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Lay of the Land

Friday, September 9th, 2016

“To rise above tree line is to go above thought, and after, the descent back into birdsong, bog orchids, willows, and firs is to sink into the preliterate parts of ourselves.” – Gretel Ehrlich


The entire summer seemed busy, but August flew by at an unusually rapid pace. My son and I drove from California to New Mexico to visit my parents; on our way out there we broke up the drive by spending a quiet and welcoming night at Navajo National Monument in northern Arizona. Four days after getting home from that trip, my girlfriend and I left on a trip to the north coast of California, visiting friends and family along the way. That leg of our travels culminated at South Lake Tahoe (I know, it’s not the north coast. Don’t ask.), and my dropping her at the airport in Reno to fly home.

From there, I drove south to eastern California, picked up Jackson Frishman at his house in the Deep Springs Valley, and we headed to eastern Nevada to backpack and photograph some Great Basin mountain ranges. By the time I got home from my second trip, my car had more than 3,000 new miles and I guess you could say I really got the lay of the land.

Over the years I’ve spent outdoors, I’ve become acutely aware of moments where time seems to stand still and that particular snapshot in time seems to transcend all others. In those particular rare moments, I’m overcome with an almost indescribable peace, feeling as though there’s no other place on earth I would rather–or should–be. I imagine that Buddhists would describe these moments as feeling very much like Nirvana, when one’s soul is freed from continuous rebirth, thus permanently taking its small place in the world. Put another way, these moments represent true peace.

I’ve always liked the above passage by Gretel Ehrlich because I think perhaps she used tree line as the metaphoric “rising above,” which has always seemed more eloquent than any way I’ve found to describe the feeling. My August travels only took me above topographical tree line a couple of times, but I felt like every turn of the journey somehow took me above Ehrlich’s metaphorical tree line, and I am indeed very fortunate for that. Here are a few of my favorite images from the last month or so.

engineer-mountain-wildflowers

Wildflowers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

navajo national monument sunrise

August sunrise in northern Arizona.

fort-bragg-coastline

Coastline along the rugged north coast of California

mendocino headlands sunset

A foggy sunset along California’s north coast

white mountains california

Sunrise over the Deep Springs Valley, California

white pine mountains sunset

Sunset on Currant Mountain, Nevada

Public Comments on the Grand Canyon Escalade Project

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Earlier this week, Bill 0293-16 came before the Navajo Nation Council for approval. This bill contains the much-contested Grand Canyon Escalade Project, which is a massive development project on the east rim of the Grand Canyon near Grand Canyon National Park and the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers. Grand Canyon Escalade would be destructive on several levels, and I believe it should be opposed. The nonprofit group Save the Confluence has much more about the project on their website. 

The Navajo Nation Council is asking for public comments on the bill until 9/3/16 (which is not much time). You can submit your comments directly to the council by emailing them at comments@navajo-nsn.gov, with Bill 0293-16 in the subject line. 

Here are the comments I sent the council regarding Grand Canyon Escalade this morning.

Esteemed council members:

I am writing regarding the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade Project, which is up for approval as part of Bill 0293-16 and is currently before you.  As I understand it, the bill asks for approval of several items, including significant development of an area on the Grand Canyon’s east rim, near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, near the border of the Navajo Nation and Grand Canyon National Park. I understand this project would bring tourism and revenue to the Navajo Nation and as a non-tribal member of the community, I cannot speak for what the confluence means to the families and clans who live west of Highway 89. Nonetheless, I submit my comments for your consideration.

As places go, the Grand Canyon has faced its share of threats, and fortunately it has dodged some of the biggest ones (like the Bridge and Marble dams, whose progress was halted permanently in 1969). Today it seems like the West along with many other concerned people around the world is again holding its breath to see how the Grand Canyon Escalade Project will play out.

