Journal of Michael Baum / Travels of an Artist

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Exploring Utah
Day One: Camp Windy

Paul picks us up at 7:30 am. Unbelievably, we squeeze all our camping gear in the Jeep and are on the road by 8:00. We run into heavy snow showers at Vail Pass, but have a smooth drive to Green River and down Utah 24 to the turnoff for Horseshoe Canyon an outlier of Canyonlands National Park. Thirty-five miles of graded dirt road stretch out across the desert. We cruise along at 50+...until we hit the sand dunes. Strong winds that have been with us all day have drifted sand over the road. In some places, it's deep, but we can drive around with little difficulty and a lot of fun. We arrive at the rim around 5:30 pm and set up camp. We dub our camp "Camp Windy," because that's what it is...Windy. At least it's not cold, yet. We reconnoiter the canyon, getting photos in the waning light. Back in camp, we set up our "kitchen" on the leeward side of the Jeep. This gives us enough shelter to light the stove, but the wind drives grit into everything. Still, the brats taste great if a little crunchy. The wind shakes the tent all night long. The fabric snaps in the gusts. Even with ear plugs, we hear it. Sleep is fleeting.

The road to Horseshoe Canyon


Camp Windy
(photos by Patrice Rhoades-Baum, copyright © 2010)


Day Two: Contrasts

We awake just before sunrise and walk down to the rim for photos. As we enter the upper part of the canyon, the wind slacks off. The rising sun casts an orange glow on the domes of petrified sand dunes surrounding us--huge sand dunes from some ancient desert, turned to stone beneath the earth and, in the immensity of time, revealed by erosion. Now blasted back to sand once again by the winds that kept us awake last night, the dunes form anew across our trail.

We have a modest breakfast of gritty oatmeal. The wind is picking up ahead of a front. It's sunny here, but dark clouds trailing beards of rain lie just to the south. We pack up the camp, tents snapping in the wind, standing straight out like flags as we try to fold them.

We strap on our packs and head into the canyon about 8 am. Clouds move across the sky, dragging shadows across the canyon walls. We descend along a steep trail of stone that, unbelievably, was once a road. The inner canyon reveals itself little-by-little until finally we see it clearly snaking below us 750 feet below the rim. The bottom, when we reach it, is a sandy wash lined with cottonwood trees and willow. Sheer walls rise above us.


Horseshoe Canyon


We walk south up-canyon looking for its famous rock art panels. I photograph the newly leafed-out cottonwoods, spring-green contrasting with the soaring red walls behind them. It's now overcast and I constantly check the sky for sun holes that will spotlight the scene. I need a little contrast to make a dramatic painting. Nothing yet.

We investigate the first two rock art sites, one across the canyon from the other. They are fine examples of Barrier Canyon culture, named for the canyon in which we now hike (once known as Barrier Canyon and now named Horseshoe Canyon). On our way down to the third site, we round a bend and see blue sky. Shafts of sun penetrate the canyon and light up the trees with green fire. Cliffs glow warmly. Light reflects through the canyon. I get my pictures...and hopefully, I'll have a painting or two.

The third site, in a huge, glowing alcove, shows signs of vandalism, but is still impressive. We continue another mile-and-a-half to the Great Gallery. We can see dark clouds beyond the rim. I get more photos in the quickly changing light. It is a beautiful canyon.

The Great Gallery is superb. Considered the premier rock art site in the country, it stretches over 200 feet and features dozens of figures. Tiny human figures and animals dance around  intricately depicted, life-size shaman-like figures. These images were painted here thousands of years ago by people who left no other trace.  Alone with these haunting figures, we take time to ponder what we are seeing.

We hike out at a fast pace, staying ahead of the rain that pursues us down the canyon. We are bushed when we finally reach the rim. This is only a seven mile hike, but trudging through deep sand and then up the steep trail makes it difficult. Once back on the rim, there is no time to hang out. Rain is right behind us. We pack up and start the drive out just as the rain begins. The rain becomes sleet and gropple. It's getting cold.

