Road Trip: Nevada and California National Parks and Monuments

A friend of mine in Los Angeles recently bought one of my tintype photographs, and rather than entrust it to the postal system, I decided I needed to hand deliver it. (To be clear, in case my tone doesn’t come through, I used it as an excuse for a road trip.)

I’ve been itching to explore Nevada for quite a while, so I headed northwest out of Tempe toward Kingman and Las Vegas. I really want to get to Great Basin National Park one of these days, but the older and wiser me actually remembers to check the weather reports, and every time I have a chance to go to Great Basin it turns out it’s damn cold up there. I think I’ve tried three times. The first it was something like -13F. This time it was a good deal warmer, but they still had over 50 inches of snow on the main road. The ranger I called said they usually get it open sometime in late May or early June (I would have been there, this time, in mid-April).

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Side note: in case anyone is paying attention to earlier posts, the photo above is the first one I made with my new 65mm wide-angle lens and, more importantly for me, with the recessed lens board I made for myself. <grin>

Thanks to Emilie Heckel for the photo!

So I settled for Valley of Fire State Park, the brand-spanking-new Gold Butte National Monument next door, and the also very new Basin and Range National Monument a bit further north in Nevada.

I made a few tintype photographs in Valley of Fire and Gold Butte. Wasn’t inspired to make one in Basin and Range – I probably need to go back and spend more time there. At least on the one main road I was on, I mainly saw wide open plains and low mountains, which are beautiful, but I passed on setting up all the tintype gear.

Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

It’s a pretty empty space. Didn’t see anybody for hours or miles as I was driving through and setting up camp. Then just after dark some massive light source started moving slowly up the valley towards where I camped. Turns out it was a semi tractor with a huge water tank trailer – a rancher out watering his cows. He stopped his rig at my campsite and asked if I was ok. “Don’t see many people out here!”

Basin and Range National Monument, Nevada

Basin and Range National Monument, Nevada

After leaving Basin and Range things got interesting. I drove up through a section of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest that borders on the monument. Apparently they don’t get many people up there, either. A couple of ranchers (Mike and Evan) stopped their cattle trailers in the middle of the road in front of me so they could wave me down and have a chat.

Mike did all the talkin’: “You with that bachelor party?”

What bachelor party? I’d seen precisely one person – the rancher in the water tanker – in the past 24 hours. And it seems to me you’d have to be a pretty hard-core granola crunchy type, or a doomsday prepper, to think having a bachelor party in Basin and Range emptiness would be interesting. “Nope. Just on my own.”

“Are you a miner? Environmentalist?” (I wasn’t sure which derogatory term would have been worse to admit to being.) Mike is leaning over to look in and check out my car contents (which are admittedly somewhat unusual) and sees my homemade shelf system installed on the passenger seat, which provides spaces for my Nalgene water bottles and a container of wet wipes. “Whatcha testin’ there in them bottles?”

“Uh, those are just my water bottles. Drinking water. I’m a photographer. Spent the night back in the monument.”

“Just a whole lot a glorified nothing that is, isn’t it?”

“Well, it was a pretty and peaceful nothing, at least.”

“If you’re heading up the mountain, keep an eye out for drugs. We don’t need any of that shit back there. You see anything, you tell me.” And they let me pass. Tell you what, even if I had seen any drug activity up in those mountains, I sure as hell wasn’t going to backtrack and try to find Mike.

I got the heck out of there, up over the pass, and, as the saying goes, out of that frying pan and into a somewhat literal fire.

At some point in those mountains I topped over 8000ft elevation. From there I put my transmission in a lower gear and watched my mpg numbers go up as I coasted roughly 8126 feet downhill, over many miles, down into Death Valley.

I stopped in at the ranger station at Stovepipe Wells to get maps and suggestions on good locations to photograph (close to a parking area). Not wanting to camp in the heat of the valley, I also wanted to know how far my little car could make it up the dirt roads to the higher campsites. Had a good chat with the ranger, then headed up Emigrant Canyon Road to find a site.

