This year’s trip into the Eastern Sierra was a little different. I planned well, had many ideas, and in the end had to scrap most of them and improvise. Winter and summer seems to provide just the right conditions for all the gold and yellow I could imagine. The reality is that it was, in what I would call using my extensive knowledge of the English language, weird.
The areas that I expected to be past prime were right on schedule. Sagehen Summit was mostly brown by the time I got over Hwy 120. What surprised me was how much of a mix of past prime and utterly green it was in the valley from Ellery Lake to Lee Vining. Usually when I’m rolling through here it’s popping with yellows, although it’s in the early afternoon and poor quality light for me. Debbie and I usually promise that we’ll stop here on the way home. This time it was obviously unusable.
This year I took my Subaru Forester with the plan that we could get into more remote locations. There are a few dirt roads near Conway Summit and this was the day to explore.
Typically I avoid elements like power lines. They’re not natural and they’re kind of an eyesore. This time I included them as part of the landscape helping lead the viewer into the scene. I didn’t want to get much closer to this grove because the dirt road had a section of deep mud that somebody obviously got stuck in the day before. Judging by the tire tracks he had much more clearance than I did and got stuck anyway. No thanks. I chose to photograph this scene with my Sigma 150-500 to both isolate my subject and bring it closer.
I have a stretch goal in mind depending on the weather and when I finally turn in. Carrizo Plain just about 2 hours from Pismo Beach; it’s possible for me to get there for sunrise if I’m up by 4:30am. Fortunately for me the couple in the tent nearby is chatty and the guy in the RV the opposite direction snores enough to be mistaken for the train that passes by every so often. So I’m up at 4 instead.
Hwy 58 in the dark.
All I can see is the trees and the road in my headlights. As far as I can tell I’m driving through a long, dark valley. A few miles from Carrizo Plain there are hints of sunrise, meaning that parts of the sky aren’t as dark as other parts of the sky.
Up until then it’s very clear to the south and the moon hasn’t risen. It’s possible to get some shots of the Milky Way but I haven’t done any serious research for this part of the trip. A photograph of the Milky Way without an interesting foreground is just another picture of the Milky Way. Yeah, it’s fairly interesting, but that’s not enough for me today. I’m also very aware of two other big details:
I don’t see anywhere obvious that I could setup safely. It’s rare but there is the occasional other car on the road.
stopping puts my arrival time at Carrizo Plain at risk.
I don’t like to write about things I didn’t do… but I think you’ll excuse me for writing about not taking a picture of the Milky Way this time.
Soda Lake Point View
I’ve done a little research on the area but not a whole lot. There’s a headlamp visible on top of a hill — it takes a moment to realize that this is the Soda Lake Point View that I had in mind for sunrise. Park, hike up the hill, introduce myself, set up my tripod and my camp chair, and wait. It’s just me and the one other photographer and it’s pretty darned cold. I was prepared for the temperature so no big deal. Pretty soon we’re joined by a few more people who camped nearby.
The sun is over the horizon now but hasn’t crested the ridge to the east yet. There’s enough light to create soft shadows along the hills suggesting volume. A few clouds make an increasingly interesting sky.
The foreground becomes more interesting as the flowers become more visible. Every direction offers a compelling composition: volume, color, leading lines. The only thing I purposely ignored was the sun bursting over the ridge.
I wanted to use a telephoto lens to isolate some details of the landscape. You’d be surprised how often I use a telephoto in the field. It’s an opportunity to use the characteristics of the lens not only to bring attention to specific elements, but also compress the background.
Some lenticular clouds moved into the scene as I was shooting. This looked like a good opportunity to switch to a portrait orientation.
Time to get adventurous
Now I wanted to explore. Soda Lake Road eventually turns to dirt after a few miles. The flowers are opening up more as the sun gets higher so I look for more photo opportunities.
The sea of flowers is almost impossible to convey in words. It’s even difficult in photographs. There’s a spot that I liked at the edge of Soda Lake while the light is still good. Flowers, more flowers, pops of white, yellow, purple and it just kept going.
I got back on the road looking for interesting subjects. The light was starting to get bright so there wasn’t much time left for quality photographs. I spotted a shack with a couple of water tanks in the field of grass and flowers against a hilly backdrop.
