Courthouse Rock Picture of the Week

Courthouse Rock - The huge granite monolith that attracts climbers and base-jumpers to the Eagletail Wilderness Area.
Courthouse Rock – The massive granite monolith attracts climbers and base-jumpers to the Eagletail Wilderness Area.

When you were in school, did you learn about the Lewis and Clark expedition—the party that explored the Louisiana Purchase and discovered the first Starbucks in what’s now called Seattle? Sadly, when it comes to the outdoors, my buddy Fred and I will never rise to that level of notoriety. Most likely, we’ll go down in history more akin to Laurel and Hardy.

Fred and Jim's overlapping skill sets - When we get together, things don't always go as we plan.
Fred and Jim’s overlapping skill sets – Things don’t always go as we plan when we get together.

Don’t get me wrong, Fred is a brilliant man. After all, he is an engineer, and I can write complete sentences, so when apart, we’re able to navigate the world and safely return home (to the amazement of our wives). But when we go out together, our skill sets overlap like in a Venn diagram and set up a thinking interference pattern that causes things to go south.

To finish up this month’s project, the Eagletail Mountains, I needed a couple more photos—ones that are close to the subject. Since it’s a wilderness area, that meant hiking. I spent time researching and found a perfect trail on AllTrails. It’s only 3 1/2  miles each way, and it goes to a place called Indian Springs. There, we should find a spring and a rock wall of petroglyphs. They described the hike as “the easiest trail in the world. It’s an old mine road with little grade change. A baby can do it.”

I began calculating. I walk at 2.2 miles-per-hour (I measured it using my hand-held Garmin), so 2 hours in, snap a couple of shots, 2 hours out, and add four hours drive time down and back. The outing should easily take an afternoon. I asked Fred if he would be interested (somebody needed to carry me out when I fell). He said, “Sure.”

Monday at noon, I tossed on some comfortable jeans, my whitest Tee shirt (so the rescue helicopter could spot me), and a baseball cap. I drove to Fred’s house to pick him up. He opened the front door dressed like an L.L. Bean model, with a freshly pressed ‘cool-shirt,’ safari hat, day pack, and walking sticks. He was gorgeous.

It was a beautiful day, and we spent the two-hour drive talking about the hike and sharing the maps we brought. Fred downloaded the AllTrails map onto his iPhone; I had printed the directions to the trailhead; we were ready.

Mistake #1: The easy part was getting to the Gas-Pipeline road, but we had to count the miles to the turnoff. As Fred read the instructions, I watched the odometer. When the instructions said, “at 1 ½ mile, turn onto an unmarked road,” a road appeared on the left. We turned, but the sign that they promised wasn’t there. We continued anyway and came upon a group of young men camped at its end. This place must be our spot, so we parked.

Mistake #2: The boys/men were friendly and were sitting around packing parachutes. If we were in California, I would have expected them to be waxing surfboards. Thet had come to Courthouse Rock so they could climb the monolith and then jump off with a parachute—even though the rock wasn’t in danger of crashing. They asked why we had come. They said we were on the wrong road when we told them about the trail. They said we needed to go back to the pipeline road and go another mile. Fred and I looked at one another, the maps, and the app. Since the trail was just over the hill, we ignored their directions—like any person holding a man-card should.

Mistake #3: We started hiking cross-country diagonally toward the trail. “Surely it must be over that low ridge, and we’ll see it from the top,” I told Fred. We hiked to the ridgeline and saw——another hill. We began the long trudge to its top. What we didn’t realize at the time was that we were climbing Courthouse Rock’s talus slope. The rock must have been significantly larger at one time because sharp granite chips covered the ground. They had flaked off the enormous tower making the footing lose. Falling on them would hurt—a lot.

Fred the trailblazer - Fred hikes to another ridge to see if it's the last of our hike. It wasn't.
Fred the trailblazer – Fred hikes to another ridge to see if it’s the last of our hike. It wasn’t.

After an hour of hiking uphills and over gullies, we reached a point where we could see the trail. It was on the other side of a deep wash. That meant we could get to it if we could cross the dry creek, but it was still a half-mile away. We only managed to cover less than a mile during the past hour. I was ready to quit, but I could see yet one more ridge on the horizon. I hoped it was the last. Fred volunteered to continue seeing if it was our summit while I sat, drank water, and caught my breath. He confirmed that it wasn’t, so we started back when he returned.

