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Ah Shi Sle Pah West

I have photographed and written about Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash extensively. The place is a unique environment and the relatively small area of interest is still revealing new secrets to me. But, as I stood on the edge of the wash recently, I looked to the horizons and wondered what else might be hiding in that seemingly featureless landscape. The thought stayed with me, so one morning I opened Google maps and began searching for telltale signs of eroded areas along the edges of the wash. As I moved west, I eventually came across a region that looked promising. I then began looking for means of access and found a road that ended right at the edge of the area on the map. A quick look at Garmin Base Camp identified GPS coordinates and I was on the road.

Timestone

A lone sandstone boulder rests before a hoodoo forest in a remote section of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash

Exploring at home on a computer is quite a bit different from driving out into a remote place where you have never been. The dirt two track off the main dirt road seemed endless–even though it was actually only a little over two miles from start to finish. At one point I drove into a section where the road became extremely sandy, and I had to backtrack or risk getting stuck. I eventually found my way to the end of the road and parked. on one side was the broad expanse of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash, on the other was a wall of incipient hoodoos emerging from a black hillside. It looked like my hunch had paid off.

Prolonged-Awakening

A petrified log emerges from a bentonite mound in a remote section of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash

The more I saw, the more excited I became. Unlike the well-known part of Ah Shi Sle Pah where the features are exposed in an unbroken display several miles long, this small extension seemed to be more recently unearthed in smaller, more intimate areas scattered along both edges of the wash.

Lost-But-Not-Forgotten

A colorful area of newly emerging hoodoos and clinker covered hills in the distance

I could see more places to the west that looked promising, but by that time, it was getting too late in the day. I wandered and photographed in the immediate area for a couple of hours before deciding to call it a day.

A couple days later, I was on my way to Ah Shi Sle Pah again to further investigate the terrain I hadn’t had a chance to cover on my previous foray. I had identified a place to park that would put me within a mile of the region I wanted to explore. The route took me over a sage covered plain and then dropped into a small tributary wash where I found some hoodoos and petrified wood.

Detritus

Small pieces of petrified wood are exposed in the many small tributaries of the main wash

I made a beeline for my ultimate goal, which required several short climbs out of the wash, onto the sage, and back into the wash. I finally arrived at the main wash and began climbing around in the rocks on the northern edge. It was slow going because I had to choose my route carefully due to sudden drop-offs, sink holes, and the possibility of buzz worms (rattlesnakes).

In-Search-Of-Balance

A view from the northern edge of the wash out across the surrounding terrain

At one point, I looked back to the main wash and across the way I had come and made a photo. But I was drawn by some force to continue to see what lay beyond the next ridge, the next cluster of hoodoos. I came to a crest and dropped into the next tributary. Things were really starting to get (more) interesting. There was an image everywhere I looked.

Textures-Of-Time

A jumbled and shattered landscape at the far western extreme of the Ah Shi Sle Pah badlands

The landscape was tortured and shattered. Forces of erosion and weather had sculpted an unimaginable (even for that area) jumble of hoodoos, spires, and tables. One small hoodoo bore an uncanny resemblance to a brain on an over-developed spinal cord.

Brainstone

The strangely eroded sandstone forms at the western edge of the Ah Shi Sle Pah badlands

So, there I was thinking it couldn’t possibly get any better, when I caught sight of what is possibly the most bizarre, unearthly formation I had ever seen. It was a hoodoo, but the support column was perforated in places, and the part that remained around the perforations was shaped like some sort of geological accordion. But, my brain stamped it as an exposed part of some mesozoic nervous system.

An-Unexpected-Encounter

Perhaps the single most bizarre formation I have ever encountered in the San Juan Basin badlands

I spent close to two hours working the thing from all possible perspectives. I was lucky to have an incomparable atmospheric display with light that was constantly changing.

Synapse-Sepia

A sepia toned monochrome image of the singular hoodoo in the western section of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash

The fluctuating illumination on the scene resulted in mood swings worthy of the subject. In the end, I walked away with close to two hundred images and plans to return at some time in the near future. The fragility of the structure is such that I imagine it could crumble and fall at any time.

