For decades I’ve wanted to spend May in the desert. May is magic in the high desert, and all I wanted was just to leave town and follow my nose, travel from one place I hadn’t visited for decades to another, until I got tired of it, or it simply got too hot. William Least Heat Moon says in his wonderful book, River Horse that his plan was to “proceed as the way opens.” For Jo-Anne and I that phrase works better than any plan, and for a photographer, it really is the only way to work. I often find myself heading home just when the weather gets interesting, which truly sucks. It’s why plans don’t often work. If you see nothing but blue skies, what you will come home with is nothing but average shots, and in my business that’s not nearly good enough. When Jo-Anne asks where we are going, I say south on I 15, and then we’ll go east. She knows you can’t easily go east in southern Utah no matter what Google maps says. Not without many miles of dirt. She and the dog are fine with proceeding as the way opens.
It was cold enough up on the Kolob for us to get into the bag long before dark. The day before I saw clouds on the western horizon and thought we might just get lucky if we hiked out to Observation Point in Zion, to finally get a good panorama shot, hopefully much better than the one currently for sale in the visitor center. That’s the deal in the poster business: first you must have a clearly better shot than anything else hanging on the wall, and then you must convince the Powers That Be they should put your shot up there instead. Not easy. The inner canyon of Zion always hides in early morning shade, allowing the camera dawn patrol to sleep in. A leisurely approach is a welcome and rare luxury in the photo business, yet we find ourselves comfortably ahead of other hikers who came up the long trail from the valley. Eventually, I get a fine shot with clouds, one I’ve been after for years. My wife and I meet a surprising number of good folks on the trail, which isn’t always the case. Our month off is off to a good start.
We go back to the Zion Valley, and try to get a permit for the Left Fork- denied- but we do get to finally meet in person ranger Peter Drake, whom I had been in contact with while doing research for a canyoneering lecture I gave last year. Peter tells us he would be happy to let us tag along with him if he were going into the Left Fork, but he isn’t. Nice to have rangers know who you are. He tells us there will be a possibility of a permit coming up in a few days, so we are off, grab the boarded dog, Mauka, (Hawaiian for “mountain”) and spend a lovely night watching a nearly full moon rise over Comb Ridge. In the morning we try to drive into the Sand Hills but even with a new 4WD with a locking rear axle and the techy “A Track” feature which keeps any wheel from spinning, the deep sand hills win. The way has obviously not opened. Instead, following our noses, we find ourselves by sunset at a viewpoint above Lake Powell and get beautiful sunset and moonrise panoramas. But now, we must head back to Zion to try for the elusive Left Fork permit.
We get the permit, board the dog again, and head up the Left Fork. Since an old guidebook writer coined the term, many people call the Left Fork of the Great West Canyon “the Subway.” It’s the Left Fork. I can’t (and neither can many others) refer to a beautiful canyon by a term for a nasty, stinky New York mass transit tunnel. When you say “Left Fork” to a Zion ranger they give you a nod. They know you know. Both the Narrows and the Left Fork are what the Park Service quietly call “sacrifice areas,” and it’s the overused aspect of the Left Fork which has kept me out of there for over twenty years. We used to walk in there, no permits needed, camp overnight in quiet alcoves of trickling water, and then hike out without ever seeing another soul. Those days are obviously long gone, but I know there are still many photos in there I have yet to capture, and armed with new digital techniques instead of a cumbersome 4×5 and film, I’m going to get them. After working hard in the canyon for eight hours, we hike out with some nearly full SD cards with at least three great panoramas, two of which make it into our calendar.
We decide to drive the Hole in the Rock road and eventually find a rocky, out-of-the-way campsite. We know better than to be near any trailhead around here on a weekend. I climb up to the top of Sooner Rocks and am amazed to find huge waterpockets up there, full of water and absolutely impossible to climb out of should you find yourself in one. I sit down, planning to savor a quiet view, when I hear what sounds like a drone. Who would be flying a drone out here? But then I see the huge swarm of bees flying in formation on my compass bearing, looking worse than a squad of killer black attack helicopters. I run serpentine over the slickrock, hoping to lose them, but fortunately they are not killer bees. They are just flying around with their queen, looking for a new home.
In the morning we drive the rough road out to the Egypt trailhead, and very glad we camped somewhere else. What a circus of cars out here in the middle of nearly nowhere! We load up Mauka’s pack with a water filter, stove fuel, sandals, his frisbee and food as well as some water, and he is still wondering what is taking us so long to follow. I have to grab the loop on the top of his pack during the deepest Escalante crossing, to keep his head above waterline, but otherwise he’s good. We are headed for the mouth of a canyon that I did the first descent of many years ago; Edge of the Earth Canyon. When we first did this canyon there were no guidebooks and no internet. We couldn’t get online and brag about it, but we did name it, thanks to what my companions looked like while walking along its edge during an early reconnaissance of the canyon. They looked like they were walking on the edge of the earth, and the name stuck. If I were just starting out in canyoneering I would want to know about the early descents of canyons, just as I like to know about mountaineering first ascents. I would want to know what the first people to descend the canyon called things, not what some guidebook writer or National Geographic wants to call them to pump up sales. So for those of you with a similar mindset, it is Edge of the Earth Canyon, or EOE for short, not Neon.
