Highway 49 is a meandering, two-lane road connecting the historical dots in California’s Gold Country. Each spring the route is framed by countless scenes like this, scenes that seem to grab your steering wheel and force you to the side of the road for a closer look. Often it’s difficult to find a place to park safely, especially on weekends, when drivers’ attention is more on the scenery than the road. But at this location, a wide, dirt pullout allows gawkers to park well out of the path of harm and admire the view in peace.
The intensity of the wildflower bloom in California each year is a moving target that seems one part winter rainfall, one part spring warmth, and one part some other mysterious factor thats’s as elusive as the Higgs boson. Some years our hillsides explode like July 4th fireworks; other years expectations fizzle like a match in water. But we’re never completely shut-out, and my March drives along Highway 49 have become as much a rite of spring as baseball’s Opening Day.
Whatever the missing link is, in 2005 all the components converged to elevate California’s wildflower bloom to legend status. Most of the attention that year was on Death Valley, which had a bloom that painted the normally parched valley yellow, making network news and drawing visitors from around the world. But while most of the world’s attention was on Death Valley, the rest of California found itself similarly rewarded. Of course it didn’t take long for the word to get out among California photographers, and on the first available day I grabbed my camera and headed for the hills.
At this spot near the Mokelumne River I found a solid carpet of poppies that spread up a steep hill and disappeared over the crest. Unfortunately, I had no ladder to scale the (nearly vertical) fifteen foot escarpment separating me from this bucolic scene. A couple of other photographers poked around at highway level, using telephotos to capture their masterpieces while still safely rooted to terra firma, but I had higher aspirations.
Camera in one hand, tripod in the other, and camera bag on my back, I located a route I thought I could manage and went all Galen Rowell on the “cliff.” I’m in good shape, but conditioning wasn’t the limiting factor here…. Let’s just say that I have a healthy respect for heights. Sure enough, about halfway up, it became clear something had to go. Not wanting it to be me, I jettisoned the camera bag, bullseying a cushioning shrub about eight feet below, and continued upward. About five vertical feet higher, and maybe three feet from the top, the route steepened to 90 degrees. Hmmm. Using a protruding root as a hand-hold, I reluctantly said goodbye to my tripod, rationalizing as it plummeted toward base camp that I’d find something on top upon which to brace my camera. Finally, still one free hand short, I gently slung my camera into the weeds at the top. Sufficiently unencumbered, I took a deep breath and triumphantly “summited.” After a couple of seconds of self congratulation, I scrambled up the much more manageable but nonetheless deceptively steep slope toward the densest field of poppies.
In all seriousness (and because I’m afraid some people just don’t get my humor), scaling this cliff was a challenge, but it was neither death defying nor a monumental physical achievement. (A fall would have hurt, and perhaps even produced a bruise, sprain, and maybe even a little blood, but it wouldn’t have killed me.) On the other hand, I did feel a sense of achievement up there, that feeling you get when you push yourself beyond normal boundaries. And my effort did reward me with something nobody else has, an image that, it turns out, has outsold every other image in my portfolio.
I’m not used to working without a tripod, but I was able to brace the camera on a dilapidated fencepost for this shot. Not completely confident of the post’s stability, I bumped my ISO and aperture to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to ensure sharpness.
Sometimes I try to understand what it is about this image that draws people. In addition to the wall-to-wall poppies, a few unanticipated factors helped. The afternoon sun, which was about to disappear behind the hills to the west, created a perfect combination of light and shadow. Also, just about simultaneous with the best light, a series of cumulus clouds appeared, rising like smoke signals from behind the hill, adding just enough visual interest to a very blue but otherwise boring sky. And finally, the rotting fence, which I originally planned to compose out of my frame, turned out to have far more character than I could see from the highway.
While all these factors combine to make a nice image, I think what really sets it apart for people is the single skewed fencepost. My theory is that the fencepost is a flexible metaphor for whatever form individuality takes in the viewer’s life (even if he or she can’t consciously identify it): whether it’s solitude, independence, leadership, or whatever, I suspect most people find something in that maverick fence post that resonates personally. I can’t say that I was thinking any of this as I clicked my shutter (I wasn’t), or even that I consciously focused on the fencepost (I don’t remember), but I have grown quite fond of that little guy who will probably be the first to go when the fence is repaired.
And by the way, by widening my perspective enough to see beyond my immediate surroundings, I found a much easier way down the hill. There’s metaphor there, too. Sigh.
(Images captured outside my mental or physical comfort zone)