Desert Solitaire


“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity” – John Muir, 1923

Back in college in my US Environmental History class we read Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. It rocked my world. With other assigned readings that included Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond and The Control Of Nature by John McPhee it solidified the class as one of my favorites during my four years at Santa Barbara. I remember being surprised that a history course, and one in the Environmental Sciences department, would assign such a prose-laden and literary piece of work. My friends and I thoroughly loved the instructor and the course.

“Wilderness. The word itself is music.” – Edward Abbey

My trip with my Mom to Sedona whet my appetite for more. More space. More wildnerness. More cold, elevated air. More hot, sweaty hikes. More ascent. More sunsets and sunrises. More foliage. More silence. Which is all the more remarkable since the desert is the epitome of minimalist. Creatures survive against reason in this land. Plants have innovated ways to store water against all odds. It’s the terrain of survivors.


“Water, water, water….There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” – Edward Abbey

Perhaps my California upbringing makes me particularly attuned and sensitive to this phenomenon. This intricate balance that seems to be teetering on the edge.


“It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; Nathanael West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” – Joan Didion



Lately, I have become acutely aware of my bias for the wilderness and the wild out West. It is not the fault of the East that it is older and wiser, that its peaks have been denuded and that its shores slope gently and slowly into the mild ocean. But I prefer the dramatic landscape, the cliffs given to hyperbole, the valleys pushing away from the sky, the ocean that roars to make its presence known and that threatens homes perched precariously above. The Wild out West is still in its geologic adolescence. It shows off, it is excessive, it can’t control itself, and it is changing.


I am beginning to believe that perhaps New England has some of this. It will of course feel different. Will it feel steeped in age and tradition, the East Egg of our landscape? Will it have the wild spirit of the West? Will it prove itself the original?



The West seems hard to beat. It is the place of dreams, the trail left behind in America’s search for its Manifest Destiny before it collided with the Pacific Ocean.


“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear this disease incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself….A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck





I suppose it was about a month ago now that I visited Sedona with my mom. I’ve finally gotten around to editing photos and exporting them in various file formats for printing, blogging, etc. Sometimes I think there has to be a more efficient way than my current process that I just don’t know about. It helps that I took a sick day today and was finally able to work on photography in between sniffles and tissues. My day of being stuck inside my apartment and being forced into sedentarism, a word I just created, actually flew by. It was aided by an episode of Homeland and a documentary on Kobe Bryant.

So, I really didn’t know what to expect from Sedona. My mom and I had originally planned to meet up in Tahoe, but sort of ad hoc decided randomly upon Sedona instead. I’d never been, but she had and she guaranteed me that spending six days there was still not enough to see and do everything. Though skeptical of this claim, I happily booked a flight and the trip then sort of disappeared to the back of my mind. It wasn’t until the day before that it really hit me I was leaving the next day. In hindsight, I think it made the trip even more enjoyable for me because I didn’t have a chance to start creating expectations of the trip. At the last minute, I grabbed a copy of Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck off my bookshelf, which I had pilfered from a friend last year out of a bag of books she was getting rid of. It turned out to be the perfect read for the flight there and back, and is just as timely and relevant now as it was back in 1962.


“It is impossible to be in this high spinal country without giving thought to the first men who crossed it, the French explorers, the Lewis and Clark men. We fly it in five hours, drive it in a week, dawdle it as I was doing in a month or six weeks. But Lewis and Clark and their party started in St. Louis in 1804 and returned in 1806. And if we get to thinking we are men, we might remember that in the two and a half years of pushing through wild and unknown country to The Pacific Ocean and then back, only one man died and only one deserted. And we get sick if the milk delivery is late and nearly die of heart failure if there is an elevator strike. What must these men have thought as a really new world unrolled – or was the progress so slow that the impact was lost? I can’t believe they were unimpressed.”


Now, before your mind goes to correcting me, I realize the inaccuracy of the quote, and the misplacement of it here in a post about Sedona, Arizona. But still, that is the spirit that unexpectedly permeated my trip to the southwest. I realized, with a fleeting sense of sadness but more wonder, that that type of discovery is not only a relic of a bygone era, but also that no such trip would be possible today. We can explore places that expand our worldview, challenge our assumptions, break down biases, but from here on out we will always know someone has been there before. I began to wonder what left in the world remains uncharted? Placing myself in the shoes of Meriweather Lewis, I realized the great sense of curiosity, mission and adventure that must have taken hold of his soul.


I was so interested by imagining walking two moons in this man’s moccasins that I got a copy of Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, a biography about Lewis and the expedition he led across the Louisiana Purchase to discover just what President Jefferson had bought.


“Ocian in view! O! The joy.” – William Clark

If I were ever to get a tattoo, which is 95% unlikely, I would probably get this quote. I guess he jumped the gun and too quickly misidentified the body of water he was seeing, but the sense of adventure in it, and the happiness they must have felt at seeing what they thought was the Pacific Ocean after an incomprehensibly arduous journey, is a sentiment that stirs something in me. Plus, I always am joyous when I see the Pacific Ocean.

It’s my contention that it is impossible to take a bad photo in Sedona. The trip reinvigorated my atrophying attention and effort in photography. The past few weeks, where I’ve found time to dabble around in lightroom, I’ve tried some new editing techniques, trying to parse it down and lightly touch the photos. Like a woman’s makeup, I am trying to use editing tools to play up the natural spectacular features of the image rather than recreate something that is not there. I am quite pleased with how my Sedona photographs have turned out so far.


I signed up for an art class. Just a two week course that focuses on photography printing and matting. We are supposed to bring two images to class that we will work with, and by the end we will have them printed and prepared for framing. As I’ve looked around, DC does have more art courses than I originally suspected. This particular one I will be taking at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW). I will let you all know how it goes!


I took the opportunity offered by a pig roast in West Virginia to take a stab at night photography, with some pretty interesting results. In the shots I took earlier in the night, you can see some of the clouds in the sky, which lend a dynamic energy and movement to the images. Later, when the clouds disappeared, the stars filled the sky like sand in a brilliant sandbox. I’m excited for some more nighttime photography experimentation and I’m already dreaming of a desert vacation in the near future.

Fall has embraced the mid-Atlantic in its chilly yet comforting arms, and so it was the perfect chance to head west into the Shenandoah for a couple days to see the leaves changing color, throw on some cable-knit sweaters and goose down vests, and eat some pumpkin and apple spice donuts.

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Camera Shopping

So, you want to start taking photos. Or, you want to start actively improving your photography skills. I’m no expert, but fellow blogger and friend The Dame in Spain wondered aloud about cameras, and I decided that since I’ve read into it perhaps a bit more than the average bear, and have some hands-on practice with different cameras and lenses, I’d weigh in with my opinions.


Street scene in Beograd, Serbia. Shot using a Canon 6D and 50mm 1.8 lens.

First off, I’m going to discuss cameras and lenses for every day use type things, like food shots, lifestyle captures, and my favorite, travel. Most important thing probably is to know that the lens is more important than the camera body if we’re talking DSLRs here. I just had to look that up, it’s “digital single-lens reflex” camera. These are the bodacious ones you see nearly everyone carrying around these days. True story: I saw these listed as great hipster accessories. “Accessories?” Sure, if you have hundreds of Benjamins to drop on an accessory. Whatever, buzzfeed. When I travel, I must say I quite blend in with the other Asian tourists (thas raycess) since I swear, everyone and their mother (well, not my mom), has a DSLR these days.

As a tangent, I wouldn’t overlook the convenience of using a smaller point-and-shoot for travel. That might be blasphemous to say in the photography realm, but the first camera I traveled around with was a Nikon COOLPIX point and shoot, and it really was foundational for me as I learned how to manipulate light. Because really, in my unprofessional opinion, that’s what separates a DSLR from a point-and-shoot: greater power to manipulate what light you have. If you go this route, make sure you have some manual capability on the camera, like I did with the Nikon COOLPIX, so you start to learn about aperture and shutter speed. The reason my mom does not have a DSLR is because I got her a point-and-shoot camera for Christmas, and it was a beefed up version of my first camera. I got her the Nikon COOLPIX L830. She will be able to do everything she wants to do with it, without sacrificing quality for her purposes. There is also a semi-new product out there called the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC) that is also compact, but more on that later. Oh, and one last thing, don’t worry too much about how many megapixels the camera has. Most cameras these days have plenty.

There are a lot of resources on the internet about photography. At the end of this post, I’ll list some of the blogs and resources I’ve turned to repeatedly. One caution that is nearly obligatory is, as they say: the best camera is the one you have with you. That’s only to say, you can have the greatest equipment in the world but if you are caught in a moment without it, and all you have is, say, your iPhone, then guess what? Your iPhone just became your best camera. If you’re never going to lug around a heavy DSLR, then you shouldn’t get one. Easy as that. In fact, I bought a lens off a guy I found on Craigslist. The reason he was selling all his equipment was that he had decided he really only needed his iPhone. It was the best camera for him.

