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southwest journal katherine yamashita

edited by Tania Thomson

Copyright 2008 by the author of this book Katherine Yamashita. The book author retains sole copyright to her contributions to this book. (Written text and photographs) Date of publication 2008 Richmond Hill, Ontario

For Michael My love for you is beyond words or pictures.


The night before I left Las Vegas I walked out in the desert to look at the moon. There was a jeweled city on the horizon, spires rising in the night, but the jewels were diadems of electric and the spires were the neon of signs ten stories high. Norman Mailer

Arrival and Departure The minute you step off the plane in Las Vegas Airport, you know where you are. Instead of car rental and information kiosks, there are slot machines. Giant screens with surround sound show teasers of Las Vegas shows in the baggage claim area. The buzz of restless excitement generated by this atmosphere is infectious and only grows as you leave the airport and see a stark black pyramid, a fantasy castle, and the Empire State Building blossom amidst a forest of towering buildings. Our route takes us past all this to the car rental complex. Once in the car, I gaze out the passenger window in wonder as we speed out of Sin City.



On the Road As we drive out of the city, the fantasy that is the Las Vegas Strip gives way to familiar suburban sprawl, and then in amazingly short order, this too subsides. We drive out of the historical Las Vegas Oasis and into the rolling gold sand and scrub of the Mojave Desert. Long distance road trips have a strange psychological power over me. As the miles roll by, the sense of urgency and the restlessness that characterizes my everyday mood fades away and is replaced by somnambulistic ease. I am not even a good navigator in this state. Each scene passing by my window has me enthralled. On the way to Springdale, dark clouds roll in and cloak the mountains rising around us. Michael takes my distracted instructions in stride and attentively slows down or stops if he can when he sees me raise my camera.



A feeling of sadness and longing that is not akin to pain, and resembles sorrow only as the mist resembles the rain. From The Day is Done Henry Wadsworth Longfellow At Rest We arrive at our modest Quality Inn in Springdale, Utah, to find the motel nestled in a spectacular setting of cloud-shrouded mountains. This photo is taken from our window. To relax, Mike and I take a long soak in the hot tub. We scramble bare-footed on concrete made icy by the freezing rain, and chat with locals who are on their way to the pub for a party. As we slow boil, sleet turns to snow and we run through slush back to our room only to collapse on the floor from the heat. I guess you can have too much of a good thing.



Risen I awake to a majestic desert world dusted with snow, and a brilliant sun burning off the low-hanging clouds clinging to the mountaintops. I leave Mike sleeping and go out, eager to capture the last shreds of sunrise. The light at high elevations is almost surreal. There is an unexpected crispness in its quality. I am used to haze and smog filled landscapes. This kind of rarified light almost hurts the soul. And light has no weight, Yet one is lifted on its flood, Swept high, Running up white-golden light-shafts, As if one were as weightless as light itself All gold and white and light Lauren Harris Standing in shadow, I am aware of the shadow in my life and how it threatens me. It tempers the fresh innocence of the day and yet the magic light draws me to its warm glow. Keep your face to the sunshine and you will not see the shadows.


Helen Keller.


Zion Everything in Zion takes life from the Virgin River’s scarce desert waters. Water flows, and solid rock melts into cliffs and towers. Landscape changes as canyons deepen to create forested highlands and lowland deserts. A ribbon of green marks the river’s course as diverse plants and animals take shelter and thrive in this canyon oasis. From the beginning people sought this place, this sanctuary in the desert’s dry reaches. The very name Zion, a Hebrew word for refuge, evokes its significance.


National Park Service US Department of the Interior


My Zion This physical journey is more than a journey of the senses. I see the light and feel the crunch of the virgin snow as I desecrate it underfoot. I smell the moistness of the heavy snow as it bleeds water down bowed branches at the sun’s insistence. I can hear the sigh of the snow as it subsides into glistening streams and falling droplets. But it is the internal sense that the cool crispness is opening up my inner sight that strikes me as I stand in this place. In his article “Life Writing and Light Writing; Autobiography and Photography”, Timothy Dow Adams uncovers the narrative nature of autobiography and its postmodern position of being neither true fiction nor non-fiction. Next, he explores the relationship between the act of writing autobiographical text and the act of making a photographic work. He observes that: Barthes’s description of a photograph could apply as well to autobiography: “a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand ‘it is not there,’ on the other ‘but it has indeed been’): a mad image, chafed by reality” (Camera Lucida 115). These photographic images are my visual expression of the experience of being in Zion. I hope my words will in time express my internal landscape as it is slowly fused with the external one.



