A Surprising Development

On June 29th I woke at 4:00 am with the idea that it was a good time to ride to Joshua Tree. It wasn’t an idea that I had before going to sleep, but had been generated during the dreaming night. I could pack the saddlebags, fill the thermos with coffee, and top off the gas tank for the hundred mile ride to the southern entrance of the National Park. With luck, I would arrive at the park around 6:00 am before all of the early light was gone. In addition to the better light conditions for photography, my early arrival at the park would allow me a couple hours to ride through the two deserts that the parkland spans; the Colorado and Mojave, then return home before the day’s temperatures pushed up much beyond 100 f.

The ride out the 60 Freeway and Interstate 10 was easy. Air temperatures hovered around 80 f and there was little traffic. But the long straights from the San Gorgonio Pass west of Palm Springs to the climb toward Chiriaco Summit past Indio was a bit boring, as usual. On that stretch I thought about the possibility of installing a good sound system in my helmet. One that I could turn on and off at will. A system that would allow me to really hear the music and the sound of the bike’s engine at the same time. Thoughts about a sound system rarely arise, since I like the sound of the bike’s v-twin engine rumbling along through the wind and it is the soundtrack of motorcycling, after all. But those thoughts do break into my consciousness on long, boring straight stretches of road, then dissipate quickly in curves and uphill climbs.

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Just short of the summit off ramp, I took the exit for Cottonwood Springs Road, stopped for a few minutes to drink some coffee and load film into the Nikon SLR, then rode north up the alluvial fan spilling down from the mountains toward the freeway and over the ridges toward the Pinto Basin. At the Cottonwood Visitor Center, the southern ranger station, the name of the road changes to the Pinto Basin Road. The ranger station was empty since it was so early in the day.

The road through Pinto Basin is a long series of s-curves and beyond the current curve, the road is obscured by cactus, ocotillo, and sage. Rounding one curve and peering into the next as it became clearly visible, I spotted a house cat standing dead still in the middle of the asphalt and peering into the bush at the side of the road.

“What the hell is a house cat doing out here?”, I wondered. Many miles from any sheltering buildings, a house cat is just breakfast for the hundreds of coyotes that live in the national park. I rolled off on the throttle, slowing the bike and turned slightly into the left lane of the road to go around the animal, if it happened to freeze in position.

Keeping my eyes on the animal, I rolled toward it at around thirty miles per hour. It turned it’s head toward me to look at what was approaching it. It stared at me for three full seconds, as if deciding whether to move or not, and it suddenly became clear to me that it was no mere house cat. It was a mountain lion, at least three times the size of a domestic cat.

With the approaching growl of the bike’s engine in third gear and the bright headlamp and highway lamps fast approaching, the lion finally made a decision and trotted without hurry off the road and into the scrub. I rode through the spot it had occupied, thinking about stopping and retrieving a camera from the saddlebag for a moment, then decided that action would be foolish. I had no doubt interrupted its hunt for that morning’s breakfast and I didn’t want to present it with an alternative, however more more risky that alternative might be in comparison to the jackrabbit it was probably stalking.  

A few miles up the road near the edge of the basin, I stopped at the Cholla garden to shoot a couple frames a hundred feet from the parked motorcycle. Walking back toward the bike flies began buzzing past my ears and I swatted at them without looking. A few feet from the bike it became clear that it wasn’t flies, but honey bees. There were close to eighty bees swarming around the bike, attracted no doubt by the smell of the sweat-beaded water bottles in my saddlebag.

I stood a few feet away, watching the swarm for a minute and considered waiting until the bees left to get back in the saddle. But there was no telling when they might give up the search for water, so I moved slowly to pick up my gloves and helmet, then placed the key in the ignition lock. I put on the gloves and helmet, after making sure there were no bees on or inside them, then gingerly reached over to turn the key and press the start button. With the engine rumbling away in idle, the swarming didn’t stop, so I slowly put my leg over the saddle, then waved my hand back and forth under my rear as I sat down onto the seat.

A hundred yards up the road I pulled over and parked the bike on a sandy pullout to drink some coffee from the thermos and take a short break. Stepping off the seat, I looked down and spotted a single honey bee crushed in the middle of the saddle. What luck! I’ve never had any great or small fear of bees, but I try not to aggravate them. The only thing that makes me nervous around bees is when people I’m with swat at them when they land on me, which puts me in danger of being stung. Honey bees frequently land on my arms and shoulders. I’m not sure why. They don’t bother me. I figure they’re just taking breaks somewhere safe…   

I putted slowly north through the park and passed through the northern entrance of the park near the town of Joshua Tree a few minutes before 8:00, so I didn’t have to pay the daily use fee of $5. I arrived back home around 9:30 before the temperature had passed up beyond the 100 f mark. It had been a good, relaxing ride and I saw a mountain lion in the park for the first time. I checked the digital color photographs from the ride and wasn’t too impressed by them. The roll of black and white film from the Nikon went into the film cooler. 

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The cassette sat in the film cooler, waiting for development for only a week, but it was long enough for me to forget what was on the roll. That is something that doesn’t happen very often, since I usually develop film very soon after shooting it and during the rare times when I haven’t developed a roll within a day, I’ve never forgotten what I shot. But that time was different. After a week I forgot what was on the film. I loaded the mystery film onto the developing reel, sealed it up in the tank, and set the tank on the desk for three days, periodically wondering what was on it.

These photographs were made with my Nikon N90s, 50mm lens, and Kentmere 100 film.