KofA Thunderhead Picture of the Week

KofA Thunderhead - An autumn thunderhead builds over the KofA Mountains in western Arizona.
KofA Thunderhead – An autumn thunderhead builds over the KofA Mountains in western Arizona.

Each time Queen Anne and I jump into the car; I pack a camera in the back seat. I don’t mean on local errands like a trip to the grocery store but on drives longer than an hour. Rarely do I stop to take a picture, but should one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments happens, I’m ready.

If I capture some unique photographs, they don’t fit our usual workflow. We usually pick a location as a month-long project and photograph enough shots for a month of articles (or even a book). My one-of-shots along the highway traditionally become forgotten orphans. No one gets to see them—until now.

For December, I decided to make this month’s project out of the non-project shots I collected this year. With these four pictures, a special moment made me pull over and stop the car. That’s pretty hard to do because once I have a destination set in my mind, I only stop for gas, a candy bar, and bladder relief.

Anne and I run to Mexico about four times a year. We go to Algodones to see our dentist and buy 90 days worth of prescriptions. We’re on Medicare, and we have a gap plan that pays for most of the pills we take, but some of the select drugs (hint: you see them advertised on TV) are so much cheaper in Mexico that it pays for the drive. If we don’t have to wait on the dentist, we can make a drug run in a day. We leave here at 8:00 am, walk two blocks across the border, stop at Mickey D’s for lunch, and get home by 5:00 pm.

That was our itinerary on September 22—the first fall day. As we drove home on Highway US 93, I watched a single thunderhead building thirty miles north over the KofA Mountains. I thought it unusual to have monsoon activity in autumn and a single storm cell develop so far west in Arizona. I spent the next half hour arguing with myself.

“That will be a great shot if the clouds hold together until we get there.”

“If we stop, we’ll get home after dark.”

“It’s an isolated cell, and it’s posing like a runway model.”

“It’s the wrong time of day, and the light is wrong.”

Just after passing the Border Patrol station that marks halfway between Yuma and Quartzsite, I noticed that the cloud was beginning to tear apart (the wispy part on the tower’s left side). It was time to stop the car. I reached back for my camera and hiked a few steps off the highway. I set the zoom-lens as wide as possible before framing and then snapping a couple of shots. I call this week’s featured image KofA Thunderhead.

The spot where I stopped was several miles away, and for perspective, the jagged KofA peaks rise a couple of thousand feet above the 500-foot high basin. That makes the billowing cumulus top nearly 40,000 feet in the air. Unfortunately, I didn’t capture any lightning strikes beneath the storm.

We returned to the road and continued the drive, watching the storm evolve. The upper winds blew the clouds apart by the time we were due east of it. That’s when we saw a funnel cloud drop below the ceiling. The tornado briefly touched the ground near Crystal Hill Road before it disappeared.

We weren’t done with it yet. After stopping for gas in Quartzsite, the storm ambushed us on the pass at Guadalupe Mountain. As it moved north over Interstate 10, it dumped rain so hard that the wipers couldn’t keep up, and traffic slowed to a crawl. We hoped we wouldn’t be surprised by a second tornado, but after a mile or so, we broke into the clear, and the deluge was only an image in the mirror.

You can see a larger version of KofA Thunderhead on its Webpage by clicking here. Next week, I’ll drag out another orphan photo for show and tell. We’ll see you then.

Till next time
jw

BTW:

Anne and I are negotiating next year’s schedule, so there will be a lot of yelling and screaming around here during the holidays. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtains.

Dune Moon Picture of the Week

When Queen Anne and I make our quarterly medical run-to-the-border, the drive is usually three-hours each way. Most of the time, we leave at dawn, see our dentist, buy prescriptions, and then come home. For me, those are long days behind the wheel; for Anne, not so much. She’s usually asleep in the passenger seat until her snoring wakes her up.

Occasionally when we have lab work done, or the customs line is three-hours long because the snow-birds have arrived, we’ll get a room in the elegant east-side Motel 6 and dine at the swanky four-star Denney’s. Our December visit was one of those occasions. Since I needed a topic for January’s posts anyway, we spent an extra night and took a circuitous route home—we’d go up to Blyth to work the Algodones Sand Dunes for this month’s project.

