Thursday, June 16, 2011
Today called for a return trip to Buckskin Gulch. I hoped to capture the other shot I scouted on day 3. I ate breakfast at camp, then drove to the Wire Pass trailhead.
It was just after sunrise, and clouds were already forming over the cockscomb ridge. They were formed from the uplift of air over the mountains. Though common in the afternoon, I hadn’t seen such clouds in the morning.
They weren’t the dark angry clouds one would associate with monsoons, but their very presence bothered me. Today’s weather forecast called for mostly sunny skies, high wind, and partially cloudy skies by afternoon. Later this evening, there was a slight chance of rain.
Rule number one of a solo trip into the wilderness: listen to that little voice in the back of your head. Today, that little voice told me — screamed at me — not to enter the canyon.
I returned to camp, and pondered the situation. There was a 10 percent chance of rain tomorrow, 20 percent on Saturday, and 30 percent by Sunday. Today wasn’t ideal for Buckskin Gulch, and the next three days were even worse. There weren’t many shooting locations near my base camp, so my options here were limited. I wanted to be productive, to find some great locations, and to burn some film.
I collapsed my tent, and packed up the rest of my gear. Relocating to Whitehouse campground, some 20 miles away, would give me the opportunity to scout a new area, and get a much needed change of scenery.
I spent the morning scouting various BLM roads that crossed the plateau north of Buckskin Gulch. I found the trailhead for the middle route to Buckskin Gulch (an emergency exit more than anything) and followed the road all the way to the cliffs that tower over the Paria River.
I arrived at the campground at 1PM, and claimed a campsite. There were a half dozen cars in the parking lot, but I was the only one there.
There was no shade at my site, just a picnic table, a fire ring, and a somewhat flat area for my tent. I pitched my tent in deep sand, and secured the rain-fly — something I rarely do.
Storm clouds built to the north, and the AM radio was frequently interrupted by blips of static — signs of lighting. Though this storm activity was far to the north, I’m glad I skipped the canyon.
I prepared lunch in the shade of a nearby juniper tree. It was the only shade I could find. Even sunlight reflecting from the sand was intense.
I heard footsteps behind me.
A stocky person dressed in bermuda shorts, a baggy gray shirt, and sandals approached. This person had long gray hair, and spoke in a soft yet firm tone.
“That’s quite the outfit you have there.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I don’t often discuss fashion with strangers.
“I got it at REI.” I offered.
“Did they come as a pair?”
I was wearing light colored synthetic pants, and a light colored long sleeve shirt.
“No, they were separate.”
My answer seemed to satisfy the person’s curiosity, and they wandered off to my right.
I returned to my lunch, and opened a book. I only find time to read when I’m on shooting trips. It helps pass time, and allows my mind to wander.
“Not quite ripe yet.” The person returned, peaking around the Juniper tree with a handful of Juniper berries extended toward me.
“No thanks,” I replied. I don’t even know what a ripe Juniper berry is suppose to taste like. Why would I want an unripened one?
I buried my face in the book — hoping the hippie would get the message.
“Did you know that if you start a fire, let it turn to coals, then place Juniper berries on top –”
Clearly my book wasn’t sending the message…
“– it will produce a smoke that cleanses the body of toxins.”
Alright, here we go — TOXINS — the marketing buzzword that sells scam products on late night TV infomercials.
Was this person for real?
“Is that some Native American thing?” I offered through my book — after a awkward pause.
I contemplated poking two holes in the book, and wearing it as a mask for the rest of the day.
“Oh, why yes it is.” The hippie replied.
Great, now this person thought I was genuinely interested in the conversation.I had to think fast. I didn’t want to be rude, but this really was getting old.
I lowered the book slightly, and peered over the top.
The person was gone.
What? Where’d they go? I looked over my shoulder, nothing. Then the other way — nothing still.
Was this the first sign of heat stroke?
I put down the book, and looked around.
Twenty yards behind me, the mysterious hippie was squatting down, picking a handful of green weeds.
A NFL running back couldn’t cover 20 yards that fast. What was going on?
I returned to my book, and read a few paragraphs. I couldn’t tell if this situation was funny or scary. Either way, I didn’t feel like reading.
“Do you know if this is edible?” The hippie was 15 feet to my right, clutching a small green weed.
The combination of Birkenstocks and deep sand explained the silent approach, but not the teleportation.
“Give it a shot,” I said — all the while wondering if I could be prosecuted for encouraging a hippie to eat a poisonous plant.
The hippie sniffed the plant, then cast it aside.
“I’d better not,” they said.
I raised my book once more, hoping to avoid direct eye contact with the person.
“I see you are trying to read,” said the hippie — looking at my upside-down book. “I wish not to disrupt your chi — so I’ll let you be.”
The sentence rhymed. Were they casting a spell on me? No wait, this was just a common hippie — They’re not known to practice the dark arts.
“Have a great day.” I said, as the hippie wandered back to a big white truck in the parking lot.
The hippie’s gender was perplexing. I’m still unsure if I was talking to a man or a woman.
After lunch, I decided a scouting trip down the canyon was in order. It was 2PM, which gave allowed several hours to head downstream.
I descended the river bank, and dropped into the sandy wash. The muddy Paria river wound its way along a broad wash, a ghostly remnant of its monsoonal rage.
Clay deposits gathered along the edge of the river, creating quicksand in places. This isn’t the quicksand from Gilligan’s Island, but you’re in for a muddy-good-time if you don’t watch your step.
I hiked 4 miles downstream, all the while exploring the wind eroded cliffs that lined the wash. Circular holes were carved in the soft sandstone — many of which were large enough to crawl into.
The wind was violent at times. Strong gusts over 40 mph engulfed the wash in swirling clouds of sand and dust. I turned my back to the wind, but there was no escaping the fury. It was painful at times.
The solitude of the canyon became overwhelming. I was miles from nowhere in the southern Utah desert, and sunset was near. I didn’t find anything I wished to photograph and the conditions weren’t right for it anyway. I greatly missed my fiancee, and the lack of contact for the past 5 days was unsettling.
Another violent gust swept through the wash. I turned my back, and closed my eyes as I was pelted with sand. I wanted to be somewhere else — anywhere else.
It was time to turn back — to return to camp. A lone rock in the wash drew my attention. It mostly flat, but circular in shape. I picked up this rock, and turned it over in my hand on the long walk back.
Landscape photographers often tell heroic tales of scaling mountains, forging rivers, and doing whatever it takes to capture a photo. These stories of epic journeys through rugged terrain with inhospitable weather sound great on paper, but rarely reflect the reality of landscape photography.
This isn’t one of those stories.
This is a real story about finding myself alone in a sandy wash, a rock in hand, and a lonely 4 mile hike back to camp.