Corner Unit Picture of the Week

Corner Unit - I found this unit at the end of a row of homes. It shows all four walls inside and out, so you get and idea of how large these home were.
Corner Unit – I found this unit at the end of a row of homes. It shows all four walls inside and out, so you get an idea of how large these homes were.

“283 steps” were the first words out of the park ranger’s mouth when I asked about the Island Trail. “It’s 283 steps down to the loop, and there are 67 steps around the island,” (that number could be wrong—I stopped listening after 283), “and then back up those sane 283 steps.” I thought, “It’s the cool of the morning, it’s cloudy, I’ve got water, I need pictures from the trail, so let’s do this.” Then I walked over to the top of the staircase.

Although the Island Trail is less than a mile, it’s the harder of the two in Walnut Canyon National Monument. You’d be correct to believe it went down to the creek with that name. Instead, it drops 185′ to a land bridge where you cross to an unnamed promontory that you circle counterclockwise. The trail is asphalt paved except for the sandstone steps.

The path is on a shelf where the limestone sits above white sandstone, like found in Zion National Park. The limestone erodes faster than its foundation, and like an ice-cream scooper, that erosion has gouged shallow caves into the white stone. Here is where the Sinagua built their homes. While descending the stairs, I could see dwellings on the opposite side of the creek. They’re spaced apart, so I thought that I get to shoot one or two of the rock dwellings. I was wrong. The canyon’s far side faces north—not the ideal winter location. On the island, the homes were south-facing, which helps keep them warm. As soon as I rounded the first bend, rows of rock dwellings were there for me to explore and photograph. But, I had to sit down first and rest a while—I was still shaking from coming down the stairs.

Before I got to the pictures, I had another interesting observation. I thought that since I had made it a third of the way down the canyon’s bottom, I would be able to catch a glimpse of the creek. With the heavy monsoon we’ve enjoyed this summer (yey), the foliage growing on the canyon floor was so thick it completely obscured the creek bed.

I took this week’s picture—that I call Corner Unit—at the end of several homes. Since they run into one another, they usually share a common wall—like our modern apartments. So, this one has two exterior walls, which is unusual for this neighborhood. Since the Park Service didn’t fully restore the walls, you can see the cave’s overhang and back wall. With it being open to the outside, you can get an idea of its area. The Sinagua people must have felt comfortable with this size because it’s representative of them all. If you think about it, this is a perfect size for a man cave. There’s room for a corner TV, and you can grab a brewski without getting out of the Barkalounger. Once again, however, you’d be stuck at home all day waiting for Larry to show up.

The problem with the man-cave theory is that the women built them and were primarily concerned with keeping in the warmth. In the second image, you can see where they left a vent near the ceiling. These vents allowed them to have small fires inside and let the smoke out. They were their chimneys. The families could survive the high-altitude winters by draping an animal skin or rug over the door and building a small fire.

Fire Vent and Clay Finish - The Sinagua People built vents into the walls so they could enjoy a fire and not suffocate. They also stuffed clay into the rocks to seal the rooms from drafts.
Fire Vent and Clay Finish – The Sinagua People built vents into the walls so they could enjoy a fire and not suffocate. They also stuffed clay into the rocks to seal the rooms from drafts.

The second picture also shows another innovation the women used to make winter life bearable. They hiked to a place up the creek where they could dig gold-colored clay (the color’s not essential—this isn’t The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), then they packed it in baskets, lugged it back, and smeared it over the rock walls—inside and outside. Like caulk, the clay sealed the wall gaps and stopped drafts. The women put a lot of thought and work into their homes—the men were too lazy to take down the Christmas decorations.

After I finished my tour of the loop and got the needed photos, I was back at the foot of the stairs leading to the visitor’s center. I found out that the ranger lied. Somehow while I was out of sight exploring ruins and taking pictures, the park service snuck in and doubled the stair count. How do I know; math, simple math. I knew I would have a tough time with the climb, so I devised a system where I would climb 50 stairs at a time—then stop for water and catch my breath. Instead of five rest stops, I made 10, and I drank both of my water bottles dry. Near the top, where I could finally see the building, I made one last effort; one, two, three, four, twelve, fifteen, thirty-five, fifty. I need another rest.

I hope you enjoy seeing the ruins in Walnut Canyon. You can view the Web version of Corner Unit on its page by clicking here. Next week, I’ll have another shot from the Island Trail for you to see, but please don’t make me go down there again.

Till next time
jw

Walnut Creek Bend Picture of the Week

Walnut Creek Bend - It's perplexing to understand how a normally dry creek could carve a deep gorge into the surrounding limestone.
Walnut Creek Bend – It’s perplexing how a usually dry creek could carve a deep gorge into the surrounding limestone.

