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.  

Sunday, October 6, 2013

After getting back to my car yesterday I drove further down the road towards what I thought was a crossing of the creek that would lead me into the canyon I intended to explore. I stopped short of the crossing when I ran into some loose sand with bumps my undercarriage couldn’t clear. Looking at my map, the crossing should only be a quarter mile down the road and I’d walk there the next morning. I spent the rest of the day reading and writing in my car after taking a long afternoon nap.

The next morning I woke up and opened my eyes exactly 3 seconds before the sun came over the cliff in the distance and lit up the inside of my car. The night had been cold and the fog from my breath on the windows had frozen. I got up and made a quick breakfast while the sun melted the frost and I watched drops of water run down my windshield. After eating, I filled up two canteens and put one in my camera bag and clipped the other one to my shoulder strap. The ground felt hard at first and I wondered if the cold had frozen some residual moisture in the sand but when I kicked the ground with the toe of my boot, I broke through a thin upper layer to soft, loose sand. 
I walked up the road hoping to find a bridge over the creek. From the top of the butte yesterday the most interesting features of the canyon appeared to be on the right side of the creek so I would need to cross at some point to get there. I was following some dirt bike tracks when they abruptly doubled back and I looked up to see the dirt road plunge off a 3 foot ledge into the waters of the creek. There was about 40 feet between me and the ledge on the opposing bank. The water wasn’t high but it was stretched out across a 15 foot section of the creek bed; too far to jump and nothing in sight with which to make a temporary bridge. Walking around a bend in the creek I saw a spot where the water was deeper but only a few feet across. The ground below looked fragile but solid so I began to climb down to the creek bed. The first block of earth I put my feet on crumbled; not completely unexpected and I was relieved to see that it was dry. The ground below that was slightly dimpled with pits that looked like raindrops or the bottom half of a bubble that had popped. I jumped down to this lower level and immediately sank up to my knees in quicksand. I tried to turn around but my legs couldn’t move so I rotated at my hip towards the bank and grabbed onto the crumbling ledge. I managed to get ahold of some tall grass that gave me just enough leverage to pull one of my legs out of the quicksand. It gurgled and sucked and tried to take my boot off on the way out but I was now able to lay my leg down on the surface and get just enough support to free my other foot. I dragged myself up the bank, shoes and legs covered in mud. Luckily my pantlegs had stayed down and mud hadn’t flooded into my boots. I covered my legs and feet in dry sand hoping to soak up the moisture from the mud before it soaked through completely; it would dry and break off as I hiked.
I found another narrow section of the creek where the ground was rocky enough that I could approach the water without sinking into the mud. After testing the solidity of the opposite bank by tossing a few rocks I leapt across and climbed up to the dry sand. The bank was thick with rabbitbrush and tall grass so I walked towards the edge of the butte that ran along with the creek where the brush wasn’t as thick. I could see the pinnacle on the uplifted earth that held the canyon over the cliffs ahead so I knew I wouldn’t get too far off track this way. Following the edge of the butte I lost sight of the creek and could no longer hear its babbling. The sun was still low so I could stay mostly in the shade as I walked.

Eventually the creek bent and intersected my path again. I clung to the wall of the cliff and edged my way along the bank and the path opened up again for a while. Coming around another corner though, I saw that the creek had cut a sheer cliff into the butte and I wouldn’t be able to pass without crossing or climbing over the butte. Not eager to repeat my failed attempts at crossing earlier I chose to climb the butte.

