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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beach, california, Drone, los angeles, Nature, Palos Verdes, Redondo Beach, Sensor Fresh

Soaring

Last week I passed the FAA exam to be a commercial drone pilot. I can’t wait to receive my badge. The theory you get tested on is interesting. As this great video study-guide tells you, at least 75% of what you have to learn is not directly relevant to you flying a drone, but the FAA wants you to “appreciate the complexity of flying.” And you sure do learn a lot of fun facts: one thing that really blew my mind was to discover that the numbers of the runways are not randomly assigned, but correspond to their approximate orientation with respect to the true North: Runway 18, for instance, is oriented 180º, so it heads South. Crazy, right? Runway 22 is headed Southwest, and so on and so forth.

Anyway, as it often happens with this kind of things, over the past month I spent much time studying and basically no time flying, so today I rewarded my self with a nice flight over Buff Cove.

As much as the drone is a fantastic flying photo camera, it would be a pity not to explore its video capability as well, so I recorded and produced a two-minute flight over the cove. Whenever I take this kind of video, I am positively amazed. Not at my own work, but at how easy it is to record this kind of video now: just fifteen years ago, I guess that a helicopter would have been the only means of capturing the footage I recorded today.

If you like my videos, don’t forget to like and subscribe to my YouTube channel! There’s only a handful of videos right now, but I plan to grow my collection fast, so stay tuned!

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california, Nature, Personal, Philosophy and Photography, Sensor Fresh

Orange County Blues

We went to Crystal Cove, OC this morning. It was somewhat overcast. As you know, I’m all about colors. When it’s overcast, and colors don’t shine as bright, then I play with black and white.

The light and the textures looked great in black and white as I was shooting. Once at home, I kept processing in black and white. It was lovely. Then I started trying out different colors, and I loved them too.

I loved how each processing gave our a different vibe. Each photograph played according to a different harmony.

The story each photograph tells is so unique that I cannot pick one and say “you are the one”.

I hope this gives a little insight into my editing processes. To me, editing is not different from cooking. It’s like preparing a salsa for the pasta. Different ingredients will call for different spices, and different spices will be suitable for different occasions.

Filters, you say? I don’t know. Call a rose by a different name, and it will smell just as nice. I don’t like the notion of filter because it’s often used in a diminutive way. Filters are usually a handful of one-size-fits-all presents you slap on an image.

Editing is more about the careful and loving fine-tuning of dozens of parameters, colors, shadows, textures, brilliances, emotions. I have my recipes, that are never twice the same, and that I like to think I improve with every photograph I produce.

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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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beach, california, los angeles, Nature

Hokusai Americano

Whenever I take photographs of certain waves, I think I get possessed by the same demon as Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849), the Japanese artist who authored iconic print such as The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In case you were still not sure, this post is about waves.

Last Sunday, I was at La Jolla Beach, in Malibu, shortly after dawn. To tell the truth, I was there at 7 AM which is way past dawn. Anne-Claire was running there with her trail running club. Although I sometimes try to hurry my sedentary body up and down the trails surrounding Los Angeles with uneven results (mostly poor), I am really grateful to her hobby because it makes us be into the wild in the very early morning. We are morning people, we go to bed at 9 and wake up at 5. Sleeping nine to five, what a way to make a living, right? If you see a photo of mine shot at night, it’s likelier to be early morning than late night.

We left Redondo at a quarter to six, because the Ray Miller trailhead (the end of the Backbone Trail that crosses the Santa Monica Mountains) is one of the furthest from us: it takes more than an hour to get there if there’s no traffic. As soon as we drove past Malibu I started feeling gusts of wind tugging at the car. That was a little disheartening. I like comfort. I like mild temperatures, gentle breezes, pastel lighting. I am also aware that no guts no glory, that the faint heart never won the fair lady, and so on and so forth. We got to the trailhead, parked the Mustang on PCH because the gates of the parking area open at eight (that is so late). Anne-Claire went running, I bundled up in my winter jacket, pulled the hoodie up, and hesitantly headed to the beach. The beach was very happy to see me and started sandblasting my bare calves con gusto as soon as I approached the shore. Little did I know that the wind was just excited and wanted to hurry me to an unspeakable marvel.

