Where It All Started

Once there was gas at the Trona airport. But that service ceased when the attendants–a leather-skinned couple married for centuries–could no longer climb up to fuel high wing Cessnas like mine. I stopped at Trona in 1989 before they left. I was writing a geology book about Death Valley. I told the couple that I wanted to fly north and photograph the west side of the Panamints. After that I would go by the Racetrack where, I’d been told, rocks had minds of their own and skittered across a dead-level playa when no one was watching.

The old man’s eyes lit up. He cautioned me to watch for military jets in the area. And he said I must land at the hot springs in Saline Valley, just beyond the Racetrack. He warned me that there were two runways. The Hero Strip was too short and it jumped an arroyo, ending abruptly right at the springs. Instead he said to go a quarter mile farther to the Chicken Strip. It’s a 1300 foot, one-way affair, far safer than the Hero Strip. His wife carefully explained that people at the hot springs didn’t wear clothes. I looked deeply into her eyes and said that I had extra pants that I could give them. She stared at me, shaking her head, clearly dismayed by my simple-mindedness.

Basalt on tilted Paleozoic sedimentary layers above Saline Valley

Arriving overhead, I silently thanked the old man for his advice about the two strips. From the cockpit I looked down on a gnarled piece of dirt that looked like little more than a washed out two-track rut. I set down instead a few hundred yards away, though I did barrel through a dry wash. And I noticed that the strip ended right at the hot springs. Oops. I hadn’t seen the Chicken Strip just up the hill. At the springs a uniformly brown person showed me a photo album commemorating all the planes that had crashed on this, the Hero Strip. The old man and woman in Trona had every right to think I was a ditz.

Saline Valley! It’s an undrained basin surrounded by wild barren mountains on all quadrants. Hunter Mountain, Cottonwood Mountain, and best of all, the tortured Inyo Range that soars almost 10,000 feet immediately above the playa. Precious little grows here–scraggly creosote, some salt bush, a few dried up sprigs of desert holly. But the springs! The springs are a succinct oasis of arrowweed and mesquite punctuated by palm trees that some miner dragged in eons ago. Wrist watches stop the moment you arrive; of course there is no cell phone service. You sit in a pristine pool of hot hot water, head tilted back to watch the Inyos just be mountains.

Crystal Pool at Saline Valley

I’ve since returned many times to Saline Valley. Isolated in winter by fifty miles of snowy dirt road (which I’ve never driven), Saline Valley is light years beyond the noise and natterings of the rest of my world. No one I’ve met here has ever felt the need to accept my standing offer of spare pants. Coyotes and kit foxes range freely just beyond the warming fires that are lit as night falls. Where else do falling stars, streaking across a vacuum black sky, shine so bright that they can make you cry? It is a pure world of rock and silence. Surely this is the place where all the geologists go to lie down.

I was lolling in Saline’s Crystal Pool seven or eight years ago, talking with my friend Jene. He had flown with me to Alaska the year before, photographing glaciers. I told him about the Death Valley book and about a geology film done around here in which I had been involved. And then, as we sat naked as jay birds, I ran an idea by him. Why not tell the story of these landscapes from the air? And not just Death Valley. Shoot, why not the whole darned country? The airplane’s perspective is so perfect for seeing the big picture. I’d been flying for a quarter century and was getting the hang of it. If I had plenty of film, I usually got lucky with the camera once in a while. And nobody yet had called my bluff about being a geologist. So why not?

Middle springs, Saline Valley

The seed was planted and a series of books with Mikaya Press grew out of that conversation. The books about mountains and rivers and coastlines were at once lovely and educational. The publisher had been adamant, refusing to include any picture that didn’t underscore the text. The books were meant to go beyond coffee tables and doctors’ offices; they were meant to teach. And so they did. But the world had moved along when we weren’t watching. Paper and ink were giving way to new media with bright screens and agile processors. Mikaya and I wondered if we could keep the intelligence of books while expanding into a new vision of electronic possibility–narration, animation, illumination. We’ve created an app for the iPad called Wonders of Geology that expands upon the question, “How does one think about mountains?” Did we succeed? You be the judge.

Saline Valley and its neighbor Eureka Valley to the northeast have always been within the public domain, once administered with a light touch by the BLM. But they were annexed into Death Valley National Park in 1994. I was at the hot springs that October, the day before annexation. I was nervous about the good intentions of well-meaning bureaucrats. I made coffee and oatmeal, packed my sleeping bag and tent, and took off toward the white dunes to the northeast.

Winds from the south have coiffed the Eureka dunes into lovely waves of quartz sand 400 feet high. If you stand upon them on the right day with the right conditions of wind and moisture, you will hear them singing. Booming really. I landed on the road that ends at their base. There wasn’t another vehicle, three wheeled or otherwise, within fifty miles. I climbed to the top and strained to listen. No singing. No roaring. No nothing. The dunes knew that something was about to change. They were holding their breathe.

Dunes in Eureka Valley

It’s true. I do love to fly. And I’ve learned so much about our earth from the air. I keep coming back to places like Death, Eureka, and Saline Valleys because they have so much to show and teach. Once, reluctantly leaving the hot springs, I flew photographs of the bajadas below Tucki Mountain and the folds within the walls of Panamint Butte. Heading south through Panamint Valley at a comfortable two thousand feet above the ground, I was near China Lake’s military airspace.

Suddenly an F-Something-or-Other hurtled past my right wing, four hundred miles an hour, three hundred feet away. In a heart beat (prolonged because mine had stopped) his wingman flashed by, but this time fifteen feet away. A hundred yards in front of me, every surface on that fighter went crepuscular. At one moment, the plane was in level flight; the next moment he was headed straight up. In three seconds I would fly directly beneath the Roman candle of his 50,000 pound thrust. I yanked and banked. Sideways I looked up to see the fighter upside down, directly above me. All I could think was, “Come back; let’s play.” The old man at Trona had been right again.

I’ll tell you a secret. I first manufactured an interest in geology because I wanted to justify being outdoors. If it meant getting a degree or two along the way, so be it. Photography? Same story: a reason and tool for exploring the real world. An airplane quickly became a useful vehicle to stitch landscapes and science together. Something unexpected happened along the way, though: I fell in love with all three. I want to explore the confluence of these three passions in this and subsequent stories that will be posted here at intervals. I beg your forgiveness if the stories sound like I was having way too much fun.

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About Michael Collier

I had the good fortune to be given five mentors early in life. John Running shared his love for honest photographs. Chuck Barnes showed me how to think like a geologist. Chris Condit, bless his soul, taught me to fly. Walt Taylor will always be the most effectively caring physician I could ever imagine. And Wesley Smith, that night above Crystal, taught me how to pray to the river. My thanks to you all. www.michaelcollierphoto.com