Family Trek

Sandstone Togetherness

The Defiance Plateau of northeastern Arizona declines gradually from its origin, the Chuska Mountains of New Mexico.  Route 191 runs where the Defiance Plateau merges with a valley of the larger Colorado Plateau.  The Black Mesa escarpment forms the western valley wall and is clearly visible from Canyon de Chelly visitor center.  

Carved into the Defiance Plateau, the high cliff canyon walls of Canyon de Chelly at intervals belly out into wide alcoves.  For thousands of years, the land between the walls was farmed.  Here is a photograph from our 2008 canyon visit, visible are fields, farm equipment, shed and sport utility vehicle (SUV).  Look closer for the hogan, adjacent to the shed, and, on the lowest sandstone shelf on the left, white goats.

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Here is a quote from the reference link provided at the end of my post:

“The massive, high cliffs that form the walls of the canyon are De Chelly Sandstone. The De Chelly Sandstone consists of sand deposited in dunes in a subtropical to arid environment in Early Triassic time (about 250 to 230 million years ago).”

In this photograph the goats jumped off the shelf to graze, around them are the two forms of De Chelly Sandstone.  230 million years ago winds driving across the dry lands, piling the eroded bits of ancestral rocky mountains into dunes hundreds of feet high.  The in-stratified rock cliffs are the body of those dunes, converted to stone over the eons.  The cliffs are visible in both photographs.  The dark stains are called desert varnish.  Read more about desert varnish in the first posting of this series, “Portrait of a Navajo Guide.”  The rock in the foreground appear formed from an orderly pile of stone plates, this appearance is called stratification.  Another name for it is Cross Bedded Sandstone, formed from wind blowing across the dunes.

That entire, northeastern, side of the alcove is Cross-bedded sandstone.  Click on any one of the following photographs for a larger version, to peruse the detail.

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A fascinating detail in these photographs, the subject of this post, are human figures rendered tiny by the distance and the enormous maze of sandstone.

It is four generations of a Navajo family, fathers, mothers, children of all ages down to infants in carriers.  My wife Pam, myself and our Navajo guide watched in wonder as they made their way down to the canyon floor.

Their progress was slow and careful.  Everyone kept together.  Nobody left behind.

Here they inch along a high ledge.

Descend from one ledge to the next.


Most amazing of all, the first person down is an elderly woman wearing sports shoes, steadied with umbrella, accompanied by a pre-teen girl.  Her progress steady and sure from years of experience.

Our guide knew the family.  He and they chatted in the Dine language.  The were travelling for a birthday party.

Reference Link for the quote

Copyright 2017 Michael Stephen Wills Photography

Portrait of a Navajo Guide

a window in time

On November 3, 2004 my son, Sean, and I made our way to Chinle, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly.

The next day, driving a rented 4 wheel drive, we arrived at the visitor center, at dawn, and there met Peter Tsosie who worked as a guide. This is how you do it, if learning about the Canyon is your goal. It is possible to walk, unaccompanied, into the canyon to view the “White House” and this I highly recommend. Tourists can also drive around the rim to various overlooks. This is what most people do.

The canyon is still farmed and the tribe only allows visitors when accompanied by a guide. Only Navajos are certified as guides. They know the rights of way and the preferences of the landowners.

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We negotiated with Peter to take us for half a day for our interest in petroglyphs and ruins. It is important to start early when the sun is low in the sky, when directly overhead the details of ruins and petroglyphs are washed out by the light. Catching the late afternoon/evening sun is also an approach that requires detailed knowledge of the route, taking into account the time of year.

Peter was an excellent choice, though he was our only option on that day. He was fluent in Navajo beliefs, the lore of the canyon and generous in sharing what he knew.

Here is Peter, approximately 6.2 miles into the canyon with the “Ledge Ruin” behind. We arrived at the junction just in time, before the sun was high enough to wash out the ruin. It is slow going into the canyon what with the deep sand and water that must be negotiated. Peter did the driving and was expert. We passed other parties bogged down in the wet sand. I do not believe it was luck that kept us moving . We stopped many times to talk and admire the petroglyphs and pictographs.

Petroglyphs are symbols incised, or cut, into the surface (the name means petro, “rock”, glyph, “symbol”). In the desert climate of the southwestern USA a thin, dark pigment forms on rock surfaces of overhanging cliffs. The pigment forms from infrequent precipitation, in the form of water, flowing downward over the surface or even dew. The high heat of the desert drives a chemical reaction between water, clays, iron and manganese oxide to form a coating on the rock surface. The dark coating, called “desert varnish”, contrasts with the underlying rock. When it is scraped away a line forms. Many of the petroglyphs were of this form. Others were carved into the rock itself, more time consuming and durable. No one knows when the petroglyphs were made, they were always there are respected. People have inhabited Canyon de Chelly for over a thousand years.
The word pictograph has a different meaning when used to describe prehistoric art. The earliest writing were symbols incised in wet clay, then allowed to harden. The pictographs we viewed was prehistoric art, mostly white pigment on the red rock, outlines of hands. There were also kokopelli, the outline of a flute player and jagged lines, symbolizing, Peter told us, lightening.

In November the cottonwoods were in fall foliage, a brilliant yellow under a cloudless sky. The sun is lower in the south and rises later. The Navajo Reservation follows daylight savings time, unlike Arizona. This November morning the sun rose around 7:45 am, so if you are not an early riser this time of year is an excellent choice for a Canyon de Chelly tour.