Neurality

A more detailed image of the hoodoo I have come to think of as Neural Pathways

But, I have witnessed other such oddities in the vastness of the San Juan Basin that have defied the vagaries of time and weather against all odds for decades, centuries, millennia, so perhaps this wonderful piece of nature’s art will endure for a while.

Ah Shi Sle Pah, A New Perspective

The one half mile long dirt road that leads from New Mexico Hwy 57 (actually, also a dirt road) cuts through the sage brush prairie with only the slightest sign that there could be anything of interest ahead. The road comes to an abrupt end in a small turn around and a suggestion of a drop beyond the slight rise at the edge of the featureless plain. But, a short walk to the edge of that rise will change any pre-conceived ideas about Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. The land falls away quickly into a jumble of strange shapes that defy the imagination. Usually, when I make this trip, I walk down into the midst of it all, but on this trip, it was my intention to capture the landscape along this southern edge of the wash, to use the incredible shapes and textures to make more broad landscapes to tell the story of how this place was formed, and how it continues to evolve.

From-Now-To-Then

A view through layers of geologic time to Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash in the distance

It is here, at the edge, where most of the action is. Hoodoos, their caprocks sitting at jaunty angles, are scattered about in clusters, looking for all the world like groups of alien beings assembled for a social gathering. Petrified logs, looking much the same as they did when the tree fell millions of years ago, emerge from hillsides waiting to surprise and delight visitors. All of these features make great elements for a photographer. That’s one reason why these badlands are destinations for landscape photographers from all over the world.

The-Yellow-Badlands

Another detailed look at the Yellow Badlands. The flat area at the top is a sage covered plain.

Something else that stands out here on the edge of the declivity is the color. The soft clay/ash matrix which holds it all together, is a yellowish brown that differs from the whiter color found deeper into the wash, this yellow coloration indicates the presence of iron oxides in the soil. In places, the hue can be more saturated and stand out from the rest, thereby becoming a magnet for the eye, as the hoodoo column in the photo below does.

The-Yellow-One

One of the many yellow hoodoos along the southern edge of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash

Standing just about anywhere along this southern rim will give you a good idea of the underlying structure of the area. You can literally see the geologic history of the earth at that place. The deeper into the wash you look, the older the formations are. There’s a lot to see, which means it’s easy to overwhelm your viewers with too much information. When composing an image, it’s important to use design elements like color and light to draw the eye to the main points of interest in the scene.

The-Yellow-Lair

Looking west across the yellow badlands. This image reveals the complexity of these eroded wonderlands.

Of course, the way the light lies on the scene, will play a large part in determining the feeling an image will convey. As the sun neared the horizon to the west, it broke through the overcast in places in a series of rays that shone on the vista and, in turn, caused a dappled light which spotlighted parts of the scene, creating a natural vignette, and reducing the general saturation of the colors. The forms and creases were emphasized by the angled light as well. On the downside, shooting into the general direction of the sun requires that you be vigilant for lens flare (unless it’s intentional), and the dynamic range for such a scene can easily overwhelm your camera’s capabilities. I made five exposures of this image in case I needed to blend them in post processing, but I was actually able to complete the final version using only one exposure.

As I was walking back to the car I was in high spirits because I could feel it, you know, that excitement you get when you know you’ve made some good images and can’t wait to get them uploaded and bring them to fruition. Another lesson learned, or I should say re-learned: change your perspective and do things differently; widen your view and look for the possibilities.

The Other Badlands

I spend a lot of time in the desert, more specifically, in the badlands of the San Juan Basin. And, of the nine recognized badlands located there, I usually find myself wandering in either the Bisti Wilderness, or Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. But, I want to step out of the box here and give a nod to the rest: the Ojito Wilderness, Mesa de Cuba, San Jose, Lybrook, Mesa Penistaja, Ceja Pelon, and De Na Zin.

