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Welcome Bears Ears National Monument!

Sunday, February 5th, 2017

President Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate Bears Ears National Monument on December 28, 2016. The greater Bears Ears region and national monument includes Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge, Valley of the Gods, Elk Ridge, Beef Basin, Indian Creek and Lockhart Basin, among others.

map of bears ears national monument

Credit: Stephanie Smith, Grand Canyon Trust

In large part, the designation of this monument was due to the arduous work of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a collective of five Native American tribes, who all hold parts of the new monument sacred. Bears Ears is the first truly Native American national monument, and these tribes’ collective heritage will now be protected for generations to come.

photograph of intact native american ruin in bears ears national monument

On a personal note, having grown up in the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States, many of my early backpacking trips were on Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch. I can still remember discovering just a few of the hundreds of Ancestral Puebloan ruins and rock art in this area; these are some of my favorite memories of time spent in the outdoors. Today, whenever I visit my parents, who still live in northwestern New Mexico, the Bears Ears buttes are a landmark that I see to tell me I’m home. I’m very grateful to Utah Diné Bikéyah and others whose hard work made this monument possible. I’ve blogged many times on Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa (see posts here, here, and here, for instance).

photograph of clouds and rocks in valley of the gods utah

To celebrate the designation of Bears Ears, I’ve put together a collection of my images from the monument in one place. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit soon and add more.

Although I’ve published this gallery on social media, I have been a little bit slow in getting it to my blog. Since the monument was designated, it’s come under heavy fire (see links here and here for details). This criticism as a “land grab,” has come primarily from Utah Republican lawmakers who are also key leaders in the land transfer movement (see my blog post here for details). So, ironically, although Bears Ears has protection, it now needs your support more than ever. Please consider a donation directly to Utah Diné Bikéyah or the Grand Canyon Trust to help them combat efforts to reverse the monument designation, and contact your lawmakers to voice your opposition to it.

The ties that bind

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

“What holds people together long enough to realize their power as citizens is their common inhabiting of a single place.” – Daniel Kemmis

“Our gadgets and electronic maps read our exact location and desires virtually anytime and anywhere. Never before have we been so located – and yet so lost.” – Bryan Pfeiffer


I recently read an article, “Ghosts and tiny treasures,” by Bryan Pfeiffer.  He uses an example of the way we react to the killing of an individual lion by a trophy hunter, yet at the same time many of us fail to take note of the impending extinction of an entire non-charismatic keystone species like the Poweshiek skipperling, a butterfly.  Pfeiffer makes the argument is that we clearly care about other animals and places, but we have not developed what he calls a “chronic passion” for nature. Martin Litton, who was probably a bit more gruff about the subject than Pfeiffer, argued for years that we don’t harbor enough hatred in our hearts when it comes to the destruction and development of the natural world. Finding my own personal balancing point between Pfeiffer’s passion and Litton’s hatred is something that’s been on my mind for quite some time.

I recently reposted an image on my Facebook page of the Bears Ears buttes in southern Utah.  Reaching almost 9,000′ elevation, the Bears Ears are the high point of the Cedar Mesa and greater Canyonlands area.  Visible from much of the Four Corners region, they never fail to announce that I’m almost home when I drive back to northern New Mexico from my house in southern California to visit my parents.

The mesas and canyons that extend off of the Bears Ears–the Dark Canyon complex, Grand Gulch, White and Arch Canyons–make up some of the most remote, rugged, and spectacular scenery in North America.  As if the scenery isn’t enough, the greater Bears Ears area houses what may be the highest density of archaeological treasures in the country.  There are literally hundreds if not thousands of archaeological sites (ruins, rock art, etc) here, and visitors can gain a tangible connection with the past simply by walking a few hundred feet into this wonderful area.

Bears Ears Sunset

The Bears Ears buttes are the centerpiece of a proposed national monument in southern Utah

Although most of the archaeological sites are Ancestral Puebloan (ancestors of the modern day pueblo people, like Hopi and Zuni), the Navajo and Ute people, who live adjacent to the area on their respective reservations also have stories contained in–and on–this stone.  While the area is receives significantly less use than Utah’s “Big Five” national parks, it certainly isn’t unvisited. In addition to recreation pressures, oil drilling, and human development in general are knocking on the door of the area, and undesirable activities like archaeological looting run rampant.  In response to these potential threats, the Navajo, Zuni, Hope and Ute tribes have come together collectively as Utah Diné Bikeyah, and have proposed the Bears Ears National Monument to protect all of these resources for future generations.