In 1993, I came to the Grand Canyon for the first time with my Boy Scout troop from Farmington, New Mexico. We backpacked into the Canyon from the South Rim; it was my first backpacking trip and I made many lifelong memories. Since then, I have become an avid backpacker, even taking my son into the wilderness for the first time when he was two. In an increasingly busy world, wilderness provides solitude, solace, and sanctuary. I have returned many times to the Grand Canyon since 1993 and in 2013 (twenty years after my first visit) I again found myself backpacking the Grand Canyon, only this time I was hiking to Cape Solitude to see the confluence–and the proposed site for Grand Canyon Escalade–myself.

The trip was impactful for me, and it became even more clear why the Grand Canyon Escalade simply cannot happen. During the entire trip–which comprised over 40 miles of hiking–we did not see an another human, not even another human footprint. We crossed paths with a herd of elk several times, but beyond that the silence was deafening and the dark night sky mesmerizing. The loneliness was aching and beautiful. Indeed, the area of Grand Canyon National Park that Cape Solitude lies in only sees about 50 visitors a year, which is a far cry from the much more busy main corridor along the South Rim; it feels like it is a world away.

Grand Canyon Escalade would be putting undue stress on an ecologically sensitive area and destroying one of nature’s cathedrals that has been billions of years in the making. This part of the Grand Canyon doesn’t need a lot of visitors for it to be special. Wilderness is like that. As much as we need food or water, I believe we need wild places. We do not need to visit them often, and when we do they should be difficult to get to, but simply knowing these places are there calms the nerves in the hustle and bustle of city life.

One night, decades ago, the famous Western author Edward Abbey sat at Cape Solitude and wrote, “We must preserve, not obliterate, what still remains of the American wilderness, the American hope, the American adventure.” Restraint is one of the rarest of virtues, but I ask that you exercise it here, thus preserving the east rim of the Grand Canyon, untouched and unmarred, for future generations.

Respectfully,

Greg Russell

Sunrise at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers the site of the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade project

The Confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers

Backpacking a wilderness of rock

Monday, April 18th, 2016

“The upper Escalante Canyons, in the northeastern reaches of the monument, are distinctive: in addition to several major arches and natural bridges, vivid geological features are laid bare in narrow, serpentine canyons, where erosion has exposed sandstone and shale deposits in shades of red, maroon, chocolate, tan, gray, and white. Such diverse objects make the monument outstanding for purposes of geologic study.” – Presidential Proclamation 6920 (establishing the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument), September 18, 1996


A wilderness of rock.  That’s what I imagined the historic Boulder Mail Trail would be when my dad and I set off to backpack it last month.  Indeed, to paraphrase Maynard Dixon, the upper Escalante Canyons expose the earth’s skeleton in a beautiful, if austere, way, exposing the earth’s skeleton.

The Boulder Mail Trail (which isn’t much of a trail at all), is the historic mail delivery route between the hamlets of Boulder and Escalante, Utah.  Highway 12, which now connects Boulder and Escalante, wasn’t paved until the 1970s, so the Mail Trail was the quickest route for quite some time.  All along the route, the old telegraph wire connecting these towns is also very obvious, although it’s fallen down in a few places.  The Mail Trail now lies almost entirely within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

A couple of months ago, my dad asked if I wanted to go backpacking this spring, and of course I jumped at the chance.  A while back, I wrote a blog post about January trips with my dad, and I continue to feel really fortunate that my parents are both willing and able to be active.  It was our first backpacking trip together in many years, but it ended up being very fun, and just the right length for two old “geezers.”

For early spring, the weather was what one can expect on the Colorado Plateau: windy and cold.  Out of the wind in the sun, it was pleasant, but it was never too hot.  When we set off from the trailhead outside of Boulder, snow flurries were ducking in and out of the canyons on the Aquarius Plateau to the north, and looked like they might reach us within a few hours.  Dark skies to the west seemed to promise wet weather as well.  That’s better than boring blue skies, though, right?

