Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


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Barker Dam

My last post on Joshua Tree is from Barker Dam, aka Big Horn Dam. The park is a desert, but it received more rainfall a hundred years ago and homesteaders tried raising cattle there. A couple of ranchers in the area made a seasonal reservoir, first a rancher named Barker in the early 1900’s, then William Keys fifty years later. Personally, I thought it was a little weird to see this empty reservoir and rather jury-rigged dam in the middle of the desert. Keys was the kind of guy who would kill someone in a dispute and then make a stone marker to commemorate/brag about it afterwards, and some of that character (or lack thereof) shows in the design and craftsmanship of the dam. But the birds seem to like it and the visuals are interesting and it’s a stone structure on the national register of historic places, so here it is.

The reservoir was done in a couple of phases; the bottom nine feet are faced with rock and the upper six feet of concrete were added by Keys in 1950. He made a sign in a smear of concrete to commemorate/brag about this too.

The concrete had rock dumped in between the forms to save money. You can actually make a pretty nice wall this way if you place the rock a little more carefully and scrub more concrete off the faces off after you take away the forms.

Behind the dam there’s an interesting pattern of bathtub rings. Apparently the reservoir still fills to the top, flooding twenty acres during the wettest time of year.

There’s a second, lower dam below the main one, full of cattails living off the seepage.

And a cattle trough below the second dam. All in all, a funky little area.

Altun Ha Mayan Ruins

Altun Ha

Hmmm, I meant to post this sooner. Our Belize vacation already feels like it was a long time ago. As I mentioned just after we got back, we spent most of our Belize vacation on a small island, hanging out, sometimes snorkeling but mostly just sitting in a hammock. At the end of our trip we did one true sightseeing thing, we went to the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha.

Anita and I have both been to Mayan ruins before, but not for about ten years. Altun Ha is a good one. The entire site is about 25 square miles, mostly focused around two main plazas that are cleared and excavated, with pyramids as tall as the trees. The name means Stone Water or Rockstone Pond, named for the limestone wells. It was settled around 250 BC, with the first buildings going up around 100 AD. The population got up to 10,000 people at it height; it was abandoned around the 10th century. Now there’s just forest around it and it would be hard to imagine a lot of people ever living there if it weren’t for the big stone pyramids.

The Other, Adjacent Plaza

Mayan ruins are great, and I of course was interested in the stonework. Each building was built over about a one hundred year period, sometimes directly on top of previous buildings. During the Mayan times the stone would have also been covered with stucco and painted.

More detail photos than anyone really needs to see are below. (more…)

Stern Grove

Stern Grove

View from the Stage, click to enlarge

‘I wanted it to have the feeling of being in one of the great Greek amphitheaters,’ Lawrence Halprin

Last month I went to Stern Grove and took some photos. I’d been there during concerts, but I wanted to check it out without all the crowds. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a great space, with awesome stonework, and worth visiting even when there isn’t a concert happening. I wasn’t expecting to see anyone there, but an impressive number of people passed through the space, even though it was a rainy Sunday morning. I’d always thought of it as a theatre, but it also works quite nicely as a park.

View from the West

The Grove has been a park and concert space since the 1930’s, but the stonework is all from about 5 years ago when Lawrence Halprin led a big renovation. Before the renovation it was just a natural amphitheater, and everyone would slowly slide downhill while they listened to music. Halprin terraced the slope and turned it into a proper Greek theater. My first impression of him when I started to learn about his work was that he tended to just make things up, but the design at the Grove is actually quite true to the style of the Greeks, with appropriate stonework and other detailing. Even the plan, which is rather free-form, is in keeping with the old Greeks’ appreciation for natural topography. From what I can tell, amphitheaters close to the center of the Greek empire tended to have a more regular form, while the ones built towards the fringes tended to be more irregular. Which makes the irregular form of this Greek amphitheater in San Francisco, 6500 miles from Greece, perfectly aligned with that tradition. One theater in particular, Thorikos, has a plan that reminds me of Stern Grove. (more…)

Crater Lake Lodge

Crater Lake

On the way back from Smith we stopped at Crater Lake National Park and hiked to the top of one of the little peaks on the crater. We also checked out the Crater Lake Lodge, which turned out to have an interesting history. It opened in 1915, and from the sound of things was always the source of complaints. It was at the end of dirt road a long ways from any town, and the site was much more extreme than Oregon contractors were used to in those days, so some corners were cut on the construction and it was never completely finished. Running the lodge was always a hassle; water, electricity, laundry, and staffing were difficult, and the structure itself was never sound. The stone walls were hollow and built on an ash base without a foundation, causing the floors and walls of the building to buckle and warp as the building settled.

In the late eighties the building was declared unsafe and the park service decided to tear it own to build a new lodge. But then the public objected. The park service reminded everyone that they had been complaining about the lodge since its opening and that no one had ever been happy with the building, but everyone replied back that they didn’t care, they wanted to save it. So the park service spent 4 years completely rebuilding it, taking it down to the ground and rebuilding it with a basement and a proper foundation, and rebar, wall ties, and a concrete core inside the stone walls. They numbered and stored all of the stones and then put each one back in the same place.

I can’t speak to the finances of it, but the renovated building is hugely popular. It was all full in late September, and they recommend making reservations a year in advance. I didn’t take my camera with me when Anita and I hiked to the top of the peak behind the lodge, but we both agreed that the lodge improved the view, creating a nice focal point on the circular rim around the lake.

They had information about the history of the lodge and a nice cross-section of the new walls.

Mission Loreto

Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó

Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó

Loreto has the most historic of the missions The mission, inscribed with the cool title of “Cabeza y Madre de todas las Misiones de la Alta y Baja California,” was the original headquarters for the Jesuit settlement of the Californias, and the starting point of the Camino Real, aka the California Mission Trail. Pretty much all of the early expeditions to the Californias passed through there.

Map on Wikimedia scanned from California from the Conquistadores to the Legends of Laguna

Map from: California from the Conquistadores to the Legends of Laguna

The mission was founded in 1697 and the stone building was built in 1740, but it has been modified, damaged, repaired, and renovated various times.

18th Century Drawing of the Mission

18th Century Drawing of the Mission, public domain

Mission Loreto in 1957

Mission Loreto in 1957


Mission Loreto 2010

Mission Loreto 2010

There’s an eclectic mix of stone on the mission. The front facade is quarried limestone, but I counted five different kinds of stone on the entire building, plus some bricks added during some repair jobs. The mix of bricks and stone is something I’ve seen on the mainland of Mexico, and, for large buildings, the effect is much nicer than I would have expected.

Basalt, Limestone, and Brick

Basalt, Limestone, and Brick

More photos of the mission are below.


Mission Mulegé


Misión Santa Rosalía de Mulegé

Misión Santa Rosalía de Mulegé was our favorite of the missions. The mission was founded in 1706; the building was completed in 1766. It’s set on a hill outside the main town of Mulegé, and it has more of a desert-outpost feel than the others we visited. Various photos are below. (more…)

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