Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Archive for February, 2008

From Death Valley to Gambling Fever

posted: February 29th, 2008 | by:Bert

Departing Death Valley

Departing Death Valley

©Bert Gildart: Three days ago we departed Death Valley, leaving by way of Furnace Creek Wash. The road passes Zabriske Point, climbs over a pass and then descends to a junction well known as Death Valley Junction.

Janie and I stopped at the junction, for we hoped to learn a bit more about what has become a famous fixture through the years–and perhaps even catch a glimpse of the person who has made that fixture so famous.

Marta Becket is responsible for the creation of the Amargosa Opera House, now an institution in Nevada. Marta, as the story goes, loved opera, and while growing up in New York, she studied dance, art and piano.


As an adult, she supported herself and her mother in a freelance manner. She danced at Radio City Music Hall in the corps de ballet and won small parts on Broadway. But, Becket wanted something else; she wanted to take control of all aspects of her dancing and, so, she and her husband went on the road where she quickly became a one-woman show.

Several years passed, but in 1967, the couple was on a camping trip in Death Valley and got a flat tire at Death Valley Junction. She fell in love with the dilapidated adobe buildings, and in that way found a home for shows. Sometimes, however, her programs wouldn’t attract anyone.

Nevertheless she would dance for herself, particularly during the early years. And, so, to assure herself that she would always have an audience, she painted images of her guests on the walls and ceilings.

Amargosa Opera House

Amargosa Opera House

In subsequent years, she became famous, attracting an audience from all over the world. Though now in advancing years, she still performs, but, now, only on Saturday nights. Though we understand it may be hard to acquire tickets, Janie and I will inquire. From where we’re now camped in Pahrump, it’s about a 30 minute drive back to the Opera House.


For us Pahrump is a place to catch up a bit on stories and on general chores associated with our Airstream travels. Our camping accommodations are a bit different from those in Death Valley, for we’re parked on a concrete slab immediately adjacent to a casino. Across the road there’s a sign advising that we can purchase fireworks. We’re 45 minutes from Las Vegas.

You won’t have too much trouble finding us, as we’re one of the few with camping gear, sleeping bags, and underwear spread in front of our trailer and draped from our trailer’s awning with clothes hangers. That’s my doing, not Janie’s, for it is I who am struggling to create an image. Granted, that may be hard to do with a relatively new Airstream, now polished, but, still, I’m trying.

Home in Pahrump Nevada

"Home" in Pahrump Nevada

To get the real feel of Nevada, we also completed the necessary paper work and now have an SW Player Club card, and the other evening discovered that the free card entitled us to a $2 discount on the $8 buffet, which really was a bargain. They understand human psychology and know if they suck us in to eat that we’ll just have to pull the handle on the slots at least once before we leave. There’s a flood of slots between the dinning room and the exit and they know that if we win even a dime that we’ll then pull the handle again. They’re right, and our time in the casino–which would have totaled but $12 (with the discount) if we’d only eaten–actually wound up costing us about $20.


They really got me! But probably not as much as they got some of the other patrons who sat on stools, drinks in hand, evincing looks of determination, coupled (and sadly so), with genuine desperation as well.

We’ll soon be departing Pahrump. Our clothes are clean again, sleeping bags aired, truck and trailer washed and the refrigerator full. Mojave National Preserve here we come–but not until we make one more effort to become instantly rich.

Wish us luck, and while you’re at it, wish Marta Becket a little luck, too.

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Death Valley, Always Colorful, Always Photogenic

posted: February 27th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Death Valley is a land of abstractions, one that offers photographers what may well be one of the best places in America to create unique interpretations. Here are four photographs that represent what I believe to be some of my better work from this vast California national park.

Teakettle Junction, 2003

Teakettle Junction

Three of the photographs come from the past several weeks during which time Janie and I have been camped in both Stove Pipe Wells and Furnace Creek. The fourth, the photograph of Tea Kettle Junction, I made about five years ago. Janie and I had wanted to see Tea Kettle when Eric and Sue were here several weeks ago, but we found the road to be in horrible condition. Washboarding went on for miles and each rut was deep, perhaps six to eight inches in places.

As a result, we turned around, not able to see if this famous, hard-to-reach junction still retains all of its tea kettles.

Hanging tea kettles was once an old park tradition started perhaps by some old prospector. Because it says something about old ways and the passage of quirky people, it remains one of my favorite photos.


