Sierra Sunrises, Solitude, and Sorrow

Sometimes the vacation you had imagined in your head doesn’t develop as you thought it would, and that’s not always a bad thing.

This was meant to be a trip where the primary mission was photographing some of our natural wonders. Inspired by landscape photographer, Thomas Heaton out of the U.K., I wanted to slow down, look for compositions, set up the tripod, and take the shot. I had done a little homework, determining sunrise, sunset, and moonrise times throughout the trip at the locations I wanted to visit, and I was keen on being in Lake Tahoe for the full moon.

Of course, the secondary mission for this trip was to see something new—to color in another part of my travel map that was empty. In this case, I was looking to experience western Nevada and bits of Arizona and California on US 95.

My initial concept for this trip was to head east to Yuma, swing north to color in US 95 on my map all the way to Reno, and then work my way back down through Lake Tahoe, Bodie State Historic Park, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Bishop, and Lone Pine with the Alabama Hills and Mount Whitney. That sequence and timing would have been optimal for my photography, but fully booked hotels on the days that I wanted to be in particular places caused me to reverse the trip. (The fact that I actually booked my hotels for every night of this trip is unusual—I normally just wing it.)

The initial part of the trip through Lone Pine, Bishop, and Lee Vining would be a repeat of my first trip up the eastern Sierra three years ago, but at a slower pace that allowed for more exploration.

The Drive North

My departure from San Diego was at the pleasant hour of 9:23 a.m. and that just happened to put me in Moreno Valley at the perfect time for a for a juicy Italian beef sandwich with grilled sweet peppers and mozzarella at Portillo’s. Coincidence? I think not.

A friend had suggested stopping at Fossil Falls along the way to see its unique volcanic geology. Of course, there technically weren’t any waterfalls, as the river that fed them has long since dried up, so now all that’s left is this 40-foot precipice that you can walk right up to the edge of.

Now I thought I had done a pretty good job of overcoming my fear of heights over the years, but the closer I got to the edge, the more my legs turned to jelly. Seriously. It was as though all muscle control was gone, and that’s not a good thing to have happen when you’re about 6-8 feet away on an from a 40-foot drop standing on uneven rocks. I slowly retreated to a more secure position and headed back to my car.

On the walk back to my car over the volcanic rock formations, I managed to twist my ankle slightly. I didn’t think much of it at first, but by the time I was back in the car heading north, it was beginning to ache. Great. “Five hours into my vacation, and I do this,” I thought.

Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills

The namesake of the Alabama Hills, interestingly, is the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship during the Civil War. Gold miners sympathetic to the cause named their claim in honor of the Alabama. Since then, the area has been used in countless western movies and television shows over the years, and the terrain has been used in more contemporary movies as well.

There are plenty of dirt/gravel roads to travel on, and you can do okay in a passenger car if you just take it slow. On the way out of the hills, I took the Moffat Ranch Road, and that took a lot of patience. The road was a bit rougher and narrower, but still passable. By then, however, the sun had set and I was crawling along in the dark. A jack rabbit the size of a small pony jumped out from one of the bushes alongside the road and scared the daylights out of me. That thing was huge!

Anyone who knows me knows I am not a morning person. Never have been. So setting my alarm for 4:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning, on vacation, is completely out of character for me. The only way, however, to get a decent photo of the morning alpenglow on the face of Mount Whitney is to be up and on location long before sunrise. So that’s what I did.

I set up my camera and tripod near the Shark’s Fin, a large rock that looks like a shark’s dorsal fin, with Mount Whitney somewhere off in the background (it was really too dark to see much more than a faint outline of it at that point). I will say, there is a certain serenity that’s found when standing in the middle of the high desert, alone, under a canopy of stars on a chilly autumn morning. Perhaps I can become a morning person after all.

The eastern sky began to brighten, and I finally had enough light to compose my image and focus my camera. Then, I waited. I waited for the sun’s first rays to paint the summit of Mount Whitney and the surrounding peaks in a pinkish-orange hue and captured a few images.

