Letters Best Left Unsent ii

 

A long day to be undone

I stayed late into the the night that final night on the South Rim and watched the clouds disappear.  On the far side of the canyon the visitor’s center for the North Rim began to glow.  There are many, many ways to access the canyon, and many more places to secret yourself off to whether in daylight or dark.  The expanse of the Grand Canyon does feel limitless at times.  One of the hikes that leaves the South Rim and eventually takes you to the bottom of  the canyon is the Bright Angel Trail.  It starts not far from Yavapia Point where I’d been sitting for the sunset, and cascades nearly 10 miles before reaching Phantom Canyon Ranch.  As the clouds cleared and the moon rose, the canyon took on it’s lunar like appearance.  The long moon shadows betrayed the canyon’s colors and the light softened the sharp edges.  My eyes adjusted to the new landscape and more features came into focus.  The new features were humans, moving along the different trails.  Headlights, flashlights, campfires and cooking stoves put off this new light, either guiding the weary to a much needed respite, or welcoming the end of an arduous day’s journey.  Phantom Canyon Ranch was one of those beacons.  It’s cookhouse still aglow, and it’s campfires giving off a hearty cheer.

This is where it first hit.  Only four days in and the realization that this wasn’t the trip I’d been planning was starting to weigh on me.  Something about “someday,” and “wouldn’t it be” conversations were starting to restrict the freedom I’d been experiencing earlier in the day.  Had I been distracted by couples walking together and sharing the view?  Would it have been more endearing to be sitting on a porch watching the crowds flock by silently exchanging contented looks?  Had I inadvertently robbed myself of a happier trip by not including someone?  As I watched the headlamps and campfires that longing for companionship washed in and out.  Moments of “alone” and “lonely” playing a tug-of-war like the tides.  I will go back to the Grand Canyon, it’s too beautiful, to brilliant a sight not to be shared.  

Grief strips something from you.  Maybe it strips many things.  The phrase, “death by a thousand tiny cuts” comes to mind in moments like this.  That one has experienced so much grief and so many little losses, that no number of bandages or sutures will close the wounds OR stop the pain can cause a substantive change to ones world view. It’s walking around in a weariness, going through the motions, pushing aside the physical weight of a fog that engulfs you; it not only slows you but it dulls you, sight, sound and feeling. I’ve been staying above this state for most of the past two years.  The rollercoaster of the emotional and existential imbalance has slowed down.  The list of events and people and cars and miles has gotten shorter.  Attempts to fill the emptiness, to quell the confusion, stories built to justify actions, have have begun to move to make way for “so this is how it is.”  These states aren’t consistent, because the grief isn’t.  Everything is fluid and it’s a matter of managing the ebbs and flows more than anything else.  But keeping busy for busy’s sake, buying and pacing and dividing myself into one thousand more little pieces was not sustainable. The fighting and fleeing had taken their toll. This process has been exhausting, it has left me weary.  That’s why I wanted this trip to be different.  I had to be different, things had to change.  I’d worked so hard to change it on the inside, I had to change it on the outside.  But the grief, it is cyclical. It has mysterious triggers. It sinks, but it never washes away entirely.  Seeing other’s happiness, other’s connections, something brought my own emptiness back up. Moments of “alone” and “lonely” playing a tug-of-war like the tides. It didn’t diminish the images, it didn’t diminish the moments, it did make me want more. It did cause me to ask to try it again, try things on different terms. I will go back to the Grand Canyon, it’s too beautiful, to brilliant a sight not to be shared.  

 

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On my second morning at the Grand Canyon, I managed to capture sunrise while sitting with the crowd.  I was less worried about the “crowd” and more focused on the drive that I had ahead of me.  

 

My next destination was the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra mountains of California.  I picked this specific location because of it’s proximity to Yosemite National Park.  I had no idea what I was going to find.  Besides a few saved Instagram posts, I only knew that I had nine hours worth of driving in front of me, but when adding stops that could easily turn into 12 or more.  Ultimately I spend 17 hours traveling that Friday.

Hoover Dam, Las Vegas and Death Valley all lay on the route that day.  But I was so focused on getting TO my destination that taking these sights in really didn’t register.  Or, was I getting caught by something else?  Was being alone really bothering me?  Was there an emptiness I couldn’t reconcile?  I did walk over the new bridge that spans the Colorado River at the Nevada and Arizona state line.  It’s an impressive feature and the highway now bypasses Hoover Dam.  But the view of the dam from the new bridge is impressive.  And seeing Lake Mead fill up the canyon behind the dam left me in awe of the engineering, but relieved that it is just the three dams holding back this section of the Colorado, and not more.  I can’t imagine losing more of the river’s beauty.  I rushed through Vegas, only stopping for food and fuel.  I know it is a worthwhile destination, but not this time, not this trip.  