The great swath of sand starts about three miles south of the border outside of Los Algodones, Baja. It continues 45 miles northwest into the Coachella Valley (California’s Imperial Valley). They’re the most extensive contiguous dune system in the U.S. The dunes are also called the Imperial Dunes, Glamis Dunes, and Gordon’s Well. The name varies with location and the leisure activity you’re doing. Still, the entire system is officially named Algodones Dunes (in Spanish, it means cotton plant—the predominant crop grown on both sides of the border along the Colorado River). This week, we’ll start west of Yuma at the Mexican border—at Gordon’s Well.

Imagine it’s 1850, and you’ve traveled by wagon hundreds of miles across the scorching Sonoran Desert, forded a raging Colorado River, and finally crossed into California. You’d think your hardships are behind, but then, you’re greeted with 6 miles of Sahara-like sand to cross. With each step, you sink up to your knees. Even in 1926, when the nation’s first Ocean to Ocean highway was built (U.S. Route 80), the shifting sand was an engineering nightmare. They couldn’t simply scrape the sand away because the prevailing wind constantly covered it up again. Even today, if you’re caught in a windstorm along this section of road, you’ll risk a chance that the sand will blast the paint off your car.

Plank Road - You can see what's left of the old plank road on display at Gordon's Well.
Plank Road – You can see what’s left of the old plank road on display at Gordon’s Well.

The road builder’s solution for getting across was to build a plank road—movable wood sections on railroad-lie ties that floated on the sand’s top. It turned out to be challenging to maintain, but it drastically cut the crossing time when it was clear. Eventually, the planks were replaced with new and expensive asphalt, and eventually, it became Interstate 8. There is a section of the original plank road at Gordon’s Well on display. When you grow tired of looking at the old wood road, you can walk over to the border wall and lean on it.

Dune Moon - A waning gibbons moon setting over the Algodones Dunes west of Winterhaven, California.
Dune Moon – A waning gibbons moon sets over the Algodones Dunes west of Winterhaven, California.

As Anne and I drove west on the freeway, we spotted a waning moon setting on the dunes, so we looked for a place to stop. We’ve got stuck in these sands once before, so we were careful not to drive off the blacktop. I didn’t want to pay for another hook to come to yank us out. As you can see, we found a good spot and took this week’s picture called Dune Moon. The name could have been funnier if I had shot it during a particular summer month. Se la vie.

You can see a larger version of Dune Moon on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week we drive north up the Imperial Valley to visit the northern dune crossing. Be sure to come back and see what we found.

Until next time — jw

Peeples Valley Cottonwood Picture of the Week

Four years ago, when Queen Anne and I moved to Congress, one of the decisions we made was to cut-the-cable. Well, it wasn’t a hard decision to make because Cox doesn’t cover this area, and we were tired of paying Dish Network more than a hundred bucks a month. Fortunately, we’re in line-of-sight with the South Mountain antennas, so we get the major local channels sharper than a cable signal. To supplement our viewing choices, we bought a TIVO box and signed up for the fastest Internet available in our neck of the woods, and we get the gist of current shows via YouTube.

One of the channels we repeatedly watch is The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. It’s a comedy-news show that we’ve enjoyed since Jon Stewart was the host, and Trevor has carried on well. Last week, or maybe it was the week before, he had a segment titled Is This the Way We Die? – Coronavirus. For Anne and I, that question struck close to home.

I usually shy away from writing about current events—I don’t know why, because I can’t count the number of times that people have called me an opinionated jerk—but, this week, I feel like talking about the elephant in the corner. I know that most of us will catch this bug and shrug it off in a couple of weeks. However, there’s that small percentage of elderly with underlying health issues that are at risk. With my diabetes and Anne’s recent surgery, we are that group. So it got my full attention. I’ve been preoccupied lately with my mortality, and asking myself, “Is this how it all ends?” I’ve concluded that I haven’t run out of film yet, and we’re going to carry on. I always knew that there was an upside in being an anti-social curmudgeon, and my time has finally come. I’ve practiced Social-Distancing for years, so I pretty much have it down pat. Now, if I could get one of you to throw a pack of toilet paper up on the porch now and again, we’ll be fine.

To maintain your sanity, the doctors recommend that you get out of the house and exercise. Walk around your block, ride a bicycle, or just spend some time outside, but stay away from crowds. I’m glad they urged that because it means I can still go out and shoot photographs. With my kind of subjects, I don’t interact with other people so that I won’t harm them or myself, and that brings me to this week’s featured image.

Peeples Valley Cottonwood - An old cottonwood tree growing along a rancher's irrigation line.
Peeples Valley Cottonwood – An old cottonwood tree growing along a rancher’s irrigation line.

