back. It’s had a chance to dry out, and now the yard’s full of weeds. But, Arizona Highway 89 is lined with orange poppies, and I spotted a couple of Palo Verde trees with yellow blossoms. It’s like spring again, and I’m getting that familiar wanderlust feeling.

Our monsoon will be back with a vengeance in a couple of days. There’s a hurricane traveling up Mexico’s west coast, and there’s a good chance it will come up the Gulf of California. When storms do that, it brings more than isolated showers—instead, the whole state gets soaked.

This week’s cloud picture kind of shows the weather’s dry break. The sky is clearer with scattered cumulus clouds. It also shows that it’s not just the puffy white sky-meringue that is pretty, but their shadows make the mountains more interesting. In the photo that I call North Weaver Shadows, we see cumulus cloud shadows cast on the north edge of the Weaver Mountains with help from the setting sun. This is my favorite image in this series because my familiar mountain range is different—more interesting. For your viewing pleasure, I also hid a black cow grazing on the desert floor somewhere in the picture—if you can find it.

You can see a larger version of North Weaver Shadows on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week, I’ll start a new September project. With the coming weather change, I hope I can get some shots in by then. So, be sure to come back and see if Dudley Duwright rescues Lit’l Nell from the railroad tracks in time (if you think about it—if he’s not in time, it’s not much of a rescue—is it?).

Until next time — jw

Sun Rays Picture of the Week

My first photography class was a half-century ago. I had just come home from a year-long tour in Korea with a brand new Nikon F2, and I wanted to learn how to be a photographer. I was stationed in Pasadena at the time (I’d tell you what I did, but then I’d have to kill ya,) and Al Bowman—an old friend—convinced me to sign up for a Pasadena City College night class. As frequently happens with crafts-centered night classes, it was more of a club. Everyone got an A, and the same people always attended each semester.

I no longer remember the instructors’ name, but he had been published in a couple of journals, so his credentials were impeccable to us. Although I wanted to shoot black and white in Ansel Adams style, our classwork was shot using Kodachrome. Each week the teacher would show our work on a Kodak—antique, even then—slide projector that he liked because it was bright and had an exceptional lens. It was essentially a portable searchlight that showed even the most minor flaws when closely viewed. It also doubled to signal Bat Man.

Even in those days, Ansel Adams was the master of landscape photography, but cover shots on Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, and others of that genre were color. They all followed the formula we read in Kodak’s How to Make Good Pictures—a bible for beginning photographers (I still have my thread worn copy).

The method of shooting landscapes in the book—and what the instructor taught—was that you find an interesting background and properly compose it within your frame, then get a model (wife, friend, stranger) to pose to one side as if they were taking in the beautiful vista. Your model should be wearing something red or bright yellow to capture the viewer’s eye. Finally, if there’s any possible way you could get a sun flare to shine on your model, that was the cherry on the sundae. That classic nature shot had been de rigueur since the thirties.

It was so pervasive, it was trite, and it wasn’t how Ansel shot, so it turned off photographers like me. We felt that there was beauty in nature even if no one was there to enjoy it, and sunrays … really? Although I’ve seasoned over time, I still avoid light beams glowing from clouds. It’s become ingrained. Maybe I’ve over-corrected because of those days.

Sun Rays - Light beams radiate from clouds near Hillside, Arizona.
Sun Rays – Light beams radiate from clouds near Hillside, Arizona.

Those conflicts came to a head with this month’s cloud project. I wanted to show the pretty side of our Monsoon Season, so I’ve been capturing clouds all month. On my last outing, I concentrated on the eastern sky as I drove north to Hillside. The clouds billowed in pure white as they built in the afternoon sun. However, there was a darker, more brooding cell on the left side of the road, but it had shafts of light beaming from it. For miles, I tried to ignore it because it looked too different from my other shots, and <shudder> there were sun rays. It followed me for miles like a puppy wanting attention, so I finally gave in and took this week’s photo that I call Sun Rays. I hope you’re happy since I broke one of my rules, but I will not put a model wearing a red coat in one of my photos—unless that’s all she has on.

To get a shot like this, you have to shoot towards the sun and make sure it’s hidden from the lens. Otherwise, its bright light will wash out the detail around it. Another consideration is how you treat the foreground. In this case, I over-exposed the shot to get some texture in the mountains and then brought back the sky in post-production; otherwise, the ground would have been a lifeless silhouette.

You can see a larger version of Sun Rays on its Web Page by clicking here. Be sure to come back next week to see what happens next.

Until next time — jw

McCloud Clouds Picture of the Week

Our Friday shows had ended, so we began closing up the house for the night. It wasn’t until Anne blew out the last candle that we noticed lights flashing outside—like a squad of cop cars at a drug bust across the street. Like all good citizens concerned for their safety, we did the cautious thing—we ran out on the front porch to see what was going on.

