Quick note: This is part 2 of a series of posts on my trip to the Coso Wilderness. If you are seeing this for the first time, it’d be worthwhile to scroll down and read Coso Wilderness: Mustangs first. Thanks for stopping by!
Just like every African watering hole, where there is a concentration of prey, there are predators. I’ve never seen so many mountain lion tracks in one place before. Including the biggest print I’ve ever seen. The desert is a hardscrabble place and the line between life and death is gossamer thin.
I have been piecing together hints of a spring in a remote canyon on BLM land outside Death Valley. It fascinated me with mention of the ruins of a ranch, petroglyphs from at least 1000 years ago, mustangs who would water there and then retreat to the relative safety of the high country.
This week I made the leap from Google Maps to being there in person. Was eager to see if my research had paid off. So I found myself clambering up a sandy wash strewn with boulders between cliffs that rose hundreds of feet on either side. Pinons and Joshua Trees dotted the route.
At last the walls opened outward into a splendid valley and immediately I noticed water trickling down toward me. I pushed further in and saw the tumbled down stone walls that had been the ranch house, its wood mantle still clung crazily to the wall above the fireplace. A couple rusted bed frames and chair still stood within the confines of the walls. As I stood there happy that I’d found the place, I had the sudden feeling something was watching me. I turned around and on the ridge 150 yards from me I saw a dark head peering over the crest. I took a couple steps forward and the shape crested the ridge. Before me was a beautiful stallion. It regarded me for a moment and then trotted downslope and disappeared. I fumbled with my pack to get to my other camera with the 150-600mm on it and began walking quietly in the direction the stallion had gone.
He hadn’t seemed unduly alarmed by my presence and I had seen a watering hole in that direction. Figuring he’d gone down for a drink, I had an idea of where I could get a shot of him. When I approached the hole, I couldn’t see him but as I took another step there came an explosion of hooves on rock. Whinnying and snorting, he exploded out of a thicket near me and climbed the hillside opposite me. He stood there, snorting and pawing, expressing his displeasure at my presence. Glorious thing.
We talked a bit, I told him how beautiful he was and he snorted derisively at me. Having enough of my intrusion, he trotted off, up and around behind me which didn’t make a lot of sense until I saw why. Two other horse heads were peeking over the hill at me. One was a bay, the other dark - was hard to make out since I was looking east into the sun.
Clearly this was the stallion’s herd and he had been evaluating the danger I posed. All at once the trio wheeled around and disappeared behind the hill. I stalked up it, hoping to get some shots of all of them but when I made it to the top, they were gone. Still, they couldn’t have gone far - it’s relatively open country, so I ascended the slope to the north. Nothing. It was as though the earth had swallowed them up. I didn’t see them again the entire time I explored the area.
Magical, beautiful experience I will never forget.
Recently I was engaged for a commercial shoot near Fresno. Up at 3am, we photographed runners swathed in pre-dawn mist. Old oaks lined one side of the path, ghostly vineyards the other. We shot through blue hour and until the sun slowly burned the fog away. Had breakfast at a Mexican place, chatting with newfound friends.
This was my first time so far north in California on a road trip. We’d been up to Napa/Sonoma before but had flown. So I couldn’t resist the call of mountains and ancient trees.
Ignoring the four hours of sleep I’d managed the night before, I set out for Sequoia National Park. The cheery gps lady informed me that it was a mere hour and a half drive.
I drove through the eastern edge California’s immense central valley, passing through Visalia and smaller towns along the way. The earth rose on both sides of the road until I found myself in a broad river valley. Golden hills ringed it, dotted with boulders. Kaweah Lake, much diminished from six years of drought stretched across much of the valley floor.
The land rose and rose until with one last tawny breath it gave way to the vertiginous slopes of the western Sierra Nevada and the main entrance to Sequoia.
One of my new friends had told me that camping at Grant’s Grove would be perfect. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much further north that was. But when I arrived at the main entrance, the sign said 45 miles to Grant’s Grove and I breathed a sigh of relief. Not that far.
“That’s a two hour drive,” the ranger at the gate informed me.
So much for a leisurely drive through the park. It was after 2:30; dusk was in two hours. I needed to hightail it for the campground if I had any hope of making it before dark.
Yucca and oak grew thinner, to be replaced with conifers as the narrow switchback roads climbed higher and higher. A doe danced across the road, its three fawns followed less gracefully, all legs and high-stepping fumble feet.
I made it to Azalea Campground as the sun set, set up a hasty camp and settled in for the evening on a broad slab of rock. I sat by my fire reading for a time. As darkness fell, so did the temperature. I edged closer and closer to the fire until I was in danger of singeing my boots.
The full moon rose between towering conifers. In the cold stillness, it was easy to understand Muir when he said “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”
The snow downslope from me turned blue in the moonlight. Ghostly hues in silent woods. Silent except for the rush of wind on distant slopes and the chuckle of my fire.
I find it ironic that in all the years I spent in Canada I had never gone winter camping. This was my first night out in temperatures below freezing. I was anxious to see how my gear fared. I needn’t have worried. Nestled in my tent, I was comfortably cozy. I’ve always slept better in cooler temperatures so this was pretty close to ideal.
Morning, however, was another matter. I woke early and was not eager to linger. It had dropped down into the 20s and I was more interested in getting in the truck than making coffee or breakfast. I packed up quickly and set off to meet some sequoias.
On the way, I said hello to King’s Canyon, making a mental note to return some day for more intense exploration as I gazed across its broad expanse at Mt Reinstein, Goddard and Kettle Dome. They were hazy in the distance but their rugged faces spoke eloquently nonetheless. I can’t wait to get back here and lose myself in this land.
Thanks to the early morning and the late season, I was the only person on the road. I drove down corridors of pine, the early sun dappling the route. It was the perfect time to see the General Sherman tree. I was expecting a behemoth but nothing prepared me for its size. At 275 feet tall, even my 16mm lens could barely get that ancient in one frame.
It was a strangely emotional experience being in the presence of a thing that had been alive when Rome was the dominant world power. All at once, I felt as though we’d profaned a holy place. These fences and paved walkways making a roadside attraction of ancient trees.
Call me a tree hugger if you will, but I’d feel better about the world knowing these trees existed untouched in high, isolated places with few visitors - a piece of wilderness unsullied by mankind or perhaps with limited access per year. Not as restrictive perhaps as Russia’s zapovednik system, but the idea has some attraction.
Remote, wild, free. It’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to wild places - to be in the presence of something I don’t control, places so untamed that I’m the interloper. I love the wild. Even when I’m not physically there, I travel there in my mind. I keep my green places close.
But then I had to laugh as a thought occurred to me. Barring some unthinkable disaster, these trees will outlast the current world power too. These fences and walkways are an eyeblink in the lifespan of a sequoia. I felt better after this, wandering in this greatest of natural cathedrals.
Sooner than I wanted to, I had to leave. Los Angeles was calling me back to “reality”. I walked back to the truck with mixed feelings. Wonder and awe and reverence balled up in a tangle I couldn’t unravel. But one thing was sure - I’d return to this ancient high place and walk once more in its halls and tawny sunlit meadows.