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, 2009

Rites of Spring

posted: February 28th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Birds and flowers, that’s what’s making headlines now in Arizona’s Organ Pipe National Monument. Flowers, we’ve been told, are beginning to emerge all along the Ajo Mountain Drive, and we plan to make that drive in another day or so. Because I have some business to attend to, we’re staying close to our Airstream, parked now at the Twin Peaks Campground, and here, near our parking site we’re seeing lots of bird life.


Courtship time and this fellow may be trying to impress the females with various vocal and visual antics

One of the species I’ve been able to photograph is the raven. Over the years I’ve made lots of portraits, so I’m now trying for something more, something that great suggests intelligence.


Intelligence, of course, is expressed in different ways, and the literature is full of examples. One example is provided in a book Janie recently gave me-appropriately entitled The Raven, by Lynn Hassler. Though the book provides many examples one tells of a raven finding a bucket during a time of drought. Liquid in the bucket needed to be raised and the raven accomplished that by dropping stones into the bucket.

Communication, however, may be the best example of a raven’s intelligence, and scientists say the bird has dozens of different forms of vocalization. Yesterday, using a long lens, I photographed this one on top of a saguaro cactus, and though I certainly don’t know precisely what the flared tail feather and accompanying croak signifies, I suspect it was expressing anger. “Stay out, stay out,” he may have been telling some of the other ravens flying about. “Stay out! This is my territory.” For added emphasis, the bird flares its nictitating membrane, a membrane that registers alabaster in my photo and which is designed to protect the bird’s eye from foreign objects, easily picked up while in flight.


Other birds are also making their presence known and this male Costa’s hummingbird was busy chasing other male Costa’s, apparently in an attempt to establish his territory.


The "bib" differentiates this male Costa's Hummingbird from the Anna's.

Naturalists at the visitor center say hummingbirds have not yet nested here. As some of you may recall I recently posted photographs of either the Anna’s or the Costa’s nesting in Anza Borrego. ID-ing females is difficult, but not so the males. Note the “bib,” on this little fellow, confirming that it is an Costa’s .


*Marta Becket’s Amargosa Opera House


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Tiny Sonora Desert Beauty–The Fairy Duster

posted: February 26th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Almost looks like fireworks, doesn’t it? Fact of the matter, this tiny flower is called fairy duster, and Janie and I saw it growing in Organ Pipe National Monument along the trail to Victoria Mine.

Fairy duster is a member of the pea family and in a book on Arizona flowers, it is described as a “powder puff,” one “containing several flowers with long stamens, white at the base and tipped with pink.” Flowers are further described as being two-inch wide “puffs”, but I think the tiny flowers look like fireworks.


Fairy Duster, tiny beauty of the Sonora Desert

The book also says that many desert animals feed on the foliage and that many insects and hummingbirds frequent its flower. I made this photograph using two off-camera strobes, setting f-stop and shutter speed to optimize depth of field and make the background go dark.


Several people have asked me about our new solar panel, which I described in our last post. We got our panel from Solar Mikes in the Slabs and paid about $275. Others have told us about quotes ranging up to twice what we paid, so we’re sold on Solar Mike.

Wiring and link to our existing solar system added a bit more to the price, as did elsewhere. We intentionally wanted a movable panel and Mike added enough wire length so we could move it around throughout the day. That way we can point the panel directly at the sun, and that DOES improve absorption. We have yet to come up with a good stand for the panel but in the meantime, we are using a stepladder securing our panel to the ladder with bungee chords.


Moveable solar panel absorbs radiant umph!

For security, I run a padlock through one of the holes in the frame of the panel and then thread a bicycle lock through the lock. Finally, I tie the looped ends together with yet another lock.

There’s bound to be an easier way to anchor and secure, but in the meantime, this works, and bottom line, we’re sure absorbing the solar amps.



*The Dry Tortugas


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Organ Pipe National Monument Where We’re in Fat City, Mostly

posted: February 24th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Janie and I are back in Arizona’s Organ Pipe National Monument, an incredible national park-administered area that protects a unique component of the Sonora Desert, the organ pipe cactus.

Over the years we’ve visited this park four times, and it has become one of our favorites. I’ve posted several blogs on the area and written stories about the park for several magazines, generally discovering something new each time. That’s true this time, and though some of my discoveries are good ones, one, I discovered this morning, is not.


Gambol Quail: One of the better things we've just enjoyed here

This morning as we visited with a park volunteer, we learned that six people have been killed in the Mexican town of Sonoyta, a Mexican town immediately over the border that almost flanks the park. As the crow flies, it’s about 7 miles away.

