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Stickers Move the Eastern Sierra: 395 degrees of revelations

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Since I joined the Taco team of Los Angeles reporters, I've gotten used to people staring at me in the streets of Los Angeles. "Why are you taking a picture of a pole? Everybody's looking at us." That's my very embarrassed niece complaining on a night out in Boyle Heights. "I'm not taking the picture of a pole, I'm taking the picture of a rabbit. I think he's a friend of ours."

A bus driver stopped for me once then told me he wasn't supposed to because this was a speed line. Why did he stop for me then? Because I was taking a picture of a newspaper vending machine. "No I wasn't. I was taking the picture of a man with a party hat and one with a gun."

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Neither my niece nor the bus driver were impressed. I wasn't surprised when I noticed tourists staring at me while I took picture after picture at a scenic vista point off of Highway 395. I knew what they were thinking. "Why are you taking a picture of this...

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instead of THIS...

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The Mono Craters in middleground. Do you see the resemblance?

I recently spent one week in the Owens Valley, home to the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I was driving North on Highway 14, nearing Highway 395, when the world became free of malls, brands, billboards, concrete. Unprepared for the sudden and radical change of scenery, I just lost my mind.

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Red Rock Canyon Park, Highway 14, then off to Highway 395...

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As soon as I reached Lone Pine and turned left on Mount Whitney Portal, I was overtaken by a disturbing combination of awe and fear. Being spiritual but not religious, I was shocked to have turned into a believer finally meeting its Maker.

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Mt. Whitney. 14,494 feet. Approximately 65 million years old.

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View from behind the motel where I stayed in Independence. Introducing Mt. Williamson. 14,370 ft. Extending for miles to his left and right were his brothers and sisters. See how microscopic the trees are in the foreground!

Standing at the foot of my Cretaceous cousins, I doubted my own significance as a member of a species whose life span is a mere 80 years. On a good day, I identified with ants. On a bad one, with specks of dust aimelessly floating about, or worse: sub-atomic particles.

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www.particleadventure.org

Once I reached my final destination for the week: the town of Lee Vining, "gateway to Yosemite and home to Mono Lake," it became clear to me the Mono Lake Gods, whose uniforms strikingly resemble the California park rangers', had many challenges in store for me. Wander around Black Point and find its 80 feet deep fissures. Once I reached the top I admit I didn't look hard for the fissures. I was terrified to look down and discover that the nuclear beast under my feet was awake. Hike the Lee Vining Creek trail and possibly encounter a bear (one was sighted at the post office the day before.) This one came with two sub-challenges from the Gods in khakis: Never approach a bear. Give it plenty of room to pass by. I was confident I and the rest of the sane world would meet this challenge. Try to demonstrate to the bear that you may be a danger to it. Make yourself appear larger, stand up, raise your arms. Yell at the bear. Since I died of a heart attack just picturing I may have to make eye contact with a bear without staring, I declared myself disqualified.

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Top of Black Point. Not as bucolic as it appears to be.

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View at the bottom.

Being in the proximity of mountains always gives me intense pleasure. They're my imaginary lovers: tall, strong, oozing that irresistible scent of manliness... and here to stay... until I studied geology and learned that the suckers are moving all the time!!! Forget about having "two feet planted firmly on the ground," the ground under our feet is in perpetual motion. Plate tectonics are constanly lurching towards each other and bumping and grinding dangerously. Too much foreplay in their cases is not good. It can trigger tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions of catastrophic proportions. In geologic time, nothing is here today that might be here tomorrow. Buddhism gets it right, you can't hold on to anything or anyone, not even yourself. Everything is alive and constantly shifting.

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Nature imitates Munch in the Alabama Hills.

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"The western margin of the metamorphic body was raised to the hornblende hornfest facies in response to the thermal aureole associated with the plutonic rocks to the west." Larie Kenneth Richardson, from his thesis on the Geology of the Alabama Hills.

Trekking known active craters like Panum and Black Point, I was reminded of the anguish I knew when, at 18, on a trip to Italy with my first love, I read Guy de Maupassant's "Le Horla" (click here for a translation.) In the short story by the 19th century French writer, the hero lives in a state of terror ever since he sensed the presence wherever he goes of something or someone who he believes is out to take control of his soul.

