Euphoria signifies a “a feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness.” This word kept coming back to me as I climbed the Josephine Peak trail this morning, and as I walked down. You will understand me, because this is what the world looked like to me between seven and eleven in the morning.
I am lucky, because the trail leading to Josephine Peak is one of the favorite of Anne-Claire and of her Trail Running Club. Today they went for an 18 miles loop, while I just hiked to the peak and back. For me, it was four miles up and four miles down. I will not elaborate too much on the fact that it took us exactly the same time. Know that I took my time and took 126 photos and sang my heart out on my way up and my way down and played the penny whistle to the hawks before the saddle and the harmonica to the beat of my feet on my way down.
Josephine Peak is a feast for the senses at any season, and it changes month by month. From the sizzling summer to the snowy winter, it’s one of the rare places where you can appreciate Fall within a half-an-hour drive from DTLA.
What’s the most magic about Josephine Peak is how the environments change. As you climb the south face, it’s desert mountain. Agaves, desert brush, lizards and hawks.
As you get to the saddle and cross to the northern side, it’s a totally different wonderland. It’s a forest with pines and oak trees, and the weather gets noticeably cooler as soon as you initiate the final ascension towards the peak.
The peak and the view from the peaks are almost… Lunar. I must have hiked to the trail half a dozen times by now, and every time I can’t help thinking “I’m sitting on top of the world.”
Only one word for this.
All photos were taken with my FUJIFILM X100V, which is the quintessential hiking camera. It’s also the quintessential everything camera, but having such a small object that packs such a big punch lets you use your energy to movearound and not to carry stuff around – hence its importance on any situation involving some degree of mobility.
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.
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.
As a teenager, I loved travel literature. I was an eclectic reader, enjoying everything from the philosophy of travel that Bruce Chatwin would sketch in his Moleskine notebooks, to the hilarious adventures told by Bill Bryson (à la mode of the National Lampoons), without omitting Gerald Durrell’s naturalistic journeys, and many many more.
There is one single book, though, to which my understanding of travel is most indebted: Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon. The book is a detailed chronicle of the author’s journey, in 1978, as he drove through the United States in a van, steering away from the cities and freeways, taking the time to discover and understand the people and places lining the Country’s smaller and less traveled roads – drawn in blue in the Rand McNally atlas – while obviously understanding himself and his own identity.
This is the kind of travel that I enjoy. What’s a lucky man? A lucky man is one who does as an adult the things he would read about as a kid (unless he really loved to read horror novels).
Freeways and Interstates are a godsend, but on the Freeway, you are going somewhere. You’re actually traveling to some place. As soon as you exit and venture on a State or County road, that’s where the real travel begins. You’re traveling, period.
Last week Anne-Claire had to go to San Francisco for work. I carefully kept the weekend free from work so that I could go with her. Or rather, my plan was to accompany her to LAX at five in the morning, and then drive to San Francisco through the 101 and then the iconic California 1.
I got to Santa Barbara a little before daybreak, and I bypassed the coastal portion of the 101 that goes to Gaviota to climb the Highway 154 instead, the Chumash highway that winds through the Santa Ynez wine region.
The first wonder I saw was the fog lifting from Lake Chumash in the grey light that precedes dawn. If that was the most beautiful sight I was going to see that day, well the trip would have already been a success.
I was getting hungry for breakfast at that point, and I tried my luck in different towns for an appealing eatery. Most places were still closed.
Los Olivos, as the fog cleared, was my last hapless stop. My eyes were satisfied with every turn of the road, but my stomach begged to differ, so I drove further North, to the charming town of Arroyo Grande – where both my sight and my hunger eventually found solace.
Fortified by eggs, pancakes and a side of hash-brown, I hit the road again. In San Louis Obispo I exited the 101 to finally explore the many marvels of the California 1.
By the time the fog cleared completely, I had reached San Simeon – the beauty of the beach greeted me, together with a low fly-by of a devilish Turkey Vulture.