The deaths have all occurred since December and two of those deaths occurred yesterday. Last year while here I also posted a blog on a visit sponsored last year to Quitobaquito. Because of drug running, the trip was made with an armed escort. This year, because of all the deaths and other hostilities, the trip has been cancelled and is not even possible with armed rangers and border patrol, all of which accompanied us last year.


On the flip side, in the one day we’ve been here, I’ve managed to photograph two subjects that I was unable to photograph last year. One, is the Gambol Quail; the other the Senita Cactus.


Northern limit for the Senita, where it just barely expresses itself.

Last year, the birds were just too darn elusive, but this morning I found quail shortly after sunrise, and didn’t have to go far. Stepping out of our Airstream, I heard the familiar clucking sound of the Gamble’s and quickly pinpointed about 12 not more than 25 yards from our trailer. Perhaps someone placed out feed, but, still, quail are not usually tolerant, and so I was surprised to approach closely without having to first myself in a photo blind. Nevertheless, I walked to within frame-filling distance of my 600mm lens.

Organ Pipe is generally thought to be the northern limit of the Senita cactus, but this morning our friendly park volunteer told me one was located near the visitor center and then he outlined a route. The species is unique in that it produces ribs that are much more pronounced than those produced by the organ pipe or the saguaro.

I used a strobe for the image shown here, setting the camera to the manual mode and then stopping down to f22. I set the shutter to 250ths of a second to make the background go a little dark. I did not want to blacken out the Saguaro in the background so played around a bit with the exposure, creating a balance I thought was pleasing.


We added another solar panel to the two mounted on the roof of our Airstream, but this one is separated from the trailer. Solar Mike, back in the Slabs, wired so that it ties in with our current arrangement, cutting off when charge was proper. For the technocrats out there, our three 55 watt panels now soak up close to 9 amps per hour. Because we can move the external one so that it is directed toward the sun, it is more efficient than the two roof-mounted panels.

With all this desert sun and our three solar collectors, we can charge computers and telephones; watch movies; run our Magic Air fan (it’s almost 90 degrees); and run our water pump to take showers-either hot ones or cold ones.

We’re in fat city.



*Gator Drama in Shark Valley


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Salvation Mountain–More Than Just an Ultimate Expression of Folk Art

posted: February 22nd, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: If you have seen the movie or read the book Into the Wild, you may recall that Alexander Supertramp, legally known as Christopher McCandless, spent time in a remote part of California called “The Slabs.” It’s surrounded by such features as Bombay Beach, a half-submerged wasteland of derelict buses and vehicles, and the Salton Sea, known for several environmental catastrophes. Sandwiched in between are the Slabs, a WWII-era Marine facility where squatters and seasonal snowbirds live in RVs and vehicles among the concrete remnants. And not far from here is Salvation Mountain, created by Leonard Knight, one of the people who befriended Alexander Supertramp.


"I'd really like to show you to the top of my mountain."

In the movie Knight played himself, and when I asked Knight about Alexander he said he thought he was a nice kid, perhaps a little confused. Realizing there was little more I might learn about Supertramp, I asked Leonard about his construction of Salvation Mountain, and an hour later, was glad I had. Leonard, I soon learned, is on the road to becoming a man of national acclaim. Several years ago, Senator Barbara Boxer said in a statement to the President that his site should be a “National Treasure.” As a photographer, that was another reason I wanted to visit.


Janie and I arrived at the Slabs via a series of backcountry California roads. We passed through the small town of Niland, then several miles down a rutted but paved road passed a sign advising us we were about to enter The Slabs, providing “The Last Free Place.” A mile or so later, we passed Salvation Mountain and then we found what appeared to be a good clearing among the cholla, creosote and concrete slabs. Quickly setting up, Janie and I made the short drive back to Salvation Mountain, and then entered a compound providing access to Salvation Mountain.


Slab City, "Last Free Place," as sign says in the small print.

Before me was an older man clad in a bright red jacket. He wore no hat, had a full crop of gray hair and was sitting on a small sofa, a fixture of his great outdoor room. Here, all was back dropped by inscriptions proclaiming in various ways that God is love. We parked, and Leonard waved us over, and we soon found ourselves on a tour.


I asked Leonard if he had always been a man of God and he said, “No,” that once he had been a “powerful sinner,” and slowly a bit of his story began to unfold.

Leonard said that he had grown up in Vermont. He said he “should-a had a happier childhood” and that he only went through tenth grade. At age 20 he was drafted into the US Army and was sent to mechanics school.


Though you'll know you're there, still, there is an official sign.

