A Drive Through Northern Arizona on a Sunny Day
It was a bright Friday morning as I left to go up north. I had planned on leaving a bit earlier than 8:30, but those plans were offset by the need to get my youngest to school and finish some things at the office.
Sometimes the plans we make don’t work out. They just don’t.
I had wanted to leave very early so that Flagstaff would be breakfast and the Navajo Reservation would still be in morning light when I arrived. By the time I got to Gray Mountain, the sun was higher in the sky than I would have liked. But, since it was the end of February, it was still quite south and was throwing some interesting shadows.
The road from Flagstaff north to the Vermilion Cliffs is one of my favorite roads… ever. I love this land. You can see forever there. There is much to love about the wooded areas of the Midwest and Atlantic states, but there is also a slight sense of claustrophobia from all the dense foliage for this western deserts boy.
In northern Arizona you can see a hundred miles. Climb up to the top of a mesa and add a few more.
My mom told me that when he was born, my brother Frank became my instant new best friend. I don’t remember much about the little house on 44th St. But I remember the day my brother was born. It was a terrific thunderstorm and the doctors came to the house. I was put to bed in my parents room, and when I awoke the next day he was there. I would care for him and take him on walks wherever I went. He was my brother and I thought that was pretty cool.
To be able to see that far… well, that changes a person. It becomes part of the DNA… at least it has for me. It is where I want to be most of the time I am awake.
But I live in Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the country. Spread out for miles, it sits like a giant turd in the middle of a valley made humid and green from too much irrigation and not enough common sense. We have a river here, right though town. It is bone dry. One of the things that fascinates me about other places is that when you cross a bridge over a river, there is actually water in it. WTF is that about?
Leaving Flagstaff, you meander a while through some beautiful pine forest before becoming a beeline-straight highway pointing due north. It is so straight for so long that people have been known to stop at the slightest curve and do some silly dance moves. Or take pictures. “And this is where the road had a curve in it…”.
The land is barren, dry and beautiful.
And yeah, I have been there when it was a hundred and ten. Then it is barren, dry, beautiful and very closely resembling a toaster oven. If toaster ovens had color.
And the colors are amazing. Reds and grays and pinks and deep mauve blend with the bleached dirt that seems to have been recently shoveled along the road. There is no sign that anything has ever changed there. Time seems to be persona non grata among the rocks, badlands and mesas. It’s like time stopped there.
Except for the fences. There are fences everywhere.
Fences to keep someone out? Or to keep something in? Damn, I would hate to be the grazing cow on this acreage.
When we were growing up, Frank and I did a lot together. He was young enough to look up to me and I felt it my duty to take care of him. We built forts out of Christmas trees and he would be our “inside man”. Kids can’t do that today… nanny state bastards have sucked as much fun out of growing up as they can. We rode bikes and I remember the day we got Frank a brand new “Stingray” and headed out for an adventure through the alleys of west Phoenix. We were like buds at that point. I can still remember the areas of our youth like it was yesterday. Glenrosa, Mariposa, 31st Ave, Granada Elementary… the places where kids could wander without fear. “We’re heading out mom, see you before sundown…” and we were off. Brothers.
I saw the tanks in the distance and immediately knew I had to photograph them. They looked so oddly shaped in the landscape. Bright colored blue and yellow… and that face. What was that about?
I have no idea what they were painted for. There were flyers for an indie rock band all around the other side. OK, we’ll go with that. (UPDATE, a reader sent me this link for some backstory on the tanks above. Thanks Jon @JMatthies)
Finding incongruity is easy in the badlands of northern Arizona. A river winds through incredibly barren rock with nary a single tree, or even that many bushes, at its edge. Brilliant blue sky meets bright red mesas in a clash of hard edged rock. The distance between where you are and over there becomes difficult to gauge… there is so little context.
The Vermilion Cliffs are one of my favorite places. They look big, but in fact when you get close to them you realize they are even bigger than you can imagine. Huge and forbidding, they stand like a silent fortress holding proudly against the valley below.
I had once planned a hike there, but only got about a mile in before I finally came to grasp how incredibly huge they are. 4×5 camera over the shoulder, I retreated to the safety of my camp.
Sometimes the plans we make don’t turn out. The mountains are bigger than we figured they would be. That can be both a relief and a disappointment. Go on… you choose.