On Leaving We leave Zion with the end of the day. I feel a sense of deep regret at leaving that has been with me the whole day: losing the snow in the morning, losing the chill at mid day, losing the serpentine rivulets of water as the trees shed their water, and finally, losing the light. The remnant that remains of each of these small losses is a sense of wonder at the subtlety, diversity, and scintillation that is this place. It brings to life a dormant sense of adventure and discovery in me, and a profound sense of solitude. Michael wonders if this place holds the same power in the high season. I wonder at how I can have a sense of nostalgia for a place I have never been before.



Entering Within From our second night’s resting place, Page, Arizona, countless canyon adventures are within our reach. Recent road washouts prevent us from visiting The Wave – a sweeping, variegated rock mass in the Coyote Buttes – so we travel to our next destination, an unassuming crack in the earth that is Lower Antelope Canyon. For the first time in this place I am struck with the paradoxical essence of the desert. It is a place of endless extremes: inconsequential, yet deep and profound, intimate and insensitive, arid and torrential, subtle and infinitely variegated, delicate and unrelenting. It strips me away and animal instincts begin to re-emerge, like looking in all directions, engaging all my senses, which produces a sense of imminent danger, yet also one of profound peace. Before coming to this place, my research warned me of tourists killed in flash floods here, and our guide Tommy has been witness. He is the caretaker of this gorgeous killer. He tells us how he takes out the water in buckets by hand so tourists can walk on relatively dry land. He watches and listens with a foghorn in hand at the head of the canyon as we descend since there is both rain and snow that day. The entrance to this slot canyon is only a few inches wide and eventually leads down about thirty feet.



Descent As we descend, I am lost in wonder and technical experimentation. The photographer in me struggles in ecstasy with how to capture what I can and cannot see in the dim light. I struggle to achieve a precise composition through chance, and the delicate balance between control, preparation, and instinct. My spiritual and technical preoccupation in this place is tinged with a sense of urgency and danger as Mike reminds me that the rain is getting heavier. The glorious interior convolutions of this space are carved ruthlessly by mud slick tons of water that come rushing through the canyon with unimaginable force. These torrents of water can originate from higher ground as much as 10 miles away. It can be sunny at Antelope and it can still flash flood. The deep rooted coolness emanating from the rock tells us so, as do the drops of rain mixed with snow that drift down from the upper world.



My Guardians As a photographer I begin to see the importance of the inclusion of an element of human scale. It is hard to understand the depth and real aura of a place without a person there. In the canyon, as I work, captivated by these organic stone spaces, I sense the danger and also the protective guardianship accompanying me. I am grateful for Mike and Tommy’s standing guard over my abstracted wonder and creative process. In a spiritual sense too, I feel protected in this place. There is no real place for humans here; it is a glorious artistic creation of nature. I feel privileged to be here. I feel the cool breath and atmospheric embrace of the stone. My presence is accepted and so is my appreciation. I do not overstay my welcome and am grateful for the time granted.



In Utero I gaze in dark wonder. It looks like a branch but it is actually a tree trunk with roots attached – a testament to the torrential power of water that carved these womb-like sculptures. I am captivated by the light and the luminescence of the sandstone surfaces, not unlike the light in utero. I am literally in the bowels of the earth. Rich tones that range from tamarind to salmon are light reflected through the placenta of my mother’s womb. One feels enclosed, engulfed, protected. I do not want to leave.