Discharged from the service he said he first traveled to California in 1956. About 10 years later, he went to visit his sister in San Diego, and it was here, he said, that he experienced an epiphany that followed a period of some despondency. Leonard said he was sitting in a car one morning when he just started saying over and over, “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come into my heart.

“That changed my life completely,” he said, “and to the good.”


Back home in Vermont Leonard said he had another vision, which further shaped him. He saw a hot air balloon fly over town which inspired him to work on a lifelong goal of creating a hot air balloon with the phrase “God is Love.” For the next ten years, Leonard tried to cobble together his dream, hitting up balloon manufacturers, which continued to refuse him donations. Finally, a company agreed to sell him materials which had been cut incorrectly, and so with these parts, Leonard began sewing together a giant balloon dedicated to his love for Jesus. For ten years he worked on his dream, but in the 1980s, when he was about ready to launch it from a location in The Slabs, he found the materials in the balloon had rotted. Knight said that that was the start of his mountain, and since 1985, Leonard has been painting and repainting his bright Biblical messages on the sides of Salvation Mountain.


Knight descends his Salvation Mountain, following his "yellow brick road."

Today, that structure is three stories tall and about 100-feet wide. He figures he has used close to 60,000 gallons of donated paint over the years, and thousands of donated bales of hay which he mixes with the adobe to harden it. Most prominent is a cross atop the mountain and from it course two streams created from a vivid blue paint. Along the way, are Biblical quotations, one The Lord’s Prayer.


Leonard has no money, but acquires paint from donations. The adobe to build the many rooms inside his mountain comes right from the side of the surrounding hills. He works almost every day, though he takes time out to share his message and conduct tours. He has produced a CD, and some of my conversation with Leonard was extracted or reinforced from this wonderful documentary, which he gives away–free. I offered a donation, but he said it would not be necessary. When I told him I really wanted to he said, “OK, but I’m really not asking for one.” Pausing, he then smiled and said, “But I’ll use it to buy more paint.”


Leonard Knight reflects on future of Salvation Mountain

I then asked him what he planned to do with his creation and in response, he grew thoughtful. Leaning against his Salvation Truck (his home)–a decorated vehicle with a house on the back all decorated with biblical quotations and a large “REPENT” warning-he stared at the ground, and acknowledged that at 77 the question was one much on his mind.


“I really don’t know,” he said, “but I have several people working on it. I guess,” he said at last, “that my work is in the hands of the Lord, and I think He will find a use for it.”

Next day Janie and I wandered around the Slabs, stopping to watch a fellow named Bob attempting to perfect his Art Cars. He said he’d suffered a stroke several years ago, and that as he lay there trying to get up, he said he thought of Leonard Knight. “And I thought,” he said, “if that old man can get up and work every day, then I can get up, too. He inspires me!”

“Inspirational.” That may be the word that best describes the many thoughts we heard expressed about Leonard during our visit to the Slabs. Certainly, he has created an ultimate form of folk art, but his lingering contribution may simply be described by that one word.

Through hard work and a vision, Leonard Knight has become a source of inspiration to many.



*Hurricane Katrina; We’ll Always Remember


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More Hummingbird Photography From Anza Borrego Desert State Park

posted: February 21st, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: As my hummingbird photographs suggest, the tiny young are on the verge of fledging. I’ve been following them here in Anza Borrego Desert State Park for over a week and for these tiniest but most metabolic of all birds things obviously happen fast. I’m also posting these as experiments have provided a better technique for lighting these tiny birds.


Improved photo techniques accomplished using two strobes

Seven days ago, there was only a suggestion of life from these several-inch-deep nests, but now, each time the adult returns (and that’s about every 20 minutes) the young thrust themselves high, sometimes onto the edge of the nest.

One of the young, in fact, is even testing out its wings, and I suspect one day soon now, it will elevate itself above the edge of the nest. A day or so later, it will launch itself on a maiden flight, probably to return, however, at least for awhile, to the security of the nest. I’d like to see all that, but alas, I believe we must soon be moving on.


As mentioned in a previous blog, photographing these tiny birds is challenging. There is a yellow ribbon that attempts to keep back curious visitors. That’s great, but it means one must use a long telephoto lens, and that creates a shallow depth of field.

On digital cameras, you can crank up the ISO, and I’ve found I can easily go as high as 400 without an apparent lose in image quality. That enables me to stop down my aperture and still retain a high enough shutter speed to arrest the quick movements of the parent as she thrusts her beak from one of the two young to the other.