The pavement ended a few miles ago (yes I’m aware that I switch tense a few times in this story. My favorite grammar experts are probably melting down while reading this. Sorry.) And now there are cows. They’re bewildered by my presence. They’re cows, they’re bewildered by their own shadows.
By about 9:30 am the light is getting too harsh. I’m also super hungry. I know there are a couple of BLM campgrounds along this route and the plan is now to plop down in one, make breakfast, and let whatever happens next happen. That turned out to be that I’d make the best blueberry pancakes ever, make a new friend, and go for a wild flower hike. Note for future reference: the KCL Campground is pretty darned awesome and you can’t beat the price.
My part of the hike was fairly brief. I only had enough time for a couple of miles and then I needed to get back to Pismo Beach. The view from up the hill was pretty spectacular.
April 1, 2019 11:15am About 100 miles south of Santa Cruz along Hwy 1.
I brought a little notebook just in case I felt like writing. There’s a lot on my mind. I’m driving to Pizmo Pismo Beach (holy smokes, no matter how hard I try I have misspelled Pismo Beach as “Pizmo” for as long as I can remember. Thanks for correcting me Tori. ) to see some friends. Two I’ve known for decades now but haven’t seen in pushing 20 years. One I’ve known mostly online for the past 5 (via what used to be Google Plus… a long story).
I lost my job with 23 other people 2 months ago. We were all passionate about what we did at the “well known fitness brand.” This isn’t that story, but it is on my mind.
I’m hoping for a job offer in the next few days. This seemed like my last chance to see my friends E, S & L. I’m in no hurry since they’re all busy people so I’m taking the slow scenic route. Camping in Pismo Beach but not going especially light. The firewood in the skybox on top of my Subaru definitely cancels out the “light.”“Cheap” might be more accurate.
Just out of Carmel was the expected ultra slow tourist. I get it, she’s from the city. This is scenery she’s only seen in pictures and has never experienced herself. The coastline is mind boggling beautiful so she looks out the window instead of at the road, swerving like a drunk and going 20mph.
I know she’s going to stop at Bixby Bridge for The Perfect Tourist Selfie. She does, right on cue. The drive gets far less frustrating south of McWay Falls which for some reason is closed today. No worries, I’ve been there many times before.
The coffee caught up with me and it was time for a break. I’m sitting on the cliff writing in my notebook and snacking. I haven’t stopped here before and it’s a nice view. This is a bit further south on Hwy 1 than I’ve been before, somewhere between McWay Falls and Ragged Point. I’ve done the stretch from LA to Mexico, LA to Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz north past San Francisco… so this part between Big Sur and Pismo Beach is the big Hwy 1 gap for me. It’s one of those bucket list kinds of drives that most people dream about — until they’re behind that tourist headed to Bixby Bridge of course.
Some bicyclists just cruised past. I hung behind them a few miles ago providing them with some safety in a fast downhill stretch. They appreciated that. I raced bikes in college (badly) so I get it. Passing them would be dangerous for everybody, so this way I could be helpful.
I’ve been listening to music that my buddy John H gave me years ago. Some of this I’ve never heard before. I wonder why. A lot of it is good.
The next stop is a brief pause at Ragged Point. This looks like a place I’d like to spend more time, so I note the lodging so I can bring my family here another day. I think they’d like it. It’s about noon and the light is awful so there’s no point in taking many pictures. I brought my little Panasonic Lumix superzoom for these snapshots, the Canon 5d Mk III for the quality stuff.
I read about the San Simeon elephant seal migration, so that’s the next destination. The seals are all females and juveniles. I see a lot of these guys around Año Nuevo and they’re beautiful. I can get much closer since there’s a fenced boardwalk without causing any problems for the wildlife. It’s a good opportunity to use the Canon and a telephoto lens. Lots of people now want to talk about photography topics and I’ve become that guy declining shots because “the light’s no good that direction.” A snapshot of an excellent subject in bad light is nowhere near as good as a mundane subject in quality light. So I politely decline with only the brief explanation.
A couple of hours later I rolled through San Louis Obispo and into my campsite near Pismo Beach.
I unloaded, setup camp, and explored my new surroundings a bit before visiting my friends. Funny thing, I had forgotten that this was a popular spot to drive on the beach. I don’t feel inclined to get stuck in the sand so far from home so I’ll pass this trip.