Surprise! Tank

A Magic 3D Moment in the Desert

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THERE I WAS, on a first exploratory trek to the northern extreme of Towers of Uncertainty. Fifth of March, 2014, about a mile from the main rock-climbing formations. On hindsight, I should have known that the three large water puddles I had to drive through to reach Geology Tour Road Stop #2 indicated a great deal of rain in the area recently. In fact, Los Angeles had been drenched with five inches of rain the weekend before (Feb 28 to Mar 2). I had hoped to see Barker Dam full to the brim, but was disappointed. Still early morning, I went across the road from Barker to “do” The Comic Book area of monstrous White Tank rock-climbing formations jutting out of a hillside. That done, I set my goal on Towers-North, having completed Towers-South, and trudged up some of the hill country nearby on three previous excursions into Uncertainty.ToU 20140305 3DA 0184

Passing the large water/mud puddle on the road, I parked the Acura in one of the six spaces available—there were no other cars there. It was noon. I ate half of my lunch and munched on an apple on the way out to the area six-tenths of a mile from the car park.

Joshua Tree National Park’s riding and hiking trail passes through this vicinity. I could have taken that well-beaten path, but it angles away from the Towers-North to a point where I’d have to cross back 500 yards to my destination. Instead, I went directly for it, wending my way through the usual plethora of Joshuas, yuccas (the yuccas diasppear when you get to the basin with the North Uncertainty formations for some reason). There were little piles of hedgehog cacti, and close attention had to be paid to where I was stepping in order to miss an occasional little pincushion cactus. They are everywhere and I didn’t want to step on any.

The photographs that make up the previous Gallery include the eastern edge of the North Towers, where there are some beautiful nolinas growing among the short pinnacles and spires. Having completed photographing this pretty area by about 1:30 in the afternoon, I was backing up toward the western end of the triangular-shaped area. Why backing up? Because the really photogenic pinnacle clumps are to the east and simply had to be shot again and again as I withdrew from them.

The last photos I took of the little steeples were where my attention was focused, before I turned around to find I had almost waded into a pool of water.

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At once, I realized this must indicate a dam in the area (called a “Tank” in the cowboy days of the park when they were built between the 1890s and 1940s to water their horses and herds). Sure enough, there it was blocking the end of the rocky wash. And what a picturesque discovery!

If you think that the first 20 or so photographs to follow have a pinkish tint to them, this is because a wispy cloud was obscuring the sun slightly. Soon, however, the blue sky returned and the colors and contrast between the water and monzogranite came out in all their glory.

The best thing, besides the full dam, is the picturesque 4-foot-tall Joshua Tree growing in a gravelly platform within the rocks. This size Joshua suggests about 30 years old. A mere adolescent in their world, where the older ones can live several hundred years, no one knows how long. And they aren’t telling (due to shyness). I used this one several times to frame the scenes. In 3D (and abusing the pun), it rocks!

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Knowing I had found something special, I took as many photographs as I thought were needed. In JTNP, such a find might be once-in-a-lifetime. The typical dams around the park are bone dry most days. When they do fill—the ones that aren’t falling apart or lined with cracks that is—the dry air and hot baking sun, evaporates them in no time.

When I emailed a photograph of this little Tank to my friend E! (Cali49) to tease him with what I had found, he started researching his historical papers to see if it has a name. Turns out, at least so far as he can discover—even asking a few of the more senior Park staff at the visitor center—that it is unlisted. We decided to call it Surprise Tank. Or, in keeping with E!’s locutionary nomenclature, I decided to include the exclamation mark: Surprise! Tank. If anyone disagrees, he is free to go bury his head in a rattlesnake-infested hole somewhere.

In all, I shot over 80 pictures and four or five short videos of it. The air was dead calm. No ripples. Only glassy, glossy, mirror-like sheen.

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3D Anaglyph Gallery

(Click images to enlarge. 1080p resolution. Or Windows users, right-click and choose SAVE LINK AS). 3D Anaglyph Slideshow follows.


3D Anaglyph Slideshow


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3D Half Side-by-Side Gallery

(Suitable for 3D TV viewing. Half Side-by-Sides avoid the minor Anaglyph anomalies that can occur. Click images to enlarge. 1080p resolution. Or Windows users, right-click and choose SAVE LINK AS. Also, I have made slideshows of the Towers of Uncertainty North-South-Hills in H-SBS MP4 1080p format for 3D TVs.)



A fascinating adventure into a little-explored area down Geology Tour Road. This small rancher’s dam is about 500 yards from the Riding and Hiking Trail. The closest approach is to park to Stop 2 on the Tour Road, where there is a backcountry board, and hike west to the visible rocky formations.

John Murbach

Temple City, California

Posted 2014 Oct 4

Updated 2017 Nov 11

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