There happened to be a pile of rubble stacked up against the cliff next to me almost all the way to the top. The stone in the pile was mostly conglomerate which would break off in unexpected places as I grabbed onto it to climb. Handholds that appeared to be large buried rocks were actually thin sheets that would pull out of the sand when I put my weight on them. After scaling a particularly exposed ledge I found myself sitting on a slope consisting entirely of loose gravel. Every time I moved to reach for a handhold the extra force I put on my feet would push the gravel down the slope and I’d slide closer to the ledge. I was getting tired so I decided to just sit still for a while, not advancing up the slope but not sliding closer to a fall. As I rested I tossed a few stones over the ledge to see how far they would tumble. The smaller ones got caught behind larger rocks and stopped pretty quickly so I kept throwing larger and larger stones until I got one that careened all the way to the bottom, 80 feet below. With that I decided to descend the slope and return to the bank of the creek to find another way; from my perch I had seen a spot a little way back where the water wasn’t so wide. 
Making my way down to the creek I knew I wouldn’t be able to jump the span so I decided to remove my boots and socks to wade across. The rocks on the creek bottom hurt my feet but the pain from the ice cold water quickly exceeded that of the sharp rocks and I ran the rest of the way across. I found a sun baked stretch of sand on the other side to walk along while my feet warmed up and dried off so I could put my boots back on.

The brush on this bank was thicker so I ducked my head down and crashed through the dead branches of the box elder. The tall grass was trampled down and the dead branches of the brush were tangled with mud; it appeared that during our torrential downpour last month this entire basin had flooded. Little runoff ditches streaked the ground and I used them as short trails under the tangled sticks. Occasionally I would see the heart shaped prints of a deer that had come the same way and I was encouraged to know that a local thought this was as fine a trail as I did. I could also use the prints to see where the deer had run into saturated ground and broken through the mud. It all appeared like dry, cracked pottery on the surface but some sections still liquefied on contact.

I followed the bends of the river, climbed up and down piles of boulders and crashed through tunnels in the brush on the banks for what must have been about three more miles before I reached the mouth of the canyon. The red cliffs rose so abruptly and the opposing walls of the canyon were so close together that it appeared that a great gate had been left open for me to pass though. The sunlight reflected off the walls and the interior of the canyon glowed. I saw that the deer I had been following had come this way too and their prints disappeared into the water and reemerged on the opposite shore in the meander ahead. I realized that I too would have to cross the water frequently to progress up the canyon as the creek rushed up against sheer cliffs on alternating walls. I took off my boots and socks again and left them sitting on the bank at the entrance of the canyon; I hadn’t seen anyone for two days here and I doubted anyone else would come now, much less want anything to do with my mud caked boots. 
Walking down the bank the mud forced itself between my toes and my feet sank into the ground until they hit the gravel 4 inches under. The ground under the flowing water was more firm and the creek washed the mud off of my feet as I crossed. Of course I sank right back in when I reached the other side, but I saw that the deer had as well. I continued this way, crossing slowly and carefully, then rapidly and haphazardly when I couldn’t bear the pain of the cold water anymore. In the sunny areas the mud was warm and felt good as it enveloped my frozen feet.
The walls of the canyon climbed higher and higher and the red gave way to a stained orange, streaked with desert varnish. Along the banks fallen boulders had been eroded into precarious, tall monoliths by the passing floods and little pools held water from the last rain. As the canyon deepened and the sun started its afternoon descent the shaded areas grew larger until the earth was cold everywhere I stepped. I climbed up on a rock a little over a mile into the canyon to rest my feet. I had been telling myself that I would go back after each bend of the corridor but each turn revealed something beautiful in the distance so I had kept going. The path ahead was heading northwest and the sun lit one wall of the canyon completely down to the water. I sat and watched the reflected light from the ripples of the creek race across the cliffs above until I could feel my toes once more; then I turned back.
I retrieved my boots at the mouth of the canyon and scrubbed my feet with sand to remove the mud. On the walk back I followed coyote tracks instead of the deer tracks. They sometimes intersected and I wondered if the coyote could tell how old the deer tracks were and if they were worth following. The coyote is lighter on his feet than the deer and he led me into a few mud pits on my way back. I cut short the meanders of the creek and followed the base of the butte that I had climbed to the top of yesterday. I passed the ancient sea floor and the painted purple domes. Finally I saw the tire mark of a dirt bike and followed it back to the road and to my car. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