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

The Mail Trail is more than just a walk across sandstone, as it crosses a few fairly large tributaries of the Escalante River.  The most significant of these is Death Hollow, which despite the name is known for being a fun backpacking trip in its own right (save for the poison ivy it is also well known for!) and is about halfway along the Mail Trail. Death Hollow is surprisingly lush (hence the poison ivy), and is a wonderful riparian habitat tucked neatly away into the desert. We ended up camping in the bottom of the canyon amongst giant ponderosa pines because the weather was just spunky enough that we didn’t want to get blown off the rim and into the night as we slept.  We ended up falling asleep early, and despite a small sprinkle of rain and major sandblasting from the wind, the storm never really developed.

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

The next morning, we hiked about a mile down Death Hollow before the route continued out the west side of the canyon, and towards Escalante.  We were able to see Escalante within a few hours, but it took much longer to wind our way down through the sandstone and back to the car we had parked at that end of the Mail Trail.  A quick run up to Boulder for the other car, and a beer (or two) at Hell’s Backbone Grill topped off the trip.

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

Despite the increased popularity of the Escalante area since President Clinton included it in his massive 1996 National Monument, the upper canyons of the Escalante River seem to be less visited than other more popular areas along the lower river.  It was nice to be able to experience a little bit of history, wilderness, and complete solitude for two days.  That said, solitude shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise–there isn’t a traffic signal for at least 100 miles from Escalante, and this is one of the most remote and rural places in the lower 48 states.  Combine that with world class scenery, and this wilderness of rock is truly an area to be cherished.

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

Chaos Theory

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

In walking around southern California, I notice many people are starting to doubt the legitimacy of the rain this record El Niño was said to bring us.  Fair enough…we’ve had only one honest storm so far, but meteorologists say it is really just starting to come into its own. Despite not rearing its head too badly yet here, much of the Sierra Nevada is already at 100%+ of snowpack, and wildflowers are starting pop up in the desert.  More on that in a minute though.

At the end of fall, right before Christmas, I made a quick trip to the Grand Canyon.  While there, I got to experience a fairly stormy day on the south rim, complete with howling winds, whiteout conditions and closed roads.  A couple of images from that trip easily made my Favorites of 2015.  Then, Jackson Frishman and I headed to Death Valley National Park, and the weather was equally spunky.  There was no snow in the valley, but there was plenty of rain, great clouds, and even a few surprises thrown in along the way.

Visiting the Grand Canyon and Death Valley so closely together in time is sort of a surreal experience.  As if I had lost it, I quickly regained my appreciation for deep geological time.  Nearly 75 million years ago during the Laramide Orogeny, the Colorado Plateau was pushed upward nearly two miles and the Colorado River (which flowed from the newly formed Rocky Mountains) started to cut into the rock, forming the Grand Canyon.  Today, the river has cut about as deeply as it can go–to the basement Vishnu Schists–giving us a look back in time about 1.7 billion years.

Death Valley’s geologic story is a bit more complex (and violent), but as the Vishnu basement rocks in the Grand Canyon were being formed, Death Valley was already in a state of unrest, with rocks in certain areas being twisted and folded.  One area of particularly complex folding has been dubbed the “Amargosa Chaos” and is found in the southern end of the Black Mountains.  Fold, fold, fold…then separate.  That’s how the Basin and Range Province creates its mountain ranges–plates are pulled apart until they tilt upward creating massive mountain ranges with deep valleys between them.  In this part of North America, as John McPhee writes, the continent is literally being pulled apart.

You also start to understand a scale of spatial immensity in these two places.  While the Grand Canyon is typically thought of as the “deep” canyon at around 6,000 feet, it’s got nothing on Death Valley, which is over two miles deep (at its deepest).  If you’re not interested geology (I know…how can you not be?), it might be just as easy to stand in awe of both of these places, allowing yourself to feel small, both as a part of the landscape, and as barely-a-blip in geological time.