Two of the other photographs were made at one of the park’s several sand dunes, specifically, the Death Valley Sand Dunes near Stove Pipe Wells. The image of the couple on the dunes was made with a 600mm lens, which provides great compression.

Sun and Sand Dune Photographers

Sun and Sand Dune Photographers

By stopping the camera down, probably to about f-45 in this case, depth of field is immense, even with a telephoto. I underexposed several stops to make sure the couple was completely back lit. The lens I used was not one dedicated to digital photography, so exposure data was not digitally recorded.


Another technique is to focus on the details of a subject, such as the actual ripples created in the dunes by the sun at it most extreme angles, in this case, early in the morning–just as the sun popped over the horizon.

Sand Dune Patterns

Sand Dune Patterns

Each granule was illuminated, and that is what I believe endows this image with impact.


Finally, I include the following photograph because it recalls a TV series, “Death Valley Days.” Ronald Reagan was the narrator and he helped make the park famous. One of the major industries described in the program certainly had to have been the 20 Mule Team wagons that transported borax, “White Gold,” from Harmony Borax. The site is located an easy one-mile bike ride from the campground at Furnace Creek.

Borax Works

Borax Works

Normally I don’t like light that streams from directly behind, but in this case the color of the walls contrasted nicely with the mountains, and the yellow in the Desert Gold plant. The species has remained with us for the entire three weeks we spent in the park and gives every indication of remaining another week or two.

If you’re in the area, you can not go wrong visiting this park, and we leave with much regret.

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Of Desert Pupfish, the Harley Davidson Crowd–and one Small Woman

posted: February 25th, 2008 | by:Bert

Exploring Salt Creek

Exploring Salt Creek

©Bert Gildart: As RV enthusiasts Janie and I meet all types of people, and generally, we enjoy them all. That includes most motorcycle groups, but yesterday, we encountered a group at the Furnace Creek restaurant that no one appreciated. One small woman helped resolve the problem.

We–and many others–had been enjoying a quiet meal, when suddenly, the early morning silence was broken by a group dressed in black leather jackets. And they were loud!

One fellow was particularly obnoxious, yelling at his companions about how their Harley’s made mincemeat of Death Valley’s passes, and how, by God, they were going to tear up the valley’s other flank. What amazed Janie and me is that so many of the men and woman appeared to be respectful people–and perhaps some were.


This loud talk went on for about 15 minutes, and suddenly, a small elderly woman charged over to the most boisterous of the group. She asked him to please tone it down. In response, he shouted, “I will not be quiet!

She responded, furious by now, “Why don’t you just shut up!”

We were astounded, but her comment seemed to work, probably in part because all of the other patrons in the restaurant were focused on this Harley group. Nevertheless, one in their group, a middle-aged goateed man hollered out, “Hey, Charlie. You’ve been told. Guess you’d better quiet it down.”

Where, we wondered, was the manager of the Furnace Creek Restaurant?

When Janie and I departed we stopped by the lady’s table and I thanked her. “Wish I’d had your nerve,” I said.

“Yes,” added Janie, “thank you very much.”

Though most in the group remained quiet, the goateed man repeated himself. “Hey, Charlie (who by now was in fact subdued), hold it down over there. You’ve heard it again so you’d better behave!”

Amazingly Charlie remained quiet, embarrassed, perhaps, by the one small woman.


For the past few days, the wind here in Death Valley has been howling, gusting at times to 40 miles per hour. Still, several days ago we enjoyed a wonderful hike along Salt Creek, home to an unusual specie, the Desert Pupfish.

Curious coyotes leaves tracks

Curious coyotes leaves tracks

Pupfish are not known to exist anywhere else in the world except for Death Valley and a few places near the park, which is what makes their survival in Death Valley so vital. Scientists believe that their ancestors lived 15,000 years ago in Lake Manly, a huge lake that once filled much of this valley. The lake’s legacy is now Badwater, and the Devil’s Golf Course.

Pickleweek with segments to absorb salt

Pickleweek, with segments to absorb salt

For several hours Janie and I hiked this stretch, and when we inserted our hands into the soil and tasted it, the land was salty; so was Salt Creek, which brochures say registers about seven percent, the same essentially, as our body. What’s more, the water was warm, and at 70°, it was too warm for most creatures. Nevertheless, Pupfish live-and thrive-here.

Though we have seen desert pup fish in the past, February is too early in the season, as most of the tiny fish lay huddled in the mud below the surface, save and secure from all but an occasional coyote. Perhaps that would be a a good place to relegate a few members of that cycle group.