Didn’t even make it to the end of the pavement. First my car went into neutral as I turned off the main highway. I figured I just didn’t have it fully in Drive or something. Fiddled with it and it seemed ok again. About a mile up the canyon it went into neutral and flashed a red very serious “Transmission Fault Service Now” warning. I pulled off the road and shut it down.

I tried everything I could think of. Checked the physical gear selector, disconnected the battery (the automotive equivalent of every IT troubleshooter’s first step “have you tried turning it off and back on?”), checked fuses, everything I, my owner’s manual, and the Haynes Service Manual could think of. Nothing worked. The car wouldn’t even start, didn’t even try to turn over.

Death Valley could be a terrifying place to have a major car breakdown, but in my case it worked out alright. I had a fine campsite with a beautiful view down over the valley.

Death Valley could be a terrifying place to have a major car breakdown, but in my case it worked out alright. I had a fine campsite with a beautiful view down over the valley. Dead car is visible off to the left.

Fortunately I had many gallons of water, plenty of food, shade from what was left of the evening sun, and warm clothes for the cold desert night. I was also on a fairly busy road, and had to turn away many offers of help while I tried to diagnose and fix it myself. I finally gave up, though, and asked somebody to send a ranger up.

Once the ranger arrived, and I convinced him it wasn’t a simple jump-start or that I was out of gas, he agreed to let me set up camp there next to my car. I didn’t want to get a ride down to the lower campsites, because a) I’d be away from the car and my stuff in it, and b) I’d have to get back to the car anyhow to deal with it. I didn’t need the amenities of a campground, so I figured I was better off staying put. He agreed, as long as I promised to Leave No Trace. I did better, and picked up a few pieces of garbage that weren’t mine, so I’m good.

I actually had a great night’s sleep. Very quiet, nice cool temperatures, dark. Slept well. And after I woke up and broke camp, I thought I’d see if my car would start. Maybe being off for about 12 hours would re-set something. Sure enough, cranked right up.

I made a u-turn and headed back down to Stovepipe Wells. Even if the car was running, I did not want to get further from “civilization”, cell reception, etc., until I knew what I was dealing with. Good call, as it turns out: I made it 7 of the 10 miles back down the mountain before it went irretrievably into neutral. Fortunately, at around 7am, there wasn’t much traffic to make me slow down (or crash into), and with the engine running I still had power steering and brakes. I coasted the remaining three miles down Route 190 into Stovepipe Wells and careened into a space in the parking lot.

This is not how I intended to leave Death Valley...

This is not how I intended to leave Death Valley…

I made a few texts and phone calls, and before long a AAA tow truck was on its way to pick me up, take me to a well-regarded mechanic in Ridgecrest, CA, where I could crash with my second cousin Josh and his roomies while my car was being repaired. Things could have turned out far worse. And the guy at the Stovepipe Wells hotel reception desk took pity on me and let me use the swimming pool’s shower for free, which, after five days and four nights on the road and camping, was very much needed.

The mechanic in Ridgecrest was nice enough to fit me in that same day, and after checking some error codes and making some phone calls, told me Ford was aware of the issue (which would have been nice to know before being stranded in Death Valley!) and the local dealership would repair it “under warranty” for free. So getting my car fixed cost me about $55 in diagnostic time fee for the mechanic, a tip for the tow truck driver, lost time (and no tintypes of Death Valley), and probably a few gray hairs (or another millimeter of forehead). Could have been worse!

And there were many silver linings. First, on the tow ride into Ridgecrest we passed some weird formations out in the flat lands near Trona. Did some research, found out they are Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark. More on that in a bit. I also got to stay with a relative and meet his roommates, all of whom were nice guys. Had an amazing burger at some local pub.

I didn’t really want to go to the dealership – I was getting good vibes from this mechanic – but he said he’d have to charge me, whereas the dealership would cover it under warranty. (The mechanic had the obligatory pile of magazines for his waiting customers, but unlike the usual selection of car mags, biker mags, and girlie mags (see my gas station observation of Kingman, above) this guy had Oprah, Better Homes and Gardens, and several issues of Vanity Fair. Reminded me of a mechanic back in Athens, Ohio, who had a master’s degree in sculpture.)

