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.

Lomaki Picuter of the Week

Lomaki - The crooked walls look as if the fierce Northern Arizona winds will blow them over.
Lomaki – The crooked walls look like the fierce Northern Arizona winds will blow them over.

In the half-century that I’ve called Arizona home, I can’t count the times that I’ve traveled thru Flagstaff and then north on Highway U.S. 89. I travel that route to get to the Grand Canyon, Lee’s Ferry, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Utah, or Colorado. My best guess would be once a year on average. Sometimes I even stop to take pictures along the way.

With that many trips, you’d think I’d pay no mind to the scenery, but that’s not true. There’s always something new. There’s one location that makes my jaw drop, no matter how many times I see it. I’m talking about the view at Sunset Crater Pass I wrote about last month. It’s an in-your-face example of something I learned in a college geography course: mountains affect climate.

The climate on the south side of the San Francisco Peaks is the polar opposite of that on the north. As you travel to Flagstaff from Phoenix, you climb into the pines, and the temperature can drop as much as 30° along the way. As fronts move north from the Gulf in the summer or west from the coast in winter, the mountains wring moisture from the air as it climbs the slopes. After passing over the mountains, the air is dry and picks up pressure on the way down. Dry air heats faster than humid air. The phenomenon creates a rain shadow on the mountain’s leeward side. The next time you travel north of Flagstaff, stop your car at the pass and take a look back—trees. Then turn to the north again—trees kept away.

Now that you know how mountains work, it’s easy to understand why the early Pueblo Tribes living at Wupatki lived in rock dwellings instead of log cabins. Amazingly, the Indians still used timbers to span the walls and hold up a roof. That means they had to drag lumber off the mountains by hand. They built their structures before the Spanish arrived, so they didn’t have horses.

This week we’re looking at one of the bigger pueblos in the National Monument—Lomaki. That’s a Hopi word that translates into English as “Beautiful House.” Anthropologists have partially restored its two-story walls. As you walk through the ruins, you begin to appreciate the ancient people’s masonry skills and tenacity. They must have had to rent scaffolding for walls that size at A-Z Rentals in town. It was either that or standing on one another’s shoulders. You’d do the same thing.

In this week’s picture, titled Lomaki, you get a good idea of the wall height. The windows are at eye level. A peculiar thing you notice in this shot is the walls are leaning. I’m not sure if the scientist put that feature in on purpose or if they weren’t as skilled as the original Pueblo builders. As a photographer, I have a thing about lines that aren’t level or square. Oceans don’t run downhill, so I wince whenever I see a seascape with a crooked horizon. On my first visit to Lomaki decades ago, its tilted walls jumped out at me. They look like a good wind will blow them over—and this area of Arizona is exceptionally windy. However, on this year’s visit, the walls were still standing and didn’t seem any worse, so maybe they’ll remain long after I’ve gone.

You can see a larger version of Lomaki on its Webpage by clicking here. Next week, we’ll walk around Lomaki and see its details. Come back then and see what we find.

Till next time
Jw

BTW:

The calendar cut-off day is Tuesday, so if you are interested, place your order.

Clouds Over Craters Picture of the Week

Clouds Over Craters - Monsoon clouds fill the sky over a pair of volcanic craters at the San Francisco Lava Field in northern Arizona.
Clouds Over Craters – Monsoon clouds fill the sky over a pair of volcanic craters at the San Francisco Lava Field in northern Arizona.

Tomorrow is Halloween, and the east coast has already had its first dusting of snow. Only last week, I had to switch from my daily summer uniform (t-shirt and shorts) into my winter outfit (t-shirt and jeans). I only wear long pants because my feet get cold with poor blood circulation. Otherwise, I’d wear shorts throughout the year—as men do in New Zealand. The last time we went to their islands, we saw road crews dressed in down parkas, shorts, and flip-flops.

I’m not boasting about our two seasons here in the desert; hot and less hot. Everybody back east already knows about our climate. In a couple of weeks, they’ll be camping in RV Parks throughout our state. This week’s rant is about why good things always come with baggage (this isn’t about Queen Anne either—stop that, you’re nasty). For example, as a kid, do you remember stretching out on a freshly cut lawn on a breezy summer’s eve so you could stare into the black sky and count shooting stars—only to be eaten alive by chiggers? Right there, that’s what I’m talking about.

Sitting at my computer, enjoying my first sweater of the season, and processing this week’s photo, I liked how lovely the monsoon clouds were. In Navajo lore, the gathering of puffy sheep in the sky foretells the coming summer rains. Our summer clouds are dynamic. They form over the mountains in the morning. They build and tower into the stratosphere and then charge into the desert with a triple fury of wind, dust, and frog-choking rain. By midnight, they disappear, and stars come out of hiding. It’s the opposite of the winter clouds that travel down the coast. They’re a homogenized grey sky, hanging around for days like a bowl of lumpy oatmeal. As I closely studied this week’s picture, I realized that the monsoon season might be my favorite time of the year—if it wasn’t so damn hot and muggy.

I named this week’s image Clouds Over Craters, and I took it at the S.P. Crater location I featured a couple of weeks ago. The dark blob on the right side is S.P. Crater, and the lesser volcano in the distance is unnamed. The grass growing on its slopes indicates that it’s rainy season. The crater’s shape and color remind me of Hawaii’s Diamond Head in a mirror. The diagonal scratches are from ATVs digging up the soil as they claw their way to the top. I could have Photoshopped the scars, but I wouldn’t say I like that. Besides, the clouds are the star of this show, both in the sky and the shadows they cast on the craters.

You can see a larger version of Clouds Over Craters on its Webpage by clicking here. It’s the finale of the San Francisco Lava Field project, and next week we’re at a new location. Here’s a clue—it’s across the street. Want to take a guess? We’ll see you when you return next Sunday to find out if you’re right.

Till next time
jw

BTW:

Since November is next week, it’s time for me to lay out my 2023 calendar. I make at least one for myself each year, but I’ll happily print another copy for you. Because I order them in low numbers, they’re an expensive wall calendar. When hanging, they’re the size of a copy paper sheet—they fit nicely between my desktop and cabinets. VistaPrint has dropped the small-middle-binding option this year so that they will be coil-bound along the top. When I add the shipping cost, they cost me $18.00 each, which is what I charge for them. I want to have them for Christmas, so if you want to be included, let me know by the 15th of November. That way, I’ll expect them after Thanksgiving. You can email me directly, leave a message on my Contact Page, or if I already have your email address (you’re a subscriber), you can order in the comments below (I’ll strip your email address from public comments).

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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