It’s worth noting briefly that while spring on the Grand Canyon’s rim is a few months off, it’s already happening in (especially) the southern end of Death Valley.  Jackson and I saw fields of Desert Gold (Geraea canescens) that created a wonderful lace-work pattern among the volcanic rocks in the southern Black Mountains.  All of the other usual suspects were starting to bloom as well, but are several weeks off from peak.  Hopefully some dreary, drizzly conditions continue in Death Valley, and it’s got the possibility of becoming a very good year for wildflowers.  Jackson has several photos and more commentary on his blog as well.

A winter evening at the south rim of the Grand Canyon

Death Valley mountains and wildflowers

Stormy winter morning on the south rim of the Grand Canyon

Salt Creek Hills, Death Valley

The Savages of the Colorado Plateau

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

In early July, I made it home to the Four Corners region of the Southwest to visit my parents.  Although I haven’t lived there in close to two decades, I use the word home to describe it because that’s how it feels–no matter how long I’ve been gone, it always feels like I haven’t left.  Perhaps this isn’t a good thing, implying things about a lack of progress, etc., but I prefer to think that feeling is due to an intangible familiarity that is coded in our DNA.  Safe, familiar, known–space becomes place.

As I usually try to do on my visits home, I visited the Cedar Mesa area of southern Utah.  Driving across the unassuming highway that crosses the Grand Gulch Plateau, I was reminded of the many backpacking trips I took there when I was younger.  My friends and I climbed the ledges of the canyons, busted through the willows, and–yes–explored the numerous Ancestral Puebloan ruins in hands-on style.  While we were never destructive, we certainly never hesitated to climb inside, living in our own fantasies of what the lives of these people must have been like, completely oblivious to the historical context of the sites.


Last week, I took my seven-year-old son backpacking in our local mountains here in southern California.  After driving home from New Mexico, he wanted a “short car ride,” and I was happy to oblige.  The San Jacintos have really wonderful Sierra Nevada-esque piles of granite boulders, and after arriving at our campsite for the day, he was content to play in these makeshift forts, but of course from a seven year-old’s perspective, a fort can always be improved on.

After a few hours of playing, he asked for help moving a huge number of logs and deadfall into a particular area to create a wall.  My first reaction was that moving that wood would violate Leave No Trace principles, and I caught myself starting to redirect his attention towards something less impactful for future visitors.  But then I looked around: impact abounded around us.  Visitors from the weekend had left a 5-gallon bucket of water, there was trash in the next door.  One weekend’s crowds leave, another’s roll in.  I happily picked up my first log and put it where I was directed–this was going to be a wall that could stop Hannibal and his elephants.

After getting home, I read an article that perfectly echoed my sentiments from that evening in the San Jacintos.  Environmental education (for kids especially) has almost gone so far as to turn kids off from nature.  As the author of the article says, kids need to be untutored savages in nature for just a while in order to appreciate it, treasure it.  My afternoon of asking my son to appreciate being outside went completely unheard; after building the wall together, he asked if we could live in the mountains for the rest of the summer.  All it took was 20 minutes.


Back to Cedar Mesa, and my childhood years running rampant through its canyons.  Today we know the area was colonized at least twice by Ancestral Puebloans, and it is incredibly rich with archaeological sites.  Some of them are well known and can be reached easily (like the sites I visited as a kid), but others are more remote, their locations are more guarded to prevent looting and just to keep them from being “loved to death.”  Today, I feel incredibly connected to this place–probably more so than anywhere on earth–but if you had tried telling the twelve-year-old me the area’s history, I would have tuned out for sure.  Looking back, I feel like I needed to be an untutored savage on those backpacking trips to have the appreciation I do for the place today.

The timing of my recent trips and this article are serendipitous, and it does seem like certain things intersect in our lives at opportune times.  Understanding the nature of nature education is research that needs to be done; instilling a notion of the inherent value of the land in our children needs to be done now, and with urgency.  This is especially true on Cedar Mesa.