It was a cold November morning. My dad was packing us into the old panel truck he had bought for going fishing and camping. My brother and I were on pins and needles the night before. We couldn’t wait to get in the back and go on another adventure in the high country of the Mogollon Rim. We huddled together in the back of the cold van and shared hot chocolate. He fell asleep leaning against me and I didn’t move for hours for concern that he would awaken. Frank eventually became quite knowledgeable on the central Arizona area, and would inform us all about the gun battles and historic civil war occurrences whenever there was something to tell. He studied the civil war and the rancher wars of Arizona, and there was no skirmish or event that he hadn’t covered. I eventually began music school, so Frank and my dad were the ones that adventured off together on the weekends. As many as they could, it seemed.
The earth holds us near as it changes and morphs at a much slower rate than we do. Artifacts of our lives, things that are inconsequential and things that are vital are of no meaning to the earth. A discarded glove would be the same as a pile of hundred dollar bills to the drying cracked ground that makes up this area of the southwest.
Men have no standing here. Women have no standing here.
We come and go so fast, too fast, while the earth takes its time to decide what it will do.
Marble Canyon is here. Pariah a little north and but a tiny sliver in the wall of the gorge. The Grand Canyon is but a little ways off to the left. A canyon so deeply cutting through the cliffs that it has very few hours of sunlight. And still it carves its path… day after day. Millennium after millennium.
We can stand for a few moments on a bridge and watch the water slowly meander below. Cutting and carving and deepening the canyon each and every second.
But we will not see it change. Neither will our grandchildren.
Frank got married and I took the photographs. He looked so handsome in his tux, and Lorna looked so beautiful. My mom and dad got all dressed up and man, was it a party. He was a happy guy, and soon two boys would appear to make a family. There were periods of stability and a few periods of crazy. At first the crazy was limited to a now and then occurrence. We would hear the apologies and the promises and things would get back to normal. For a while. But eventually the crazy became the norm and the bouts of normalcy became brief respites. While change happens slowly to the land of northern Arizona, it happens all too fast to the lives of humans.
Boulders left to stand on small amounts of tightly packed sandstone dot the landscape near the Vermilion Cliffs. How long did this take? The rainfall in this area is so slight that in many places measurement is not even entertained. The millenia that it has taken to carve these rocks into standing remnants of a landscape we can only imagine can humble the passing visitor. One day they will fall. I will not be here to see that, but someone may.
Will there be an announcement? Those who have stood for uncountable years will have fallen?
Something that has been here before man walked on the dirt will someday topple, and the earth will enfold it and begin again. That’s what the earth does. It forgives, forgets, and keeps on keeping on.
I am reminded of that every time I venture to this magical place. Well, it’s magical to me.
Sort of like a hot, dry, high desert Disneyland without the crowds and fast food.
The beep of the cellphone alerted me to a message early that morning, but I didn’t check it right away. I get a lot of messages. A lot. And I was packing and getting the car ready for the drive. I stopped to check my messages just outside of Flagstaff. And there was this note in the little window: “Frank passed this morning. He was in hospice, and thought you should know.” The message was terse, and final. Like life. It was indeed a final chapter in some way, but it was also the culmination of the process of losing my brother. I lost him so long ago. The drugs and alcohol had taken a good man and made him nearly unrecognizable. His kids didn’t want much to do with him – hadn’t for a while now. Frank had used up all his credit at the “next time I will be better ” bar and they simply turned off his tab. I hear folks tell me that drugs are victimless crimes. Victimless? I beg to differ… I really really do. A man loses his sense of humanity. Brothers lose each other, mothers and fathers lose a son, a couple of good boys never knew what it was like to be around the funny and smart Frank I knew when we were younger. Victims? You bet your ass there are victims.
I got to Zion that evening and my mind was full of days long past and those uncountable days yet to come.
I was wired and restless at the hotel – I had to get outside. I had to make photographs. Photographs mean something to me. While not as permanent as the earth, a photograph becomes a touchpoint – a thought, that can be remembered with the prompt of an image. A photograph is one of the most powerful things that we make as artists. It is a moment, and a memory, and a lifetime captured in a blink of an eye.
Ansel Adams said his photographs were not about landscapes, they were metaphors; allegories with the land as his pallet. I was out to make a photograph and it didn’t matter to me what it would be. I wanted to record something on this day. This special day… a day that will never be again. A day I will always remember, and yet want so much to forget.
That evening, at dusk I made this shot of the river running through Zion. When I was shooting I was thinking of the lovely light on the river, the reflection of the clear sky, and wondering how to keep the brightly lit mountains within the range of exposure. I was making an image of a river in the dead of winter, and I wanted it to mean something to me. As I look at the image now, I don’t see the river, and the mountain. I see time measured so carefully as it flows through the canyon, carving its legacy slowly through the earth, and the mountains in the distance bathed in the light of promise.
We always plan on what is promised.
But sometimes our plans don’t work out the way we thought they would.
I miss you Frank, I have for a long time.