On the outside, the police cruisers weren’t there. Instead, a storm cell permeated the east. From the northern mountains to beyond our sight south, lightning filled the sky. Nearly all of the strikes were cloud to cloud and high in the atmosphere. The flashes happened so frequently, the sky never really got dark. We expected to hear more thunder, but the strikes overlapped, canceling out the familiar thunder sound. Instead, there was a constant low-frequency roar like a couple of airliners hovering above us.

As we watched the tempest in awe, we saw that it was headed toward us. Anne muttered, “I hope we get some rain out of this.” The moment those words fell from her mouth, the wind picked up. It was as if some invisible puppeteer was making our palo verde tree dance the Hully-Gully. It didn’t take long before the wind-swept rain chased us off of the front porch.

We retreated to the deck on the leeward side of the house, where we could see the splattering of large raindrops turn into a deluge. With the help of Nature’s strobe lights, we watched our red gravel parking area fill and turned into a red sea. All the while, the constant din of hovering 737s filled our ears, occasionally interrupted by the occasional plunking of hail ricocheting off the BBQ.

As we stood there, we saw the westbound lightning clear the patio roof. That meant that we were directly under the storm, and that’s when the rain subsided, much sooner than I expected. As the storm cell marched towards Aguila, the roar began to quiet, and we could hear distinct claps of thunder again. “I expect the power will go out at any moment,” I said to Anne, so when we went inside, I shut down the stereo and computers. As predicted, the power went out just as we climbed into bed—but only for a minute.

We haven’t experienced a monsoon storm with that kind of energy since we lived in Deer Valley—twenty years ago. According to those who track such things, we only got an inch of rain, less than half of that by other low-lying valley areas that experienced flooding. That’s more than double the rainfall than we got all of the last two summers.

The point is that we weren’t expecting rain Friday night, and that’s the way monsoon evenings go. The Weather Service doesn’t have the granular data to predict rain in specific neighborhoods. Like the clouds in this week’s picture, the storms brew all day over the mountains and come the evening, and they move off in unpredictable directions.

McCloud Clouds - Billowing thunderheads building in the afternoon over the McCloud Mountain Range.
McCloud Clouds – Billowing thunderheads building in the afternoon over the McCloud Mountain Range.

I shot the picture that I call McCloud Clouds outside Hillside—a small hamlet north of Congress. It has some nice thunderheads billowing over a range called the McCloud Mountains. I had never heard of them before, but I decided to have fun with them after looking them up. Can you blame me?

You can see a larger version of McCloud Clouds on its Web Page by clicking here. Be sure to come back next week to see what happens next.

Until next time — jw

Cirrus Streak Picture of the Week

My favorite landscape photographers have different styles of working with a horizon. There’s a group that omits the sky from their images. Charles Cramer, for example, most often leaves the sky out of his pictures. Michael Kenna and Ansel Adams use the skyline as part of their image’s graphic design. On the other hand, Mitch Dobrowner’s images are mostly sky and extreme weather. (To be honest, if I ever had an opportunity to go on one of Mitch’s shoots, I’d take lots of underwear because I’d be scared.)

I can’t think of a master photographer that exclusively shoots sky. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the lack of context. Clouds around the world are the same. Without a ground-based reference point, you can’t tell where or when I took the photo, and there’s no sense of scale because clouds come in all sizes.

Cirrus Streak - A wispy streak of cirrus clouds thousands of feet above monsoon cumulus clouds forming above the mountain tops.
Cirrus Streak – A wispy streak of cirrus clouds thousands of feet above monsoon cumulus clouds forming above the mountain tops.

My picture of the week, for example, could have been taken in Tibet, at the Grand Canyon, or even in your backyard. It’s not obvious what year, season, or time of day it was taken. It’s essentially a monochrome image that would work as well if it were black and white; only the subtle color in the cumulus clouds hint of the hour.

The story of this week’s image—that I call Cirrus Streak—is that this is another of my August Monsoon Clouds project. In my quest to hunt down and capture images for the project, I drove a back road through the valley between the Weaver and Date Creek mountain ranges. As I said last week, the Weaver’s (along with the Bradshaw Mountains) are a breeding ground for our evening storms.

As I drove, I noticed this streaky cirrus cloud thousands of feet above a cluster of cumulus clouds building low over the mountains. I’m partial to how the high wispy clouds get distorted into interesting shapes from the winds aloft. So, I stopped the truck and framed these clouds as a graphic design. If you’re disoriented, the blue sky gives you a clue. The color always gets lighter towards the horizon, so the mountains appear under the frame’s bottom.

You can see a larger version of Cirrus Streak on its Web Page by clicking here. Be sure to come back next week to see another image from my cloud hunt grab bag.

Until next time — jw

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