Canyon Time

| December 5, 2013


As I have for quite a few years, among the first things I do after a long absence is spend a couple of days by myself in a remote canyon, to reconnect with old friends – places and spirits, rock and water, remnants of past cultures, dark nights, deep silence, cottonwoods and sagebrush and bighorn sheep and maidenhair ferns in the recesses of sandstone alcoves and a thousand other things that make these places so infinitely magical. I love my home.

I drove down what used to be a long, lonesome and rutted dirt road until just a few years ago. It had since been “improved” – dumbed down and smoothed and widened. The bumpy drive, which used to be part of the experience and the sense of remoteness, is no longer. The place became a little less wild, and none other than a few “old timers” may ever know the difference. The simple fact that challenge is an indispensable ingredient to a sense of accomplishment often is lost on policy makers managing these lands, some of whom make their decisions having never known the experiences they so casually sacrifice for lesser ones. It is a shame that our land management agencies fail so miserably at the task of preservation, originating in a pervasive inability to fully acknowledge what there is to preserve and to place proper value on it.

Preservation is not just about setting aside a piece of geography for recreational use. Wildness, the state of being in wild places, is not recreation. It is a much deeper and more nuanced experience. So many things that can change a place in profound ways have nothing to do with its physical constituents. Completely absent from such decisions are the need to preserve these sensory dimensions – the silence and the sounds, the scents, the effort required to travel in – and through – such places, are all parts of a true wilderness experience. The emotional dimensions are every bit as important, too – the sense of solitude and freedom and remoteness and danger and sanctuary. If you are among those fortunate to have known such things, you also know what Wallace Stegner meant when he wrote: “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.” This place is considered by many to still be wild, but seeing it change little-by-little, year-after-year, it is easy to chart the path of slow and sustained destruction. Much of it still looks, but no longer feels as it once did.

Photographs can preserve, and even create, some of the missing dimensions. Careful composition, deliberate inclusions and exclusions, can leave the right amount of space to be filled by imagination and mystery, to recreate a sense of an experience. But, the real loss of a real experience, even if the land is protected by some arbitrary measure, is still far more real and painful than any photograph or prose can substitute for.

A few miles down the road I found myself crawling behind a strange 6-wheeled vehicle with a European license plate, looking like a prop from a post-apocalyptic B-movie. The driver had no idea I was behind him. He stopped in the middle of the road for a few seconds and suddenly swerved to make a U-turn, almost colliding with me. A case of too much machinery failing to compensate for too little sense.

Thankfully, once I got far enough, no other vehicles were around. Parts of the road had washed out in recent floods and it was obvious nobody had driven them in a while. To my delight, these included the small spur road leading to a favorite camp site. The floods cut a deep gash right at the intersection, making it look much harder to drive across than it really was. I had the place to myself and did not see anyone for the remainder of my trip.

My mood changed for the better as soon as I settled into camp. I have a lot of memories from this place, many conversations and laughs and tears experienced by campfires in this little fire pit, alone or with others. Over the years I was here with friends and loved ones, human and canine, some of whose journeys had since come to an end, leaving in their passage both sadness and gratitude that our paths crossed, and knowing that we are better for it. Here, I have seen countless spectacles of light as the sun rises and sets, and spent many late hours staring into a stunning star-studded sky lost in thought. It feels good to be here again, among the memories and the red rocks where I feel at home.

Early November marks the end of autumn in these beautiful canyons. The last of the golden foliage still clings to the gnarled old cottonwoods; fallen leaves decay along the stream beds, emitting a subtle but unmistakable aroma so characteristic of the season. Oils released from the leaves settle on the surface of shallow pools, forming a thin iridescent patina refracting light into a dazzling array of colors when viewed at various angles. Light-colored silt, washed down from the high plateaus in massive monsoon floods, now settled at the bottom of some larger pools, gives the crystalline waters a wonderful emerald hue. The chatter of ravens and the swirling crescendo of canyon wrens still echoes among, and cascades down from, the tall cliffs, but few other birds are around. Autumn is such a beautiful and melancholy season here. Each in its way, life and stone and water and light say goodbye before retiring into the stillness of winter.

A night by a fire, crisp desert air blended with the sweetness of burning juniper and pinyon pine, and a darkness as deep and soft as a velvet blanket permeate like warm liquid into every cell in my body and the deepest recesses of my mind. Bitterness melts away, frustrations disappear, clarity arises. The crackle of burning wood interrupted by distant owl hoots, almost too faint to hear, but unmistakable. Planets and constellations drift from horizon to horizon. Thoughts keep me awake well into the wee hours of the night. When I awoke the following morning, it was to a deep red glow reflecting from a large sandstone cliff. It felt like my soul just got a deep tissue massage. I made coffee and a hot breakfast in the silence of a remote desert morning, packed a bag for the day and headed down a steep canyon.

I have been here many times before, and learned many of the canyon’s secrets, yet these are places that forever remain mysterious. With each season, they change. Floods carve new passages and wipe out old ones, old trees die, new vegetation erupts on recently-formed sandbars, wildlife may appear around every bend, and the light bouncing off the steep walls never puts on the same show twice. I pay a visit to an ancient rock art panel, and to an area of old storage cists. People had lived here for hundreds of years, yet their traces often elude even the keenest of observers. I walked by this spot dozens of times before thinking to take a closer look a little deeper into a side canyon. Discovering such treasures always make the heart and imagination soar. The slightest evidence of bygone cultures changes the story of the place instantly. What was previously a wild place is now someone’s home. Here, generations of children were raised, fields of maize were planted and harvested and long forgotten stories were shared. Hundreds of people woke up in the morning to this view. Love stories and rivalries, tragedy and elation all unfolded right here, before this continent was even known to most of the world. Not too far, mysterious ceremonies were conducted. Faint moqui steps lead up a  steep and precarious ledge where shamans (perhaps) perched. Petroglyphs tell the stories of animals encountered and imagined: deer and snakes and bighorn sheep, and other beings too strange to describe. I spent nearly an hour looking around, imagining what life was like here then and appreciating the fact that the view had not changed much since.

Farther down the canyon I am lulled into a state of flow, all my senses attuned to the colors, shapes, scents and sounds of a wild and vibrant desert canyon, uninterrupted by human-made sounds other than those generated by me. When I stop and stand still I am keenly aware of the fact that I’m the noisiest thing around. I do so often to experience and record in my mind the natural soundscape – what this place would be like had I not been here.

I follow sharp curves in the canyon, admiring the beauty of light reflecting from the red rock and the water. I marvel at smooth passages carved into the rock by the relentless flow. I sit by pools of lucid waters, ones covered in leaves or psychedelically-colored residue, and ones showing patterns of subtle eddies accentuated by streaks of foam. Everything is beautiful.

Whatever stress and tension built up on my travels the months before is no longer. Winter will be here soon. I am ready for it, but I will miss this.

Until spring … farewell.


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Category: All Posts, Featured, Journal

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (2)

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  1. Rick says:


    You write wonderfully, but this was especially well-phrased:

    “Over the years I was here with friends and loved ones, human and canine, some of whose journeys had since come to an end, leaving in their passage both sadness and gratitude that our paths crossed, and knowing that we are better for it.”

    I’ve been wrestling with some of those “journeys”, and your words are a comfort. Thank you!

  2. Mike Henasey says:

    Guy, it’s always a pleasure to listen to how you describe your experiences.

    Funny you mentioned the 6-wheeled monster. I believe my wife and I encountered the same beast and similar circumstances. It’s comical that the wake it leaves behind rattles all those who happen to cross its path as it makes its way around the desert.