This picture is my fourth image in the series of Peeples Valley Cottonwood trees, and this one is called Peeples Valley Cottonwood. It’s an old cottonwood tree growing along a rancher’s irrigation trench. In case you didn’t recognize it, it’s the same tree that is the subject of the first in this series—Broken Cottonwood. The angle is slightly different, and I used a polarizing filter to darken the sky. I think it gives the tree a three-dimensional look.

You can see a larger version of Peeples Valley Cottonwood on its Web Page by clicking here. I hope you like it. Be sure to come back next week for the final portrait from Peeples Valley.

Until next time — jw

p.s. I know that these are not going to be the easiest of times, but we’ll get through this. Be kind to one another and find something you enjoy doing. Listen to what the doctors say and stop obsessing on the news.

My Dream Jaguar

Last night I had a dream—or maybe a nightmare—one good enough to share. Like most dreams, it was a conglomeration of disjointed segments. I don’t remember how it started, who I was with or any of the details that would make up a coherent story, but somewhere along the journey, we wound up on a porch overlooking a Jaguar for sale in the parking lot. I didn’t recognize the model, but it was a newer swoopy kind. I decided to look closer.

Bruce McLaren at Riverside
In my dreams, I drive McLarens in Can-Am races … if I can get them out of the garage.

When I walked up to it, I could see that the brown paint was cracking like an antique oil painting and after opening the bonnet—it was British after all—there was a fresh oil puddle under the engine. As I walked around it, I pushed on the trunk lid causing new cracks. Just then the owner walked up and asked if I’d like to buy it. I declined and pointed out the flawed paint and the oil, which was now beginning to creep toward the drain. “Yeah, that’s why the price is so cheap. We can talk about it over a scotch.” He was a pleasant enough chap in his late thirties with blondish hair, and since he was a man of good taste, I agreed to meet him at the bar.

Since I knew the way, I agreed to lead the procession and my companion and I headed to my car, which was a BMW, Mercedes or some other Teutonic brand, but when I walked up to it, the design was a mid-engine Italian pointy thing—the kind of car where you only want a view over the hood. It was afternoon rush hour and getting out of the Biltmore Fashion Park garage was going to be tough. Since I couldn’t see to back up, I pulled forward out of the spot and a line of cars followed. I made my way into a dead-end corner of the garage and now I had to back out, but first, everyone behind me had to move.

That’s how the rest of my dream went—with me inching the car backward through a crowded parking garage. I never got that sexy beauty out on the road and up to speed. It was an interesting twist on a common theme of my dreams—trying to get somewhere with insurmountable objects in the way. Studies haven’t been conclusive about the functionality of dreams. One camp believes they may be a harbinger of the future while others feel they’re a way of cataloging our daily experiences—sort of like a librarian putting books back on the shelf. I don’t know if dreams have any meaning or purpose, but at least in this one, I still had my pants on.

Till then … jw

Los Algodones, Baja California

The Queen and I took time out of our busy schedule to make our quarterly dentist visit this week. Normally you’d think that would take maybe an hour or two at the most. For us, it’s more of a commitment than that. As seniors, our dental insurance is nil to none, so upon recommendation of a couple of friends, we found a good dentist in Algodones . . . Mexico, and that means an overnight journey to Yuma. Both of us got an addatoothtome, so on the first appointment was for a root canal and then an impression to send off to the lab overnight. The next day was for fitting the crown.

It’s been an abnormally wet year for us here in the desert, so when we left Monday at daybreak under a cloudless blue sky, we felt as if we were wasting a good work day. The rains kept us cooped up all weekend while we have outside projects we’ve put off for dry weather. Instead, we were on the road for three hours for an appointment at 11:00 am.

As the sun came up we saw patches of fog, something we rarely get. The evening breeze pushed the ground fog to the base of the low ranges like they were door-stops. The dark hills popped out of the strands of white. South of Quartzsite I couldn’t take it anymore and pulled off the road to snap a shot as we passed through the KOFA (King of Arizona) Wildlife Refuge. Even so, we made it with time for breakfast before our appointments.

Ground Fog and KOFA Range
A rare sight in the desert is ground fog, but after a cold rain it collects at the feet of the low ranges. Here a ocotillo is foreground to the fog at the KOFA Range

Los Algodones is a retirees’ equivalent of Disneyland. The downtown commerce area is an eight block square along the east bank of the Colorado River. It’s an extremely tiny border town when compared to Juarez, Nogales, Tijuana or even Mexicali; sixty miles to the west, yet it’s still a Class A border crossing. That’s because of the large amount of foot traffic. There is some vehicular traffic crossing there, but most people pay the six dollars to the Quechan tribe to park in their huge parking lot and walk across.

