Journal of Michael Baum / Travels of an Artist

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Exploring Utah
Day Three: Capitol Reef

I'm up and out of the hotel room as the sun rises. It's cold and still cloudy. To the south, the upper slopes of Boulder Mountain are socked in. I can see a slip of new snow peeking out below the cloud cover. Shafts of sunlight are lighting up the buttes to the north, and I get a few photos of the fleeting scene. To the east, Capitol Reef is shrouded in clouds. We get a hot breakfast and head toward the park. A little sun is getting through as we drive east. We stop and get photos. But the closer we get to the battlements of Capitol Reef, the cloudier and darker it gets.

We stand at the rim of Sulphur Creek Canyon. The gulf spreading out below tugs at my senses, trying to pull me in. It is a beautiful rim with twisted junipers leaning out over the canyon. But the light is flat. Much of the sensation of yawning depth will not make it into the camera.

Fleeting sunlight
The visitor center at Capitol Reef National Park has one of those giant, table-top relief maps that I love to study. Capitol Reef and the Waterpocket Fold stand out in jagged relief like a hundred-mile-long spine. The bones of the Earth. We pour over the map, looking for places to explore.
Back outside, a misty rain falls. The sky is one shade of gray. Just down the road are several petroglyph panels. A boardwalk leads visitors along the panels at a safe distance. The petroglyphs were created by the Fremont Culture, Native Americans who lived in the area between 700 and 1300 AD. Viewing the petroglyphs from behind a railing, people all around, and cars whizzing by on the highway at our backs, is not the same as our almost spiritual encounter with the Great Gallery. But in this well-traveled place, if it wasn't protected, this rock art would soon disappear.
Desert bloom                             Fremont rock art

Down the road, we take the short hike up to Hickman Natural Bridge, an impressive sight among the carved sandstone domes that cap the Reef. It spans 130 feet and is 125 feet high. The sky is darkening. Color is squeezed out of everything. Since I can't get color, I take photos in black and white. Forms become powerfully essential when the skin of color is removed. Below the bridge, I clamber from rock to rock and squeeze through passages between and under rocks, taking photos and marveling at the ponderous mass suspended over my head. We work our way down the canyon, off-trail, sliding over one pour-off, skirting around another, until we eventually join the main trail and return to the parking lot. We drive to the eastern edge of the park to get a view of the sandstone domes that are the top layer of Capitol Reef. They seem to ride atop the layers below, all tilting toward us. They look like they could slide right off. Dabs of sunlight illuminate distant buttes and canyons, but mostly, it's cloudy. Rain is falling in the canyon to the west.

Hickman Natural Bridge
We wind back through the park. Patrice spots a nice waterfall, and we explore it for a while. We drive into the rain as we continue up the canyon. The domes become amorphous, looming shapes above the trees and the river. One of my goals for the trip was to get some images of glowing cliffs reflected in water. I anticipated getting these shots along the Fremont River but have been frustrated by the cloudy conditions. I've been feeling down about this. And I almost miss what's going on around me. Rain. It brings the Earth alive, fills the air with the scent of life and the promise of new life. I love to paint rainy landscapes.

I ask Paul to pull the Jeep over. I jump out and standing in the rain, start taking photos, having to dry the lens continuously. I'm getting wet and soon dive back into the Jeep. But I have a few nice photos and an improved attitude.

Looming domes

Dark landscape
Back on the western edge of the Reef, we once again head  down Scenic Drive for a hike in Capitol Gorge. The rain has stopped. We walk down a narrow and very deep canyon made dark by the roiling clouds overhead. Until 1964, Capitol Gorge was the principle route through Capitol Reef. The walls are inscribed with the names of travelers who have passed this way since the 1870s.
We climb above the inner canyon and investigate a set of waterpockets, basins cut by rain-water pouring down the rocky landscape. These "tanks" hold water long after the rains have gone and are essential to life in the Waterpocket Fold. Above the inner canyon is a wonderland of sandstone domes, petrified remains of monstrous, ancient sand dunes sculpted by wind and water. Exploring, we take care to stay off of the cryptobiotic soil, a living carpet of cyanobacteria, algae, fungi, and bacteria that provides a foothold for the fragile ecosystems of this slickrock country.
We return to Torrey under stormy skies for a second night indoors.

The adventure continues: Part Three.

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