Friday, June 12, 2020

Ancient and Far Away

There are times when the mundane, even in non mundane places, is absolutely spectacular. There are times when the small things totally count. And there are times when something seemingly mundane and small counts for a lot.

My yearly trip to the bristlecone pines. My time alone. My time away. My time to be with things ancient and far away. Both things of which are lacking in my everyday life. Nothing is really ancient. And not too much is really far away with planes and trains etc.. The bristlecone pine trees are high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Ten thousand feet up to be exact. The ground is rocky and the soil is hard. The weather is extreme all year with high winds and snow and summer heat. The trees weren't even discovered until 1953. They may have been stumbled over before, but it wasn't until 1953 that core samples were taken and the true age of the trees was made known. The man who discovered them took a core sample and brought it back to his campsite. After dinner he started to count. He looked back in time while staring into hard wood rings. And by the time he went to bed he found out the tree was 4723 years old! The oldest living thing on the planet. He found the ancient and the far away.

My trip started with a picture. As most of my trips do. But this one was three years in the making. I always wanted to go to Mono Lake near Mammoth ski resort. It's sixty miles past the pines but if I drove to the trees, I was going to drive the extra sixty miles for a chance to view the Mono Lake tufas. What is a tufa you might ask? No, you will ask because who the hell knows what a tufa is. They are tall rock and salt columns that formed over many years as Mono Lake was drained to satisfy L.A's need for water. They look pretty neat. But they aren't cool. At least they weren't to me. I went to sleep at ten thirty right near the water. At four fifteen I got up to the sun already peaking up over the horizon. I grabbed my camera and tripod and ran to the waters edge to see the famous tufa and take some great pictures. When I got to the water I was totally underwhelmed. The tufa were just rocks. And the lake was a lake. I don't know what I was expecting but it wasn't that. Serves me right for having any expectations to begin with. I stood there on the shore with the sun coming up trying to find some angle or cool way to shoot the rocks against the rising sun. I couldn't find it. I couldn't find anything to shoot as the sun was coming up. It all felt drab. I walked around and took some shots of the first things I saw and put in not so much effort to find more. The sun was rising and there didn't seem to be a way to frame a good shot. So I walked away. I don't do that very well most times with my camera. But this time I felt certain that I had shot nothing worth looking at. I was certain that I wasted 120 miles of time and gas to wake up too late and shoot water. As I was walking away with my tripod over my shoulder, I saw a bench. A place to sit. A place to reflect. And so I sat. And I reflected. On my life and the last thirty minutes. I got nothing. I missed it. I missed the good shot. I came all this way for boring rocks and water. What was the point? And so I sat. Watching the sun rise over the water. And lamenting my lack of good shots to take home. And the sun rose. I watched it rise and thought....that's a pretty picture. So while I was caught up in reflection I stood up and shot twelve pictures of the sun and water. With each one I changed the angle slightly. With each one I tried to see the beauty. I tried to find what I was looking for. I finished the shots and got up feeling as though I might have shot a good one. Might. I walked back to my van past the tufa without taking another picture. So my van went back to the pines and the things I came to see.

There is a rule of thumb with me that has held true for a long time. On every short trip if I get two framers...two pictures that would look right hanging on the was a good trip. Two pictures like that...the ones you sell...are worth any amount of time. They're worth the time because even if I never sell one, they are no less beautiful. I got to my campsite and looked at the trees and imagined some neat pictures at night with some light painting and campfires. I camped on that first day and relaxed waiting for my chance to take pictures of the stars and the milky way and ancient things. In years past that has been where I found the treasures. That was where I found the framers. After my debacle at Mono Lake I could only hope to find my "two" roaming the trees at night with some flashlights and a tripod. At the end of the day I decided to take a hike among the bristlecones.

On that first night the winds picked up and they actually howled. No kidding. Wind can actually do that far away from the pages of spookie books. I started my camp fire and watched the wind attack it while half a bottle of lighter fluid did it's job. At that point I did what I found most amazing last year...I walked around and took pictures of the huge tree with the campfire behind it. For whatever reason, I do not get tired of those. The huge trees glowing like it's on fire is a juicy image. And the tree right in the front of the camp ground was massive. I went around and took twelve shots. They were all long was a half hour...and when I was done I went to bed. Plain and simple. I didn't feel like shooting the stars or the milky way which comes out so bright and milky on film. Why? Why didn't I feel like looking up into the heavens? I don't know. I just didn't. The fire died out and so did I. I slept well that night. Why, when I had taken so few shots, was I not bothered or rushed? I don't know. I just wasn't. The glowing tree was in my camera and the stars were hanging thick over my head. And I slept.

And on the third day I rested. I read. And I went back to the grove to scout for a tree to shoot at night....the wind ended up being too strong to do that. I tried my hand at one panorama picture that ended up being the most boring picture ever taken. Finally the night came and it was windy again. Very windy. So I started up the fire and used the other half of my bottle of lighter fluid to keep it going. I shot ten pictures that night. I had a green glow stick and some other lights to add to the the camp fire light behind the tree. I got a few good pictures and called it a night. The stars held no sway nor did the milky way. How strange that I was up in the darkest place in the country and I didn't want to shoot the stars. Before I went to bed I saw something truly rare. Most people will never see it. I saw a meteorite enter our lower atmosphere. Not a shooting star streak...but the actual huge chunk of rock burning it's way towards earth. Now that was cool. It was the coolest thing I have seen in a very long time. I slept and was happy with my ten pictures.

The drive home was long. Very long. I was tired and wanted to process my shots of trees and mountains. Upon arriving home I did just that. I stayed up all night. All three nights and two days. It was short but I was hoping for my "two". Truthfully I would have been happy with one.

There was this picture I took one morning sitting on a bench lamenting my poor judgement for going that far out into the mountains. And it's my favorite picture. As I looked through my pictures and sorted them out there were two that stood out above the rest. One was on the shore of Mono Lake randomly shooting things that looked interesting. Things that I though were of no worth. And the other was on a bench walking away from those things. Both pictures were a total surprise. And yet there they were.

I got some good pictures of glowing trees. I even took a very long panorama picture. And a sunset on the drive there that was pretty. But none of them compared to my "two". My two pictures that were worth framing. My two pictures that came from aimless wandering on the shores of a half empty lake and a rest stop enjoying the sunrise. 


Unrealized Moment

A Fiery Tree Is Also Pretty

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