Twice in a Lifetime

Hiking, Photography, Wildflowers

As I’ve confessed before, I’m a bit of a wildflower junkie.  Last year I read an article about the once in a generation ‘superbloom’ in Death Valley. So I dropped what I was doing, took off for Stovepipe Wells and got a pretty good, below sea level, flower fix in the desert.  And while that short adventure was well worth the effort, I came away with a nagging feeling that I could have done more with that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which meant that I probably wouldn’t get an opportunity like that again.

Or so I thought.

In February posts started showing up about about amazing blooms in southern California. This made sense because of the record rainfall we had in California this past winter, which followed 5 years of record drought. Go figure.

As the Spring weather moved north, the posts became filled with astonishing images of entire hillsides painted in acres of yellows, blues, purples and orange. A Technicolor overload. You could even see it from space, they said. I couldn’t stand it.

Once again, I dropped what I was doing, left the ranch and headed down the 101 to Paso Robles and after about 3 hours or so got a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

As I started to descend into the valley that makes up the Carrizo Plain National Monument, I was being teased by swaths of color blanketing entire hillsides in the distance. I mean, I expect the hillsides to be green in California after the winter rains, but completely yellow?  As far as you could see?  Then it got better.

As I drove into the heart of the valley floor that is anchored by Soda Lake, it was 360 degrees of yellow, bisected by the road under my tires.  Tempering my urgent desire to start shooting like right now,  I kept driving until I just couldn’t risk it any longer.  Shoot now, or forever hold your peace.

I pulled over, grabbed some gear, and waded into a field of yellow much like you would wade into the shallow surf on a hot summer day. I found myself knee-deep in color, the play of the wind rolling across the tops of the millions of flowers that ran from under my tripod all the way to the horizon, completed the illusion of standing in some kind of otherworldly sea of yellow.

I worked my way around Soda Lake, the blue basin at the bottom of the valley that was rimmed by an outline of pure white alkali like a glass of tequila. I was told that the lake hasn’t held this much water for almost a generation.

The valley floor was a busy place.  Although a little crowded sometimes, it was also reassuring to see so many people taking the time and making the effort to get outside and experience this astonishing display in person.  There was even a bride-to-be taking advantage of the scenery for her wedding album.

After spending a solid 6 hours shooting wide vistas and near field variations on a single yellow theme, I made a short foray into the hillsides and realized I would need much more time to really capture the breadth of this experience.  I would go back to the ranch, do a little research and return the following week.

I began my second trip at the base of the Temblor Range on the east side of the valley and worked my way up in elevation to see if I could find the other colors that I knew were out here somewhere. My efforts were rewarded with valleys and hillsides carpeted with acres of blue and purple, orange and even more yellow.

On this second trip I had these hillside vistas entirely to myself.  I’m always astonished that, in a state with 38 million people, plus countless visitors, I have very little trouble finding wild spaces where it’s just me, my cameras and the wild outdoors.

The colors were so vibrant, almost iridescent and I began to wonder if people who see these pictures would actually believe the intensity of the color was real, and not something I ‘tuned up’ in Lightroom. The intensity really is this real.  And so is the experience.

I’m thinking now how fortunate I am to witness this display of nature’s almost bewildering capacity to engage my senses. It is so extraordinary that it must surely be cast as a once in a lifetime event.

For the second time in my life.