Author Archives: rkchurchill

About rkchurchill

I am a freelance photojournalist working in Sin City. I live to photograph the weird & wacky, and believe me, there is plenty in this town. You can see samples of my daily work for national newspapers, wire services and commercial clients at: www.rondachurchill.com or by simply typing my name in a search engine. Page views, reposts and comments are always welcomed and appreciated. Thank you for viewing my slice of images that made the cut.

Day 1 in Nevada

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Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Nev, center, is swarmed by the news media while making the first purchase of the morning at The Reef Dispensary.

My dashboard clock displayed 2:10 a.m., and I was stuck in a McDonald’s drive-thru sandwiched between a truck and a car, with shrubbery to my right. I looked to the intercom, where a voice minutes earlier had asked me to “please hold,” and I stared in a tired trance at a hand-written sign taped to it that read: The ONLY sauces we have are: ketchup, mustard and spicy mustard. ONLY.

I wanted to scream. I still had one dispensary left to photograph for my Day 1 coverage assignment for Leafly.com, one of my favorite freelance clients to work for these days. Legal recreational marijuana sales for adults age 21 and over in Nevada had begun at midnight.

After I languished 20 minutes in the drive-thru, an exhausted looking manager finally handed me my Happy Meal and giant cup of water (they were sold out of bottled water, too) with a sigh and a “thank you for being patient.” I thought that it was appropriate that the only place open at 2 a.m. near the dispensaries was short-handed and out of everything.

Hours earlier, I had started my evening at Essence Cannabis, the only dispensary that has a Las Vegas Strip address. There I found a growing line of excited individuals and loads of fellow journalists. I quickly got to work photographing the line outside, then went inside behind the counter to get close-ups of the goods: strains of marijuana in vials that resembled blood-collection tubes; square “sniff jars” – containers that let customers inspect samples at an intimate olfactory level; edibles in the form of cookies and gummies; and even colorful, swirly smoking pipes.

When I tried to leave Essence, my car was blocked by a delivery truck. It felt as though everyone in Las Vegas was right where I was at that exact moment. Eventually, I was able to move on to my next stop: Reef Dispensary.

At Reef, the vibe was quite different. I found myself in the center of a giant party. Characters passed me wearing neon clothes and wildly colored hair while Average Joe types scuffled about in their jeans and sneakers, maneuvering the crowded space, making way for disabled patrons. In addition to a hefty line, there were food trucks, weed-related sponsors with merchandise, and a large, rotating spotlight that screamed for miles: “This is the place to be!”

It was close to midnight, and media chaos ensued. I was trying to stay near the front door and state Sen. Tick Segerblom, whom I needed to photograph, when an unannounced firework show exploded in the dark sky. Of course it did. This beautiful firework shot would be best captured from across the street.

I made a quick decision to skip the firework photo I envisioned and stay close to the senator. Immediately after the fireworks ended, security ushered me and some 25 other members of the media through the door so we could capture the first marijuana purchase of the morning, by the senator. Did I mention Southern Nevada is a pretty cool place to live?

Having calculated carefully in advance, I knew I had roughly 30 minutes to get everything I needed inside the dispensary – shots of the senator, scene setters and a couple interview shots – before I had to edit for my 1:30 a.m. deadline.

I left Reef on schedule and decided that editing photos in my car in a shady, industrial area at 12:30 a.m. was not a good idea. I quickly drove to the nearest open place to set up shop, which happened to be the luxurious Palace State hotel-casino. Google it.

I scurried through the familiar casino to find an area I knew might have an open table and a sandwich shop where I could grab some much-needed water. The tables were there – full; the sandwich shop was there – empty and closed. I was more than disappointed, but then saw I that the nearby Sportsbook was deserted on the one side that contained rows of tables where, during the day, older gentlemen would sit with cigars and scorecards watching the ponies on TV.

I edited marijuana photos, undisturbed, for an hour next to another late-night worker at his computer. It was as good an office as I could have asked for, albeit I longed for a giant glass of water – or something stronger.

After I was content that my initial deadline was fulfilled, I drove from the casino to the Golden Arches across the street, blissfully unaware that I was about to be stranded in drive-thru limbo.

