A Brief Encounter with Zion National Park
The thousand-metre high cliffs of Navajo Sandstone in Zion National Park had been familiar to me in photographs since I was in junior high school. Landmarks such as the Patriarchs, the West Temple, and the Great White Throne often showed up in books of natural wonders of the western United States and in photo publications I enjoyed. Zion was appropriately named because it was in all respects for me sacred ground. Here was where several chapters in the long history of Mother Earth were opened up to read in spectacular cliffs, canyons, buttes, and caps. In addition, here was the hallowed ground where so many great landscape photographers of the past and present set down their tripods and tripped their shutters.
From Saint George, Utah, the rocks beside the road were mostly red and weathered into peculiar sculptures that could resemble the petrified organs of some mammoth beast trapped in the strata of the earth. Turning off the I-15 at Hurricane, we left the fantastic red rock landscapes behind and drove past flat-topped table lands, many with layers of black basalt on top. Soon the West Temple came into view again loomed ever nearer. Then the road snuggled up close to the hills at Rockville and Springdale. I marvelled at the huge weathered blocks of sandstone that were tumbled and jammed into the small stream channels carving into the rock. Then at last the mountain-like red cliffs of the Watchman took a chunk out of the sky. It had been cloudy all morning but now the clouds were breaking into long tracks and moving to the north. I had heard of four consecutive days of rain up this way but it seemed the weather was turning around in our favour.
There was a $25 entrance fee for our vehicle but that covered all three of us too. A sign had said that the visitor centre parking lot was full; however, we found an open stall in the overflow parking. Though we had left at 7:30 it was now around noon. We had stopped for gas and a rest in Saint George but it had still taken us three and a half hours in total to reach the park. We decided to take the shuttle bus that ran up the canyon. The system was really convenient. The bus was free to ride and there were nine stops along the way including the visitor centre. One could get off the bus at any stop and then board another bus later and either continue up the canyon or catch a bus heading back down. The buses ran every six to eight minutes and ran from just after sunrise to after 9 pm. The buses all ran on propane, and the implementation of a shuttle bus system was meant to eliminate the chains of private vehicles belching exhaust into the canyon as the tourist traffic had increased significantly since the 1960s.
(It is ironic to think that in the 1960s and early ’70s, the Sierra Club was producing very large format photo art books, many of the landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, in an effort to create public awareness of the need to preserve these beautiful and delicate environments. The result of greater public awareness was that more and more people came by car to see the parks and as in the case of Zion Canyon, the huge increase in vehicular traffic actually helped to deteriorate conditions in the park. Of course the Sierra Club is not responsible for this but I am sure their books did capture the minds of many people who otherwise might not have gone.)
We boarded a bus and as we drove past the red cliffs with white caps a recording played, explaining about the sights around and the history of the park and canyon. We went straight to the last stop at the Temple of Sinawava and got off. The North Fork of the Virgin River comes out from the narrow canyon walls here and winds around a sandstone tower known as the Pulpit.
Knowing my parents were not intending to stay long, I dashed to the river side and set up my view camera. It takes time to set up the camera and get the focus adjustments right, so I rushed while trying to make sure I got a good composition as well. Then I tried some 6×4.5 shots of the cliffs and the Pulpit and finally shot some 35mm scenes as well. After 25 minutes I found my parents sitting on a bench at the bus stop. “Did you get some good shots?” my father asked as he always does. I replied that I think I did but was only able to make maybe three or four compositions in total. We rode the bus to the stop at Big Bend and again I hurried to get something exposed on my film. We got out one more time at the Court of the Patriarchs stop and I dashed up to the viewpoint only to find it unsatisfactory. My parents came slowly up the path while I found what looked like a trail leading up higher. Ignoring the beginnings of a mild asthma attack (I always get these when I suddenly start running or walking quickly up steep trails) I ran up the sun-baked clay slope and soon found a clear patch where I could look over the trees to the three great towers of sandstone that were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a smaller tower known as Mount Moroni. All three cameras were put through the works before I packed up and went down to the bus stop where my parents were waiting again.