There are a number of routes into Death Valley, but the one that made the most sense would take me diagonally from the southeast through the the northwest.  Leaving Vegas I bypassed my first opportunity to turn into the park, and unknowingly missed the chance to travel through Badwater.  Instead, I took the route in from Death Valley Junction, and the road quickly starts to descend as it passes 20 Mule Team Canyon and Zabriskie Point.  Given earlier or later light, either location can quickly fill a postcard rack full of beautiful images.  The Inn at Death Valley announces your arrival on the valley floor and it’s only a short distance to the Furnace Creek Visitors Center.  At this point you are below sea level, and on this day the thermometer was reading 109 degrees.  Wanting to understand what Death Valley actually had to offer and trying to figure out what I realistically could take in in the next few hours I decided to head into the visitors center.  I will say over and over about this trip, and probably many times in this writing, everyone of the stops I made is deserving of days, if not weeks of exploring. Death Valley is no exception. I’m not huge on souvenirs, though refrigerator magnets and coffee cups always have a certain appeal.  I’d bought two magnets at the Grand Canyon, and once I figured out that Artist’s Pallette along with Zabriskie Point and Mesquite Flats could be included in a very brief tour, I picked out two more magnets, filled my water bottles and headed back out on the road.  

There’s something about 109 degrees thought that doesn’t encourage lingering in the moment.  It was late afternoon, but the sun was a long time from setting, and it’s light just washed out every surface it touched.  This really was the worst time to try to photograph anything, and I resigned myself to being a witness and not a creator.  Bishops Castle, the Racetrack Playa, Badwater, and Artist’s Pallette each will receive their time in front of my camera at some point.  The one place I had to see and had to try to capture images in did manage to play to my favor.  

 

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I walked out into the dunes with my camera, and even though I really didn’t capture the images I was hoping to, this one stands out.  Many of you have commented and complimented my on this image. I hope you enjoy the final setting as much as I do.

 

A couple of comments on Death Valley.  First, Death Valley was a total accident, at least in terms of arriving there.  Yes, I am a Geography Teacher, but spatially, things don’t always work out in my brain.  I just always place, on that little mental-map in my brain, Death Valley much further south than it actually is.  I don’t know why, I just do?!  So, when I realized that I had the option of driving through it on my way to Yosemite (which again is another long story), I was really excited!  I will say it over and over and over again, everyone of these stops deserves multiple days of exploration, Death Valley is not an exception.  Furnace Creek, Artist Palette, Badwater, Dante’s View, the Racetrack Playa and of course Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, all deserve time devoted to explore.

My second point with the following image is an acknowledgement about “processing.”  Photoshop and other image editing software have been around for a long, long time.  Any digital image that you look at has been in some way, shape or form “edited” before you actually view it.  Even an iPhone does this.  Your phone is a computer, it takes “the best shot” it can, AND THEN runs it through its processor before you get to see it.  This is context, because I do want you to understand that there are very, very, very few images that come out of a digital camera and that do not require some work.  For me, that is part of what I enjoy.  Reliving the image over and over again while I sit comfortably adjusting varying sliders and presets to recreate the image that my mind captured, but the camera didn’t, is both tedious and rewarding.  All photographers are trying to tell you a story; digital editing offers the adjectives and adverbs and punctuation marks that bring the meaning we want to share with you to life.  
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That said, this is a piece of “digital art.” I say that because what you see here is an image that would not, and could not happen, period.  The way the filter/layer was applied to this image and the way it took the blowing sand and blurred it out, that doesn’t happen in nature, period.  This is a piece of digital art, and I personally enjoyed to process of creating it.

 

I have more to write  about this spot later, but to start, the Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierras are simply magical.  I think, in all honesty this is where I will want to be living in a few years.  There is so much to explore in this region: Ancient Bristlecones, Mono Lake, Mammoth Lake, Yosemite, Mt. McKinley, the list goes on and on.  I truly had no idea that someplace more mysterious and with greater diversity than Colorado could exist. This stretch of land along California Highway 395 has more than I could ever imagine. Climbing out of Death Valley to the west into a setting sun, the landscape changed, as would be expected.  The road just follows the contours, rising over one ridge, descending into another valley, then rising again.  The vegetation is low.  It’s scrub.  Bushes and yucca, small cactus of all varieties.  Nothing can create shade, the features simply absorb and reflect the heat and light.  With all the hours on the road and the missing conversations; again I was drained. I’d hoped to make it further north but it wasn’t going to happen.  My campsite was going to have to wait.  I just couldn’t push anymore.   There was a backup plan, an alternative to driving to my next site, but it wasn’t very well formed; the Alabama Hills.  

This collection of granite boulders and monoliths in the Sierra foothills just west of the town of Lone Pine has been the setting for many Hollywood films.  It’s also at the foot of Mt. McKinley and has become a mecca for climbers, hikers and alpinists of all caliber.  Ranches have long inhabited the area, and even older Paiute tribes called it home.  Photographers and artists of all manner, spiritual seekers and those hoping to take a step back, find themselves here, too.  There are many perfect images of Mobius Arch, found here in the Hills, framing McKinley. I don’t have one of these images in my collection.  I was just relieved to find a place to park the 4Runner, a place that was dark and quiet.

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I did manage to photograph McKinley, bathed in the full moon’s light, but accidently.  The road into Lone Pine was desolate, and the Sierras rise so sheer, so abruptly above the town and the entire valley that their presence is impossible to escape. This image from the Alabama Hills represents an opportunity lost as much as it represents potential for the future.  “If it comes, let it. If it goes, let it.”  Not my strength to live this, but I’m working towards it. 

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