Anyhow, my interaction with the dealership didn’t start off well, either. I got on the phone and explained the situation, and asked what I needed to do about it.

“Well, first thing, you gotta get the car here.”

Um, thanks! I didn’t realize that. So helpful!  :-\

He also didn’t want me to bring it around that evening, since the tow probably wouldn’t get it there before they closed, and he didn’t want to have to push it around in the morning. Whatever.

So I got AAA to show up first thing in the morning, and had the car in their hands by 8am. Then the service administrator redeemed himself by mentioning, before I had a chance to ask the same question: “If you haven’t eaten yet, go to Kristy’s. It’s across the street and down a block or so. Their chili verde omelets are really good.”

I walked over and plopped down at the end of the counter. I knew the guy had recommended the chili verde omelets, but I’d been craving some good diner pancakes, eggs, and bacon, so I ordered that, and some coffee. I was sitting near where the servers stand during brief breaks in their hectic work, and got to talking with my server, Linda. We had a nice friendly talk throughout my breakfast – punctuated by her tending to her other customers, or getting hugs from patrons as they were leaving. Reminded me of some of the good memories from my cafe back in Circleville.

Got a call around 10am that my car was already fixed. They had to replace part of the computer – the Transmission Control Module – and get it programmed, and I was on my way. I had to deal with some other things for my mom during the day, then headed back to the Trona Pinnacles in the evening to finally make some tintype photographs there.

I'm just going to assume they picked the best views for their photography. Grr.

I’m just going to assume they picked the best views for their photography. Grr.

It looked like there was a large film production crew out at the Pinnacles, but they didn’t have any signage or anybody to wave me off, so I skirted the edge of the area and went about my business. Couldn’t tell what exactly they were doing – there was a pickup truck careening around the spires, being chased by four powered paragliders (all being filmed by a helicopter). It was either some kind of action movie, a music video, or (as it turned out) a commercial for Ram trucks.

The helicopter (lower right) was flying so low that it was passing between the Pinnacles, well below their tops (and not much above my head).

The helicopter (lower right) was flying so low that it was passing between the Pinnacles, well below their tops (and not much above my head).

They made several circuits: a few medium shots, one or two wide shots (with the helicopter directly over my head), a couple of closeups, and at least one pass with the helicopter very low and close to the truck, but without the paragliders buzzing around.

Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark

Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark

I assume the film crew had scouted out the most scenic locations, so I tried to make the most of the scraps around the edges. I hope I stayed out of their shots, but if you see a Ram Truck commercial with a maroon pickup zooming around weird gray rock formations in the desert, keep an eye out for some dork in a floppy hat, black apron, carrying a big 4×5 camera on a tripod.

The next morning I went back to Kristy’s, of course, and as soon as I walked in the door the host (manager?) started putting a mug of coffee and a glass of water at my spot at the end of the counter. I was a regular after one visit. I liked this place. My server this time was Maria, who was also super pleasant and nice. And the chili verde omelet was, indeed, delicious. Linda stopped by to ask how my car troubles were (“all fixed, thanks!”) and I promised I’d be back next time I was in Ridgecrest.

From Ridgecrest I drove into Los Angeles, where I spent a few days visiting some old friends from my days in Maine, and an even older friend – a classmate and bandmate from undergrad times.

Am I in California, or back in Rockport, Maine? My friends Lizzie, Sam, and Tim - all now working for another friend Loren, in Los Angeles - used to work with me up in Maine. It was great to meet up with them again 3000+ miles away.

Am I in California, or back in Rockport, Maine? My friends Lizzie, Sam, and Tim – all now working for another friend Loren, in Los Angeles – used to work with me up in Maine. It was great to meet up with them again 3000+ miles away.

The LA visit was, considering the trip so far, blissfully uneventful. Aside from nice food and visits with friends, I didn’t do anything “LA”. I had some more mom-related stuff to deal with, so aside from that I just chilled out for a bit. Couldn’t resist making one tintype of the gang, though, to demonstrate my portable darkroom.

