Riding the Big One

July 07, 2019  •  10 Comments

It’s 8:19 and Mary Ann and I are getting ready for the night’s shoot.  We are standing at the back of my Ford Expedition, checking our gear and going over the plan for the night.  Then the car starts to jiggle …

It’s July 5th and we are in the parking area beside Trona Pinnacles.  We are here to shoot the Milky Way and maybe catch some star trails.  Despite the magnitude 6.4 earthquake the previous day we made the 140-mile journey from Riverside to this desolate spot, stopping along the way for a light supper.  The crack in the road has been repaired and the journey is uneventful - well almost.  I did take a wrong turning off the highway and we sped several miles along dirt roads into the desert - whoops!

No harm, no foul - we backtracked and got onto the right path.  The “road”, if such it may be called, has deteriorated somewhat since my last visit.  With hindsight I really should have warned Mary Ann that I’m a skimmer - preferring to travel at 30 mph over the washboard than bounce around at 5mph on it.  That’s fine until I jump on the brakes to avoid a pothole or major rut.

After a white knuckle ride we arrive at the Pinnacles - truly a stunningly beautiful, if otherworldly, place.  I take Mary Ann on a tour as the sun dips slowly towards the horizon.  We’re lucky that it's a balmy 101 degrees, the sky is clear and there’s no wind to speak of.  That last will change, I warn her.

Mary Ann responded to my facebook post announcing my trip.  I’ve been planning this shot for 5 years and only have a very short window, on just one day, each year to take it - 15 minutes last year, 35 minutes this year.  I’ve even borrowed the amazing Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens for the occasion.

I remind Mary Ann, once more, that I’m here for one shot but after that I’m happy to help her get all the images she wants.  We’ve felt the odd little tremor already - yet another aftershock from the 6.4 quake on July 4th we think.  But this one felt different.


“Hmmm - that feels a little stronger than before” says I.  “Let’s step away from the car just in case”.  As we do so the shaking gets noticeably stronger and we back away further.  I run back to the car and shut the back just as the ground starts to move violently.

“Sit down - it’s safer” I shout to Mary Ann.  As she’s doing so a violent jolt rips her feet from under her and she’s on her back.  I manage to get down to the ground too and we sit/lie there watching as the earth moves beneath us.  The car is rocking and rolling 45 degrees on its suspension and I’m amazed it’s still upright.  To add to the excitement cracks are starting to appear in the ground all around us.  We’ve both watched too many movies and have visions of the earth opening up and swallowing us whole.

Slowly the shaking subsides a little and I check on Mary Ann.  Nothing broken and only her pride dented - we are lucky.  And still the shaking continues.  It starts to build again and we wonder just how much stronger it will get.  Slowly and fitfully the shaking subsides to a gentle murmur and we share a brief moment of silence.  Just as the shaking is dropping we see two enormous clouds of dust and debris - one at each end of the pinnacles.  It’s almost as if the giant stopped shaking us when he managed to topple some boulders.

“Wow - that was exciting!” I say - ever the joker.  We get to our feet and check for damage - Mary Ann first and then the gear.  I spot a couple of people in the distance - closer to the pinnacles - walking slowly back to their car.  I call out but no response.  I run over to check but they are fine, as is their son 100 yards behind them.  We share a few moments together as we ponder the magnitude of what just happened.  We’re far away from any cell reception so have no idea of the scale of the quake.  In truth, I still thought of it as another aftershock from the 6.4 the day before.

So … literally shaken but not stirred, we go back to prepping for the shoot.  A few minutes later we see another couple arrive and start pitching a tent.  She is a geologist who is in hog heaven.  “If that was on a different fault line and triggered by yesterdays quake this is a doctoral thesis in the making” she announces gleefully.  Don’t worry, she says, this is the safest place you can be.  Nothing to fall on us and not enough groundwater to worry about quicksand.  “Oh goodie,” I think to myself, unconvinced.

Emboldened by her words we decide to stay.  My only dilemma is whether to climb the pinnacle to my spot and take my shot.  In deference to the continued aftershocks I did bring my bike helmet just in case.  I waited until the very last minute before setting off for my climb.  It’s less than 100 feet and not too steep; however the surface is loose scree and it’s pretty dark by now.

At the top I find a spot to sit and a large rock to hold onto if we have another roller coaster ride.  No cracks around the rock that I can see so I set up.  The night is wonderful - under 100 degrees, wind less than 30 mph, crystal clear sky and minimal air-glow.  If only the ground would stay still it would be perfect.  As I sit and shoot I feel a series of gentle shakes and wonder, each time, if this is the big one.

After 35 nerve-wracking minutes the moon drops below the mountain and my window is closed.  I gather my gear and pick my way carefully back down.  Walking in total darkness, guided only by starlight so as not to spoil Mary Ann’s images, I make my way back to her.

For the rest of the evening we feel an almost constant wobble in the ground under us.  We are careful not to get too close to anything that might fall but still manage to capture some amazing images.  We close the night out with a 60-minute star trail - essentially set up the cameras, sit down and wait.  The gentle sounds of Erics Clapton and Satie help the time go by as we wait.  I even manage to get in a quick nap, albeit abruptly ended by a 4.6 aftershock at 1:32 AM.

We packed up for the evening and made our way, rather more slowly, back to the highway.  Only then did we start to appreciate the magnitude of what had happened.  Caltrans crews were hard at work to repair significant damage on the highway and we got stuck behind a convoy of 30+ maintenance vehicles as they worked their way down the road.  Kudos to the crews on the speed with which they repaired the road - we were truly impressed.  After a long drive I dropped Mary Ann off at home and we bade our farewells.  The next morning we both could still feel the earth moving - the same feeling you have coming ashore after a long boat ride.  My only regret - I didn’t even have my cellphone available to take a video.

I know we are both changed by the experience and truly humbled by the power of nature.  I heard a comment that the Pinnacles had been “irreparably damaged” by the quake.  I’m sorry but No they weren’t.  This was nature re-shaping nature with no intervention by man.  “Irreversibly changed - Yes”, “damaged” no.  This is evolution in its rawest form and we were privileged to watch and survive.

Trona Pinnacles has always been a special place for me but now it has a permanent place in my heart.  I’ll be going back next year (and many more I’m sure) to try and get an even better shot.  No OCD here :-P

I will be glad to share the image when it is done; however not before the PPA International Print Competition in August since I hope to enter it.

3/21/2020 - I realized that I never got around to sharing the image.  You can see it here:



Char Ham(non-registered)
(Mike Williams wife here). Although we moved to the Central Coast, I would like to go there again & hope by then get an AWD / 4-WD SUV.
Wow! I wish I’d been there. I don’t normally feel earthquakes but I dis feel that one. I was payong for my groceries at the supermarket when it hit. I wasn’t scared but I was glad I wasn’t in the grocery aisles. As a fellow photographer (hobby Only for me), Id love to see your images.
I totally agree that nature wasn’t damaged. Reshaped yes, damged no.
Jay Blake(non-registered)
Hey, Nick - Ditto what everybody else said!!!


Carmen Zenteno(non-registered)
What an amazing experience. Thank you for sharing. Great story. I felt like I was transported as I was reading. Can't wait to see the pictures. Glad you both made it back safe.
Lourdes Garrison(non-registered)
Thank You for sharing Nick.
You were in my thoughts and prayers the whole time you were gone. Glad to have you back and safe!
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