Wading in a pool of abstraction © Robert Sommers 2023

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Utah Roadie

Virgin River, Zion National Park.

I have just returned from a serious five day road trip with my friend Ken Seals. We traveled to five or six National Parks, a few state parks and through a lot of incredibly beautiful connective tissue in between. We logged over two thousand miles in his new Rav 4 and took over a couple thousand good pictures a piece to duly document our travels.

We left with the usual platitudes about taking it easy and just having a good time but in the end were voraciously tearing up the miles like hungry wolves, capturing some of the most fantastic visuals I have ever seen and experienced in my whole life. Some that I will never forget. And had a thoroughly great time.

Unnamed bend in the Colorado River - Wilson Trail, Canyonlands

We visited Utah's Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Goblin Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion and the Escalante Grand Staircase. I guess that makes seven? Hiked, climbed, ate and took lots of photographs.

Shafer Trail View, Canyonlands

I think that when you visit the old Utah Territory and see its magnificent red monoliths you are feeling the actual bones of the American west. As spectacular as any place this side of Jupiter's moons.

Ancient Bones
It is going to take a little time to document this one so bear with me and check back in a few days and I will do my best. Just need to get my bearings back. Really amazing trip.

Bryce Canyon

This trip has sort of shot my springs. My car is now slightly broke, glasses busted, my computer won't work, the keyboard is acting up and I can't download a whole bunch of pictures. My body hurts too, feet and ankles and other places. Hitch in my giddyup. Put the old body through it. Sort of undergoing a slight cosmic correction, will fill you in on the ride. Thanks to a week being this close to what passes in these parts for heaven, my spirit is plainly soaring. Hope it don't wear off too quick.

Here goes,

Trip started out sort of strangely. Both Ken and I got cuts on identical places on our opposite forearms the day before we left. His got a little infected and we had to stop in Beaver for medical care and antibiotics. He's fine but it set us back. In fact our plans were subtly thwarted by the big cheese universal commander continually throughout this one. So we ended up playing it by ear. Can't fight the wind.

A guy a little younger than me, spry, bald headed fellow with a slight facial droop came over and gave us the quick once over. Strangers. Asked us where we were from in the ER. He was an affable guy, turned out to be the town judge. And school bus driver. Twenty two years on the bench, mostly petty stuff, marijuana, speeding, misdemeanors. Hmmm.

I asked the thirty something doctor about a vision problem I was experiencing and he said that these things were common when you get to my age. Say what?

I am told that the t-shirts from Beaver Liquor are in very short supply.

It was so nice to get away, to be away from the bad news and chatter, especially this week. Voice box is full, haven't done email or answered messages, no internet, it was a great week to cut off the nasty old world and be back in a unique place on the planet, one that has yet to be ruined or destroyed.

We had hoped to hit Arches for sunset the first day but ended up in Green River. Took the frontage past the gun range and industrial facility, which I still want to photograph in the stars.

Green River is an odd little duck, bit gone to seed. Famous for the sweetness of the local melon, I think Fremont did something noteworthy near there once. Much of what was once quaint and ancient is now sadly beyond repair, throughout the west.

Motel Six but not in the top end of that chain, or the best sense of the word, kind of a funky one, a liability lawsuit just waiting to happen with the sizable chunks of aggregate missing from the stair treads. No bugs, a bed and a toilet, I'm in business. But come to think of it, no shampoo, tissue or breakfast either.

tunnel lights, Zion
We were baked in the hot afternoon sun. Unfortunately the large canyon was open directly to the west so there was little chance that our misery would lessen. The map said that the tanks were a mere 1.2 miles away but my aching legs and hiking partner thought that it was undoubtably much farther. I think that I can speak for both of us when I tell you that I was whipped. And so was he.

We were "mature" men, yes a little out of shape, but to our credit we were also lugging a lot of damn lot of camera gear, including heavy tripods and multiple lenses. But there was no doubt about it, this "easy hike" was kicking our asses.

The Water Pocket Fold had its nascent birth some 60 million years ago when a mountain was formed under the earth in a titanic event called the Laramide Orogeny. This created what is known as a monocline, in this case a fold in the earth some 100 mies long. The west side of the fold rose some 7000 feet about 20 million years ago, long before Jesus Christ ever rode with the indians.