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Challenged In Death Valley By Old and New Friends

posted: February 22nd, 2008 | by:Bert

Eric Hansen photographer

Eric Hansen, photographer

©Bert Gildart: Several days ago I met Donald Nelson, another Airstream owner, who explained to me that I needed to clean my solar panels on an almost weekly basis. Fact of the matter is that I haven’t done so in about a month, thinking some of the rain we’ve had would take care of that chore for me. “Clean them now,” said Don, “and I’ll bet your output doubles.”


Apparently the retired electronics consultant knows what he’s talking about, for although only a small layer of dust covered my two 50-watt panels, wiping them clean raised the output from 3.1 amps per hour to almost 5.5 amps per hour. Because all this energy is free, I now stand by the gauge watching it stream in by the hour. Meanwhile I charge camera batteries, computer batteries, turn on lights–and am amazed the register bounces right back up to 100 percent.

Before any more time elapses, I want to mention again the thought that teaming up with another photographer stimulates creativity. While Eric and Sue Hansen were here, we explored many aspects of this premier desert park, possibly egging each on to work harder as photographers.

It also worked a bit with Sue, too, who called my bluff, saying sure, she’d descend to the bottom of Ubehebe Crater–and then climb back out. The name tells a little about the challenge. Ubehebe derives from a Native American word, “Tem-pin-tta-Wo’sah”, meaning Coyote’s Basket or Basket in the Rock.


The “basket’s walls” are, indeed, steep, dropping 600 feet. The crater is 3,000 years old and is one of the most recent of a series of “marr volcanoes” to have occurred in this land now comprising Death Valley. Marr volcanoes occur when magma rises from the depths to suddenly come into contact with ground water. The sudden contact creates a flash of steam, which then expands. When the pressure on the surrounding rocks becomes too great, they explode.

Janie and I are familiar with this history from a book we once worked on about Death Valley. We had fun explaining what little we do know about the area to Sue and Eric who have never been here, but most of all, we had fun during our actual explorations, not the least of which was running to be the bottom of the crater-and then crawling back out.

Descending Ubehebe Crater

Descending Ubehebe Crater

We’ll be in Death Valley for a few more days and then we’re heading for Mojave National Preserve, another park service managed area.

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Desert Five-Spot and the Function of Beauty

posted: February 20th, 2008 | by:Bert

Petals obscure spots

Petals obscure spots

©Bert Gildart: Though I doubt that the birds, the bears, and all the other wild things that inhabit the planet were put here for our purpose their presence does provide me with considerable satisfaction.

But their existence provides even more pleasure when I discover some feature contained in one of these living things whose functionality is not immediately obvious, appearing more aesthetic than utilitarian.

Such is the case with the desert five-spot. Why, I have to wonder, does each of the purple petals contain a crimson spot, revealed only under certain conditions? Certainly, the combination is beautiful to behold, but the plant’s reluctance to reveal its inner nature is what makes them particularly interesting.


Several days ago I found the species to which I’ve just alluded, though its petals were closed tightly, so its identification was not immediately apparent to a desert novitiate such as myself. The flower was small, growing low–and obscured to some extent by the desert gold which towered above them.

I discovered the plant late in the late afternoon, but the burgundy spots were embraced tightly by the sepals and the petals and so not obvious.

Nevertheless, the whole of the flower was beautiful in itself, and because I wanted a photographic record of its existence I was more concerned at the moment about techniques than about the plant’s botanical aspects. Consequently, with Janie’s help, we held strobes off to either side and so eliminated the shadows, as shown here. (On sunny days that’s something you have to do if you want to see a plant’s lovely features.)

But later in the day when I examined the photo I saw the hint of a brilliant spot and began to think more about the plant, growing as it was in this harshest of all desert environments.


In Death Valley, this purple-colored plant was growing at an elevation of 180 feet below sea level, and our botany book, with its pages of plants grouped according to color, helped us confirm its I.D.

The book placed desert five-spot in the Mallow family, and briefly explained that not only did the one petal contain a spot, but that all five petals contained a spot and that the plant sometimes opened up and revealed its inner personality in the soft light of mid morning. The trick then was timing.

Open petals reveal hidden beauty

Open petals reveal hidden beauty

Yesterday, I returned to the area of my first discovery and did so on a day that was overcast. Searching the harsh rocky landscape, I quickly discovered that many desert five-spot plants dotted the floor and that the petals had in fact opened sufficiently to reveal that each petal contained a relatively large spot, somewhat oval and notched in appearance.