I’m not a complete idiot, I’m only part of one; probably the dumbest part. To prove this let me first give some details about my car: it is a Honda Element which has All-Wheel-Drive (AWD). This means that it will drive using just the front wheels until it detects slippage, at which point it will engage the rear wheels to try to get me out of whatever mess I’ve gotten myself into. This works fairly well; I double my chances of having something grippy under my wheels and manage to get out of most ditches this way. I’ve driven down the Skutumpah Road when the washes were still deep and wet from the rain we’d had and managed to scrape by along the gravely creek beds. I’ve also driven over the mounds of sand that had blown onto the road to horseshoe canyon with no problem. So today I decided I’d head down the roads behind Factory Butte and see how far I could get before time or terrain turned me back. It ended up being terrain.
I drove down a road cut into the side of a tall mound of soft grey earth to get to the floor of the valley. Rain had taken the same course and eroded a 2 foot deep rut in the center of the road. Straddling the rut I left the car in second gear in anticipation of having to hit the gas to get over the bump at the bottom of the hill where the rut veered off across the road. I hit the ditch at the bottom hard with good momentum and turned the tires perpendicular to it and they jumped right over the far side. I continued along this road for a way, passing over small washes. In the distance I saw a much larger wash across the road and thought to myself very clearly “I shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to anyway”. The front tires dropped off the ledge and skirt under the front bumper scraped the sand. I instinctively hit the brakes which killed my momentum going through the wash. I put the car in first and tried to recover some speed at the base of the ditch and managed to get the front half of the car out of the wash. I was going too slow though and the rear tires tried to push me the rest of the way out but just dug into the sand. I put on the parking brake and got out to take a look. The right rear and front left tires were dug in and the other two were barely making contact with the ground. I got in and spun the tires hopefully one more time with no result. I got out again and walked along the wash thinking about how much it was going to cost me if I couldn’t get out of this myself. I found two flat rocks lying in the sand up the dry creek bed. I wedged them behind my rear tires and got back into the car. In reverse, I managed to rock the car until the rear tires were on top of the rocks. I put it back into first and popped the clutch. The car lurched forward with enough momentum to jump out of the ruts I had worn by spinning the tires. I stood on the gas until I was on flat ground again.