Given my years of running freely there, I admittedly have some internal conflict about it, but I can’t help but feel the area needs more protection.  Some pockets–like Natural Bridges National Monument–are protected, but the area at large is managed loosely by the Bureau of Land Management, and the oversight is minimal.  The “guarded” archaeological sites I mentioned are becoming less so by the day with GPS coordinates popping up here and there on the internet, putting them at risk for looting (which is shockingly rampant) or simply being “loved to death.”  Add these threats to the area’s cultural history to potential development, and we are forced to ask at what point we impose stricter rules via protection.  It’s never an easy issue on public lands.

storm cell over Monument Valley, seen from Cedar Mesa, Utah

This recent article from the High Country News summarizes the groups involved in Cedar Mesa’s protection and the compromises being made on that long journey.


“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”  — Edward Abbey

An Untutored Savage


Joining Seasons

Monday, October 7th, 2013

“People do not merely select roles suited to their native talents and personalities.  They also gravitate to environments that reward their hereditary inclinations.” — Edward O. Wilson, Consilience


After a long, painful, and torrential monsoon season soaked the Southwest, the Mojave Desert is greener than I’ve ever seen it.  The creosote almost glows in the midday sun as I drive up the long grade that separates the Colorado Plateau from the low desert.  For a fall day, it’s still warm: nearly 80 degrees.  Finally after many months of other obligations, I’m able to come back for a visit.  Living in southern California, I go saying I miss autumn, but really I just miss the place.

The Colorado Plateau is characterized in part by its vast expanses of Navajo Sandstone; although other formations infiltrate here and there, the Navajo is predominant, and it has many voices.  In harsh summer light, it can appear white as snow.  It glows blue in moonlight.  During twilight hours it turns a creamy pink.   It can be completely red or streaked with ‘desert varnish’; the redness is a continuum that depends on the amount of iron present, and the oxidation state of that iron.

Iron = strength.

I trust iron, and I come here when I need to be reminded of strength.  For some reason I have never been able to warm up to the sea like I have the high deserts and mountains of the southwest, and I don’t look to it for solace.

A sense of place does not arise solely from a space, nor is it necessarily a direct function of time spent there.  Memories and experiences transform a space into a place.   I arrive on the Southwest edge of the Plateau, the first sandstone cliffs greeting me, and memories come flooding back to me.  I can look across a distant vista and remember individual trees, places where I have found bighorn sheep skulls, and the place I found so many Calochortus lilies that I wished I had brought my camera.  I even remember friends who have never been here with me except in spirit.

Markagunt Plateau Aspens

Autumn is a special time to be here.  The busy-ness of summer is leaving, families of tourists are back to their routines at home, and there is a heightened sense of peace.  In the high country, elk bugles make for a perfect alarm clock, and the breeze carries notes of winter, even on an Indian Summer afternoon.   In Navajo, October is called Ghąąji’, which means “the joining of the seasons.”  For them, it is a time to cultivate the richness of the season–summer’s crops–while getting ready for the ceremonies of winter as well as the hardships that lie ahead.

Photographically, I have always struggled when I visit a location for the first time.   I find myself feeling hurried and stressed out, and as a result I cannot find a composition that feels right, cannot read the light, etc.  I just feel out of place.  Granted, sometimes magic happens, but most of the time it doesn’t.  When I visit a place I know well, the opposite is true and I am relaxed, allowed to focus on the details of the place.  I find myself taking fewer images and there are times I may not even take my camera out of the bag.  I don’t think I’m harboring an elitist agenda by only waiting for the “best” light, but I am simply content just to be.

Our world is wonderfully complex and so many things are interwoven.  All too often, we search for truths that are equally complex and intricate.  However, sitting on sun-warmed sandstone in autumn experiencing my own joining of seasons, I am reminded that some truths are simple.

Lava Point Sunrise 2

 

Lava Point Sunrise