Santorini dinner

Santorini, Greece. Shot using my Canon 6D and 24-105mm lens.

But back to equipment. After fiddling with my Nikon point-and-shoot pretty intensely for about a year or so,* I decided to go the DSLR route because I wanted to have more control over manipulating light. I wanted to be able to dial down the aperture (i.e. open the “eye” of the lens more) in low light situations or to capture fast-moving objects with a quicker shutter speed. Since I was shooting handheld, vice using a tripod, and since I was using natural light instead of a flash, aperture and shutter speed were big deals to me. So, I took the plunge and bought what is often considered the ideal entry-level DSLR: the Canon T3i. I got it on Craigslist. It came with a kit lens of 18-55mm; pretty standard. I never shot with that lens. If you can, just buy the body. I also found a 50mm 1.8 canon lens on Craigslist. Dame in Spain, I recommend this setup for you if you’re truly committed to learning how to use a DSLR. I still use the 50mm 1.8 lens, even though I’ve since upgraded changed which Canon body I use. That’s because the lens is the best bang for your buck in the photography world. Yep, the whole world. I’ve entertained the thought of getting the 50mm 1.4, which is a “faster” lens (wider aperture) to yield even better bokeh (the nice blurred background effect), but am not convinced it’s worth the extra money. Notice the bokeh in the below images. On the left, I use the shallow depth of field to focus attention on the ice cold diesel coffee sitting in front of me (Canon 6D, 24-105mm lens). On the right, to make a photo of the rose garland more interesting (Canon T3i, 50mm lens).

Austin coffee Turkish garland

So, to get a little more specific, the T3i is what they call a “crop sensor” camera, which is different than a “full frame” camera. “Full frame” indicates that the sensor is 24mm x 36mm, which harkens back to film days when people shot on 35mm film. “Crop sensor” is anything smaller than that. Here, here, and here are some more articles on this. The reason I went with the T3i was because of price and ubiquity. I could easily find one on Craigslist for the price I was willing to pay. I decided also to go with Canon instead of Nikon because I think at the time, I decided the lens family was one I wanted to be loyal to. This becomes important once you start acquiring more lenses.

After a while, I wanted to be able to shoot wider angle shots. Instead of buying a new full frame body, I bought the 10-22mm lens (also on Craigslist) to “imitate” the full frame. I put imitate in quotes because people are always trying to “upgrade” to a full frame because they think it’s better. I think you can make a case for either. With a crop sensor, your lenses will magnify things more, so you arguably save on that side of the equation, but sacrifice on the wide angle perspective a bit. Here are some shots using the wide angle:

San Blas fisherman San Blas boat San Blas wide angleIn the case of the local fisherman and the boat, I was standing only a few feet away, but because of the wide angle lens, was able to capture a large swath of scenery. Had I been using, say, a 85mm lens (common portrait lens), I could have focused the viewer’s attention more on the fisherman’s face, had I wanted to tell that story.

At this time, I also had salvaged some lenses from when I was much younger, when my dad gave me a Pentax camera and some lenses to go along with that. And here’s where the * comes into play from above. The Nikon wasn’t my first foray into photography. When I was younger, I played around with an old Pentax film camera, took some classes, and still keep some of the lenses to this day. I discovered that for about $3-5, I could get an adapter that I could affix to the old lenses so that they’d be compatible with my T3i body. So, with the T3i, I was shooting with the 50mm, 10-22mm, which were both Canon, and also the 135mm and 28mm, both Pentax. I excitedly researched the old lenses one day, hoping I’d have miraculously saved, in my infinite wisdom and foresight as a child, some really valuable pieces of glass, but alas, they are just mediocre. But, they allowed me to practice with some different lenses. The reason I bring this up is to illustrate that I have tried a few more lenses than just the 50mm, but still recommend that one for lifestyle and travel photography. It’s the common photojournalist lens, along with probably the 35mm, because it lends a perspective that is similar to what the human eye sees.

So, to end this long ramble, after another year or so traveling around a bunch with the T3i and really enjoying myself, I decided I wanted to change yet again to another body and lens set, so I used a bunch of acquired credit card reward points one day on a killer deal at Amazon. I got the Canon 6D (full frame) with a “kit” lens of the 24-105mm, a lens that on its own costs over $1,000. The credit card points, Amazon deal, and money from selling the T3i body made it so that I paid around $300 for the new body and lens. Sí, es increíble. I noticed that Amazon would once in a blue moon drop its prices on certain camera and lens combinations; I lucked out and spotted this one at a convenient time. I did agonize over the Canon 5D Mark ii/i for a while, but eventually determined that, while being the popularly used camera by a lot of the bloggers I follow, the price tag wasn’t for me. Here is a set of really informative and interesting metrics on popular cameras and settings for Reuter’s 2012 photos of the year.

