Into an Empty Place

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Things start to go wrong before the sun is up. Some photographic outings are like that.




I lay my backpack on the back seat of the Jeep. In the backpack is a plastic container filled with bourbon, for use at sundown. You're supposed to make sure that the lid to such containers is screwed on tight, but I hadn't done that. The smell alerts me. The bourbon has poured out of the container. It has soaked the contents of my backpack, and much of the back seat.

I drive out of Phoenix as the sun is rising. Although the morning is cool, I have the windows down, hoping that the reek of the bourbon will dissipate. The smell remains overpowering for the hour and a half it takes to get to Globe. I hope that I don't get stopped by the police. I'd have a lot of explaining to do.

My route takes me across the San Carlos Apache Reservation, then on to thirty miles of dirt road. The smell of the bourbon is finally diminishing a bit. I figure the day has to get better. 

That's when my left rear tire goes flat. Grumbling, I change the tire. When that's done and I turn on the engine, the tire pressure signal immediately lights up. The spare is not in the greatest shape. I shrug and drive the remaining ten miles to the trailhead.

My old friend John is waiting there, killing time, as I pull in forty-five minutes late. We exchange greetings. He smells the bourbon. I explain that I haven't really been on a bender.

We adjust our backpacks, shoulder them, and hit the trail. Now things will assuredly improve. We're headed into the Galiuro Mountains, a wild place that many Arizonans have never heard of. John is there to hunt the Coues deer. I'm armed only with a camera. The trail begins in grasslands dotted with oaks and juniper.  There's pine forest at the higher elevations. Deciduous hardwoods fill the canyons. There are plenty of black bears, and no people except for visitors like us.

Larger view here.

It's hard going with our heavy packs, but I'm glad to be there. My life is rooted in a particular time, place and culture. In the wilderness I get uprooted. The place is unfamiliar. There are few signs of any human culture. Even time loosens its grip. The place looks much as it did a millenium ago. Human affairs seem distant and trivial. The oaks, boulders and bears have ignored the current recession, as they ignored the Civil War. Some might find the wilderness unsettling, but I love it. Being able to come to such places is why I moved to the Southwest.

We keep hiking uphill, passing a small spring after a couple of miles. Our destination is a canyon where John and his wife camped nine years back. It has reliable water from a spring. We have to be near water.

After four and a half hours, we arrive at our destination. The canyon is lovely, filled with red and yellow leaves. We hike down the canyon towards the spring, discussing how tired and how ready to relax we are. When we arrive at the spring, it is dry. This fact is more than inconvenient. We're extremely tired. John is out of water and I'm down to a cup and a half. We discuss the problem and agree that we must proceed to a place where we know, with absolute certainty, that there is water. Another wrong guess would be life-threatening. We know there is water at the spring we had passed miles back. Reluctantly, we turn around and start hiking back to it.

When we're halfway back, night falls. We proceed by flashlight. Our tongues get thick. There's nothing but dust to taste. I wouldn't keep going if there were any other choice. There isn't. 

Finally we arrive at the spring we'd passed earlier. We purify and drink some water. It tastes like the nectar of the gods. We make a simple dinner, and then we sleep. Oh, do we sleep!

Larger view here.

The next day has to be better—and it is. John leaves early to hunt. In the morning, I take virtually no photographs. Instead, I inspect the area, trying to figure out where the photographs are, and when the light would be best for taking them. There's a steep canyon a few hundred yards to the south of us. It contains beautiful autumn foliage. I hike along the canyon rim and look for ways to get into it. There's no easy way. 

At mid-morning I see the only other human I encounter on the trip. He comes riding into our campsite on a chestnut mare, wearing a Stetson and leather chaps, like someone out of a movie. He's a game warden. I explain that I'm a noncombatant, just there to take pictures. After he looks around the campsite for a rifle and sees none, he accepts my story. He asks if I've seen any hunters besides John. I haven't. I ask where there's water. There's not much, he answers. He says the rains aren't what they used to be. I like him. Most game wardens are fine people. We say goodbye, and he rides away into western myth.

At midday, John and I hang around camp. We had planned to hike in the middle of each day, and camp at a different spot each night. The absence of water has changed that plan. We are tethered, by necessity, to the nearby spring.

For reading material, I've brought a book called The Blank Canvas by Anna Held Audette. It was written to help artists find inspiration. She quotes Wassily Kandinsky as saying that an artist must "watch only the trend of the inner need, and hearken to its words alone." We're all different and have different inner needs. Some need to photograph birds, sporting events, nudes or street scenes. I need to go to empty places that aren't really empty. I need to listen to what they have to say.

I grab my camera and head back to the canyon at about 2:00. A small side canyon that runs into it appears to offer the best approach. I work my way over rocks and through brush. Progress is slow. I wind up crawling under some car-sized boulders. When I get about a hundred yards above the bottom of the canyon, I realize that I can go no further without incurring unacceptable risks. My stopping point offers some decent views of the canyon, and I take various photos.

Larger view here.

I make my tedious way back out of the canyon. 

With regard to gear, I've made good choices and bad ones. For reasons of weight and bulk I decided not to bring my usual tripod. Instead, I've brought a cheap, lightweight tripod I'd bought years before at an office-supply store. I wasn't expecting much of it. It delivered even less. It was useless. The magnificent night sky and the beautiful sunsets and sunrises go unphotographed. As for lenses, I've brought only one, a Canon 17-85mm. It's my lowest-quality lens, but I thought the wide range would be useful. That turned out to be a good choice. I wind up taking most of my photos at maximum zoom. 

The next morning, John and I discuss our options and decide to hike out that day, one day sooner than we'd planned. John hasn't seen any bucks. I've already taken all the photographs I can find in the vicinity of our campsite. We pack up, and spend the morning hiking back to the trailhead.

As we hike out, I remember another passage in Audette's book: "The impulse for making art at any level must be dictated by your inner conviction only: what commands you, not what 'they' like." The word "art" always makes me suspicious. I choose to apply the observation more broadly to any creative endeavor, including photography and living. Something commands me to visit places like this one, and—if possible—to bring back photographs. The photographs matter far less than the journey. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, if your life is burning well, photographs are just the ash.

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Don, thanks for this introspective and intelligent post. Your thoughts are valuable and your photos possess a dignified and quiet beauty. Really superior work. I only hope that the "poseurs" sit up and take notice of the real deal here and maybe, perhaps, learn something.

Howard, thanks very much for the kind words.

Don