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Sandpaper plant growing out of a crack in wildly colored Jurassic sandstone. Recent rains filled the smoothly carved potholes with water.
Dream Within A Dream
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“Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.”
~Edgar Allan Poe
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Sandpaper plant growing in a crack in colorful Jurassic sandstone.
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Deposits of iron and manganese paint psychedelic patterns in a colorful sandstone alcove. If you look closely, you may find an ancient petroglyph of a bighorn sheep.
Change Of Pace
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Row of trees in autumn color growing along a creek in a steep desert canyon.
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Colorful layered sandstone sculpted and smoothed by eons of floods.
Late Autumn in the Canyon
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A canyon floor covered in fallen yellow maple leaves after the autumn season.
Image code: #c000239
Looking out into a narrow slot canyon. This place has now become known and popular, but at the time I made this photograph it was little known and had no marked trail. I remember the exposure, on 4x5 film, took eight minutes, as I sat ther equietly admiring the peace and the beautiful glow.
The Next Turning
Image code: #c001070
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you—beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.” ~Edward Abbey
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The warm glow of reflected light in the narrows of a slot canyon.
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Cottonwood tree growing in a deep pothole in a large sandstone dome. A monsoon thunderstorm approaches.
This image was made years ago, when this tree was still alive (it is no longer), and few people knew of its location. Today, this area has been “developed,” with a graveled parking area, restroom, and “no-camping” signs. At the time, I used to enjoy camping nearby, sometimes for a week or more without seeing any other people. I liked scrambling to the top of this sandstone dome in the afternoon to watch the warm light fading over the desert as evening fell.
I’m a firm believer that turning such places into tourist attractions is as damaging and exploitative as any other industrial use. The place still looks somewhat the same, but it feels nothing like it did when it was wild, remote, and little-visited. That place I knew, no longer exists. Over the years I returned to visit this tree many times. I stopped visiting when it finally died a few years ago, although I drive by the area every now and then, always remembering fondly what it used to be like.
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Small boxelder tree rooted in a canyon wall, in golden autumn foliage.
The person who told me about this place swore me to secrecy. It is within walking distance of a small town, and this creek is its only water source. Walking alone in this narrow channel, the sound of gurgling water echoing off the walls, was a peaceful and beautiful experience, and is among my most cherished memories.
I’ve had the pleasure of having this place to myself a few times over a period of a few years. Today, it is a well-known attraction, and the town developed a paid parking area for it. I doubt one can walk alone in this canyon on any autumn day, anymore.
Some say that such places become popular for a reason. That is true. It’s also true that some keep them secret for a reason.
An Unlikely Convergence
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Aspen trees in autumn foliage, set against a wall of red sandstone. The title refers to the fact that it is very rare for aspens, which grow at relatively high and cool elevations, to be found in the same area as red sandstone, which usually is found in hot desert areas, at lower elevations. This place is the only one I know where aspens can live among red rocks.
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Cottonwood tree in sandstone crevice.
Variation on a Rhapsody
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Elegant swirls of eroded sandstone. The title refers to a former image I titled, “Rhapsody in Sandstone.” In time, I came to like the variation better than the original.
Speed of Silence
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Sandstone eroded by wind, leaving thin delicate shelves of the layers that were a bit harder to erode than others. Despite the strong lines and intense colors, at that moment I had the place to myself and it was as perfectly still and quiet as you can imagine.
Image code: #de002205
Sometimes, while hiking, you just have to stop and stand still to realize you are the noisiest thing around. Suddenly, the world becomes silent, and you can make out the faint gurgling of flowing water, droplets hitting stone, and the whisper of wind in the trees just beyond the bend. Those familiar with such sensations likely also know that the combination of hushed sounds echoing within a deep canyon can be confused easily with muffled speech. It takes conscious effort to convince yourself that no other person is within many miles. This is just what this place sounds like when no people are present, which is a great majority of the time.
Dawn Above the Canyon
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A pristine sandstone canyon filled with green after a good monsoon rain season. This was my morning view, sipping coffee shortly after waking up in my camp.
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This is a single exposure. I could describe what you are looking at, but I would rather not. I think the mystery is much more enjoyable.
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Fir trees growing on a high ledge in a deep canyon, dusted in remnants of a light snowfall the previous night. Spring season in the high desert is never predictable. Those who spend time alone in in these places, during this season, must be prepared for nearly any kind of weather.
Image code: #di000250
I arrived at my campsite, a short walk away from this view of the canyon of one of the Colorado Plateau’s largest desert rivers, in the afternoon. A monsoon thunderstorm was building up, and soon after building camp I had to stay in for about an hour as the mesa I was on was hit with torrential rain and lightning strikes.
Although I did not know it at the time, the storm had washed away parts of the long dirt road I drove in on, and I was stranded. Road crews arrived late the following morning and took most of the day to make the road drivable again. I didn’t know any of this until I drove out two days later and realized the road had been re-graded, and deep ruts still remained, marked with red cones. Anyone traveling these roads during monsoon season should be prepared and carry sufficient supplies for at least a couple of days (and in some places, where roads are not maintained, an emergency beacon).
