American West, beach, california, Drone, Nature, Personal, Philosophy and Photography, travel

California 1, Part 2

The road after Monterey was new and exciting to me. Every panel and exit sign looked like a page from Steinbeck’s novels. Monterey, Cannery Row, Salinas, Moss Landing, Santa Cruz. The land I drove through was just as literary as agricultural. A city slicker with a fast car and a Western heart, I glided down the California 1 looking to my left and to my right, trying to guess what was the name of the crops grown along the road.

When the fog clears, Moss Landing is a fun sight to behold. It somehow reminded me more of the purpose-driven landings of the Northern Pacific coast than what I usually see in Southern California. Also the fact it’s called Moss Landing and not Moss Marina must be indicative of some difference. If the fog does not clear, you can still hear the clear calls of the sea lions who welcome themselves on the piers and pontoons.

After the busy bypass of Santa Cruz, the solitary wilderness becomes once again the most faithful companion of the California 1.

A few miles north of Santa Cruz I had to quickly pull over for what instantly became my favorite road sign west of the Mississippi. Someone had painted a capital red HAVE FUN on a white wooden board. Maybe I needed the reminder, the explicit injunction to have fun and enjoy the moment. That made me wonder if sometimes we are so absorbed in doing what we like and doing it well to the point that we forsake the importance of having fun.

Had someone asked me, “are you having fun?”, I would have enthusiastically said yes, but it’s also true that the road had not been devoid of overthinking. Primarily about where to stop and whether to stop and what photos to shoot which ones could or should be taken another time maybe a better time what does the future holds I remember when I was a child and this was the kind of trips we’d take with my parents from Portland, OR to San Francisco and where have all the flowers gone long time passing.

That sign cleared my mind as an instant mantra. Make sure you are having fun and quite literally enjoy the ride, and all the rest will come naturally. I smiled and took a deep breath, sat down, rolled down the windows, turned off the radio and put the car in gear.

I knew this was going to happen at some point, because most of the peninsula boasts some impressive mountains, but I did not expect the 1 to climb so abruptly as the gentle shore was replaced by humbling wind-swept cliffs. I stopped frequently, carefully crossing the road and carefully peeking over. I have a mixed relationship with heights but holding a camera usually makes me bolder – probably because of our usually unjustified exchanges of confidence between unrelated domains.

The California 1 descends to kiss the Ocean again at Waddell Beach. It appears to be a pretty cocktail of Ocean spray, wind, sand, and mountains that make the Beach a popular destination for hikers, kite surfers and hand-gliders.

One thing struck me since the very first miles past Santa Cruz: the extremely young age of the people I would run into. Now, I’m not that old myself but I am way past the age of college. At most gas stations, state beaches, parking lots, all I would see was college kids going surfing and enjoying the beach driving old Ford Explorers. I was not surprised, given the number of Universities scattered around the Bay Area, but it was amusing to feel as if I was really tapping into the cliché.

Such thoughts was I musing on when I saw another road-sign. “Slow for pie”, it said, in a neat cursive writing. That was not as good as “HAVE FUN”, but it was a refreshing change from the usual moralizing panels instructing drivers to slow down for kids, pets, cattle, trucks, pedestrians, bikers, horses, deers, bears and more horses. I slowed down indeed, I pondered it in my mind for ten seconds, I made a U-turn, and reverted back to the farm to which the sign belong. It was the Pie Ranch. I’ll keep it short, because if you go there, it’s worth a stop, while if you don’t plan on going there, I will only make you envious. The Pie Ranch is an educational farm south of Pescadero on the California 1. Among many wonderful things that they do, they bake pies out of amazing ingredients that are virtually all seasonal, local, and organic. I drove off with a blackberry peach streusel pie that gave us two wonderful breakfasts in San Francisco.

More miles. My eyes were on the road, my mind was on the load (the newly adopted pie). More beauty made me stop. The part of the road between Santa Cruz and Pescadero is overall astonishing and I’ve made many mental notes to come back and dedicate more time to each place.

Pescadero is incredibly magic. You’ll find some big rocks jotting out into the ocean, beaten by the wind and the waves.

Notwithstanding the gusty winds, the shore was too gorgeous not to attempt to frame it from above. I had one more full battery in my drone, and it quickly took off. It’s always interesting to notice how those little guys handle the wind far better than we think they would.

Look at the second jetty, if I can call it this way. There are two tiny black spots: those are people, and this should let you figure out the impressive magnitude of this natural work of art. My flight didn’t last long, because a flock of seagulls quickly caught eye of something braving the wind as well as them, and quickly moved over to have a closer look (and repel the aggressor). Out of respect and out of fear, I don’t take chances with probing birds. I landed right away – and a few seagulls followed way too close for comfort until the very touchdown.