When I finally, graciously accepted my Happy Meal from Mr. Nice Manager, I chugged the entire cup of water, then stuffed a few fries into my mouth as I drove to Oasis, the last dispensary on my list. I sat in the dark parking lot eating nuggets until 2:45 a.m. Leafly needed my entire submits toned and captioned by 6 a.m., so I gave myself a new deadline: Be home by 4 a.m., which left me about 45 minutes at this last destination to make magic happen.

Oasis Medical Cannabis had clearly been a party earlier in the night. Nude models wearing paint wandered around with beers; a taco cart was closing up shop; people were socializing in the spotlights that lit the dark area where a strong line of people waited to get into the dispensary at nearly 3 a.m. In the parking lot later, I ran into an artist friend of mine, who had been painting at the party earlier in the evening. He had a gorgeous body-painted model with him, who was doing all sorts of acrobatics near a spotlight.

I made my way to security and into the dispensary. A first room held an abundance of people who had their ID’s checked and were waiting to get into The Coveted Room, a larger space that had bud specialists and product, where orders were placed on iPads. A waiting area with ATM branched off that room, where customers patiently waited for their orders to be filled. The whole process was a waiting room inside a bigger waiting room with a long waiting line outside. I have never seen so many people jammed into one space, except for perhaps at any Las Vegas branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Oasis’ customers were superbly more calm and friendly than any person I have ever encountered at the DMV. By the time I finished my shots – including some frames of my artist friend and his companion, it was nearing 4 a.m. I still had to do my final edits.

At home, I wearily completed my work. Sunrise was lighting the room as I crawled into bed to snuggle up to my snoozing husband at 5:30 a.m. – a half-hour before deadline.

Life, and news, kept happening. By the time my images were published, my invoice was sent in (including that McDonald’s meal as a write-off) and the valley was embracing its new law, Las Vegas was running out of pot. And during the first week marijuana was legal, The Reef (my second stop), suffered a brief fire caused by static electricity.

When I had accepted the assignment, I was concerned that I would not be able to edit and think clearly in the smoke- and aroma- filled early morning hours because I do not smoke marijuana. My editor, who also doesn’t smoke, assured me that I would be OK. “You’ll be fine. Oh, you’ll definitely smell like it, but you’ll be fine,” I recall her telling me. Her words were true. My car and camera pouches smelled of the sweet Mary Jane for a good time after. We had rain the other day, and I swear the humidity reignited it all again.

Whatever expectations a journalist has before going into an assignment, they are usually wrong. Day 1 wasn’t what I expected at all; it was much more. It was a great night’s work, an experience I will never forget. Also, if my future children have questions about marijuana, I am sure to have a story to tell.

 

* for story in Leafly: https://www.leafly.com/news/politics/las-vegas-live-coverage-nevadas-adult-use-cannabis-debut

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Patrons wait in line shortly before the doors open at midnight at Essence Cannabis Dispensary on the Strip.

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Laura Davidson, who wears body paint, poses near a mural, both painted by artist Dray during a Day One party at Oasis Medical Cannabis.

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Dawn Weir, center left, interviews customer Candace Foshee, center right, on a cell phone for a cannabis-themed radio show while customers wait in line behind them at The Reef Dispensary.

 

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Customers wait for their orders to be filled at Oasis Medical Cannabis.

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Patrons waiting in line take and share personal photographs and video on their cell phones of a firework display at to The Reef Dispensary moments before doors open at midnight.

Little Jimmy’s Legos

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Legos soak in a soapy bath. (left). My bare feet touch damp, clean Legos that are set out to dry on beach towels. (right). All Images iphone.

My husband returned from North Carolina with three pillowcases full of his childhood prized possession: his Legos. He had been at his parent’s house on the East Coast for the past weekend helping them clean and organize 40 some years of their past when the toys were found.

James, my in-laws’ little neighbor boy that shares the same name as my husband and is drawn to him because of that fact among others, was present when the cardboard box containing the plastic loot was found; he was as excited as the adult James, when the Legos were uncovered.

Alas, the tiny jewels made their 2,500-mile trek on Southwest Airlines from the cozy North Carolinian home nestled in 47 acres to my city house in Las Vegas.

My husband Jim’s face lit with excitement as he pulled each pillowcase from his suitcase, holding one hand at the top and another at the bottom cradling the weight of the loot. Each bag could have been carrying solid gold pirate coins.

As fantastic as his bounty was, we did not have anyone to play with them.

Also, the collection, which was originally handed down to my husband from his cousin in a similar sack, was in a desperate need of a proper rinse. Grass, spider webs and lint had jumped in with the toys throughout the years while they were stored in North Carolina.

The cloth sacks remained in my garage for nearly a month. I purposely left them where they could be seen because I wanted to complete the task in a timely manner. I’m a tidy person, and I like to keep things organized.

The calm, quiet and relaxing day, today, was as good a day as any to clean.

I started with grabbing eco-friendly soap, a giant tub, a colander, several beach towels, and the sacks of treasured Legos, of course. I went out back by the pool and dumped a sack into the big tub adding soap and water from the hose. I upped the pressure on the hose and giggled as the water sprayed out onto my bare legs, and the littlest of Legos–the one-section bricks, Lego people heads, small weapons and the like– floated to the top first.

I started taking photos with my iphone because I am a photojournalist, and the fun continued.

After I had a full bath of Legos submerged in suds, I slowly poured them out into my biggest colander, dumping all of the sudsy water in the process and rescuing the jumpers back to the bowl. I returned the Legos to the wash basin, and added water a second time for a proper rinse. For this rinse, I upped the pressure, and moved the running water from the hose in a clockwise action to mimic a spin cycle. Once the tub was full again, I strained the Legos a second time, shook out the water, and dumped them onto a towel, spreading them out to dry. I repeated this processes several times with each bag of Legos.

After a good sweat and soaking later, my chore was complete. All 1 million of the plastic shards were as clean as skillfully possible. Okay, I did not count the loose Legos. Who does that?

Currently, the little guys are baking in the warm sun with a heavy towel over them to prevent any from getting up and walking away in the light breeze.

What started out as a task I wasn’t looking forward to, ended with great joy. Even though I wasn’t building sky scrapers or castles, I was letting the Legos swim; I inspected individual pieces, I broke apart structures that my husband’s little hands had created long ago, and I was getting that warm and fuzzy feeling in my tummy thinking of my husband, little Jimmy, growing up in an awesome and loving home.

I think every adult day should start off this way. This morning I played with Legos.

* I dedicate this post to O’s and S’s mommies, respectively, and to all the mommies out there who are trying so desperately to become one.

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A Lego is shown in the colander. (left). Legos receive a spray during their “spin cyle”. (right).

Like-new Legos in their old configurations.

 

 

 

Creepy Cuba

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4.30.17 Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon

There are two types of people in this world: believers and non-believers; I am a believer. I am a believer of spirits and the paranormal.

I think a lot people are skeptical until they have an experience that catapults them into the believer category. I was converted a long time ago, but today on this rainy and dreary day in Las Vegas, I will tell you my most recent story that has kept me firmly checking the believer box.

Last week, I visited Havana, Cuba, for a work trip. I have been slowly going through some 3,500 images I shot while also working for clients and visiting with family in town. One of the days I eagerly anticipated editing was the day I visited Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon.

Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon is a massive cemetery in Havana and is the largest in the Americas spanning 140 acres. It was founded in 1846 and is world renowned.

Any time I visit another country or US region, I love to walk in their local cemetery. I feel that cemeteries offer a candid glimpse of how people live today. So much culture can be seen in cemeteries and the living need not be present to see it. You only need to be there.

On the particular day I visited Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon, the humidity was a stifling 80-90% on top of a nearly 80-degree temperature. In fact, most of my days in Cuba were of this awful recipe. I do not fare well in humidity, and every day, I took a “siesta” that included going back to my room, having a cold shower, and resting. This day, I was determined to power through my siesta because of my schedule. I shouldn’t have for I did not feel well.

The expansive cemetery contained aboveground graves topped with concrete slabs. There were also many large mausoleums housing wealthy families’ remains. I recall one point where I was photographing near a statue of a mother. People had walked up behind me and started chanting and clanking the rings on the concrete slabs. Their actions bore right into me, and I staggered backwards. I nearly passed out right then and immediately stumbled to the nearest tree for shade.