In truth, though the scenery of Zion was astounding in its beauty, I was finding it difficult to be truly astounded. Perhaps because I already knew of what to expect I felt I was only seeing in real life what I had seen so often in photographs. But I think it was more so because I didn’t have the chance to really set foot on the rock and soil and take a moment to simply observe the naturally beauty and let it stir me into action. Before long we were back at the visitor centre and looking through the books and various souvenirs. My parents bought a book/CD/DVD set for my son and were searching for something for my wife. They also bought a small photo book of Zion landscapes. I grabbed a Utah Rocks T-shirt with pictures of five of Utah’s most famous places for naturally sculpted rock and a calendar by David Pettit who was pictured on the back using the same Tachihara 4×5 that I have.
We sat outside under a clear blue sky and ate lunch, me with one eye on my watch because we were planning to go to Bryce Canyon next. It was when we had finished lunch my mom said that she felt there was no time to head on to Bryce Canyon and that we should head back to Las Vegas. It was only around four o’clock and I had heard it was only an hour more to Bryce. Sunset was just at seven. We still had time. But she said they had seen so much in Zion already and there was a long drive back to Vegas. If I really wanted to see Bryce I could go by myself the next day. I was in a way surprised that they could just stop like that and talk about heading back so early. For me, it was that I had just shaken hands with Zion and exchanged a few pleasantries but had not yet begun any intimate conversation. And Bryce had been a dream destination for me since my elementary school days when I enjoyed looking through geology books. But I understood that the day with my parents was meant to be a day with them and not my own day of exploration. The arrangement was that I would strike out on my own the next day and they had offered to lend me the rental car so that I wouldn’t have to rent my own.
After a bit of discussion, my father seemed to be in favour of trying for Bryce. My mother agreed without overt reluctance and we pressed on up to Canyon Junction where the road turned east to Bruce Canyon. Here we were immediately confronted by a road closure. A construction worker came over and explained the road was closed. We asked if there was another way to get to Bryce Canyon. He told us that we should go back to Hurricane and take the route north to Cedar City. From there we could get over to Bryce Canyon. I checked the map and saw that it was going to take a fair bit of extra time to circle all the way round like that. If we were lucky we’d get there around sunset and then have a very long drive back again. Instantly my desire to reach Bryce dissipated and I was all for heading back to Las Vegas without regret. There was nothing we could do. But those red towers of Zion Canyon reminded me that I still had a purpose were I to stay.
We stopped in Springdale for a moment and checked out a shop selling rocks and a photo gallery shared the building. I went in and saw on the walls some incredible photographs of Zion Canyon and some of the local semi-arid landscape scenery. The photographer was a young guy perhaps in his late twenties named Steffan (www.steffangallery.com). I asked him about his camera and he told me that he used a Wistia 4×5 and also a medium format camera sometimes too. His film preferences were Fujichrome Velvia and Ectachrome too. How wonderful it was to find another photographer who still pursued landscape photography with film and in large format too. As antiquated and almost obsolete as shooting film with a view camera may seem in today’s modern digital age, there were still professionals who wouldn’t abandon their 4x5s. Since I was planning to return in the morning and spend the day I asked his advice about where I should go. At first I wanted to visit the Emerald Pools and make the climb up to Angels Landing but his photographs of the Narrows – a place farther up the canyon where the 1,000-metre high cliffs closed in to within five metres apart – revived in my mind images of Eliot Porter’s from Glen Canyon, whose cliffs and amphitheatres now lie drowned in the waters of Lake Powell. Stephen totally recommended the hike up to the Narrows but said both the Emerald Pools and Angles Landing would be worth the effort. Likely there would be not enough time for all of them. We discussed his forthcoming book, printing processes, and the principles of capturing great images that didn’t require lots of post processing before I left his gallery and collected my parents for the ride back.
So, we turned around, and as the sun was sinking in the west and the sweet light was just beginning to touch up the landscape and photographers were just stirring from their mid-day sedentary pursuits, I began the long drive back to Las Vegas without the opportunity to enjoy shooting this unbelievable landscape in the warm light of late afternoon. Being the driver, I forced a few turn outs on local backroads until I found a decent view over sage brush and sand to some mesas in the distance. The landscape began to glow warmly as the sun edged its way toward the horizon. Then we drove on into the gathering evening and into the night. It was 12:30 by the time I got to bed after dinner in Las Vegas and a shower at the resort. My plan, now discussed with my parents, was set. Off to the Valley of Fire State Park at 5 am; leave there around 8:30 and head for Zion; stay until after sunset and drive back to Vegas; and then head over to Red Rock Canyon for the dawn shoot. I fell asleep quickly.