The upper part of the fold is the area called Capital Reef, the very National Park in which we were hiking. Settled by both Fremont Indians, responsible for the beautiful petroglyphs we photographed and later by Mormons, the valley is lush and fertile, the greens of its apricot trees a counter to the large red monoliths. Beautiful barns constructed of rough sawn blanks dot the horizon.

The word Reef was chosen because this fold proved near impenetrable to lateral traffic, like a coral reef. The Capitol Wash was the only way across for the many settlers who moved west in the late 1870's and 80's. The road was operable until 1962 when the highway was completed. Pioneers would sign the wall as a record of their passing. I believe that the earliest inscription I saw dated from 1871.

This was the very passage we traveled. We walked up the rocky hill to see the tanks or depressions in the rocks that gave the Water Pocket Fold its name. I saw five of these tanks but I believe that there may be more. The water was brackish but probably a life saver to both settlers and wildlife and was now the home for a large resident tadpole.

We were both down to a last sip of water and were taking short tacks to shady spots and then trying to build up the energy to continue. It did not help our egos much to see young children merrily skipping along past us and I attribute their success to too much clean living and the lack of heavy stuff to carry.

We were quite happy to get back to the car. Capitol Reef is a hidden gem and I want to come back soon. Of course all of the parks are different, wonderful and special in their own right. Capitol Reef has the most extraordinary colors of purple and pink rock, quite unique place.

Cars navigating Capitol Wash - 1939 - NPS
Butch Cassidy had camped out in the next large wash over when he was on the lam and the Cassidy Arch there still bears his name.

We had stopped to take pictures at Balancing Rock when I asked Ken if I could drive down a nearby dirt road that looked like it led nowhere, my favorite kind. He readily assented and I tested the off road vehicle for the first time, heading onto the rocky and rather lonely road to Willow Springs.

After a while I got the urge to stop and take a look around and pulled the car up a grade to our right. We found an old waterhole or spring, with an adobe walled cistern behind it. I couldn't really ascertain the age but it could have been historic.

Later at Delicate Arch I asked a ranger about the spring. "Well, never been down there. Nobody hardly goes down there. But that is where the famous writer Edward Abbey lived, maybe he built it." Hmmm. 

Abbey was a ranger at Arches in 1956 and 57, the year I was born. I would have to do a little research and try to find out where he put his trailer. Later I learned that during the monkeywrencher's era Willow Springs was the principal road into the park.


I guess I should go back to the beginning, try to keep the narrative somewhat straight. We headed into Moab the first morning to get our rental jeep to take us into Canyonlands but found out we were a day early. No problem, we would visit Arches, we had nowhere we had to be.

Moab is an amazing town, it has morphed in the thirty years since I first visited to arguably be the number one action sports town in our country. Adventure outfits that offered climbing, ballooning, paddling, rafting, and a host of other services filled the main street. People were very fit and obviously into having a very good time. Wonderful town with a great brewery.

We made our short way to the park and saw what is now a continual theme, people needing to get their picture taken next to the national park sign. Saw it again and again, everywhere we went. Like dogs pissing on fire hydrants, marking where they had been. And lots of selfie sticks. A Chinese guy taking a picture near the sign with a selfie stick is the true trifecta these days.

I am learning that as a photographer sometimes you have to take what is given you. I had great plans for sunrise and sunset shots, astrophotography too, but they never panned out. Didn't always have optimal cloud structure or any at all at times. We were staying a little too far from the parks to hit the golden hours just right. But we still got plenty and I am pretty satisfied. Have to adapt to conditions, they sure aren't going to change for you.

Or maybe they will? Did you ever read the old book, Yoga, youth and reincarnation? I think it was written by a guy named Jess Stearns or something like that. Read it in the late sixties. Guy in the book claimed that he could will clouds to move with his mind. Hell of a trick. If I remember correctly he got the power by pushing big rocks around. Think he was from Massachusetts. I haven't learned that one.

Met some people from North Carolina there. I wanted to talk barbecue, he wanted to talk about Jesus. He asked if he could pray for me. I told him I would rather not. I didn't want to be an asshole but I didn't want him to waste it or anything.

After our trip to Arches Ken drove me down to the river and I spent an hour taking long exposures of the Colorado, with mixed success. I can see that I will need a higher quality filter to do this kind of work. But it was fun and I got into it. Have to learn, have to take some chances.

