Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Yellow Leaves

The cottonwoods down low by the creeks that cut the canyons linger; yellow, incandescing the cold water from the first snows on the mountains above, where the bare aspen branches knit and enfold tunnels of ice through the forest.  Snow rests on the north sides of each ridge where the receding late fall sun can no longer reach on the thousand lake mountain. The deer standing at the edge of a misty glade on the hard gray dirt wait for the fading of the last pale red light. Startled as I emerge into the clearing they retreat to the hollow dark of the trees, white tails bouncing through a cloud of hoof pitched snow. Fall is ending here.

I remember these same aspen trees, trembling golden leaves blotting and becoming saturated with early morning sun at the end of summer. They cast their light down to the forest floor and stirred up clouds of blowflies between their ashen trunks and the forest was filled with warmth and life and sound. The winds came over the evergreen peaks and winnowed the ephemeral golden canopy from acquiescent branches and the pale trunks became cold without its glow. Without the chattering leaves the mountain is silent until the early morning call of the cold coyote and the yipping replies of his companions as he assembles his pack somewhere beyond the empty dark below the blood red horizon.
The howls of the coyotes reach me as I shiver walking down the road just before the sunrise, under a grey sky creeping in from the west, checking my route over the rocky road ahead before driving on toward the cathedral valley.  Trickling streams of snow melt water have frozen across the road overnight and the tire packed snow on the slopes crunches under me as I walk down the road. Satisfied that I’ll be able to continue, I return to the warmth of my car and follow my planed path over the bowling ball sized rocks. The road turns left toward the valley and as I descend the junipers reemerge and the road starts to become sandy. Through a clearing I suddenly see the valley; a break in the clouds to the east lets the morning light through which comes to rest on the green juniper, pale sagebrush and the sinuous red folds of the cathedral spires standing isolated in the middle of the valley.
On the valley floor the locks of needle-and-thread grass etch concentric circles in the sand as their blades yield to the shifting wind that brings the clouds back. The clouds darken the temples of rock one at a time, first the temple of the moon, then the temple of the sun as the moon reemerges from the shade. The cold is descending from the mountains into the valley where it will follow the sandy bottom to the creeks in the canyons and the last glow of fall along their banks.


Subject to a sudden impulse I veer off the park road just past the empty fee booth in the early morning and bound down the White Rim Road; a 4x4 road that clambers over the rocks along the rim of the canyons of the Colorado and Green rivers near their confluence. The road is frequented by those fleets of Jeep Wrangler whose constant and noisy rumblings through Moab I so detest. I’d discussed this drive with one of my friends at Bryce and he said it would be impossible in my car. But I’m planning to just go 5 miles down the road to get a view of the canyon and make a sketch… 100 miles and two days later I came out on the other side.
As I finish my painting under the buttes and rim of the Island in the Sky a convoy of monster trucks pull up onto the rock on which I’m parked. I turn the key to start my car and get out of their way but the car only gives off half a beep before all the lights on the dashboard flicker and disappear. I’m about to try again when I notice the knob on the headlight wand is turned to “on”. Actually it’s set to that icon that looks like a bullet flying through the air but regardless it dawns on me that I’d left my lights on for the two hours I’d spent making the painting. I’d been debating with myself about going further on the road but as I pull out my jumper cables and sheepishly approach the hay bale sized tire of a ford I decide that this clinches it, I’m heading back to the main road.

As my car sputters back to life the driver of the monster truck asks which was I’m going. I point to the right towards the upper rim. I ask him the same thing and he says he’s just finished driving the full road and has to get back into town for work (I guess because tomorrow is SUNDAY-SUNDAY-SUNDAY!!!) I say “yehhhp” and disconnect the jumper cables, stow them under my bed and hop back into the car.  I bounce down the rock towards the dirt road and put my signal on to the right to let a coming truck know he could pass. I watch him pass and then turn to the left, deeper into the canyon.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve been down a dirt road and I have to relearn exactly what height of rock will whang the rod guarding the gas tank on the left and the exhaust assembly on the right. After a few scrapes I’ve figured out when I need to pull up out of the ruts in the dirt and drive on the mound in the middle of the road to get over a stray rock. About this time the dirt vanishes and the road becomes lumpy, solid slickrock. I drive over swells at an angle to keep from bottoming out and weave from side to side to keep my tires on top of the larger rocks. 
I pass a couple of jeeps taking a break just before Murphy’s Hogback and round the corner to find a narrow 30 degree incline of loose sand and football sized rocks hanging off the edge of a cliff. I hit the hill at decent speed in first gear and make it up the first slope. On the second, steeper incline I let off the gas for a fraction of a second when the steering wheel cuts left as I run over a rock. I immediately stomp on the pedal and try to regain momentum but with the pedal floored I slow to a crawl on the climb and the engine finally cuts off. I let it roll back down the hill to a slightly less steep section and restart the engine. In first gear, determined not to burn up my clutch I let the pedal out quickly and jump up the first line of rocks in front of me. I keep the pedal floored and spin the steering wheel left and right to avoid the rocks I can’t clear as a cloud of sand envelops the car. With a loud clatter I hit a pile of smaller stones and send some flying up into the wheel wells before the car lurches forward and starts to climb again, all the way to the top.

At the top of the hill I lay beside the car to check for any damage. I find the exhaust assembly knocked off its rubber hanger and now hanging down just a few inches from the ground. It’s too hot to touch so I grab the jack out of the back of the car and jack the pipes up until I can reconnect the hanger. As I’m sliding out from under the car one of the jeeps comes spinning up the hill, screaming in low range and emerges on top next to me. The driver says “We weren’t sure if you made it; we just saw a cloud of dust and smoke! I’m impressed with that little Honda!” I think “What about the driver?! Here’re the keys, you try it!” but just smile as I dust myself off.

