We’re heading out on another road trip soon, this time to northern California’s Lost Coast and Redwood forests. We’ve been there before but the deserted beaches, forested mountains, and small towns are calling us back. The oversize scale of the coastal scenery and giant trees energizes us and reminds us how truly small we are, mere specks of passing dust on this great planet.
The trip is bound to generate photographic activity – I anticipate returning home with hundreds of photos because trips always produce a surfeit of images. In fact, there are dozens of decent photographs from the last road trip we took that I haven’t shown yet. In April we explored Southern Utah, another place where nature writes her stories with broad, bold strokes. I don’t know whether it’s the mind-expanding spaciousness of the landscape, the splendid variety of colors and shapes, or the spare, hard simplicity of the terrain that inspires me the most. I suppose it’s all that and more. The desert is surely a photographer’s dream.
Here’s a series of scenic views and close-ups of the high desert from the trip. Enjoy!
It’s all about geology in Utah. This post zeroes in on the impressive variety of rocks that can be seen in southern Utah. Between April 3rd and 13th, we drove from the far southwest corner of Utah to Torrey, a small town in central Utah near Capitol Reef National Park. We put about 1680 miles (2703km) on our rented SUV, traveling on highways, two-lane local roads, and rough, unpaved roads. We walked through canyons, up cliffs, and along mountain ridges. It was a rock odyssey, from the enormous, ancient formations layered into the distance to the red rock dust on our boots and in our noses. In Utah, the shapes, colors, and textures of rock run the gamut from subtle to bizarre. Going back and forth between spacious, soul-satisfying vistas and mesmerizing details, it was a ten-day orgy of aesthetic pleasure.
Southern Utah’s landscape is harsh, forbidding. Maps tell the story of settler’s reactions with plainspoken names like Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Rattlesnake Bench, Tarantula Mesa, Hell’s Backbone, and Last Chance Desert. Summer is hot, winter cold, and spring rains can bring floods. But the beauty beyond all that, between the dust blowing in your face and the endless miles of cracked earth, is truly sublime. In the last letter he wrote before he disappeared forever, Everett Ruess recalled riding “over miles of rough country, forcing my way through tall sage and stubborn oak brush, and driving the burros down canyon slopes so steep that they could hardly keep from falling.” He enjoyed the beauty of the wilderness and the vagrant life he was leading, preferring “the saddle to the streetcar and the star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.”
In the fall of 2000, I journeyed to south-central Utah twice, each time for less than a week. I went to support my teenage son, who was in a wilderness program. The second visit included a cold night spent with him and other families high on Boulder Mountain with nothing but a sleeping bag and a rough lean-to for protection from the elements. It snowed that night, causing the tarp over our heads to fall on top of us. Brrr. Warming ourselves next to a campfire amid the vast, open skies of the high desert that morning was definitely a memorable experience. The jaw-dropping drive down from Salt Lake City, the dramatically changing views, the crisp air, and the spareness of life in the high desert moved me. As awed as I was by the power of nature in this place, I was also charmed by the atmosphere of the small town where I stayed after that night on the mountain. Capitol Reef country and Torrey, Utah dug into my soul and worked their magic. I vowed to go back and returned three years later. And yes, it was memorable again.
That trip nineteen years ago was intensely pleasurable because my experiences were so different from everything I’d known as an east coast native. I explored, I hiked to a waterfall, I rode a horse, and I sat down under a juniper tree and painted the towering red-orange cliffs. In subsequent years I often thought about that wild country and the little town at the heart of it – I wasn’t done with Utah’s extraordinary landscape. With the easing of pandemic restrictions, it seemed like travel could feel good again and Utah was the perfect place to go. This time I’d share it with my partner, Joe, who is a wonderful travel companion.
On April 2nd we flew to Las Vegas and picked up a rental SUV at the airport. We stayed in town overnight and set off for Utah the next morning.
Four photos from the plane: low tide ripples off the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham Airport, a view of Lopez Island as we climbed to cruising altitude, Oregon’s beautiful Mt. Hood, and the sere, dun-colored desert outside Las Vegas.
With dramatic clouds threatening rain but not producing it (as so often happens in the desert), we continued north to Cedar City, our base for the next 3 days. The biggest draw for tourists in that area is Zion National Park, which neither of us had ever seen. But we knew the park would be a mob scene – even on a weekday in April. Not only does the park require you to leave your car in a crowded lot and take their shuttle bus to get to the major hikes and observation points, now they even require reservations for the popular hike up Angel’s Landing. It was spring break and families were everywhere. I was torn but Joe was adamant: after some discussion, we decided to forgo the main entrance to the park altogether. We would explore the less-frequented north end the next day, taking a scenic drive to a short trail that leads to a magnificent overlook. Even that proved daunting for us lowlanders when the altitude challenged our lungs. Plopping down on the rocks as often as we needed to turned out to be as entertaining as the views, thanks to the lizards scampering about.