The-Junkyard

Sedimentary rocks strewn haphazardly across bentonite mounds  just inside the boundary of the Ojito Wilderness

What exactly is a badland? Merriam-Webster defines it as: a region marked by intricate erosional sculpturing, scanty vegetation, and fantastically formed hills–usually used in plural. The pre-requisites for a badlands to form are a grouping of harder sedimentary deposits: sandstone, siltstone etc. suspended in a softer matrix. As the softer material is eroded away, the harder, more dense material is left exposed, often perched on pedestals of the soft matrix.

Textural-Fluency

Multi-colored bands and interesting textures abound in this small section of the San Jose Badlands.

But, at times the harder deposits may just be scattered haphazardly across a playa or alluvial plain or they may be isolated and in unexpected angles of repose. The seemingly inexplicable arrangement of the features is part of the mystique of the badlands. How did they get here and why? The answer to that question could fill a Geology text, and I am not even remotely qualified to go there. I can say, with some authority however, that the photographic possibilities are as close to infinite that you can get.

As you can imagine, the creation of such an environment takes time…a lot of time. Mesa de Cuba, the youngest is 38-54 million years old. San Jose is 48-64 million years old, Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, and Penistaja are all 60-64 million years old, De Na Zin, along with Bisti and Ah Shi Sle Pah, is 70-75 million years old, and Ojito is the oldest at 144-150 million years old. Each of the aforementioned locations have their own personality, and each of them offer there own version of timeless beauty.

Juniper-Bones

An ancient juniper trunk in the Colored Bluffs section of the Ojito Wilderness

Color is an element that often takes center stage in the badlands. Depending on the mineral content of the soil, there may be layers of red, yellow, blue, or even green. Combine this palette with the other strange and, often, unexpected elements of the landscape and the other-worldly, remote locations become even more surreal.

Cracked-And-Broken

A closer look at sedimentary rock on bentonite in the Ojito Wilderness.

Possibly the most noticeable feature of such environments are the many erosion channels and drying cracks that cut into the soft bentonite, and mudstone that form the matrices that support the entire system. When the light is right, they stand out in stark relief revealing an almost unimaginable complexity.

The-Path-Less-Traveled

A small wash in a remote section of the Lynbrook Badlands

As I already pointed out, most of these locations are much smaller than their more famous big brothers: Bisti, and Ah Shi Sle Pah. But, what they lack in size, they make up for in their diversity and surreal beauty. When you add to that the knowledge that these environments have been so many eons in the making (that petrified log emerging from the side of that bentonite mound was a cypress tree in a Mesozoic swamp), and are ever evolving (those sandstone slabs you just walked over will be the caprocks of hoodoos in some distant, future landscape), exploring and photographing them becomes even more significant and mysterious.

Where-The-Wild-Things-Grow

A winter storm passes through the Mesa de Cuba Badlands

Just as you can never step into the same river twice; because of their fragile, and ever-changing nature, you can never visit the same badlands twice.

Outdoor Photographer Interview

I was recently interviewed by Outdoor Photographer magazine about Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge as a Photography destination. It is my first time being published in a major publication, so I’m pretty psyched about it. To read the interview click this link.

Final-Approach

A Sandhill Crane lands at one of the many ponds at Bosque del Apache NWR.

Many of you probably know that I make a trip (pilgrimage is more like it) every year in November or December to photograph the cranes, herons, and other waterfowl that inhabit the refuge during the winter months.

Quintessential-Heron

A Great Blue Heron catches his breakfast in one of the many diversion channels at Bosque del Apache NWR.

Most of you have probably seen these images before too. But, I thought I would re-post some of my favorites that weren’t included in the article.

Mass-Ascension

Sandhill Cranes taking wing from one of the crane ponds at Bosque del Apache NWR.

For those of you who would like to visit Bosque del Apache, it is located about twenty miles south of Socorro, New Mexico on state road 1. And, once again, if you would like to read the interview, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

Springtime In Arizona

I have been planning a trip to southern Arizona to capture the spring wildflowers in bloom for several years. Something else always seemed to take priority. This year I finally just packed the car and started driving. I went first to Tucson where I lived for a short time in the late 70s. I was looking forward to seeing the place again.