A short walk up from the EOE canyon mouth is one of he most iconic views in all of canyon country. Some call it the “Golden Cathedral,” like there aren’t enough of those. We always called it the Monster Pourover, where ancient floodwaters have carved multiple holes through the bedrock, in a ceaseless battle of headward erosion. Shooting this amazing alcove is very difficult, even with sophisticated panorama tools, but it’s why we’re here along with my desire to spend a couple more nights in this powerful spot. It is a wonderful place to simply watch the light change, minute by minute, to play endless frisbee with Mauka, and to lounge in the sand and wait for the descending trills of canyon wrens and for a subtle diurnal shift of upcanyon canyon breezes to warp downcanyon again, both of which signal another slow descent into night.
Days later we all wake up in Cathedral Valley, and despite a boring blue sky, our last forecast says the weather will turn very ugly, very soon. We don’t need to be on the wrong end of a washed-out road, so we head out to Hanksville to hunker down. We grab the last room at the cheapest place in town and watch a solid wall of water roll in. It rains for days. We think about how deep the mud would be in Cathedral Valley, and in that context Hanksville doesn’t seem as bad. One afternoon we remember a little Mexican place east of town somewhere, so we check it out. It’s open, but too early for dinner, so we ask how late they’ll be open. But when we return an hour before the alleged closing time, it’s all-dead in the water. We wander down the road a bit, and find a couple that make their own goat cheese, and damn it’s good. We tell her about the Mexican place and she says, Yeah, she’s flaky like that. She also tells us a little about the place we’re in, Luna Mesa. Used to be a town she says, until one day Butch Cassidy wandered in and wanted to buy all of the horses a local guy had. He told Butch, no, they’re breeding stock. So a couple nights later Butch rides in and steals them all. Town went seriously downhill after that. Good ol’ Butch may still have a following in Circleville, but not so much in Luna Mesa. Back in Hanksville, gin and tonics are obviously called for, but while hunting down the ice machine, I discover an invasion of about a million toads, hopping around like various subatomic particles. I tell my wife about multiple, big ass toads hogging the sidewalk, but she doesn’t believe any of it; she runs outside to verify if three rainy days in Hanksville have created in her husband a strange, incurable condition. It’s a toss up as to who is more surprised at the toad swarm, her or the dog.
We eventually escape Hanksville, finding ourselves in Mexican Hat for a Navajo Taco lunch, but not before passing a naked man walking toward the Hog Springs trail with a towel over his arm. The wrong arm. Very sorry I had to see that, I say. Not nearly as sorry as I am, says Jo-Anne. Even the dog groans.
More days pass easily. We have slowly wandered into eastern Utah, and since we have several projects in Mesa Verde to work on, we might as well slip over there. The Park’s Morefield Campground when totally full is actually the second largest city in Montezuma County, Colorado… a fact that should tell you something. Still, it’s the only game in town, and closest to the ruins. When I finish shooting, we immediately light out for anywhere else, this time toward a road outside of Moab, where silent lightning flashes over the Tavaputs Plateau and the Bookcliffs well into the wee hours. Towering storm clouds are lit from within – orange, yellow, blue – every five or ten seconds. Watching a lightning storm in dead calm quiet is surreal. It’s impossible not to watch. About every hour one of us wakes, which wakes the other. Is it still going? Yep. I guess we’ll just have to watch more wild lightning, arms on pillows on the tailgate, while the dog snores at our feet.
In Arches near sunset I am waiting for the clouds and sun to fully cooperate- as usual. Then I hear what sounds like a huge swarm of bees. Not again, I say out loud to no one in particular. Then I see it: it really is a drone this time. Funny how my expectation has warped from drone to bees in a mere month I think. The damned drone is hovering right in front of the arch I’m trying to shoot. Birds are actually dive-bombing it. They must hate it as much as I do. I wander over and two guys act like I’m invading THEIR space. Do you know just how illegal that is? How much the fine is if a ranger catches you? They quickly land the thing and hurriedly pack up, muttering thanks. With them gone, the sun a bit lower, and the clouds just where I would have placed them if I could have placed them – I get my shot.
In the morning we head back north, toward the Big City and looming responsibilities. I have new posters and postcards to design and get to the printer, but the month of May has given me more photos than I usually manage to capture in a whole year. There are many other places we haunted, far too many to mention here. We drove over 2600 miles and barely got out of southern Utah. All this might not sound much like a vacation, wandering from place to place for a month like this, but the sick thing is I would still do it even if I didn’t make money at it. Maybe I should take May off more often. Whenever the way opens.