Wednesday, December 30, 2009
It was a cold grey day and threatened snow. That didn’t matter for the morning because I had booked a tour with a small group and a Navajo guide for a photography trip to Upper Antelope Canyon. Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon carved by water over the years into the desert sandstone. Its swirls and shapes have impressed many photographers, who make it a destination, as do many tourists.
Our guide was good, and quickly led us to the far end of the canyon to work backwards, and sometimes managed to hold back crowds when we photographed. But it was simply too crowded to do serious photography. I dread to think how much worse it would be in peak season. As the canyon is quite dark you need to take very long exposures using a tripod. For each shot, I took either five or seven separate exposures because the range from light to dark was so huge I knew that the only way to capture all the detail would be by combining separate images on a computer afterwards (HDR or high-dynamic range photography). Unfortunately taking that many long shots meant the odds of being disturbed were huge. Tourists often walked by, sometimes accidentally kicking the tripod. Sometimes their guides shone laser pointers onto the rocks leaving red squiggles on my images. For certain scenes, photographers lined up taking turns moving their tripods into place, sometimes lining up the tripods in a row with the legs woven in and out of each other.
That doesn’t take away from the beauty of the canyon, but it did make it hard to photograph it. In hindsight, I think I should’ve gone to one of the lesser-known slot canyons in the area, including perhaps even Lower Antelope Canyon across the road, which apparently is just as beautiful but much less crowded.
I wanted to photograph Horse Shoe Bend, a dramatic river bend below a steep cliff south of Page. It was now foggy and starting to snow, but as I didn’t have many alternative destinations, I set out anyway. It’s a walk of about a half a mile from the parking area on a trail through the desert to the edge of the cliff. In what must have been the understatement of the year, one Chinese tourist told me: “The visibility is not very high.” That didn’t stop a number of tour groups from making the walk anyway. Only occasionally did the fog lift just enough that you could see the faint outline of the river more than 1000 feet below. At other times it was just old white of fog and falling snow. Some of the tourists went right to the edge of the cliff and took pictures of the fog. I took a picture of one Chinese tourist woman standing about 2 feet from the edge of the precipice and snapping a picture of the fog.
Monday, December 28, 2009
I was up early before the sun to take a drive on a circular route through the desert. Unfortunately the sky was still very overcast and the light was flat, so I didn’t get any great pictures, but I did admire the desert scenery and cacti.
This was the closest to Mexico that I got — so close in fact that my cell phone thought I was in Mexico, while in fact I was a few kilometres north of the border. From there I began a long drive north into colder parts of Arizona. Soon I was leaving the warm desert behind me and climbing up into snow-covered forests of Ponderosa pines north of Phoenix, as I reached Flagstaff for the night. Flagstaff was the closest thing to winter I’d experienced since the snowstorm on the journey south.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
The weather forecasts were for calling for several days of cloudy snowy crappy weather, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I decided to take my chances and go to Grand Canyon anyway, knowing that the option remained of returning if I didn’t see it at its best.
I caught bits of sun here and there, and the clouds even had a bit of drama, but on the whole it was pretty cloudy and dull. The canyon itself though is still amazing — much more vast than I ever could’ve imagined.
Even at this time of year, it was jammed with tourists, and finding a place to park was no easier than West Edmonton Mall on Boxing Day. I would hate to see it at peak season. Sometimes I have to laugh at the antics and behavior of some of the tourists. Classic case in point, some bratty children who would rather be playing video games were running around near the edge of the canyon and driving their poor mother crazy. Her retort: “I brought you into this world, and I can just as easily take you out of it.” I frankly hoped she would push them over the edge.
Fortunately, you only have to walk a short distance to get away from the crowds. It seems most people won’t walk more than 100 feet from their cars, so there were very few people on the trail that ran along by the edge of the canyon. I admired the many views staring down into the depths of the canyon and miles across it.
That evening I drove to Page in northern Arizona and bought a ticket for the next day to take a photography tour of Antelope Canyon.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
I drove to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument where I camped for the night. I had a bad headache and the sky became quite overcast so I didn’t appreciate it at its best. Still, it’s a wonderful desert setting surrounded by beautiful mountains and many desert plants. The Saguaro cactus of course dominate as they are so tall, but this park is known for its organ pipe cactus, which are common in Mexico, but this is the only part of the United States where they grow. The organ pipes are smaller than the Saguaros, and they grow in clusters from a base on the ground. Unlike the saguaros, they don’t have branches.
It was cool and windy in my tent that night, but I’m not sure that even went below freezing.
Saturday, December 26, 2009 (Boxing Day)
I drove on back roads down close to Nogales, but didn’t see any point in putting up with the hassle of crossing into Mexico. At one state park (Patagonia Lake) I went for a hike through all kinds of desert scenery. It was so peaceful being out in the desert alone with occasional deer or hares, etc. I returned along a desert river that was an oasis of green attracting many birds. I recognized a pair of cardinals, but people come there from all over the world to see hundreds of different species. It’s apparently a birders paradise.
Then I took the very rough twisty dirt Ruby Road through the mountains and some incredible scenery. It was quiet, but there were other travellers going through, and many, many border patrols in the area looking for illegal immigrants and smugglers. Ruby itself is a ghost town. I didn’t stop to visit due to shortage of time and an admission fee. The scenery around it for me was the main attraction.
Back in Tucson for the night, I ate much better than Christmas, finding one of the many wonderful Mexican restaurants in town.
Friday, December 25, 2009 (Christmas Day)
I was up early to drive the more normal route to Chiricahua, getting close to it as the sun came up. It was very quiet, but I was able to drive into the national monument and go as far as the camping grounds, which had a fair bit of snow in large patches. There was a gate closing the roadway beyond the campgrounds, so I parked and walked in.
It was a lovely walk along the roadway with no cars and no other people, with bright sun shining off the tall rocks, and with trees and rocks towering overhead. The rocks seem to be like giant figures, reminding me a little of the rock formations at Montserrat outside of Barcelona. I took many pictures, and walked the gently climbing road, enjoying the solitude.
At one point, a ranger drove up to me just to check on me. He said it was no problem for me to be walking there, but had seen my car and wanted to make sure it didn’t belong to some hiker who had had a mishap.
It was too far to walk to the end of the road where there is apparently a nice overlook, but I walk several kilometers and enjoy the scenery.
My other excursion on that beautiful sunny Christmas Day was to visit Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson. Its purpose is to show off the Saguaro cactus and its desert environment. There’s a short ring road that you can drive making regular stops and pull offs to explore and admire the desert. The tall Saguaro cactus make dramatic shapes pointed up to the sky, and many other desert plants grow in these hills and valleys at the base of some brown mountains. Here too, I did a lot of walking but no major hikes, and stayed until the sun set behind the cacti.
Finding a motel was not a problem, but finding a place to eat on Christmas day always is. I ended up going to that old standby, the only place I’ve ever found open for meals on Christmas day in the US, the Waffle House. There I had a nice Christmasy cheeseburger cooked on the open grill.