But an even better technique is to use two strobes and set the camera to manual. So doing, I then adjust the shutter speed to 250 of a second and the f stop to f22. As well I backed off on the camera-mounted strobe by 2/3 of a stop. That lessened the light on the white branch in the foreground, and helped darkened the background. I hand held the other SB-800 strobe high, creating small shadows. The narrow aperture also improved depth of field, critical with such tiny subjects.


Sadly, the other hummingbird in the other nest, which I included in a post made last week, has disappeared, nest and all.


Hummingbird young about ready to fledge

When I asked one of the park’s naturalists what had happened, he informed me that an ADULT (that’s a person-type adult) was seen examining the bird’s tiny egg in his hand. To me, that is criminal!


Over the years, we have stayed in Anza Borrego a number of times. In fact, the first chapter in a book I did on Big Horn Sheep began with an anecdote provided me by Superintendent Mark Jorgenson. Regretfully, he was out of his office when I stopped in today, visiting a new sister park in the Gobi Desert of southeastern Mongolia known as Ikh Nart Nature Reserve. That park preserves the Argali sheep (Ovis ammon), which like the Peninsular bighorn of Anza Borrego, is also threatened.

Regretfully, too, it may be another year before we see devoted Anza Borrego visitors Steve and Linda and Manfred and Anna. Steve and Linda once cycled from coast to coast. Manfred and Anna are emigrants from Germany and last year, when our Airstream sustained high-wind damages, Manfred donated his skills as a retired airplane mechanic to our repairs.

Our next big stop is Padre Island in Texas, but we’ll be making lots of stops along the way.



*Remember the Alamo


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Ghost Mountain or Brokeback Mountain? Maybe There Is No Choice

posted: February 20th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: About a week ago I drove from our Airstream located at Peg Leg to Vallecito campground, once an old stage coach stop also located in California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I was making the drive to meet Bill and Larry, an openly gay couple from San Diego, California, known for their expertise on Marshal South and for their interest in history.


L to R: Bill & Larry: Though now content, life for these "Partners" has been anything but easy.


South, as any who have followed my blog know, took his family into the wilderness. For 17 years he homesteaded atop Ghost Mountain, simultaneously cranking out hundreds of stories and writing a number of novels. Once a month, he would drive his 1929 Model A Ford into the town of Julian where he mailed off his contributions to various magazines, to include Desert Living and the Saturday Evening Post. That life came to an end in 1946 when Tanya fled to San Diego and filed for divorce.


Why Marshall opted for such a life style is a question Bill and I had discussed by email. As well, we both wanted to photograph art work created by South in the tiny town of Julian where he was ultimately buried.  We wanted to photograph the South’s headstone, which until 2005 had remained unmarked, despite the fact South died in 1948.

Throughout the day we accomplished all of our goals, but because Bill and Larry were both so receptive to questions about their life style I learned about the “insidious and sometimes blatant discrimination,” that the two have endured, despite a commitment to one another that has endured 38 years. At age 20, Larry attempted suicide because he did not want to be gay. The recently released story “Prayers for Bobby“, http://www.mylifetime.com/on-tv/movies/prayers-bobby, tells of the struggles that gay teenagers face. On June 26, 2008 the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay/lesbian couples to marry, and Bill and Larry married in July so if something happens to one of the two, the other can claim survivor retirement benefits.

According to Bill and Larry there are 1049 marriage benefits they’ll never have, but which heterosexuals do have. Survivor Social Security benefits is one of them. Whether or not their marriage remains valid seems to be in the hands of Kenneth W. Starr, the former U.S. Solicitor General, who led the inquiry into President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, and is the lead counsel for the official proponents of Proposition 8.


Science, of course, has made a darn good case that sexual orientation is genetically controlled. Though I have little insights into other gay couples, these two men are committed to one another and are not seeking recruits. As Seinfeld once counseled, “Elaine, they’re happy with their team, and we’re happy with ours.”

Like most people in the wider community, my knowledge of alternative life styles is vague and confused, infused when men and women I’ve known have come out of the closet. For instance, I was shocked when a good friend, a big strapping man and an excellent athlete with beautiful children, declared that he was gay. He then left his wife.


Small cafe in Julian--where Marshal often lingered after dropping off manuscripts.

Perhaps, however, I should not have been astounded, for I knew his marriage had been an extraordinarily acrimonious one. But so are other people’s marriages, so his choice of life styles confused me until I read complex factors, ones beyond our control, may have been at work. Still, his decision has not been easy for anyone, particularly for his children, and his daughter has distanced herself. But so our culture has conditioned us; and little wonder so many from this alternative group have developed self-destructive tendencies.