When researching for this blog, I discovered I was at the tomb of Amelia Goyri, who is known as La Milagrosa (The Miraculous One) and died in 1901 while giving birth. A marble statue adorning a cross, woman and baby in arms marks her grave. Her body was exhumed years after her death and was uncorrupted, which is a sign of sanctity in the Catholic faith. Her baby, who was buried at her feet, was allegedly found in her arms upon exhumation. For this reason, her grave has become a pilgrimage site of sorts for those who are hopeless and have special requests. I almost passed out at her grave while photographing the shrine around it.

But this isn’t the story I came here to write.

Due to not feeling well, considering I almost fainted two times before I left the cemetery (this is for sure a record for me in all of the hot and humid places I have documented in my 18 years of being a photojournalist), I do not have many photos from the cemetery. In fact, I only stayed about an hour and hoped to return.

That evening, I was talking with a new friend about my time in the sacred place. I retrieved my camera to scroll through a few photos and to ask him a question about a grave and that is when I saw it. There wedged between street photography and headstone shots, were a handful of black frames. What I found so odd was and had me slightly panicking was that the back of my camera had suddenly appeared dead on those  black frames.

To elaborate, I have my gear set up that when I am reviewing photos, I can see the file number, exposure and sequence. An example of such is “1/2025” (photo shot 1 of 2,025). When I came to the black frames, I did not see any camera data.

I was so worried that the camera card was corrupted (ruined card and lost photos) that I took it out of the camera at that moment, stowed it, and grabbed a new card.

But this is where it gets even weirder.

Not only did these frames not show any camera data on the back of my camera in the review mode, but also they were actually exposed in the same exposure as the images that appeared right after them. (I only had changed the ISO from 400 to 250). So, I had shot images outside with the same f-stop, shutter speed and similar film speed as the frames after them, but they came out black. How is this possible? By the way, if you are outside and expose too much, you would get a practically white frame, not black. And no, I do not own a lens cap.

And then as I looked through more of my take, it happened again both times only at the cemetery, and then the rest of the day’s images were fine. I am missing most of my cemetery take because of this.

When I open the image in photoshop, I can not pull anything out of the frame when using curves or levels. I find this very odd too.

Camera mishap is actually not the first time something has happened with my gear while visiting a somewhat eerie place, but I won’t launch into that story now. In fact, you can read about it here: http://dailyegyptian.com/31215/archives/devil_10-9_cm-death-by-a-broken-heart/

In the end, I was not able to return to Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon due to time constraints. I know that I will return to Cuba in the future, and when I do, I will be visiting the cemetery again and brining a newfound respect.

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Contact sheet from 4.30.17. Street photography images prior to shooting at Neópolis Cristóbal Cólon, which starts with blank frames.

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Camera data for back-to-back photos black frame (top) and statue shot (bottom). Exposure in blue.

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Offerings for Amelia Goyri, “The Miraculous One.” Here is where I nearly fell to the ground from heat.

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A mausoleum I was intrigued with. Note see the three graves were broken into.

Children of Fremont

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Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas is home to historic casinos and is littered with personality. It is a magnet for street performers, otherwise known as buskers, who make their living on the 1,500-ft. stretch of heavily trampled upon road that is restricted to pedestrian traffic.

Every time I find myself in the popular area, I am intrigued by the youngest of tourists that make their way through my fair town and wonder what sort of questions they may have about what they see. How do they process it all? What do their parents think? Why are they up at this hour; and did they recently get off an overseas flight and are hardwired for another time zone? My questions are endless.

One thing is certain: the youngest pair of eyes is guaranteed to see it all on any given evening in Sin City. What this means for the child, I do not know. Do we ever quite know?

Gift Shop Opt

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An Asian woman was walking with a small group in front of me near the Strip last week.

Immediately, I noticed her outfit. We all did. She was quite literally a walking advertisement for my town topped with a rhinestone USA hat. Head-to-toe she wore bright colors, patterns and sequins. Her personality matched her outfit. She was bedazzled.

I stopped her and attempted light conversation while we approached a crosswalk. There was clearly a language barrier, and she ushered over her friend to help us communicate. I discovered the fashionista on Paradise Road was from China. She gestured that her entire ensemble was from the nearby gift shop. I gave her a warm smile and in exchange, she let me take her photograph.

Something about this cheery and kind tourist stood out: She was so happy and excited to be here that she bought an entire outfit proclaiming it.

