NOTE: I performed this essay during the Moab Folk Camp staff concert on Nov. 1, 2016. I teach an Open Air Art class each year. I had all four of these artworks displayed in front of me while I spoke.
IT'S ELITIST AND SNOBBY, but one of my favorite things is to be in a wild place with no (or very few) other humans. It’s especially exciting when this happens in a place that is otherwise usually congested or popular or proximate to chaotic activity. I feel like I’m getting away with something, and I feel like I can revert to a level of very basic, instinctual functioning. My basic functioning is a little fancy in that includes noticing and responding to certain moments that only come when it’s quiet, both in the landscape, and quiet in my mind. I get drawn, magnetically, to certain features, special desert vignettes, and it’s just wonderful to unquestioningly go to that moment, that thing, and sit with it and get to know it. It’s nice to stare at moving water without guilt. It feels helpful to listen to a canyon wren for as long as the bird is willing to sing.
My art comes from these experiences.
Post-factual No. 1 (Rill Creek) This spring, Gus the Wonder Dog and I left the house before the sun was up and walked up Main Street. We nervously navigated the plywood tunnel pedestrian thing that was up at the time while the latest gigantic new hotel was under construction. It rained softly but steadily, and the waterfalls were just starting to run as we turned the corner to walk up River Road. We took another right turn into Grandstaff Canyon and encountered the foamy front end of runoff from a side drainage. Water was slipping through and down all the weak spots. We walked this canyon up past the turnoff to Morning Glory Bridge a ways, exited the canyon, crossed over Sand Flats, and dropped into Rill Creek, where there is a beautiful slick rock canyon bottom with eroded potholes and seams and fluting. Which is what is depicted here. So - this scene mostly exists. It’s like 83% out there and 16% in here. The remaining 1% (that’s all the furious scribbling and chicken scratch scrawls) came from the contentious political bullshit we’ve all been immersed in.
From here, Gus and I joined up with Mill Creek, which we followed all the way back home.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife dropped off my son, Oscar (who is seven), Gus, and I off up at Sandflats for Oscar’s first real backtrip trip (real is defined here as: you have to carry your own pack, riding on dad’s shoulders is illegal, and you have to carry your own library). Oscar loves to read, which is great! But heavy! We dropped down into Rill Creek, and set up our tent near this spot. It was magical to be back there in that same place, but in a different context. I love my solo moments, but I love my family too. Relishing both is totally obtainable. This time, I sipped tea made from pothole water and watched my son jump with glee over the very features I had stared at and replicated with my hands and color. And he only sustained very minor injuries while doing so, which was a big bonus.
We woke up the next morning, lazed about in the low angle autumnal sunlight, then headed down canyon to meet up with my wife, who walked in from the bottom. Our little family spent that night up on a ledge, the creek barely audible, and attempted to explain satellites to Oscar in a way he would believe.
These next two are called White Rim No. 1 and 2. Oscar and I floated Stillwater Canyon of the Green River in Canyonlands National Park this year during peak runoff. We took one inflatable kayak, one dry bag with clothing and the tent, a quite large dry bag full of books, and a smaller dry bag of Legos. We also brought along sketchbooks and watercolor sets. The living was easy on this trip. We’d go to bed late (after reading), wake up late, eat quite a bit, wander around and sketch, launch the kayak and paddle roughly ten strokes an hour (there was plenty of current to get us where we needed to go), read and nap on the boat, and nestle in somewhere downstream to do it all again.
I was excited to reach a particular point of the journey, which is where the White Rim Sandstone first emerges from the river. I started taking photos while we were floating, which wasn’t totally working because the boat kept spinning around or Oscar wanted Kool-Aid. So we stopped and parked our boat on a White Rim ledge and had lunch. I scrambled around and took photos while Oscar made highly concentrated batches of Kool Aid. We eventually launched again, me focusing on more photos and hoping I got good stuff because there was no way to go back upstream, and..Oscar slipped out of the boat and started freaking out a little. I reminded him the first step with all this outdoor adventure stuff was to NOT PANIC. He laughed and started patting his head in response to me patting my head, as he steadily drifted away from the kayak. We laughed a lot, I ended up getting great source material for several paintings, and on we drifted on our father/son journey.
The last one is called Seep No. 9 (Tiger Wall). I had the pleasure of finally floating the Yampa River this summer. I say finally because it’s a very tricky permit to get, especially during the relatively short peak season. I had wanted to do it for years, and had come close but no cigar on enough occasions to start believing it wasn’t going to happen. So my friends and I decided to try a very low water run of the Yampa in small boats. It worked wonderfully. One thing in particular that happened, to loop back to my initial statement, is that we had the huge glorious canyon to ourselves — it was too low for most folks.
When on river trips, I love walking around in the evening. On our third night, I started walking at the river level, and ran into a wall. Couldn’t keep going. So I turned back and went up on a higher ledge above camp and tried that. It worked and led me to one of the more glorious scenes that I’ve seen and experienced. The walls were glowing, the river was rippling, and I stumbled upon ancient pictographs and a complete, intact elk skeleton. I walked to the point where the fabled Tiger Wall was just around the corner, which filled me with giddy anticipation for the next day’s float.
The Tiger Wall is a huge, overhanging wall with vibrant, dramatic streaks of desert varnish. It’s one of the most photographed features of the trip. I was excited to finally see it, but I was just downright tickled when I noticed that below the streaks, at the bottom of the huge wall, were fantastic seeps. Seeps are where fresh water is leaching out of the porous sandstone, dripping out at a very slow rate. The moisture creates amazing patterns. So that’s what you have here — one of the seep scenes from the Tiger Wall.
My adventures fuel my art, and my art requires adventure. And my family is interested in coming along for most of the journeys. It all leads to a quiet, contented life that I consider myself lucky to be leading.