What purpose could they serve?

Casting around for an explanation I watched as several tiny insects crawled to the spot and I concluded the spots had to contain nectar. Because my wildflower I.D. book was just that I later confirmed with a park naturalist that the spots did indeed attract insects. As insects feasts on the nectar they come in contact with the stigmas and the anthers and become pollinators. In other words, the spots evolved to help the species perpetuate itself.

That thought was satisfying to me, for I’m confident the plant will be here another year; for my enjoyment, certainly, but more because of its dominion over all the other creatures that survive–because they survive. And that’s something I value even more.

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Death Valley Can Kill

posted: February 18th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Death Valley may be the hottest place on earth. On July 10, 1913, temperatures soared to 134 degrees at Furnace Creek, and “It was so hot,” one observer said, “that swallows were falling dead out of the sky”.

Willow Canyon

Tranquil, yes, but not always


The incredible heat that results each year is the result of essentially three factors. For one, the mountains are high and narrow, thereby trapping and holding the heat. The canyons are narrow and also trap the heat. Rather than rising and spewing into the atmosphere the heat sinks back into the valley. This compounds the situation, for as the air sinks it is compressed, an act which also generates heat and raises the temperature even further. Two other factors are the lack of moisture and the lack of vegetation.


Yesterday, Janie and I discovered just what impact such heat can have on wildlife. Leaving our campground at Furnace Creek we drove 30 miles south to a trailhead at Willow Canyon, which had been recommended to us by the campground hostess. The trail leads 2.5 miles into a falls, and here is where we discovered how the lack of water can create desperation.

Desert Bighorn Sheep Bones

Desert Bighorn Sheep Bones


Desert bighorn sheep range throughout the park, but they need water, and when they desperately crave it panic sets in. That at least was our theory when we entered Willow Canyon and discovered that sheep bones littered the trail. Our only explanation was that sheep, sensing water from above, grew careless, slipped from the steep cliffs above and fell hundreds of feet to their deaths. Coyotes feasted, and then scattered the bones.

Though the February temperatures yesterday were in the 80s, our hike was a pleasant one, and when we reached the falls water was dropping over an expanse of about 50 feet. From here, it trickled through the canyon and then disappeared, meaning the only place water was available was in the short quarter-mile stretch.


Not only have sheep succumbed to the lack of water, but so have many people. Generally, people don’t die from heat exhaustion; rather they die from dehydration. On a typical June, July or August day, when the temperature has risen above 120°F, relative humidity might be little more than three percent.

Willow falls

Willow Falls


With conditions such as these, on an average summer day a person can loose two gallons of water just sitting in the shade. Blood contains much water and this is the source of the water loss. The results are somewhat predictable: circulation becomes sluggish, muscles cramp and become fatigued, the head aches and it is a strain on the heart just to keep on pumping.

Losses of three gallons can have even more devastating affects. Your hearing goes and your eyes sink. With losses of four gallons, bloody cracks appear on your skin and generally death soon follows. Many have died here, but 1905 was the worst year when 13 men perished from thirst and water loss.

Moonrise over Willow canyon

Moonrise over Willow Canyon


Despite the reminders of the need for water, our hike was inspiring. The canyon provided relief from the sun and on our return the moon was rising over the mountains surrounding Willow Canyon. It was just another reminder of how intriguing Death Valley can be–when explored at the right time of year.

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Spring Awakenings in Death Valley

posted: February 16th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: According to park interpreters, this is one of the best years Death Valley has experienced for early season flowers.

“This is about the earliest we’ve seen desert gold in years,” said a park volunteer, who has been here for almost a decade. “Normally, we don’t see such blooms until March, which is usually the best month for wildflowers. To a great extent, it is because of the unusually abundant rain we received last month.”

As a photographer this early spring awakening has provided some wonderful opportunities, and Janie and I have been rising at the crack of dawn to take advantage of the morning light and the calm that is usually associated with that hour of the day.

Desert gold carpeting the valley

Desert Gold Carpets the Valley


Though desert gold appears to occur in the park’s lower elevations, we’re finding that it is particularly abundant just north of Cow Creek, not far from the park’s residential housing. Here, you’ll find the species filling the side canyons that radiate off this valley that is well below sea level. We’re not far away from this run of flowering beauty camped as we are at Furnace Creek. If you’re here in the summer, you’ll understand the designation.