The ecological importance of the Poweshiek skipperling–which Pfeiffer talks about in his article–might not be immediately obvious to everyone, at least not on first glance.  Similarly, the significance of cultural and natural treasures in the greater Bears Ears region may not seem that valuable, or worth protecting.  Thus, on the most basic level, Pfeiffer’s call for us to develop a chronic passion for nature and Utah Diné Bikeyah’s proposal for us to honor the wild landscape and cultural history surrounding the Bears Ears by creating a national monument are really no different.  They both symbolize a commitment to the ties that bind all of us together.

In so many ways right now in the United States especially, we’re at curious place, and the commitment that Pfeiffer and Utah Diné Bikeyah are asking for seems somewhat unobtainable, which is paradoxical to me.  While we want change (look at any social media outlet–not only do we want it, we’re downright angry about it!) and are more electronically connected to the things we want to change than ever before (webcam, anyone?), we seem to have lost the connections that really matter. Connection to place, to other organisms, to each other, is something we desperately lack right now as a people.

Now is the time to preserve not only natural Earth and the ties to our evolutionary history, but our ties to human history. But we need to re-establish our connections to both of them to do that. There is no other way.

I suppose this wasn’t really a blog post about photography, but about connection to a place, which–when present–makes photography more meaningful and personal.  In that spirit consider this the beginning of a dialogue…about connection, purpose-driven photography, and endeavoring to protect that connection.

Thanks for reading.

Muley Point Utah

A photographer in the proposed Bears Ears National Monument

More from the Escalante

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

“We spend our days trying to be big. In the middle of nowhere, though, we can surrender to smallness again and instead find where we fit in the landscape. Out there, where there’s nothing, is where there’s the most to learn.” – Christopher Solomon, A Case for Getting Far, Far Away


In my last post, I briefly described a backpack through the canyons of the upper Escalante River.  This entire area of southern Utah is among the most remote in the western United States.  As a result of this (or maybe because of this) it is sparsely populated; depending on where you’re at, the nearest traffic signal can be hundreds of miles away and the stars in dark night skies vastly outnumber any town lights.

Escalante River Sunset

The Escalante River and its tributaries have cut sinuously through the sandstone in this area below the Aquarius Plateau.  As I said in my last post, it’s rugged country, but its matched perhaps only by the mettle of the area’s first explorers*.

As an underscore to the already remote nature of this country, about a century after the Escalante-Dominguez expedition, Major John Wesley Powell came through this area (roughly) on his Colorado River expedition.  He named the Henry Mountains, which are not insignificant, and are visible from much of southeastern Utah. The Henries were the last mountain range in the contiguous United States to be named and explored (the Navajo call them Dził Bizhiʼ Ádiní–mountain whose name is missing).

Henry Mountains Sunset

Grand Staircase Sunset

There are certainly places you can go in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument where you would feel anything but alone, but there are far more that would give you a feeling of complete isolation.  I can’t help but think that perhaps searching out that feeling of solitude–taking time to listen to the deafening silence–is something we should do from time to time.  I’m grateful there are still places like this for us to do just that.

*Father Silvestre Vélez de Escalante is regarded as one of the first Europeans to have explored this area as part of the Escalante-Dominguez expedition in 1776.  Before reaching this area, they were forced to kill and  eat their horses while searching for a crossing of the Colorado River (the place where they eventually crossed is now known as the Crossing of the Fathers, which is underneath Padre Bay in Lake Powell).

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

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


The nature of loss

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

I’ve often (somewhat seriously) joked that the only reason I’d want to be the President of the United States is because of the Antiquities Act.  This law enables the President–with the swipe of a pen–to protect our nation’s “antiquities” by declaring a national monument.  Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the bill into law, used the Antiquities Act to create Devils Postpile National Monument, as well as Grand Canyon National Monument, which would later become a national park.  Most boys want to be an astronaut when they grow up; I wanted to create national monuments.

