I know, here it is August already and I'm still writing about July. I wanted to get the majority of the photos from this trip processed before I started to write about it, and truthfully I'm only about halfway finished. Things just keep getting in the way. I remember a saying that went something along the lines of "Life is what happens while you're making other plans."
So, after checking into our hotel in Lee Vining we went to Bodie Mike's for some barbecue and cold drinks. The food was great, although this is definitely not a fancy place. I had asked for one of my favorite summer drinks - a Seabreeze. The waitress had to come back and ask me what is was. I explained that it is cranberry and grapefruit juice with vodka. Hmmm...I don't think they had any grapefruit juice because I could distinctly taste sour mix. But it was cold and refreshing, and I even ordered a second. The barbecue sandwiches were wonderful and the service was the best. But stick with beer if you're in the mood for a cold one.
Since I had no idea where to find the tufa towers I had come to photograph (remember, we're just winging it here), we popped into the Tourist Center. The two women there recommended we head to South Tufa, and told us if we were there by 6pm there was a free nature tour we might want to consider.
Ever since seeing photographs taken by other photographers of Mono Lake, I had been hoping for an opportunity to photograph the tufa towers myself. Mono Lake is the largest natural lake contained entirely within California. It is 2.5 times saltier and 80 times more than alkaline than ocean water. It is best known for its Tufa towers. These calcium carbonate towers form at the bottom of the lake when calcium bearing spring water hits the alkaline lake water that is rich in carbonates. They were first exposed when the lake levels dropped dramatically after tributary rivers were diverted to provide water for Los Angeles. The lake lost half its volume over 40 years before an agreement was reached to save it. Now that the level is rising slowly again, tufa towers that are seen today may once again be under water in the future.
We made it to South Tufa just as Sarah Jane of the Mono Lake Organization was rounding everyone up for the tour, and she flagged us down as soon as we stepped out of the jeep asking if we'd like to join. I definitely recommend this fun and interactive 45 minute tour. In addition to learning about the history of lake and the tufa, we learned how to make tufa (adding tap water with a bit of calcium to the alkaline lake water instantly begins the creation of tufa. "That's the youngest rock you will ever see," Sarah Jane told us), we caught brine shrimp that are only found in Mono Lake, and some of our group even sampled the fly larvae that were a staple of the local native American diet (not me!). Mono Lake is one big black black cloud of flies, but they are vegetarian so they don't bother people.
As the tour wrapped up I noticed photographers gathering on the beach so I hurried over to stake my claim for a piece of beachfront property. It was still quite a while before sunset, but I didn't want to risk not having a prime spot. In hindsight, I wish I had spent more time photographing the tufa that were on completely dry land because there were some very fascinating structures. Maybe more fascinating than those in the water. Oh well.
While there we met photographer Tim Schuette of Oregon Photo Art and his wonderful wife Becky. Tim and Becky saved my butt that night - as Tim and I played around with the cameras for the next several hours and talked shop, Becky gave Bill someone to talk to to keep him occupied. I think most of their conversation was about the things they had to put up with for their photographer spouses. If Tim and Becky hadn't been there (and hadn't been so incredibly sweet), Bill would've ran out of patience long before the sun set. As it was, we spent about four hours on the beach altogether.
The sunset was disappointing and not nearly as dramatic as I hoped, but one works with what one has. I couldn't seem to find a composition that looked as magical and surreal as some images I've seen. If I have the opportunity to make it back, next time I'll spend more time scouting out the locations instead of just going where everyone else is set up. I've also since learned that sunrise seems to be a better time to photograph the tufa towers.
As the last of the light left the sky I started packing my gear up. Tim and Becky were going to stay to shoot star trails, and I was insanely jealous, but since my second mistake of the night was in forgetting to pack the sunset picnic that usually "keeps me out of trouble," I knew better than to ask Bill to stay any longer. Then another photographer walked over and asked if we minded if he did some light painting. Oh cool! I really wanted to stick around for that, so I tried giving Bill the puppy dog eyes but it didn't work this time. Four hours of boredom from doing nothing but watch me shoot had worn him out. Actually, he had spent the entire day doing nothing but watch me shoot, so when he says he's done I have no right to complain. We packed up and headed back to the hotel.
The hotel - where should I start? When I was looking for a hotel on the internet right before we left, I did notice that most (all?) said no a/c. I figured if so many hotels didn't have a/c, they must not need it. Boy was that wrong. Of course, we happened to be smack in the middle of a heat wave. At least I booked a hotel with a lake view and a balcony. It did have a lake view, and it did have a shared balcony. The room also opened right onto the street, and the bathroom was one step up from an outhouse. Literally. It was bad. Bill hated me. We stepped out onto our shared balcony and met the couple from the room next door. They told us that there is a good breeze off the lake, but it was blowing so hard the previous night that everything was blowing all over the room and kept them awake all night. And it's a warm breeze. With the door to the balcony open it wasn't too bad, but then there is the several thousands of dollars worth of camera gear I have in the room, and the windows that are accessible to absolutely everyone who passes by in both the front and the back of the room. I knew that once we fell asleep we'd both be out cold, so I had to close the balcony door for security reasons and leave the windows open halfway. It wasn't a comfortable night.
I was awake by 6am the following morning, but Bill was still sleeping soundly and I didn't have the heart to wake him after the restless night we endured, so I made coffee and went out on the balcony to photograph the sun rising over the lake. I got a great "Muench star" (hey dgrinners!), so it wasn't a total loss.
Bill woke about an hour later, after showers and packing we went to Nicely's across the street for breakfast. That was another mistake. The service was unfriendly and the food was barely passable. I ordered their special homemade sausage because I love to try things that people consider their specialty. It looked and tasted like a brick. Enough said. Bill let me know that we would NEVER return to Lee Vining. If we were smart we would've camped at June Lake. Lesson learned.
With that, we didn't waste any time getting on the road to Bodie.
You can view my Mono Lake photo gallery here.