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Refuge & Star Circles in the western Nevada desert

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

This cabin was a welcome respite from the howling windstorm outside before it was truly dark, and the winds died down. The cabin moves a little bit with each gust, but these hundred-year-old spring beds were far more comfortable than my one-year-old car was the previous night in a different desert location nearby in Western Nevada. Among the things that elude me about the most bad-ass production line off-road vehicle available, the Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro, is the fact that the seats don’t lie flat in back. Here is this vehicle they make to withstand more punishment than just about any other car or truck, incredibly capable of getting you out of whatever you get into. But like the stupid decorative hood scoop which limits crucial visibility at key times and blinds you when the sun hits at the right angle, it apparently never occurred to the engineers that perhaps people who got into these remote places might want to pass out without setting up a tent at some point.

But I digress, and I’ve barely started.

This is known as a cowboy cabin. There are some facilities outside of this one for livestock, and plenty of waste from said livestock on the ground in various states of decay and petrification, but there were no animals there at the moment I arrived, and there were no ranchers either, which was pure luck. The shelves were full of food, there was plenty of propane for the lamp and or stove if I were to use either of them - I didn’t. There was cut wood for the old iron heater in the corner, but I didn’t use that either.

I was told that there is a prairie ethos about these places. If unoccupied, you are welcome to use them, but you always leave them better than they were. Before leaving the next day, I tidied up and left an unopened bottle of vodka, batteries, and some small LED lights for future explorers.

These relics of the wild west don’t exist in the east as far as I know, but in the west, there are some of these cabins left throughout the wilderness, though I’m told that most of the more accessible ones are gone – because we can’t have nice things. The cabins that remain tend to be remote. This one, for example, is a few hours off the nearest paved road and the only way to get to it (other than helicopter or parachute) requires driving on lake beds, riverbeds, flood washes, up and over mountains and lots of rocks and switchbacks. After that jaunt, I was rewarded with a surreal glacial valley, fascinating geology, that cabin and no people, other than my friend that I caravanned with. It’s the kind of place I only saw from airplanes for most of my life and would always fantasize about.

It doesn’t take long to get an appreciation for how hard life must have been, and still is, in places like this. I started writing this at about 9:30 PM that night after a very long dusty day on the road. I felt as though my fillings had been loosened from all the bouncing around on dirt roads and trails. When I brushed my teeth that night, I felt like I brushed dust off of them. It was hot as hell when the sun was high, and it went down to 34 degrees Fahrenheit that night. And that’s a night in mid-May. Imagine the extremes of winter and summer. Imagine getting the simplest of supplies out there.

I set the camera up outside before dark to hopefully capture some star circles with this cabin in the foreground. The pre-dark set up is necessitated by requiring good focus and lining up Polaris with whatever the foreground item is. Polaris is always the center of the star circles. If the foreground or background are out of focus, the effort is for naught other than the lesson. Also, if there are any problems, they’re much easier to sort out when it’s light. And finally, the pre-dark set up is helpful for those occasions where I might need to blend in some more detail of the foreground into the final image, so it’s good to have a few images from before dark with the camera positioned as it will be in the dark.

The winds died down that night around 10:00 p.m. when it got truly dark, and my earlier work setting up proved worthwhile as I’m happy with the results.

Regardless and fortunately for me, I think of these experiences as many do about fly fishing. The Zen is in getting to these really remote places, immersing myself in nature and moving on to the next one. If I come home with any art that I love, that’s a bonus. But the most important things are the experiences, the memories burned in my imagination, the future dream fodder from these mystical and magical places. These kinds of experiences all go to a reservoir in my mind for later retrieval when dreaming, writing, telling stories or just reminiscing. And now when I see these types of locations from airplanes, I kind of know what they might be like, though knowing that doesn’t make me lust any less for exploring new places.

Most of the people I know don’t have the luxury of ever really being alone or experiencing the absence of light pollution, skies so dark that the stars seem to dance and cast shadows during a new moon, and the silence. Not the kind of silence you can have in a hermetically sealed condo. I’m talking in nature. It’s different. I can’t recommend these things highly enough. Other than listening to some of my favorite musicians live, this is church for me.