The Great Gallery (detail)
Wet weather moves in
We drive the 35 miles back to pavement through open desert scattered with dunes and iced white with gropple. The view is dramatic as shafts of sunlight spotlight distant formations while nearby buttes loom darkly beneath the storm clouds. A large front-end loader has been assigned to clear sand from the road. Good thing, the drifts are huge. We make it to the highway and head for Goblin Valley State Park.

Goblin Valley is just that: a valley crowded with stone goblins, hoodoos, and other bizarre results of erosion. Exploring side canyons, we get ourselves lost among strange forms.  The canyon walls look like red melting ice-cream frozen forever in stone. The wind is howling and it's getting colder. Rain washes the canyons nearby. We abandon our plans to hike Little Wild Horse slot canyon. It's no place to be when it rains, because it can fill with water in an instant. People have nearly lost their lives in that canyon. I've seen pictures of trucks tumbled by the water and buried in sediment in that canyon. We also abandon plans to camp at Goblin Valley. Setting up a camp in this wind would be next to impossible. So would sleep. And we need a good night's sleep. We head for Capitol Reef National Park and the small town of Torrey seeking shelter from the storm.

Goblin Valley
Somewhere in here, we realize the desert is in bloom. The badland country west of Hanksville is a stark landscape of gray shale sculpted by rain and wind into voluptuous, rounded hills that suggest the curves of the human form. It is a Georgia O'Keeffe landscape come to life. Most of the time, the landscape seems barren, the surface of some airless planet. But now, under a lowering sky, the gray landscape is shocked with carpets of tiny, bright-yellow flowers. It is an amazing study in contrasts. A wet winter and spring have brought life to the desert.

Desert in Bloom
Ahead, the land begins to rise gradually in layers of up-thrust rock. This is the eastern side of Capitol Reef, the ragged remnant of a great swell in the Earth's crust. Thrust up 65 million years ago and eroded down into a series of  parallel ridges and valleys, Capitol Reef is the northernmost end  of a huge geologic feature known as the Waterpocket Fold, which stretches a hundred miles through southeastern Utah. The Fremont River valley, along which we are traveling, becomes an ever-deepening canyon as it cuts through rising rock layers. As we wind through the canyon, we catch glimpses of blue sky ahead. The canyon widens and fills with newly leafed out  cottonwoods and orchards planted long ago by Mormon homesteaders. Suddenly, we break out into sunshine and the canyon comes alive with color. Intense green against glowing orange.

Capitol Reef National Park
The sign says "Scenic Drive." That sounds promising. We turn left and drive through a study in contrasts. On one side, rough country of steep hills cut by rocky canyons, dressed in desert scrub. On the other side, what seems to be a luxuriant park of huge cottonwoods, historic orchards, and meadows complete with fawns grazing the tall, green grass.

In contrast to the gentle rise of the eastern side of Capitol Reef, the western edge is a battlement of towering cliffs. Scenic Drive winds along the base of these cliffs. We climb out of the green valley bottom. Paul looks in the rearview mirror, gasps, pulls the Jeep over, and jumps out, camera in hand. I follow. Before us is a fantasy landscape. Huge cliffs rise from the valley floor, marching of into the clouded distance. Shafts of golden sunlight spotlight the cliffs. The atmosphere glows. It is a luminist landscape, a Thomas Moran painting. Overwhelming. I take a slew of photos and then just stare in amazement. I am in awe of the transcendent beauty of this landscape. This one moment makes the whole trip, scouring, sand-blasting wind and all, worthwhile. It will be impossible to catch all of this in a painting, but it will be fun trying.

Capitol Reef National Park
I turn around and there is another fantastic landscape. It goes on into the distance. The road follows. It takes forever to drive the ten miles of Scenic Drive. We stop constantly to take more photos. Dark clouds race across the sky. Light changes quickly and dramatically. It's perfect. Even the wind has died down. We take photos until the sun sets. Exhausted from a day that began on a windswept canyon rim and ended in a paradise of light, we head into Torrey for a good meal, a hot shower, and a windless sleep.
Capitol Reef National Park


The adventure continues: Part Two

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