I recently returned from a long-awaited photography trip to the Californa Eastern Sierra incorporating Mono Lake, Alabama Hills, Bodie State Historic Park and the Bristlecone Pine Patriarch Grove in the White Mountains. While fun, my trip turned out to be a Bittersweet Adventure.
What, you may ask, turned my trip from exciting and wonderful to bittersweet. Two words tell the story: Altitude Sickness.
The most anticipated segment of my trip was the Bristlecone Pine Patriarch Grove and the Crooked Creek Research Station. The Research Station is located at altitude of 10,150 feet with the Patriarch Grove at 11,300 feet. I had stayed at the Research Station and photographed in Patriarch Grove twice before, once in 2012 and again in 2013. Both times I showed no signs of being affected by altitude sickness. The symptoms include headache, dizziness, sleeplessness, shortness of breath during exertion, nausea and fatigue. There are more, but these are the most common. Since I had been up to that altitude before, I thought I would be immune to altitude sickness and its symptoms.
After spending a day playing and photographing some amazing clouds around Mono Lake, I met up with a couple of friends at Lone Pine near the Alabama Hills. We spent two days shooting among the unique rock formations many of which were used in scenes in famous western movies from the early 1920’s to the latest in 2013.
We arrived at the Crooked Creek Research Station around 3 pm shortly after a rainsquall. We would be joining a group from San Diego City Collage that afternoon. Cloudy skies and the need for some to acclimatize to the altitude, kept everyone from shooting that night. My little group of three decided to get up at 3 a.m. and head the 4 miles up to Patriarch Grove. We hope to shoot the Milky Way over the Bristlecone Pines, then the sunrise over the distance mountain ranges. Still being back for before breakfast at 7 a.m.
It was during this early morning shoot I realized I wasn’t feeling well. At first I thought I was just cold. Then I became aware I had a bad headache and felt sick at my stomach. I told my friends I was going back to the truck to warm up. On the way I felt I couldn’t take in enough air. By the time I reached the truck and settled inside, I was dizzy and shaking uncontrollably. Back at the Research Center, I rested the entire day and night while my fellow photographers were all out shooting. 🙁
The following morning, I felt slightly better, but still had many of the symptoms I had had the previous morning. It was Sunday and we all were scheduled to leave by mid-morning. I had decided I would take my time going down the mountain, stopping to shoot along the way. I still would have two days left including a day trip to Bodie State Historic Park and more night shooting around Mono Lake before heading home on Tuesday.
While packing and loading my car for the trip, I again began to feel sick and had difficulty breathing. It still seemed like I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs. After resting for a while, I knew I had to get down even lower than the 6,781 feet at Lee Vining where I would be staying. With heavy heart, I canceled my last two days and headed straight home. I was nearly half way home before I truly began to feel better and could almost breath normally.
Let’s talk, for a minute, about what does and does not makeup the “bitter” part of my trip.
To begin with, it was not Not getting any of the images from the Patriarch Grove that I had pre-visualize and planned. Nor was it NOT visiting Bodie State Historic Park where I have never been and expected it to be among the memorable highlights of my adventure. Nor was it having to cut two days off my trip and head home early.
You see for me, the time I spend at the Crooked Creek Research Station is extraordinarily special. All of us photographers are of one mindset; there is no television, no electricity in the middle of the night, no cell reception (at least for ATT customers). Time is spent chatting with friends, old and new and, of course, eating those fantastic meals prepared by Tim, the Research Center’s caretaker and cook. Then there is the time spent up at the Patriarch Grove among some of the oldest living creatures on the earth. Some as old as 5,000 years! They are both beautiful and unworldly at the same time. A place one can connect with nature and realize how insufficient one truly is.
The bitter part of this adventure first happened when Tim gave me a hug as I said goodbye and thanked him for the wonderful meals and the early morning hot coffee, and he whispered in my ear “Stay safe, Gail, and come back,” knowing I probably wouldn’t be returning.
Another bitter part of this adventure happened when I looked in my rearview mirror, with tears on my cheeks, as I drove away on the dirt road and seeing the Research Center’s buildings and the log cabin in which I slept becoming smaller and smaller until I rounded a curve in the road and they disappeared from sight, knowing I probably wouldn’t be returning.
The bitterest part is knowing I probably will not have the privilege of walking among those big, stately ancient bristlecone pines again. How sad is that?
Now, let’s put the bitterness aside and take a look at the sweet side of my adventure.
Almost always a sweet side of any photographic adventure is seeing old friends and meeting new ones. This proved to be no exception. The comradely we all shared sitting around in the only heated room at the Research Center drinking coffee and sharing thoughts, ideas and experiences about photography is enough to make any photographer smile early in the morning. That is Sweet!
Just being in the Alabama Hills shooting with friends and walking along a dusty roadbed knowing The Lone Ranger and his sidekick, Tonto, chased outlaws and cattle rustlers among these very hills and valleys we were walking through, made me stop and listen. Yes, I could almost hear the sounds of thundering hooves. Hope they are good guys with the white hats and not the bad guys with the black hats! Listen, there it is: “Hi Yo, Silver! Away!” Ah, it is the good guys. That is Sweet!
Watching Venus start to show itself in the west as twilight begins to darken the sky and knowing shortly, there will be more stars than you thought possible twinkling above. Then to top it all off, the Milky Way begins to slowly appear and takes center stage. That is Sweet!
Standing on the edge of a large rock formation watching a lightening storm so far away you couldn’t hear the thunder while it lit up the huge thunderheads continually for hours. Now that is Sweet!
Getting up at 4 and out the door by 4:30 to catch sunrise. Coming back cold, tired and hungry. Then having breakfast in a small, local café with incredible homemade breads, out-of-this-world omelets, fresh fruits (instead of potatoes) and hot, fresh coffee. Now that is REALLY Sweet!
Yes, I may have missed out on a few images that I had pre-visualized and hoped to capture up in Patriarch Grove, but I wouldn’t have given up one minute of this trip.
Photography means different things at different times to me. There are times what I enjoy most is being out in nature all alone, totally free to shoot what I want, how I want, break the rules, try new techniques, cuss out loud if I do something dumb and mess up a shot. I love feeling connected to nature and shooting what I want, when I want.
Then, there are times when shooting along side a friend or a group of photographers I don’t even know or I have just met is just plain incredible. We all help one another, we have fun, and we share ideas and banter among ourselves.
Again, while I had to cut my trip short, I wouldn’t give up any part of it except maybe while I was in throws of Altitude Sickness. But other than that, it proved to be an amazing trip. I met new friends that I look forward to seeing again somewhere out in the field. I spent many hours doing what I love: Spending time in nature and with friends photographing this amazing land we live in and wondrous scenes that surrounded me. What could be sweeter than that?
Hope you enjoyed this blog and it gave you a sense of what it means for a photographer to be out in the field with and without others around. Please feel free to share it on your social media sites and with your friends, make comments and ask any questions you may have. Remember to look for and See the Extraordinary in the Ordinary!