Today is the 105th birthday of Utah’s first national monument: Natural Bridges.  The monument protects three large natural bridges, including the world’s second largest, all of which are carved out of beautiful, white, Cedar Mesa Sandstone.  Two relatively untamed canyons come together in Natural Bridges, and between the large arcs of stone, Ancestral Puebloan ruins are also protected, standing sentinel over these canyons as they have for hundreds of years.  Natural Bridges is out of the way and remote, located in one of the darkest nighttime areas of the United States, earning it the title of the world’s first International Dark Sky Park.

White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument

Perhaps it’s an ironic coincidence, but on the birthday of Utah’s first national monument, a group of congressmen–one of whom is from Utah–will begin a hearing in an attempt to undermine the framework of the Antiquities Act.  If passed, this body of legislation would require an act of Congress to declare a national monument as well as remove restrictions on land use within national monuments.  In Nevada, the Antiquities Act would become null and void (as it is in Wyoming currently).  My fear is that in today’s hyperpartisan congress, these changes would make it virtually impossible to use this law as it was intended.

What strikes me even more deeply is the fact that I see the world changing.  We are developing land and extracting natural resources at a rate which is simply unsustainable.  As a nation, we are slowly but surely abandoning wild places, which is opposite of the notion on which we built our country.  Wallace Stegner wrote in his now-famous wilderness letter, “We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.  The reminder and reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.

Much has been written on the value inherent in preserving these places and I can’t begin to reiterate all of it here.  You can read about clear cuts, pipelines, and mining all day.  However, I can’t help but think there’s something deeper happening which we must examine.  The material impact of our society on wilderness is obvious, but what about the impact of wilderness on us?  Does it no longer move us?  Are we no longer in awe of what’s “out there?”  Are we simply missing the bigger picture?

What’s the connection to photography?  Honestly, I’m still working on this.  As landscape photographers, we have the ability to inspire people, to make them want to see places that they might not otherwise see.  We have the ability to become an impassioned voice.  It’s worth considering, and it beats the alternative.  The loss of nature will eventually force us to examine the nature of loss one way or another.


If these mountains die, where will our imaginations wander?  If the far mesas are leveled, what will sustain us in our quest to be larger than life?  If the high valley is made mundane by self-seekers and careless users, where will we find another landscape so eager to nourish our love?  And if the long-time people of this wonderful country are carelessly squandered by Progress, who will guide us to a better world?  — John Nichols


When I was a boy I didn’t want to be an astronaut; I wanted to be in the wilderness.  I still do.

Armstrong Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument

Potsherds

Monday, March 11th, 2013

I am writing this sitting at a desk that my dad made for my eleventh birthday. In the second drawer is an old pipe tobacco can–Captain Black–filled with Native American potsherds.

My family moved to the Four Corners region in northwestern New Mexico when I was six years old.  Many of my earliest memories of New Mexico involve the typical sight-seeing outings families do;  I remember going to Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.  At that age, the significance of these world-class archaeological sites did not really mean much to me.  However, I started to draw connections to the ancient residents of this area one September day while deer hunting with my dad; we walked through an area filled with potsherds.  I was probably a little bored after several hours of hiking through the seemingly endless piñon-juniper pygmy forest, and the potsherds made for an exciting treasure hunt.  We picked up some of the nicer ones and brought them home.  Since then, they’ve largely lived inside of the pipe tobacco can inside my desk drawer.

I am not sure how old they are.  Some are really lovely bowl rims, with simple triangular black-on-white patterns painted on them.  Others are pieces of corrugated bowls.  Many of the archaeological sites in that area of New Mexico are Navajo–about 400-500 years old.  However, the areas we used to visit do not lie far from Salmon Ruins and the Great North Road.  So, it is entirely possible–probable even–that these pieces are much older Ancestral Puebloan potsherds.

Pueblo Bonito, Tse-biya hani ahi

Archaeologists say that we learn best about ancient cultures by leaving artifacts in their place, admired but untouched.  After all, they tell the stories of the peoples who came before us.   Indeed, much science is lost by looking at these pieces of pottery ex situ.  However, when I look at them, I think of the people who made them.  What were they thinking when they left them?  Did they walk away unflinchingly from their home, or did they take a longing look back, thinking they may someday return?

