Thursday May 23, 2013 Back to the desert

Hiding in the AC in the Best Western overlooking the power plant above the dam of Lake Powell in Page, Arizona, where we paid extra for a “lake view” I reflect that this is all my fault.

  • This trip is my fault. (It’s my “50th” birthday adventure come two years early.)
  • This trip to Page, with its additional time, heat, and expense, is my fault, but I saw some pictures of Antelope Canyon on Instagram and just HAD to go!

So, here we are to see Antelope Canyon, a famous slot canyon (one could even say the most famous one) on Navajo lands just outside of Page, a town most notable at first blush for being the main access to Lake Powell and also sporting the very big coal-burning power plant that we heard about back in Grand Canyon. (It’s not a pretty sight in person, either.)

Mike got us a 10:00 a.m. “photographer’s tour” that he researched on TripAdvisor. Apparently, I have to at least carry a DSLR and tripod. I’m nervous that I’m going to miss this opportunity since I don’t shoot with a ‘real camera’ but Mike said to calm down, I can shoot if I want with the DSLR or just hold it for him to use and use my iPhone. Either way, we are both pumped on seeing this wonder of the world.

LATER, 8:00 p.m.:

Page redeemed itself with a magnificent sunset over Horseshoe Bend. Mike had pried me out of the air conditioning and lured me with sweet potato fries into another hike (up and down through sand) to the edge of what I’d thought was Lake Powell—and turned out to be the great green snake of the Colorado River, almost doubled back on itself as it curved deeply around a spire of striped Navajo sandstone bigger than the Empire State building.

I took pictures of other people taking pictures on the edge of infinity. I find that a human, properly placed in the photo, adds context and something to measure size against, and Mike’s newly-shorn silver head (he found a barber in Page) hanging out into the abyss, worked nicely. He lay on his belly and stuck his tripod out into space, working it with a remote to get some really great bird’s-eye shots, while some of these folks really seemed to have a death wish, scrambling about and taking repeated snaps of themselves against the deep.

I think a more appropriate response than giggling, jostling and making victory signs while spitting over the edge, is awe and respect. Snapping gum while viewing such grandeur is not really experiencing it. On the other hand, really experiencing it is kind of scary and maybe giggling is nervousness and those silly photos are proof of bravery. I don’t know. But I grew up in a family that profoundly appreciated nature. Sitting and absorbing beauty was taught and practiced… and I find the chittering of a thousand languages on the rim of the world just a reminder that a lot of the time, we really aren’t very far from baboons.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Our Antelope Canyon adventure began inauspiciously with the lobby of the Best Western mobbed by tour bus groups, all trying to check in or out and foraging like lions through the complimentary breakfast bar. We tried to breach the horde several times to grab food and make our escape to no avail; finally we ran out of time and just had to do it. Did I mention we didn’t like crowds?

“Guess where all those tourists are headed,” Mike said grimly, yanking down the brim of his new Indiana Jones-type hat he had to get to protect his head. “Into to the canyon. With us.”

Antelope Canyon is on the Navajo lands, and all access is supervised and paid for by the tribes. We drove out past the power plant (belching that gray mist that’s so photogenic) and parked by an awning in the desert. “Adventure Photo Tours” piled us into the back of a giant, beefed up pickup truck and we barreled across sandy flats to a narrow, dark slit in the sandy wall—apparently a scene from Indiana Jones was filmed there, so it might look familiar. We’d met a couple of other intrepid photographers by then—Batu and Barry, both from the Bay Area. I’d had a five-minute lesson on using Mike’s DSLR, and as soon as we got into the tunnel, I went at it like the crazed photographer I apparently am.

Our guides did a great job sheepdogging us from corner to viewspot to curve, holding us back and letting other groups through “just waiting for this beam to come in” and in spite of sometimes stifling crowds, a rain of sand that blew down periodically from the slit far above, and a good deal of jostling to get the shot, two hours flew by in a place that really defies words.

But I’ll try anyway. It’s like that little canyon Mike and I explored in Zion—steep and sinuous, incredible contortions in the stone revealing the movement of water long gone, and frozen in time.

We were completely submerged in the striped rock environment, lit by lances and bars of light so bright they hurt the eyes and seemed to burn the sand where they touched down into mercury pools. Our guides would toss a handful of dusty sand into the light beams, and it would coalesce into drifting forms that reminded me of “dancers, angels, ghosts” as I heard my fellow tourists call the ephemeral visions wrought of particle and light.

I was caught up in a frenzy of photographing, filling almost two cards with the DLSR and thirty pictures with my iPhone. I stuck the huge camera under my shirt like a bulbous pregnancy to protect it from the drifting sandfalls that periodically drenched us, and elbowed my way like a photojournalist to the front to get the best views, plonking open my tripod right into various feet and bodies with hardly an “excuse me”—but you had to be there to understand.

It was like getting caught up in bidding at an auction, or gambling at a slot machine, or overeating at a seafood buffet—it was surfeit of delight and a limited time in which to capture and enjoy it. Afterwards, laughing with our new friends as we swerved and slewed our way back across the sands, we were all on a dopamine high, exchanging business cards and promises of future photography adventure.

I was able to post four of my iPhone pictures as soon as we got back to town, and then the letdown set in, the psychological equivalent of sugar binge, as we got on the road for Mesa Verde, Colorado. This turned out to be a REALLY LONG WAY. We drove for hours over monotonous country in shades of crumpled suede—buff, moss, peach and beige, with lumps and knobs of unprepossessing stone and nothing but crows in the sky.

We pulled into the gritty little town of Cortez, Colorado at 7:30 and devoured a couple of pounds of barbeque at a local place called Jimmer’s. Extremely good and filled with great original woodwork and moose heads, I especially liked the pump bottles of different kinds of barbeque sauce. They have huli-huli chicken in Hawaii that’s good, but nothing like the barbeque we’ve been sampling in the Southwest.

Mesa Verde National Park was a surprise after the aforementioned monotony between Page, Arizona and the “Four Corners” of Az, Ut, Co, and NM. It’s a huge mesa mountain rising out of the plains, and again I didn’t know much about it and was surprised by the elevation and coolness (Yay! No air conditioning needed!) and the grand vistas. We’re staying in the park at the appropriately-named Far View Lodge (charming, built in the 1970s, and not upgraded since) and it’s great to be washing the sand out of our hair and cleaning it out of the cameras and closing the curtains on another gloriously overstimulating day.

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