We stopped by the Jeep rental and secured our transportation for the next day. Had a beer and hummus plate at the brewery. Our server had a chemical diagram on his arm, he said it was adrenaline. Saw a different adrenaline tattoo on a remarkable double amputee's stomach at Landscape Arch. Guess it is the new rage.

Speaking of ink, I see that the nonpainted are becoming a rarer and rarer species these days. People will put near anything on their skin and wear it forever. I saw ogres and fly fishing scenes on pretty girls' epiderm, the golden gate bridge on the back of another guy's head. Further evidence that time is passing me by. Saw more than a few multigenerational gang banger families at the fast food joints, heavily inked and sporting what looked to be similarly knocked up and rather glum fifteen year olds.

I don't want to be a hater. I am clearly outnumbered. It is just that I am such an art snob and my tastes are so ephemeral. What if ogres are no longer in fashion and I need a steamship tattoo or a heart with mom's name on it? You only have so much skin you know.

The next day we rose early and headed off on the Shafer Trail down to the White Rim Road in Canyonlands. Simply the most insane road I have ever had the pleasure of driving down. Almost petrifying, fully satisfying. 

Steep and semi gnarly switchbacks. In its entirety it is 104 miles long. I drove it down to Musselman Arch. Exquisite, breathtaking beauty. Excellent aerial views of the Colorado River below.

A sheer delight, in the literal sense of the word. My favorite moments and experience in a week full of great experiences.

We headed back to the junction and decided to take the Potash Rd. on its 32 mile stretch out of the canyon. Good choice.

Glad I brought the Bower 14mm f2.8 wide angle lens along to capture what I have seen referred to as Island Mesa.

We drove down to the salt ponds near the potash plant. The color blue was so pure and synthetic it looked fake. Then we ran into a small clan of desert bighorn that didn't seem to be too bothered by our presence.

I had my very sharp Nikkor 70-200mm 2.8 vr II at the ready on the Nikon D7200.

We finally made it back to Moab and decided to take one more crack at Arches. My pictures from the day before had mistakenly been saved in a less than optimal file format. Stopped first at Double Arch and then I hiked out to Landscape Arch. Tired, just wasted tired, feet aching but managed to catch the last rays of the sun and then back to the car.

We packed our gear from the sorry Motel 6 and hit the road early the next morning. I had to recode my room key every single day for some reason and it was a pain in the ass, considering the fact that I was carrying about 50 lbs. of photo gear up and down the stairs. I wasn't sorry to see the place in the rear view mirror.

KJ had suggested that I check out a place called Goblin Valley on our way to our next stop, Escalante. It is sort of a lonely Utah State Park off the 24 that not too many people know about.  It backs up to the San Rafael Reef and has a unique topography with really no geologic counterpart anywhere that I know of. Place is covered with thousands of gnomey, man sized hoodoos.

There were a bunch of extremely well behaved kids hidden amongst the toadstools, all quietly writing what I found out were letters to themselves in their notebooks. I talked to their counselors up top and it turns out they were all campers on a five week bus trip across America that happened to be from Leslie's old camp in Detroit, Tamarack. Leslie went in the early 70's before she went to Tamakwa. Coolness.

Any artistic type who fails to appreciate the aesthetic bounty at Goblin Valley should consider giving up his brush or camera and perhaps getting a seeing eye dog.

I can honestly see myself working with these forms and images for the next year at least. Unless of course, I get hit by a bus. puh, puh.

Cheech Wizard rocks out.
We left the stone goblins to their lonely fate and continued on the road. Caught a pronghorn in the scrub as we were leaving.

Our new destination was Capitol Reef, one of the unsung gems of the southwest. The colors start getting real psychedelic as you get near Capitol Reef.

A place where Mormon and Fremont Indian coexist peacefully in the same valley, albeit a thousand or so years apart.

Lots of neat pictographs there. Bighorns and families of space people and all sorts of stuff.

Definitely want to go back there to explore and to do some astrophotography. Its darkness is world renowned. And to pick some apricots and apples from its u-pick orchards.

It is certainly great to have a buddy like Ken. He has taught me a lot. A pilot, flight operations manager and long time photojournalist, I have benefitted greatly from his friendship, knowledge and mentorship. Good traveling companion. Generous, easy to get along with and a wealth of information.

