Where I grew up, adults were pretty much confined to their yards. Their kids, meantime, ran wild in the surrounding hills, the nearest of which being a mesa crowned with scrubby junipers that we knew as Wood Hill. The mesa’s southern rim features cliffs, including one called Crack Ledge. Next to Crack Ledge is another cliff bearing a blue-and-white block letter “C”—signifying Carbon High School. Not far from that monogram, there used to be a burn scar in the shape of the letter “F.” Whenever citizens looked up and saw that the “F” was ablaze, it meant that incoming freshmen were in danger of being “initiated.” Lurid tales of sadistic hazing rituals abounded; thus, each night before going to bed, I’d kneel and pray to heaven that I would NEVER be initiated.
Saturdays after the matinee let out, I’d strap on my silver cap pistols and light out for Wood Hill, there to re-enact whichever adventure Hopalong had engaged in on the silver screen. By and by, the cap pistols were replaced by a Daisy air rifle, which in turn was replaced by a Crossman pellet gun, and—finally—a camera.
From then on, shooting pictures instead of jackrabbits was my passion, and as long as I was armed with SOMETHING whenever I went for a hike, nobody questioned my manhood. Thus it was on Wood Hill that I photographed my very first landscapes, some of which I have kept in order to show that there is no such thing as innate talent. Comparing my early photos to the ones I’d seen on calendars, I realized that I had a lot to learn. For one thing, I needed to find something more picturesque than, say, just gray dirt.
One day while exploring a neighboring mesa that my friend Alan and I had christened Mystery Mountain, I came upon a gnarly skeleton of a pinion tree that reminded me of the oft-photographed Lone Cyprus of Monterrey. Here it is in all its glory, just the way I printed it in my primitive darkroom. I hung the picture on my wall, but the more I looked eat it, the less I liked it. Somehow, it didn’t quite measure up to the Monterrey Cyprus. Clearly I had a lot to learn—about lighting, for instance, not to mention dust suppression.
Recently I returned to Wood Hill in hopes of finding the photogenic pinion that had so intrigued me when I was a boy. Unlike the old days, I didn’t have to hike, as there are now roads traversing the mesa and drill pads everywhere. Evidently Wood Hill sits atop an oil field, which just goes to show that—with the exception of Daniel Day Lewis—people who roam the hills in search of wild game to shoot are basically nincompoops.
The first thing I looked for was the base camp that Alan and I had established at the foot of Mystery Mountain. No luck. Then I searched for the rock cairn containing a tin can, inside of which was a document we two had buried back in 1955. Alas, I couldn’t find it. Evidently the oil company has jumped our claim.
As for Mystery Mountain, it turns out to be much taller than I remember. Hard to believe I once scrambled up that steep talus slope all by myself just to snap a picture before beating a hasty retreat after I’d heard what I assumed was the keening of a mountain lion.
Getting back to my car, I returned to town via an old cow path that is now a paved road traversing what we knew as Horny Toad Flats—nowadays an upscale subdivision called Castle Heights. Where once was naught but sage and prickly pears, yucca, rabbit brush and lizards are now houses, shade trees, flower beds and manicured lawns. If only we’d been able to come up with a fancier name for the place when we were kids, we might have made a killing in real estate.