The effects of light and colour all around us playing over the mountains and valley gave the surroundings a weird interest. The day was ending. Long shadows stole across the strange topography while the lights on the variegated buttes became kaleidoscopic. Frederick S. Dellenbaugh Nature’s playground Our trip to the toadstools at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a gift from a helpful docent at the Paria Station Visitor Centre. The precariously balanced monoliths perched atop tapered pillars are formed when boulders of harder sandstone protect the softer layers of rock and soil beneath them during flash floods and runoff, thus creating these impossibly balanced structures. Local native legend identifies these formations as petrified men who abandoned their wives, children, and elders during times of a great flood. Following and getting lost on the trail makes me think of Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, an artist and cartographer who was one of the first explorers to come to this area. I feel like a trailblazer, a moment of transcendence in the face of government protected and “presented� natural wonders. As a photographer I feel I failed to capture the magical nature that is this place. I failed in representing scale. The toadstool here stands about 25 feet or 7.6 meters high. Standing at the base, my head would be at least a foot below the red layers of the pillar. The whole valley reverberates with heavy solitude and timelessness. There are no signs telling me not to touch, but I dare not approach too near these structures; a sense of reverence holds me at a distance.



Man and the desert Page, Arizona, is located at the site of the Glen Canyon Dam, the man-made structure that has created Lake Powell. It seems incongruous to see a large, brilliant blue body of water in the middle of the desert. Unlike its older brother in Nevada, (Lake Mead, the product of the Hoover Dam) Lake Powell is an impossibly beautiful amalgam of desert brush, variegated buttes, and canyons drowned in brilliant blue water. I feel compelled to mourn and celebrate Navajo nation initiative and industry in the creation of a natural gas power plant in this area. The Quality Inn we’re staying at in Page is also unique. An American couple and the Navajo Nation jointly own it. The restaurant serves traditional Navajo fare including Navajo fried bread, which is an impossibly delicious high fat, 700 calorie experience! In other reservations and first nations this is called bannock. I wonder why a native people would be tempted to concoct such a heavenly yet unhealthy dish. Through research I learned that they created this kind of bread from the only rations provided to them (flour and lard) by the government when they were placed on a reservation.



The hobbits stood now on the brink of a tall cliff, bare and bleak, it’s feet wrapped in mist; and beyond them rose the broken highlands crowned with drifting cloud. A chill wind blew from the East. Night was gathering over the shapeless lands before them; the sickly green of them was fading to a sullen brown. The Two Towers J.R.R. Tolkien Pathways Our last stop of the day is Horseshoe Bend. A half-mile hike over desert rock and brush brings us to this alien landscape. Michael wonders if the apparent path before us leads to the lookout. He is afraid of heights and does not look forward to crossing the rock bridge that stretches out before us a few paces away. The alien nature of these landscapes makes me feel like an explorer on foreign terrain. There are few signposts to many of these locations but we follow the tracks of others, or find our own way to our destination.



Vertigo Another few minutes trek and we realize there is no rock bridge. We were told to look out for the trails’ end, and when we arrive, we see why! There is an 1100 foot drop from the top of the gorge to the water below, and there are no barriers. The sense of vertigo and heart stopping fear paralyzes me momentarily as I reach the edge. Mikel orders me not to walk, but to crawl out to the precipice. I cannot capture enough of the bend, however, and my crazy photographic need gives me the courage to stand. Still, no good! Ironically, it is from Michael’s less treacherous perch that this picture is taken, blindly, hand and camera extended over the edge. The rushing of my heart and the fear and respect for nature do not leave me until we are several hundred feet from the edge.



White We depart Page as a cloud-filled morning rises to reveal brilliant patches of sunlight. We look forward to our next destination, the Grand Canyon, four hours away. As we drive South and then West into the mountains, the weather changes drastically. Desert shrubs recede and larger bushes appear, then trees miraculously dot the landscape. Large flakes of snow are at first resisted by the roads that remain wet, but clear, until gradually we find ourselves in Kaibab National Forest, in 6 inches of unplowed snow. We round a corner and startle a thoughtful elk that gazes at us curiously before slowly moving off the road. The cloud cover is so low we are engulfed in fog. Visibility beyond a few feet in front of the car is impossible. Of course it is still snowing! Dense fog is not an auspicious way to experience the Grand Canyon. Hoping for a break in the weather, we drive to the watchtower at the south rim. We are met only with a large snowplow and the two workers in the gift store. I find the gloaming milkiness from which the 70 foot tower looms beautiful in its own way.