The dominant feature is a multi-story steel beam structure like an unfinished building. It’s been unfinished since we first visited some twenty-five years ago and most likely won’t be different in the next twenty-five. Then there are the hustlers. Unlike Tijuana, they’re not trying to get you into one of the girly clubs (of which there are none); they’re working for the dentists, eye doctors, pharmacies or liquor stores. That’s right; the doctors got pimps. After you wander the town a bit, you realize the town is a medical amusement park. Within a block you can get glasses, a tooth implant, new hearing aids, a sombrero, and have a margarita for lunch while you’re waiting for the lab.

As a younger man, I never would have gone to a doctor in Mexico. I had heard the horror stories of shoddy work and surgery disasters, so why the change of heart now? It’s a combination of economics, a referral and desperation. We need dental work, but couldn’t pay what the local dentists where charging . . . even with insurance. So, if I had a problem with a tooth, out it came. After retiring and hanging out with other like-minded geezers, we heard some good stories and then got a couple of strong referrals.

On our summer trip, I broke two crowns, so when we got back, we scheduled an appointment to investigate. As we sat in the tiny waiting room, people our age surrounded us claiming our dentist was the best. The first exam was simple consisting of digital x-rays, tiny cameras, and some poking and prodding. Within fifteen minutes they printed out a chart of my mouth showing the work that I needed including the cost by tooth. Then they went over the x-rays and photos so I could clearly see what they were talking about. After that, they cleaned my teeth and then I was done . . . $25.00. When we left the office, we both had our charts and it was our decision about which teeth to work on and when to do it. All of the prices were less than what our co-pay would be in the States.

As always, the devil must have his due. What you save in money, you pay with time. I already pointed out, the waiting room is crowded with patients that are loyal . . . to a fault. Your 11:00 am appointment only means you’ll be seen sometime after that. If you need to see a specialist, they call an escort to take you there, where you can sit in another waiting room that always has one less chair than people. If you’re lucky, the TV has Discovery Chanel in Spanish, otherwise it will be CNN. If your visit requires replacement parts, the lab will have them ready tomorrow, always tomorrow. If you count on getting back on the road at a decent hour, give it up. You will only have enough time to grab a Big Mac at the Yuma Mickey D’s before the three-hour drive home in the dark.

Western Arizona is one of the weirdest places on earth. It’s all low-lying Sonoran Desert dominated by creosote bushes, Palo Verde trees, and an odd saguaro here and there. It also gently slopes downhill towards Yuma, the lowest place in the state. It’s also the warmest and driest part of the state, both winter and summer. No one lives there.

Yuma Crossing
All of the historical travel routes crossed the Colorado River within 300 yards of this spot. That includes the ferry, railroad, the first Ocean to Ocean Highway (US 80) and the current freeway (Interstate 8).

While driving to Yuma in September, we counted twenty-five empty RV parks along the road. Quartzsite, the halfway point of the trip, was a ghost town with most of the stores closed. On Monday’s trip they were all packed to the brim with people from Montana, Alberta, Idaho, Saskatchewan, Washington and British Columbia. They all come down to the warm desert and camp out under the stars. Except for an occasional Costco run, they never go into Phoenix and the Phoenicians aren’t aware that these people are out there. After all, who goes to Quartzsite? The campers also go to Algodones for doctors, prescriptions and booze.

On the Immigration Service Website, it says that the Algodones Customs Station averages over two thousand pedestrians a day. I’ve been there on days where you could walk right into the custom-house and be on your way two minutes later. This week there were over four thousand people waiting in line to cross the border. The line curled back from the custom-house and several blocks down the street. For over an hour we marched a step or two at a time, while chatting with our neighbors and carrying one bag of prescriptions and another containing one bottle of Kahlua or tequila.

Towards day’s end, the street vendors grab an armload of goods, abandon their stalls and make their way to the line waiting at customs. They form a gauntlet imploring you to buy a poncho, sombrero or a giant carved wooden turtle. On your other side, old women dressed in black hold a swaddled infant and offer Chiclets for spare change. They move on if you smile and softly say, “No. Thank you.” If you dare feel the lace or try on a hat, you’re dead meat until you agree on a price. Being a Baby Boomer, I can tell you that they’d really make a fortune selling street tacos and Margaritas to-go along that exit line.

Till then . . .

jw

%d bloggers like this: