January 26, 2015  •  3 Comments


CEDAR-MESACEDAR-MESA The desert is a land of extremes. Miles of parched, dusty dunes interrupted by vertical sandstone walls can shape-shift in an instant when a microburst storm turns dry washes into rivers.  Blistering heat dries the receding waters and quicksand into ridged mud flats.  In winter, canyons hold the cold with morning fog coating every surface with the promise of an ass-over-teakettle trip.  It is these wild and varying weather patterns and the remnants of their impact that lure the wandering photographer to the desert’s bed.

To be taken in by the light and novel scenes afforded on a trek into southern Utah's backcountry is easy.  With or without a camera, the experience of traveling on foot down steep rock falls and across open mesas with few trails or footprints connects one’s humanity with the earth and other living species in ways most never experience.  There are growing numbers who visit wild places however, and along with pressure from those desiring motorized access and new roads cut through the middle of nowhere for the extraction of oil and gas resources, the photograph is quickly becoming an historical document of landscapes lost.  What most viewers fail to see in the recent photograph of dreamy light rays streaming into Antelope Canyon in Arizona, purportedly sold for $6.5 million, is the cattle trail of human footprints in the sandy foreground and the dollars exchanged to buy a hike in that canyon and others nowadays to get your own shot.  A solo adventure, accompanied by a Navajo guide is extra.


Preparing for a day hike into the little known and untrodden requires more than a checklist for the camera bag, food, water, and a Swiss Army knife. Along with a provisioned camera bag, we enter into its interior carrying the heaviness of our own inner worlds.  Some are able to leave a large portion of that weight behind with the slam of a car door, ready to be tested and re-created.  Some go back again and again.  A few stay.  Some leave and never return.  Some lose their lives.

In 1934, Everett Ruess, an artist who created linoleum block landscape prints and associated with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Dorthea Lange, set out to explore the Southern Utah deserts with two burros and was never seen again.  His previous wanderings earned him the moniker “Vagabond for Beauty” by author W.L. Rusho.  His disappearance remains a mystery.  It’s more difficult these days with GPS and local networks of Search and Rescue teams to meet up with Ruess’s fate, but even the most experienced among us can slip on a patch of ice or lose footing on a steep, gravelly slope.

Photographers are particularly prone to lapses in paying attention to their surroundings while focused on capturing a particular natural feature or landscape in a certain light.  In today’s world of click and swipe immediacy, it’s not an easy task to slow down and switch awareness from full-screen mode to paying attention to environmental cues, especially if outings are few and far between.

My first lesson in the trade-off between paying attention and paying the piper started out on a clear, warm May day - Mother’s Day, on a hike to an archaeological site I had visited a few years before.  I had purposely left my camera behind on my initial visit as I was going through a period of feeling conflicted about how photography and the camera came between my experience of wandering in the desert and my writing, but that’s another story for another day.  I had written a poem about the visit and wanted a photograph to accompany the poem to tie it more concretely to the experience.  One particular pictograph’s unique colors and placement high up on a canyon wall piqued my curiosity.  A few friends drew maps indicating routes to enable a quick descent without an overnight or longer stay.  I wanted to climb into the canyon and back out with enough time to drive home and fulfill the generations of Mother’s Day duties from Grandmother all the way down to my Grandson.


I don’t know if young Mr. Ruess found his way into the same series of canyons I hiked into that day, but once I buckled up my pack, took a few steps, and lost sight of my truck, I was lost.  Lost in the sudden, overwhelming presence of so much non-human except for the abundant remnants of previous civilizations, deafly quiet to my ears, yet calling, calling to some primitive sense of heightened awe and curiosity.  Over the preceding years, I had become quite comfortable photographing alone in such environments, studying maps, triangulating landmarks, growing ever more confident in my solitary backcountry skills.

I had no clue I was lost.  Scrambling up to ruins, peering through ancient doors, and the wildflowers, oh the wildflowers - sego lilies, evening primrose, globe mallow, claret cup cactus, all popping up in clumps of white, yellow, orange, and ruby.  It wasn’t until I met up with two hikers hunched over a map that I had any inkling I had wandered far afield from my intended goal.  The hikers and I were headed to the same side canyon, but disagreed on which direction to proceed.  I headed down canyon, they headed up.

