Guardians of the Mojave

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The Mojave Desert is a strange animal. Somewhat equi-distant from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego, the Mojave is similar to Death Valley, but has a completely different vibe and personality. It is the dusty, miserable home of 29 Palms – the U.S. Marine installation. It also houses the often-mysterious Edwards AFB and the U2-inspiring Joshua Tree National Park.

The original Route 66 also runs through this area, so you can imagine what might have been there 50 years ago. Roy’s Gas Station and Motel is there, as is one of Roadside America’s grand oddities, “The Shoe Tree”. Which, sadly, has fallen due to its own popularity.

As with many views of the Southwest, one can see for miles – and travel miles before seeing another car or person. One can almost envision Jim Morrison and the Doors dropping acid and dancing with the snake.

And there, in the middle of the desert, not far from a crater of celestial origin, sits two imperial Chinese guardians, marking a non-existent gate, perhaps a quarter mile in length. What they are guarding, exactly, is a mystery. How long have they been there? What is their purpose? Why there? The questions are as endless as the desert itself.

The only thing known for sure is that mysteries abound in the beautiful, magical desert. I often found myself wondering how many skeletons lie in and upon the desert dirt, and what stories could they tell?

The Cross

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My mini obsession with photographing churches started in 1990, when I lived in Germany. The medieval cathedrals fascinated me.

St. George Church in Dinkelsbuhl was always under construction when I visited, but it was an amazing building. The Neresheim Abbey was just as fascinating. St. Lorenz in Nuremberg, The Cologne Cathedral, the list goes on and on. Seriously. On. And on.

When we moved to Las Vegas, there were churches, sure, but the Southern tip of Nevada prides itself on re-building itself, and rebirth. One would hope to see dusty, windswept, creaky old wooden churches, but there were surprising (or not) few.

This doesn’t mean that there were no churches in the Southwest – earlier, I posted about El Sanctuario in New Mexico. Santa Fe also had some really beautiful churches. Of course, there is also the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona.

Back here on the East coast, though, we have some of the richest  American history. And our country was essentially founded on religious freedom.

Fortunately for me, this means churches!

One of my goals now that I’ve completed school is to do church photography in the Southeast. The photo for this weeks’ post is the church in Corolla, North Carolina, near the Currituck Beach Light. I love the cross on top, and the one immediately underneath, above the door. This church is the original church in Corolla, but it’s obviously been renovated relatively recently.

Have you run across any cool or unusual churches in the Southeast? Let me know, so I can add it to my list!

Corolla – the town, not the car

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Spending a week in North Carolina’s Outer Banks is “something North Carolinians do”- Like Michiganians go “Up North”, and Las Vegans “stay away from the strip”…

We’d get up at 6am each morning, and walk the two blocks to the beach. Once we hit the sand, we’d kick off our sandals, and dodge the crabs that quickly ran into their hiding holes.

There were a handful of other people up and down the beach, and we’d watch the tide begin to roll in – in big, glorious waves, making criss-cross patterns of water at our feet. We would watch as the sky went from dark blue, to light blue, then pink and orange. The temperature was perfect, and the water was still lukewarm. The perpetual OBX winds were rather quiet, perhaps reflecting on the day ahead, as were we.

We combed the beach while – as Laurie Anderson has put it – “the sun came up like a big, bald, head”. The waves crashed, producing the soundtrack to our scanning the beach for unique gems of the sea.

Each morning, we saw the best sunrise of the day. And later on, we would sit on the back porch and watch the sun set beyond the trees, into the sound.

But from this now 7am point of view, we had the task of a full day ahead of us, filled with the urgency of reading, swimming, and relaxation.

Freshly armed with the infusion of freshly extracted vitamin C, we dodged the crabs again as we picked up our sandals, and followed the boardwalk back to the fortress of Lasting Impressions.

Amitabha Stupa

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The Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park, located in Sedona, Arizona, sits in a quiet corner of a neighborhood at the base of thunder mountain. I am a big fan of Buddhist beliefs, so it was a joy to visit on our last trip to Sedona.

The park provides a few short hiking trails, which are lined with Buddhist statues and prayer flags. You can also find crystals and rosaries hanging from trees.

As visitors reach the Stupa, they make their intentions, and meditate on those intentions as they make three trips around the Stupa in a clockwise direction.

This photo is from the rear of the Stupa, and in the background, you can see some of the amazing and beautiful rock formations that the West is known for. If you look closely, you can also see a woman in white meditating in the sun as the Stupa’s shadow makes its way towards her.

This picture was taken on Thanksgiving weekend, 2014. It was a rushed trip, but we did have the opportunity to take a great four-hour train ride into a canyon, where the leaves were starting to change.

The View That Took My Breath Away

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While living in Las Vegas, we took a trip through Zion National Park, Kayunta (Arizona – home of Monument Valley), and the Grand Canyon.

We also stopped in Bryce Canyon – oddly, we had known very little about this Southwestern gem prior to this trip.

