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.