We had to break from the heat last month, so we drug the trailer up to Flagstaff. We didn’t escape the humidity, though. Since it’s the height of the monsoon season, the weather in the high country was the same as at home—only 30°cooler. There’s been a lot of news earlier this summer about the Flagstaff fires, so we found an RV park on the west side of town—right where Old Route 66 merges with Interstate 40. When we got there, the seasonal rains had already quenched the burn. U.S. 89, which both fires crossed, had reopened, but Sunset Crater National Monument is still closed. It suffered extensive damage to the campgrounds and buildings (otherwise, the cinder cone and Bonita Lava Flow were unharmed).

Our trip served a couple of purposes. First, I needed topics to get this publication through the balance of the hot summer months. Second, we wanted to take Ritz (our trailer) on a shakedown cruise to see how well it and the Jeep played together. Finally, we longed to sleep under the covers with open windows in air, not contaminated with that old-person smell—we accomplished all of that. It’s hard to describe how wonderful it felt to enjoy a glass of wine outside and listen to the sound of rain on the awning. Besides, there’s no more fabulous evening entertainment than watching a newbie learn how to do their first black-tank dump (go back and watch the 2006 movie RV again).

This month’s project is one of the excursions we made to a place that neither Queen Anne nor I have ever been to—Walnut Canyon National Monument. I’m not sure why we missed it. It’s only a couple of miles south of I-40 on Flagstaff’s east side. As you drive the road south, it transitions from Ponderosa Pine to Juniper, so the elevation is lower than the town. The monument is primarily known for the Sinagua cliff dwellings—which I’ll discuss in the upcoming weeks, but it’s the creek we’re interested in today.

On the Colorado Plateau, water generally flows to the Colorado River. In Flagstaff, however, someone put our state’s tallest mountain in the way, so water has to drain around the San Francisco Peaks. A couple of miles west of town, you cross the Flag Divide, where streams flow west of the mountains. East of the divide is the Rio Flag and Walnut Creek Drainage system. Here the streams flow east of the volcanoes into the Little Colorado River. Walnut Creek drains Mormon Lake, Upper Lake Mary, and Lower Lake Mary. You can count Arizona’s natural lakes with one hand, and this little creek drains three of them. Perhaps that explains how an ordinarily dry creek could carve a deep channel into the limestone. Of course, all of that happened before our 22-year drought. Today, Mormon Lake is a broad, shallow dry lake with a mud puddle marking its deep spot, and both Mary Lakes are similarly low.

In this week’s picture, we’re standing at a spot that overlooks a horseshoe bend in the creek. I took this photo from the north side of the canyon facing south. In the distance is Mormon Mountain, some 16 miles south. The lake is located on the left flank of the mountain. When the creek is wet, water flows from right to left and empties into Rio Flag several miles downstream. Then the river turns north and flows under I-40 until it reaches the Little Colorado River, about a mile east of the Grand Falls (sometimes called Chocolate Falls).

I hope you enjoy discovering Walnut Canyon and seeing this week’s image. You can view the Web version of Walnut Creek Bend on its page by clicking here. Next week, we’ll hike one of the trails and poke around some ruins displayed in the national monument. I hope you’ll join us.

Till 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

Burro Creek Bridge Picture of the Week

I had been asleep for an hour when Queen Anne finally came to bed last night. She nudged me until I almost woke and snapped, “What?”

“It’s raining,” she gleefully said.

I rolled over, pulled the covers up, and tried to go back to sleep while grunting, “Harrumph.”

“It’s pouring,” she persisted.

“Why are you waking me?”

“You’re snoring,”

I was too sleepy to recall accurately what happened next, but I think she bumped her head because she went to bed and didn’t get up till morning. I swear that’s the actual conversation we had last night.

This year’s monsoon season is unlike the drought that we had last year. We’ve been enjoying a week of cloudy skies, isolated showers, and last night’s low was under 70°. It wasn’t that pleasant autumn-like 68° where you can throw open the doors and windows. It was 68° with 95% humidity—which is cool only if you have gobs of air blowing at you—aka swamp cooler. But still, we have a decent river flowing down the street out front and the Red Sea in our backyard. The two trellis vines out front that have spent last year imitating Paul Rubin’s death scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer—are already sprouting fresh green shoots.

All in all, it’s been a good monsoon so far, and they say there’s more to come. I lament the wasted rainwater flowing down the streets. There should be a way to capture some of it and store it for a (forgive me) non-rainy day. The runoff flows down the washes and eventually into the Gila River, where the Gila Bend and Yuma farmers use it for their crops.

