Being a “special guest” at Stuart Scofield’s Crooked Creek photography seminar meant that I would be excused from KP duties. Otherwise, my sojourn in California’s high country was the same as everyone else’s. I slept in a sleeping bag on a cot in the bunkhouse and occasionally rose early in order to catch the first rays of dawn breaking over the White Mountains.
Four or five times I made the arduous trek to Sage Hen Flat in search of picturesque bristlecone pines. These are generally considered the longest-lived things on earth, although many of my favorite ones were skeletons of trees that expired centuries ago. Because their trunks and limbs are hard as iron they don’t decay, but rather erode—same as the weathered granite boulders from which they sprout.
The boulders are equally photogenic and evocative of the nearby Alabama Hills, where countless Westerns and Hopalong Cassidy serials were filmed back in the Nineteen Fifties. I scanned the horizon for black hats, half expecting to be bushwacked at any moment.
I was armed not with a six shooter but rather a fifty-year-old Rolleiflex, a camera I would have given my eye-teeth to own when I was a youngster. The closest I came was the school Rolleicord, and then only whenever I was shooting pictures for the Price Junior Highlights. Something about the square format appealed to me, probably because I was my school’s number one “square.”
In between taking pictures I spent a lot of time lazing on a rock, contemplating jet contrails in the cobalt blue sky. From Sage Hen Flat you can see the jagged peaks of the High Sierra, on the far side of which are crowded cities, suburbs, freeways, smog, noise, crime, and news. Unfortunately, the Crooked Creek Research Station now has Internet service. Almost every attendee had a laptop computer, and thus we were unsuccessful in escaping the outside world altogether. Last time I visited this part of the country, Arab terrorists attacked New York and Washington. This time around, the stock market crashed and Paul Newman died.
Still, a relatively good time was had by all. The days were sunny and warm and in the valleys, aspen leaves were turning to gold. The food was very good—so good that by the third day no one was venturing far from the commissary. I was reminded of a weekend I once spent at Binna Burra, a nature retreat in eastern Australia’s Blue Mountains. Like Crooked Creek, accommodations there were austere. No television, no radio, no hot tub. Elegant meals were the only luxury, each accompanied by a live string quartet!
The idea was that guests were supposed to spend the day in the bush, communing with Mother Nature. However, it soon became evident that my fellow nature lovers were only feigning interest in the exotic flora, pandemelons and colorful lorikeets. Most were milling about close to camp in a high state of readiness, and whenever the supper bell rang we would break from the bush and dash straight toward the dining hall like thirst-crazed wildebeests.
“Outta me way, bugga!” as they say down under. Same deal at Crooked Creek, except that we didn’t have a string quartet, and at ten thousand feet above sea level you don’t have to run very fast in order to beat out a herd of hypoxic software engineers from the Bay Area.