The last stop on this trip’s itinerary was Joshua Tree National Park. By the time I climbed up out of the LA basin (via Big Bear Lake, i.e., not the fastest route) and got to Joshua Tree it was pretty late, on a Saturday, in peak season. The campsites in the park were all full (which is a shame, since, I now know, they are situated in some beautiful spots). There is a weird patch of BLM land north of the town of Joshua Tree – looks like a regular city block on the map – so I drove out to make sure I’d find a spot later that night. Then I went back into the park to scout locations.

I didn’t think I’d have time for any tintypes this evening, but right as I was about to be done scouting for the day I spied a twisted pine tree and a neat rock, and make a few frantic exposures.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

I know, I know, it’s not a Joshua Tree.

I was able to find a campsite on that BLM land, in the mostly-dark, since it’s just a wide flat mudplain, without any other real organization to it. Which also worried me – lacking roads or anything, people just drove across it willy-nilly. I parked my car off of a set of ruts, and actually pitched my tent on the far side of my car, and close to it, to reduce the chance somebody would run over me in the middle of the night. (And in case you think “who would be dumb / drunk enough to run over a big tent in their headlights?”, people were shooting guns at the surrounding hillside, including some semi-automatics and something with a rather loud “boom!”, well into the dark night.)

Somewhere out in that direction was where the gunfire was coming from.

Somewhere out in that direction was where the gunfire was coming from.

In the morning I got up, got some coffee from a store in Joshua Tree, and headed back into the park. I picked one of the locations I’d seen the evening before, and settled into the parking lot there to get set up. As was the case in Saguaro National Park, I felt like I could plop down in one spot and spend the entire day making photographs. Work here for a bit, turn the tripod 90 degrees, photograph that for a while, move it 30 feet, spend another hour or so, etc.

Joshua Tree National Park, California. If you look closely there are some people rock climbing on the left side of the outcrop.

Joshua Tree National Park, California. If you look closely there are some people rock climbing on the left side of the outcrop.

I get a lot of inquisitive looks and questions when I’m working out in the field. To set the scene: I pull up to a spot, open my trunk, and after fishing around in a weird big black box with two holes in it, put on a black apron. Not the typical behavior in a National Park parking lot. Then I pull on a pair of blue nitrile gloves, and that’s when the questions start.

Yes, I did manage to make a tintype of an actual Joshua Tree in Joshua Tree National Park.

Yes, I did manage to make a tintype of an actual Joshua Tree in Joshua Tree National Park.

I’ve been asked if I am an archaeologist (if I am documenting artifacts or cleaning them), if I am releasing wild animals, and plenty of jokes about cooking meth. Had this conversation at one of the locations in Joshua Tree:

Random guy, looking at me and the stuff in my car’s trunk: “Got anything interesting in there?”

Me, proudly: “It’s my darkroom! I make photos in here!”

Random guy, obvious disappointment in his voice: “Oh. I thought maybe you had bugs or something.” [wanders off]

Most of the interactions are fun, positive, and I get to meet a bunch of interesting people from all around the world. This trip there were a lot of French people – must have been school break back there. Other times it’s other nationalities, and always plenty of Americans out there exploring.

Joshua Tree National Park, California. If you look closely there are some people rock climbing near the top left side of the tall rock.

Joshua Tree National Park, California. If you look closely (click on the photo to enlarge) there are some people rock climbing near the top left side of the tall rock.

I ran into one guy, “Chip”, from New Jersey, and we had a blast chatting about photography and equipment and all that. He was fascinated by my darkbox. He mentioned that he got into platinum palladium printing relatively recently, so I thought to ask from whom did he learn the process? Historical (“Alternative”) Process printing is a small world, so there was a decent chance I would know the teacher. “Oh, this guy named Tillman.” Yep, small world! (Tillman is a friend of mine from my days in midcoast Maine.)

I finally forced myself to stop making photographs in the park. Scarfed down some lunch, washed off my plates (tintype plates and food plates) and got in the car for the fairly-straight run along I-10 to home!

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