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.

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).

Colton Crater Juniper Picture of the Week

Colton Crater Juniper - A lone juniper surrounded by lava bombs stands before Colton Crater topped with monsoon clouds.
Colton Crater Juniper – A lone juniper surrounded by lava bombs stands before Colton Crater, topped with whipped cream monsoon clouds.

I’m unsure where my head was last week when I wrote that today was the last Sunday in October. It wasn’t until the middle of the week that I realized I was wrong, and another weekend was ahead. Don’t worry; I have one more photo from the San Francisco Lava Field that I’d like to show you. You’re so lucky.

Queen Anne and I didn’t have to travel far from S.P. Crater to find this week’s scene. She didn’t move at all. She sat in the Jeep and continued to read her Kendal while I walked due south across the dirt road to a tree that I found interesting. I composed my shot as I walked toward the juniper. I wanted to include the monsoon clouds building over the San Francisco Peaks and some of the lava bombs surrounding the tree; otherwise, I would have moved closer to capture its twisted trunk. When I finally processed the photo this week, I realized that I had grabbed another volcanic crater—it’s a twofer. I’d rather be lucky than good—it takes up less time.

The cone in this week’s shot is Colton Crater. It looks like a fallen birthday cake. No amount of icing will cover that mess up. Compared to the mountain I featured last week, this one doesn’t seem impressive. It doesn’t look tall and well-formed like S.P. Crater. That’s only an optical conclusion. Colton has more height and width, and the caldera is deeper. And there is another smaller cone inside Colton’s caldera. You’ll have to look on Google Earth or hike its rough grade to see it. Incidentally, along the horizon, the small pyramid-shaped peak is Mt. Humphreys—Arizona’s highest mountain peak.

The reason that Colton looks old and saggy is the same as why I do; it’s an old fart. While S.P. Crater’s last eruption was only 55,000 years ago (a baby), Colton Crater hasn’t seen any action in 200k – 800k years. That’s plenty of time for gravity and erosion to bring a mountain to its knees. For example, the interior of Colton’s crater has been swept clean of residual ash and pumice from its eruption.

Scientists don’t name things very creatively. They tend to give out codes instead of names. For most of the time that geologist has been studying the San Francisco Peaks, this crater was called V160. It was the 160th volcanic flow in the lava field. See what I mean—where’s the romance in that? Dr. Harold Sellers Colton was the founder and director of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, and after he died in 1970, the local academia renamed Volcano 160 in his honor. That was nice.

You can see a larger version of Colton Crater Juniper on its Webpage by clicking here. Come back next week when we finish our tour of the San Francisco Lava Field with one last photo. This time I’m sure—I looked it up on my calendar. We’ll see you then.

Till next time
Jw

BTW:

I have an old friend from my California racing days named Gary Wheeler. You might have read some of his comments in this journal. Since his retirement, he has been taking some fantastic bird photographs. I don’t know; maybe old racers turn to photography when they’re too old to do anything useful. After much urging, Gary has put his collection online for people to enjoy. If you enjoy birds, you should pay a visit at: https://gowheeler.smugmug.com/. Don’t worry; he didn’t pay me for this advertising.

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

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