Nature, Preserving Itself

Well, five years have gone by and a few more inches of aluminum have been ingested by this old oak tree, living its life in super-slow motion (or, maybe we’re living too fast).

Being in a nature preserve, I imagine this tree will live and die right where it stands. But should this oak ever make its way to a lumber mill, the saw operator is in for a big surprise.

I’ll visit again in 2023. Stay tuned.

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Grand Beauty

Yes, still on the road. So many miles, so many grasslands, so many amazing vistas and so many hills to climb. Y’all are gonna be sick and tired of butte-climbing stories, photos and videos within the next few weeks. As for me, I’d like to build a house near here.

Little Missouri National Grassland, North Dakota

Rock Garden

High up on the side of a mountain, I found this yucca growing from the remnants of its former, larger self. Almost looks like an attempt at landscaping, as if someone put the yucca in a pot and placed it on this natural shelf. But I’m confident that the plant found this great spot to live and grow without any assistance from us.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Agfapan APX 25 film

Right Place, Right Time

After my 2016 visit to the Dog Ear Buttes of South Dakota, I posted this trip report, where I mentioned my long-standing desire to conquer the summits of these little hills on the prairie. When I returned to the buttes this past September, I had no plan in place for tracking down the landowner so I could get permission to hop the fence; I figured I’d wing it once I got there. Turns out, it couldn’t have been easier.

As soon as I had parked on the side of the road, a van came around the curve and slowed to a stop beside me. I introduced myself to the friendly family inside and asked if they happened to know who owns the land south of the road. “We do.” Cool. I asked if they would mind if I walked to the top of each hill. They gave their blessing, as the cows were grazing in another pasture that day. I thanked them and we said goodbye. As they drove on to their destination, I rolled a short distance westward, looking for the best spot to climb the barbed wire.

(Above: View to the west from the north summit; the Pontiac parked below)

(Above: View of the north summit from the south summit)

Once over the fence, I made straight for the north summit. Not difficult hiking, certainly, but steeper than it looks from the road. The ground was stony and dry, studded with yucca and prickly pear. In short order, I was standing on the rocky peak of the north Ear, enjoying an unobstructed view of the big sky and the sweeping prairie.

(Above: Looking eastward from the south summit; a vulture gliding through the center of the frame)

I then made the easy stroll across the saddle to the top of the south Ear. The only movement I noticed in this panorama was a single soaring vulture, making a slow circle around the buttes; not an uncommon sight on the plains, but this may be the only time I’ve seen one circling below my eye level. Pretty sweet. (You can spot the vulture during the first few seconds of the video I’ve linked below.)

(Above: View to the south from the south summit; 18 miles to the Nebraska line)

In addition to the great view up there, I enjoyed the absence of noises from the civilized world; I tend to linger in places where I can bask in the silence of the wind.

You can follow this link to Vimeo and watch a 45-second video showing a slow 360° rotation atop the south summit.

The 25th Day of December

My personal favorite? 1990. I had just moved to California eight weeks earlier. Didn’t have a job, an apartment or any friends upon arrival; I found those first two items in short order. The friends came later, but I was never one to sit at home due to a lack of someone to hang with, and I quickly launched a program of solo excursions exploring the beauty of the Marin County coast.

A year earlier, the Loma Prieta earthquake took a big bite out of the hillside just south of Stinson Beach, dragging a large chunk of Highway 1 into the sea. The scar is still visible today on aerial views.

The area was fenced off for a long time (over two years, I believe) during the lengthy reconstruction process. The northern gate was located near the far left edge of this map. This provided a perfect spot to park the Pontiac and roam the coastal trails, free from the noise of traffic…nothing but the sounds of birds, surf and the wind. I’d often see a few other hikers in the area, but on that Christmas day, I had the whole playground to myself.

One of my favorite spots was along that ridge you see to the northwest of Gull Rock. There is a giant slab of stone that sticks straight out of the hillside like a snake’s head.

This is a nice spot for sunbathing or meditation. I enjoyed stretching out on the cool, hard rock and staring at birds soaring on the breeze and listening to the waves crashing below. It also afforded a great view of the construction area, and during work hours, I would watch the bulldozers launch truck-size boulders on a long bouncing trek down the hillside (they seemed to be moving in slow motion), ending in a titanic, silent splash in the cold water.

The weather for this holiday visit was sunny with a nice sea breeze and a temp in the mid-50s. From the snake’s head, I spent a good amount of time working my way down to the rocks at the water’s edge…

…and then moving back up another section of the cliffs; rinse, repeat. Not technical climbing by any means, just scrambling, but the faces were fairly steep and demanded careful navigation.

The crown jewel of the area is a tiny, beautiful crescent of a beach and a cove (bottom center of map) located where Lone Tree Creek empties into the Pacific.

The “trail” to reach this wonderful stretch of sand is a precipitous little adventure clogged with large rocks, scrub and poison oak and it begins right at that “1” symbol on the map.

Due in no small part to the lack of a proper trail to this beach, I never saw any other people there during my many visits. It really is a fantastic spot to have all to yourself and it was always part of my itinerary when I’d leave my apartment on Carl Street and drive to the coast.

Once the sun got low, I walked backed up the silent highway to the Pontiac, loaded a CD (something appropriate for the mood and the scenery) into the boom box in the back seat, sat on the hood of the car with my back against the windshield and watched the sun blaze into the briny blue.

At this point, the mood for food came on with authority, so it was back over the Golden Gate and into Chinatown, which was fully open for business and fairly packed. I found a table and ordered a big dish of beef chow mein.

As for this particular slice of California, it’s been more than twenty years since I saw it last. Perhaps it looks quite different today, perhaps not. Stop by if you’re in the area and tell me what you see.

Note: These photos were shot on Ektachrome film with the only working camera I owned at the time, my grandfather’s vintage Argus C3 rangefinder, along with a handheld Weston Master II exposure meter.