On the way down the other side of the hogback the ABS has no idea what’s going on and seems content to turn my brakes off nearly completely and let me careen down the hill. With that obstacle behind me and another steep climb ahead I find a dry wash to park in and make dinner. I sit on the tailgate and eat and look out at the sun setting on the butte called the candlestick. I sit out and watch until the light has faded from the horizon.  
As I’m falling asleep I hear two voices getting closer and closer to me. I look up to see two headlamps bobbing down the road towards my car at a jog. They stop briefly only to say “That’s not him, I think I saw his lights farther down the road” and they continue jogging into the night. A jeep had come flying by as I was packing up my stove earlier; I wonder if the jeep was supposed to pick these two up but missed the stop in the dark. They were gone before I thought to offer them water but I hoped that they’d come back if they were truly stranded.

The next morning I’m pleasantly surprised to find a few solid miles of smooth sand to drive over and manage to get above 8 mph for a half an hour. In the sand I can see the footprints of the couple that had run by my car in the night. The prints disappear when I pass the next camp and I see that there are people there and feel relieved that they’d found shelter.

I’d slept poorly all night, imagining what the next hill would look like. I didn’t think I could make it back over the hogback if I had to turn back. Just as before, when I approach this hill I don’t realize it’s coming until I turn a corner to find a wall of sand. This slope isn’t littered with rocks as the last one had been and I know that if I keep the wheels turning I can slowly but surely claw my way to the top. The hill climbs up into the rising sun onto an exposed ledge high off the canyon floor. I watch the wall next to me to know when to turn as I come over the top. 
On the other side I enter a sandy wash and the footprints appear again, I can recognize the pattern on the sole of the shoe. I try to look for the line of a bike tire next to the prints; perhaps it was a mountain biker who periodically walked his bike when he got tired; but I find none. I’ve just driven 15 miles and it would appear that those hikers jogged the same distance in the cold and dark last night.

I drive slowly when I lose sight of the prints hoping that they’ll call out as I pass if they had decided to stop. Each time though, the prints re-emerge when the sand gets deeper. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Water Color

For me, painting is usually a frustrating chore; one that is made worthwhile when the result is pleasing. I don’t wake up excited to get to work on a painting, but I do wake up excited to look with fresh eyes on something I finished after a long night. Sketching with pen and painting with watercolor feels completely different though. It can all be done in one quick sweep over the paper; one continuous black line and colors that bleed into each other and blend in surprising and pleasant ways.
I’ve never used watercolors before and if I were at home I would have picked up my colored markers to do this work and would have struggled with the same tedious precision to which I subject myself when working with acrylic paints. With watercolors I struggle to get the paint on the paper fast enough and when I don’t, little ridges appear and bits of texture that seem to become a part of the rock I’ve sketched.
I stop looking for the geometry and just draw, hoping that it might emerge on its own if I keep at it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


The sun rise over the Devil’s Garden is an intricate cascading of golden light spilling over each fin in succession before it finally reaches the ground, giving me the first warmth of the day. But I feel too restless to wait for the light today. I want to go into Moab and avail myself of what little metropolitan diversions exist there; book stores and art galleries and sushi restaurants…actually Moab is doing pretty well for a small town in Utah. On the way down the park road towards Moab, the light finally catches up with me and I stop to become warm amidst the towering skyline above courthouse wash.
Moab has a different feel than any of the other park-side towns in Utah like Springdale or Torrey or Tropic. It has its share of touristy shops selling dirt shirts and Indian beads along with the typical burger/pizza/mac-n’-cheese catch-all American food restaurants. These places always feel alien because they make no attempt to leave a lasting impression; there’s no need for them to, their customer base is merely passing through and their business from repeat customers is practically nil. Underneath the neon glow of the tourist meccas there are tiny shops that seem to exist as much for the pleasure of the locals as to cash in on the tourist industry. If you’re the only sushi restaurant in southeast Utah then you don’t need to be the best sushi east of California but their restaurant is. When you can make a living selling travel guides and post cards you don’t have to staff your bookstore with well read cashiers who can recommend a book to any taste, but Back of Beyond does. And when visitors are most likely to buy a Kincaid looking saccharine painting of the Delicate Arch there doesn’t need to be a gallery curator who collects the most unique abstract desert landscapes, and yet here it is. I talk to the owners of the bookstore and they recommend I visit the Framed Image gallery; I talk to the gallery owner and he tells me most of his sales are to locals. At the sushi restaurant the servers take time out to talk to customers they know who are sitting next to me at the bar.

It’s refreshing to see a fully functioning town underneath the cardboard storefronts of a tourist base camp. I get a haircut from a barber named Norm and purchase some watercolor paints from the art section in the bookstore. Feeling grounded once more I return to the park and the colors seem vibrant again and I start to paint.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Firing Squad