Brittlebrush-And-Cholla

Brittlebush in bloom and Teddy Bear Chollas on the shore of Lake Pleasant near Phoenix, Arizona

The town has changed a great deal in the ensuing years. The places I could recognize were lost in a miasma of new construction, freeway signs, and traffic that bore little resemblance the place I remembered. I fled to the desert, which was really the point of the trip after all. Getting out of town took way longer than it should have, but I finally made it to Saguaro National Park where I spent the remainder of my first day lost in the healing process of making images.

Cholla-Sunset

Teddy Bear Chollas at twilight near Tucson, Arizona

I spent ten hours driving, walking, and making photographs. I wasn’t as excited as I should have been. The clear blue Arizona sky was boring, as was the light, especially at mid-day. As the sun moved lower in the sky, I noticed some clouds building on the western horizon; they were infused with a magnificent orange glow. I pulled over at a likely spot, parked the car and wandered into the desert. I had a specific image in mind and, as I walked through the cactus forest, I found what I was looking for. Teddy Bear Chollas have a kind of ephemeral quality about them, especially when they are backlit. The light shining through the clustered spines creates a halo of luminescence around them. Their soft, fuzzy appearance belies the reality, Those spines are barbed, and if you are unlucky enough to come too close, the result can be quite painful.

The-Bloomin'-Desert

Brittlebush in Bloom and Saguaros near Oracle, Arizona

After a day shooting in Saguaro National Park, followed by another long drive back into Tucson (long due to traffic, not distance), I decided to head north towards Phoenix in hopes of finding more wildflowers. It was not a lack of quantity, or quality that fueled my decision; there was plenty of brittlebush blooming in the Tucson area, but I was really hoping to find some Mexican Poppies.

Superstition-Sunset

Teddy Bear Chollas at sunset at the Lost Dutchman in the Superstition Mountains

I took the back roads through Oracle, Arizona–one of my favorite writers, Ed Abbey, spent some time there in his later years. On the way I spent part of the day visiting Biosphere 2, before continuing on my way in search of photographs. I eventually arrived at Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction a couple of hours before sunset. Once again, I found myself wandering through stands of cholla and Saguaros waiting for the sun to fall below the horizon. Besides the thrill of the pursuit of images, the experience of solitude in a remarkable landscape is one of the most rewarding aspects of a trip like this.

Standin'-On-A-Corner-In-Winslow,-Arizona

On the way home I stopped in Winslow, Arizona to pose with Jackson Browne. “Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona…”

I never did find the poppies, but all in all, it was a worthwhile trip. I managed to make some nice photographs, and to visit some old friends who live in Phoenix. On the way home, I stopped at a corner in Winslow made famous in song. The statue and “park” are the most noteworthy things I saw in the town, although friends have informed me that there is a good restaurant in one of the old hotels. Maybe I’ll check it out when I return in search of the poppies next year.

 

Winter On The Burn

We have had two major wildfires here in the Jemez Mountains over the last four years. Each destroyed well over 100,000 acres leaving large tracts of forest scarred with the burned skeletons of once majestic conifer trees. After a while, you get used to the desolation. It can even have its own kind of harsh beauty.

Winter-On-The-Burn

The East Fork of the Jemez River flows through Las Conchas where the 2011 Las Conchas wildfire started.

Winter can be especially beautiful in a burn. The tonal contrast between the white snow and the black, charred trees is striking. The textural contrast between the trees on a burned ridge and a lowering storm cloud provide strong elements and tell a story of loss reconciled by time and weather. We can use such conditions to make more compelling images.

Icing

Mixed conifers which were burned in the Las Conchas wildfire in 2011 coated in a layer of hoarfrost

When conditions are right, the bones of the dead trees become coated with hoarfrost and are transformed into fragile, crystalline structures. You can almost hear the tinkling of their branches as they sag under the weight of the frost.

