Photography and commentary by Paul Yarnall

The American Southwest… Out and Back

This past April I had the great fortune of visiting parts of the amazing American Southwest… focused mostly in Northern Arizona… the Page, Lake Powell area. How this journey came to be was not based in good fortune, or was it?

Rewind back to last Fall. I learned of a weekend lecture by the superlative photographer, Art Wolfe, hosted at a small college in Pennsylvania. I had heard what a remarkable shooter and speaker he was so I signed up. I decided this could be a fairly low cost weekend if I used my slide in, pop up, truck camper and since it was not far from my home town I could also visit with my aging Mom and my siblings. Mom didn’t make it to Christmas so that was one of my last precious visits with her and I always enjoy time with my brothers and sister.

The lecture was amazing. It wasn’t that I learned much from a technical stand point, but in spite of being bombarded with an endless stream of Art’s singular photography that I could only hope to match in my wildest fantasies, I left incredibly inspired. The one message that I took to heart as my left hand brain was constantly trying to define a purpose to my need to freeze a moment, was that every time someone gazes at one of your images and is transported, however briefly, you have ‘done a good deed’.

As I headed back home up a very busy eight lane highway, thankfully in the far right lane, I heard a strange sound followed by a slight jerk in the truck, followed by the view of the roof of my camper tracing an arc through the sky behind me in my rear view mirror. It crashed upside down still in my lane, missing cars behind me, and others doing the “Oh my God” dodge to avoid crashing into it. It came to rest half on the shoulder as did I quite a way farther down the road. It all took a second or two to take hold in my brain. Bedding and misc. stuff trailed me back to the roof. I slowly backed up on the narrow shoulder, already thankful that no one had been hurt, but reeling with the strategic challenge now before… make that behind me. I was three hundred miles from home and part of my camper lay on the road. Bummer.

A very good Samaritan stopped to offer assistance. There is little doubt that I was in a bit of a state of shock with an adrenaline chaser as the two of us managed the impossible by getting the roof back up where it belonged. It was heavier than four or even six people could have safely lifted. It was badly damaged but I couldn’t leave it there and I needed to have some protection for the inside of the camper in the event of rain. It took a lot of rope to tie everything back together, several more stops to add rope or check that it was staying put, but I made it home without further incident. That weekend was so full of emotional extremes it felt a bit schizophrenic.  

I will skip the distasteful unpleasantness with the insurance company… (I really like my NEW agent and carriers, by the way)… but it became clear that letting the factory restore my camper to its former glory was the most prudent solution. The factory is in Michigan. While I was looking at maps contemplating the drive to the factory I noted that it was a “good leg up” in the generally Western direction. I had just seen some images of slot canyons in Arizona that I wanted to be in MY camera and, oh yeah, I have a friend in Denver. Work was slow, (who says on their death bed,”Gee, I wish I had spent more time in the office?!”). The concept of a camping photo road tour was taking shape.

When I mentioned this to my dear friend (and son I never had) Jason, who lives in Ecuador, and mentioned that he was welcome to join the adventure, his acceptance sealed the deal. He was anxious to sharpen up his photo skills and as long as we found a WIFI hotspot at least once a day so he could keep tabs on his work, he was good to go. He flew into Denver, we visited with my friends and the adventure began.

The interstate drive through Colorado was constant visual stimulus… there was still plenty of snow in the hills, but as we approached Utah things got dryer. Our destination was Page, Arizona, but we stopped in Moab and had a quick visit at Arches National Park, before continuing on. When you have only “the moment” it is really a lottery as far as the light is concerned.  You have to take what you get. Plenty of snapshots of the  “this is my vacation” variety with a few ‘wall hangars’.

The slot canyons in the Page area were everything I hoped for… surreal, amazing, and  photographically challenging. We followed our noses and our whims. We made plans, but we adapted to unplanned choices. This got us to Stud Horse Point. Wow. This got us hooked up with a local expert on petroglyphs and native navigational (he thinks) markings he has discovered over the years painstakingly exploring the hills and mesas in the area. He took us on a WILD jeep ride to see some of his discoveries. Another Wow. Some tough light that day but great memories. Then there was the march up to Angel’s Landing in Zion, (see the blog before this one). Not for the weak of leg or the faint of heart. Amazing that this trail even exists with the lawyers, insurance companies, and even our government who wants to protect us from everything. You could easily have the last day of your life as you approach the summit, but Oh my, what exhilaration and what a view!

We desparately wanted to get to the North rim of the Grand Canyon, but one small camping area was un-characteristically full (after 80 miles of the roughest gravel roads ever!) and the other was still snowed in, so we made the pilgramage, along with many others, to Grand Canyon Village on the South rim.  Too many people, for sure, but then we got to see the Canyon and got some good pics of horses (mules really) and their handlers.  Expect the unexpected…. and be ready to shoot!

And speaking of shooting, I confess that I lost a very precious 4 gig worth of images by getting sloppy in my work flow.  A hard lesson that I will expand on in a future blog.

We took the Southerly route back which included the Petrified Forest… (do you know how the trees turned to rock??… I do)… and we finally ended up in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. The surrounding communities have taken on a distressingly low taste amuzement park mentality and a lot of people come to the park… also distressing, (can you tell that I don’t like crowds?), but there is photographic gold in those hills, and some of the gold requires a good sweaty walk to get there. That seems to thin out the crowds at the good spots.  This is another destination that could fill weeks, not days, and I plan to return.  A Fall visit after school is back in session would be spectacular.

After 6000 miles, great adventures and a few ‘good enough’ images, I can reflect on that day last fall when my roof came crashing down and say, what a lucky day that turned out to be!

When you have a few minutes, check out the new gallery.

As always, I love to hear what you think.  I am particulary interested in what you think of the black and white versions of some of the Arizona – Utah landscapes.