The firing squad waits for the blood to come first before shooting. Lined up three deep around the amphitheater facing the delicate arch, they watch the horizon for clouds that might snuff the light of the sunset prematurely. The tour guide rallies his troops, setting f-stops, leveling tripods and spinning polarizing filters. There’s forty thousand dollars’ worth of cameras sitting next to me on top of five thousand dollars’ worth of tripods in front of twenty thousand dollars’ worth of tourists. The gravity of their preparations and expectations feels like it might collapse the whole damned ridge.
Across from the ridge, staring down these glass barrels and showing no signs of flinching, is the delicate arch; a pair of chaps without a cowboy or a sandstone window to the La Sal range. The arch stands on the rim of a half bowl leaning back precariously over a 400 foot cliff. A mantelpiece of red rock sitting on one thick, muscular, straight leg and one impossibly thin, frail leg bent at the knee and…a man in a plaid shirt, my hero, standing directly under the span looking up in reverence.
The crowd starts to murmur…”What do we do?”…”He’s ruining it for everybody!”. I’ve seen this happen before and it can get nasty with shouting and curses hurled at people who wander over to the arch. This time I’m ready to fight back against this crowd for trying to deny the arch to the one person here who is actually immersing himself in its magnificence rather than trying to take the same postcard picture over and over and over again. But the grumbling only bounces around among the crowd of photographers; none of them willing to cast the first stone across the amphitheater towards the man in plaid who seems completely and wonderfully oblivious to the existence of anything but this arch. He starts to walk off to the side of the arch and the crowd holds their breath only to gasp when he stops short of exiting the border of their carefully framed photos.
I’m watching this over my shoulder as I’m facing away from the arch making sketches of the rounded cliffs behind the bowl. A woman with a hiking stick that would have been the envy of Moses is taking pictures of the arch. She moves in front of the scene that I’m drawing but rather than bug her while she’s taking in the arch I flip the page over and start drawing a different section of the cliffs. I've gotten the first bulging shadows penned in when she takes a few steps to the side and blocks my view again. I flip back to the previous drawing and pick up where I left off. I draw in a few loopy juniper trees before she shifts back in front of me. I’m craning my neck to get the last few details on either side of her when the man in plaid steps down from the ledge beside me, apparently done with his meditation at the arch. He walks up to the woman blocking my view and says “Honey, would you like me to take your picture before we go?”

Monday, November 4, 2013

Squares and Circles

I decide to set my camera up beneath the double arch to record the sunset and the emerging of the starlight. I want to incorporate motion into this time lapse so I attach the camera to my tracking telescope mount; it can be operated manually to move at sidereal or 2x sidereal speed in any direction. Not having the proper equipment to adjust the exposure of the photographs as the sun sets, I plan to record three separate clips; one of the sun setting, one of the twilight, and one when the stars emerge. Later I’ll be able to blend these three clips together to hopefully get a seamless transition from day to night. 

I find a flat sandy spot between some patches of brush that looks like it might be comfortable enough for four hours’ sitting. With the equipment set up and the camera clicking away I’m free to watch the reflection of the light passing through the window of the arch move up and eastward across the wall as the sun drops lower. A couple passes by my spot and climbs up into the arch. They’re up there for no more than a minute when I see the reflection vanish almost instantly as the sun drops below the horizon.
I dig a broken piece of a root out of the sand and start to excavate the area around me by the twilight. I dig a straight trench until I can’t reach any deeper. Then I widen the trench so that it will fit my thumb and forefinger and I dig deeper with the root. Next to the trench I scrape a flattened square into the sand. At the top center of the square I draw a circle. I draw arcs spiraling out from this circle with each successive layer becoming more and more elliptical until the line becomes parallel to the bottom edge of the square on the last pass. I start to flatten another square of sand but it has become too dark to see.
I stand in front of the wall and turn my face slowly from side to side. I think that I can feel the heat of the long past sunset still emanating from the wall. Wondering if I might be imagining it I close my eyes and spin in place until I’ve lost all sense of direction. I turn slowly again and with my eyes closed I perceive not just the warmth but a residual glow of a day’s worth of sunlight borne by the wall. To test it again, I walk out of the alcove. The instant that I’m no longer between the two walls the air becomes frigid without any breeze to carry the chill; it really is warmer near the wall.
Now I lay in the sand with the top of my head pointing towards the warmth of the rock. There’s no moon and the milky way shines bright, concentric with the arch to my right. I try to forget the patterns of the constellations and I look for the biggest ring of stars that I can make out of the sky, then the square with the most stars on its perimeter. I keep getting distracted by flashes of light under the double arch and the others across the field. The light painters are flashing their lights creating our own private and localized thunderstorm.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Snowcapped peaks still combing clouds, dunes still petrified, balanced rock still balanced; and I’m back sitting on a stone looking down on the towers of the courthouse and the pipes of the organ and the shepherd of the sheep. I look at them sideways with my ear to the earth and my bare feet scuffing on the warm stone.
I lay on my back with my hat over my face shielding it from the noon sun. The light still comes in through the vent holes in the hat and fills the space above my eyes. The passing cars on the road far below rumble out a rhythm syncopated as they drop in and out of the wash. Wind feels its way whistling through slots in the stone wall and comes down to my noontime bed to push a dried cottonwood leaf; a crunchy pizzicato on the pitted, ridged rock.
I tap on the stone with my knuckles, finding the hollow sounding spots where the next thin layer of rock has broken free of the mound, waiting to be pulverized and washed down to the Colorado. In the morning just after sunrise I heard a loud crack and crash echoing from the maze of the petrified dune field. An anonymous boulder that had waited 100 million years for water to clear a path to the ground and just one night for the frost that gave it the final kick.
I sit facing the west wall, warming my face in the last light as the cold wind from the mountains chills my back. The shadow of the wall stretches out towards me; down the talus and over the scrub and up the trunk of the cottonwood tree, each thing being put to bed in its turn. The junipers still tormented into grotesque shapes by drought, the raven still piercing the tranquil sunset with her vulgar call, Arches still brilliant and rubicund to the last light of the sun; and I’m back.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sunset in Death Valley

After the sun falls behind the mountains I sit on the dunes and try to see if I can spot the instant that the lights in the night sky became visible. I look to where I know Venus will appear and watch the spot intently. The deep blue of the twilight sky seem to saturate my eyes and I look away for a moment at the light of the setting sun breaking through the mountain peaks and when I look back Venus is there; but it must have already been and I had blocked its light from my perception of the blue. Next I look for Vega, then I find Altair and Arcturus. The handle of the big dipper appears and I guess the location of Polaris. Deneb finally appears overhead and I follow the neck of the swan all the way down to Sagittarius.