Treesicles-2

Conifer skeletons left over from the 2011 Las Conchas wildfire dressed in a fragile coating of hoarfrost

When the sun breaks through a low-hanging bank of clouds, the light is transformed; it becomes, in a way, magical. The shadows and the mist of the clouds create a kind of frame that surround and isolate the area which is lit, making it the focal point of the composition.

Valle-Grande-Winter-Light

Cerro La Jara in the Valle Grande is illuminated by the sun through a break in the low hanging clouds that cover Redondo Peak which burned in the 2013 Thompson Ridge wildfire.

Otherwise unremarkable elements of the landscape become worthy of attention when they are enhanced by a coat of frost.

The-Big-Chill

Mixed conifers that survived the Cerro Grande wildfire in 2000 stand covered in a thick coat of hoarfrost

They come front and center when the rest of the scene is obscured by cloud cover. Such conditions reduce the clutter that would, under normal conditions, draw our attention away from them.

Treecsicles

Mixed conifer trees that survived the Cerro Grande wildfire in 2000, their needles covered in a thick coating of hoarfrost

The last two images are successful only because of the low clouds which block the view of a conifer covered hillside. If we could see the entire scene, the trees in the foreground would become lost in the background of similar shapes and patterns. By using the softness and the simplicity of winter conditions, we can imbue otherwise unattractive or unworkable scenes with qualities that make them stand out, and render them more recognizable and appealing to the eye of a viewer.

 

 

 

 

 

The Badlands Of The San Juan Basin

The San Juan Basin is a large, roughly circular, depression that lies in the northwest corner of New Mexico, and is a part of the larger Colorado Plateau. What makes the basin special is the fact that, at one time, it was in an area that was covered by the Western Interior Seaway, a prehistoric body of saltwater that split the North American continent from top to bottom.

75ma

The Western Interior Seaway

The location along the shores of a large body of water in a tropical climate allowed an incredibly diverse ecosystem to thrive. As these life forms died, they decomposed and were eventually covered by volcanic ash from the eruption of nearby volcanoes. As the seawater covered the area more sedimentation sifted over the remains and some of the sediment was infused with mineral rich water that seeped through the layers above making it harder than the surrounding matrix. This was an important step in the formation of the present-day hoodoos. The weight of the water compacted the entire assemblage, and it was lost to the the world above the waves.

About 65 million years ago, the waters receded and a layer of sediment nearly two miles thick was left behind. Since then, plate tectonics, volcanism, and glacial erosion have helped to shape the present-day San Juan Basin. Further erosion from wind, water, and annual freeze/thaw cycles exposed the hardened sediment layers which eroded more slowly than the softer sand/ash matrix. The result is a wonderland of hoodoo gardens that are especially obvious along the edges of the many washes that criss-cross the basin. Some of these drainages such as Ah Shi Sle Pah, Hunter and Alamo–the two washes that formed the Bisti, and their tributaries have carved and exposed a treasure trove of unlikely works of earthen art.

The human history of the badlands is of course relatively short. Probably the most significant event in shaping the area in the last hundred years was the discovery of coal and the associated coal-bed methane. By the early 1980’s coal mining, mostly to fuel the nearby Four Corners Power Plant, was consuming large tracts of land throughout the basin. Inevitably, the Bisti became the center of a lawsuit between the Public Service Company of New Mexico and the Sierra Club; PNM already had a mining operation there and it looked like it might become just another large open-pit mine. However, the courts sided with the Sierra Club and in 1984, the Bisti was awarded wilderness status. In recent years, Ah Shi Sle Pah has also become a Wilderness Study Area. So, at least for the present, these gems are safe from the insatiable maw of “progress”.

Of the nine recognized badlands in the San Juan Basin, the Bisti is the largest–at 30,000 acres–and most well known. It includes the Kirtland and Fruitland geologic layers and was deposited 70-75 million years ago. The chief deposits are: sandstone, siltstone, shale, coal, and volcanic ash. Fossils include remains of T-Rex and large cypress-like conifers.