After a mile or so with no side canyon opening in the steep sandstone walls from the east - the landmark on my hand-drawn map, I sat down in the shade, ate a hunk of cheese and a handful of dried apples, and reconnoitered.  I knew I was on the main trail that began many miles north and ended even more miles south in a brushy tangle at a river far from any road or town.  I knew I was within a mile or two of the trail that led to the canyon rim.  With a plan and a pull from the water bottle, I turned and headed north.


I was no stranger to fear and the dread that accompanies loss of control, but the panic that wobbled my knees and conjured up a sharp sting of tears was new.  I back-tracked, searching for the wide sagebrush meadow I had encountered that morning after the steep climb into the wash.  Nada, nothing, only cut-banks carved by flash floods lined with tall grass, reeds, and newly-sprouted pussy willows and the unrelenting, unscalable vertical walls of sandstone.

I sat down again, choking back my helplessness trying to focus on my plan rather than beating myself up for my predicament.  I decided to go with what I did know rather than attempt a scramble to the top where a ledge-out would require scrambling back down or worse, getting lost in the pinion pine and juniper forest that spreads endlessly across the mesa top.  I dumped out my pack and took stock of the contents to determine if I could lighten my load.  If I minimized scrambles up and down, my water supply should last at least the duration of the trek out to the highway. 

Water - back in the pack.  Jacket - back in the back.  Duct tape - back in the pack.  Food, Swiss Army knife, compass - back in the pack.  Camera - well, back in the pack. The only thing left to jettison was the looming sense of doom that crept around like a prowling mountain lion threatening to paralyze my every move. 

So that is what I did, I moved.

I continued back up the trail still looking for familiar sights.  Every time some odd rock, a crooked tree or section of trail brought back the memory of my first time in the canyon, I took a quick swig of water.  I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, feeling the breeze on my face, and inhaling wafts of spring sagebrush. 

Luckily, I encountered a backpacker who had just finished filtering water into his containers.  I sucked down what was left in one of my own water bottles and filled it through his filter from the pool with water skippers and the blue sheen of decomposing leaves skimming the surface.  I thanked him profusely and continued on. 


I met a few other hikers along the 14 miles out of the canyon to the Ranger Station.  A group of horseback riders waved as I passed their camp.  I waved back, but did not stop to chat or reveal my circumstance.  I passed a couple just entering the canyon.  He carried a backpack with enough gear and supplies for both of them.  She had on a fanny pack and was whining about her sweaty T-shirt sticking to her breasts.  At least I’m not like that, I thought to myself, yet secretly wished I could trade places.

When I reached the Ranger Station, I thought I would be rescued from my plight, but the ranger was not in.  I sat for a short time waiting for someone to drive by or the ranger to return, but decided to keep walking along the highway that would take me out to the dirt road turnoff and my truck.  This stretch proved to be the most difficult of the day.  After walking on a soft and dusty trail, the pavement’s hard surface proved unforgiving to my aching legs and feet.  I tried walking the deer trail in the barrow ditch, but it’s steep incline was equally challenging.  I went from side to side and the middle of the road to break up and balance the strain.  I had to sit down a time or two to relax the cramps and keep from crying. 

Several cars passed, but none had the 4-wheel drive capacity to get me back out to the edge of the canyon.  Well, one pickup passed, but it held two twenty-something guys and I chose the known hell of my walk to the unknown possibility of a lone, vulnerable woman in the wilderness climbing into that cab.  Thumbs remained tucked in fists.


I took a quick swig of water when I came to the dirt road turn-off and met up with a herd of cows with new calves.  I walked a wide route through sticker weeds and cow pies to maneuver around the protective mothers.  A few made moves toward me, but I just kept walking away and they soon returned to nursing and ruminating.

