Is There Anything Left to Photograph?

“Everything that could possibly be invented, has already been invented.”

— Robert Thoms, U.S. Patent Office, 1892

Despite the prophetic wisdom of Mr. Thoms, a few more patents were issued in the 121 years since he said that. A few things happened in the automotive, aerospace, computer, and telecommunications industries, for example.

—–

As a photographer, I’ve heard people say there is nothing left to photograph. All beautiful places have been canvased.  All the great themes have been saturated.  Everything that could possibly be done has already boon done.

Yet tens of millions of new, unique images are still produced worldwide on a daily basis.

—–

If you go to a location where classic images have been produced in the past, it’s important to approach it with the right attitude.

Walk away from the classic vistas, the scenic viewpoints, the places you’ve seen done (better) by countless other photographers.

Seek something different.

Follow your own path.

You’ll find that even in a place that’s been “all photographed out”, there are still billions of opportunities to produce new images uniquely your own.

Death Valley National Park, 2006

not what you might expect…Death Valley National Park, 2006

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The Crooked Trail

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”

-Edward Abbey

The "99 Switchbacks", Mt. Whitney Trail, Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The “99 Switchbacks”, Mt. Whitney Trail, Sierra Nevada Mountains.

On the (Geology Tour) Road Again

Another trip out to Joshua Tree National Park last weekend, this time for a little bouldering and mountain biking out at Geology Tour Road.

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On the road…driving through Banning Pass near Palm Springs.

I’ve been on Geology Tour Road quite a few times, but had not bouldered or mountain biked in that area for probably 15 years.  Arrived at the West Entrance at about 7:20 a.m., and within half an hour was deep in the middle of nowhere on one of my favorite dirt roads.  By the time I got out of the car to scope out the boulders, I could already tell it was going to be a hot one.

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Looking out into Pleasant Valley from Geology Tour Road.

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Young Joshua Trees and boulders near about 5 miles down Geology Tour Road.

Easy, juggy crack. I actually remember climbing this problem ~15 years ago. Quite fun, so I did it multiple times.

Little slabby arete that I thought was going to be lame…turned out to be much more difficult than it looked with some sparse, loose feet.

With the bouldering warmup done, and starting to feel the heat, I continued south down Geology Tour Road and parked in the Squaw Tank pullout.  This is the last good place to park before the one-way loop portion of Geology Tour Road starts (about 100 yards south of the pullout).

Years ago I had mountain biked the upper portion of Geology Tour Road as an out-and-back.  It sticks out in my mind as possibly the most miserable time I ever had on a bike, as there was just SO MUCH SAND.  I was hoping that the loop portion of the road would not be nearly as sandy, but had no real beta on it.

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Crossing Pleasant Valley in Joshua Tree National Park.

The first ~1 mile of the loop was very sandy and kind of miserable in spots.  It was downhill, but for the most part I had to ride slow because of the deep sand–in fact there were spots where I was going downhill but had to peddle hard just to maintain forward momentum.  There were several spots where I just gave up and walked it.

That said, it was a nice ride going east along the base of the Hexie Mountains.  Once the road turned south and crossed Pleasant Valley, the peddling got easier but there was still some sand in spots.  It was nice to be out in the middle of the valley, early in the morning, all alone.  Well, not completely alone.  As I peddled across, I spooked a flock of several hundred sparrows who were hunkered down in the low grass “meadow” of Pleasant Valley.  It was quite a sight, to be right in the middle of all those birds.

The road then turned to the southwest for a mild climb up along the base of the Little San Bernardino Mountains.  Just before the road turned north back towards Squaw Tank, I came to this Wilderness boundary right next to the road at at the start of a hiking trail (the “Pushwalla Corridor”).

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I later did some research online and it appears that this is the aptly named Joshua Tree Wilderness Area, but I could not find a map that shows the boundary coming this close to the road…?

At this point the heat was starting to get to me, so I took a little break and drank a bunch of water, then pushed the last 1.5 miles or so back to the car.