The wind keeps changing direction, blowing warm from the south and cool from the west. Suddenly the gusts become sustained and the sand starts to bury my bag and my tripod tips over. I quickly pack everything and stuff my camera into my shirt because it isn’t worth opening my bag and letting it fill with sand. The last glow of the sun is gone and what looks like a large dune distant is actually right in front of me and I stumble up the hill and over. I put my hat over my face to shield it from the sand as the wind continues to gust; the sky is so dark that it doesn’t do much good to look ahead anyway. I know that my car is in the direction of a saddle shaped peak in the mountains ahead but this doesn’t help when I’m down in the pit on the leeward side of the big dunes and all I can see is the smooth black crescent slicing into the milky way. I know that it was roughly south-south-west and use Polaris to get my bearings as I climb the slip face of the big dune.

As the crests get smaller I know that I’m nearing the edge of the dune field and I’ve gotten myself to roughly the right area. Suddenly I find myself in a stream of foul air that is unmistakably the odor of a pit toilet after a hot day and many tour buses. But I remember that I parked next to the pit toilet! So as I climb the last dunes I try to stay downwind of this rank stench and follow its stinking trail back to my car. As I’m crunching up the gravel on the trail out of the dune field some kids sitting on top of their convertible turn a flashlight on me, assuming I’m some wild animal creeping out of the dunes, lured by their graham crackers and marshmallows. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I walked down the riverside trail along the Virgin under the golden cottonwood leaves and the sunset canyon walls. I was hoping to find a path past the trail up the river and deeper into the canyon. Along the way I see people in overalls and funny looking boots; all with stickers saying “Zion Adventure Co” and a number printed in black marker. I guess they rent proper river wading gear in town.

The end of the trail is rampart built to withstand the annual floods of the Virgin River and below the rampart is a rocky beach that tapers off into the wall of the narrowing canyon. I can see the next beach across the river and then just water up to the next bend of the canyon. I stand for too long debating whether I want to walk back down the trail with wet shoes and clothes. I whittle my excuses down to a fear of falling in the river and submerging my camera because I don’t have a decent walking stick. I sit on a rock looking up the river relieved that I won’t have to get cold and wet today when I see a gnarly tree trunk of a stick propped up against the canyon wall; about 4 and a half feet tall. I grab it and wade into the river just above the knee and dig into the rocks with my stick as I push myself against the current towards the next beach.
My footing is wobbly at first but improves as I start to pick up on the cues that the river gives me; which dark spots are holes and which are dark rocks; the spaces in front of large boulders that bulge the flow are always holes. The drag of the water on my stick is more struggle than it’s worth so I keep it out of the water and pointed downstream like a spear fisher ready to plunge its bifurcated tip into the rocks if I start to lose my balance.
The level of the regular floods are indicated by the line of the grasses on the sandy banks, the major floods by the level where trees begin to appear and the historic floods by the gouges and boulder jams against the walls. The sun is low in the west and the corridors before a westward bend glow with the reddish light gathered and reflected by the deep well of the canyon ahead. The red light on red walls seems to emanate from the rocks themselves like the barely perceptible glow of iron just before it becomes white hot. The water is cold and I can’t stand to be in it for more than a few minutes; walking on the sandy banks churns the water in my shoes and it warms up from the blood flowing to my feet and I can feel my toes again. As the canyon narrows the rush of the water seems to be louder around every corner and I keep expecting to emerge under a waterfall that will bar my further progress.
The river is getting deeper and faster and I have to reach under the water to pull myself over the boulders lodged against the walls. I suddenly realize that water landing on my face isn’t from my splashing through the river but from above; it’s begun to rain. From my limited view of the sky at the bottom of the canyon I can only see a strip of gray; I can’t see if blue or black follows the gray. But if the storm is worse upstream it could mean a flood, so I decide to turn back.

As I make all the same crossings in reverse I begin to notice that small banks have vanished and thigh level water is now waist level. I try to short-cut a meander by climbing over a large boulder. I toss my stick down the far side and slide down after it. The stick lands standing straight up; I push off the rock as I slide to avoid hitting it and land hard on my left foot. A sharp pain shoots up my leg followed by an ache when I try to rotate my left ankle. Plunging back into the frigid water at the next crossing numbs the foot and I start to make fast progress. As I near the last few bends of the canyon pieces of bark and debris are starting to float by. My footing is more sure now and I walk quickly, leaning into the glassy smooth flow above the turbulent foamy water over the lines of rocks. 
I emerge from the last bend and cross to the beach below the rampart. I take out my knife and cut my initials into the stick before placing it back against the canyon wall for someone else to use. My boots are filled with lumps of wool pulled from my socks and dyed red by the sand from the river floor. The sunset light is gone from the canyon now and the walk back is cool under the still cottonwoods along the bank.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Why the Desert?

When I show people the paintings I work on the question I get most frequently is “why the desert?”. The implication being that there are other landscapes of greater beauty that would be much more pleasant to escape to through the portal of a painting. The answer is “because the desert is the landscape that is the easiest for me to understand in the way that I want to understand a landscape; by its architecture.” I don’t mean to imply that I imagine the arches and the white cliffs being formed by some great, divine hand like sculptures of clay or hewn from a square cornered block of sandstone. I mean the chemical reactions and the physical principals and the biological factors that dictate every change in the landscape. This is true of any landscape on earth but it is the most visible here, in Utah. Waterways fill and evaporate due to changing weather; debris washed down forms a conglomerate stone; slightly acidic rain dissolves the mudstone; water freezing in these new cracks breaks the stone apart.