The beach was empty, a fisherman and I were the only spectators to the display of wonder that every wave would perform. They were not solo dance acts: each wave would find a partner in the wind that was rushing down to meet them from the Santa Monica Mountains. Splash splash woosh woosh.

Each wave seemed under a different spell, each crest a bejeweled crown of fractal delights. I must have spent at least half an hour just collecting waves.

You know how these things work: you think you hit the ceiling of beauty, and a new wonder unfolds before your eyes. The Sun must have head about the waltz that the wind and the waves were dancing, and decided he wanted to come and have a peek.

A peek was all the Sun needed to decide he wanted to join the dance too. And that’s when the wonder stepped up to the very next level. The crests were not anymore the the foamy fins of giant fishes, but they became like golden flares, exploding from the surface to dissolve soon after back into the Ocean.

What was happening on the beach was not less delightful: I just had to pick the scale, the distance where my eyes and lens would wander, and I was in a little heaven of water, salt, sand, rocks, and sunshine.

My original plan was to remain on the beach for a few hours, but you know, the spectacle of beauty changes hearts, and it made mine stronger. I moved the car inside the parking area, grabbed my hiking pole and started walking up the trail. Twice the wind wailed and blew dust in my overly sensitive and delicate blue eyes, and twice I turned back, walked a few steps towards the parking, stopped, sighed, and started walking up again. I must have hiked a couple miles, till the where the Backbone trail bifurcates into the Overlook trail.

This astonishingly Mediterranean trail winds and turns and keeps you marveling at how much this looks like Greece, until you get to a plateau from which you spy a view that is not Mediterranean at all, quite the opposite: to the East, the Boney Mountain Ridge elevates in all of its humbling majesty. It is a legitimate Western vista that situates you where you actually are. It reminds you that you are in California. You are at the much-sought prize of a Westward movement that unravelled through this Country for more than two centuries, shaping it at the very same time. You are standing at the end of the trail.

I actually jogged my way down because I was really hungry and lunchtime was approaching. Little bonus, on the way home we pulled over at one of the viewpoints of Malibu. It does not matter what you think about actually visiting Malibu, when you see it from up there, you can’t deny that God must have been in a jolly good mood on the day he made Malibu. I say it every time and it never gets old.

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Birds, los angeles, Nature, Redondo Beach, Uncategorized

Keeping up with the Birdashians!

“I really hate hummingbirds!”, said no one ever. You really gotta love them if you live in Southern California! We moved to Redondo Beach from Paris more than two years ago, and the omnipresence of these birds is one of the natural wonders that make the eyes of any expatriate glow with awe. Hummingbirds, seals, dolphins, pelicans are matter of fact to most habitants of the Pacific Coast, but for Europeans they epitomize exotic fauna. For us, they are as much a wow-factor as koalas, parrots and gazelles would be. Let’s be honest: even raccoons, possums, skunks, coyotes and friendly squirrels get us really excited. But hummingbirds are one step above.

Yes, they are everywhere, but most times you encounter them, hummingbirds are going places. A little like avian electrons, if you know where they are you don’t see where they are going, and once you know where they are going you can’t know where they are anymore. That’s why I was really on my toes when I saw this hummingbird hanging out A LOT in our backyard. When I saw it carrying feathers and little straws in its beak, I thought it might be nesting. I could follow the bird’s alert and seemingly erratic flight until it laid on a surprising low branch and I saw the nest. I felt like a kid in a candy store: a photographic treasure had just uncovered itself a few yards from our bedroom. Little after I spotted the hummingbird, the “it” became a “her” because this charming birdie spent most of her days sitting proudly on her nest, keeping her egg(s?) warm.

This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. This is the first photo I took of her. A word of disclaimer: although she might claim the opposite, I never invaded her privacy. I was always several feet away, shooting her with my professional Fujinon XF 100-400mm zoom lens.