At this point I decided that I was going to head back before I got myself stuck farther down the road. I found a place to turn around and came up to the wash again. It was steeper on the exit from this direction and I was worried about getting stuck again. I turned off the car and walked down into the wash to plan my passage. I wanted to be able to drive faster through the sand but the ledge was too abrupt and would hit my front bumper. I took a large stone and beat it against the ledge until I had formed it into a more gentle slope. Then I found some more flat stones and buried them in the sand in spots where I thought I might need some extra traction. I could see the tracks from where I had come through before so I could estimate where the tires would hit on the slope. Preparations finished, I got back in and started the car. By the time I hit the wash I was in second gear going about 12 mph. The front tires dropped into the wash and the nose of the car pitched down into the sand but I kept on the gas. I ran over the first of the rocks that I had placed and the front of the car lifted up enough to clear the ledge on the exit side. Just as the front tires came out on the other side they slipped in the sand but by that time the rear tires had gotten to the buried stones and I had enough traction to push myself the rest of the way out. 
I followed the road back up to the junction where another trail breaks off to the other side of the valley. My spine still tingling from the near miss down in the wash I was glad to be headed back towards the main road. I looked off across the valley to the golden buttes in the distance; the sun was on its way down now and they were glowing in a way they hadn’t been when I passed this junction before. So of course, I kept on straight and headed back down into the valley again along the other branch of the dirt road. I told myself I’d turn around if I had to pass through any washes on this side but no sooner had I told myself that than I came around a corner looking down into a narrow ditch at the bottom of a hill. This one didn’t have a steep drop off so I rolled right over it and up the other side without hitting the gas. The road led down between the two golden buttes and I stopped just under the smaller one to get out and explore. 
The buttes were in the midst of a sea of grey earthen swells. The earth of these hills was softer than even the muddy mounds in the Badlands of South Dakota. With each step my boot would sink a half inch into the dry cracked earth, sometimes an inch. The surface was brittle and crunched under my feet but beneath this thin layer the ground was spongy. Trying to climb a slope to get a better view of the buttes was a struggle against the loose ground crumbling under my feet. I found that I was able to kick the toe of my boot into the earth to make a foothold as I climbed.
At the top of a tall mound I could see that the larger butte was a horseshoe shape with steep cliffs on all sides. That is except for a slope of fallen conglomerate rock stacked up against a cliff on the inside of the horseshoe. If I could get to that I could probably climb up the rest of the way and get on top of the butte. I slid down the crumbling hillside, chased by tumbling pebbles loosed by my footfalls. At the base was a field of gravel that supported my weight much better. As I walked across the crunching gravel I looked down at the stones; some of them appeared to be hollow. I picked one up for a closer look and discovered that they weren’t stones at all but were in fact the shells of some ancient mollusk. I was walking on the floor of an ancient sea, long since evaporated.
Atop the butte the ground was perfectly flat and strewn with small black rocks. I noticed a plant that I’d never seen before. A narrow stem supported a bulbous pouch; from the top of the pouch dendritic flowering branches grew, some with their own pouches. The tallest that I found were about a foot high. I saw some that had been broken off just above the pouch and I imagined small rodents chewing the tops off to get at the water stored inside. I took out my knife and slit one of these plants down the side. The blade followed the grain of the stem and cut through the pouch easily; there was no water inside.
I approached the edge of the butte facing away from the valley toward the San Rafael Swell. There I could see deep canyons cut by the streams running down the side of the uplift. Though the canyons were above me, they were turned on their side and I could see into them as if I were flying over them in an airplane. The largest one issued forth a wide silty creek. I checked my map and saw that it was named Muddy Creek. The inner gorge of this canyon looked intriguing and I made plans to follow the course of the creek into the canyon the next day. The series of canyons got smaller and smaller as the swell dove under the grey earth of the valley. Looking out over this lunar surface I could see Factory Butte over the cliffs that I had driven down from earlier on the other side of the valley.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Horseshoe Canyon

Last night I pulled off of interstate 70 onto the temple mountain road. To get to the road, you drive about a mile down a frontage road on the eastbound side of 70. I’d seen headlights coming my way on the side of the highway just before I exited so I assume that I’m not the only one looking for a camping spot for the night.

I follow the dirt road up onto the San Rafael Swell and see no sign of the truck I saw making its way up the frontage road. After driving about 10 miles I haven’t seen any pullouts to sleep in but the road has started to branch frequently. I take one of the branches toward Sinbad Head. This road then branches a couple of times and I find a flat spot to park in the middle of the Y of one of the branches. It’s 1 am by the time I’m ready for bed and looking out my window I catch my first glimpse of Orion this year with only his boot, Saiph, still hidden below the horizon. 
In the morning, the road is still empty and I make my way down towards highway 24. I see a couple standing outside their Subaru waving at me as I pass. They appear to be waving out of happiness rather than distress so I wave back and keep driving. A group of dirt bikes pulls out onto the road ahead of me and as I follow their path with my eyes I see a campground full of vans, bikes and ATVs on the side of the road ahead. The road gets easier from here and I pass by Goblin Valley on the way to highway 24.