Because desert gold is yellow, it photographs well in full sunlight–not requiring the use of strobes as do species colored purple or red. With these darker colors shadows seem to block up, but not so with yellow, which can be dramatized even more with back lighting. With such lighting, you can dramatize the tiny hairs growing along the stems, which help prevent desiccation, a necessity in an area that receives but a few inches annually.

Backlighting is effective

Backlighting is effective for flowers


Naturalists say that other flowers will soon follow, and already we’ve found half a dozen other species. Botanists, however, say their ultimate abundance will depend on whether the park receives any more rain. Many natural history enthusiasts have their fingers crossed, recalling the abundant rains of several years ago that created one of the park’s best flower years–ever.

Though it may be some time before Death Valley sees such a spectacle again, for us, this year is turning out to be a good one.

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Badwater, Where an Entire River Disappears

posted: February 13th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: This morning our good friends Eric and Sue Hansen departed, but not until after Eric and I had one more crack at photography. Our goal was to try and capture the beauty of Badwater, lowest place in North America. The challenge was to interpret what is represented at -282 feet below sea level. In an attempt to accomplish our goal we departed Furnace Creek at 5:30 this morning and drove the 20 miles to Badwater. Sun rises about 6:30 and we wanted plenty of time for site location. En route, we saw a kit fox in the pre-dawn light.


Essentially, Bad water represents the evaporation of the Amargosa River, which starts outside of Death Valley in what can at times be a raging torrent. But all that changes when the river turns north at the southern end of this valley and then begins to flow north into the park, but all the while dropping, dropping, dropping. When at last the river reaches Badwater the air is so dry that the river completely evaporates, leaving in its wake the area known as Badwater; and then, just a little further north, an area that is appreciatively called the Devil’s Golf Course.

Telescope peak reflects in Badwater

Telescope peak reflects in Badwater


Back dropping this scene is Telescope Peak, which soars to an elevation of 11, 049 feet above sea level. Add to that 282 feet and that is the relief you experience as your eyes rise from Badwater to snow-capped Telescope Peak. Both areas are white, but both areas represent decidedly different types of environments. In one you could expire from frost, the other from desiccation. And some, of course, have.


Eric and I returned to our campers about 8 and they departed about 9. With a little more time on my hands I decided to experiment with Internet reception. Recently the Visitor Center, located about one mile away, installed a wireless communication package and offers it free of charge, but officials tell you that you must be on site.

Our Wilson booster and antenna, however, is supposed to augment signal strength by 10 times, and this morning we decided to try it out. Attaching all the appropriate cords we quickly discovered that we can, in fact, get reception inside our Airstream. (The antenna is mounted outside on one of the side windows.) For me, that is a great relief as I can now work from the comfort of our Airstream and create postings and complete stories, soon to be sent via Death Valley’s complimentary wireless setup. Except at night, the bulk of our power demands are met by the two solar panels Airstream mounted on top as part of the Safari’s LS package.

Devils golf course

Devil's golf course


We’ll be here for about a week, and each day will devote some portion to writing, but much as well to photography. Desert gold is starting to bloom and in some areas is beginning to fill entire canyons. We wish the Hansen could have stayed to enjoy all this park will soon be offering.

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Death Valley and the Challenge For Photographers

posted: February 11th, 2008 | by:Bert

Eric Zabriske Point

Eric Photographing at Zabriske Point


©Bert Gildart: Death Valley is a photographer’s paradise, and that is one of the reasons we have rendezvoused in this largest of all national parks in the Lower 48 with good friends Eric and Sue Hansen. We all belong to the Outdoor Writer’s Association of America, and it seemed only logical that we could accomplish much by pooling resources. In other words, one day they’d drive another day we’d drive. In the evening we’d enjoy evening cookouts.

The only draw back of being here is that we have no cell phone reception, and at Stove Pipe Wells where we’re camped, we have no Internet. Thirty miles away, however, at Furnace Creek the park provides access to the Internet at its Visitor Center and that is the vicinity to which we’ll soon be moving. When you read this, we will have moved to the campground at Texas Springs-within walking distance of the Visitor Center.


It is the austerity of the park that makes this such a joy to photograph and that initially began attracting photographers. Ansel Adams was lured here as well as the Munch family, and they set some pretty high standards. Adams created an entire book of black and white photography on this park, and to a large degree, it is his work that lured me into photography. I still enjoy making black and white images.

