The East Side

Dawn’s early light over the Panamint Range in Eastern California

The past three weeks has been an intense road trip photographing the mountain west.  El Niño lived up to its expectations by dumping a lot of snow on the Southwest until a week ago when it started to feel like we went instantly from deep winter to warm spring.  Photographic opportunities piled up and I decided to just go for it and visit Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, and California.  These trips have been very successful for capturing magical light and amazing wildlife in images. I have lots of work to do processing all these images when I get back to Santa Fe.

As a native of Northern California I feel very lucky to have grown up there when I did.  It was a time when the coastal mountains, Yosemite, and the Sierra Nevada still had lots of areas to discover.  Coming back is very hard.  My mental images of the Central Valley are of huge agricultural lands with Steinbeck style farmhouses spaced far apart and dark skies at night.  Those images are no longer accurate.  The Central Valley is now one massive connected suburbia with cookie cutter strip malls, Wal-Mart and Home Depot stores.  I left California 20 years ago.  Those memories of what it used to be are still preserved inside of me.  I hope they stay there forever.

After experiencing some incredible nature photography on the west side of the Sierra I “escaped’ over to the East Side of the Sierra. This is a predictable behavior  for me.  In the summers I would camp out on the East Side climbing and skiing along the Sierra Crest.  The East Side has not changed much though.  Thankfully!  Today I sit inside a cafe in the sleepy town of Bishop, California.  I have been camping out the entire trip, avoiding hotels, motels, and I guess people as much as possible.  Maybe I am trying to relive those days of my youth?  Ironically just a few years ago my business trips were in Washington DC, staying in fancy hotels like the Ritz Carlton, and feeling excited about all that.  Now I am more excited to pitch the tent in a mountain meadow and cook my own meals.  Top Ramen, PBJ sandwiches, and water have taken the place of nice restaurants.  It feels great!

Bishop is a mecca for serious climbers, mountaineers, and backcountry skiers.  It is February and the cafe is full of tweny-something  climbers.  We would never really see the amount of climbers that Bishop now has.  I think it is great though.  I love seeing young adults taking the road less traveled and following their passion.  When I was living out of my truck during the summers in the Sierra I was also going to school and eventually getting a PhD.  Believe it or not, I think I learned more valuable experiences for life from the time in the mountains.  I am sure many of the younger ones around me try to make sense of the trade-offs between “getting a real job” and following their passion.  When I look at these courageous and smart ones I can see a smile on their face.  They are living life now, and I will bet they will continue to live a rich life if they stick with their passion.  A climber friend from my past stuck with his passion to pursue a career in the mountains, living in Bishop.  Now he and his wife own a successful mountaineering store,  he also works as a professional mountain guide,  and teaches kids about the wilderness and environment.  I would say that is a “home run”.

Back in the day we did not have Facebook, blogs, or smart phones.  The photos from our trips would be shown weeks later as slide shows to our family and friends. I can still hear the whining and complaining “that is too dangerous…” and “you are crazy to do that…”.  These comments actually just reinforced my motivation to get out and climbing and skiing in the mountains.  In the cafe I watch the young climbers posting images of themselves working on some tough bouldering problem of Facebook.  They can now instantly share their excitement.  I guess I am doing the same now with this post.

Many people I meet have never been to the East Side of California — specifically  the 230 mile stretch of Highway 395 from Lone Pine to Carson City.  This drive will give you a show of some spectacularly rugged mountains.  For me there is a strong pull on my internal navigation system to route me here.  Just yesterday I was stressed out driving on the busy freeways on the other side of the Sierra, just 50 miles as the crow flies, and today I am in wild and peaceful mountains.  The two images in this post were taken at sunrise this morning as I camped up at 9,000 feet in the White Mountains looking across the Owen’s Valley at the 14,000+ feet peaks of the Sierra.  The wind blew all my cares away and brought me back to some beautiful memories.  These young climbers and adventurers will look back someday to their days on the East Side. They are lucky, smart, and not lazy.  They are instead courageous and will be some of our future leaders.

Moonset over the Sierra as Bishop sleeps.