Ah Shi Sle Pah is much smaller than the Bisti, but was deposited around the same time, and thus contains the same geologic layers. It contains the same deposits: sandstone, siltstone, shale, coal, and volcanic ash. The fossils found in Ah Shi Sle Pah include remains of crocodiles, Pentaceratops (which has been found only in Ah Shi Sle Pah), early mammals, and of course, petrified wood.

The other recognized badlands in the basin are: Ojito–the oldest having been deposited 144-150 million years ago–, De Na Zin (70 -75 million years ago), Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, Penistaja (all 60-64 million years ago), San Jose (38-64 million years ago), and the youngest, Mesa de Cuba (38-54 million years ago).

726px-SanJuanBasinUSGS

The map shows the boundaries of the San Juan Basin. Rather than being formed by volcanism like the San Juan and Jemez Mountains to the north and east, the basin was uplifted as a single block after which the center collapsed to create the basin.

The idea for this post came from a show I had last year called Badlands Black and White. I chose to print all the images in B&W in order to focus on the graphic elements: tone, texture, patterns, etc.

A-Puzzling-Landscape

This image was made in Alamo Wash in the Bisti Wilderness. The cracks that result from the shrinkage of the clay rich soil tell a story of the arid environment. The sandstone balanced on the short mudstone pillars is an example of the hardened sediment and how it weathers in relation to the softer layers below it.

An-Alien-Assembly

The floor of most badlands is usually littered with small pieces of debris, which is comprised of bits that have broken or eroded from larger structures. They can be shale, clinkers (super-heated clay), siltstone, or even glacial deposits from the last ice age. There are often fossilized bone and clamshells mixed in with all or some of the above.

Bisti-Tour-Sepia

I made this image of a client while leading a tour in the Bisti Wilderness. The man is standing on an ridge above a deep wash in the Brown Hoodoos section of the wilderness. I wanted to give the viewer a sense of scale and the feeling of being lost in the bizarre surroundings.

Evolution

These eroded pillars are in a small alcove located in a tributary of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. Some of them still have their sandstone caprocks, while some have lost theirs. The badlands are an evolving story of creation and degeneration, once the protective cover of the caprock is gone, the erosion process proceeds at a much faster pace.

In-The-Hall-Of-The-Hoodoo-King-B&W

This image is from Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. The squat hoodoos in the foreground are relatively new and haven’t weathered out to the extent that some of the taller, more widely spaced ones have. Like many of the places I frequent in the badlands, I can’t visit this one without making several exposures.

Stonebones

At Ah Shi Sle Pah, there is a small, raised enclosure; I call it the Dragon’s Nest. What caught my eye the first time I saw it were the patterns and textures eroded into the solidified volcanic ash. This formation, at some time in the past, probably had a sandstone cap-rock.

Tables-Of-Elements

I made this image in Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. This collection of hoodoos sits in the middle of a labyrinthine tributary wash. The small column on the right has lost its caprock and is undergoing accelerated erosion.

Homage-To-The-Queen

This is a formation in the Bisti Wilderness that I call the Queen Bee. It is part of a small area of similar formations known as the Egg Garden. The cylindrical shape of these eroded forms is due to them being formed and hardened inside limestone tubes. As the surrounding layers eroded away, they emerged as distinct egg-shaped forms. The Egg Garden is one of the most popular attractions in the Bisti.

The-Eye-Of-The-Storm-Sepia

This small arch is another feature that brings people come from around the world to visit the Bisti Wilderness. The Bisti Arch can be deceiving; the opening is only about three feet across and half as high. The first time I found it, after searching unsuccessfully during previous visits, I was surprised by how small it is. The top of the arch is made of siltstone supported by a volcanic ash pedestal, and was once part of a wall which stretched across Alamo Wash.

Rocks-Of-Ages-Sepia

In his book “Bisti” which was printed in the 1980’s, David Scheinbaum included an image of this formation with the caption: “This unstable hoodoo is just within the Sunbelt coal-mining lease and will probably be destroyed by mining in the near future.” I made this image on a recent trip to the Bisti Wilderness, and I’m happy to report that the unstable hoodoo is still standing.

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