Hikers Enroute Golden Canyon

Hikers Enroute Golden Canyon


One man Eric and I know said he thought Death Valley was the most interesting mass of nothingness he’d ever seen. We considered his thought, but agreed that the point of photography is to find organization when others see confusion. And that’s what we’ve been working at these past few days.

The mining industry also found value in this land of “nothingness” and created a legacy the park inherited and that is now played out in various ways. Once Ronald Regan narrated “Death Valley Days,” a TV series that recalled the hardships miners endured before this part of the Mojave Desert became a park. Though miners such as “Shorty” Harrison and Pete Auguberry hoped to get rich on precious metals, instead many struck it rich with Borax.


Eric and I began our photographic explorations with the sand dunes, a place that for pure sensual pleasure is hard to beat. On some February mornings you can strike out across the dunes bare-footed, but need to remember that by mid morning the hot sands can sometimes blister your feet. That’s certainly true as spring soars into summer with temperatures here that compete for the world’s hottest.

Sand dunes

Sand Dunes


In Death Valley there are four separate series of sand dune, all created (mostly) by the forces of wind-and their prevailing patterns. The dunes near Stove Pipe Well are known as the Death Valley Dunes. They’re not the most massive, but they are the most accessible. Twice now, Eric and I have departed our trailers well before the rising sun to be properly positioned as the first rays of light struck individual particles of sand. These particles represent both time-and timelessness-and good photography can help impart that story.


Zabriske Point is another of those areas with rampant lines of erosion, but these represent erosion at their most eloquent. For whatever reason many are drawn to Zabriske Point and we watched a number of couples as they began hiking down a wash we knew would terminate several miles later near Golden Canyon. They were drawn by the austerity of the land-and its enchanting beauty.

Searching for meaningful patterns

Searching for meaningful patterns


We plan to be here for about another week, revisiting this place in which Janie and I have spent so much time that it seems (as I’ve noted before) like an old home. We’re fortunate to be joined by friends with whom we can pool knowledge and can help us transform good times into most memorable times.

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Wildflower Alert At Anza-Borrego State Park

posted: February 7th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Tiny wildflowers are beginning to emerge near the Visitor Center at California’s Anza-Borrego State Park. Though I can not say with complete certainly, from my description a park naturalist said he thought the flower now posted here is Phacelia crenulata , or the Notched-leaf Phacelia. Regardless it is the first flower we have seen in two weeks of daily explorations.

Notched-leaf Phacelia

First flower of the season


The flower is tiny, standing about half an inch high. Probably it appears twice life size on your screen. Because you need to be on your stomach to really see it, some people would call it a “belly plant.” The flower is purple and the actual leaves are certainly notched. Though not yet abundant, my desert wildflower book says it also grows along the park’s Montezuma Road. Because it is so tiny, photographing it was a challenge, particularly in the direct sun of yesterday. To reduce harsh shadows, I added two Nikon SB-800 strobes for fill light. To maximize depth of field I choose an aperture of f-32, the smallest possible with this lens.

Naturalist say other species will soon be following, but the main wildflower emergence generally occurs in March. Though we are about to depart for Death Valley, we hope to return to Anza Borrego in about a month, depending on the abundance of flowers, which can not be predicted. That uncertainly, however, is what makes Anza Borrego so interesting. As Marshall South once wrote, “There is nothing ‘regular’ about the desert. Uncertainty is the keynote and its eternal fascination.”

We can live with that.

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Desert Details

posted: February 6th, 2008 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: After a delightful weekend in Los Angeles we’ve settled back into our Airstream in Anza-Borrego and have spent much of the time working on stories for several magazines. But yesterday, when the afternoon rolled around, we felt an overwhelming desire to return to Blair Valley, home not also the Souths mentioned in my blogs of several posts ago, but also the Kumeyaay Indians. The area provides an exceedingly photogenic landscape in this huge state park, and that was the thrust of our afternoon–trying to obtain story-telling photographs. We wanted to detail the challenges of living in the desert. For this posting we are hoping our photographs–and extended captions–will summarize that challenge.

Agave presents a thorny side

Agave presents its thorny side


DESERT AGAVE lured the Kumeyaay Indians to the area, but if you study the thorns, harvesting that species presented challenges. The edges of the agave leaf are covered with thorns, but so is the tip, and this terminal thorn apparently contains a substance that adds to the pain of those who have the misfortune of getting stuck. I’ve learned from such photographic outings to always carry my Leatherman (which contains pliers)–to help extract thorns that invariable stick to clothes and flesh. Photographing thorns of the species was a challenge and I used strobes (two SB-800s) as well as natural light. I set the lens on my D300 Nikon camera body to Macro.