I finally made it to my truck just before midnight.  Before climbing into the driver’s seat, I opened the back camper window, let down the tailgate, and filled both water bottles from the 6-gallon jug I had topped off that morning.  Only a few swallows remained in one bottle. 

As I drove back out to the highway, I found myself deeply humbled by the 35 mile trek I’d just endured.  I crumbled with the realization that I wasn’t the desert diva I’d cracked myself up to be.  I was simply a lost little girl looking for light in all the wild places.

Aside from the humbling, the experience taught me much about myself and the tools and preparation needed to keep myself safe when hiking alone.  Here are some basic considerations:

1.  Know Before You Go.  Tuck a map in a pack, but take time to learn the lay of the land with topographical maps, not just trail maps, of the area before a trip.  Contact ranger stations and other agency offices overseeing the area even if hiking a previously traveled route.  Flash floods, rock falls, and trail closures can dramatically rearrange the landscape making access more difficult or impossible.

2.  Get the permit.  Though not required at the time of my escapade, many backcountry areas now require day fees as well as overnight camping and backpacking registration.  This is for personal protection as well as protection of natural resources.  It’s cheaper and less painful than the ticket on the windshield’s instant blood boil upon return.

3.  Stay on the trail.  This is the best insurance for staying found.  Rock cairns often mark the way, but if the trail has been washed out or has ceased to exist, organize recognizable loose, natural materials to Hansel and Gretel the way back.  No arrows permanently etched into the rock, please.  This may seem counterintuitive to some - only two directions exist, up canyon and down canyon, but as I found with my experience, it’s all too easy to get turned around when focused on chasing the light.

4.  Check the weather.  Most seasoned landscape photographers have developed a sixth sense about weather and light, but the sliver of sky viewed from the depths of a canyon offers little indication of impending storms which can develop quickly.  Cloudbursts occurring at higher elevations with drainages that funnel into a maze of canyons can create flash floods for many miles downstream where nary a raindrop falls.

5.  Know even more before you go.  If you’re new to an area or have never explored and hiked in rugged terrain, hire a guide or go with a group.  There are individuals and organizations who offer educational programs and assistance for learning how to enjoy as well as survive in a wilderness setting.

My husband and I hiked down into the canyon again recently.  I visited the site not too long after my trying experience, as I never did make it to the intended pictograph that fateful day, but I wanted more recent photos and wanted to reconnect through muscle memory my prior adventure.

The low December light gave the gallery of rock art a warmer feel than the usual deep shadow it lives in most of the year.  Though I carried and read the poem I wrote during my original visit, I had forgotten it along with my lens cap back at the car.  Perhaps I’ll never lose my excitement over the possibilities of seeing the light through the lens of my camera to the point of compromising life and limb, but there are attentions to be paid through physically and emotionally trying experiences that hone one’s inner eye.





The Green Mask

Peers down from it perch

On the rock face of a ruin.


Though blindfolded and gagged

By time against revelation,

It asks the same questions -


Who created You?

And Why?


The answer lies outside the guidebook

In the footsteps that brought you here

And the ones you take in leaving.


Gary Rosin(non-registered)
Three ways of being in the world. "Be Here Now" advises us to be fully present in the moment. Poets and photographers operate at a distance,at arm's length from experience. Photographers look at light, and try to frame, to compose, experience, to capture it in an image. Poets operate at even a greater remove. We try to distill experience, translate it into words, stitch words into phrases, lines, stanzas. Unless we write purely from a Zen, or an Imagist, perspective, we also want to transcend, to point beyond. For both, all that filtering dilutes experience. As your post suggests, reality is always there, always ready to bring us back from our digressions, to ground us in the here and the now.
Deborah Hughes Photography
Thanks for your comment, Robert. I started carrying a huge bladder after that day, but only do so now if I'm going out for a distance. But that's the problem isn't it, you just never know.
Robert Koken(non-registered)
Nice post, Deborah. I usually carry the stuff I would need if I got benighted and had to bivvy plus some extra water or a filter, although that adds to the weight of the load I'm already carrying. I know that feeling of almost panic you had when you realized you were lost. It takes a moment to get calmed down, doesn't it?
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