Sarajevo mosque Sarajevo mosque

There are lots of other things I could go on and on about, but I think the best advice is to just get what you can put your hands on, and start taking shots and learning. The great thing that I think made me stick with photography this second time around and that alleviated some of the frustrations and patience-requirements of the learning curve when I was younger is the arrival of digital photography. You can take however many photos you want and there’s no extra cost of film development. This means you can take 10 millions shots of the same subject and switch the shutter speed or make minor adjustments to the composition or the angle you’re standing at without worrying about the cost of it all. And, on top of all that, you get instant gratification. You can immediately see how the image will look and adjust accordingly.

Hope this post helped! As promised, here are some of the blogs I’ve found helpful. I also sometimes stalk my favorite bloggers or photographers and try to dig up their tips and tricks, sometimes found in their FAQ pages, or through interviews.
Plate to Pixel by Helene Dujardin

Speaking of food photography, I really like the photographs by Molly Yeh at who I’m pretty sure uses VSCO in post-processing, as well as Katie Quinn Davies’ work at, and the dark and dramatic images at As far as coffee table books go, I found a copy of Annie Lebovitz’s At Work at a used bookstore, got a signed copy of Women of Vision at a NatGeo event, and also have Steve McCurry’s book Untold, all of which I really like.

This is kind of sparse, and does not contain everything I’ve read (obviously). In general, if I’m curious about something, I’ll look it up, and I haven’t yet been let down by crowd-sourcing the answers. “What is HDR?” for example. But Ken Rockwell’s page is great. I’ve also talked to journalists about what they use, attended events at NatGeo, and struck up conversations with photographers on airplanes. Seems like a friendly community, so I wouldn’t hesitate asking people you meet.

Tope Costa Rica Aya Sofya chandelierAbove: LEFT – Tope festival, Costa Rica; Nikon COOLPIX, RIGHT – Hagia Sofia, Istanbul; Nikon COOLPIX.


A while back, I came home to a TD&H created dish for dinner: pork tenderloin. I’d never really had pork tenderloin before, though my friend had assured me it was quite easy and delicious to make. Still, I am dubious around meat when it involves me cooking it, and was even more suspicious of this dish TD&H had whipped up, sans recipe. Boy, was I in for a surprise. This dish was so succulent, so savory and sweet at the same time, so flavorful and full of personality, I knew I had to witness its cooking again, if only to understand its depths.

Fast-forward a few weeks, TD&H and I were inspired to host a dinner party with some friends we had not seen in some time. What a perfect opportunity! Chef took to the kitchen, and worked his magic, which I outline for you here.

Pork Tenderloin ingredientsOur cast of characters:

1 whole onion, cut into big pieces
a few cloves of garlic, diced
extra virgin olive oil
about 1 C chicken stock
2 C soy sauce
1/3 C + 2 T maple syrup
1 can tomato paste
2 T rice vinegar
1/2 T each paprika and cayenne
3/4 T chili powder
2 t cinnamon
1 C jumbo raisins
1 apple, diced (we used honey crisp, my favorite!)
1 T sesame seeds
pork tenderloin

oniongarlicchicken stock

hint: store leftover stock in an ice tray for future use when you only need 1/2 – 1 cups

Step 1:

1. Soften onions in a pot drizzled with olive oil (2-4 minutes) over medium heat, add diced garlic (1 minute)

2. Add liquidey things (i.e. chicken stock, soy sauce, maple syrup, tomato paste, vinegar) and bring to a simmer

3. Add spices: paprika, cayenne, chili powder and mix into the bubbling concoction

4. Add raisins (we prefer the jumbo raisins from Trader Joe’s. I think they add a nice, unique quality and texture to the final dish as they hydrate to become plump and juicy) and apple pieces

5. Continue to simmer until the mixture thickens, so that the bubbles shrink instead of pop, as TD&H puts it

6. Once the sauce begins to thicken, start on the loin. Heat a cast iron (or other oven-safe) skillet in a 400 degree F oven for 10 minutes or so. Remove the skillet from the oven and place on stove (be careful! very hot!).

7. Place the loin in the skillet with a little bit (about 1/2 C or so) of the sauce. Sear on all sides for just a few minutes.