"How profound it is, this mystery of the Invisible. We cannot plumb its depths with our wretched senses, with our eyes that cannot perceive what is very small, or very large, or very close, or very far, or see the inhabitants of stars or those in a drop of water . . . Guy de Maupassant, Le Horla.

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Black Point from Mono Lake's Old Marina.

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In the background Negit aka the Black Island of Mono Lake.

It's not that I was afraid to be swallowed alive. Unlike certain members of my own species, volcanoes do not have premature eruptions, they can hold their molten lava for hundreds of years. When Panum and Negit are ready, thanks to sensor technology, they will give us plenty of warning.

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As frightened as I was, I marveled at the 360 degrees of natural splendor constantly surrounding me and was absolutely captivated by its diversity of shape, color and size. You can just browse through all the pictures in this story to experience it for yourself: the curvy ocre Alabama Hills, the spiky black granite of Mt. Whitney and the red stripes of the Red Rock Canyon. Thanks to my recent visits to the Natural History Museums in Washington D.C. and L.A. , and especially thanks to Ms. Frizzle & The Magic School Bus books, I can share with you that this diversity is the result of the intensity of the heat generated by the molten lava when it erupts, the speed at which it cools, the pressure exerted and millions of years of erosion from winds, deposits, rain and ice.

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Huge blocks of obsidian rocks can be found on Panum Crater.

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Volcanic bliss? I call them the Ying and Yang rocks.

Suddenly, one day, as I stopped at one more scenic vista point...

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I can't tell you how surprised and delirious I was to see... stickers! After days spent in the sole company of craters and rocks greeting me with "Hi! I'm 25 millions years old, how old are you?" stickers were messages of support from my own species reaffirming that I wasn't alone and my matter did matter. Like the Eastern Sierra mountain range, I too was the result of the magnetic attraction between two beings bumping and grinding against each other and the male's subsequent eruption. I too was shaped with valleys, curves and mounds, made of atoms, water and oxygen, bearer of life and of a consciousness unique to my kind.

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An ant, a speck of dust, a sub-atomic particle are links in the chain of life, each one fulfilling its own purpose to guarantee its survival. While researching the size of a sub-atomic particle for this story, I came upon a page called Ask A Scientist. Dr. Ken Mellendorf, Physics Instructor, replies to a size question by a second grader: "A quark has never demonstrated a measurable size. Like an electron, it is a "fundamental particle," one of the few particles from which all else is made."

Stickers were here to remind me of Man's own unique feature: our power of self-expression. The variety in voices, feelings, designs, tone, mood of these windows into human souls was just as valuable as the diversity in the landscape surrounding me. As I documented each one of them, I remembered the prehistoric sketches found on cave walls which I saw at the terrific Eastern California Museum in the town of Independence. In hundreds and thousands of years, stickers, stencils and graffiti art might be featured prominently in museums as the voice of the people of our time. In an urban landscape invaded by subliminal and not so subtle messages from news conglomerats and multi-national corporations, the blogosphere and art found on our city walls are the significant links in the survival of independent and critical thinking.

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"Ah! The vulture has eaten the dove; the wolf has eaten the sheep; the lion has devoured the buffalo with his sharp-pointed horns; man has killed the lion with arrow, spear, and gun; but the Horla is going to do to man just what we have done to the horse and to the cattle: he is going to use us as his property, his servant, and his food, simply by the power of his will. Woe to us." Guy de Maupassant, Le Horla.

Guy de Maupassant went mad in the early 1890's. I found on the internet a web page with an intruiguing interpretation of "Le Horla." Its unamed author believes that "Le Horla" expressed Maupassant's loss of control over his world, at a time when the industrial revolution was changing human life at incredible speed and magnified its potential for its own destruction.

The author also asks, "Do we fully understand the effects of the global publicity and media control over our individualized thoughts?" Since I've come back to L.A., I've been haunted by the anguish I sensed while discovering the Owens Valley. In 2004 I endured this discomfort in my soul while visiting New Orleans. Was I given an urgent message by Mother Earth to go back to my people and tell them to stop tampering with nature or be prepared for impending doom? I don't believe a Messiah complex runs in my family. Was my catastrophic fantasy the result of a mind subjected to our crisis oriented media?

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What was so terrifying? The nuclear power currently in madmen's hands? The nuclear power brewing at the very center of Mother Earth? What if it was my own power I feared?

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frankiely has a blog in cpyderspace

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