Sunday, August 5, 2012
My alarm sounded at 4AM on Sunday, August 5th, 2012. My truck was packed, my gas tank was full, and I enjoyed one last shower before hitting the road.
The morning air was nearly 80 degrees when I summited the Cajon pass under the first rays of sunlight. I knew it was going to be a warm day.
I watched as the Sierra Nevada mountains rose from the desert floor to my west. The sky were clear until I reached Ridgecrest — nearly 100 miles from my final destination. I spotted a white cloud barely above the horizon to the north. To see a thunderstorm this early in the morning was a sign of unstable air, and I knew I could expect afternoon thunderstorms.
From a large format perspective, this provides both a challenge, and also great opportunity. It’s difficult to shoot my 8×10 under any amount of wind, but the potential for dramatic skies at sunset is well worth the effort.
This was new territory for me — the bulk of my shooting has been in the desert under calm conditions at sunrise, or in slot canyons during mid day. Over the past couple years, I’ve learned how to shoot my 8×10 in increasingly difficult situations — and this trip would be no exception.
I continued north on the 395, and soon realized the massive thunderhead was parked directly above my final destination — the White Mountains.
Only the first portion of White Mountain Road is paved, but that doesn’t mean it’s any faster to travel on. The paved portion is especially narrow with sheer drop-offs and sharp curves.
The first Bristlecone Pine grove is the Shulman Grove. There is a paved parking lot, and a temporary visitor center to replace the one destroyed by arson in 2008.
Pavement ends just after the Shulman grove, but the road continues as a graded dirt road. Flat tires are common on this road, so it’s best to travel at a leisurely pace.
I followed the long dusty road and continued to climb in elevation until I reached the Patriarch Grove. This is where I hoped to spend much of my time on this trip. Though the trees here are not as old as those found in the Shulman Grove, conditions are more ideal for photography. It’s easier to isolate individual trees against a simple background.
During the last Ice age, excessively cold temperature and a shorter growing season forced the tree line to lower elevation. A warmer climate following the last ice age allowed the trees to once more spread up slope to the current Patriarch grove.
There are two different tree lines in this grove — one consisting of old growth trees, and a second that is is slightly higher and consists of new saplings. It is said that the increase in global temperature has allowed new saplings to spread further up slope than in years past.
I wandered the white dolomite slopes of the Patriarch Grove under increasingly threatening skies to the southeast. Distant thunder reverberated off nearby hills, and I watched as massive sheets of rain drenched the desert below. This was a storm not to be messed with, and I’m glad it wasn’t heading in my direction.
I stuck around until sunset, and watched as the thunder storm slowly rumbled past. I found a few trees that might make good subjects, but the light would be difficult. Sunset in the Patriarch Grove is obstructed by a large mountain peak to the west.
It was a magnificent sunset. Bands of rain from the thunderstorm to my east lit up orange as the last rays of sunlight skirted over the Sierra crest. It was a beautiful scene, but I was grossly unequipped to capture it. I didn’t have a specific subject in mind — only wonderful light.
With large format, I need time to stake out my shots ahead of the light. This technique not only gives me the time I need, but it also allows me to have a ideal composition to compliment the good light.
I no longer feel the disappointment of not being able to capture every sunrise and sunset. In fact, it’s a relief not being pressured to do so.
There’s so much of a gung ho attitude with photography these days, and many people feel they must capture every moment. Living your life behind a lens, and experiencing nature’s best moments through the blinders of a viewfinder makes it difficult to truly appreciate the bigger picture.
As the crimson light of sunset faded to just a memory, I experienced absolute peace as the calm of night sweep over the land. It’s a tranquil feeling that no photo can fully depict.
I was glad to be in the White Mountains, and I looked forward to the photographic opportunities I would experience over the course of the next week.