Instead of retracing our steps, we made our way down into the wash, where we were able to walk the sandy bottom back to the Jeep in half the time. When we reached the camp, we had to explain our failure to the base-jumping dudes. “Yeah, I thought you should drive to the other road,” one of them graciously taunted. Since we were in the area, we did. We found the second road, complete with signs, parking, and an informational kiosk. At least we’ll know should we ever go back, but for now, the two-hour drive home was nearly silent.

I shot this week’s picture that I call Courthouse Rock at the beginning of our hike. It’s of the enormous granite monolith from its west side. The 20-foot palo verde tree gives scale, so I’m glad that the tree photo-bombed my shot.

You can see a larger version of Courthouse Rock on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week we’ll finish our Eagletail Mountain visit and move on to another project. Hopefully, somewhere I can drive.

Until next time — jw

Eagletail Peak  Picture of the Week

In last week’s article, I mentioned that the Eagletail Wilderness encompassed two desert mountain ranges and the Sonoran Desert basin that lies between them. The Eagletail Range was one, while the other is a chain known as Cemetery Ridge. After I gave you their name, I made an offhand remark about how they got that name. Well, I accepted that question as this week’s homework assignment, boys and girls. Here’s what I found—nothing.

Cemetery Ridge - A 16 mile-long chain of mountains that make up the southwest flank of the Eagletail Mountain Wilderness Area.
Cemetery Ridge – This is a 16 mile-long chain of mountains that make up the southwest flank of the Eagletail Mountain Wilderness Area.

Well, that’s not wholly true because, in my handy Arizona Place Names book, there is this entry:

“This sixteen-mile-long and two-mile-wide, low range was the scene of the killing of several prospectors in the 1870s, according to local stories. Their bodies are said to be buried on the ridge (sic), which is also known as Cemetery Hills.”

When I read that, I thought, “Alright, there’s an interesting historical story to tell my loyal readers.” So I, as the unofficial Marshall Trimble understudy, started a week of research that would have made Jimmy Olson proud. I wanted to find out what miners, who killed them, why, and where are they buried. I asked Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Google’s unnamed assistant. None of them knew nothin’.

I did find out that I’m not the only person searching for those answers. Google referred me to the Desert Mountaineer blog. There I found the anonymous author had written a three-part journal covering Cemetery Ridge. The writer is a pretty good storyteller and photographer, but his passion is climbing mountains, and the photographs are incidental, kind of the opposite of what I do.

His three-part saga covers four days of driving the same roads I did, looking for graves. He travels with his dog, sleeps in his truck, and often stops to climb the mountains he passes—sometimes two or three in a day. I’m impressed! Anyway, after exploring the entire length of Cemetery Ridge, he didn’t find our legendary graves. He does mention the place where Deadman Wash crosses Cemetery Ridge on the west side. If ever there were a place to look, that would be where I’d start. It has all the intrigue of a pirate’s treasure map.

Framed between two of the Cemetery Ridge Mountains, Eagletail Peak's feathers lit by the sunrise.
Framed between two of the Cemetery Ridge Mountains, Eagletail Peak’s feathers lit by the sunrise.

I shot this week’s image along the Arlington-Clanton Well Road on the south side of Cemetery Ridge. The Ridge’s mountains (like hills really) appear and disappear in a straight line for 16 miles. At one of those places where they slip below the surface like a giant sea-serpent, I saw Eagletail Peak framed and lit by the sunrise. You can make out the ‘tail feathers’ sticking up at the top in the picture. I want to explain that the Eagletail Wilderness is directly under the Los Angeles-Phoenix flyway, so contrails are part of the natural landscape, but they won’t let me fly my drone there.

You can see a larger version of Eagletail Peak on its Web Page by clicking here. Next week we go hunting for more treasure in the Eagletail Range. Come back then and see if we were successful.

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

Summit Monsoon Picture of the Week

My third grade class picture.
A third-grade class picture from my Catholic School days.

Sister Mary Ellie-Font taught us about purgatory in the third grade—and she wasn’t talking about the Colorado ski resort. Heaven and Hell weren’t enough to cover the petty sins not covered by commandments. So, Catholics came up with alternative punishment to keep us in line. One way or another, we were going to pay for the Big Mac we ate on Friday. Purgatory is a holding cell where we would stay until God had enough free time to sort us out—or someone specifically prayed for our soul. At the age of eight, we learned that you could skate from anything if you had connections.