At this point… my plan changed a bit. My original idea was to follow the California 1 all the way to San Francisco, park at the Golden Gate lookout, look out at the Golden Gate, and then meet Anne-Claire at the hotel. Truth be told, I had been on the road for more than eleven hours and I was feeling a little tired. I drove through San Gregorio, Half Moon Bay, and fancy Pacifica (I finally understood why the Chrisler car was called this way). In Half Moon Bay, a street, Ruisseau Français Avenue – literally meaning French Creek Avenue – caught my attention and I promised to enquire during my next trip. Why French creek? Did some French explorer come and baptize the place “French River” and his colleague said “Jean, let’s be realistic, this is more like a French Creek”? Maybe. We will never know. Or we will.

Anyway this was my intellectual level when, close to Daly City, I saw the sign for San Francisco via the Interstate 280 and I said “Alright, let’s bring her home”. I feel a little bad, because I cheated myself out of my original plan for a handful of miles, but they might have prolonged my trip by one full hour easily – and I knew I didn’t want to cross urban San Francisco from North West to South East at rush hour with twelve hours of driving on my back. I was happy to find out though, thanks to Wikipedia, that the Interstate 280 is “referred to as one of the most scenic urban freeways in America”. It was scenic indeed, and the elevated winding road got me away with a few nice captures of San Francisco during my final approach.

There I was, tired and happy. More than 450 miles, twelve hours and twenty minutes and two meals after leaving Los Angeles International Airport. This had been a mighty trip, a day to remember. A day of slow driving and windy roads, a day of fun and pie ranches and elephant seals and foggy mountains. A day of blue highways.

Supplement

I meant to dedicate the following day to taking photographs of San Francisco, but unlike the day of my arrival the air was hazy with local fog and smoke carried from distant fires.

The only worthy image I could capture is this skyline of San Francisco from Treasure Island, monochrome for obvious reasons. You can go on my Instagram and see a detailed version of the same panorama in ten photos.

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American West, Art, Desert, Drone, Nature, Philosophy and Photography, travel

Drone Out West – A Brief Guide to the “Endless Skyway”

We took a little trip in the South-West. That’s the reason why I’ve been silent. Nothing crazy, just the usual eighteen-hundred miles trip touching Las Vegas, St George UT, Page AZ, Monument Valley, Bluff UT, Sedona AZ, Scottsdale and back home to LA.

I took only three recording devices with me. My beloved Fujifilm X100V fixed lens camera (I will make a post about it, soon), my DJI Pocket 2 (think of a less sturdy, but stabilized GoPro) and my Mavic 2 Pro drone.

I love flying my drone in the wide open spaces of the South Western states. I know that drones are highly reliable and since taking my Part 107 and becoming a commercial drone pilots I am pretty comfortable about dos and don’ts of the trade, but around Los Angeles, even where you are perfectly allowed to fly, it’s always so busy with people and traffic (and birds) that you can’t help sighing with relief every time you land your aircraft after a flight. Flying in the desert (as in any sparsely populated area) is so liberating. Not because you would do anything crazy, but because the worst that can happen if your drone crashed is that it crashes, period. Granted the economic loss would be bitter to swallow, but that would be all. Crashing the drone on someone or someone’s car would be several levels of magnitude worse.

I learnt some interesting lessons about flying a drone in the South West, some apply to the summer, some work in general, some don’t apply only to the South West.

1. Mind the heat!

You don’t just unpack your drone and fly: check the temperature first. It doesn’t matter how much you like the heat, your little quadcopter likes it less than you do. The Mavic 2 Pro has a maximum operating temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Temperatures in the low 100s, or high 90s, summed with the thin air of the South Western plateaus will put more strain on the engines and hence demand more to an already hot battery (just to make the picture more idillic, a hot battery might deform and dislodge from its slot just enough to make the drone lose power and crash).

The solution is to be goal oriented when you’re flying in the heat: see, think, fly, shoot, land. Keep the flights brief and don’t stray too far in case you had to land earlier than expected because the battery is depleting too fast.

That’s what I did in the Escalante – Great Staircase National Monument. It was too gorgeous not to try a shot, but it was nearly a hundred degrees so I did not have much time to fly around – not excited about the idea to go retrieve the little guy in one of those canyons.

2. Use the constraints to your artistic advantage

Rules are not there to be broken, especially FAA rules. All the more if you have a part 107 license and flying a drone is part of your livelihood. Many Western points of interest, like National Parks, preserves and human-made landmarks (e.g. dams) are No Fly Zones. If you use an app like Aloft or B4UFLY, you will see those areas clearly marked. Most drones have some geofencing systems that won’t let you fly there anywhere.