Other than that I’ve known but little about the trials and tribulations sustained by those in the gay/Lesbian community, and the issue has never been one of my hot buttons. But my compassions for that “team” increased immeasurably when several years ago I saw an image of Matthew Shepard beaten and left to die in the cold of the night tied to a split-rail fence in Laramie, Wyoming, where he died. In the 1960s I witnessed the murder of Virgil Ware, an innocent young black boy, and that hate crime dramatically affected me.

Though California is considered more tolerant than Wyoming (and Montana, for that matter, my home) both Larry and Bill wish more would understand, and probably, with that thought in mind, Larry sent me several links. One is a link to Jean Pfaelzer’s book, “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11825013), that describes the immense persecution inflicted on the Chinese immigrants beginning with California’s Gold Rush, and made legal with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was repealed in 1943. California’s anti-miscegenation law was repealed in 1948.  Larry, a 3rd generation Chinese-American, is particularly sensitive about having “double stigmas for discrimination.”

Other links, such as, http://gaylife.about.com/od/samesexmarriage/f/civilmarriage.htm, provide insights into the differences between Civil Unions and gay marriage and to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, http://www.matthewshepard.org/site/PageServer, a foundation intended to eliminate hate crimes, something no one should condone!

Though I found the stories of Bill and Larry compelling, my real objective for the day was to learn more about Marshal South, and with that goal in mind, Bill and I made the drive to Julian, realizing that what took us about an hour on today’s good roads must have been an ordeal on the muddy, rutted roads that unquestionably produced healthy shoots of cholla and other thorn-bearing cacti.


Quickly, we located the real estate office in which Marshal painted his friezes in the former Julian Library. Bill and I both took photographs and marveled at South’s immense talent, and commented on the fact that he excelled in so many different areas but that once those talents had been mastered, he did little with the skills-and that has been one of history’s greatest criticisms of the man. “Why didn’t he convert those talents into cash?” wonder his many critics. (CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE)


With those thoughts in mind, Bill and I walked to the graveyard overlooking Julian. Bill knew the location of South’s marker and we easily found it. For over half a century the marker remained without an epitaph, and that seemed tragic. The tragedy, however, was remedied just a few years ago by Rider, Marshal’s eldest son, who in 2005 added a grave marker with inscription.

As we studied the marker we recalled Marshal had been born to wealth and apparently money was never really one of his major objectives. Perhaps he was more concerned about living up to his parent’s concept of success, but chose the divergent and somewhat capricious path of an author. Probably, no one will ever know. All that can really be said is that we inherit a set of genetic traits, are born with an empty blackboard–and then the writing begins.


Marshal South gravemarker, noting the passing of a significant life

At long last, Rider, Marshal’s oldest son added a marker to his father’s grave, and read:

Father, Poet, Author, Artist.

Late that afternoon Bill and I returned to the Airstream he and Larry had purchased together. Both are well educated, and have enjoyed successful medical careers, Larry as a California Children Services pediatric occupational therapist treating kids with diagnoses which include cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, head trauma, congenital amputation, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and spinal cord defects, and Bill as a charge RN for the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

For a while we visited, laughing (both had a great sense of humor) at one another’s jokes, and shared a few more thoughts about the South family. The family consisted of the two parents, Marshal and Tanya, and their three children, and we’d all watched the 76 minute-long DVD just recently released. Two of the children appeared in the DVD, and from the interview I gathered that they had developed into perfectly normal adults.


The youngest boy, Rudyard, however, refused to be interviewed and had emerged so embittered from the experience that he changed his name and has renounced the life style associated with his 9 years on Ghost Mountain. However, he later acquired a PhD, meaning that home schooling certainly had worked for him and his two siblings, who also did well. At the time, critics said they’d never have a chance.

All too soon, my day ended and I made the 45 minute drive back to Peg Leg where Janie and I had parked our trailer. Certainly, I had to reflect, our respective lifestyles are different (easier than Bill and Larry’s), but we are all apparently content. We’re who we are for factors that may be beyond our control, and that suggests acquiring tolerance of those who are different.

Bill and Larry both seem happy, and if they’re not hurting anyone, that, it seems, should be the bottom line. Now, they’re retired, and I hope they are permitted the legal endorsement needed to provide security as they age. I hope that people will respect them for their knowledge and capabilities. Much of that is now on a scale so to speak, balanced between the desires of proponents of Proposition 8 and those who believe in the philosophy of “Live and let Live.”