The most architecturally impressive section of the building is undoubtedly the tower interior. The space is an open shaft surrounded by circular balconies edging the walls and small staircases that lead up to subsequent levels. Only the uppermost observation area has a complete floor area covering the circular plan, and large plateglass windows overlooking the surrounding expanses of the vast southwest. The steel and concrete structure of this space is entirely plastered and all of the walls are covered with murals. The most distinct images, painted by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie depict various aspects of Hopi mythology and religious ceremonies. The other murals done by Fred Greer are more subtle in color and purposefully softer in detail, and are copies of prehistoric pictographs and petroglyphs. The tiny windows of the tower let in a minimal amount of light which adds to the cave- like, mystical atmosphere of the space. Experiencing the multiple levels and circular balconies and the hundreds of prehistoric images inundates the viewer with an overwhelming sense of the southwest. National Park Service Desert Watchtower It is in this place that I am introduced to Mary Elizabeth Jane Coulter, one of the few female architects who worked as a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright. As an employee of Fred Harvey of the Harvey House chain of hotels and restaurants, she designed several of the park buildings, the Phantom Ranch hotel at the bottom the Grand Canyon, and this desert watchtower. I am struck by how harmoniously Mary Coulter had incorporated native structure and form with the pragmatic needs of a national park. She seemed to have struck a rare balance here, beyond appropriation, that seemed to be respectful recognition, but I am not sure. Although Mary Coulter was initially uncredited in some of her early works because she was a woman, Fred Harvey celebrated and acknowledged her work. Today, eleven of Coulter’s buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, and five have been designated National Historic Landmarks in “recognition of their exceptional value to the nation.” This quote is from the My Hero Project. A review of a recent monograph of her work refers to Mary Coulter as “the best known unknown architect in the United States”.



Rising Mists After our misty and solitary experience at the watchtower, I am unprepared for the rush of civilization as we reach the Grand Canyon village: the buses, hotels, cars, people, and for the first time, railings. Throughout this whirlwind tour of deserts and canyons, we have been blessed with the experience of being solitary wanderers. In many sites we visited, we were alone or might chance upon one party on our way out or in and there were no barriers between nature and our path through it. Here we find bus and car loads of people causing traffic jams on the scenic highway, jumping out at every scenic lookout and peering into the soupy mist for a first glimpse of the canyon. We are, of course, of their number. And then, at one stop, something miraculous happens – I glimpse a patch of snow on stone. We pull over and I join the rush of bodies surging toward the railing to see the clouds lift momentarily to reveal a peek of steep-lined canyon cliffs dusted with snow. I think this peek is more precious to us than the whole expanse of the canyon. Treasures are created by their rarity.



Wreathed in Clouds Our next stop renders me speechless. A struggling sun causes the clouds to thin and then the dappled glow of sunlight can be seen on snow-kissed cliffs. All the noise and bustle falls away as I struggled to capture this momentary miracle in the swirling mists. And then I am brought abruptly back to reality by a large-ish boy who is hopping on the stairs and kicking snow. His father calls out to him and exclaims, “How can you say there is no God?” and then “Who the hell could believe that damned Darwin Theory after your see that?” I have no idea what a glorious view of the Grand Canyon has to do with Darwin, but the communal sense of awe leaves no one untouched.



Photographic Eye As the afternoon wears on, the clouds begin to open up in parts, and more of the canyon and the river that created it reveal itself. Even given our limited view, I am unable to capture the scene with one photograph. This image is created by three merged images. Ironically, for me, in this grandest of all canyon-lands, my experience is tempered by the presence of others and other agendas. Not that my agenda is any different from theirs – we are all tourists – but our managed passage from lookout to lookout and the paths well trodden make an atmospheric difference – one that makes even my time at the watchtower feel different and more authentic. Here, more than at other sites I have visited, I feel the politics of nature, conservation, and tourism converge. Other conflicts emerge too. As a photographer, the experience of being there, and seeing a place of wonder is not complete without capturing it. I have always worried that this compulsion would damage my ability to really experience a place. But I don’t think so. As my photographic journey has progressed, I find I am becoming more aware of light, of atmosphere, of temperature, and landmarks all around. My eyes wander in all directions, and I am constantly reading the weather and the light and approaching things from different points of view. I have wondered at racing clouds and shifting sands but I have not always needed to raise my camera. I seem to have become super-sensitized to nature and her elements. Well, at least to the extent that this can happen to a city girl.