I found myself wishing I felt more like this woman. I wish I could bottle her energy and happiness and drink it. I wish I could go around and give my new Bottled Happy Tourist to grumpy people I encounter in my city constantly: road-raged divers, rude customers, bitter coworkers, and the list goes on.

We parted ways at the crosswalk, and I found my car.

As I type this blog, I can’t help but think what if the woman and I were to swap places and I was a tourist in China. Would I find something fun and crazy in a shop to wear? I doubt there would be a Chinese version of this. Would natives think what I was wearing was different or silly? Would I know that they thought I was different and silly? Would someone be writing a blog about me?

I suppose I would find a traditional Qi Pao, a Chinese silk robe with patterns and piping lining the seams. Something tells me that wearing one wouldn’t have the same effect on the streets in China as wearing the outfit in this photo does in the US. However, I am 5’7″ and clearly not Asian, so perhaps I would cause a stir at a crosswalk.

Well that settles it. I need to visit China.

Thank you to the woman in this photo. You brought cheer to my day  today and to the day I shot the photo– a day I had been walking around for hours toting gear. I can only hope that one day you will stumble across my blog, and I can send you a print. Wouldn’t that be a gem?!

Bling Bling Icing

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Acrylic rhinestones and faux gold embellishments are shown in a case.

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Colorful boas (left) and felt squares (right) are displayed.

It is the perfect stop for all things fun and pretend. The moment you walk through the door and round the corner by the counter, adult worries and everyday life are replaced by the endless possibilities of a child’s fantasy. Creativity comes to life with each touch of a feather, each glimpse of fabrics and trimmings and every peek into case after case of tiny jewels.

Want to be a pirate? Done. Want to be a king? Done, done. Want to be a showgirl? Absolutely done!

Williams Costume Company is the treasure chest; what will be your booty?

If crafting is not a strong point, there is also an entire apartment-sized room stocked with multi-piece and custom-made costumes ready for rent.

The store, which has been a neighborhood anchor for 60 years, receives customers of all kinds. A clerk told me that “anybody and everybody that has a creative side” are clientele. Customers include: theater people; costume and clothing designers; street performers; crafters; jewelry makers and students.

On a rainy Saturday a couple hours before closing, my sisters, husband and I were lost in the store calling out to one another rows apart to come see what we had found in our corn maze of creativity.

With my iPhone only, I started to document my discoveries; I hope you enjoy this little gallery of treasures.

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Miscellaneous metal and acrylic notions are displayed in a case.

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A showgirl headdress, masks (left) and wigs (right) are shown.

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Colorful chains (left) of different sizes available for custom length is shown, Sister Michelle (right) poses for personal photograph with Marilyn Monroe next to funky Elvis painted on store exterior.

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Feminine fancies are displayed in a case.

The Journey

 

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A man explores the mineral-deposited land at a hot springs in Tecopa, Calif. The small town, although without a stoplight or cell service, is home to many hot springs and draws throngs of tourists each year.

It started with a toothache.

I woke up and went to the dentist to discover that I needed a load of work done. I was in a lot of pain and swapped a 30-minute appointed for two hours in the chair–with a $2,000 price tag.

I was anxious to leave. I had a two-hour drive for an assignment in a tiny desert town that did not even have cell phone service.

With no time to lose, I left with a partially numb mouth and loads of worry. I have a dozen outstanding invoices due to me, some of which are late; and I must mention that one of my biggest clients laid me off without notice, because of budget constraints, the week of Thanksgiving. However, the worry was dissipating and soon replaced with excitement the farther I drove away from Las Vegas.

I truly enjoy any assignment that takes me to a new place, and photographing a widow of a cannabis legend in the town of Tecopa, Calif. population: 150 is no exception.

Also, the long drive allowed me to stop and explore. As a photojournalist, every drive I do seems to take longer because of this little fact.

I met my source in Tecopa without a minute to spare. Although the shoot, at times, was very challenging, she was extremely pleasant and cooperative, dubbing herself “an old hippie and a stoner.” All in all, I made some beautiful frames that I will have to share in a future post since they are embargoed until then.

On the way out of town, I noticed to my right a photo coming into frame while driving. The scene before me looked like it could have been on another continent. The land was dramatic; the sun was beginning to set; the clouds were particularly amazing; and there was a nice wind playing with a man’s bright red robe. Excitedly, I pulled the car over for about the 10th time, jumped out while the car was idling in park, and grabbed my gear.