I pull out on to highway 24 and drive about a quarter mile before turning off again to the opposite side of the road towards The Maze. The Maze is the most remote national park unit in Utah; down miles of rough slick rock trail only passable with high clearance four wheel drive trucks; not what I’m driving. This is not where I’m headed though and I fly down the washboard dirt road past the turnoff for the maze with its big white federal government closure poster plastered over the entrance sign. I’m headed towards Horseshoe Canyon; technically a unit of Canyonlands National Park, like The Maze. But unlike The Maze it is down a well maintained dirt road easily passable even to sedans. 
What I’m here to visit is a site that I’ve longed to see for years. It was the subject of the first painting that I finished; the pictographs of The Great Gallery. I pull up to the trailhead at the rim of Horseshoe Canyon and see the familiar federal government shutdown signage. Shutdown no longer, I say, as I march past the signs and into the canyon.
The canyon itself is beautiful and would be worth the hike even if people hadn’t decorated it with some of the most beautiful and mysterious art in the southwest 3000 years ago. NPS volunteers came through years ago and uprooted the invasive tamarisk which has allowed beautiful cottonwood to grow tall along the banks of the riverbed. Hidden behind these cottonwood stands are little tableaus of human and animal figures painted in black on the reddish sandstone.
One can see why the canyon was a popular shelter for ancient peoples. The meanders of the river lead into large alcoves concealing ledges that would be safe from both animal and human in the night. These alcoves house many of the pictographs found in the canyon.

Over a steep bank I climb into view of the final and most impressive of these scenes; the Great Gallery. It’s a 50 foot long mural containing 10s of ghostly, humanoid figures painted life size in black. Looking closer you see that each figure has haunting, blank, circular eyes opening from its small black head. The shoulders are broad and the bodies are sometimes decorated with patterns and objects. There are no feet; the figures trail off, fading into the sandstone. 
There’s someone else here, sitting on a rock in front of the paintings. I wait on the opposite bank of the dry riverbed and allow him to contemplate them in privacy as I had hoped to. After about 30 minutes he gets up and climbs down the bank on his side. As he passes by he says “you can have it all to yourself now…well you’ll be sharing it with them…” and he walks over the hill back up the canyon.

Sitting in front of these ancient paintings I see details that I never noticed in the photographs I’d seen of them before. Smaller figures with spikey hair coming out of their heads, a flock of bighorn galloping in a circle chased by hunters and a dog standing next to the figure on the far end that looks like it was painted by a later tenant of the canyon. My favorite is a single figure out of the many that has been painted in white instead of black. It has faded almost completely into the stone but is just barely visible; a shadow of the shadows. 
A lot of meanings have been attributed to these paintings; the main figures on the left have been named “Holy Ghost and Attendants”. The people who painted these were here over 3000 years ago and were long gone even when the Anasazi showed up; there’s no way to know what really inspired these figures. If I had to take a guess though; I’d imagine these people in camp on this ledge. They have a fire burning and one of them is telling stories of gods or spirits that inhabit the world around them; maybe even that very canyon. The others are watching the storyteller, his shadow cast against the wall by the flames; a long black shadow with no legs. When they sleep their heads are filled with nightmares of shadowy spirits walking within the canyon walls with no legs and tall broad shoulders. The blazing orange of the canyon wall burns through their eyes.
In the morning, the image still fresh in the mind of one of the dreamers, he begins to paint on the wall. Where before there had just been records of hunts and sheep herds, now he is painting his gods. The gods that they painted were merely shadows of the humans that conjured them, as all gods are, but that is what makes them so potent; they can be terrible in all the ways humans can and will serve to remind us of our own failings. The gods of these people have lived in these canyon walls since before the founding of Rome and will continue on likely long after the current civilization that inhabits this area is gone. It would be a challenge now to create something as enduring and as haunting as these figures.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


For the last week visitors have been asking us for inside information on the possible government shutdown. Maybe they were hoping we’d received some secret letter from congress assuring us that this was all just for show and would be over quickly. We received the same letter every other federal agency got from the president; one expressing sympathy with the hardships of the now unemployed rangers, law enforcement, cashiers, janitors, mechanics and hotel workers in the park.