Desert Nostalgia As we leave the Grand Canyon and on our way back to Las Vegas, the trees appear more stunted until only brush and snowless stretches of desert plain remain. My sense of loss and nostalgia of places that I have so recently discovered is like mourning. How can one miss the desert after only 3 days? A brilliant blanket of stars watches over us from a moonless sky as we drive towards Las Vegas, its far-off yellow glow just perceptible on the skyline. Las Vegas is in the desert, but it is a world more alien than Horseshoe Bend. We go for a walk the night we arrive, and the sheer scale of neon and fantasy structures, all designed to breed greed and excess, is overwhelming. Night is the magical time for the strip. The slightly tawdry and imperfect nature of this world is hidden by the night light.



Sin City Our day in Las Vegas is our longest and most exhausting trek: a walk slightly over 20 km from the modern day strip, to the old strip on Freemont, and back. Within the first 20 seconds of being on the sidewalk, we are accosted by hucksters passing out cards featuring scantily clad women for hire. As these first hucksters recede, they are replaced by more aggressive men who want to give away shows and nightclub acts featured at different casinos. This constant barrage of aggressive solicitation does not let up until we enter stores or the casinos themselves. Having been drawn into one trap or another, the street predators are held at bay.



The Alternate Grand Tour Although the almighty slot machines and gaming tables are identical in every casino, the sheer opulence and grandeur of the decor and supporting attractions is varied and beyond belief. Rebecca Solnit, in her book Wonderlust, devotes her final chapter to the phenomenon that is this city that never sleeps. She notes how Las Vegas has converted one of the great European pilgrimages of high society, the Grand Tour, into a short stroll. Walking is not even necessary as there is a free monorail. One can see a great pyramid, a fantasy castle, the New York Skyline, an east side New York Street, the Eiffel Tower, the L’Arch de Triumphe, the canals of Venice, the Trevi Fountains, and a battle between two pirate ships within four city blocks.



Women in Sin City On the surface there is NOTHING that can’t be bought in this city that never sleeps. And there is only one rule: the house always wins in the end. In spite of all that Las Vegas seems to offer, I feel a kind of emptiness in my experience of it, a sense of unreality. Time does not even exist here. There is no natural light in the casinos and there are no clocks. Players are supported in a timeless, suspended animation where scantily dressed women provide a constant stream of free drinks to players. The role and place of women in Las Vegas is particularly disturbing. This is observed by Lorraine Bayard de Volo in her paper on Las Vegas Cocktail waitresses. With its surveillance mechanisms, tipping system, and sexualized environment, the casino industry is an intriguing site for a gendered diagnostics of workplace politics. Drawing on 18 months of participant observation at three casinos, I argue that managers, coworkers, and customers attempt to control waitress appearance and behavior through surveillance, gendered hegemony, and financial incentives. Las Vegas, in spite of its shows and its shopping, is not a supportive place for women.



Quotes from a Las Vegas Wedding Chapel Sign: Marrying a man is like buying something you’ve been admiring for a long time in a shop window. You may love it when you get home, but it doesn’t always go with everything else in the house. Jean Kerr Marriage is popular because it combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity. George Bernard Shaw Marriage Vegas Style North of the modern day strip, monolithic casinos give way to run-down motels, empty lots, condo construction sites, and wedding chapels. Since the early 1900s the state of Nevada has been the place to get married and divorced easily. The proliferation of wedding chapels, including the famous Elvis chapels, is most prominent here. Just like fast food, fast marriages can be had at this “Drive Thru Wedding Chapel”. Even my fascination of this city from a sociological point of view wanes by the end of the day. It seems I have found the real desert in the American southwest.



Valley of Fire The next day brings us to the Valley of Fire State Park just outside Las Vegas. It feels like coming home after the over exertion and over stimulation that is the Las Vegas experience. Michael is worn out from the previous day’s walk and the demands of travel with an over-enthusiastic photographer. He is pleased to drive me to each lookout and hiking trail, but indulges in short naps in the car at each stop. The lack of company doesn’t stop me from scampering happily up rocky paths and through sandy trails. I think that the attraction of this landscape for me is the harsh simplicity and subtleness of the environment. There is a quality of delicacy one sees in everything from rock formations to the expansive stubbled quality of desert brush. My one fear while planning this trip was that I would tire of the deserts and canyons, but each one I have visited has been so unique that my wonderlust for desert landscapes has been ignited, not burnt out.



