The father next door was snoring, it was loud.
It was 3:30 a.m.
I had an alarm for 4:30 but accepted my fate. Anxious about the sunrise, I slithered out of my sleeping bag, threw on hiking boots and a beanie, and left.
There was some cold, black coffee in my YETI and I drank it.
The drive was spooky and marvelous. Darkness all around, stars above. Total silence besides my tires on the road. Not another human.
Rabbits and field mice darted across my beams every minute. Strange they’d cross the only machine in sight. Maybe it was a thrill, maybe they liked the light. Or maybe they were running around everywhere.
I pulled over to check out the universe. There was already a faint, blue glow behind the hills to the east, the western sky was still covered in stars. I saw a stretch of the Milky Way falling from the heavens, perpendicular to the horizon.
I popped the hatch and found the Walmart tripod and my little mirrorless camera, which assists with manual focus—perfect for astrophotography.
I’ve tried shooting the night sky a few times since my first visit to Joshua Tree. I’ve never been thrilled with the results, but it always causes me to think critically and be patient. Too fast, not enough light. Too slow, the stars trail.
I could barely see the brush in front of me. Here’s the shot, processed to look how I remember it:
The Cholla Cactus Garden faces east, a great place to catch the sunrise.
There’s a small parking lot and I was the first one there.
It was still dark, the moon was visible to the south. The open expanse was surrounded by hills and felt like another planet.
I set up, composed a few shots, and was reminded I’m not very creative on fumes.
The cold coffee had worn off. I was now just a filthy, exhausted camper, robotically working a camera and remote.
I had to hang in there. Research told me the rising sun would make the cacti glow.
What research didn’t tell me was loose cactus spines latch onto anything passing by—they're nicknamed “jumping cactus.”
The tufts look cute at first, like fuzzy, green balls in a static electricity lesson. But they’re not. The pricks really get in there and are almost impossible to remove on location. I tried to kick one off my boot, it jumped to the other foot. Stepping back in amazement, I watched another jump on.
At one point there were seven or eight of these suckers stuck to my boots and pants.
I swiped carefully with a knife and cut right through one, but the tips remained lodged in my boot. I could feel them through my socks.
I looked up and let out a massive sigh. Dammit. I had a grungy headache, dry eyes, and smelled like a campfire.
That father, man.
Sunlight spilled over the hills, the garden was indeed glowing. I took a deep breath and decided to rally. With crankiness as fuel, I swapped in my 45mm lens, which balances well and feels good to walk around with.
I ditched the tripod, used the Force to tread carefully, and worked a bunch of shots, finding my flow.
This is the winner:
Soon, a few tourists caught my ear. I decided that was my cue.
The sun was up, but the park was still pretty dead. I passed one pickup truck and was almost back to the campgrounds.
The day before, I drove slowly past Skull Rock and saw kids crawling all over it, Instagrammers taking selfies, and cars overflowing from the lot.
It was totally vacant at the moment, so I pulled over to check it out.
Some of the best moments I experience in always-bustling Southern California are before 9:00 a.m., when I've got the place to myself.
Back at Jumbo Rocks
The father and daughter were packing, loading their car. “Remember how we folded this up before?” One night in Joshua Tree, they arrived after me.
He was sweet as he guided her, but I wondered if she slept a wink. He might as well have played trombone in their tent for seven hours.
I guzzled water from a gallon jug. I still had a long day ahead, and Utah. When they left I crawled into my tent.
Late morning, I set up the propane grill and made corned beef hash, beans, and black coffee with a French press, and started to come around.
Flies buzzed about. It had to be 85 degrees already. I quickly devised a garbage system with a lid.
I didn't see anyone that could've been the John Denver girls.
I ate the entire meal in the blazing sun, the first meal since L.A.
When I camp I don’t eat much. Everything’s canned or zipped--beef jerky, almonds, apples, that kind of thing. After a day or two, I realize thoughts about food have been ruling my daily life. Not that I'm always hungry, but seem to be vaguely concerned about the next meal, the best time to beat the crowd at Trader Joe's, and so on.
Camping is about coming back to center. I had my big meal, so I’d close my eyes and take a few breaths in front of a dead fire ring.
I heard cardboard scraping around. I opened my eyes to find a giant crow destroying my state-of-the-art garbage system.