Agave the century plant

Agave is also called the century plant


AGAVES are also called century plants, indicative of the length of time it takes to bloom. The plant grows on rocky slopes and is, in fact, the only agave species found under such circumstances. Though it doesn’t take 100 years to blossom, it may take up to 50 years. Just before blooming the agave sends up towering stalks that can approach 15 feet. Eventually, the display attracts a variety of pollinators including bats, hummingbirds, bees, moths as well as other insects and nectar-eating birds.

Morteros used by Kumeyaay indians

Morteros used by Kumeyaay indians


NATIVE AMERICANS confined their visits to areas containing agaves to times when the plants bloomed. They harvested the seeds produced by the agave and then ground them in morteros. Such circular holes were drilled into a number of the granite boulders located in the upper reaches of Blair Valley. The Kumeyaay also used fibers of the agave and wove them into mats, sandals, belts and ropes.

We’ll be in Anza-Borrego for another day, and then we’re heading to Death Valley for another story–and to rendezvous with friends we met a number of years ago through the Outdoor Writer’s Association of America. We’ll talk shop and work a bit. The chief naturalist there tells me global warming is diminishing populations of Joshua Trees, and that’s something I want to learn more about.

Death Valley is a park we know well as Janie and I coauthored a guide book to the this incredible national park for Falcon Press. For us it’s almost like going back to a former home.

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Gray Whales and Dolphin Super Pods

posted: February 4th, 2008 | by:Bert

Dolphin super pod

Dolphin super pod


©Bert Gildart: “It’s a super pod,” said the captain of the whale watch boat, The Christopher. “And it’s one of the largest I’ve ever seen.” Then we were engulfed, surrounded by common dolphins, leaping into the air, singly, in groups–as though choreographed.

We were on a side trip to Los Angeles to visit Janie’s brother and his wife. On Friday, we had alerted neighbors of our intended excursion and left our Airstream in Borrego Springs. Then we’d made the three-hour drive to L.A. Knowing how much we enjoyed all things in nature, Greg and Susan suggested we make the short drive to Long Beach and join Harbor Breeze Whale Watch Cruises.


Timing was perfect as gray whales were now migrating south from the Bering Sea to Baja to give birth to young. This was not our first venture watching whales, and one year ago we had joined a group in Nova Scotia to see pilot whales. Such sightings are good for the soul, and when they are complemented by other sightings from the sea, the experience ranks high in the pantheon of experiences from the world of natural history.

Gulls watching dolphin superpod

Gulls seemed to be watching too


We departed from a berth adjacent to the Long Beach Aquarium, and soon were passing the Queen Mary, now on the National Register of Historic Places and permanently moored here, where it serves as a museum ship and hotel.

whale watchers silent with anticipation

Whale watchers silent with anticipation


Soon, we entered open water of the Pacific Ocean, and the captain, speaking over a loud speaker, told us that people on his cruises had seen gray whales the past three days. “Keep your eyes open; they could be anywhere.”


Moments later, Staci, a young lady hired as a naturalist with the Long Beach Aquarium, began making the rounds, explaining a little about the biology of Gray whales. She said that whales were essentially grouped according to whether or not they had teeth. She said that Gray whales were baleen whales, and used the baleen to filter out food from mud.

Ocean was thick with dolphins

Ocean was thick with dolphins


But of interest to this group was how to see the species, for we were now several miles into open water and the pilot was also interjecting his thoughts. “We’re closing in on Catalina Island and here’s where we saw several gray whales.”

Then, almost on cue Staci called out, “There she blows.”

Whale Watching Adventure also includes dolphins

Dolphin leaping


The whale was about half a mile away, and the pilot turned the ship in the direction of the whale. “They blow about every 10 minutes,” said Staci, “and if we time it right-and if luck is good-we’ll get a better look.”


The pilot powered the boat forward slowly, and the passengers grew quiet. And that’s when the dolphins moved our direction. Then, for about five minutes we were engulfed by a stream of thousands of common dolphins-literally thousands. Again the captain came back on, saying that he had seldom seen such a huge pod. “Just doesn’t happen all that often,” he said. “This may be the largest I’ve ever seen. This is a super, super pod. Maybe 3,000.”