All staff was required to come in to work for a four hour day on the morning of the shutdown. These four hours (for which they will likely never be paid) were to be spent signing furlough paperwork and closing down the office. When I got there, trail closure signs were being handed out to the law enforcement rangers to be posted at the head of every trail; threatening fines and imprisonment. The reactions of the people I passed in the hall ranged from anger to sadness to humor with each reaction frustrating and intensifying the reaction of those who felt differently. Some were offended by the term “non-essential” that had been applied to them and resulted in their furlough during the shutdown. Though callous, it seems accurate to me; without tourists visiting the parks there’s no one to tell stories to or guide down the trails or show the night sky to. To me the term “non-essential” means that the whole idea of the national parks is being deemed unnecessary; an indication that when times get hard, we will discard the natural world in service of our own self interest.

Campers in the park were given 48 hours to pack up and exit the park; a timetable that I hoped would outlast the shutdown. Some of the other volunteers and I made a plan to gather up the remaining campers for an impromptu telescope viewing at Paria viewpoint that evening, as some last gesture for those that were trying to stick it out hoping that the shutdown would be resolved. Some had their own telescopes and I planned to sneak one of the park telescopes out before the building shut down. However, the HR director told us that we absolutely could not invite visitors out of their campsites into a park that was technically closed, whether we were in uniform or not.

One of the volunteers spent his morning next to the bare flag pole outside the locked doors of the visitor center talking to tourists that were stopping by on their way out of the park. They were angry, and rightfully so. A man from Poland stopped by; he had been planning this once in a lifetime tour of the national parks for years and was here for a month now with nowhere to go. Greater than their frustration was their sympathy with the people that were there listening and talking to them on what was now unpaid time.
With the geology lectures and astronomy talks and rim walks cancelled, my coworkers KL, KP and I decided to get out of the park and onto a trail that wasn’t yet closed. We checked the national forest website to see if they had closed their trails. Their website directed us to the USDA website for more information; following that link we were met with a banner informing us that the USDA website was down due to the shutdown. The department of agriculture barely has enough people to patrol the forests when they can pay them so we figured they’d have no ability to close all of their trails and decided to take our chances and drive out to the lava tubes near Cedar Breaks.
In the residential area of the park, rangers who couldn't afford to pay rent on their cabin during the shutdown were packing their trucks and moving out. I said goodbye to a few whose season was being cut short and wouldn't be back until next year. On the way out of the park we passed crowds of backpackers leaving the park on foot after being stranded when the buses didn't start up again that morning, leaving them to walk to the next town six miles down the road. The law enforcement rangers had already set up a barricade beside the park entrance sign. Tourists were still driving up to the barricade to get their pictures taken in front of the Bryce Canyon sign. Tour buses were lingering at the rest stop while their drivers tried to decide how to salvage their tours and the tourists, restless, resorted to posing for pictures in front of anything in sight; gas stations, road signs, other tour buses.

The National Forest back roads were not closed and we made it up to Mammoth Cave. The lava tube is a low, wide tunnel that was opened when lava intruded into the earth here. The outer layer of the finger of lava solidified while the molten inner core retreated; leaving a tunnel just big enough for a human to crawl through and plenty spacious for families of bats. The ceiling alternately opens up then closes down on the floor of once jagged rocks that have been worn smooth by the passage of boots and blue jeans. A fire that appears to burn at the far end of the tunnel is revealed to be the sunlight passing through the yellowed leaves of a grove of aspens growing around the exit. 
The fields behind the tunnels are filled with broken pieces of black rock from the lava flow that covered this area some 100,000 years ago. After climbing up a rubble pile, we reach another stand of blazing yellow aspen. A fire has passed through this area and charred trunks of trees still stand; some supported only by the thin core of the tree left from the burn. Finally through some aspen where the yellow has begun to blush red we find the edge of the plateau and can see a dirt road below passing by a dry pond. Above that are the remains of a forest consumed by the greedy beetles; in the distance are the red cliffs of the Claron formation and the shuttered canyon.