DSC_7145_conThe last half to three quarters of a mile back to the car featured a lot of annoying sand, and I spent most of the time trying to read the road and not enjoying the scenery.  But it was absolutely gorgeous out there.

When I got back to my car, a large SUV drove by–the first other sign of human life I had seen on Geology Tour Road that morning.  By the time I had made it back to the pavement, about a dozen four wheel drive vehicles had sped past me.  On Geology Tour Road, it pays to get an early start…

The total trip was about 6.2 miles with about 550 feet of elevation gain.  It was more strenuous than I expected, because of all that damn sand.  An excellent morning of bouldering and mountain biking in one of the most beautiful places on earth, but when it was over, I needed this place:

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The New Normal

Pulling in to the West Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park at about 7:45 a.m., I was surprised to see the booth already open that early in the morning, manned by a ranger.  The park had only just re-opened a couple days prior, after Congress had raised the white flag and released the hostage.

I had considered bringing a bouquet of flowers for the rangers.  But there were no good roses in my yard that morning, so I decided to instead just give them a big “welcome back!” and “thank you for your patience!”

When I pulled up to the booth, I got a really weird vibe from the ranger before I could even say anything.  In hindsight, he was probably just bracing himself for yet another irate visitor with misdirected anger issues, ranting about how these are OUR parks and it was ILLEGAL to close them, etc.

Whatever.  We completed our transaction, and I quickly moved on. No time to dwell on the psychology of that little exchange.  I had things to do.  I had traditions to break.

—–

It never fails.  Every time I drive into the park from the West Entrance, I’ve drive past people pulled over just inside the park boundary, taking photos on the side of the road, marveling at the awesomeness of Joshua Tree.

And I always laugh at them.

“Come on, people!” I say. “Just drive another five or ten minutes, you morons!  It gets so much better!”

Yeah, that's kind of nice, but KEEP GOING!  IT GETS MUCH BETTER!

Yeah, that’s kind of nice, but KEEP GOING! IT GETS MUCH BETTER!

But this day would be different.

After finally retiring my ragged old copy of Mari Ginery’s classic Joshua Tree Bouldering guidebook and upgrading to Robert Miramontes’ awesome new guidebook of the same name, I discovered that there were a bunch of bouldering areas near the West Entrance.  Who knew?

So at 0.4 miles from the West Entrance, I pulled over at the same spot where I always saw tourists stopped.  There were no other cars, just mine.  All I could do was laugh at myself.

Karma’s a funny thing…

—–

“I wish that I could be as dumb as you.”

Stan Ridgway

After crossing the road, it was about a half mile hike on faint use trails and cross country over sand and rocks before I reached the Lonely Boulders.  And lonely they were.  I saw no human footprints other than my own the entire time, yet a lot of animal tracks.  There was a surprising amount of trash–but it all appeared to be pages from a single issue of Maxim magazine that had blown in from somewhere else.  This place was so desolate that there was no intentional litter.

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A little chimney action at the Lonely Boulders to check out the loose flakes at the top.

At the Lonely Boulders, I probably climbed all of the easy (5.8 and under) boulder problems in the guidebook, some more than once, and explored some other boulders not in the guide–my favorite being a little pyramid/fin boulder with a short problem on it that was so fun I had to do it multiple times.  But mostly it was just good to be back in the desert again, out in Joshua Tree, exploring an area previously unknown to me, filling in yet another one of the too-many blank spots on my mental map of the world.

Fun times on the unnamed pyramid/fin boulder.

Fun times on the unnamed pyramid/fin boulder.

—–

In the 100 or so times I’ve been to Joshua Tree National Park, I’ve always avoided the Lost Horse area.  It just seemed too close to the road, and people were always there.  But it was already a day for breaking traditions, so why not keep with the theme?

Next stop: the Mel’s Diner Boulder at Lost Horse.

It was a quick walk from the parking area out to this easy-to-find boulder.  And I instantly fell in love.  Heavily featured, with a number of easy routes up, and it was even in the shade.  What a fool I had been, avoiding this area for the last ~20 years.