You can walk among the ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome and imagine yourself among the ancient roman spectators at the Circus Maximus looking down at the spectacle on the track. In the same way you can stand next to the Virgin River at the base of Zion Canyon and imagine the water flowing backward, depositing the dust back into the walls; you can place the boulders back in the cracks from which they fell and eventually you’ll find yourself in a landscape that existed millions of years before Rome, millions of years before humans ever first set foot here. You can also stand and pull giant boulders out of the alcoves and smash them on the floor; revealing for an instant a grand arch over the canyon. The walls recede and crumble and you find yourself in a place where maybe humans are no more. Once you begin to understand the architecture then you can travel through time and see it 5 million years ago and 5 million years hence.

What I find striking about a great photograph or painting of the desert is its ability to convey the workings of this architecture with no words and no assumed understanding. An aerial picture of the waterpocket fold in Capitol Reef national park shows the evenly spaced, flat iron extrusions of earth in a way that suggests so readily the curving and dipping of existing rock. From the ground it is more difficult to create a picture that contains all of this information. The photographers that I mentioned liking in a previous post, Schulman with architecture and Gursky with all manner of manmade shapes, do it so well. Their photographs organize complex structures in such a way that an understanding of the subject is transmitted, beyond just what is shown in the photograph. They make the viewer think about the mind that designed the house or the hands that arranged the items on the supermarket shelf.

However with nature the forces that crafted the landscape have no form that we can observe and no consciousness that we can relate to, which makes exposing the workings of those forces more difficult. In paintings I’ve tried to approach this in a number of ways. The very first paintings depicted exaggerated colored banding of the sandstone. This is one of the first things that one notices when looking at the desert landscape for the first time and one of the features that provokes one’s first questions about how it was formed. After I learned more about the way that places like Arches National Park formed I started to find these exaggerated colors to be ridiculous and abandoned this idea.

I began to limit the variation in color and focus instead on the texture of the rock. I painted in a dull rust orange and then scrubbed the rocks with nearly dry brown paint to mimic the pitted surface and the discoloration. The increased detail looked strange next to the simplistic shapes and I started to add more and more detail; clouds, trees, complicated shading. It became no longer a boiling-down of a scene to its basic elements but an attempt at photo-realistically recreating the landscape such that someone would get no more out of the painting than they would from any photograph.

So I began again, this time focusing on the contrast between light and dark in the scenes; the huge shadows cast by these monoliths over their valleys. I realized that seeing a stone arch casting a shadow on the canyon wall behind it was a very strong suggestion of the size and arrangement of the components of a scene; the way the shadow was distorted by the angle of the wall, the way it bent and kinked because of cracks in the cliff face. In this way I eventually simplified the paintings down to just three colors: sky, stone and shadow.

Going back to that aerial photo of waterpocket fold, I can see that it isn’t just shadow that reveals the buckling of the land there but also color. The deep red of the flat irons is what makes them stand out and what makes the pattern of their saw-toothed range obvious. I need to incorporate color as a way of organizing the pieces of a scene. That is what I’m going to work towards as I go forward.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

It becomes so difficult to see a place with fresh eyes; even when you’ve only been there for a few days. Some observations are only made after careful inspection of a place or object over the course of months or even years. But every once in a while submerged in that flood of information that confronts you in the face of an entirely alien place you grab at one shimmering piece just to have something to hold onto and you find that you’ve fished out something marvelous. You’ll run your eyes over that object many times afterward, but you’ll never be able to spot that shimmer again in the almost subconscious way that you did the first time you entered the place.
I walked along the north rim of the grand canyon, down the first trail that I found. Through breaks in the trees I saw the sun shooting down to the inner gorge through the haze in great shafts. I passed a rock that seemed like the right place to sit and watch the sunset and for two hours I sat as the canyon and I sank into the umbra.
Looking out at the vast canyon the other rim looks so far away that it seems like the sun should be hovering in the air somewhere in the middle. I expect the walls of the south rim to be illuminated the same as the walls of the north and for it to be high noon somewhere in the middle down by the river. I forget that the sun is millions of miles away because that other rim looks so much farther. Above the south rim the haze transforms the sandy hills into clouds atop which the peaks of the San Francisco range sit; not a part of the earth.
The buttes in the distance become islands in a black sea as the sunlight abandons their lower slopes. The fins that divide the branching canyon seem to be marching in line down into the inner gorge to be consumed by the Colorado. When the last bit of light leaps off from the last stone on the top of the tallest butte, the sun drops below the horizon and the sky blushes, the rust red of the rocks soaks it all in and they glow.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Positively Cretacean

I wake up and pack my car again. Throughout the last week I had only moved what was essential into the house; a blanket, a pillow, a loaf of bread. But yesterday I brought in my easel and paints and canvases and sketch pad, along with food and drink from my car. I spent the afternoon sketching out some ideas for paintings and starting to paint a scene I saw while lying under Cedar Wash Arch the day before. The fin of the arch faces south so one side is in light before noon, and the other side is in light after noon. I was on the morning side of the arch at noon. A large oval gouge in the fin below the arch was just starting to fall into shade and its shadow extended up into the window of the arch itself. It looked like the shadow was dripping out of the arch and beading up on the wall in this great oval gouge. Over on the other side of the arch a pine sapling sits in the only patch of sand on the slick rock fin, protected from the wind in its sandstone nave. It waits patiently while the shadow drains from its pocket so that it may receive its once daily hour of sunlight.

I pack up the easel and the half finished painting and the paints and pillows and blankets and my car is whole again. On the way out I stop by the visitor center to say goodbye to a ranger who has been a good friend. I find him behind the info desk recommending the same hike we’ve all recommended hundreds of times to a visitor who “only has a couple of hours”. When I reach the front of the line I ask “Hey, you ever hiked that box canyon off Hell’s Backbone?”. He comes out from behind the desk and we embrace and say our goodbyes. Then he’s back in his ranger persona as he warns me in that info desk cadence about frequent flooding in that area.