Mouse’s Tank On a two mile hike that leads to a cathedral like formation of rocks cradling a pool of water or “tank�, I, with my newly honed sight, find several examples of petroglyphs carved into the red sandstone. Although they look like modern-day graffiti at first glance, my brochure tells me these are ancient drawings. There are common symbols that are repeated and that I have seen in other locations, human figures, a deer-like animal, circular shapes, and parallel lines. Their presence reminds me that the state park service was not the first guardian here. In this world of dryness and rock, the traces of man remain over long periods of time. They are not overgrown or worn away by weathering as they can be in more moderate climates. Precisely because of its harshness, the desert preserves.



On Writing I wonder about my own writing here. The ancient makers of these rock drawings created their work with a purpose that, although lost to us now, likely had deep meaning and mystical power. Writing for me is like a journey, the actual path oftentimes far more interesting than the destination. Writing for me is not a chore, or an unconscious act; it is inspired by an irresistible urge to capture and share the uncapturable and the unsharable. The joy, however, is in the effort and the accidental success that sometimes comes one’s way in the struggle. These are the traces that I would like to leave behind.



Death Valley Junction The last day of my desert pilgrimage brings us to Death Valley. Named for its searing heat and almost uninhabitable terrain, I am once again overwhelmed with the richness I find here. The main attraction for me is an isolated area in the Mesquite Flat where sand dunes tower up to 100ft in a valley surrounded by the Cottonwood Mountains. Before reaching the parklands, however, we come across a strange building at the crossroads of the main highway to Death Valley and the road to the park. Death Valley Junction is a ghost town with the exception of one living spirit, Marta Becket, who has been starring in performances there since 1968. The doors to the opera house and the adjoining art gallery are closed, but the hotel is open and we make plans to attend the weekly Saturday evening performance.



Dunes One of the main attractions in Death Valley, for me, is the dunes. I had seen them in the work of Ansel Adams and I had always thought that true deserts looked like this. There are, in fact, very few sand dunes in Death Valley. They only occur in four areas of the park where the geography of mountains, valley, and prevailing winds causes sand to be blown off the valley floor and mountains, and deposited in an area that is only about seven kilometers across. Although he does not say it, I know that Mike is not up to hiking, so I set off toward the highest peak under a brilliant blue sky. I climb over one ridge of sand, descend into a dip, and am immediately disoriented. Peaks of dunes are all around, and as the dunes are cradled on all sides by mountains, I could not tell from which direction I had come. I realize how vulnerable I would be if the weather were warmer! Death Valley is one of the hottest places on earth, but on this winter’s day it did not reach above 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Afraid of getting lost, I immediately begin to try to memorize the contours and shadow lines in mountains. I then realize that the contours and shadows changed as I traveled, and again I feel a momentary panic. I need not have worried. As I come to the larger dunes, I can see the road from the peaks. Although there are a few others walking in the dunes that day, perhaps 20 of us in all during my 2 and a half hour stay, I meet no one. I see the tracks of several animals, though: roadrunner tracks, a smaller bird, and the tire-like tracks of a tiny rodent. A sense of profound peace accompanies me as I walk the dunes. In spite of the fact that they are constantly shifting and changing form, erasing footsteps and exposing salt flats and the odd sage bush, I try as best I can to follow the footsteps of others. I am loath to tread on virgin sand.



