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Red Rock Road Trip

 Tuesday, 9/9/97 

Antelope Canyon

"In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk."
--- prayer from Navajo Nightway Chant

A little background is required, due to the tragic flood in August, and the fact these images are rather abstract on their own. So bear with me while the images load (there's a bunch of 'em).

In the course of researching this trip, I came across a guy's travelogue which made passing reference to some slot canyon outside Page, Az., that might be worth a side trip. Upon looking further, I found it wasn't just any ol' slot canyon, it was Antelope Canyon, probably the most "famous." I found a tour guide on the web, and called the next day to make my reservation. It was August 12, 1997.

Two hours later, one of the worst flash floods in decades swept through Lower Antelope Canyon, and 11 people died. My initial euphoria crashed down to earth. Everyone from my Dad to my cat said, in one way or another, "you don't need to go there." Regardless of anyone's desires, I doubted I would be allowed in. But as I found out more about the story, I realized I might still be able to go.

Antelope Canyon entrance

Antelope Canyon has (at least) two distinctive parts. Lower Antelope Canyon, where the tragedy occurred, is right off the highway. It's a slash in the land about 80 feet deep, and you must descend on ladders (although it will likely remain closed until Spring '98). Getting to Upper Antelope Canyon involves a 3 mile ride in a 4 wheel drive vehicle up a wide flat wash. The wash dead ends into a sandstone ridge, about 130 feet high, with a gash in it, the exit of Upper Antelope (just behind the truck at left).

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PhotoDude in Antelope (12kb)

You don't descend into Upper Antelope Canyon, you stroll right in from the wash. It's about a quarter mile walk to the entrance of the canyon at the other end, during which you pass *through* a 130 foot tall sandstone ridge. In the middle, it's almost dark enough to require a flashlight. Most of the images on this page were long exposures, averaging 20 to 30 seconds, as you can see from my self-portrait at right. While I braced myself against the wall for the long exposure, several people walked through my shot (a frequent aggravation, but this time it worked)

Canyon hallway (11kb)

Slot canyons are unique works of nature. This one began as a tiny crack in a sandstone ridge, and over the years rushing water and wind have carved it grain of sand by grain of sand. It's still happening today. Five washes feed into Antelope Canyon from miles away. On August 12, the storm was 5 miles away and 2000 feet higher in elevation. The local tour guides either weren't running trips that day because of the flood potential, or got their people out in time.

"Art, like Nature, has her monsters, things of bestial shape and with hideous voices" ---Oscar Wilde

Flood debris wedged in canyon (10kb)

The bottom line is, if you're heading into a slot canyon, KNOW the weather for the surrounding area, and heed even the slightest warning of rain nearby. When you enter a slot, you're walking on a river bed that just happens to be dry .... at that moment. As bad as the flood of 8/12/97 was, there was one even worse late Saturday, 9/6/97, just 3 days prior to my visit. It wedged at 10 foot long, 12 inch thick log about 12 feet in the air .... almost appearing to defy gravity (at right). I tread lightly underneath it. The power of floods such as these has carved the canyon 7 feet deeper than it was in May, 4 feet of that occuring in August. This is evidenced by idiots who carved their name in places that are now far out of human reach.

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Canyon passage (10kb)

The biggest problem in Antelope Canyon is people. Too many of them. All in my way. The first hour of my visit, there must have been 40 people, bumping into my tripod, firing off their point-n-shoot's flash during my 30 second exposure, and otherwise ruffling my delicate artistic sensibilities. When the tour was up, I opted to stay on, and return with the next group. This gave me over an hour in which I shared the place with two other photographers.

I got lost in the light and the silence. It's a place most difficult to put into words.

"An ecstasy is a thing that will not go into words; it feels like music, and one cannot tell about music so that another person can get the feeling of it. " ---Mark Twain

light waterfall (11kb)

Waterfalls of light. These are the words that keep surfacing as I view these images now, but I don't know that I thought that at the time. That's one of the difficulties in trying to convey the essence of this place. The human eye can see an amazing range of light, and this place had it. From pitch black, to a few places you could see the sky. But it was mostly dark, making it hard to compose through the viewfinder, nevermind focus. And the questions of what's "vertical" and what's "horizontal" become quite subjective.

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shaft of light (11kb)

But what the eye sees here moment by moment takes half a minute to expose on film, a medium that can record a mere fraction of the range of light your eye can take in. This range is further reduced by the process of scanning an image and broadcasting it over the web. In the end, it is an interpretation of what I saw, but it by no means approximates the reality. The reality is sunlight from a sky you often can't see overhead, hitting the upper 20% of the canyon walls, then bouncing from orange wall, to brown wall, over & over, and by the time it reaches you 120 feet below, it's a soft blend of ambers, oranges, reds, mixed with more natural light. To someone who's a light-junkie, it was an incredible rush.

"The magic of photography is metaphysical. What you see in the photograph isn't what you saw at the time. The real skill of photography is organised visual lying" ---Terence Donovan

Canyon wall (12kb)

At one point, I rounded a corner and startled a fellow photographer just after the large tour group had left. He was from Italy, and was equally startled when I asked him if he was doing an exposure before I passed through. I sometimes think visitors from other lands fully expect us all to be " Ugly Americans," and are genuinely surprised when we're not. He even gave me a second chance, explaining haltingly that it was a 5 minute exposure, and seemed somewhat pleasantly shocked that I didn't insist on barging through.

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The Corkscrew (12kb)

While we waited, he said, "it is a difficult place to shoot, no?" I replied that it was, but said "it is worth the trouble, no?" He looked up at the formations, and merely smiled and nodded. We shared no common vocabulary to describe what we saw. I've most often heard the phrase, a natural cathedral. Looking at the intricate beauty of the formations, it is hard to argue with that, but it is more. It is a cathedral lit by the angels, that, paradoxically, can be swiftly transformed into a living hell by the very forces that created such beauty.

"Here are worlds of experience beyond the world of the aggressive man, beyond history, and beyond science. The moods and qualities of nature and the revelations of great art are equally difficult to define; we can grasp them only in the depths of our perceptive spirit." --- Ansel Adams

waterfall of light (11kb) waterfall of light (11kb)

It was very tough to edit the rolls of film from this visit. There were far more than I could put on this one page. So if you're interested in seeing another dozen images, go to Antelope Canyon, Page Two. If not, you can head back to where you left off on Day Four

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