I like names. I think names are great and provide a great connection with people and animals, so I decided this hummingbird needed a name. We brainstormed with Anne-Claire, and we thought Cindy was the most appropriate name. We understand and respect the fact that she probably has a name in hummingburdian, but our rudimentary vocal systems cannot reproduce the elaborate sequence of buzzes, whistles and chip notes it consists of, and she was a neighbor now so she needed a name. And names go with surnames, and given how – by then – she was the gossip of our whole block, her family name could only be Birdashian. That’s when Anne-Claire cleverly quipped “Ha! So you’re keeping up with the Birdashians!”.

Cindy offered me and my lens some incredible photography opportunities. I like to think that the best is yet to come, but I am not sure I’ll ever craft hummingbird pictures as precious as these. It must be said, Cindy Birdashian has a great taste for deco and put up her nest in a very flattering location, with patches of light playing on her feathers and the leaves around her in the morning and in the afternoon.

One night was the direst. Remember? It’s when that horrible storm hit the South Bay and the Los Angeles basin with buckets of rain and strong, strong winds. We barely slept, stressing the whole night, turning the light on in the backyard every few hours to make sure the nest and its occupants had not ruined to the ground. But hey, hummingbirds are great engineers and although she probably dragged down all of the saints in her calendar and said the grossest swearwords in hummingbirdian the whole night, the nest withstood the rage and the fury of the elements and was still standing strong on the following morning.

And then, one day it happened. My neighbor came down the stairs leading to the top unit and said “The eggs have hatched!” I grabbed my camera and hurried up his staircase, and there they were! Two little dragons, getting more and more bird-like with every passing day. They might feed on nothing but sugary regurgitations but it’s positively amazing to see how much they grow with each passing day.

Have you ever seen a hummingbird mom feeding her babies? I did, and my camera did too. It’s a unique wonder of the natural world. My favorites are when she taps on their little beaks to make them open wide, and once they are done, how she jump-sits on them to make sure they’re all warm and cozy. Just so you know, I was jumping with joy and I even made a little triumph dance when I saw what I had captured.

On my last photography session with Cindy I was able to get some good still images of her and her babies. These are some of my favorites family portraits.

The good news is that Cindy and the baby Birdashians are doing great, I see them every day. The bad news is that those last photos are probably the last I will able to shoot for a while. The reason is not my lack of passion, even though as the birdies grow her visits to the nest are less and less frequent and. Rather, Cindy has explicitly shown a growing distaste for being photographed. I am crouching behind a hedge, with a hoodie covering my head, just the tip of the camera protruding from the top of the hedge several feet away from her, and yet she’s not happy. She comes behind the hedge and buzzes (you know when they rev their wings and sound like a big bug) and chips and insults me straight in my face. Good photographers know when they have overstayed their welcome, and promptly retreat. Cindy had made it very clear, and it was time for me to congratulate her on the beautiful family she raised and walk away.

I might be brave, or lucky enough to sneak up the stairs with my camera one more time once the younglings are all feathered up, and in case I will update this post. Otherwise, the ride was good and I am grateful for being able to witness something so unique over the course of a full month.

See you around Cindy. It was really fun keeping up with the Birdashians!

UPDATE 2/17: I went out earlier and saw Cindy and her kids basking in the morning sun! I quickly grabbed my camera, got some shots, realized the memory card was not in the camera, hurried back inside, got the memory card, took some more pictures. Cindy gave me a grace period of five minutes, before losing her tempere and buzzing down on me. Totally worth it, though!

UPDATE 2/20: I spied a delightful sight yesterday afternoon. Cindy’s kids were perched on the nest, chilling. I thought that would make a nice image because you finally could see their bird-like shape. I grabbed my camera, got in position, aimed for the nest. I saw a blur, I heard a flutter, and the young birds scrambled. I could track them around the yard and in the back alley, mother Cindy watching over them (and freaking out a little bit, but that’s what she does most of the time).

I’m really proud of them. And I am grateful towards Nature and the Great Landscaper for letting me observe the wonderful functioning of such a small and perfect gear in the universal clockwork. I now say, half jokingly, that on the bright side I gained back full ownership of the backyard. I can use the fire pit again, or engage in any other fire-and-smoke related activity with an easy mind. And work out, very important. But in truth, not only I will miss them. There’s something more, and I think it connects with the strange times we’ve been living since early last year. I looked at the empty nest this morning, and my heart ached a little bit. My heart ached because I felt the passing of time. In spite of this feeling of an everlasting present dragging on since the last Spring, I realized that time does move on. Chapters are opened and chapters are closed. It’s just our human history, especially the micro-history of our plans and projects and affections and aspirations and longings and everything that makes us human that is still stuck.

