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Saturday, December 17, 2016

YEAR FULL OF MEMORABLE, PICTURESQUE EXCURSIONS - The San Diego Union Tribune

ERNIE COWAN Outdoors

YEAR FULL OF MEMORABLE, PICTURESQUE EXCURSIONS


How could this year be anything but great when it began with a pilgrimage to Salvation Mountain and a side trip to East Jesus?

As regular readers will know, I usually offer a yearend report card of sorts of the outdoor activities I have shared and enjoyed throughout the year. This year was a good one.

The visit to Salvation Mountain wasn’t exactly a pilgrimage, but was actually a New Year’s Day trip to the Salton Sea and surrounding areas I often call “The Land of Odds.”

Some have suggested I
 might be the Wizard of Odds.Winter is peak time for migrating waterfowl and a great chance to see huge flocks of sandhill cranes, geese and ducks, along with views of resident hawks and burrowing owls in the wildlife preserves around the area. There are other attractions around Salton Sea that we wanted to share with friends, including the bubbling mud pots produced by deep underground geothermal wells. And in the empty desert east of the historic town of Niland on the east side of the Salton Sea, adventurers will discover Salvation Mountain and East Jesus. They are real places.

Salvation Mountain is a monument to a man of faith who was called to the wilderness to build a tribute to God. Using materials he could scrounge, hay bales, old tires, local adobe and donated paint, Leonard Knight labored in the desert sun to build his mountain.

Today a steady stream of visitors come to the remote location to marvel at this 50-foot tall creation that is brightly painted and topped with a huge white cross. The mountain is emblazoned with Biblical scriptures, a large heart and the word LOVE in huge letters.

Just beyond Salvation Mountain is East Jesus, founded by drifters, artists and a collection of unique individuals who generally
 wanted to escape conventional existence.

Over the years, the community has evolved into an art colony calling itself “an experimental, habitable, extensible artwork in progress since 2006.” The residents of East Jesus have created a tax-exempt charity to raise funds to purchase the land they occupy. The community is a living work of contemporary art and one of the most interesting venues in the Land of Odds.

As the year progressed, I hiked miles of trails, enjoyed turkey, dove and deer hunting seasons, opening day of trout season in the Eastern Sierra and a summer visit to the high country.

Spring brought visits to Borrego Valley where I joined other nature lovers to
 count migrating Swainson’s hawks. I marveled as the migrating birds rose from their nightly roosts and formed rotating kettles containing hundreds of the huge hawks.

In late spring I returned to a ghost town in the Huachuca Mountains of southeast Arizona that I first discovered nearly 50 years ago. Along the way, I photographed birds, wildlife and spectacular wildflowers in the big cactus desert of Saguaro National Park.

Some of my most memorable adventures happened in the summer desert when the hot sands are empty of tourists and the Milky Way glows brightly in the night sky. I enjoyed hours of solitary beauty in the desert wilderness while capturing meteors streaking through the starry sky, or photographing
 the curdled, naked badlands softly illuminated by the glow of a partial moon.

As late summer monsoons blew billowing thunderheads into our mountains, I found vantage points where I could capture the drama of lightning
 storms. When cooler temperatures returned to the desert, I enjoyed hikes to distant palm groves and encountered bighorn sheep, roadrunners, coveys of quail and resident black-tailed jackrabbits that are surprisingly large.

I hiked miles of trails at Torrey Pines State Reserve and watched several sunsets while capturing seascapes in the soft pastel light that lingers after the sun goes down.

To get a photograph for a column on mating tarantulas,
 I wandered the trails of Escondido’s Daley Ranch at sunset on several September evenings.

On the trails of Palomar Mountain State Park I shared a moment with a beautiful buck deer and enjoyed a trail lunch next to a scenic spot on Fry Creek while listening to the music of a gentle wind and tapping woodpeckers.

As fall temperatures began to chill higher elevations, I photographed migrating birds at an isolated spring, high in the Santa Rosa Mountains.

It’s been a good year in the outdoors, and I wish each of you more time and opportunity to enjoy these same things in the coming year.