Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Remembering Havasupai and The Zen of it.

This last May I was preparing for a show at a local gallery, and chewing the fat with one of the employees there that I've know now for a few years. A really cool guy, with a lot of the same interest in the outdoors, backpacking, canoeing and hiking. We both had been to Havasupai in the Grand Canyon and were speaking of our adventures there. Then he mentioned that he had made 20 reservations for the end of the month and only 7 people confirmed to go. It had been about 8 years, and my images from the last time really didn't survive into our current digital era. All my digital gear and experience led up to this moment. I said "I'm ready." You may have read my earlier essay about my third experience in Havasupai, being a paradise lost: Grand Canyon's Havasupai- The Trouble with Paradise. This trip would be much the same, but this time I'd be determined to get into the Zen of it. The weather was looking nice with only a chance of rain. The temperatures were to be a bearable 93 degrees at the bottom, and the reservation was for a Wednesday, so parking at the hilltop the night before might be possible. Kristi would decide to stay home and tend to the dogs. It was shaping up to be a fine trip. I had finished packing the weekend before, and including the food, a 5th of tequila, 3 liters of water, a tent, sleeping bag, hammock, and my camera gear I weighed in at 60 pounds. Oh, no. That wouldn't work. I dumped out everything and started over. I shed everything but the bare essentials. Well not really. I still carried everything I listed above, but some how was able to get the pack down to 55 pounds. As a 5'9" 185 pound guy, I knew that would be my limit for a ten mile hike. Food for 5 days was unpacked and resealed in seal-a-meal portions, the tequila in a new camelpack style container. It must have been hubris, but I actually chose to backpack the trip as if I were going into the wilderness. Plus I had to hang with the 30 somethings I was hiking with. I came to find out that they were carrying packs in the range of 35-40 pounds, most of which was top ramen and liters of vodka and cranberry. They were a bit jealous of my tacos, backpacker eggs, and sloppy joes with mac and cheese, all dehydrated from the natural food store. The tequila mixed with lemon-lime Emergen-C was the pièce de résistance- a margarita style liquid libation. The camera gear consisted of my Pentax K5, two pancake lenses (15mm Ltd, 21 Ltd) a weather sealed 50-200mm compact zoom, and a very small 4 section carbon fiber tripod with a really small modified ball head from Promaster. Two batteries, a couple of filters and a small remote shutter release topped off at just over 8 pounds. Not exactly GoLite. I really couldn't have done this without the two hiking poles. I learned early on that backpacking without the poles was just plain masochistic. The atmosphere started out light at the hilltop parking lot. I got there a bit early, much before sundown. We were to rendezvous that evening, then hike down starting at 5 am to beat the heat, as they say. I brought some dinner and beer in a cooler, backed up to the edge of the canyon dropped my tailgate and truly enjoyed myself watching the sunset.

The Two Sisters

We got up a little late the next morning but shortly before sunrise we were bouncing happily down the trail making small talk and exchanging gossip. We stopped and rested at the usual shady narrow spot to munch on trail mix, just as the sun was making its way to the bottom of the canyon.   Arriving at the little village brought back memories that were surprisingly buried for some time. I had forgotten about the Two Sisters rock formations. Legend says that when the two rocks fall from their pillars, the Havasupai would have to leave the canyon (never mind the government). A new general store had just opened, complete with ice cream and soda coolers. The properties looked quite a bit better maintained, and some nice new buildings had been built next to the chapter house. It was about noon when we checked in at the tourist office, and hot. Now I live at 7000 feet and rarely am subjected to temperatures over 85. By the time I hiked the two miles in sand to the campground I was pretty burnt. My friends forged on to find a campsite, where I stopped at the creek to cool off. I wasn't concerned. I ditched my pack and found them about a half an hour later. I returned to where I had left my pack to find a squirrel trying to chew through to my trail mix. We were both agitated to see one another and exchanged expletives. Settling into camp, and me into my hammock we were to wait out the hottest part of the day. I let my friends know that I was there to experience the canyon and falls with my camera, and not be concerned if I disappeared. What they didn't know was I wanted time to be away. Away from the chatter, away from expectation. I was there to be close to the earth and be in the Zen of it.  Careful to stay away from the mine shafts (literally and figuratively), I began to re-familiarize myself with the canyon and the falls. I had not been here this early in the season before and was happy to find spring flowers blooming on the trees, and at the base of the Havasu falls. The flowers filled the canyon with a sweet smell that lifted my spirit. I was free to explore at my leisure all the nooks and crannies, light and angles that I might use for compositions.