I’ll bet if I revisited Burro Creek—last week’s featured image—it would look like a proper creek instead of a string of puddles. I’m not going to risk a possibility of getting caught in a flash flood. Arizona has a Stupid Driver law now, and with my luck, I’d be the first person to get billed for my rescue. Instead—as I promised last week—I’ll turn the camera around so that you can see what’s downstream.

Burro Creek Bridges - A pair of future freeway bridges cross Burro Creek before Greenwood Peak.
Burro Creek Bridges – A pair of future freeway bridges cross Burro Creek before Greenwood Peak.

The subject of this week’s image is a pair of freeway bridges over Burro Creek, waiting for Interstate 11. Don’t be fooled into believing that this is an empty highway. U.S. 93 is normally a bustling traffic corridor. It’s just that my image was taken just after dinner when the freight drivers are still belching in truck stops.

You can see a couple of other things in the photo and another hidden by the bridge. First—under the bridge—are the deep pools in the creek. They’re wet all year round, so they have small fish in them. The minnows are useless to anglers, but they support a colony of Great Blue Herron that nest along the canyon walls.

Along the horizon is the 4,339 foot high Greenwood Peak. I have another shot of this mountain that was featured in a January 2020 post. During that month, Anne and I drove over the pass to the mountain’s left and, at the bottom, we found the road blocked by water flowing in the Big Sandy River. In that article, we remarked how the slopes of the Poachie Range were covered with saguaro and pinion pines growing next to one another.

Finally, what’s hidden behind the bridges is the Burro Creek Campground. It’s smallish with quiet camping spots until a loaded semi drives over the bridge’s expansion strips—the noise echoes along the canyon walls like Gilbert Godfrey with a megaphone. However, if you’re into history, the campground’s access road is the original two-lane highway that winds its way down the canyon, crosses the creek on a  low bridge, and then ascends the north face.

You can see a larger version of Burro Creek Bridge on its Web Page by clicking here. I have to come up with a creative idea for August, so please come back and see what I’ve come up with. For now, I’m going to don my galoshes and go stomp in some puddles.

Until next time — jw

Front Yard Trees Picture of the Week

Are you a punctual person, or are you chronically tardy? Our house is split evenly. Queen Anne always manages to be 15 minutes late. Even if I try to compensate by giving her a false time that we should leave to get somewhere, she somehow knows and still isn’t ready on time. One phrase that you will never hear from her is, “Sorry, I’m early.” That is a novel concept to her. It drives me crazy, and she knows it. But then she speaks to me in her low, breathy voice and circles her finger around my remaining chest hair, and then I remember why I love her so much. She’s a good cook—well, she cooks a mean bowl of cereal.

A reason that I’m writing about punctuality is that this year’s monsoons have finally shown up to the party—six-weeks late. One thing that makes Arizona summers bearable is watching majestic thunderheads build up over the mountains in the day and then enjoying the evening thunderstorms from the porch. When the summer rains arrive, they break the extreme June and early July temperatures by about ten degrees. This year, our first rain didn’t come until last week, so it stayed hot through July and August. We had 50 days of temperatures above 115º, a new record. June, July, and probably August will go down as the hottest recorded, and without the refreshing rain, brush fires have plagued the state. The smoke from California and Arizona fires has added to this summer’s miserable conditions.

Things changed last week. Between the gulf flow shifting west and a tropical depression off the coast of Baja, there are pretty clouds in the sky, and the temperatures have dropped—the last couple of days have been under the century mark. As I write and look out my office window, I can see cumulus clouds building towers over the Weaver Range. Maybe we’ll have rain again tonight. I think I’ll go to the car wash and improve our chances.

Front Yard Trees - Tall cottonwood trees grow along the road-side in front of a Ferguson Valley ranch.
Front Yard Trees – Tall cottonwood trees grow along the road-side in front of a Ferguson Valley ranch.

Looking back at the photographs from this month’s portfolio, I wonder how different they might have been, had the skies been more dramatic. Take this week’s featured image; for example—the treetops stand in for clouds. Had the sky been brimming with fluffy cumulus clouds above Baldy Mountain, would I have seen the scene differently? I can visualize that image being less about giant cottonwoods along a rancher’s fence line and more about the mountain in the background. In any case, I have to work within the given conditions, and so I took this week’s photo—called Front Yard Trees—as it was then.

You can see a larger version of Front Yard Trees on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week we’ll begin a new adventure out along another Arizona road, so come back and find out where the trail leads us.

Until next time — jw

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