Last year: Searching for Desert Five Spot

And The Year Before: The Dry Tortugas

ADS FROM GOOGLE AND AMAZON AUGMENT OUR TRAVELS (We use Nikon Camera Equipment And Lenses, All Available from Amazon):

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Anza Borrego’s First Wildflowers of the Season

posted: February 14th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Though not the first plant to be rearing its head here in California’s Anza Borrego Desert State Park, sand verbena is certainly one of the first. And although not the very first, it is certainly one of the most showy, growing in the many sandy washes that surround us here at Peg Leg campground.

Sand Verbena

One of the season's first wildflowers now flourishing in sandy washes.

We found this particular clump while driving the bumpy road into Coyote Canyon and photographed it with a macro lens. It was partially overcast, which is ideal for close-up photography of small groups, but not the best lighting when included as part of a vast landscape that might include mountains.

Sand Verbena flourishes all over the desert Southwest and you will also find it in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of southeastern California, southern Nevada, western Arizona and northwest Mexico.

Other flowers now blooming include the Evening Primrose and the Ocotillo.




Badwater, Where an Entire River Disappears


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Hummingbirds Now Nesting in Anza Borrego

posted: February 11th, 2009 | by:Bert


Feeding follows incubation--and will soon produce fledglings, probably three in this case.

©Bert Gildart: Early this morning, a young woman approached Eric Hansen and me as we were peering through long telephoto lens, focused, as seemed apparent, on a tiny nest in a tree that had been roped off to prevent people from disturbing the inhabitants.

“Are you photographing sheep?” the lady inquired.

“No ma’am,” we’re photographing hummingbirds. She returns about every 20 minutes with food for its young.”

The question seemed so absurd that Eric and I could not help but laugh (after she’d left), but then we started thinking about the level of knowledge many people have about wildlife and then it seemed more understandable. We also recalled some of the disregard some show wildlife.


Anza Borrego Desert State Park is not far from many major West Coast cities, and that means that many people may be making their first contact with nature. It’s like when I worked in Glacier National Park. “Hey, Ranger, what time do you all turn on the waterfalls?”

The hummingbirds we were photographing had been discovered by other park visitors and employees here had roped off the area to keep people from approaching too closely. Last year, visitors were approaching nests within inches and some were even shaking the branch upon which the nests were fastened!


This year the park has located and blocked off two nest and we think they may be different species. One may be the Costa’s hummingbird, the other the Anna’s hummingbird.

Naturalists here say it is extremely difficult to I.D. them unless you see the male. Still, our National Geographic bird book implies that you can make educated guesses by looking at the throat. Anna’s hummingbird, the books says, has red flecks “often forming a patch of color.” Based on that description we’re differentiating between the two, saying we are photographing two different species.


One of the birds is still incubating its eggs and that we believe is the Anna’s hummingbird. The other, the one that is now feeding its young, we believe may be the Costa’s.

We can not help commenting on the size of the birds and believe that if we could take six or seven pennies and line them up, that would represent the size of the adult birds. Our bird book says they’re about 3 ½ inches from the tip of their beaks to the tip of their tails.

We also wonder what the female (the male is not involved in care of the young) is feeding its young. Whatever it is, she is gone about 20 minutes, returns and then feeds her three (we think the nest contains three) young. That takes several minutes, and upon completion, she scooted back onto the nest, covers her brood and then, for a very brief moment, seems to simply rest. A minute later she’s gone again, back to find more food, which we believe must be nectar. We do, however, know that she also collects water, as we once saw her by a tiny puddle, drinking. Then she returned to her nest, apparently to feed her young from materials she collected and had stored in her gullet.


Photographing hummingbirds can be a challenge, and both Eric and I used 400mm lens that had close focusing capabilities. As well, we both used strobe lights to add a catch light to the bird’s eye.


What you're seeing is either a Costa's or Anna's hummingbird, and most likely you are viewing it on your screen at about life size.

We never ventured over the ribboned-off area and would, in fact, have been disadvantaged to do so, as we would have exceeded the focusing capability of our long lenses. That, at least was true for the Costa’s hummingbird. The Anna’s hummingbird had selected her nest site just feet from the people trail, so I could use a shorter lens, which I quickly did.

Unfortunately, our friends Eric and Sue must soon leave, but we’ll be here for another week and I hope to see the young take their maiden flights. Hummingbirds live fast and grow fast, so my chances are fairly good.



*Death Valley and the Challenge For Photographers


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Slot Canyons are Magnificient Manifestation of Erosion

posted: February 7th, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Over the millions of years, lands now forming California’s Anza Borrego State Park have hosted many inland seas, all which have left massive deposits that have eventually eroded into areas now referred to as badlands. Badlands, of course, are areas that have subsequently experienced immense erosion and much of that has manifested itself in the form of “slot canyons.”


