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.

No comments:

Post a Comment