8. Reduce oven heat to 350 F and cook for 20 minutes, or until internal temperature is 145 F.

9. When done cooking, remove from heat. Pour rest of sauce over the meat, and let rest 3-5 minutes so all the juices flow back into the meat.

pork loin sauceOur friends arrived, bearing gifts of wines, cheeses, and desserts. As people trickled in, our humble apartment started to feel more like a home.

cheese with character gotta love this guy: the cheese with all the character, like the cool kid in a leather jacket, reclined against a wall, cigarette hanging nonchalantly out of his mouthtattoo dining bw dinner

We chatted, caught up, shared stories. We attacked the cheese with vigor, refilled our wine glasses, finished up cooking while the last few guests arrived. And then… it was time.

The unveiling of the loin.

Silence came over the room as the last and final star of the main course, The Loin, made its way to the table. As we took our first bites, I was anxious to see how this second version of what was initially an ad hoc creation would compare, how it would be received. Sometimes, silence is the greatest compliment.

unveiling of the loin the boys

And silent it was.

Well, needless to say, The Loin showcased fabulously. We followed up with a delicious dessert, courtesy of Katherine, who used a recipe from Smitten Kitchen (gotta love smitten kitchen).

pork loinpear cakeel finempty plateA great feast with great friends. To be repeated, with frequency and more delicious creations.

El fin.


Growing up, I thought the hippies I encountered or knew about were a relic of 1960s America; people who had it right, were trying to live alternative lifestyles, who were not slaves to prevailing trends or the beat of someone else’s drum. As I got older, I began to see the hippie subgroup as people either trying to hold on to the golden vestiges of their youth, or new hippies, trying to be throwback, and through shunning mainline pop cultural trends, where subscribing to another one in its place. Not that I perceived this as an entire negative: I was happy to consider myself as a recipe with a dash of hippie, or as I thought at the time, words that were synonymous such as “free” or, for the more committed, “eccentric.” In California, the perception was nearly a sliding scale along a geospatial line: the further north you went, the more “Walden Pond” the scenario got, and the further south, the more the term was used to describe a fashion more than a state of mind.

Obviously, these are generalizations, and I’m sure many would argue not what “it’s all about” anyway. My point is, I thought it was a culture unique to California; after all, I had grown up learning about the Haight and Ashbury, the Summer of Love, the political turmoil and the anti-Vietnam War protests. But, my sample size was small, my worldview undeveloped, my experiences limited.


20141025-IMG_7712We arrived to the distillery in Western Virginia after a day spent out at the Maryland vineyards, picking grapes we would later make into wine. The sun radiated that low, more mature light so characteristic of falls and winters out east. Rather than illuminating the world in bright, ever-optimistic sunlight, the sun cast shadows on leaves, threw bright halos on things, did not warm your core as easily. After a day spent out in the sun, drinking wine, clipping grape clusters and lugging heavy bins of grapes here and there, our group was relaxed and exhausted.20141024-IMG_759120141024-IMG_7603 20141025-IMG_771520141025-IMG_7713As we gathered around the campfire, waiting for our designated tasting room time to sample the distilleries cordials, we sat in chairs carved out of massive, aged tree trunks anchored to a carpet of deciduous leaves. I was captivated by the voice of an artist performing her newest songs; the tunes seemed fit for just this occasion as she beat on a hollow drum she held in her hand. She told us her music had evolved to reflect the influences she had encountered during her travels in Southeast Asia. She wore a flower garland in her hair, a Native American blanket as a shawl…

Wait a second… this seemed all too familiar. But what was this? Were we not in Western Virginia? I began to look more closely around at the people. A man nearby wore a tweed vest, a cap with a feather standing proudly at attention, ironic glasses. The younger people sported beards, facial hair, eccentric hats. I realized we were in the land of living off the grid, where “different” is once again on-trend. It began to make sense: we were at a distillery in the Appalachians, where historically clandestine operations of making moonshine were as much a part of American history as the hippie movement of the Sixties. It dawned on me: the alternative lifestyle is not so unique to California hippies. It exists in many different forms, immediately recognizable once you see it face to face, despite the very different environments. Walden Pond was, after all, in Massachusetts, not a California suburb.

20141025-IMG_772120141025-IMG_7722 20141025-IMG_7731And so, once again, I was reminded of the wonderful varieties of America. I spend so much time dreaming of and traveling to far off places in the world, when really there are arguably just as many interesting sub-cultures and regional differences here at home. I really enjoy these moments, when I can appreciate the “fabric of America,” as cheesy as that sounds, and where I can start to daydream about other trips I want to take: to the South, to New England, to the Southwest, to the Rockies, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest… the list goes on and on.

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