Based on his recommendations I decide instead to go looking for Peekaboo Canyon in the National Monument east of Escalante. I’d been within a few miles of it the last time I went down the Hole-in-the-Rock road but had missed the turn towards the trailhead. Later that week I had recommended the spot to a hiker looking for slot canyons but sheepishly had to admit that I’d never hiked through it myself. Coming back to the turn-off for Dry Fork from the main dirt road I see where I went wrong last time. What I had assumed was a dry wash was actually the road I needed to turn down. A rut has eroded deeply on one side of the road and the other side slopes down into the rut for much of the way. As I’m driving over it, my car leaning toward the driver side steeply enough that I see ground when I look out my window, I’m thinking about the weight distribution of my car: no seats on the passenger side, a nearly 200 pound driver and a 100 pound oak chest full of clothes and paints and equipment on the driver side. I tug on the steering wheel as if to pull the car upright and grit my teeth til I’m on flat ground again.  
I hike the canyons twice, the first time in the mid-afternoon where I find them crowded and claustrophobic and the second time early the next morning before the crowds arrive. Peekaboo canyon meets the dry fork wash in an innocuous looking gap in the canyon wall; many people that go looking for it walk right past to the more obvious but less spectacular Dry Fork Narrows at the top of the wash. The way into the canyon isn’t immediately apparent; as you walk down into the pit formed by the waterfall that issues from the canyon you’re faced with a 15 foot wall. As you get closer you see the scallops and chutes that water has eroded in the wall and start to grasp the path you’ll have to take to get up into the canyon. A few moqui steps have been gouged at the base to help you hoist yourself into the first egg shaped pocket. From there you can pull yourself into a chute-like groove and wedge yourself feet to back and work your way up over the ledge and into the first chamber of the canyon. As I swing around from the egg to the chute I bash my elbow against the stone. As I rest at the top I notice I’ve left a line of little bloody circles along the wall that I used to hoist myself over the ledge. The scrape on my elbow is already caked with dust and trying to brush it off with my dusty hands is no help; at least the dust seems to have stanched the bleeding to a slow ooze.
The canyon is a series of cells or chambers where water has pooled and dug deep into the stone before moving into the next cell. The floors of the cells are soft and sandy so as you climb each dividing wall you can drop easily into the next area. Natural sandstone bridges span the gap between the walls forming oval portals between the cells. The first bridges are 20 feet from the ground and the chambers are grand, but quickly the canyon narrows and the portals between rooms become 3 foot windows and some chambers are barely large enough to stand in. Once the canyon tapers down to one foot across, the cellular structure disappears and the form is dominated by the tortuous miniature meanders of the floodwaters. Going through this last area my shoulders are squeezed by the walls. As I leap down from a chock stone I feel my hat fall off. Unable to find it on the canyon floor I look up towards the chock stone and see my hat hovering 8 feet off the ground, wedged by the brim between the walls.
The trail back down to the wash goes through another canyon called Spooky. This canyon starts out much wider and without obstacles until I reach a jam of large boulders. The jam forces the water to travel around the boulders and up the canyon walls which narrows to just a foot across immediately after. I climb over the pile of boulders and find a drop of 25 feet onto hard stone below. Backing up, I see a gap between two rocks pushed up against the wall. Slipping down into this hole I can contort myself and pass under the large boulder. Swinging my feet blindly I find a foothold between some rocks and am able to lower myself to the ground 8 feet below.
From here the walls become so narrow that I have to remove my camera bag and walk sideways. Tiny pebbles that got buried in the floods that formed this stone have been revealed by erosion once again and dot the walls. The beaded texture of the walls makes it easy to climb over chock stones and down chutes but grate on my shoulders every time I lose balance and collide with the wall. As I’m sitting in a wider area examining these shapes in the wall I hear a loud popping noise like someone tossing stones into a shallow puddle. This is followed by a guttural growl and a sound like a sheet of leather flapping against the stone. Only one other person had walked down to the wash before me today and I had picked out their footprints in the sand and determined that he had headed into the narrows and not the canyons I was headed towards. I sit still, looking back waiting to see what will be revealed as the source of this noise that grows louder and closer. I’m looking at the canyon floor where the walls bend away when the light from above is suddenly blotted out for an instant. Two ravens fly overhead, their wing beats sounding like Persian carpets being beat as they echo between the walls.  They disappear around the next bend but perch on the rocks and continue that cretacean sounding popping and clicking.
That night I decide to try cooking again and manage to make some excellent burritos and in the process finally stumble upon the correct way to assemble my camp stove so as not to set fire to nearby brush. After eating I set to work finishing the painting. It’s been a while since I’ve finished a painting and I notice a distinct flatness in the end result. I had added clouds and other details to the shadows but the architecture of the arch itself is not obvious at all even with the aid of all those details. In fact I think the details disguise its actual shape. I think that I will try this scene again and work to focus more on conveying the actual form of the subject.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Back over the cedar mountain I resume my spot in the woods behind the park. I told the rangers I’d be around if Bryce were to open as I would be camping behind the park. I think some of them got the impression that I’d been lurking in these woods all through the shutdown and were a bit creeped out by it. In the morning I go down to the store in Bryce Canyon City to buy a book and just nose around town. I’m unsure if the news of the parks impending opening is public knowledge yet. I hear people discussing the situation in town; apparently the city council has asked the sheriff to forcibly enter the park, cut the locks and run the concessions with inmates…no wonder the rangers at the gates have had to arm themselves. With the mood so rapidly deteriorating I’m hoping that the park will open soon. I see a cashier put up a sign saying the park will open at 3pm but a manager comes by and asks him to take it down as it’s only a rumor.