In the Southwest, there are many gorgeous views that I never expected to see, as I grew up in the Midwest. Despite the amazing views, I never truly saw a sight that took my breath away – until we got to Bryce Canyon.

This picture is the view that literally took my breath away. I had never seen anything in my life like this. If you don’t know what to expect, and walk up to the lip of the canyon, this sight punches you in the gut. Amazing.

While at Bryce Canyon – a trip taken over Memorial Day weekend – we drove to higher elevations, where it started raining. Then snowing. I laughed and took pictures – it was the first time we’d seen snow since we moved from the Midwest – more than a year prior!

Hola, mi Hermano!

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For a hundred miles along I-95, the weary traveler can keep up on the antics of “Pedro”, the mascot of South of the Border.

South of the Border is nothing more than a tourist trap, created to give families someplace to stop, stretch their legs and exercise their wallets along the road from Maine to Florida (or Florida to Maine, depending how you look at it!).

The half-mile stretch of road just off I-95, at the Northernmost exit in South Carolina – just South of the North Carolina/South Carolina border – is lined with multi-colored Pedros, such as the one in this picture. From this angle, I like to think that the red-hatted little Pedro is looking up to his big brother, Pedro, thinking that someday, he will be able to follow in his brother’s sombrero, and hold the sign that welcomes pilgrims to the holy land of chatchki, funky hats, kooky mugs, and lousy t-shirts.

As trite as it may sound, there is one truth of South of the Border – you truly never sausage a place!

El Sanctuario de Chimayo

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Between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, lies El Sanctuario de Chimayo. It is considered the Lourdes of America.

I mentioned in my last blog post that the desert is amazing. It is also very powerful. I don’t know if it’s the expanse of land between people, the calming silence, the tough way of life, or what, but there is something mystical about Southwest America.

El Sanctuario was built in the early 1800s, and is located in the middle of nowhere. People regularly make pilgrimages there, hiking the miles of New Mexico asphalt in search of something greater than themselves.

When they get to El Sanctuario, they are greeted by a calming statue of the virgin Mary, the sound of a nearby moseying river, and fences bearing rosaries of past visitors. It is said that the church has healing powers – there are walls covered in pictures of those who have been healed during their visit to El Sanctuario.

There are actually two churches on the grounds: the children’s church, which is decorated with bright, engaging colors, and the sanctuary itself. There are no pictures allowed in the sanctuary, but when you walk in and see the “Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas” (the crucifix around which the chapel is built), you are hit by a deep feeling that I can only explain as “something otherness”.

To the left of the altar is a small room, lined with more pictures of “the healed”, as well as crutches and canes that are no longer needed. This is the room of holy dirt.

The legend of El Sanctuario says that the hole dug at one end of the room is where the Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas was found. It is the dirt here that is said to contain miraculous healing powers.

Whether the legend is true or real, I honestly don’t know. I do have a little bag of dirt that I retrieved from that hole, though, and when I recall our visit, I am comforted by warm, calming memories.

Sunrise at Red Rock Canyon

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The desert is an amazing place. We moved to Las Vegas, Nevada in May, 2013, and stayed there for two years. The time we spent there was a dichotomy between a miserable lack of social interaction and euphoric desert beauty.

On a few occasions, we cruised out to Red Rock Canyon to watch the sunrise. Red Rock Canyon is a national conservation area located on the Western outskirts of Las Vegas. The mountains tower above the park, and if you are not familiar with desert mountains, the views can be breathtaking.

Getting to the park for the sunrise can be crazy – we would often leave later than we had planned, meaning we’d have to race to get there in time. No big deal, right? Well, state road 160 typically has no lights, and few other drivers on the road at the time, which would make the 20 minute drive a little creepy. And then of course, there’s the danger of native burros!

We often saw signs warning us not to feed the wild burros, and we laughed – really? WILD BURROS?? We NEVER saw one. Until we did. One morning on our way home from watching the sunrise, we saw three of them. And knowing they really did exist made the pre-dawn race to Red Rock a little more treacherous!

The park opened at 6am. Because Las Vegas is the Easternmost city on Pacific time, it meant that the sun rose earlier there. And even if we got to the park at 6am, it would take another 15-20 minutes to get to the valley view scenic overlook.

Once we got there, though, the view was amazing, as this photo shows. As with every photo, it does nothing to represent the true beauty. There was an orange color in the sky over the horizon that I had never seen before, and I burned through about 10 pictures before I realized that the camera would never get it right.

In this photo, the camera is looking East over the Las Vegas valley. The bright set of lights just left of center is the South Point Casino. If you could look around the shadow of rocks on the left side of the photo, you would see the Las Vegas Strip, and even further left from that is Downtown Las Vegas (aka Fremont Street). The white lights at the bottom of the picture are actually other cars driving through the park.

We would spend an hour or two watching the sun rise in perfect calm and silence. It was a bit of magic that you wouldn’t expect outside of the buzz and bustle of the Las Vegas Strip!