This image is a work in progress as the finalizing work on these can take as long or longer than going out to get the shot in the first place. I don't mind sharing at this stage, and some people actually prefer these earlier renderings. It's comprised of around 400 25 second exposures. I woke up a couple times to check on the camera, which was doing its job without pilot error on this starry night. I wasn’t too worried about the camera being outside that long as the worst thing likely to happen is the camera getting dusty, perhaps irreparably but time will tell. As my old keyboardist, Paul Zablotski, used to say, I am the ultimate product tester because I break everything. I haven’t broken that camera yet, but there’s time. Hey, Sony said it was weather sealed…

The best laid plans of mouse and men…

It’s really good to have plans, and it’s really good to know went to bail. Let’s roll the calendar back another day.

I had big plans for the day before I took the photos comprising this composite image. I drove to a place called Desert Springs, just to the south of White Mountain where the Ancient Bristlecone pine trees enjoy their solitude starting at about 10,000 feet of altitude. Last year when driving around that area with a friend, we saw a mostly dry lake from White Mountain. It looked really interesting. I didn’t know that it was Desert Springs at the time. We drove down there, and a little bit off the road I saw an old car half buried in the sand, from a wreck probably 60 or more years ago. It was beautiful in a wrecked kind of way. The curves of the car and flared wheel wells all still there, just rusted out and stripped of things that might decay over the decades of that brutal climate. Ugly in all the right places.

My plan a few days prior was that I was going to shoot the star circles with that car in the foreground. When I got there it was incredibly windy, but that tends to die down at a certain point every night lately. The bigger issue was that the car was in a bit of a gulch which I’d forgotten, and there’s simply was no good angle to put Polaris in the right place for the image to make sense to me. And it was cloudy. A total bust.

So I sent a satellite message to a friend of mine who I knew was camping a few hours away. He had set up camp right near the epicenter of the recent cluster of earthquakes in Nevada and was enjoying sitting on a chair as the three and four magnitude aftershocks came rolling through. He showed me where the quake’s concussion had shot straight through the paved road about four miles away and cracked it up, though the road had been repaired already. It never occurred to me to seek that kind of thrill, but I’ve got to say it makes perfect sense to me and it’s a lot of fun. Hell, it’s safer than Motocross and just my speed after a long day of driving. Keep in mind, this is my recovered day from my previous ill-conceived plan. But wait there’s more.

There was a grading machine, a John Deere, a few hundred yards away from where my friend set up camp. The workers told him they were fixing the dirt road from the earthquake a few days prior. I thought well, if I couldn’t get what I wanted earlier, maybe I’ll capture some classic abstract Americana with a John Deere in the foreground. I set up my shot with Polaris in the background over the grader and went back when it was dark enough to start the camera. In what was a total rookie mistake, I just couldn’t seem to make my intervalometer work, and that’s critical for prolonged shooting without having to keep my finger on the button to keep activating the shutter. Actually, there were several rookie mistakes involved, but suffice to say I did not photograph the star circles that night. Nada. Zilch. Fail #2 that day.

Instead, I put away the camera, pulled out a chair and just watched the stars, which I’ve haven’t done without an agenda for many years, and it was extraordinary. The biggest difference in the sky that night from all other nights I’ve ever stargazed was that because of the pandemic, there were almost no planes. There was also less pollution in the lower atmosphere and the air was super clear. Other than a plane or two, the only actual movement in the sky I could discern was satellites. Planes are a nightmare for anyone shooting star circles, as it takes many many hours to edit them out if one is so inclined and OCD about the end results – and I am. That night my plans and even my recovery and new plan went to shit. I had failed at my goal of shooting the stars on the new moon during a pandemic with a nearly plane free sky – and I was fine with that. As I sat there, more in the moment than usual, I watched shooting stars and meteors I looked at the constellations, not knowing what most of them are called and not caring too much. It was pretty sublime, and I’ll never forget it.

And then I tried to sleep. Tried being the operative word, as I don’t think I slept more than 30 minutes in a row thanks to discomfort from the uneven floor in the back of my 4Runner. As awful as that might sound, every time I opened my eyes, I saw the Milky Way either through the skylight or out one of the side windows. It stretched from the north to south horizons. More dream fodder for the reservoir.

So then then next day happened, and that’s where this story starts. So much for plans, right?


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