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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.