After the sunrise, I headed to the visitor center to get a better map of the Alabama Hills to make finding my way around a little easier, and then I headed back into the area to do more scouting. I hiked the trail out to Mobius Arch and made my way up a large boulder to get the iconic image of Mount Whitney through the arch (the climb made easier with my trekking poles). By 9:30 a.m., I was done in the Alabama Hills for the morning and on my way to Manzanar.

Memorial at Manzanar Cemetery

My first visit to Manzanar National Historic Site was in November 2014, and I knew that I wanted to return one day. The exhibits and the movie evoked an emotional response from me my first time there and my response this time was no less emotional. In fact, given the current geopolitical world today, the message of the park has even more meaning, especially when one woman in the theater commented at the end of the film, “It didn’t look so bad. Everyone in the photos is smiling.” Yes, she really said that.

I wanted to turn to her and say, “Fine. We’ll have the FBI come knock on your door, give you a matter of hours to pack whatever possessions you can carry yourself, put you on a bus that will take you hundreds of miles from your home, and put you in a hastily built shack “insulated” with tar paper where the only separation between you and the other families is a bed sheet hung on a clothes line. Oh. Don’t mind the barbed wire fence and armed guards to keep you in for the next several years. While you’re gone, the house or business that you had spent your life saving for or building will be sold for pennies on the dollar. And, no, your Fourth Amendment right to due process as an American citizen will be ignored and you’ll have no avenue of recourse or appeal. Smiling yet?” But I didn’t.

After a full morning, I was starving and had a nice club sandwich at the Totem Cafe back in Lone Pine at noon. There was a young solo backpacker at the table next to me, and we chatted for a bit. He was from Barcelona and had just spent the last few weeks hiking over the Sierras from Yosemite to Lone Pine. After lunch, I returned to the hotel for an afternoon siesta.

By 4:15 p.m., I was on my way back into the Alabama Hills for sunset. Sadly, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky in any direction, which made for a completely uninteresting sunset behind a silhouetted Mount Whitney. I turned my camera to the east to catch the orange light on the rock formations and the peaks of the Inyo mountains on the opposite side of Owens Valley.

Some tasty beef brisket and a beer at the Lone Pine Smokehouse was dinner, and not long after that, I was back in the hotel, lights out ready to capture another sunrise the next morning.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

I arrived at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest visitor center about half an hour before it opened, so I put my day-use fee into one of those little envelopes and stuffed it into the collection box, putting the receipt on my dash. It was a mere 34°F / 1° C outside, so I was thankful that I had four layers of clothing on, plus my knit hat and gloves (the hat was my dad’s watch cap issued to him in boot camp in the Navy around 1946). Interestingly, there wasn’t a breath of air moving at the mountain top compared to what I experienced in the valley earlier. I strapped my backpack-style camera bag and tripod onto my back, got my trekking poles, and headed down the Methuselah Trail to try to find the oldest living tree in the world.

The Methuselah Trail is a four-mile long loop with an 800-foot elevation change along the way. I started down the trail and was enjoying having the entire forest to myself, save the birds, chipmunks, and a 60-something former hippie woman heading in the opposite direction who told me she was having a great day because she had “hugged a bristlecone pine tree this morning.” Yes, she really said that.

I was about half a mile into the trail when I realized that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea. In places, the trail wasn’t but twelve inches wide, with a steep drop to the one side. There was barely any room to plant my trekking poles, and with rocks, roots, and a tender ankle from Day 1, I decided that doing this hike solo wasn’t the best idea (even with my emergency whistle hanging from my dogtags around my neck). I turned around and headed back to the visitor center at 10,040 feet / 3.060 m in elevation. Methuselah has been around 4,500+ years. It can wait another year or two until I get into better shape or find a hiking partner to make the trip with me.

It was when I turned back that I realized why the hike into the forest was so easy at that altitude. I had already descended nearly 100-150 feet of that elevation change. It was all uphill back to the center. Sea-level-boy was sucking wind big time at that elevation and needed a few pauses along the way. (I’d lie and say that they were pauses to take photos, but I’m not proud.)