As the storm passed, shortly before sunset, I was sitting on a rock admiring this view with a glass of tequila in my hand. Realizing the beauty that was slowly unfolding, I left the glass on the rock and walked back to get my camera. Not only was I alone, as far as I could see or hear, but because of the storm damage, nobody could have driven in even if they wanted to. A world to myself.
Image code: #di000296
A pool of crystalline fresh rainwater nestled in a pocket on the edge of a high mesa, overlooking the arid desert below. One desert plant found the perfect balance of an abundant water source and a secure patch of soil to set root in. Just beyond it is a spectacular drop.
Visiting an Old Friend
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I had known this cottonwood for more than a decade. It was much smaller when I first saw it and I wondered how long it will survive in this sandstone pocket. It is still living, as far as I know.
Cottonwood trees require a lot of water. Seeing them anywhere in the desert is an indication of water on, or very close to, the surface. They usually grow along waterways—rivers, creeks, or large washes that funnel sufficient water during the rainy season. This tree is nowhere near a such a waterway. The only water source it has is rainwater that flows over this large sandstone formation and funnels into the pocket, and whatever moisture is trapped in the rock (sandstone is a bit like a sponge) or that may be in underground springs, if it can reach them.
Image code: #di001313
Variance in the coloring and texture of the bottom of a canyon wall tells the stories of different periods in the canyon’s recent past.
What Lies Ahead
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When conditions like these (approaching storm) occur unexpectedly, sometimes I reach for the camera, and sometimes I find a comfortable place to sit and appreciate where I get to be and the things I get to see. Sometimes I’ll turn my attention to the camera afterward, but not always.
The Flash Flood Cometh
Image code: #di001700
I knew that a series of thunderstorms were on their way to this area and forecasted to trigger major flash floods. I drove to a place where I knew I would likely be stranded for a couple of days, with plenty of supplies. I hiked out to this alcove and set up a comfortable camp in a large patch of soft, dry, sand in the back recesses of the alcove, protected from rain. And I waited.
This was the beginning of what soon became a veil of brown water—not very photogenic, but one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in this desert. I spent two nights in the alcove, and this is the only time the wash above it flooded. I then spent three more nights car-camping a few miles away before attempting to drive out once the dirt roads were cleared.
Image code: #di001748
The ceiling of an unusual double-chambered alcove. Signs of human occupation suggest that archaic people lived here—some of the earliest humans in the Americas, and certainly in this area. This was their ceiling.
Liberated by Light
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A narrow band of winter sunlight grazes the outer tips of a large cottonwood tree growing against a steep sandstone wall.
The Way Forward
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The bare limbs of dormant cottonwood trees, accented against a backdrop of snow-covered sand dune, appeared to me as if they were swaying to some music I could only imagine.
Late Autumn Storm
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An autumn storm approaches the great canyon of a desert river.
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A young ash tree, dormant and bare for the winter, against a sandstone wall of curving, elegant, tafoni.
Flow of Life
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A green band of vegetation marking the path of a desert river, carves a sinuous path through immense layers of rock and earth.
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Cottonwood tree growing against the steep and overhanging wall rounding a curve in a large canyon, beginning the transition into its golden autumn coat.
Hazy Canyon Morning
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In late autumn, the sun hangs low in the sky most of the day. After a stretch of clear days, the air fills with dust and other particulates, making it appear hazy, and making beams and shadows visible and ethereal.
Worlds Within Worlds
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Sandstone cliffs reflecting in shallow canyon pool filled with fallen cottonwood leaves.
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The presence of reeds marks the presence of a desert spring, despite there being no water on the surface. Gambel oaks, now bare for the winter, take advantage of the bounty.
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Light reflected into a narrow slot canyon reveals stories on many time scales: the previous day’s winds that blew a dry shrub into the canyon; the death of the plant, likely weeks before, and its sprouting, likely a few years before; a small dune of sand eroded off the sandstone walls in the course of decades, perhaps centuries; the sandstone consisting of Jurassic-period sand dunes compressed into rock form in the course of tens of millions of years; and the presence of the photographer, a few decades in age, and having fewer decades of life remaining.
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Chiaroscuro formed by cloud shadows and sunlight streaming through openings in the cloud cover, meandering over a large, dry, desert canyon.
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View into a remote desert canyon, untouched and unspoiled by humanity.
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Desert brush and cottonwood tree in autumn display, set against a striped and varnished sandstone cliff.
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Shaft of light shining onto a mat of soft grasses in a sheltered space behind a rincon (island of rock formed when a creek abandons its former path and switches to a new one).
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Blooming prickly pear cactus against a backdrop of an early monsoon thunderstorm in the sandstone desert.
I picked the title for this image a few years after I made it, during a difficult time, and remembering the beauty of this late spring day, mixed with the scents of wet earth and desert brush.
No other place on Earth moves me as much as the sandstone wonderland of the Colorado Plateau and parts of the Mojave Desert—the labyrinthine canyon, rock domes, cliffs, sculpted formations, high plateaus, desert mountain ranges, and grand views largely free of signs of the presence of humanity.
Having explored these soulful places for nearly half my life, they every bit a home and a sanctuary to me as the house I live in.
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