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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sand In My Shoes: The Other Mojave

An adventurous trek to the desert leaves crowded cities behind and gives you a chance to capture unique photographs of an arid landscape

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Sunset across hills, Panamint Mountains, Calif.
We headed back down to explore some abandoned mines we noticed on our climb up the mountain. In fact, the Mojave has many thousands of old abandoned mines aside from a few still-active ones. First with mules, then with early automobiles, men came to seek their riches. A few succeeded; most vanished into history unknown. Everything from bauxite to zinc has been torn from the ground. Most desert off-road trails are merely access points to some of these forgotten grubstakes. While change comes slow to the desert, time hasn't been kind to many of these paths. Some barely register as "roads." Each mine has its own identity and sometimes its own color. Exploring the deserted habitats is always exciting, as one never knows what one will find. Of course, when one thinks of a deserted mine, it's gold and silver that gets the imagination going. Millions of dollars of both were wrested from the solid rock, and many fortunes were made and lost through the years. Some of these excavations are actually on the map with names like Castle, Orange Blossom, Vulcan, Old Dale and Rose of Peru. Most are not, their names and stories lost to time. The first one we visited wasn't on the map, but that didn't diminish the excitement as we pulled up after a grueling ride on a 4x4 trail.

We could tell it was a big operation from the size of the tailing mound and the narrow-gauge rail tracks still in place on the main floor. In some concrete at the mouth is scratched: "November 18th 1927." I can't help but wonder what happened to the men who labored here, and whether or not they "struck the mother lode." Most likely, there was some success but nothing substantial, and they simply moved on. Exploring these man-made caverns is dangerous, and caution must be observed. Only a few of these holes have been rendered "safe." Never bypass a barrier. There are vertical shafts, and the shoring, if there is any, is old and splintery; lengths of wire and sharp, rusted metal lie everywhere. In addition, the cool dark environs make for a nice home for rats, snakes and scorpions. Even if the temperature is a blistering 100º F-plus outside, it can be 20º cooler a few yards in the tunnel. We tried to imagine what it was like to toil here, day after day, digging and blasting through solid rock in the bitter cold of winter and the broiling heat of summer. At least they had clean air and alone time. These mines are kind of a time portal to a different era and a different way of life. Most of them, especially the older works, have a pretty small footprint that just seems to go with the desert.

The miners aren't the only ones challenged by the harsh conditions of the Mojave. Taking images here can be tough, as well. The heat, cold, wind and sand all conspire to exact a toll for the privilege. While the first three usually can be dealt with by timing, the fourth element is present all the time. Remember, it's not just big grains, but astronomical amounts of fine dust that are attracted to a lens or charged-up sensor. Even a lens cap won't keep it out for long. As an experiment one calm morning, I placed a newly cleaned wide-angle lens with cap on a table. I spent about 15 minutes doing chores and then checked. Sure enough, more particles than I could count had already found a home on the UV filter. So it's best to avoid changing lenses as much as possible, and make judicious use of a good blower brush.

For traveling through the varied terrain in the Mojave Desert of California and Nevada, Joseph Dovala has rigged his Jeep® with a unique "camera trunk." It consists of a Hardigg Storm Case attached to a trailer hitch rack, and it keeps his photo gear safe and protected.
My vehicle of choice for straddling those narrow, rut-filled backcountry trails is my Jeep® Wrangler. It's less than ideal for packing camera equipment and all the other gear one may need so far out in the sticks, plus passengers, but it navigates the terrain well. I've tried many storage iterations and have finally settled on a kind of "camera trunk." I took a Hardigg Storm Case #2720 and mounted it to a trailer hitch rack. All the gear is padded for the rough ride, and most importantly, I have immediate access to it without moving seats, other gear, etc. It doesn't hurt that the case is water- and dustproof!

I've had success in all seasons, and each has its advantages. Springtime, after some good fall and winter rains, can be especially beautiful with the bounty of wildflowers. Everyone else has the same idea, of course, so be prepared for crowds. Death Valley has even had traffic jams during bumper flower years. Spring tends to be quite comfortable as well, so that's when most people tend to visit. Summer is scorching, obviously, but the advantage is that you'll have very little company and long afternoon light to work with. Brief stormy weather might even happen in late summer and early fall, giving a different look to the landscape. It's also worth considering the effect the high temperatures have on digital sensors. If the camera cooks in the summer sun, then even lower ISO settings will produce lots of noise. Fall is another popular time, as the days may be quite warm but the nights begin to cool off. Late-blooming flowers and more critter activity generally rule these months. Winter brings cold temperatures and often heavy winds. The lower elevation of the sun lights the earth with beautiful color. Elevations above 2,000 feet may even get a blanket of snow. The desert in a white coat is spectacular.


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