We live at sea level in a place where the humidity often approaches 100%. We were now over 6,000 feet higher than that, all day and night, with humidity as low as 20%. We hadn’t realized how hard it would be to acclimate to the high desert! The following day we chose an easier itinerary: explore the petroglyphs at Parowan Gap and drive a big loop over mountain passes in the Dixie National Forest. The petroglyphs were some of the best and most accessible we’ve seen but the wind was fierce through the Parowan Gap. I couldn’t resist tossing tumbleweed in the air and watching it bounce down the road like a cartoon character. Maybe I’ll figure out how to get that phone video I made into another post.
We had one more day in Cedar City, a day that for me, began with feeling absolutely wretched. Mornings were getting slower and slower as the thin air made the simplest task a struggle. We weren’t sleeping well, either. Ah, the joys of hotel pillows – they’re never like one’s own! And the air in hotel rooms, don’t get me started on that. So that day we drove south to a lower elevation and by the afternoon we were both having a great time clambering around petrified sand dunes at Snow Canyon State Park. A long, relaxing lunch at an out-of-the-way spot that took us a while to find capped the day.
The next day we had a long drive ahead of us; we’d be visiting Torrey, the small town in south-central Utah that I fell in love with over 20 years ago. But I’ll save that for later. Needless to say, there are way too many photos to go through and trip impressions fade too quickly. It was an intense two weeks of sensory overload. There was rock above all, in countless guises – smooth, rough, grainy, pock-marked, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, lavender, white, black, warm, cold, shaped into hoodoos, perfect rectangles, and domes, wrinkled like elephant skin, balanced and poised to topple any minute, and solid as the ages underfoot. There were wonderful plants, some rare, some cultivated, all tough as nails. There were scintillating conversations with native Utahans, especially Martha, a 76-year-old native of Teasdale (population 219) who showed us the old tea house ruin. And Curtis and Tristan, proprietors of Dark Sky Coffee in Torrey, whose warm, relaxed hospitality and excellent espresso brought a gleam to my eyes. There were fierce, sandy winds, icy winds out of the north, and calm, sunlit afternoons under Cottonwood trees. There were good meals, especially a memorable breakfast of eggs, bacon, home fries, and grits at the Black and Blue Diner in Las Vegas. There were long, dusty, unpaved roads, miles and miles of them, with horizons that peeled back the story of the earth for us to read. And there were ravens. Everywhere we went we saw single pairs of ravens flying together through the blue skies, slicing them up into then and now, backs shining silver in the sun, feathers dark as night.
Here’s a group of photographs from random moments over the course of the trip. More soon!
8. The car’s GPS says it’s 21 degrees outside one morning as we cross a high pass…many places haven’t opened for the season yet…and a sign in Cedar City announces 29 degrees on another morning. But the sun was warm and most of the afternoons were comfortable.
“…it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in sparseness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”
This week’s Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge is “Beyond”.
In the fall of 1934, a young Californian turned his back on city life and set out into the wilderness. As he traveled he wrote vivid letters to family and friends, and carved block prints of his surroundings, mailing them whenever he crossed paths with a post office. Sometimes he sold his prints for supply money. A profound restlessness led him to explore deeper and deeper into the wild. In the Sierra Nevada he abandoned himself to the “utterly, wildly, tumultuously effervescently joyful” mountain scenery, and in Navaho country he learned to speak the language and sing the songs of people who had lived on that land for many generations. Though he appreciated the stimulation of Los Angeles and San Francisco, he chose the hardships of traveling alone in the wilderness over the intellectual company of his city friends. A true mystic, he often sensed “the brink of things”. Every day contained surprises as he reveled in magnificent wastelands, unnamed canyons and long summer days in the high country with no people in sight.
His final trip, at the age of 20, was into the deeply wild, desert high country of southern Utah. He found his way into the small town of Escalante by trekking over the mountains without a trail. He saw a movie in town and shared venison with locals around a fire. He wrote that riding into the red rock country was like coming home again.
The last letter anyone received from him was dated Nov. 11, 1934 . He spoke of dwarf, twisted pines and towering orange yellow cliffs, a rough country of sage and brush and canyons so steep his burros could hardly stay, lest they all tumble. He wrote of strange tinges of unreality on what seemed like “the rim of the world.” And he warned that there would be a gap of months between letters, because “I am exploring southward to the Colorado, where no one lives.”
He was never heard from again. The gap was permanent, but Everett’s dream of going beyond lives on.
For close to eighty years people have tried to find him but every clue turns down a blind alley. He leaves us letters and prints; many are collected in a small, wondrous book by W.L. Rusho, titled Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, 1983, Gibbs Smith, Inc.
Finding Everett Ruess by David Roberts, Broadway, 2012, is a newer biography of Ruess.
Ruess truly went beyond during his short life, and though many have tried to find some physical trace of him, he has moved beyond us. But he is not beyond us in spirit.
These photos were taken in the general area where Ruess was last seen. Please forgive the poor quality – these are scans of old snapshots taken with a small camera when I visited southern Utah. If you have a chance to go there, do. If you have been there, you must know of the deep spiritual release that Everett Ruess found in this extraordinary country.