This is no reason to despair, though! Think like an airplane! You can stay out of the NFZ, and position yourself at such an altitude and angle that grants you a spectacular view without breaking any rule. Think of the constraints as of guides, and work your storytelling around them.

I find these images of the Glen Canyon Dam area and the Colorado River in Page, AZ pretty interesting, and no law was broken to produce them.

3. Higher is not necessarily better

The whole point about flying a drone is to go high, right? Plus, in the desert, far from airfields or any other controlling agencies it might be tempting to fly higher than the allowed 400 feet. And yet, sometimes the interest of flying a drone does not lie in how high you can get, but in the unique perspectives you can achieve. Consider this shot of the Navajo Twins, in Bluff, UT.

If you fly lower, and closer, to the formation you can get some far more interesting results.

Drone photography is aerial photography, but also different from what you would capture from an actual airplane or a helicopter. Sometimes it’s about how close you can get to something to unlock a unique visual, and not how high you can get above it.

4. Recollect in tranquillity

I’ve often said that digital photography is much akin to Impressionist painting. Impressionists did not paint their masterpieces al fresco. They were indeed fans of the open air, but they would sketch and mark their impressions about the light on paper, then return to their studios and paint based on their sketches, their notes and their recollections.

Digital photography is the same. It’s where editing comes to play. To me, editing is what lets your eyes see now what my heart saw then.

I flew my drone quite a bit in Sedona, AZ. Then I sat down in the patio of the beautiful home we rented and, looking at the very same rocks I had shot a few minutes ago, I tried to edit my photos. I was disheartened. I was having a very hard time making the photos look as beautiful as what I was looking at. I almost discarded everything.

Little did I know that, recollecting in tranquillity a few days later in my studio, recalling the vistas of Sedona with my inward eye – as the poet Wordsworth would say, I got a totally different impression from those shots. I am able to tell you know what Sedona looked to me, or better, what Sedona made me feel like then. The the beauty that surrounds you in a stunning embrace everywhere you look, the purity of the rocks and the threes in the blinding light of the early afternoon, and those sunsets that seem to be reflecting the energy vortex rising from the ground.

This brief guide was not meant as a how-to, but more as a source of inspiration. As always, my images can be purchased as prints of any size and format. In a few days, I will update my Visions of the American West with more visions from this past trip.

Happy Trails, and enjoy the endless skyway!

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American West, california, Desert, Nature

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The first rule about the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is that you always say all of its name. You can write it as Anza-Borrego Desert SP. Maybe I will do so. But I really like it so much that I feel like speaking out its full name whenever I am telling someone about it.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one of my favorite places in the entire world. I discovered it in January, five months ago, and I’ve been back four times since then. You can see me as an Anza-Borrego Desert State Parkevangelist. I like to share what I love, and I share with insistence what I love with passion.

I think I first found out about it on Instagram. As you know, I am a fan of everything Western, primarily landscapes, and a strange place started popping up on my feed. The barren, crevassed hills and lush palm groves growing in its canyons called me with growing insistence. Feeling a bit like Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss’ character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind), I started talking to my friends about the attraction I was beginning to feel. “Do you know about Anza-Borrego Desert State Park? Have you been there? Do you want to go someday?”

It didn’t resonate with anyone. I would not give up. Emboldened by the typical New Year’s resolution to do more of what makes me happy, I made up my mind to go on a solo trip and discover Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. On January the 5th, 2021, at 0600 hours, I left our home in Redondo Beach and headed out to meet the rising Sun.

The weather was extremely unpromising until I reached Temecula, but the clouds and the fog cleared when I got on the 79-E. Let me start by saying this: the road to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is good till the last mile. As soon as you leave the freeway behind and enter Temecula’s wine county, you start wondering if you just teleported back into the California of Steinbeck and Kerouac. The vineyards lead you to the rolling hills surrounding Holcomb Village, and then the roads open into the dry prairies around Warner Springs. You get to cross the Pacific Crest Trail three times, the first two shortly after the airfield lined with dozens of white gliders, and then again after you make a left onto San Felipe Road and climb onto Montezuma Valley.

The S-22 climbs, and your excitation climbs just as much. Not just the first time. Every time you are about to enter the Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

The engine of my faithful Mustang hummed a little louder as it pushed through the last few hundred yards. It paused, rode flat for what seemed a very short laps of time, and then pointed its nose downwards, gliding down the roads in the final descent to a newfound land of wonders.