One of the rangers in the visitor center was very fun to speak with, and I learned that she lived in Tehachapi, 200 miles away, and commuted to her job. Apparently, she stayed with a friend for the week and returned on the weekends. That must be a thing to do around the area. Driving down the mountain back to Bishop, there was a construction crew with a flagman controlling the traffic. He was over from Humboldt, about 600 miles away. Go figure. When I checked into the hotel in Bishop, the receptionist was from Tolono, Illinois, just south of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I used to go to Tolono to watch the Illinois Central and Norfolk Southern trains there.

While waiting for my room to be ready (I arrived earlier than the check-in time), I walked down the street to the Galen Rowell Mountain Light Gallery, saddened to learn that his surviving family members have lost interest in running the gallery and are closing it at the end of October.

June Lake Loop

Finally. A day that I was able to sleep in to the more gentlemanly hour of 7 a.m. I had to be in South Lake Tahoe by the evening, and along the route were things like Mammoth Mountain, June Lake Loop, Mono Lake, and Bodie State Historic Park. I had time for only two of the four, so I opted for the June Lake Loop and Bodie.

June Lake is just north of Mammoth Mountain and the loop is a two-lane highway that takes you past June Lake, Gull Lake, Silver Lake, and Grant Lake—all nestled in this mountain valley. It’s a pleasant diversion off the main highway. The fall colors were at various stages, but most of the aspen trees were nearing or at their peak colors. Spectacular.

Bodie State Historical Park

On the way to Bodie, I did stop briefly at the Mono Lake visitor center in Lee Vining, but needed to keep going if I was to get to Bodie with enough time to allow me to explore before the park closed.

Bodie State Historic Park preserves an old gold mining ghost town in a state of “arrested decay,” and it’s fascinating to walk among the old buildings and check out what was left behind. In some ways, it’s quite eerie. I’m going to have to dig a little more to understand why people just left so many of their possessions behind instead of taking them with. Of course, the cost of moving them down from the 8,375 foot / 2.552 m mountain may have been prohibitive.

As I began the 13-mile / 21 km drive into the park, ominous clouds were rolling in from the northwest, and the fact that some parts of the Sierra had had several inches of snow a few weeks earlier made that a tad concerning. The temperature was 34°F / 1° C, and about an hour and a half into my visit, snow started falling from the clouds. Seeing as I had to get down off this mountain on this side of the valley and then cross another mountain pass on the other side of the valley to get to South Lake Tahoe, I decided to cut my visit short. (Good thing I picked up those supplies before heading out.)

The drive over Monitor Pass to South Lake Tahoe was fine, even with lightly falling snow. Fortunately, none of it was sticking to the ground and I managed to get checked into my hotel right around 6:00 p.m.

Lake Tahoe

I had never really spent any time in Lake Tahoe in all of my previous travels, but in 2006, I spent a few hours driving along its western shores when I was driving my mom’s ashes from Chicago to San Diego to honor her wishes of having them scattered in the ocean off of the Hotel del Coronado. Needless to say, that was a bittersweet trip, but Lake Tahoe impressed me so much with its beauty that I knew I had to return one day.

I had three nights and two full days to play around the area, and one of the places I knew that I wanted to photograph both for sunrise and the full moonrise was Emerald Bay on the southwest corner of the lake.

That first night, I wandered off to find someplace to eat, and stumbled across McP’s Tap and Grill—a sister restaurant to the original McP’s Irish Pub in Coronado. I had no idea. After dinner, I stepped into a photography gallery and chatted with the salesperson. He gave me some tips on places to go for good photographs of the lake. I made my way back to the hotel and called it an early night.

This would be another oh-dark-thirty alarm setting to make sure that I got to Emerald Bay in time for a sunrise photo. The lookout point over Emerald Bay was a good 35-minute drive from my hotel, so that meant I had to be on the road not much later that 5:30 a.m. (Which isn’t as bad as the guy who was already at the lookout when I arrived. He drove all the way from Reno, Nevada, about an hour and a half, to be there just for the sunrise. That means he probably left his house around 3:30 a.m.)