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beach, Birds, Nature, Redondo Beach

Duel in the Sky

Yesterday morning I felt like I had been too lazy in the past few days. Well, not lazy-lazy, just too “sedentary”, parked in front of my Mac editing photographs. Yes, “sedentary” is the educated word for lazy, in case you were wondering. You can blame your “extra coating” on laziness or on your sedentary lifestyle. Anyway, I decided to go for my 5-miles-roundtrip walk: Home – Avenue C – Esplanade – Beach – Burnout – RAT Beach – Malaga Cove – Saint Francis Episcopal Church – Paseo de la Playa – Esplanade – Avenue C – Home.

I never get tired of this walk. Sometimes I run it, too. Anne-Claire runs it all the time, she actually runs further towards Lunada Bay because she won’t even bother going out to run 5 miles. The real reason I don’t run it that often is because I like to take my camera gear with me. Granted, I could hold my Fujifilm X100V in my hand and run (maybe I should do it!), but this is a walk where I love to have my zoom lens, too, and it’s harder to jog with 4 pounds in your hand (especially knowing that those four pounds cost about one grand per pound).

I never get tired of this walk. Even when I don’t see anything unusual, the usual is wonderful enough. Should I ever get tired of this, then getting tired of this will be the least of my problems.

The beach is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you gonna get. A Tasmanian Devil hanging out at the end of the trail, for instance.

By the way, if this is yours, he said he was sorry and he didn’t mean what he said, and he’s ready to come home and appreciate what he has. But he also said he’s not desperate and enjoying his time at the beach, he does not want to be taken back just out of pity. Don’t blame me I am just the messenger.

I panted and puffed up the Malaga Canyon trail, cursing my sedentary lifestyle: little did I know I was about to run into an acquaintance of mine, Falco the American Kestrel. I’m always happy to see Falco. He’s a David Bowie among birds of prey. Svelte [I love this word], stylish, sharp, unpredictable, he always impresses his friends. Falco is always eager to pick a fight: not so long ago I witness him challenge and chase a much bigger Red-Tailed Hawk, guilty of perching on Falco’s tree. Was it a particular tree? No, Falco owns all the treetops.

Yesterday Falco was managing his Kestrel’s business from the top of the Gazebo at Roessler Point. I know what you’re thinking: “You’ve got yourself a mighty fine Kestrel, sir!”. And yes I do, thank you very much.

Falco bid me a good day and he fluttered away in the worst possible direction. No wingy action shot this time either. You son of a gun Kestrel!

It was clearly a bird-oriented day because I got a glimpse of this angry fella as I was approaching St. Francis Church. You don’t want to mess with this one! Look at the frown on that little hummingbird’s face!

I was happily trotting home, satisfied with the amazing sights I had witnessed for far, when I spied a shadow in my upper peripheral vision. I looked to the sky, and behold! it was a double shadow. The Hawk and the Crow where dogfighting in the air. It was more than High Noon: it was a…

I recommend you look at these images while playing some Ennio Morricone music. Either the Titles theme, or “The Extasy of Gold” from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Crows and Hawks pursue their timeless fight in our skies every day, and we just stare at them, powerless and dumb, wondering why is that a thing, whether it’s more for fun or do they really mean to hurt each other. Is it a vendetta that’s been going on for millennia? Or is it a folkloristic rivalry, like the Jets and the Sharks of the moderns skies? Are these joint trainings involving suspicious allies? Do they know they are nothing but each-other’s double? Are they just jerks? All of the above?

The fate of this duel is not ours to know, and perhaps it’s not theirs to know either – could they even agree on who was the winner? Blissful birds, both persuaded the other is the enemy and the loser, by race and by tradition, like the ancient Greeks and Persians…

And that was a wrap for another fascinating morning in Sunny California. Time to get back on the saddle and go home and think about it all.

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