For the last couple of months, it feels like we’ve been living in that purgatory-like state of limbo. We’re waiting for something to happen. When we got our vaccine shots this spring, we all climbed aboard a trolley to the beach. Now it seems like the streetcar is lurching to a halt, and our confidence in the future is waning.

Back in the spring, Queen Anne and I were eager to get back on the road. We were ready to bring back pictures from foreign lands, exotic cities, and far-off islands. We’re not sure the world is ready for that. With the spread of virus variants and rising infection rates, we’ve decided to play it safe a while longer. After all, we’re still in the same high-risk group as when this pandemic began. Besides, that’s what our doctors suggested.

For August, we’re going to hang around our neighborhood, but I wanted to bring you something different. Last week, I wrote about the monsoons and how they brought much-needed rain and spectacular evening light shows. So, this month I’m featuring monsoon clouds—the prettier side of our summer rainy season instead of the floods and muck on the evening news.

Summit Monsoon - Thunderstorms build over the mountains by day, and then move down to the desert floor in the evenings.
Summit Monsoon – Thunderstorms build over the mountains by day and then move down to the desert floor in the evenings.

I took this week’s picture in our town’s natural amphitheater—where the old mine and pioneer cemetery is. It shows one of the Date Creek Range’s low peaks and thunder clouds building over the distant Weaver Mountains. The storms only happen when enough moisture moves up from Mexico. Then, the billowing thunderheads form high over the Bradshaw Mountains and flow into the desert. The rain cells are not particularly big, so we never know where it will rain—some nights, we get dust and wind, and other evenings we get drenched. However, the winds cool off the air enough to watch the show from the front porch, making the summers bearable.

You can see a larger version of Summit Monsoon on its Web Page by clicking here. Be sure to come back next week to see the next image that I bagged on my cloud hunt.

Until next time — jw

Joshua Tree Below Picture of the Week

Everyone has several traits that make up their personality, and psychologists measure these traits by where they fit on a line—called a continuum. The most common example is being an extrovert or an introvert. Most people fit in the middle, of course, but some people are really outgoing and unconstrained, while others are shy or withdrawn. I’ll bet, off the top of your head, you can name several people on either side of that teeter-totter.

Another—lesser-known—continuum is thrill-seekers. Even if you’re not adventurous, you’re still somewhere along that line—maybe just right of center. You can name friends that will jump out of a perfectly good airplane while others avoid sidewalk cracks. I’m a moderate risk taker, but there are certain things I won’t do. I’m not too fond of roller coasters, for example. More accurately, I don’t like the initial weightless drop—I’m fine with the sharp twists and turns throughout the ride’s latter part.

Another fun thing that I can’t make myself do is bungee jumping. I’m confident that the hosts know what they’re doing, and the physics have been worked out to the last decimal place. I also know that with my obesity, jumping off a bridge would lead to my premature demise. And I can tell you exactly how it happens.

I’d have to watch at least a half dozen people come back alive before I summoned up the courage to give it a try. Once I put on the helmet and harness, I’d be trapped. Somehow, I’d climb up on the railing and stand there for an eternity before closing my eyes and jumping. That’s just the beginning of the end. When that feeling of weightlessness first hit my stomach, I’d spew the old Technicolor yawn. As I fell through the air, I’d be surrounded by atomized droplets of my morning breakfast. Then at the bottom, I’d start the rebound only to find out that Galileo was wrong. I’d hurtle upstream through my own mouth shower. At the apex, I’d catch a whiff of my own stench and spew second upchuck, and I would fall through that mess a second time. But—at the bottom—the overstressed bungee cord catastrophically fail, and I’d do a belly flop on the ground. As I lie there, a gentle vomit mist would fall, covering my lifeless body. For a final insult—and as everyone who watches South Park knows—your bowels release the moment you die. No one would ever volunteer to come and clean up that mess. The authorities would throw a blue tarp over me, and that spot would become my forever resting place.

Joshua Tree Below - The sight of a pointy object, like this Joshua Tree, hurtling towards you should make you reconsider skydiving in the Sonoran Desert.
Joshua Tree Below – The sight of a pointy object, like this Joshua Tree, hurtling towards you should make you reconsider skydiving in the Sonoran Desert.