It was a brisk 24°F / -4° C and the sunrise was a tad disappointing. There weren’t any clouds around to add interest or for the light to reflect off of to make it truly spectacular. Still, it was worth the effort. While waiting for the sunrise, I was able to practice speaking German to a young couple from the northern part of Germany. I was a bit rusty, but they didn’t seem to mind.

After sunrise, I drove back to my hotel, grabbed breakfast (included with the room), and then went to explore the Nevada side of the lake. The salesperson in a photo gallery near McP’s gave me some tips on places to check out. One of them was Sand Harbor State Park on the northeast part of the lake.

As its name implies, there are some wide, sandy beaches at the park, but there are also lots of boulders strewn about the shoreline making for some interesting scenes and compositions. The clarity and color of the water in the area are truly remarkable—it makes you pause and wonder how this can exist in nature. As I was wandering through the park, I ran into a second family from Germany, this time from Berlin, and I practiced my German skills with them, too.

I knew that I needed to be back at Emerald Bay for the moonrise around 6:30 p.m., so I decided to just continue in a counterclockwise circle all the way around the lake.

I stopped for lunch in Tahoe City and when I got to Emerald Bay around 3:30 p.m., there was no place to park in the parking lot or along the highway. There were simply too many cars at that point, so I headed to the Taylor Creek Visitor Center—an unplanned but delightful stop.

The Taylor Creek park is run by the U.S. Forest Service and I was really impressed with all that it had to offer—hiking trails to the old Tallac Historic site, the lake, through some of the marshland, and it even had boardwalks next to the creek where you could watch the salmon run.

I made it back to Emerald Bay by 6:00 p.m., in time to get set up for the moonrise, and had a lovely conversation with a young couple visiting from Hong Kong while we waited. When the moon finally did rise, the reality wasn’t like the image I had imagined in my head, so I guess I was a bit disappointed once again. Nonetheless, I snapped away.

After being out all day long in the chilly mountain air, I was ready for a nice hot dinner. Right next to my hotel was Izabella Ristorante Italiano, and this was going to be my “splurge” meal of the trip. I ordered the lasagna ala bolognese and a nice glass of Pinot noir to warm me from the inside-out. That lasagna could have served 3 people but I managed to put it away all by myself. My server was a bit taken aback by my feat, and I assured her that I had been up since 4:30 a.m. and planning for this all day long. Still, it was a bit much, but, oh, it was good.

The next morning, I was up early for the sunrise once again, but this time, I was a bit lazy and tried to capture it from the south end of the lake not far from where I was staying, and it really wasn’t worth the effort.

It was chilly again—25° F / -4° C—but I was so impressed by Taylor Creek that I returned there to wander more of its trails. The Jeffrey Pine trail was interesting and informative, but the Rainbow Trail is perhaps the best trail in the park, complete with a subterranean walk that has a Plexiglas window into the stream so you can see the fish and other creatures.

After spending a good chunk of the morning at Taylor Creek, I headed around the lake again, this time in a clockwise direction. (I recommend you go in a clockwise direction because it’s much easier to pull off the road at the lookout or parking points along the way.) It was a leisurely drive with no set objective or agenda. I stopped when I wanted and just sat beside the lake and took in all the beauty around me. One thing that is a little frustrating about driving around the lake is the lack of public access. Many private homes are built right on the water’s edge, and that makes it nearly impossible to access the lake in many locations.

The monster lasagna from the night before was still holding me over, so I skipped lunch and just kept driving around the lake. At this point, I was photographed out, and just wanted to spend a relaxing afternoon around the hotel and walking through the Heavenly Village shopping area with its shops and restaurants. I stopped for a late lunch/early dinner around 3:30 p.m. at California Burger Company and then wandered through the shops and galleries.

On my way back to my hotel, I stopped in the same photo gallery that I did the night before and met Robert Cole, a professional photographer who worked in the gallery. He and I chatted for a 30-45 minutes and, even in that short amount of time, I learned a lot from him. We connected on Instagram and I hope to continue to be inspired by his work.

Reno and Carson City

It was time to leave Lake Tahoe and head to Reno to meet my friend, Edward, who was on a temporary work assignment there. I had only passed by Reno travelling on I-80 across the country and never really stopped. Casinos and gambling just aren’t my thing.

