After twelve nights of sleeping on the ground, a new day began with the pale light of dawn. The nearly full moon was falling towards the western horizon, sinking quietly in slow motion. It reached a cliff, began to roll down a steep, broken ridge. Movement was slow, I might be the only one noticing.
During our three-week river trip the moon would shine down on us during part of every night. The canyon always surrounded us, its rough-hewn cliffs overlooking each camp. Moonlight brightened the deep canyon walls, illuminating the ancient stone into a shades of blue, black, and grey. Every night the moon glow felt like a special gift: extra hours to take in the scenery and be absorbed by this place of wonder.
Chance, a young man with 27-years on this planet, passed along by my camp that morning, and hesitated. He is the oldest son of Bronze, a long-time friend. The soul of a gypsy musician and mystic, Chance points to the moon. He, too, had noticed the moon rolling down the steep ridge. Kindred spirits, life proves it once again.
As days passed, bright la luna began to rise later and later in the evening. In the first pitch of darkness I would look up to the stars, my gaze drifting, often to the star cluster of Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. But why this place in the sky? No real reason that I could find. Just maybe, those gals were sending an alluring siren song across the vast distance of the Universe.
A prominent constellation, usually Orion the hunter, would next stop my gaze. Then the zig-zag outline of Cassiopeia. Always the unmistakable Big Dipper, part of Ursa Major, the bear constellation. Individual bright stars mixed into constellations. That old North Star feels like a true anchor in these turbulent times. Polaris and Arcturus spark bright near the Dipper, and Jupiter, the king of the planets, was rising in the southeast sky.
We were spending the night at Big Dune Camp. Look on a map at the western end of the park, and you’ll see the Colorado River has a hiccup. And if that hiccup was a coffee mug, we would be camped on the lip of the mug, up top on the left side. An isolated butte crowned Explorer’s Monument juts into the river forcing the U-shaped detour. The straight side of the U is called Stephen Aisle, English version of Estévan, meant to honor the black companion of the Conquistadors. Big Dune Camp, Stephen Aisle, above sit Jupiter, Orion, and twinkling Pleiades.
Dinner that night was baked salmon and pasta, some of the crew lingered in the kitchen, others migrated slowly around the fire. Each evening in the twilight, Chance usually built a fire, his ritual in our mosaic of river trip experiences. After night settled in, he played guitar, sometimes for hours.
His easy poetic cadence gave life to hand-chosen songs, music from many decades, his favorites, ones we knew. He was making them his own. He easily turned them into river songs. Chance covers the dreamy lyrics of many musicians… from the Beatles to Neil Young.
One night I couldn’t place the song. His guitar intro was familiar yet vague. He continued to play, and then began softly singing: “…people say I’m lazy, dreaming my life away, …well they give me all kinds of advice, designed to enlighten me.” And, “I tell them that I’m doing fine, watching shadows on the wall…” Lennon channeled by Chance, the lyrics meaningful again, another river song.
That afternoon I had wandered downriver of camp, and found goblins and gargoyles in the overhanging cliff edges. Otherworldly, whitish-gray rock up against a solid blue sky. Dramatic to the eye, but difficult to photograph. That empty sky would dominate the scene.
In the dark of night that void of empty sky was now filled with stars and more stars, and that blazing spark of Jupiter. If you combined all the planets and moons of our solar system, all except Jupiter, they would add up to only half the total mass of Jupiter. Its huge, but light years away.
The night scene was ideal for time-exposure photography using a headlamp to light paint the gnarled cliffs. The self-timer was set for a 10-second delay, then I ran under the cliffs and began painting with the light beam. Trial and error, time after time, until the process became a work of art.
This out-of-the-way location was pitch black, except when I turned on the headlamp for the time-exposures. Easy to trip and fall. I practiced the Gait of Power, a sensory awareness taught by Don Juan, the Yaqui shaman of Carlos Castenada fame. When we want to be completely aware, seeing is not everything, we have instincts that science hasn’t explained, yet, that native people still trust. An artist needs to listen to their instincts.
After completing this photo, I packed up my gear, and slowly drifted toward camp. I felt a sense of overwhelming solitude, in this separation from my group. Yet, perhaps this deep aloneness is where Mother Nature reveals some of her deepest secrets. My mind played back vivid memories. Dancing light in total darkness. Mysterious shapes and shadows among cliff edges. This ancient remnant of Tapeats Sandstone had come alive. The connection of our planet to the universe felt more real. Stories of ancient oceans were stored inside this sandstone. Almost tangible in a way. Then, as I look up, the enormous Grand Canyon becomes dwarfed by the vastness of space.
Being able to witness the void is half the attraction of being in this place. Seldom can the human mind comprehend the true nature of vastness. But here the walls of the canyon frame the concept of vastness, and direct our attention into the Great Unknown. My role in this story is so microscopic, yet it is my eyes and experiences, that along with all other humans helps the Universe witness itself. We see, therefore it sees itself. Life unfolding, growing then dying, returning again and again.
In the distance the outline shapes of my fellow travelers are gathered around the fire, music playing. Chance was singing a Beatles lullaby, drawing me home from the darkness.
“…Dear Prudence, open up your eyes,
Dear Prudence, see the sunny skies,
The wind is low, the birds will sing,
That you are part of everything,
Dear Prudence, won’t you open up your eyes?…”
Fire light flickering, and the sound of one guitar became the center of the Universe. I say good night, then meander off to lay down on my sleeping bag. Before closing my eyes to go to sleep, I look up, and outward from deep inside the Grand Canyon into the great distant void. There in that silent moment I was visited by an unmistakable awareness of everything being connected. So easy to forget, until we are truly quiet, and look into the stars.