A few miles north, I was in for a treat. I pulled over at the Elephant Seal Vista Point. I was expecting the “usual” seals basking in the sunlight, but a legitimate National Geographic moment unfolded before the observers’ eyes (and lenses): several males wrestled in the shallow water – to the complete indifference of several unimpressed females.
I stopped several times along the road in Big Sur. As in the case of Sedona, photography has a hard time giving justice to the whole area. Big Sur is more than a beautiful sight: it’s a symphony of visions where each glimpse adds meaning to what you just saw and foreshadows what you are about to see. I am far from claiming that my work is done there, but relying on the aerial camera (the drone) allowed me to paint some slightly more comprehensive images of the cliffs and shores among which the CA-1 winds and climbs.
I spent a few hours in Big Sur, but no matter how much time you spend there… it always feels as if you would need a lifetime to understand what you see, let alone report the beauty you are witnessing.
If you plan on rejoining the 101 after Big Sur, you may feel as if your journey to the Bay Area is almost over. But if you intend to continue through Monterey, Santa Cruz, and drive the 1 all the way up till you reach San Francisco from the Western coast of the Peninsula, then you know there are many hours and many stops before you reach your destination. Big Sur was as wonderful as ever in a rare clear summer day, and it took quite bit of esthetic resolve to resume the drive North. Nevertheless, the landscapes I was to encounter in the next couple hundred miles were going to prove a clear reward for my decision not to linger further but to drive on.
I brought my 100-400 lens to the beach earlier as Anne-Claire and I ordered pizza from a new truck on the Esplanade. A few minutes ago I was looking at my idle captures, I zoomed in, and I realized I could see it was a Korean Air Boeing 747.
I looked it up among the LAX departures. It was a long haul headed to Seoul. It was more than half an hour late.
I don’t know. If I was to be in the air for thirteen and a half hours, I would be really upset about the delay. Or I would cherish half an hour longer on the ground. Or maybe I would not care.
I developed a strange attachment for this flight. Tomorrow morning I will check what time they landed. Maybe I won’t but right now I like to think that I will.
I am wondering who’s flying. Are they flying home? On a business trip?
Such a long time with a mask on, they must barely have a face when they arrive in Seoul. I barely had a face last time I flew to Italy.
I am not looking forward to any thirteen-hour flight.
But a thirteen hour drive, just give me a sign and I’ll be on my way.
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.
I am not a big fan of flying. First, I’m sort of heavy set and each time I sit in an airplane I wonder if they got even smaller or I gained more weight (and I usually delude myself into thinking it’s a bit of both). Second, I don’t do well with turbulence: I am rationally aware and persuaded that they won’t cause the plane to crash and that they are a little bit like driving on a bumpy country road at dusk with poor headlights, still my body doesn’t like them. For a couple of years, even a gentle rumble would make my body brace for a Tower-of-Terror-style drop: not having flown for a year and a half, from October 2019 till March 2021 kind of eased that feeling – my body did a bit of a reset. More importantly, I love to drive. I love my car. I love to stop, I love to own my itinerary and be able to make last minute stops and detours.
And yet, I love airports. I especially love LAX. At night, we stand on the Esplanade at look into the North and see the flashing red lights of the surrounding structures. For us, that is the connection with the rest of the world, especially with Europe. That’s where family and friends come from, and return to their homes. To me, it’s like a Stargate.
I especially love picking up people at airports. I smell the excess fuel dumped by incoming aircrafts. I hear the the tourists crossing each other, some arriving, some departing, trolleyed around by the nightmarish car-rental shuttles. I rub against the Stargate, feel its overwhelming potential to take me anywhere and I politely decline: “No thank you, I’m just picking up”.
The light, the clouds, and the mood were just perfect when I picked up Anne-Claire last Thursday, and I was really glad my nimble Fujifilm X100V was at my side on the passenger seat.