I drive back over to the park gate and ask the rangers there if they know anything. Apparently the deal is still in the works and they aren’t sure of what time the park will be able to open. I pull back into my hiding spot along the forested road beside the park entrance and wait. At 2:30 I decide to change into my uniform and by the time I reach the main road there is a line of cars stretching miles back to the highway to get into the park. As I’m pulling out right next to the entrance I manage to cut in line and get into the visitor center before any visitors start to show up. I excitedly greet my friends in the hall as I make my way to the information desk. As I emerge from the door behind the desk a ranger is greeting the first visitor to actually stop for information (the first 100 or so cars just drove right by and into the park). I take the next visitor and the questions are wonderfully familiar; “We’re here for a day and want to do a hike and see the sunset…” … “Well you’d better also get up early tomorrow and see the sunrise!”

It’s a Friday and we won’t have any astronomy programs until tomorrow but some visitors tell me they’re on their last day of a vacation that’s been completely derailed by the shutdown. I invite them to meet me at my usual spot for a private astronomy lecture after sunset. People come in saying how happy they are to be back in the park and I can genuinely say that I’m even happier to be back myself.
After a couple of hours at the info desk I decide to head up to the canyon rim to hike and answer questions on the trail. Some hikers find it interesting that people working in the park are as happy to get back on the trails as they are. Others assume that someone has already gotten lost and I’m part of a search party. We all just share stories of what we did during the shutdown and how glad we are to be back in this canyon (eroded plateau edge technically).
My aspiring astronomers show up after dinner and we spend a frigid half hour exploring the constellations and tracing the milky way across the sky. One of them heard me say earlier that I was a volunteer and has gotten the impression that all the employees are back in the park on a volunteer basis. After my talk he tries to give me a tip. I manage to stop my arm automatically reaching up to grab it and thank him anyway, saying that having a chance to teach visitors about astronomy in the park again is worth more than money. And it’s true.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

After hiking back from Calf Creek falls I decide that I need to make a run to Cedar City to pick up some supplies; food and some extra clothing that I neglected to bring from home but will nonetheless need as the weather starts to get colder. A storm is supposed to come tomorrow which will likely make travel along dirt roads impossible for at least a day so I figure it will be a good day to waste on the trip to the city along the interstate, 3 hours away. Bryce Canyon is along the way to Cedar City and I’ll camp there tonight in the forest behind the park and leave for Cedar City first thing in the morning.

I stop by the general store in the nearly vacant Bryce City and the wind carrying in the storm clouds is blowing leaves and broken bits of brush across the empty parking lot. The dirt road that provides access to the forest behind Bryce Canyon breaks off from the main park road precisely at the park boundary, about 30 feet before the park entrance monolith and the current location of the law enforcement road block. As I drive by I try to see if any of the rangers I know are manning the gate. I don’t recognize anyone but decide against getting closer as I notice that they are now holding rifles at the gate; it seems that the situation in town has gotten a bit more tense since I last departed. I head straight down the dirt road into the forest and find a spot to pull off the road about a mile in. I fall asleep to the first raindrops falling from the imminent storm.

