Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Land Where Time Bares Its Soul

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I just returned from a New Year's week trip to the Moab, Utah area. Such an incredible region of the country! I love my local Garden of the Gods, but this place is what Garden of the Gods wants to be when it grows up. Moab is blessed with more natural beauty than seems fair, with Arches National Park just a few miles north of town, and Canyonlands National Park, with its more than a third of a million acres of canyons, mesas, arches, improbable rock outcroppings and the convergence of the Green and Colorado rivers, not much farther away. Just in case all that's not enough, the beautiful La Sal Mountains to the east contain a ribbon of peaks that rise above 12,000 feet.

I made my first trip to Moab sometime in the late-'80s. It was Christmas Eve, I had just finished work at the Focal Point camera shop, and I had no family in the area, so obviously a road trip was in order. Oh, and did I mention that the states of Colorado and Utah were being pounded by a blizzard? What better time to hop in the ol' Chevy Chevette and drive 400 miles! After many hours of white-knuckle driving, I stopped at the first motel I could find, and awoke Christmas Day in tiny Silt, Colorado. (Perhaps the name Sludge was already spoken for?) Thankfully, the storm had moved on by morning, leaving a winter wonderland in its wake. It was still slow going, as I-70 was hard-packed with snow and ice all the way to the state line.

The highway got a little better as I moved through Utah, so I took the advice of my then-boss to take the detour at Highway-128 and follow the Colorado River down to Moab. I'm eternally grateful for his suggestion, as this is my preferred route to and from Moab to this day. It's slower going, but the scenic rewards are many times that of the more conventional highway route.

As I wound my way south, the canyons along the river were all decked out in their snowy best, and the scenery jut begged to be photographed. At one particularly scenic bend in the road I pulled my car onto the shoulder, well out of the driving path, and set up my tripod. About that time a big dually pick-up came rumbling along, and as this man with family in tow passed me, he honked the horn like I was in his way. Nearly had to change my underwear! It just wasn't very nice. And on Christmas morning? Really???

I did take a fair number of pictures, but it was so bitterly cold that I spent a large amount of time in my motel room, where I caught HBO's airing of the Steve Martin/Chevy Chase/Martin Short classic, The Three Amigos. Merry Christmas to me!

Fast-forward 20+ years. Nowadays I actually make my living as a nature photographer, so to be able to go to places like Arches and Canyonlands helps pay the rent. With my recent move back to Colorado Springs, it had been a while since I'd had the time to take a trip. The prospect of shooting during and after an impending sequel to my original snowstorm follies was too good to pass up. At least in the intervening years I figured out that you leave town before the storm hits, not at the very moment it's applying a choke hold to your state. Owning a 4WD truck instead of my little Chevette helps, too.

My first stop was Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction. I slept in the truck as the snow really started to fly, and spent much of the next morning photographing the winter weather. [photo] On my way out, the ranger said they were closing the road due to the snowy and icy conditions, so my timing was just right. I then headed south along the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic Byway, which winds its way through Colorado's own canyon country. Unfortunately, the snow was coming down so hard that I really couldn't see much. There were a few photo ops along the way, but fewer than I'd hoped. [photo]

I dropped into Paradox Valley, then climbed the other side and headed for the state line. By now the snow was really piling up, with easily two feet of powder flanking the road over the nameless pass that spit me out into Utah along the southern flanks of the La Sals. Once I hit the north-south Highway-191, I opted to head south 70 or 80 miles to another Utah gem called Goosenecks State Park. [photo] So named because of the way the San Juan River meanders wildly through its canyon, Goosenecks is little more than two overlooks, one a mere 1,000 feet above the river, the other called Muley Point, atop nearby Cedar Mesa, that's around 1,600 feet above the San Juan. I spent the night at the lower overlook and shot sunrise from there. I made an attempt to get to the upper vista point, but after climbing up treacherously windswept and snow-drifted switchbacks of the road to the top of the mesa, the access road to Muley Point was totally snowed in. So then it was back down the switchbacks, 500-foot drop-offs be damned! [photo]

By now I was feeling like a little civilization might be nice, so I made the long drive north to Moab and got a motel room. I didn't bother with any HBO classics this time around, but enjoyed myself enough that my intended one-night stay turned into two. Unlike my first trip, I spent very little time in my room, despite the bone-chilling temps.