Stiff Twinned Compasses Such wilt thou be to me, who must, Like th’ other foot, obliquely run; Thy firmness makes my circle just, And makes me end where I begun. John Donne These past few days as I have hiked and photographed alone, I have had time to think and worry a little about Michael, to wonder if he is all right, or will be all right. It is something that we don’t talk about very often, but it is always there between us, a butterfly wing brush of shadow on the consciousness. After trekking along the tops of dunes for almost two hours, waiting for the light to make more dramatic sand sculptures, I realize that perhaps Michael is worried about me. I tell myself I will follow this ridge for only another ten minutes and then head back. The sun sets earlier behind the mountain peaks and there are more places I want to see. I see a long and distinct dust trail from a car racing along the road on the way back and decide to try to do a bit of jogging to hurry my return. Running in the sand up and down dunes is not easy! Like a wanderer in a desert caravan who sees an oasis and is revived, I see Michael sitting on a small dune in the distance and my heart is full. I recklessly charge down a dune to reach him more quickly and as he raises his camera, so do I. There is a comical double perspective series of photos in our collection as we each grow larger in the other’s view.



Toward Sunset This area was not always desert. 320 million years ago the area was lush and tropical. Later, through continental plate shifting and volcanic activity, the Sierra Nevada mountain range was formed. Through an effect called rainshadow, where the mountains affect rainfall, the valley became a desert. Having spent so much time in the dunes, the light is waning as we arrive at the Artist’s Drive. Here, flash floods have carved deeply into alluvial fans of volcanic sediment and have revealed spectacular layers of coloured stone that tell the geologic story of this region for the last 1800 million years. I feel the press of time as I see the colours drain from this magical landscape created of rocks and minerals rather than plant life. My trip and time in the desert is also coming to an end and I feel that too.



Badwater We arrive at Badwater, the lowest point of land in North America, in the afterglow of the day. The long day and the low light bring us to this place a little weary. The curious crystalline nature of the salt flats in this area are particularly delicate. Because of the lack of rainfall in this part of the valley, they are very slow to develop. Actually, much of the area once covered by these formations has been permanently destroyed by too many footprints. Although there is a wooden boardwalk far out onto the flats, we see several parties wandering beyond the walkway. A little disheartened by the destructive actions of my fellow tourists, I take a few obligatory pictures of the sign stating we are 283 feet below sea level, a few more shots from the boardwalk entrance, and then we leave. Most of the light has drained from the sky. I have forgotten that the sun sets earlier in a valley than on a plain.



Amargosa After a steak dinner at the only open restaurant in Death Valley, we drive back to the Amargosa Opera house for the show. At 8 p.m. hotel guests are seated first, and then other patrons are admitted. The interior of the theatre is covered in murals depicting elegant audiences from Elizabethan times. Every inch of the theatre interior has been lovingly painted by Marta herself. The theatre is heated by a pot-bellied stove, which we appreciated, as the outside temperature was about 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Named after the town’s former title, Amargosa, the opera house is a testament to the dream of a 43 year old traveling dancer and her husband who were stranded in the town when their truck broke down. Marta Becket saw the broken down town hall and decided that she would make it into a theatre. She is now 83.



Marta Becket I do not plan for the years ahead. I don’t try to attempt to guess what I will be doing ten years from now. At present, I dance, and I continue to paint. I have my stage to call my own. My imagination has carried me on a journey from the past to the present. From New York to Death Valley Junction ... and a tiny theatre nobody wanted. Marta Becket

Forty years after arriving at Death Valley Junction, after her husband has left her and after her long time collaborator has died, she is still performing at the age of 83. She can no longer dance due to a fall two years ago, but she sings and tells stories. Although not a full house, more than half the seats are filled in the 120 seat theatre and I am one of the many adoring fans who lines up for her autograph afterwards.



Night Sky Before night falls, blue-green is the last quantum of visible light to pass through the atmosphere without scattering. It can draw a person right down to the skin of the world. The tidal pool of light can shape an entire life. Every heart-warmed pulse of blood and breath. Ellen Meloy

My final farewell to the desert takes place on the way back from the Amargosa Opera House. Although the moon is new, the sky is a blanket of stars watched over by Orion, our favourite constellation. Michael pulls over to the side of the road one last time and I take out tripod and camera to photograph the night sky. I manage to capture Orion and the glow from distant Pahrump, but not the blanket of stars overlooking them. This time in the desert has been one of the most inspirational times in my life. It did not bring me to any great revelation or epiphany of self-awareness, nor did I come to any great conclusions. I can only say that the desert holds me captive. It seems as if the right words can come only of the perfect space of a place you love. Ellen Meloy





Southwest Journal  

A photographic monograph with text

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