What motivated me to consider my tragic demise was this week’s featured image—Joshua Tree Below. All I intended to capture was a different view of one of our Joshua Trees—the large tree in the second image, to be exact. But, when I processed the photo, it became obvious why no one should skydive in the Sonoran Desert—no matter where they lie on the Thrill Seeker Continuum.

Black Mountain Joshua - The large Joshua Tree before Black Mountain is the model I used for this week's featured image.
Black Mountain Joshua – The large Joshua Tree before Black Mountain is the model I used for this week’s featured image.

You can see a larger version of Joshua Tree Below on its Web Page by clicking here. Be sure to come back next week when we begin a series of photos from Skull Valley.

Until next time — jw

Saguaro Bouquet Picture of the Week

We’ve spent March exploring the Black Hills—an interesting group of low mountains on Wickenburg’s north side that gets their name from the dark surface crust on their top. I was able to shoot them from different perspectives by driving the old mine roads that my SUV—Archie—could navigate easily. While I’m out jaunting about and looking for different angles of my subject, I try to keep an eye out for other good scenes—and that’s the case with this week’s featured image.

When I drove out Rincon Road a couple of weeks ago, I intended to get the shot Black Hills—last week’s featured image. While I was there, I discovered a hill covered with saguaro. As I’ve written before, saguaro does well on a south-facing well-drained slope, and when I see a stand like this, it makes me happy. This is a healthy forest. Since I’d already invested the time driving out there, I also took this shot.

Saguaro Bouquet-A small but dense grove of saguaro growing on a hillside near Wickenburg, Arizona.
Saguaro Bouquet-A small but a dense grove of saguaro growing on a hillside near Wickenburg, Arizona.

I named this week’s image Saguaro Bouquet jokingly because—although they each weigh a couple of tons—it looks like you could pick them for a Mother’s Day bouquet (hey, no one said I was normal). Although this grove is small, it’s densely packed along the hillside.

There are some other things I see in the photo. It was still winter when I took it, but the scene will change dramatically as the weather warms next month. For example, the little gray bushes covering the ground are brittlebush. In a couple of weeks, they will sprout yellow daisy-like flowers. Shortly after that, the palo verde trees will start flowering, adding more yellow. Finally, in May, the saguaro will be adorned with large white blossoms. That’s an Arizona Highways kind of picture. If you’d like to see it yourself, ask me, and I’ll give you the map coordinates.

I am happy you took the time to view my new photo. You can see a larger version on its Web Page by clicking here. Be sure to come back next week for a complete change of pace. I promise that for April, there won’t be a single saguaro.

Until next time — jw

Blue Tank Wash Picture of the Week

Along U.S. Highway 93, between Congress and Wickenburg, are a set of peaks that I’ve had my eye on for the last five years. They aren’t named because they’re slightly greater than a line of hills. Their color is the same as the surrounding desert, except they have a basalt mantle along the top. Sometimes the darker capstone looks like a shadow on the hilltops.

They’re generally aligned in an east-west direction, with the Hassayampa River on the west and the Blue Tank Wash on the east side. As they face south, there never seems to be a flattering light on them. The other challenge that I have is getting all four peaks into a frame. Even from the highway (3 ½ miles away), they only fit in with a wide-angle lens. That means that all of the homes, ranches, and construction lining the Hassayampa would be included in the photo. So I decided to get closer and pick them off one-by-one.

Two old mine roads radiate out from Wickenburg (Rincon Road and Constellation Road), and connecting the two is another path called the Blue Tank Wash Road. This dirt trail runs through the valley on our range’s south side. Late afternoon this Tuesday, I drove Archie up there to see what I could do.

Blue Tank Wash - Two of the four mountains that rise above the Blue Tank Wash Road near Wickenburg, Arizona.
Blue Tank Wash – Two of the four mountains that rise above the Blue Tank Wash Road near Wickenburg, Arizona.

This week’s featured image is the first variation that I liked. I wanted shadows to show texture and depth, so I shot this from the third peak looking west at the second. I was fortunate to find some sunlit saguaro growing in reddish soil to place in the foreground for scale. The bright spot gives balance to the dark peak in the background. I call this image Blue Tank Wash.

You can see a larger version of Blue Tank Wash on its Web Page by clicking here. Be sure to come back next week for another of my images from the small mountains above the Harquahala.

Until next time — jw

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