This is how Anza-Borrego Desert State Park first reveals itself to you.

And this is what you get, a few switchbacks further down the road.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which happens to be the nation’s largest state park, is not a jewel. It is a treasure chest filled with countless gems and exquisite golds. The Palm groves in the canyons are home to the only palm tree that is endemic to California (most of our palm trees where brought to California through Mexico by the Spanish settlers).

I love those palm groves, but I also love each and every plant that proves its relevance in the desert, day after day. Also the trees that owe their presence to man are special there. Go wander north-east of Borrego Springs, and your hike will smell like grapefruit flowers. The breeze blows their scent to you from the orchards surrounding the town.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is also magical where there are no plants. In the badlands where virtually nothing grows, in the narrow canyons where it’s even hard to spy a spider or a bug.

When dusk falls upon the desert in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, it’s as if you emptied a chest of all of its treasure, only to find a fake bottom, that you remove to discover more treasure.

How comes? Because Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is also a Dark Sky Retreat, and on a moonless night I saw more starts than I’have ever seen anywhere else in the world.

And if the Moon is there and scares away the stars, well, she will come to say bye on the morning that you leave, and make sure you come back soon.

I have not been in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park since early March. It’s a little too long, because the desert is my happy place, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the happy place of my happy places.

Have you ever been to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park? Do you want to go now? I do.

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American West, Desert, Nature, Personal, Philosophy and Photography

Visions of the American West

I don’t know how I fell in love so deeply with the American West. A Latin expression comes to my mind: nomen omen. Romans believed one’s name could hint to the person’s destiny, and my parents did chose Wayne as my middle name. You could also say that the Romans got it upside down, and it’s one’s name that actually imprints their fate. No matter how you see it, the love of the West is inscribed in my name.

Fun fact, the etymology of Wayne is bound to the Westward movement and traces back to the wainwright, the wagon-builder (“wain” being the archaic word for the wagon, or the stagecoach).

Western movies have surely played a major role in my fondness of the West, and my western photography is imbued with a cinematic taste.

As I recently watched John Ford’s 1939 movie “Stagecoach”, I was elated to discover a sequence very similar to a photograph I shot in the monument valley, featuring the first butte one encounters upon leaving Kayenta, the gatekeeper to the Monument Valley.

Being born and raised in Italy, my Western imagery somewhat reflects the Old Continent’s fascination with the Old West. On the one hand, I partake of John Ford’s visions of grandeur, as I look to represent the awe-inspiring vistas reminiscent of National Geographic; on the other hand, I am influenced by Sergio Leone’s realism as I paint the Western deserts in all of their barren and blinding inhospitable beauty.

We sometimes describe the Western deserts as Martian, or Lunar landscapes. The difference, though, is that life abounds in the desert. One of the reasons why I find the desert so inspiring, in fact, is the relevance of life. Nothing lives by chance in the desert, every life form sings and celebrates its own relevance.

Living in Los Angeles, I am blessed with a unique access to the American West. On top of being, quite literally, the end of the trail, I can drive three hours and be in one of my favorite places in the world, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I can also drive little more than half a day and reach the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the countless wonders of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

This is a blessing I am aware of every day. The West is my backyard. I can access it with such ease that I do not even need to think about it. Yet, the American West retains the wonder of a legendary past, certainly romanticized, but whose epic narration had begun even before the Census Bureau declared the closure of the Western frontier in 1890. Every so often, a zealous mind sets on to seek the “real” West, the reality of the Westward movement. Even before Hollywood, the Westward movement could hardly discern itself from its own self-narrative and ideology.

Then Hollywood came, and the rest is history: still, never before in history a given space-time was narrated and mythicized so close to its very unraveling, chronologically and geographically. John Wayne did meet Wyatt Earp, the deputy marshal of Tombstone, and when the latter died in 1929 in Los Angeles, western movie star Tom Mix was among the pallbearers.

If someone can take all of these elements apart, I tip my hat to them. I cannot. The nineteenth century, the Western movies on which Hollywood was born, Kerouac and McCarthy, my 2011 Silver Mustang and the sensors of my digital cameras, all of these things come together in my eyes and in my mind. I go out there, and look where the geological history and the histories of our people fold and bend like the Colorado river.

Countless towns in the South Western states claim to be “where the West still lives”. If you’re looking for me and I’m not in Los Angeles, I’m probably somewhere out there.

Happy trails!

Tom Wayne Bertolotti, W.S.P.*

You can see a selection of my Western photographs on the website Visions of the American West.

*W.S.P. stands for Western Standard Photographer and it is an acronym I molded on Chet Atkins’ C.G.P. (Country Guitar Picker)

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