After shooting for a while, I decided to take the long route home that would have me exiting through another desert town called Pahrump, where I happened upon a wonderful scene. The sky had only become richer since I had left Tecopa 30 minutes from my previous stop-car-get-out-shoot adventure.

I pulled over abruptly dodging dicey construction traffic and captured what looked like God himself lighting a sign just for me. I am not religious, but I know a good photo when I see one. I know an even better photo when I see the juxtaposition of a divine message with a racy town in the background.

Perhaps my story has taken a bit of a detour.

By the time I made it home, I had 632 frames between two camera bodies–and one giant toothache.

The next day started with more dental woes, and I found myself sitting in the exact same chair I had been in 24 hours earlier. I was the victim of probing and prodding yet again. Once we were through, the doctor reminded me that he wanted to show me his photo studio. Thankfully, we hadn’t had time yesterday.

“Come here, I want to show you something,” he said, excited.

See, I met Dr. W in a professional setting years before meeting him as a patient. He was very interested in my photo equipment then. I recall that I wanted to do my job as opposed to doing what I like to call “talking shop.”

I got out of the chair and followed him into a back room which he had completely converted it into a fully functioning photo studio equipped with an entire B&H catalog’s worth of equipment and the latest, greatest Apple products. He proceeded to excitedly show me x and y and z and followed the whole thing up with a quick little photo slideshow on a TV screen larger than the one I have in my living room. The slideshow featured patients he had photographed, concentrating on the dental work he has done, close-ups of teeth and such. There were a few frames with subjects wearing flowers and holding food.

While earlier I had tried to be polite and engage in tech-talk, I finally offered a suggestion of using a hair light on one of the subjects. He quickly dismissed me; I could tell he was not really listening. This show-and-tell was clearly more about him and less about my input and our conversation.

Dr. W is a really skilled dentist. My husband and I would not be going to him if he weren’t. Heck, he was the only one to finally give me a proper diagnosis after years of walking through other dentists’ doors. I am very thankful for that.

However, Dr. W is not a photographer. It is clear that he has had no formal training. His portraits that he displays proudly in his office lack any emotion. The horizon line is constantly tilted, and the lighting is wrong. Also, I noticed that every woman he showed in his 5-minute slideshow presentation had bare shoulders and arms, as opposed to the shots of men wearing collared shirts. Did he read somewhere in a handbook that putting a woman in a tube top (I hopefully presume) to create the illusion that she was topless or bare was good? Or professional? These are patients.

I left his office for a second day in a row feeling sore and a bit depressed. The entire time I was checking out Doc’s Photo Studio, I had wished that I had half of his studio set-up in my own office. I remembered those outstanding invoices and the other half of the $2,000 I still owed him for my dental work. Life is so ironic like that, isn’t it?

But then something happened. My editor from my Tecopa assignment returned my call while I was making the 10-mile drive home. After discussing some specifics about photo distribution, I filled her in on my pervious day and experience with the widow. I told her about the funny hiccups we had, quite frankly things I would expect to encounter with a woman who had been smoking marijuana nonstop all her life, and my editor and I laughed. She told me, “It looks like you really tapped into your reporting skills,”

That stuck.

I may not have all the studio equipment that I desire or the newest MacBook Pro, but my older, updated one is doing just fine for now as I type this blog post. Also, my very first camera, my father’s hand-me-down Minolta, worked just fine for me back then as well. I even won a few awards with frames that I shot on that old film beast.

In the end, I would not trade any of my photo experience for any amount of gear or money; I am already a very wealthy person. What started with a toothache, ended with humble comfort.

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A family walks along the path to a hot springs easily accessible by the main road.

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Pahrump advertises: Jesus (foreground) and Alien Fireworks (background)

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Tecopa, California.

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A man practices tai chi on the top of a high dune covered in minerals in Tecopa.

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A rusted water container is marked “FIRE WATER” at Charleston View on the boarder of California and Nevada.

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A man dressed in an orange wrap explores near a hot springs in Tecopa. He was one of several in a similarly-dressed party. I attempted to converse with them to see if they were Buddha or Hare Krishna, but there was a language barrier. A member in his party was from Thailand.