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Is it possible to be in love with a piece of quartz monzonite?  Indeed it is!

Halfway through my first climb–Chitlins, which ascends jugs up the 15 foot face and goes at a modest 5.5–I came to a realization.

After years of pushing hard, injuring myself, living with chronic pain while climbing, and finally giving up the pastime for almost a decade, only to be lured back in and forced to walk a very fine line between pleasure and pain, it all made sense.

This was the way forward.  I could still enjoy climbing at 51 years and counting, without destroying my body.  Instead of spending all my time and energy chasing numbers, I could finally kick back and enjoy the beauty of my surroundings and of movement across the stone.  All I had to do was seek out the quality, easy boulder problems, like those I discovered at that morning at Mel’s Diner.  What used to be my warm-ups would now be my destinations.

More fun at Mel's Diner.

More fun at Mel’s Diner.

This was it.

This awesome little boulder summed up everything I liked about climbing–what got me in to it in the first place, and what pulled me back to it after all those years.

I found my new normal.

—–

After my revelation at Mel’s diner, I decided to check out the Billy Barty Boulders on the way back to the car.  The guide notes that they are just 100 yards south of Mel’s Diner, and describes the boulders as “all about 8 feet tall and sporting about 10 problems.”

Now, I know that some people find humor in making fun of shorties.  They’re an easy target.  But I love the little ones.  After all, I spent a big chunk of my life developing a plethora of easily forgettable low-ball boulder problems at Snow Valley.  And I’ll be back in the future to spend some quality time with the little beauties at the Billy Barty Boulders.

I told you it gets better...

I told you it gets better…

Driving out of the park, I cranked up Stan Ridgway‘s Black Diamond on the iPod and reflected on another fabulous day in the desert.  I saw a few cars parked at the pullouts just inside the West Entrance.  Only this time there was no laughing.

“I guess I’ll just shut up and move along.”

Stan Ridgway

A Needle through the Clouds

Like any classic boulder problem, the North Face of the Aiguille de Joshua Tree—an easy 5.6 boulder problem on a 30+ foot free-standing pillar—sums up the essence of rock climbing in a neat, compact little package. It is highly efficient, giving you maximum experience with minimum investment. Rock climbing “Lite.”

But not too “Lite.” There’s a reason for the “X” appended to the 5.6 rating. While the highly exposed route up the North Face gets a head start almost halfway up the pillar, the landing is rocky and jagged. And if you were to slip and fall a couple of feet to either side, you’d catch big air as the much more difficult and overhanging South Face tumbled by your view and you finally slammed into more jumbled rock, 30+ feet from the top.

North Face of the Aiguille de Joshua Tree

A Needle through the Clouds.

Yes the route is easy, but can also be very intimidating—especially the down climb. Commented my old friend Darell on his first time up the route, “This is easy … so why am I so f*&#ing scared?”

It’s short, it’s sweet, and it’s almost over before it starts. It’s maybe 10 moves, including the mantle at the top, and then you’re standing precariously on an approximately two foot by two foot square, slightly sloping quartz monzonite platform covered with bird crap. Yes, the view is magnificent from the top, whether you’re a climber looking for a quick thrill, or an owl looking for an awesome place to take a dump. But be careful up there. Even on calm days in Joshua Tree, sudden strong winds can kick up without warning and freak you out just enough to possibly make you lose your balance. And you probably shouldn’t even think about how close you are to Landers, epicenter of that 7.6 magnitude earthquake about 20 years back …

Because it requires 15 to 20 minutes of hiking from the parking lot, you’re not likely to see many other people around, except maybe on a busy holiday weekend. The place has a remote feeling to it that you obviously don’t get in some of the more popular and easily accessible areas of the park.

While you are in the Jimmy Cliff area of J-Tree, be sure to check out some of the other good boulder problems, especially those found on the Marley Boulder, and the wrist-wrenching 5.11a route Palomino on the Pinto/Palomino boulder. If you still want more, wander over to the classic Turtle Rock bouldering area across from the Real Hidden Valley parking area, where there are more than 70 quality boulder problems.