Moments later, the dolphins were gone, and the pilot turned his attention back to the gray whale. We saw several “blows” in this distance, but nothing particularly close-and then, just about the time the pilot said we had to return to shore, a gray whale rose from the water perhaps 50 yards away. “Well,” said the pilot, “this is too good an opportunity. We’ll stay a little longer.”

Gray Whale fluke

Gray whale fluke


The whale blew again, providing me with one quick photographic opportunity, which I managed just as the leviathan dove again. But more than anything, the whale-and dolphins-satisfied a closeness with nature, something appreciated by every single person in this extremely diverse group of whale-watching patrons.

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Lessons From Yaquitepec

posted: February 1st, 2008 | by:Bert

Yaquitepec truely a wilderness home

Yaquitepec was truly a wilderness home


©Bert Gildart: The trail was steep and rocky, and following a one-hour hike, Janie and I finally reached Yaquitepec, the site of the eroding ruins of a home Marshall South and his wife Tanya began building in February 1930. Here they remained until September 1946.

They had removed themselves from civilization hoping their lifestyle of simplicity would complement the flood of writing that both Tanya and Marshall produced. What we found, however, as we poked around the old homestead now being absorbed by the overwhelming wilderness in which they had once worked, were ruins. And they were a metaphor for their “experiment.”

For awhile, all seemed to go well for the Souths. Three children were conceived here, and art work produced. In his years at Yaquitepec Marshall wrote hundreds of magazine stories. “They were popular,” wrote Randall Henderson, editor of Desert Magazine, “because he expressed the dreams which are more or less in the hearts of all imaginative people.” Often complementing those stories was Tanya’s poetry. Marshall also wrote five novels, all popular at the time.


But underlying all of these achievements was an inflexible nature, and that, more than anything else, probably contributed to their downfall. Wrote Henderson in a book we had carried in our day-pack to Yaquitepec: “Marshall’s tragedy was that he tried too hard to fulfill his dream. He would not compromise. And that is fatal in a civilization where life is a never-ending compromise between the things we would like to do and the obligations imposed by the society and economic organization of which we are a part…

“He wanted to raise a family–and impose upon his family his own unconventional way of life.”

Though Henderson may well have been correct, the Souths were living in a time when vast changes were occurring. Our nation was at war and the army considered a part of the land on which the South’s were living to be their land, and in 1945, forced them off. Though permitted to return a year later, the South’s way of life had been disrupted, momentum lost, and they had to start all over again. By this time, the toll of such Spartan existence was taking its toll on Tanya, and she wanted out.


One winter day she gathered the children and marched down from Ghost Mountain, eventually settling in San Diego. Though there is much in the records to suggest she often looked back during the next 50 years (she died in 1997 at age 99), there is little in the written record, for she remained aloof–and sometimes friendless.

Almost absorbed now by the elements they once cherished

Almost absorbed now by the elements they once cherished


Marshall died in 1948, at the age of 59. He was penniless and so destitute that it remained for Rider, his oldest child, to provide a marker, which he did in 2005. The epitaph read: “Father, Poet, Author, Artist and included as well, one of his poems. Though the poem that follows is not the one on the grave stone, it may well reflect Marshall’s hopes that he did, indeed, leave his mark. The poem is entitled TIME and we begin with his second stanza:

Who owns this land? Beneath the sun,
in blots of indigo and dun,
The shadows of the clouds move by,
beneath the arch of turquoise sky.
Sunlight and shade in patterned change
across the wasteland’s endless range-
Time–on soft feet. And who shall find,
the records we shall leave behind?

Janie and I closed the book about the Souths and continued poking around. Immediately we found the metal frame of the old bed that all five used in the winter for warmth. We could also make out the general layout of their home. We found evidence of the cisterns Marshall constructed to funnel water following the desert’s infrequent rains. But elsewhere agave poked throughout the old structure. So, too, did ocotillo and barrel cacti. Cholla blocked the frame once supporting a door.


When Janie and I first learned about the couple, we had cheered for them; hoping to learn of a happy ending. But that was not to be, and we concluded they were lucky to have made it as long as they did, for so much was against them. They contended with war, disruptions to their lifestyle, and a society that at times expressed intolerance. As well, the nation was growing–the population expanding–and their land was coveted by some.

Without funds, they were ill equipped to fight this new battle, a lesson we should not forget. Take heart from the fact that their home-schooled children led very successful lives.


4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

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Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

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What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

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