Many years ago in Oregon I was reading about someone who visited one of the American deserts and so fell in love they moved there and never left, and I thought “How do you fall in love with sand?” I wonder how much of my photography in the desert is a love letter to that past self, gently poking fun at his complete and utter ignorance of the desert but also deeply thankful that when it became apparent he was going to have to leave the place he never wanted to leave, he kept an open mind and found not just a new home but a new love.
This trail is in not just my favorite part of the preserve but one of my favorite places anywhere. In December 2021 I was taking environmental portraits of phainopepla and as sometimes happens, took my favorite late in the day while hiking out. I saw the male atop a crucifixion thorn in front of the Four Peaks, the late light starting to cloak them in their purple mountains majesty, near an old saguaro replete with woodpecker holes, and couldn’t resist a quick shot before continuing towards my exit.
I dubbed this mushroom The Artists’ Studio when I realized a prolific pair of artists was painting the rock face. Bear and I had seen both owls on our walk earlier in the afternoon but I came back out with my biggest telephoto hoping for a close-up near sunset and only saw the one. I got those pictures but my favorites were the environmental portraits I took with the Nikon Z 24-200mm lens, perhaps not surprising since I’ve been craving these types of images for a while now.
This first image is my favorite of the two, the second was taken a few minutes later and further up the trail so I could include the mountains in the background. The lighting is more direct here and the light getting much softer, often a look I prefer, but in this case while I like both I prefer the shadows from the side-lighting of the first picture.
My week off from work brought heavy clouds and gentle rains, reminding me of lost worlds. Looking out to the obscured mountain peaks, of ancient times when land emerged from the sea. Walking Bear in the mist and rain, of walking Ellie in the damp Portland winters, toweling her off when we got home. The rain caught Bear and I but once on our long walks, I stayed dry since I still have all my rain gear, and Bear, like Ellie before him, was as happy in the wet as the dry.
The desert is dressed in muted greens and browns with an occasional splash of red from a cardinal, a woodpecker, a fire truck …
Sunrise at the Basalt Ridge Overlook in the summer of 2021.
A week after watching a pair of Harris’s hawks on a large boulder at sunset, I saw them again on the boulder but this time from a different vantage point. I thought about waiting to see if they would stick around until sunset for a different take on the image, but I was in the mood to hike and decided to hoof it out to my favorite cactus. I never got there as I found this pair of kestrels on a distant saguaro and spent the end of the day with them instead. I’ve long loved photographing the encroaching sun or shadow at the start and end of the day, I forget exactly when the fascination first took hold but it was probably on a visit to the Tetons many years ago.
I haven’t been out hiking since, I’ve been taking Bear on really long walks on weekend mornings and afternoons, I need to find a better balance but it’s hard because I can’t usually walk him during the work week.
A pair of Harris’s hawks look out from a large boulder as the setting sun colors the rocks red. Earlier in the evening I saw a family of five on one of the big electrical towers but I’ve not seen the birds on these rocks before. From a distance I could see three forms on the boulders and couldn’t imagine what else they could be, by the time I got close the third had flown off but these two stayed to watch the sun set with me.
I love that we can see mountains from our backyard. Most days anyway, on this rainy day in December I had to take it mostly on faith they were still there.
In late July a mix of sand and rain blows towards Tom’s Thumb and the McDowell Mountains, meaning there was only one place you’d find Trixie: under the covers of our bed, hiding until the monsoon passes. The second picture was taken at sunset a few days later in more cat-friendly weather. With the arrival of October she’s safe for another year, as the winter rains tend to be a lot more gentle.
One of my favorite moments is when the rising sun first sweeps its light across the desert. I’ve played around with different ways of photographing it on days off when I manage to get up before sunrise, which is rare these days. I love simple scenes and when we moved here made a mental note to photograph this one next to the trailhead, only to realize the other day I had never done it. I thought I’d prefer the scene when it was more strongly lit but my favorite three images were over a 40 second span when the rising sun just fell upon the boulder and tree and left the foreground in shadow. At the moment this is my favorite of those three.