Exit 180 on Interstate 70 is one of the gateways to a cluster of National Parks and National Monuments scattered across southern Utah. Also known as Crescent Junction this dot on the map in eastern Utah is nothing more than an old, dusty, weathered gas station on the side of the road. Stopping to refuel I saw a bumper sticker pasted to the window of an equally old, dusty and weathered pickup. It happened to be my favorite Edward Abbey quote. “Wilderness is a necessity of the human spirit.” I have an endless appetite to visit and experience places where ‘wild-ness’ and ‘wilder-ness’ intersect. Growing up in Colorado, I’d held the opinion wild wilderness was exclusively a mountain and alpine phenomenon; those rare places where old growth landscapes shelter intact wildlife systems.
As I drove south I remembered the first time I came here. Several years ago my route to photograph slot canyons in northern Arizona took me through Arches, Canyonlands and on through Monument Valley. I was mesmerized as I headed south driving through this epic landscape. I’d never seen a place with such variety in color, shape, texture and scale. I’ve made several trips back since that day, but never felt like I connected with the spirit of the desert. Earlier this year a landscape photographer from Australia told me he was doing an extended trip to the Utah desert in early November. I couldn’t resist tagging along.
We started with the iconic spots and gradually went deeper into the backcountry. We hiked into Devil’s Garden and around Park Avenue in Arches National Park. We then jumped over to Dead Horse Point and explored Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park. Comparatively, fall arrives later in this geography. While there isn’t much that grows here, that which does was screaming in fall color. Cottonwood washes looked like veins of gold flowing into deep red sandstone mesas. Add in the backdrop of snowcapped peaks from the La Sal and Henry mountains and the ingredients for dramatic photos were everywhere. This place is truly a photographer’s playground.
Landscape photography is a patient game and it wasn’t unusual to sit for long periods of time waiting for a cloud to move off a peak or the right light to paint softly across a scene. In these moments I couldn’t help noticing the contrast and paradox of the Utah desert. I found myself surrounded by deafening quiet and loud visual chaos. The landscape seemed to unfold the longer I looked at it; simple and manicured one moment, endless and complex the next. Once the bottom of an ancient ocean, Time has transformed the area into vast wild space.
I have to believe not a lot has changed since the Powell Expedition first floated through here 142 years ago. For me seeing bears and wolves wandering free across remote tracts will always be a powerful proof point for all things wild. However, my notion of wild wilderness has begun to shift. Seeing the artwork of Time, over millions and millions of years, I am again reminded in the natural world that there is never nothing going on.