The Aiguille de Joshua Tree, 5.6 X. A neat little climb, for sure, but is it a true classic? That depends on your definition. But for me and every person I’ve ever taken to it, there is no question. The Aiguille de Joshua Tree is a fun, unique, thrilling little climb that you’ll remember for a very long time.

North Face of the Aiguille de Joshua Tree

A precarious topout…always a thrill.

Getting There
In Real Hidden Valley, park in the lot near the start of the nature trail. Southwest of the
nature trail start is a smaller use trail marked for the first few hundred yards with
Access Fund posts. Follow one of the many threads of this trail southwest and then west along the southern boundary of the Real Hidden Valley outcrop. You’ll walk right past the classic route Loose Lady (5.9+ ****), one of the most popular routes in Joshua Tree National Park. After half a mile, you should see the Aiguille de Joshua Tree thrusting skyward from a small outcrop between the northern boundary of the Jimmy Cliff area and the southern boundary of the Real Hidden Valley area.

A Major Upgrade

The new climbing wall in my garage isn’t so new any more…in fact it’s almost three years old now.  When I first built it, I scrimped a lot on the holds–the wall was just part of a complete garage remodel, with all new cabinets etc., so I bought some nice holds and filled in the rest of the wall with some not-so-nice holds.

It was time for an upgrade.  So I started looking online and bought quite a few nice holds on sale.  When my workbench was covered in new holds, it was finally time to get to work.

Before–with some of the “junk” holds removed, and the wall in the upright position:

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After–100+ new holds in place, and the wall in the down position:

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I’ve climbed on it 5 or 6 times now, and the new holds do make a world of difference.  It’s so much more fun now.  Of course, my preference is still to climb outside, on real rock, and I’ve recently managed to get out and boulder at Keller Peak and Joshua Tree.  But having this wall in the garage is great for those days when the weather is bad, or when I don’t have a lot of time and just need a “quick fix.”

Digging a Hole to the Other Side of the World

Looking back at my childhood, I loved digging holes.  Any excuse would do, but an excuse wasn’t even necessary.

I remember setting a huge goal for myself one summer vacation in third or fourth grade: I would dig a hole all the way to China.  My imagination ran wild with visions of breaking through on the other side of the world and being greeted enthusiastically by people wearing funny hats and holding chopsticks.

It was a lot of work, digging all the way to China, and I gave up after the hole was only about four feet deep.  But if I had managed to do the impossible and pass through the center of the earth and break through the other side, ironically I would not have found myself standing next to the Great Wall of China or anywhere near it; my exit point would in fact have been much closer to southern Africa, which was literally the other side of the world from where I lived in California.

I eventually made it to the other side of the world.  But not by digging.

—–

In January 1976, I moved to South Africa.  I was 13 years old.  It was my first time out of the United States.  It was my first time on an airplane.  But it wasn’t my first time moving away from home: for as long as I could remember, we had been moving, from one southern California suburb to the next.  Changing schools and having to make new friends was always difficult.  But this was different.  I was moving halfway around the planet, to a strange, foreign land.

My apprehension was tempered by excitement.  After all, this wasn’t just another cookie-cutter southern California suburb we were moving to; it was Africa.  I yearned for it to be an amazing, unforgettable, grand adventure.

And it was.

I saw large, wild animals in their native habitat.  I spent countless hours wandering through the brush and grasslands by myself.  I entered high school, made new friends, and attempted to learn a new language.  I experienced riots, unthinkable repression, and even war.  I hiked across the stunning grassy plains and tasted some of the best that Africa had to offer.

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My move to South Africa took place more than 35 years ago.  I think about my time there frequently, reliving the unforgettable experiences of my adolescence.  But only recently was I able to put all of those experiences into context.  Although I only lived there for a short time, it happened during an important stage: my transition from child to adult.  In many ways, Africa changed me, and Africa made me who I am today.

This story is an excerpt from my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ].