The Unassuming but Eerie Façade of San Quentin

I got to see it recently while taking a ferry from Marin County to San Francisco. There it was, silently glowing gold in the late afternoon sun, with a guard tower nearby. Just a simple building at the edge of the water. There was no one outside that I could see. I had to imagine those inside.

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With only water between us, I almost got a chill seeing San Quentin State Prison in real life. After all, it’s the stuff of 1940s black and white movies, in which gangsters get their due in the end. I immediately had a vision of Humphrey Bogart, dressed in shades of gray, with his classic sneer and heavy five o’clock shadow.

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Among those sent there are all men who have received the death sentence in California. There have been executions in the past, but none have taken place since 2006. In 2019, the governor ordered a moratorium on executions. Almost 700 men remain on “death row.”

The maximum security prison opened in 1852 and is the oldest in California. Pretty tough to escape from there, eh? Some have tried, but no one has ever successfully fled the prison.

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Oddly, the tough prison has served as a setting for numerous films and concerts. Johnny Cash performed for prisoners twice, once with inmate Merle Haggard in the audience. B.B. King and Metallica later performed there.

Bogart was indeed tied to San Quentin: he played an escapee in the 1947 film “Dark Passage.” Several other movies used the facility, including Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run.”

The prison has evolved somewhat since it opened. There are now programs to rehabilitate prisoners who are able to be released, and they do have access to exercise, education and entertainment. But for me, San Quentin will always be that cold, concrete place swathed in black and white, where the baddest of the bad simmer inside.

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I’m glad to be on the “outside.”

Tom-A-to, Tom-AH-to

There’s an ad jingle in my memory cells that goes something like this, “Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can? You know who, you know who, who, who.” For some reason, the word Sacramento sticks in my mind along with it.

When I was in the Sacramento, California, area recently, I learned that tomatoes are a huge crop there. A lovely painted vintage-style sign at the tomato processing plant in Woodland verifies that fact.

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Surrounding Woodland are farm fields as far as the eye can see. No doubt many of those perfectly aligned rows get planted with the red fruits every year.

California grows 95 percent of the more than 12 million tons of tomatoes produced in the U.S. Those fruits come to our tables as fresh tomatoes, canned, paste, sauces, juice and ketchup. The state’s Central Valley is the heart of tomato country. The tomatoes are processed – cooked, crushed, diced, canned, etc., right there in the Central Valley.

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Statistics I found from 2008 show that there were 225 tomato growers in the Central Valley, farming some 277,000 acres, and working with 16 commercial canneries.

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But, in case you didn’t know, the tomato is not native to North America. It is said to have originated in South and Central America. It made its way over to Europe in the 1500s. Not surprisingly, Italians were the first to start growing and eating them. Not too long after that, other countries began growing them, but only as items of curiosity. Using them for food had not really caught on yet.

It wasn’t until the 1700s that tomatoes started to be grown in the young United States. Farmer-gardener that he was, Thomas Jefferson naturally took to growing them. But there was still widespread belief that they were poisonous, as members of the nightshade family.

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Now we know better. Tomatoes, which are mostly water with a little bit of fiber, are  highly nutritious, providing vitamin C, potassium, vitamin K1, lycopene, and beta carotene, among others. And, how about they are just plain delicious! Who doesn’t love a fresh tomato sandwich? Where would pasta be without sauce?

But even as bountiful as the tomato crop appears, and as endless as our appetites are for tomato products, it remains a risky and costly commodity to produce. Tomatoes like sun and heat, but not too much. California is known for a long growing season, but also for a lack of water. Fuel to power mechanical harvesters, fertilizer and water eat into any farmer’s profits. Throw in unpredictable weather.

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Thankfully, we now have small and organic farms growing heirloom tomatoes in almost any state that we can buy locally and at our farmers’ markets. We don’t have to depend on big footprint, long-distance crops, at least part of the year. I, along with millions of other Americans, plant my own in my frontyard garden every year. DSC_0834.JPG

Each season is an exciting unknown: which varieties will I try? Which ones will taste best? I know that plants sold locally will do fine in my zone. My favorites have been Black Krim and Green Zebras, but I always aim to pick at least one new one to try.

Once thought to be poisonous, tomatoes are beloved and devoured by the tons. The perfect tangy, juicy tomato is the Holy Grail of our summer gardens. Let’s hope that no matter how our climate evolves, we’ll always have tomatoes.

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Textures and Tones

On a recent day that began very overcast, I visited Mount Rainier National Park. There are several rivers in the park, and the Nisqually is one of them.

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Here it is a very narrow, shallow ribbon cutting through a rocky bed. You can see the low clouds over the valley.

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These were shot in color, but I have converted them to black & white, to focus on the patterns in the water and colors and patterns in the rocks.

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The tone of the water reminds me of chocolate milk.

These views were shot from a bridge over the river.

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The Invisible Wall at Boquillas

I crossed the border to visit Boquillas del Carmen, a tiny rural village next to the Rio Grande in the prinicipality of Ocampo, in the Mexican state of Coahuila. The town was recently featured in a New York Times article in which the reporter visited border towns to portray life on each side. At the time, Boquillas was suffering from the U.S. government shutdown; it’s largely dependent on tourism.

The U.S. makes it simple for its citizens to venture to the other side. I had taken my passport along on my trip to the Big Bend area of Texas, just in case something strange arose, such as a need for prove my citizenship. You never know, right?

A few days before my trip began, the shutdown ended and the passage to Boquillas opened up again. I hadn’t planned on going over, but a few days into my trip I decided I could fit it in, and, why not? I had never been south of the border, and it was a quirky opportunity.

On the day of my crossing, I drove through Big Bend National Park to the little southwestern style Border Crossing Port of Entry building.

I went in and showed my passport to the agent. He looked through my backpack. OK, that’s it. I was approved to go.

“How do I go?” I asked the agent. “Through that door and follow the path to the river,” he pointed. I stared at The Door. The magical door to the other world.

I returned to my car briefly to figure out what to wear and take, and then walked excitedly back to the building. I gave a nod to the agent, ensuring he remembered just seeing and approving me, and opened The Door.

A lovely welcoming sign outside the port of entry building

I found the dirt path and walked the short distance to the river bank. I looked across. There it was: Mexico. The storied rowboat that I had read about awaited me.

The Rio Grande is narrow and shallow here, facilitating friendly relations and easy passage and trade between countries over the past centuries. Even the customs agent had seemed easy going and not too concerned about anything.

The boat trip lasted maybe two minutes. I admired the oarsman’s strength and wondered whether he was the only one who had to make the round trips many times a day, every day of the week.

On the Mexican bank stood many local men, who waited to take visitors by burro, horseback, or pickup truck into town. I opted for a burro, after seeing most tourists on them.

Burros waiting

A couple of firsts: first time in Mexico, first time on a burro (or donkey, as they are interchangeably used).

My guide was selected for me, by a process unknown to me, and he then selected my burro. Daniel was my guide and Machete was my ride.

Preparing Machete

I hoisted myself up to the animal’s back. It was not an easy task.

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The saddle was hard and the walk into town was sometimes bumpy on the dirt track. If a truck was coming down the road, Daniel would shout “Burro,” and Machete would move over. Again, I wondered how many times in a day or week that Daniel did this. I paid $5 for the boat ride. I paid another $5 for the burro ride. How much did Daniel get to keep? He did not own the burro, so I imagine there is a big cheese somewhere who owns the burros and “employs” the guides.

Me and Machete

When we got within sight of town, it was time for me to dismount, so Daniel could tie up the burro where he could rest, and we could walk up the hill.

Horse and burro resting area

 

Here come the tourists

I did not ask too many questions of Daniel, but I did learn that he was born there and has lived there all his life. It’s a hard life, I’m sure.


But the village, with a population of about 100, is run entirely on solar energy!

Solar energy panels for the village.
A colorful bar front

Daniel gave me a tour of Boquillas, during which we passed very modest homes, a couple restaurants, a bar, a grocery store, a school, a health clinic, a customs office, and the solar energy facility. I was amazed at that, and happy for the residents. I especially liked the colorful buildings.

Modest homes
Disused buildings

In front of many homes, along the street, there were tables filled with handmade crafts. It seems everyone makes the same items: small beaded, wire-framed figures of ocotillo cactus, roadrunners, spiders, scorpions and such, and embroidered objects and T-shirts.

My little handmade roadrunner and ocotillo, each just a few inches tall.

Many items proclaimed No Wall and No Al Muro. I wanted to get something with that message, for sure.

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One surprising feature of my tour was a look at some sand dunes. I have seen sand dunes before, so I wasn’t too enthused when Daniel offered to show me theirs. But, when we got to the viewpoint, yowza! It was stunning.

It was lunchtime and I had to choose a spot to try the local cuisine. I settled on one and sat outside with Daniel.

My favorite decor at the Boquillas Restaurant

We both enjoyed “Mexican” Cokes, made with Mexican sugar, the owner proudly pointed out. Another first for me! I offered to buy lunch for Daniel, but he declined. Another American couple sat at a nearby table.

While we waited for our food, we tourists stepped inside the small eatery to check out the crafts for sale. Women were busy in the small open kitchen, making our food. There were T-shirts and religious items, along with table cloths and food items. When I spotted a shirt with a burro, I had to get it. Machete would live on once I returned to Seattle.

It was easy to see how tourism is the life blood of Boquillas. I couldn’t buy something from everyone there, but I could help in my small way. I tried not to seem like the typical American tourist, and I hope I succeeded. I had purchased a couple items from a woman near the other end of town, and then after meeting Daniel’s wife and young son, I bought a couple more from them.

Daniel’s wife, with her handicrafts
Daniel prepares to take me back to the rowboat

Then it was time to head back across the “big” Rio Grande. We collected Machete and I hoisted myself up again. I turned and waved “Adios, Boquillas.” When we got to the river, the boat was waiting, with the other couple already seated.  I dismounted, said goodbye to Machete, thanked Daniel and started to walk toward the boat. Suddenly Daniel said, “My tip?” I was startled. I had not even thought of a tip! I quickly went to my wallet and found a few dollars.

Savoring the last minutes on the Rio Grande

Back on U.S. soil, the couple and I looked at each other and were sad that our little adventure had ended. We chatted about how we wanted to do more traveling.

I kept thinking I should have given Daniel a much bigger tip. He had walked me round trip, in the sun, on the dusty trail, showed me all around the village, sat while I ate, and allowed me to take his picture. Because the residents take only cash, I had spent most of my small bills, so I didn’t have much to give except a large bill. I wondered if the burro owner pays the guides at all.

The experience was definitely worth it and I recommend it to anyone who is going to Big Bend. I’m sure visiting Boquillas for a brief excursion into Mexico is a much more personalized and authentic experience than crossing the border at, say, Juarez or Tijuana. And it reinforced the knowledge that we Americans are so lucky to be able to cross borders freely, to come and go, while others are not so fortunate.

Artistic scorpion “window” at the Port of Entry building

American, British Troops Faced Off, but No One Died

Less than 100 years after Americans won independence from the British, way up in the Pacific Northwest, a little-known squabble took place between the two. In the late 1800s, Americans and British soldiers averted actually firing on each other.

A Bucolic Setting

San Juan Island, sections of which today are part of a National Historical Park, had a pleasant temperate climate, and farming, fishing and timber opportunities that appealed to several nations. In the 1800s, it had been visited but not yet claimed. Eventually, ships from England and the U.S. mainland brought military contingents to occupy the territory. Both staked claims to the island and in 1859 they agreed to jointly occupy the island, separated at the 49th parallel, until the water boundary could be settled.

The Land Divided

English Camp occupied the northwest end, while American Camp occupied the southern tip. Soon, British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company located a large sheep farming operation there. In time, other farm animals and agricultural operations were added. The large Belle Vue Sheep Farm was a strategic move on the part of the British to fully establish their claim to the land.

American Camp laundry house

Underlying tensions persisted between the two. The Americans tried to tax Hudson’s Bay but no taxes were paid. Though both countries had military camps at opposite ends of the island, things remained relatively calm between the two communities. Officers and their families even visited with each other.

Changes in the Wind

Summer 1859, everything changed. An American settler shot and killed a pig belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company. He claimed that the pig had wandered onto his property and, therefore, he shot the trespasser. Though the pig’s owner, who ran the HBC operation, made little fuss about the incident, things escalated rapidly. The time is known as the Pig War crisis. Tensions continued to simmer, with more and more American settlers coming to the island, many squatting on HBC land.

The British wanted the American settlers removed from the island, but American officials said no way. British warships sailed to the harbor, while troops at both camps multiplied. Both sides stood their ground but no war ensued.

Peaceful Solution

Finally, the disputed water boundary went to arbitration by a third party – Germany. An arbitration panel settled the boundary between Canada and the island, and the San Juan Islands became American possessions. In 1871, the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Washington, and a year later the British left the island.

The Pig War had ended diplomatically and peacefully.

Today, little remains of the two camps but visitors can wander their spectacular landscapes.

American Camp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Birds and Planes Fly

Birding at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge in Hoquiam, Washington, I walked from the parking area to the trailhead, past these old structures at the little Bowerman Airport.

The absence of people and planes, and the starkness of the hangars against the surrounding landscape and big sky drew me to photograph them.

The blue and white buildings; the blue and white sky; white building and white flowers.

Last time I was out here, the restaurant was still operating and was bustling with hungry customers. The retro décor and classic diner menu were lots of fun. Back then when my birding group stopped there for lunch I thought, what a strange place for a restaurant. But now I see it was likely a sort of landmark that drew birders, pilots, as well as locals for good food and company. Now, it was closed, enhancing or perhaps causing the atmosphere of abandonment.

Part of the Port of Grays Harbor, this airfield has one runway. The facility has fuel, a pilot’s lounge, rental hangars, and is touted as “jet-capable.”

The hangars have seen better days and I wondered whether there were any planes inside. What could be the purpose of the oddly shaped roofs?

I don’t know how often planes use the airport, but nearby, birds and birders flock to the wetland habitat at the wildlife refuge. Particularly in spring, the salt marsh and mudflats host thousands of migrating shorebirds. Raptors also are drawn to the abundance of prey.

This landscape is a magnet for wings of different sizes and shapes.

 

Otherworldly Trona Pinnacles

If Trona Pinnacles looks like something out of a sci-fi flick, that’s because it has indeed served as a backdrop for several movies. You might have heard of some of these: Star Wars, Star Trek V, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes.

First Impressions

I first drove to the Pinnacles in 2005, during a visit to Death Valley National Park. I had set aside part of one day to make the drive to the somewhat remote area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. But it took more than an hour to get there, and I had made arrangements for an afternoon horseback ride at Furnace Creek, back in Death Valley. By the time I got to the Pinnacles, I had about a half hour to spend there if I wanted to make my ride. I peered at the Pinnacles from a plateau that overlooked what I thought was a rather limited formation. There was a steep-looking road down to the Pinnacles, but I “there’s no way I’m driving down there,” I decided. I quickly snapped some photos from the parking area and sped back to Furnace Creek.

First visit

There would be a return trip in my future.

A Closer Look

It wasn’t until January 2017 that I made it back to Trona. I had planned to spend unlimited time there, doing lots of photography and some hiking. I lucked out with a dry day. This time I had rented an SUV, so I had high clearance, though a car could make it.

I drove south through Trona, and spotted the Pinnacles, rising like the Emerald City out of the desert. I arrived at the turnoff for the Pinnacles about 10 miles later. At the corner there are some interpretive signs about the human and geological history of the area.

I lingered there, reading and then taking some photos of the landscape and trains resting on the tracks. There were some cool cloud formations that also caught my eye.

Lenticular

Spaceships landing?

 

Rain pond

The five-mile dirt road to the landmark had received recent rains, so it wasn’t as sandy as I remembered. When I arrived at the plateau that overlooks the monument, I realized the drive down the hill to the Pinnacles didn’t look so bad, and saw other vehicles, including a huge RV, down below. How the heck did that RV make it down the steep drive, I wondered. You have to realize that the Pinnacles lie in a basin. To really experience them, you need to get down there. The drive down the gravelly slope was so easy, I felt silly.

And then, I had my real surprise! Trona Pinnacles is expansive! You can’t even see all of it from the plateau. Narrow dirt paths snake around more than 500 formations. I had no idea how much I missed on my previous visit.

Towers and Dumpy Cones

Like their cousins at Mono Lake, the pinnacles are tufa formations, which are primarily calcium carbonate.

Close up of tufa

At Trona, they’re distinguished by age, elevation and shape. The northern, middle and southern groups were formed by different ice ages.

The shapes range from towers and tombstones, to ridges and cones. Towers are the tallest, rising 30-40 feet, while tombstones are “stubby and squat,” rising 20-30 feet.

Ridges are “massive, toothy runs” that can be seen in the northern and middle groups.

Finally, cones are the smallest, reaching only about 10 feet high, and they are “dumpy and mounded.”

On my visit, I concentrated on the tallest and most interesting formations, which turned out to be among the northern and middle groups.

The sun was out; there were some spectacular clouds to add depth to the scenes. The only problem was the WIND. This was my fourth trip to Death Valley and never before had I experienced such winds. I was not going to abandon my photography plans, so I soldiered on.

Each time I got out of the car, I had to fight hurricane-like gusts. I was afraid the wind would snap off the car door! I had to use all my strength to close the door. It goes without saying that any hiking was out of the question.

During my visit, I saw only a couple other cars, and I suspect it’s not heavily visited.

A Wealth of Minerals

You can spend as much time as you like at Trona Pinnacles. It’s fairly easy to access, unfenced and free of fees.

Don’t expect much from the town of Trona, beyond a convenience store and gas, if you need it. With a population of about 1,900, it’s a sad little “blink and you miss it” hamlet that is centered on the mining activity in dry Lake Searles. The name of the town comes from the abundant mineral trona, one of many extracted by Searles Valley Minerals. Lake Searles once held water, eons ago, but as it slowly evaporated, the water left behind many minerals. In the 1800s, the dry lake became the scene of many mining operations. First, there was borax, famously being carted out by 20-mule teams. Later there was an Epsom salt operation, and now, a multitude of minerals is produced, including salt, borax, boric acid, and halite.

The natural landmark lies in Searles Valley, just south of Panamint Valley, and isn’t far from Naval Air Warfare Center China Lake. It’s also within the California Desert National Conservation Area.

It’s a strangely captivating place.