Click for the next posting in this series, “Junction Ruin Musings”

Copyright 2020 Michael Stephen Wills Photography

White House Ruin

iconic image

November 2003 my son, Sean, and I drove up route 191 from the Petrified Forest National Part to arrived at Chinle on a November afternoon. In 2003 my photography kit included a Sony Point and Shoot 5 MP camera with filters, an over the shoulder (purse type) bag and an inexpensive “Kmart” tripod.

We found the White House trailhead, hiked down essentially alone as the sun set at 5:20 pm.  At that time, a thick stand of Russian Olive trees choked the wash.  We stopped at this point in the gathering dark.  I took this distant shot of the White House Ruin against the Russian Olive autumn foliage.  A stand of Cottonwoods growing near the canyon wall had yet to turn their brilliant yellow.  At that time, the White House Ruin was painted white.

When Pam and I visited July 2008, in the intervening 4 years, 9 months the Russian Olives were removed as an invasive species, the ruin was no longer white.

There is one highway headed south in the Four Corners region of Northern Arizona, the same route 191 Sean and I took.  In 2008 Pam and I came from Colorado south on 191, also arriving late afternoon.

That July day the sun set 8:33 pm as the Navajo Reservation observes daylight savings time. My goal was to photograph the White House Ruin I missed in 2003. We arrived at the trail head. My photography kit was expanded from 2003, now included a Kodak DSC Pro slr/C, the “C” meaning “Canon” lens mounting, a Sony 700 alpha slr (I only use a variable lens), Manfrotto tripod with hydrostatic ball head, and the backpack style Lowe camera case. With the tripod it is over 25 pounds.

With this on my back I was prepared to boogie down the trail. At the height of tourist season there were many more people at the trailhead. Pam, being a friendly person, started a conversation while I ploughed ahead along the flat canyon rim. It is solid red sandstone, beautiful, generally level with enough unevenness to require attention. When Pam saw how far ahead I was she tried to catch up, tripped, fell hard.

I backtracked to Pam and we pulled it together. She thought, maybe, the fall broke a rib. We descended, slowly, together. Here we are in front of the ruin. The sun, low in the sky, is moving below the south canyon wall. This is a perfect time and I used both cameras.

The sweep of cliff and desert varnish was my intent to capture. Here it is through the Canon 50 mm lens.

Click link for this White House photograph in my Online gallery.

I captured this version with the Sony Alpha 700 slr, the variable lens set to widest angle.

Click link for this White House photograph from my online gallery.

Here the camera setup waits out the sun…..

Copyright 2020 Michael Stephen Wills Photography

Sycamores and Riparian Space

a Preview of Reavis Ranch

….continued from the chapter “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek.”

Compare these Arizona Sycamores with the struggling specimen from the last chapter, “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek.” Many Sycamores such as this one flourish along Reavis Creek, a perennial stream of the eastern Superstition Wilderness. The drainage that feeds Pine Creek is far less acreage than that of Reavis Creek and, when the Pine Creek flow fades in the driest seasons, plants go into survival mode and halt growth and may even slough off limbs to conserve water.

These Sycamores grace a stream that seldom stops flowing, even in the driest of seasons. I had the good fortune to visit the Reavis valley of the Superstition Wilderness in November 2007, when these trees were at peak autumn foliage.

The tree requires a supply of water to thrive. This specimen demonstrates the species growth habit growing multiple trunks with a shape driven by water availability and the environmental context. The multiple trunks may be a desert survival mechanism. In dry periods a trunk or trunks are sloughed off to reduce moisture loss. This is why the Sycamore of “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek” has a single trunk.”

To encounter a riparian space of the Arizona desert is a revelation, to progress from Sonoran desert spaces assailed by the breath of dry wind, to see the first signs of water in the distance as a welcome fluttering of leaves, to feel a welcome odor of water.

Yes, the first effect of a riparian space on the senses is the smell of water. Let’s finish this post with limbs of the Reavis Creek Arizona Sycamore reaching for the sky.

Click me to visit Michael Stephen Wills Online Arizona Gallery.
Click me for the next post in this series, “Desert Luxuries.”
Clck me for the first post in this series, “Racing the Sun.”

Copyright 2019 All Rights Reserved Michael Stephen Wills

Hayrolls

Making Hay

Dry grass gathered for winter feed on Durfee Hill.

Click image for a larger version.

Copyright 2020 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

more Jennings Pond IV

Still life and stillness

I described Jennings Pond to Pam and we returned together. Here is a photographic essay from that day, one of a series.

The first image is the small concrete dam, taken from the footbridge over the pond outlet, source for Buttermilk Creek.

Copyright 2020 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

more Jennings Pond III

Picnics on the berm

I described Jennings Pond to Pam and we returned together. Here is a photographic essay from that day, one of a series.

Copyright 2020 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

more Jennings Pond II

A gathering autumn glory

I described Jennings Pond to Pam and we returned together. Here is a photographic essay from that day, one of a series.

Copyright 2020 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

more Jennings Pond I

No Swimming!?

“Jennings Pond,” is a song, celebrating swimming.

Here is a photographic essay on the subject of swimming at Jennings Pond this October afternoon.

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