These fragmented pieces of pottery tell the story of a people who eeked a living off of the land, who knew the landscape and probably felt a deep sense of place here.


I looked down upon hillside after hillside of slopes clear-cut for their timber.  Traversed back and forth by logging roads, the hills were deeply scarred and patterened.  All I could think of were pottery designs.  Beginning there, the entire flight was an aerial Anasazi visual feast of basket weaves made of farmland plowing, river ways drawn out like rock art, and cloud patterns resembling rock forms.”  — Bruce Hucko, Cave to Cave–Canyon to Canyon

Flying from my home in southern California to Colorado at 30,000′, I can relate to Hucko’s evocative impressions of the Western landscape (Bruce Hucko was the photographer for the  Wetherill-Grand Gulch Research Project).  I see landscapes–monoliths, cliffs, and mesas–that are part of who I am, so much so that I can recognize them without having seen them on a map, or even visiting them, in years.  A floodplain in the Mojave desert, the Grand Canyon, the Vermillion Cliffs, Navajo Mountain, Cedar Mesa, Mesa Verde, the San Juans, the Sawatch, and finally we touch down in Denver.  Terra firma.

Mojave Desert

Two hours in the air filled with fragments of landscapes that conjure memories–in the same way those broken pieces of pottery tell the story of a people, these landscapes are my potsherds of the American Southwest.  This is where I have spent my life and I’ve had adventures with friends and family; these stories would fill a hundred books.


It has been over 25 years since my first visit to Chaco Canyon, but it feels like many more.  It’s a sunny and warm December afternoon, and many of the other tourists have left, leaving the halls of Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito quiet and a little lonely and the moon is rising over Fajada Butte.  I sit for a while, watching the reflected winter light bounce through the rooms, which are now open to the sky.   For what feels like the hundredth time, I find myself thinking about the journey of the people who lived here, and of their great road north toward my childhood home, near Salmon and Aztec ruins.  Potsherds lie across the high desert for nearly 100 miles; the stories of these travelers are being told in fragments.

So it is that we tell our own stories in broken, scattered pieces. Our own beautiful stories are being shared and discovered by the people in our lives, just as we discover our own pieces of others.  If we are lucky we find an entire, unbroken, pot now and then.

 Fajada Butte Moonrise

Concerto in D minor

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

It’s chilly, gloomy, and rainy outside today; winter, it seems, has arrived in southern California.  Sitting here in my office, the heater is warming me up, and I am listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor.  The third and final movement ends on a happy and light note, but unlike some of Mozart’s other work, Concerto No. 20 is aggressive, in places even agitated and ominous; well-suited for the weather today.  As I listen, I think of our recent trip to the Escalante area of southern Utah.  How fitting I would be drawn to this particular piece today, as my imagination wanders back to the sandstone I love so much.

Just like a good friend, the redrock wilderness always welcomes me; my feet find purchase immediately, and it is as if we haven’t skipped a beat since being apart.  I am constantly amazed at the plant life that–like my feet–finds refuge in this habitat of stone.  These organisms eek out a living, nurtured by the harsh landscape, growing slowly but surely through the years.

A small yucca grows out of sandstone

Finding purchase, November 2012

Hiking up the Calf Creek drainage with my family, I think of a word that’s not often used in the desert: “lush.”  Harbored between the gaunt canyon walls is an ecosystem that supports thriving plant and animal life.  It is easy to see why you can look high up on the rock walls and see ancient Native American granaries, dwellings and rock art–they were drawn here for the same reasons as we are.  Sustenance.  Life.  Safety.  While I am not growing food or defending myself from marauders, all of these qualities are here for me.  They are undeniable.  As the morning progresses, cold night air moves out of the canyon, meeting the warm air that is radiating off of the sun-warmed rocks; the lingering scent of autumn hangs in the air, and it is difficult to imagine a place on earth where I would rather be.   Just like Mozart’s welcoming melodies, it is easy to feel that way here: embraced, peaceful, calm.