Slot canyons should be hiked slowly

Here, in one of our nation’s largest state parks, there are many such canyons, and one is located just a few miles from Peg Leg campground. We accessed this particular slot following a five mile drive toward Salton Sea, and then taking a spur road that dropped down a boulder-strewn road. Following a mile of bumpy driving, we came to a trailhead, and that’s the point from which we began our hike.


Engulfed in Slot Canyon


At first the trail entered a wide open canyon, but within several hundred yards the walls began to squeeze in. Before long, the walls were such that we could spread our arms and touch either side. As well, the walls meandered — twisting and turning sharply. In other places, boulders fallen from above blocked our way necessitating a real scramble or a short climb.

Other than enjoying the beauty of such an erosional feat, our main objective was photography, and Eric Hansen had ideas he shared with our small group which consisted of Dan and Nancy and me.


Sharing ideas

As well, we had ideas of our own and we in turn shared those.

Photography in such an area can be challenging. Extremely slow shutter speeds are required, and that means a tripod as well as a cable release.


We spent much of the late afternoon hiking the area and were rewarded at day’s end with a rising moon. I exposed for the moon, and allowed the rocks to go a little darker. By using PhotoShop, I was able to add a little detail to areas that would otherwise have been blocked by shadows.


Moonrise over slot canyon

We all agreed, the afternoon had been well spent and we returned with a great appreciation of the erosive capabilities of wind and rain, and occasionally, freezing and thawing. Raw as these badlands may be, they retain much beauty.



*Desert Details (Anza Borrego)


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Nonconformist Marshall South And The Stubborn Fishhook Cactus

posted: February 3rd, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: In February of 1940, nonconformist Marshall South wrote from his tiny isolated home that the fishhook cacti were putting out their flowers. “The fishhooks are temperamental,” wrote Marshall for Desert Magazine in one of his monthly contributions. “If they feel like it, they will flower, in defiance of seasons or regulations.”


Fishhook Cactus, taken with two strobes and the camera set to manual with settings of f22 and 250th of a second.

As Janie and I and our two companions, Don and Nancy, gazed over the South’s abode, abandoned over 50 years ago and now being reclaimed by this desert characterized by agave; by the sharp-pointed thorns of ocotillo, cholla and prickly pear, we continued to express awe that the family had survived so far from civilization. Today, there’s not a great deal left to offer clues, but there’s enough, and with it and the articles left behind by Marshall, there’s adequate fodder to stir the imagination and probably even arrive at some conclusions. Perhaps when he wrote about the temperamental nature of the fishhook cactus, he was also expressing aspects of his own inner nature.


Camped as we are now in California’s Anza Borrego Janie and I have once again found that of all the things in this marvelous park, what captures our imagination more than the park’s other charms are the lives of Marshall and Tanya South and their three children. Last year we had made the one-mile climb up the steep flanks of Ghost Mountain to Yaquitepec, the name the South’s provided their home, and learned enough to know that we would have to return.


"Yaquitepec," as they called their old homestead.

Yesterday, we returned and again found ourselves tallying the remains; shifting the artifacts of time for clues. Casting around we saw that the framed door archway stood and that the rusty bed now lays prostrate on the ground, and without legs for support. The cisterns still seemed fairly much intact, though they’ve developed some serious cracks. Cisterns enabled the South’s to collect water and enabled them to perpetuate their lifestyle on Ghost Mountain, for rainwater — and what they hauled from streams below — was their only source. Still, they persisted.

“Think you could have survived 17 years?” I asked Nancy rhetorically.

“Wonder what the children did?” said Nancy in response.

“Why did they insist that they run around naked?” asked Janie.


Of course, the question underlying all other questions is: why did this talented literary man and his wife seek out such an isolated life style?

For a real answer, you must delve deep into all the history that has been recorded about the couple. Superficially, their response was that they had no desire to return to the world where humans fight each other for food, shelter, power and gold.


Ocotillo, just one of their thorny dilemnas.

But did their experiment really work? For awhile it might have, for they kept their three children busy with nightly readings from some of the classic books of our times. As well, the children learned to produced much of what their tiny homestead required, such as pottery. And so the Souths melded with their environment, wearing no cloths as there was scant water for washing them; producing many of their own crops, writing stories and over a half dozen well-received novels for their faithful audience.

But in the end, the experiment failed and possibly because they had different expectations. From research, I learned that Marshall was never interested in money, having grown up with wealth. Tanya on the other hand was more practical, wanting security for the future. As well, there came a time when Marshall began making sustained trips into the library in Julian, leaving Tanya to fend for herself for days and even weeks at a time.