We did the aforementioned hike to the tanks and got back on the road towards the next stop, a Bed and Breakfast in Escalante. We journeyed down the 12 towards the Grand Staircase, the million dollar highway built by the CCC in the 1930's. This magnificent road took us upwards of 9000' in elevation, out of the pines and into thick aspen forest.

Fantastic view of Bowns reservoir and finally the unbelievable road, with its 14% grade, which narrows to two slender lane widths that travel down the knife edge of a mountain ridge. We had initially planned on hiking to Calf Creek Falls but we were both a little too tired and beat up to attempt such a long hike. Will give it a go another time.

Escalante is a cool town, a mini, low key Moab. Lots of slot canyons to hopefully discover there in the future. Once had it snow on my in nearby Panguitch in July.

Ended up traveling to Bryce the next day. Got delayed in Cannonville while the 1300+ Bryce Half Marathon went through. We both needed to get home so we agreed to make Bryce a quick trip. After a pancake breakfast at Ruby's Inn we managed to find a parking spot at Bryce Point. It was a glorious morning.

pardon my rainbow!

Well we had managed to make it to Bryce, we might as well go for broke and hit Zion too. So we did. I think I have hiked every trail in the park, including a two day from Hop Valley but it will always be one of my favorites.

Stayed long enough to take the long exposure of the river and then we headed home. Saw a sun dog while gassing up at Costco. Hundred of miles of lenticular clouds. Very odd and wonderful day atmospherically. Will take it as a sign of deep portent.

Got back around 8:30. Think we killed it. Thanks for reading. Wink of an eye and it will be time for New Mexico.

Hey, you've hung in this long. Please do me one last favor and click on a picture. It will allow you to see everything bigger. Let me know which one's you like. Some respond better than others to magnification so my apologies to you pixel peepers out there. Later.


Sanoguy said...

Great shots, BH.... Sounds like a great trip!

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Stunning images. I know what you mean about the tattoos. Yesterday a woman ahead of me in line at Albertson's was
wearing a sleeveless t-shirt and she had script all over her back, starting on her neck - line after line...you could see bits of
sentences creeping out from under straps and underarms and through the fabric. I couldn't read it but I hope it's something she
can live with once gravity kicks in and the whole kit and kaboodle slides south. Can't wait to see more photos.

Ken Seals said...

Well done!

Max Hall said...

It's so hard to choose Robert, but the formations at Bryce Canyon are probably my favorites...so psychedelic! Brings back great memories of family trips. You can certainly understand why Jesus rode with the Indians there.
Great work!

impartial skeptic said...

Incredible images that take me back to a vacation trip to that area over thirty-five years ago with my young family.


Willow Springs for its peaceful seclusion. Capitol Reef for the recording of humanity. Arches for the play on light and form. Goblin Valley for its under worldliness. Salt ponds for the blueness against the sky.

The "big cheese universal commander" cannot mess with Free Will!

Anonymous said...

The images you captured on that trip were excellent. Favorite the potash ponds with the azure blue water. I know it wasn't on this trip the the Beach Scene #2 is amazing. You must have used filters on it. Boy... would I love to buy one of those if possible.
I look at the southwest differently now. I'm glad your trip was such a success. Joan

Anonymous said...

I thought the double arch was the pick of the litter. It also has potential as B&W with heavy reddish filtration. It should print impressively on a full 17x22” sheet.


Anonymous said...

wow…..i mean WOW~! beautifully captured Robert. Nitza and I did a big piece of this circuit early last October….did not manage to go all the way out to Canyonlands/Arches…big mistake, but hey we lingered too long, damn near every other place we went…..southern Utah….my cradle too…

thx for the share….


island guy said...

Gets me excited for next year's eclipse trip. Missed this part of the West on the last road trip. I really like the shot with the deep blue sky, not sure where but a long shot to the horizon. Thanks for the tip to click on the shots, really uses the great screen on my IPad Pro to advantage. I understand that at least at first it wasn't easy to use the IPad Pro with camera software, but could be a great travel editing platform for you if they have fixed that lack. Your longevity has been a great, and unexpected, gift to us all.

Unknown said...

Robert! Loved your photos and the words that accompanied them! Great photos AND words! You are hitting it out of the park on both fronts! Lauren

Blue Heron said...

Very nice of you to say, Lauren!