Timescapes: California Aerial Imageschapter introductions
At left, Point Reyes juts deeply into the sunlit waters of the Pacific. Cut off from the mainland by the San Andreas Fault, which divides this region along its north/south axis, this "island in time" is moving toward Canada at the rate of three inches per year. Rocks at Point Reyes bear striking resemblance to those 300 miles south in the Tehachapi Mountains, providing evidence of the peninsula's parentage.
The Point Reyes promontory is part of a 550-mile-long complex of undulations embracing the sea, broken only by San Francisco Bay. Reaching 2,000 to 7,500 feet in elevation, the dominant rocks in the coastal ranges were folded and faulted after accumulating as sediments from ancient seas and plains.
With the fog as my ceiling, I follow high above whales tracing the outline of the headlands. Sprinkled here and there are the flotsam of former coastlines and the stepped terraces of long-dry beaches. My eyes feast on cliffs of pink and gold, green hills, blue fog and arc-white flashes between the electrodes of ocean and sun.
SIERRA NEVADA AND KLAMATH MOUNTAINS
At left, two cirque lakes, carved by the sluggish but irrepressible action of glaciers shimmer against the light near Mount Pinchot in Kings Canyon National Park, Sierra Nevada. Ten to 11 million years ago, this massive 400-mile long block of earth was lifted up and tilted west to face the setting sun. Acting as an impenetrable front that intercepts moisture-bearing clouds, the range creates a parched landscape downwind to the east and a fertile valley to the west.
What was started in the Miocene epoch, the Ice Age completed two to three million years ago, giving the Sierra Nevada the profile we know today. Similar forces shaped the Klamath Mountains to the north.
As I climb to 17,950 feet to get an overview of the Sierra crestline, a cold, unfriendly wind streams through the open window of my airplane. Flying up the Kern River, the only contrary, north-south-trending river in the Sierra, I see shadows crawling across the Owens Valley to the east, and the morning sun burning fog off fields in the Great Central Valley to the west. With one turn of my head, I see three momentous formations.
At left, winter trees follow the drainage of the rolling hills near the eastern extension of Cache Creek. Similar scenes are found along the entire perimeter of the Central Valley, a vast 400-mile long plain filled with sediments from its former ocean incarnation, as well as alluvium - rocks, silt and sand - washed down from the mountains along the eastern border. Far below these accumulated deposits, the bedrock - the protracted root of the Sierra Nevada - continues westward.
Sutter Buttes north of Sacramento, 2,117-foot-high remnants of an ancient volcano, are the sole interruption along this flatland terrain. The buttes add a touch of mystery to the region, as they are thought by some to be the far southern extension of the Cascade volcanic range.
As I cruise at 1,000 feet on a warm afternoon, smells of fresh-cut alfalfa waft through the window, fields of sunflowers seem to nod at the plane, and cattle pause to look up from their monotonous grazing. In the low light of dusk I use the buttes to help navigate on my way home, passing snow geese stopped at one of the many surrounding wildlife refuges.
A landscape of extremes, Death Valley is the lowest (282 feet below sea level), hottest (134 degrees Fahrenheit) and one of the driest places in North America. It is also a source of illusions - dry salt flats impersonating blue waters, and sandy riverbeds wriggling like snakes on to of the desert floor. (Turn the facing page upside-down and the white squiggly ridges lying above the surrounding brown of the desert become furrows cutting into the ground.)
Death Valley is a basin surrounded by roughly parallel mountain ranges towering between 5,000 and 11,000 feet. It is typical of the many faultblocks - depressions in the earth bounded by faults - that make up this region and give it its name. A mecca in the winter, Death Valley is unbearable in the summer, which is just when I prefer to visit - I have the sand dunes all to myself.
You can find taller dunes in Eureka Valley, larger tracts near the Arizona/Mexico border and whiter sands in the New Mexico desert. But surely the most beautiful sand dunes in North America are located in California's Death Valley National Monument.
CASCADE RANGE AND MODOC PLATEAU
At left, the moon rises over the snow-streaked summit of the world's largest plug dome volcano, 10457-foot-high Mount Lassen. Filled by magma - molten rock - welling up, it is the most southerly volcano in the Cascade Range, a region of fire extending through Oregon and Washington into Canada.
Similar in origin - and containing many small volcanic cones - the adjacent Modoc Plateau is a level tableland of accumulated rock born of molten rivers of lava and explosions. Strewn everywhere across these two regions are the colors and shapes of their violent creation.
Early morning and late afternoon are my favorite times to photograph: the light is low and three-dimensional in effect, rapidly changing the face of the landscape, while the atmosphere is often translucent, encouraging overviews. Yet just before sunrise, when the sky is still cobalt blue, and just after sunset, when the hand of the sun has left the ground - these are also precious moments. The land is at peace and permits introspection.
MOJAVE AND COLORADO DESERTS
At left, the Colorado river winds a placid path along the southeastern border of the state in the Mojave Desert. It is hard to imagine the narrative of its journey, which begins one-third of a continent away in the high stretches of the Rocky Mountains, then embarks on the voyage of steep descent and turbulent erosive action that carved the Grand Canyon.
It is equally difficult to conceive of the immense but extinct Lake Cahuilla occupying what is now a parched basin some 50 miles west in the neighboring Colorado Desert. Yet, concentric lines of its former beaches remain, receding inward through the decades of successively drier climates. In this depression now rests the Salton Sea, formed in 1905 and 1906 by flash floods before the Colorado River's authority was impounded by sequential dams.
It is easy to think of the desert as a barren wasteland, but life here is everywhere and abundant. To avoid disturbing its fragile balance, I follow the course of the Colorado well above the ground. Below me pelicans rest in a land of seeming paradox, where water is just a memory embodied in the shapes it has left behind.
TRANSVERSE AND PENISULAR RANGES
At left, the misty palisades of Santa Catalina Island in the Peninsular Ranges stand stalwart against the eastward flow of weather across the pacific. Like the Channel Islands cluster the north, Santa Catalina, together with San Nicolas and San Clemente islands, is tied with the umbilical cord of geological history the neighboring mountain peaks on the mainland.
Flying at dusk between the two island groups, I see water all around, with just the faintest hint of the mainland along the horizon. But I know that below the surface of the ocean is a landscape no less dramatic and complex than the one I am heading toward.
I turn the cockpit lights on and navigate by instruments and instinct back home, tracing in my mind's eye some of the features of this region: basins o sediments laid down more than 50,000 feet thick, mountains soaring over 11,000 feet high and submarine canyons 6,000 feet deep.