The next morning I wake up and looking up through my skylight I see that the glass has frosted over from my breath during the night. It’s still pretty dark out and I’m not ready to get out of my sleeping bag and into the cold so I go back to sleep for a while. After what seems like an hour I awaken again to find it still dark through my skylight; however out the side windows it seems that the sun has risen. I notice that my windshield is dark as well though. Taking a closer look out the side window I see about 5 inches of snow piled up on my side view mirror. Then I realize that the windshield and skylight are both buried under a snow that swept through overnight. As I look out at the sagging branches of the ponderosa pines I can see the faintest dust of flakes still falling as the clouds are beginning to break up.
Narrow tracks through the snow pass close to my car, signs of the ATVs that the local tour companies are using to secretly shuttle people into the back areas of the park during the shutdown. I haven’t planned for snow and only have my trowel to remove the heavy, wet snow from the roof and front of the car. My warm clothes are all still packed away in the drawer beside my bed, access to which requires the trunk door to be open which can only be done from the outside. I promise myself I’ll devise a way to make the door open from the inside soon as I jump out in shorts to retrieve my jacket and a warmer pair of pants.
By the time I’m ready to leave, the snow is already beginning to fall from the bowed branches of the pines in big, wet lumps. The paved road is completely clear and as I make my way down through red canyon towards Panguitch the snow disappears completely. To get to Cedar City I’ll have to drive over Cedar Mountain past Navajo Lake and hope that the roads are still clear up there.
This is the first snow storm of the year on the mountain and I’m surprised to find the faded yellow leaves of the aspen trees still hanging on. The downturned leaves of the aspen seem incapable of supporting even a single flake of snow. The hillsides suspend a blanket of snow over the valleys on the black branches of pine with the brilliant yellow alone untouched by the snow as if the blazing color had melted any frost that came to rest on those aspen.
I turn off to walk the trail around Navajo lake. The lake isn’t yet frozen and the canoe launch is still visible under the snow. I walk in the tire tracks of a truck that came through the snow earlier. There’s only been one other truck down this way since the snow. As I come into a grove of aspen the snow muffled silence of the lake is broken by the chattering of the dried aspen leaves trying to hold on through one last gust of wind. Snow starts to fall again and I lose sight of the hills in the distance and my world shrinks down to just this grove of aspen. The wind dies down and I can hear the big snow flakes hitting the leaves as they filter through the trees.
Just as I get over the mountain to Cedar City my phone rings. Not a North Carolina number but a local number. It’s Bryce Canyon…there appears to be a deal in the works that might open the park as soon as tomorrow. I had been planning my route along the Arizona border to avoid driving back over the mountain after dark but I tell them I’ll be there, ready and waiting to help open the park tomorrow. I rush through my shopping and get back on the road towards Bryce. As I climb into the forest again the clouds have returned. Rounding a corner I run right into a fog so thick I can barely see the lines on the road in front of me. The sun hasn’t quite set and I can see light overhead but down between the trees it is dark as night in the fog. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I spent the night down off the Hole-in-the-Rock road. This hyphen-heavy road was created by some industrious Mormons who got stuck in Glen Canyon during the San-Juan expedition. Surrounded on all sides by 1200 foot cliffs with the canyon turning south-west, rather than turning back in search of a better route, they found a small crack in the cliff and blasted it into a roadway that would take them all the way to the rim. They then built a road through what is today the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument which is now managed by the Bureau of Land Management. As would be expected they very shortly found a better way through the area and the road fell into disrepair. It was abandoned until that second great rush into Utah, the Uranium boom. The Hoskaninni Mining Company revived the road on their way to look for Uranium in the hills of the Grand Staircase. Today, it is a well maintained dirt road that leads to a lot of the most popular destinations in the national monument, Coyote Gulch, Peekaboo Wash, and The Devils Garden, where I was staying.
In the morning, I got up and made a breakfast and did a little bit of writing until the sun warmed me up enough that I was willing to get out of my sleeping bag. By then other cars were coming in and hikers were getting out into the labyrinth of bulbous rocks and arches in the Devil’s Garden. As I was getting my boots on, a couple walked by and I heard them murmur something about “North Carolina plates” as they saw my car. I called out excitedly, asking if they were from North Carolina too. Their faces lit up and they walked over. I hadn’t seen anyone from North Carolina in a long time and I was excited to hear where they were from; Kinston perhaps, or maybe Winston-Salem, maybe even Pinetops! “We’re from Charlotte!”… “Oh…” I tried to hide my disappointment as I told them I was from Raleigh. Not that there’s anything wrong with Charlotte, it’s just a soulless banking city that likes to whine about not being the state capitol just because it’s a bit bigger than Raleigh. You need more than a football team, some sky scrapers and NASCAR… However, I put my prejudices aside and hike with them for a while. They stopped by the bathroom on the way out and discovered, as I had earlier but failed to warn them, that there was no toilet paper. A bit mystified as to how they both made this discovery after sitting down when they went to the bathroom together, I say, “Well the toilets are officially closed during the shutdown, but at least they didn’t lock them”. The man replies “Of course, they don’t bother to refill the toilet paper but they’re more than happy to stand at the gates to the parks and tell us we’re not wanted…” I knew there was a reason I didn’t like people from Charlotte…the same attitude that gets them up in arms about their Queen City status.

Alright, First of all, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service are two different agencies. The BLM land is too dispersed to be closed off during the shutdown; we’re just on our own for the little conveniences like toilet paper that they usually provide for free(…the horror). Second, there’s nothing the rangers in the National Parks want more than to open the gates to the parks and let tourists back in. For one, it would mean they were getting paid again; most importantly though, they actually enjoy their work and want to see people coming in and hiking the trails and attending geology lectures and camping! Now you may have heard of some rangers offering to work for free to reopen the parks and being denied. To keep the park closed it requires a crew of law enforcement rangers to man the entrance and patrol the park. To reopen the park you’d need interp, maintenance, fees, campground hosts, cashiers, hotel staff and resource management all to agree to work for free; not just the one guy who told the paper he’d be willing to. Besides, in my personal opinion the government shouldn’t be allowed to have its cake and eat it too. As well intentioned as these potential volunteers are, the government would gladly take advantage of that sentiment to remove the heat from their feet and continue their impasse indefinitely while employees at popular government agencies worked for free. Workers in the parks deserve to be paid and not have their livelihood used as a tool to squeeze votes out of politicians.

Now I gave the poor man from Charlotte the first half of this rant and then resumed more pleasant conversation about how I had ended up out here. He back-peddled a bit and said he wasn’t really angry at the park service, just the government and I said that was something we could agree on and we went our separate ways. 
The trail disappears and smooth, red slick-rock hills roll down to the scrubby fields below. A small canyon divides the two halves of the red rock and after finding my way to the floor I follow it back to the garden. Along the way, a saddle shaped pocket in the canyon wall is visible from the floor complete with saddle horn projecting out over the gap. I climb up into the saddle, the rocks appear smooth but the striations in the layers of sandstone give good grip and I can walk up the steep walls. I climb out to the saddle horn and lay down in a depression with a dent just big enough for my hips, making a comfortable spot to take a quick nap. As I lay there I tap on the sandstone with my fist. Some sections sound with a solid dull thud while other spots transmit the vibration of the impact through the surrounding thin sheet of stone, sounding hollow. I pick at one of these spots and find a seam where an outer shell of sandstone has separated from the boulder underneath.
I climb down from the horn into the saddle again and follow the slope to a spout that lets out about 6 feet from the canyon floor. The ground on the floor is gently packed dirt and I decide to jump. My legs, still sore from climbing to get to the canyon yesterday, betray me though and crumple under me as I land sending me rolling down into the middle of the dry streambed.
I cross the gap and climb up into the garden once again and up then up to the top of the sandstone mushrooms. They’re close enough together that the spans between the tops can be jumped and I make my way over to the area above metate arch. The flat top of the arch extends out and ends in a rounded bulge, looking like a kind of modern coffee table from above. I had been planning to visit other trails today but it’s time to slow down and just enjoy being where I am. I sit down across from the arch and enjoy the cold breeze on my face and the warm sun on my back.