Now this had been my fourth time visiting Havasupai, but my first time actually taking the time to get into the Zen of it. Previously, I always moving, hiking to the next destination, never stopping to turn over a stone or smell a flower. This time I was there to take the time to experience it on my terms. Sitting, noticing, smelling, feeling, hearing. This time I wasn't just a tourist snapping shots like a sub-machine gun. I would be thoughtful and contemplative. I would watch the light, and see how it made its way across the canyon walls. I would see the brilliant reflections off the blue-green water. I would watch the clouds move across the canyon diffusing the light in some areas, and brightly reflecting it in others. I would feel the little fishes nibbling on my toes, and hear the buzz of mosquitoes by my ear. I was there to hear the din of rushing water slamming into the large pools, drowning out the thoughts of society just a days away.  All that stuff will be there when I get back.  What I needed was to immerse into the surroundings. And, of course swim.  Jump into the large blue cool water. Feel the spray of the waterfalls. Feel the chill of the depths, and the warmth of the sun on by back. Feel the grit of sand between my toes.  Most of all I was there to remember.  A funny thing about memory. This had been my fourth time here, yet it felt almost like the first.  No not like the first time I had been here, but like it was my first time here. My memory seemed almost wiped clean from the first three visits.  Everything was familiar, yet new.  It was almost like seeing a photograph of an area, then visiting it afterword.  My previous memories were no more real than had I seen the picture, and remembered it once I got there.  An interesting thing about memory and photographs.  It is widely known that photography serves not only as art, but as a documentary form of remembering. Think back of when you were a child.  Do you remember the moment that was captured, or do you remember the photograph of you that was captured?  I can remember the photos taken of me as a child, but can scarcely remember the moment I was living when it was captured.  With all the visits here I had only a handful of photos, all taken with film.  My film archive was horribly taken care of, and of the ones I still had, most could barely make snapshot status.  My memories were just as poorly tended. I could remember the experiences, but not the feel, the light, the sound or the smell.  Was it my memory that was failing?  Or was it the inevitable result of our short term memory challenged 20 minute attention span that was at fault.  Perhaps it is a sign of maturity, or that desire for adventure.  In that quest for adventure, was remembering and feeling to be the casualty?  I can't tell you for sure, as it's different for everybody.

What I can say for sure is that art is rarely captured by a snapshot.  It's just not enough to simply be there, and have the photo to prove it. There has to be some thought and feeling and quiet contemplation, both for art and for remembering.  How can you possibly remember a beautiful waterfall if you simply shot it from a passing car window.  You have to get out of the car and feel the spray of water on your face and the mud between your toes.  If you don't you are not only short changing your photography you are short changing the memory and feel of a place.  How can you possibly create art, if there was no thought or feeling creating that art.  There in lies the magic of photography.  Does the printed image transmit the feeling of being there? Does it illicit an emotional response from the viewer?   If your image is to be successful, if your image is to be considered art, it will.  That's arts job. To transcend from the documentary to the emotional.   To make the jump from a quick snapshot to the exalted position of art you have to get into the Zen of it.  See it and most importantly feel it.  You'll not only remember it better, your art will be better.  The featured image here was taken about 5 in the morning, just before sunrise. I had scoped out these flowers the day before and knew I had to get a shot with them and the falls.  I crossed at the shallow spot on the major travertine below the main falls, circled around and came to a pool just below the flowers.  Problem was my tripod nor I was tall enough to be able to see the travertine over the plants. I began to experiment with different positions, and then discovered a green plastic milk crate. I assumed it was trash left over from the many floods that occur here.  I positioned the crate vertically, then gingerly set my tripod upon that. Using live view, I set the comp, and exposure and tripped the shutter with my wireless infra-red remote. I knew it would come in handy.

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