There are few sights as dramatic as red rock canyon country with a fresh coat of white, and this storm really left its mark. The clouds hid the La Sals all day on New Year's Eve [photo], but the next day their crisp white ramparts pierced the cobalt sky. (Blech! Who writes this crap? Oh, wait...) It was quite a dramatic contrast. The wind must have really been howling up high, because huge plumes of snow were being torn from the summit pyramid of 12,482-foot Mount Tukuhnikivatz (an old Indian word that means Let's Totally Throw a Bunch of Random Letters Together and See If The White Man Buys It). [photo]

For my first sunrise of 2011 I headed to Canyonlands. I thought about shooting Mesa Arch first [photo from many years ago], and was heartened on my way past the trailhead that there were no cars in the parking lot of this popular destination. I headed to Green River Overlook hoping for some clouds below the rim, and barring that, I figured Mesa Arch made a good fallback position. No clouds, so I headed back to the Mesa Arch trailhead. There were now, just 15 minutes later and half an hour before sunrise, six cars in the lot. I pulled in while I considered my options. Then car seven came along. And car eight. Knowing the shooting space at the arch is pretty limited, and guessing that the fresh snow now had roughly a million foot prints in it, I decided to head to Grand View Point instead [photo][big photo], one of the most aptly named overlooks you could ever imagine. I always like transitions, be they weather, seasons or calendar, so to see the sun breach the horizon for the first time in 2011, with its new beginnings aura, was even better than the last sunset of 2010 the previous night, spent shooting near the Fiery Furnace in Arches. [photo]

Later in the day on New Year's Day I headed up the La Sal Mountain loop road, roughly a 60-mile route that follows along the flanks of the mountain range before dropping into Castle Valley's steep canyons on its way to join Highway-128. I was surprised to find the road plowed, as I'd never been able to drive very much of it in past winters. The light was flat so I didn't really have too many shooting options, but I thought I'd scope it out for future reference. [photo] Well, 18 and a half miles into it the plowing came to an abrupt end, and I wasn't about to attempt to break dozens of miles of trail through two feet of snow. I was sure wishing there had been some (any!) warning that the road wasn't passable beyond this seemingly arbitrary point. To add insult to injury, I could see down towards Castle Valley, and it looked like I was missing some low clouds and fog sweeping through the valley. Knowing it would take way too much time to make it over there by looping my way back around, I unleashed a string of F-bombs (think Hugh Grant in the opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral), turned the truck around and headed back towards Moab. Once down around Ken's Lake, I shot dozens of images of the sandstone ramparts preceding the La Sals, many for the purpose of merging into gigantic panoramic photos later. This took me through sunset and beyond for my first day of 2011. [photos to come]

For my last morning shoot, I figured I'd try Castle Valley in hopes of getting a repeat performance of yesterday's fog (accessed from Highway-128 this time), but was out of luck. The air was bitter cold and very clear, so I decided to head back up 128 to start the trip home. Shortly after hitting the highway, with still about half an hour to go before sunrise, the dramatic silhouette of Fisher Towers presented itself, and a very thin crescent moon was not too far away. It then became a simple task of finding that point along the highway where the two lined up. It was a serendipitous way to start my final day, to say the least. In fact, the shots of the crescent moon rising over and amongst the towers turned out to be some of my favorite images from the trip. [photo]

I did find a little bit of fog along the Colorado River as I headed northeast, and took a few shots of it along the way. Once back in Grand Junction, I found a car wash and attempted to explicate the few hundred pounds of ice that had so caked the rear wheel wells of my truck that every time I hit the slightest bump, the truck bed would slam down hard on the rear tires. There was only about an inch of clearance between the ice and the tires! After burning through every quarter I had in the truck – 26 of 'em! — and still only making minor headway, I decided the ice was evil incarnate. I'm convinced that if Hell ever does freeze over, this was gonna be the ice that did it.

1 comment:

August West said...

Remarkable imagery (I saw a list that said the word epic is on the "out" list for 2011.) and a great story to match. It's a great life and you work your ass off for those pics! And.... your also a meteorologist to plan for those conditions.