Old homestead clinging stubborning after 50 long years

Some believe he had grown much too fond of the local librarian, and eventually Tanya filed for divorce. The marriage ended in 1947 with Tanya taking the children and moving to the coast, where she successfully raised her children and lived just short of her 100th birthday.


Marshall on the other hand, died in October of 1948 in Julian, California, aged 59, and at the time Randall Henderson wrote that Marshall was a dreamer.

“… Marshal’s tragedy was that he tried too hard to fill 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 social and economic organization of which we are a part…”

At the time of Marshal’s burial, no marker was provided and it remained for his son, Rider South, to provide his father a marker, which he did in January of 2005. On the marker Rider had inscribed:

Father, Poet, Author, Artist.

Because of our interest in this man, later this week, Janie and I may make the relatively short trip to Julian. Perhaps there we may discover more about Marshall and why, when the curator at the Julian Pioneer Museum asked the board if there was a file on Marshal South, she was told there wasn’t — and that “No, there never will be!”

In conclusion, I’d like to note that many fishhook cactus are now in bloom, despite the lack of rain and the rather high temperatures.


Stubborn fishhook cactus, now blooming in Anza Borrego. Two SB-800 Nikon strobes, f22, 250th second, manual setting.

Apparently, they refused to compromise, and I’m delighted the flowers are now blooming — with much brilliance — defying the season, and yes, even the regulations. Wouldn’t it be great if this nonconforming man could see them now, in all their glory.



OTHER NEWS: An interesting post on my blog concerning the murder of Virgil Ware, which I witnessed. Though I’ve received many personal emails about the post, this is the first comment to that posting.


*Quick Trip to Photograph Dolphins


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.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

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.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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Modern-day Peg-leggers; That’s Us

posted: February 1st, 2009 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: After a long drive from Death Valley we are back at Anza Borrego State Park in California, staying at the park’s Peg Leg campground. Those of you who followed our blog last year will recall that this is a land of great characters. One was Marshall South, another Peg Leg. While here, we hope to hike back to Ghost Mountain, perhaps with Larry and Bill, two men fascinated with history. In fact, Bill posts a blog about his use of the Airstream travel trailer and his interest in history.


Somewhere between Joshua Tree and Anza Borrego Desert State Park

At the moment we’ve located at Peg Leg Campground, and there is a marker nearby stipulating that if we are here hoping to find Peg Leg’s gold mine then we must add ten rocks to a pile that has been growing for several decades. In fact, it is now so large it would probably engulf our Airstream.

According my research the tradition began in 1949 when “Desert Steve” built a monument to Peg Leg by piling up stones. Not far from our trailer is a sign that asks that those who are seeing Peg Leg’s gold add 10 stones to this monument.” Well, let it be known that since our arrival the pile is now appropriately higher.

Folks who search for Peg Leg’s gold are actually searching for a mine said to have been discovered by Thomas Smith who later “salted” the desert with a peg leg to enhance the legend of a peg-legged man searching for gold.


Reading from Peg Leg Log

Thomas Smith, a.k.a. as Peg Leg, lived from 1801 to 1866. He was a spinner of tall tales and yet the marker, this time an historic marker, says that his gold mine could actually be “within a few miles of the monument.” What that means, of course, is that Janie and I and our companions now camped with us, might actually have to spend time looking for the mine.


There’s yet another reason to hang around and search for gold. Each year come April Fools Day, any and all are welcome to gather at the Peg Leg Campground to compete in the Peg Leg Liars Contest. Sign up is on arrival at the contest site, which is held at the Peg Leg Smith memorial, about seven miles east of Borrego Springs on Route S-22. Presentations are done in order of sign up, and should be of no more than five minutes in length.” Other rules specify that they should be “about lost gold and/or Peg Leg Smith… and can’t contain anything which an intelligent person might mistake for the truth.”


"Let he who searches for Peg Leg's mine add ten rocks."

With those kinds of guidelines Janie and I might just hang around. At any rate, we’re here for awhile, and plan a number of things for our stay. We want to search for the endangered desert bighorn sheep, see once again the incredible badlands, and see friends made previously, such as Steve and Linda. As well, we want to learn more about yet other characters, most notably Marshall South. Since departing this park last spring, my interest in their extremely “basic” mode of living has only grown. Click here from my posting made about this time last year, and you will come to understand why this is so. What we’re really saying, is that if we can’t be throwbacks to modern-day hippies, at least we can still be peg-leggers.


The Anza Expedition

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.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

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.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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