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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

Two new ‘Wind’ images

Monday, June 25th, 2012

In January, I introduced my wind portfolio, a black and white set focusing on shape and form, and celebrating landscapes that have been created (in part) by wind.  I am happy to add two new images to that portfolio.

View from Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, May 2012

The Grand Canyon is a place that has been shaped by the powerful erosional forces of wind and water for millions of years.  Attracting millions of visitors a year, it is truly one of the seven wonders of the world, and has always captivated me.  At sunrise and sunset, the receding hill layers create depth not only in the landscape, but in the imagination, and it is difficult for me not to imagine John Wesley Powell exploring this canyon for the first time, being completely awed.


“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”

–John Wesley Powell


The second image is an intimate landscape from Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  If you have been in southern Utah in spring, you know the wind can blow, and you have have even felt sandblasted a time or two.  How do you think the sandstone walls feel?  The walls of this alcove have been shaped by grains of sand being blown against it for hundreds, probably even thousands or tens of thousands of years.  Beautiful cross-bedding patterns have been exposed, creating some very powerful lines.

A sandstone alcove

Sandstone Alcove, June 2012

My Wind Portfolio is special in that 25% of the sales of these prints is donated directly to the Wilderness Society and I offer special pricing when you purchase more than one image from the portfolio.  Please click here to view the entire collection.

The Grand

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

I remember my first trip to the Grand Canyon in 1992–it was not only my first backpacking trip ever, but also my first memorable trip to a national park.  We went over spring break, in late March, and it was snowing hard at the South Rim when we arrived.  I remember being cold and wet the night before our hike began, being completely terrified on the icy (and steep) South Kaibab trail the following morning, and sweating as we walked into Phantom Ranch later that afternoon.  The rest of the trip was rainy, often very cold, and wet.

Despite all of that, I had a great time.  A funny thing happens after outdoor experiences like this one: we seem to forget all of the “bad” parts of a trip, remembering the good things.   Do the bad experiences really go away?  Not completely:  We learn from them.  As a novice backpacker, I learned several things about hiking in poor weather; I learned them the hard way, but I survived.

The thing that stuck in my memory more than anything else from that first trip to the Grand Canyon was the magnificence of the place.  The sheer drops, layers of sandstone, and of course the power of the Moenkopi-colored mud flowing in the Colorado River.  I’ve returned to the Grand Canyon more than almost any other national park.  During my first trip it was simply breathtaking; since then it has become breathgiving.

Vishnu's Temple at dawn, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Vishnu's Sun Salutation, May 2011

Since 1992, I’ve backpacked the Grand Canyon once more, and have camped on the rim multiple times.  Each time I say to myself, “Why don’t I visit more often?”  Yes, its packed with people, especially on the holiday weekends when I find time to visit, but there’s a magnificent peacefulness that surrounds it.    There are small pockets, places, you can go and hide, and despite the hordes, its almost as if you have this huge amphitheater to yourself.

Just like so many other geologic wonders on the Colorado Plateau, there really is nothing like the Grand Canyon on earth.  Although I’ve enjoyed it for 19 years, I just now have images of it.  Click the image or here to see the rest.