Edward was being lodged at Circus Circus and, as its name implies, the inside is much like a circus, especially with some of the garish decorations on the walls. We both wanted to escape that environment and Edward suggested we check out the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, so we did.

A volunteer gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of one of their storage buildings and where they do much of the restoration work itself. The museum and its staff and volunteers have done an amazing job of restoring some of the locomotives and rolling stock. You could imagine it rolling out of a showroom door if they had locomotive showrooms in the 19th century.

After having lunch at Red’s Old 395 Grill, we headed back to Reno and spent the rest of the afternoon walking along its river walk. The Truckee River runs through Reno and they’ve done a great job putting in this walk that takes you through some quaint neighborhoods with lovely craftsman style homes.

After a tasty dinner at Liberty Food & Wine Exchange, I said good-bye to Edward and headed to my less garish Holiday Inn in Sparks for the night.

Western Nevada

The next part of my trip would be the true “coloring” part of this whole adventure. I drove east out of Reno to U.S. 95 (which added about an hour and a half or so to the drive), and turned south to follow the highway all the way to Yuma, Arizona. All of that would be new to me.

Western Nevada is rather desolate, with plenty of dry lake beds, barren mountains, and very little vegetation. In one of my Facebook posts, I said that I must have taken a wrong turn and landed on Mars. Even so, there is beauty there if you just look for it. The rock formations are unique and the minerals in the rocks provide a variety of colors.

One thing you want to watch closely is your fuel level. There were a couple of stretches where you would see signs, “The next services 105 miles (169 km)”. I was thankful I had a couple of liters of water in a cooler in my trunk, just in case. I stopped for lunch in Tonopah, and the tiny town of Goldfield looked interesting, but at this point, I didn’t have time to stop.

It took me exactly 10 hours to make the drive from Reno to Las Vegas; that was my longest driving day of the trip. (I didn’t speed because I saw at least six Nevada Highway Patrol or sheriff’s cars working the highway.)

Las Vegas

Arriving in Las Vegas a week after the horrific mass shooting was concerning to me, I’m not going to lie. But not in a fear-for-my-safety kind of way, but more in a “How am I going to react emotionally?” kind of way. What follows is my raw reaction and what I posted on Facebook shortly after arriving in my hotel and visiting the memorial to the victims (edited slightly to clean up errors made while typing on a cell phone).

When I planned this little road trip and booked my hotels several weeks ago, none of us had an inkling as to what would unfold here in Las Vegas last weekend. Nor did I realize the proximity of my Holiday Inn Express to the Mandalay Bay until I was looking on Google Maps during my lunch break on the drive down.

You can see the Mandalay Bay from my room (the one on the right in the photo taken through the screen on my window). I can probably walk there in 7-10 minutes.

I asked the receptionist at the front desk how she was and the city were doing, and she put on a brave face, but was honest in saying that they’re somber and coming to terms with the horror that happened here. She also said that they’re doing their best to move forward and return to a sense of normalcy.

I felt a need to walk over to the makeshift memorial beneath the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, not out of a sense of macabre curiosity, but to acknowledge all those who were impacted here and to show my support.

Little did I know what I was about to experience.

As I turned the corner onto Las Vegas Boulevard, there were hundreds of people on the sidewalk and in the median, all coming to grieve, support each other, and remember the victims by writing a note, leaving flowers, or lighting a candle at the base of the Las Vegas sign.

The mood was somber and respectful. People spoke in hushed tones, punctuated by the occasional sniffle that comes with quiet weeping. A father hugged his 4 or 5 year old daughter. Couples held hands a little tighter.

What moved me the most were the 58 white crosses made by a retired carpenter from Aurora, Illinois (and who drove them to Las Vegas himself), lined up, with people walking on both sides of the row in a steady, solemn procession, reading the names and looking at the photos of each victim. One man in the line gently touched each and every cross as he passed by. There was no rushing, no impatience in the line.

