In 2004 I moved with my wife and two young daughters from the suburbs of Washington, DC to the California coast, taking a month to travel in a winding, zig-zag path. We had a plan—each of us had made of list of the things we most wanted to see and marked each point on a map of the United States to see if a route would naturally reveal itself. And it did. Only one or two places were fixed in time—Yellowstone, for example, because it was so difficult to get reservations there (we didn’t actually find an opening until we were a week or so away)—and so we traveled with a generous amount of freedom and flexibility, not only to arrive at our destinations whenever it worked best for us but also to stop and explore whenever something caught our interest.
Two of those spontaneous side trips stand out all these years later.
The first was a stop at the Brown vs. Board of Education Historical Site (part of the National Park Service) in Topeka, Kansas. I was familiar with the case and the history of the case from my constitutional law classes but my family was not. They later said, looking back at the end of the move to California, that the exhibit at that old school house was one of the highlights of the whole journey.
The other we discovered driving up I-395 through Owens Valley, on the East side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in California. We had crossed Death Valley the night before where the temperature hit 111 degrees well after dark, woke in the small town of Lone Pine to find myself standing in an Ansel Adams photo (Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, 1944), and were making our way up to Mono Lake and then into Yosemite, in the final days of our travels.
As we gazed around at the beautiful valley, with mountains on both sides, I saw a small brown sign go by—one of those six-by-eighteen-inch metal signs the National Park puts up—with the words “Obsidian Dome” on it. I had no idea, my wife had no idea, and so, when the likely left turn appeared I took it.
Obsidian Dome is one of a series of volcanic outgorgings of pumice and obsidian and I don’t know what else. An old road-path led up into it and we walked up, alone as we explored its weird, otherworldly jumble.
That place has always stuck in my mind and I’ve gone back once or twice, thinking I’d make photographs. But I never made any. Last Fall, I traveled down from Reno two hours south to Hawthorne, Nevada, planning on photographing nuclear weapons at the small but excellent Hawthorne Ordinance Museum. My daughter had come across the museum while doing geological research in the desert and knew right away I needed to go for my new nuclear weapons project. And so I went—and when I arrived one night I saw the paper note taped to the door saying that they would be closed the next day. So I extended my hotel stay and cast about for something to do—and then realized that I was only an hour and a half north of Obsidian Dome.
It was time to make those photographs.