“Uh—hey dude.” What a mess. “Seriously, man?”
He half spread his wings as a courtesy but couldn’t pull himself away. So entitled.
“Oh yeah, coffee grounds. Get in there, you little shit.”
Centered, like I said.
“Alright, you don't want that. Come on, dude.” As I walked over, his wings snapped like beach blankets and off he went, to a rock ten yards away.
I found the dumpster, then left to find a gas station.
"NO BACKPACKS IN BATHROOM"
With travel kit stuffed in my pocket, I waited in line with seven men behind me. It reminded me of days touring with a band. Sure, bathing by sink in a dirty gas station isn’t ideal, but what’s the alternative?
Split Rock Hike
I researched a few trails before leaving L.A. and decided on Split Rock, not far from camp. I was geared up.
Split Rock is a loop trail about two miles long. The trail has open areas to explore and interesting rock formations. I would consider it an easy hike, however it is possible to lose the trail—on purpose or not.
I enjoyed the trail so much I hiked it twice, a little over four miles total. I was loosely training for Zion in Utah, hiking poles and all. I broke a sweat and tried to get the most out of it.
The open clearings on this trail caught me by surprise, usually waiting behind a wall of boulders or incline on the trail. And with no one around that day—I probably passed five people total—the experience was even more surreal.
I kept my camera mostly in its backpack and used my iPhone to snap a few photos. Sometimes a hike is just a hike.
I wanted to find a good spot to catch the sunset, and drove about a mile south and west of the campgrounds. I found a nice, open clearing with hills and clouds in the background.
My goal was to find a scene to shoot later, as the sun went down, and ultimately produce an art print with one of those images. I used my compass to make sure the composition would make sense later.
I loved the look of this particular tree (technically a succulent but let’s not split hairs…it's a photo blog, not biology class) and immediately nicknamed it “Crazy Bones.”
I named other contenders "Llama" and "Centerpiece", the latter shown here:
Though I was scouting for a location to come back to, in hindsight this was one of my favorite moments of Summer 2019. There was no one around, it was a beautiful afternoon, just me and my camera with time to make broad strokes to refine later.
I felt satisfied with the hike, the corned beef hash, even the under-slept Cholla Garden experience.
I shot a bunch of photos during this scouting session, maybe they'll show up in my Instagram feed. However, in reviewing the shots I found myself coming back to one image. I had been searching for the right photo to print on Red River Paper Canvas--a funky, textured, matte paper--and this one fit. I named it "Scout."
Yoo-Hoo, Crazy Bones
I went back to camp to regroup, and enjoyed the most delicious, ice-cold Yoo-Hoo. It was the first Yoo-Hoo I’d tasted in at least fifteen years. Another peak moment, 2019.
I found a parking spot and suited up with all the night landscape stuff.
“Centerpiece” tugged at me as I hiked through the clearing, but intuition kept me moving. The landscape looked dramatically different, an orange glow cast across.
Light changes fast at sunset. Gear can be quirky. Batteries run out. I’ve found I need to be prepared on one hand, ready to improvise with the other, and willing to let go of ideas. I'm no master of landscape photography but love this aspect of it. Research, get there for the good light, think fast, use what you know. I asked myself: if you end up with one shot, which is it?
Crazy Bones, of course.
I set up in front of Crazy Bones and tried a few compositions. Here’s one of the early ones:
The sunlight catching brush in the foreground was icing on the cake.
I continued to fire away for a while, adjusting composition, enjoying myself, letting go of the need to cram other scenes into my agenda. Crazy Bones and I had a good hang as the sun descended, and my shutter speed got slower and slower.
Here's the image I chose to print, made about 3/4 of the way into my work. The sun is lower and I've pulled back to include more, with ol' Crazy Bones near the center.
It was hard to believe I'd be off to Utah in the morning. My first time.
I felt totally fulfilled by my experience at Joshua Tree, and a sense of gratitude as I stoked the fire back at my campsite. Other than to snap a few photos, I hadn't touched my iPhone.
I wanted to reach Zion in daylight with no issues, so I packed away almost everything. I thought of that guy and his daughter. "Remember how we folded this up before?"
There were still a few cactus pricks in my boots.
After an hour in front of the fire, I hit my sleeping bag like dead weight. I'll never know for sure, but I imagine I snored like a champ.