The woman in front of me knew one of the younger victims through her daughter. The two girls did did a study abroad class together when they were in high school and she spoke very fondly of the girl who was killed.

The experience certainly moved me to tears and is something I won’t ever forget.

After visiting the memorial, I walked past the Mandalay Bay and the venue where this horrific event happened. There was still a strong police presence there, and I had zero curiosity to know what was behind the screened fences.

Being here in person, hearing stories about the victims from people who knew them makes this very real.

The Drive Home

After eight days on the road, it was time to get home, so photography went out the window on this last leg. Besides, the midday temperatures were pushing 100° F / 38° C and I really didn’t feel like stepping outside the car in that heat.

The drive between Las Vegas and Yuma on U.S. 95 is a bit more scenic than it was in western Nevada. More vegetation like Ocotillo and Saguaro dot the hillsides, and for a portion of it, you parallel the Colorado River as it heads to the Sea of Cortez. After a brief stop for fuel and lunch in Yuma (where gas was nearly a dollar per gallon cheaper than in California), I turned west and headed home, hitting the low point on the entire trip: an elevation of -70 feet / -21 m below sea level.

Nine hours and 8 minutes after leaving Las Vegas, I was home.

Epilogue

This was perhaps one of the most demanding trips that I’ve done in recent memory. Demanding in a variety of ways.

It was physically demanding as I pushed myself to (cautiously) traipse through deserts, climb boulders, and hike mountain trails at elevation. My legs ached from walking on uneven surfaces and my shoulders told me they carried 20 lbs. / 9 kg of camera gear on my back. I froze in the mornings and sweated in the afternoons. I forced myself to get up at ridiculous hours to capture some pretty nice sunrises, and I pushed through pretty much every day, taking only short breaks to rest. I was on a mission, and it was worth every ache, pain, and runny nose. (My ankle was/is fine, by the way.)

The trip was emotionally demanding as well. The story of Manzanar is so powerful it got the better of me for a second time, and recalling my trip with my mother’s ashes as I sat having lunch in Tahoe City brought a tinge of sadness, too. Of course, the raw emotions of being in Las Vegas so soon after the travesty that occurred there was more than sorrowful. You could not help but hurt along with everyone else in the city. Then I realized, too, that had I been able to stick to my original plan, I would have been in Las Vegas about 12 hours before all of that sheer terror happened.

All that aside, the trip was a very rewarding one. I met some really interesting people from all over the world along the way, and learned some helpful photography tips from a professional. I got smarter about my equipment and learned there’s still room for improvement when it comes to compositions (a number of my 768 images looked better through the viewfinder than they do on the screen). I also learned that, on such a tight schedule, you can’t always be shooting in the “golden hour” or the “blue hour”; if you want the shot, you sometimes have to take it with the light you have.

The greatest reward for me, though, came from being in some truly sublime places and having an overwhelming sense of peace while there. Standing in solitude in the pre-dawn darkness under that canopy of stars, touching the bark of a tree that was alive a thousand or more years before the birth of Christ, or gazing into the crystal clear depths of one of our most pristine lakes makes you completely forget about silly little things like midnight basketball playing neighbors, getting stuck in traffic, and, yes, even cancer.

I wouldn’t change a thing about this trip—except maybe not eat the whole lasagna in one meal.

Fun Statistics

Total Distance Traveled:   2,063 miles / 3.320 km

Total Driving Time: 45:32 hours:minutes

Fuel Consumption: 28.3 mpg / 8.3 L/100 km

Average Speed: 46.5 mph / 74.9 km/h

Highest elevation: 10,040 feet / 3.060 m

Lowest elevation: -70 feet / -21 m

Coldest Temperature: 24°F / -4.4° C

Hottest Temperature: 101°F / 38°C

Route Map

4 thoughts on “Sierra Sunrises, Solitude, and Sorrow

  1. Reblogged this on Dan's Journey through Prostate Cancer and commented:

    If anyone’s interested, here’s the write-up on my recent trip through the Alabama Hills, Manzanar National Historic Site, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Bodie State Historic Park, Lake Tahoe, Reno, and western Nevada, including an emotional stop in Las Vegas. —Dan

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