Foliage in Calf Creek

Autumn in the Desert, November 2012

Calf Creek Falls

A Desert Utopia, November 2012

In the same way that Concerto No. 20 turns turbulent, so can the desert.  Here in the Escalante, temperatures can drop below zero in the winter and can soar to well over 100 degrees in the summer.  While plants and animals find a way to survive, it is not without compromise; life here is harsh.  A summer’s worth of water can arrive in one storm, destroying everything in its path as it crashes through the tight corridors of a slot canyon.  I have never seen the desert her in all of her fury, and am not sure I would want to.  However, it is just that fury that has helped shape this landscape into what it is.


Under a wine-dark sky I walk through the light reflected and re-reflected from the walls and floor of the canyon, a radiant golden light that glows on rock and stream, sand and leaf in varied hues of amber, honey, whisky — the light that never was is here, now, in the storm-sculptured gorge of the Escalante.

–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


Navajo Sandstone

Gloaming, November 2012

I am now sitting here listening to the rain hit the window of my office; Mozart’s Concerto is over.  After 227 years his music lives on, and is still evocative; it will be until we as a species cannot hear–or feel–any longer.   So will the Escalante, which is not exactly a piano concerto, but is–without question–a work of art.

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

It hardly seems like a year ago I was writing a similar blog post from Zion National Park.  This Thanksgiving, I find myself in Escalante, Utah, a small township located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau.  The weather today was unusually warm for this time of year, and it made hiking extraordinarily pleasant, the perfect St. Martin’s Summer.  My family and I started the day in the northern Mojave Desert, and ended sitting quite alone on a sandstone outcropping admiring the sunset just outside of Escalante township.

Escalante has some of the darkest night skies in the United States; it is far from electricity, out of the grasp of large metropolises, and tonight I am only blinded by one of the darkest night skies you will ever see.  I am thankful places like this still exist.

For my friends in the United States who are celebrating Thanksgiving today, I hope you had a day with your family and friends, celebrating everything in your life that you are thankful for.  With some time in the car today, I was thinking about the things I am thankful for.  I am grateful for a family who is willing to travel with me.  Having stopped in four national parks or monuments today (Zion, Cedar Breaks, Bryce, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante), I am thankful that the citizens of our country have had the foresight to put land aside, for the well-being of our souls, if nothing else.  Sun-warmed Navajo sandstone is also on my list, as are sunsets that make me smile.

From the bottom of my heart, let me wish you a warm and happy Thanksgiving, whether you are officially celebrating or not.  There is much in life to be thankful for.

Navajo Sandstone aglow

Thanksgiving sunset, November 2012

 

A Bird’s Eye View

Monday, July 9th, 2012

My family and I just returned from a trip to Wyoming.  The primary purpose of the trip was to visit family, so I did not have a lot of extra time for photography.  However, one of the photographic highlights of the trip was our flight from my home in southern California to Denver.  The flight path covers some fantastic topography and it’s always been fun for me to see how many formations I can recognize.  On this flight, I decided to try and do a black and white series of the landscape 35,000′ feet below me.

Can you figure them out?  Some are super easy…others are not.   Images are posted in the order you would see them flying from southern California to Denver.

Hills in the Mojave Desert of southern California

Mystery Landscape #1

Grand Canyon National Park

Mystery Landscape #2

The Vermillion Cliffs in northern Arizona

Mystery Landscape #3

Goosenecks of the San Juan River

Mystery Landscape #4

Grand Gulch Plateau

Mystery Landscape #5

Badlands in southwestern Colorado

Mystery Landscape #6

Colorado Rockies

Mystery Landscape #7

Feel free to post your guesses in the comments section.  I will post the locations in a few days.  I do not know every detail of each image, but am pretty sure I have the locations correct…maybe you can pinpoint some better than I can.

There were some challenges that degraded image quality in these files.  First, I got lucky with a pretty clean window on the airplane.  A dirty window would make these sorts of images difficult.  Second, the glass plane window and interior plexiglass also make focusing difficult.  There are some odd things that happened to some of the files because of my high tech “plexiglass filter.”   You can probably see a few things on some of these files…

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on these, as well as your guesses!