Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Lost Mesa by Night

The Lost Mesa is a lonely place by day and it is a very dark and lonely place by night. There is only the stars, the wind and the cry of the coyote.

The dark sky is filled with stars and they shine ever brightly. The Milky Way is visible and is truly understandable as the "milky" way in a place like this.

I spent hours in the evening and the middle of the night staring up at the stars. This is the night sky the pioneers and the ancients would have seen. This is the night sky as it was meant to be seen. And I had it all to myself.

I could see the shadowy shapes of the Horned Mountains rising out of the now dark grasslands. Above them was the glow of the heavens. The occasional falling star would streak across the sky.

I watched. I also set about to photograph.

The moon was still in the sky in the early evening and even though it was less than half it still was very bright in the sky and cast shadows across the land. It was when I would be up at 3am that I would see the darkest sky, the most stars, and it was then I made my best night images.

It is a time that made really appreciate the DSLR. I had always used a film camera and hoped I was getting something. With the DSLR I was able to tweak and try things as I worked. It meant more images and that I could change settings on the go.

I was actually working three cameras. I had two DSLRS working as well as my medium format film camera doing an all night image (started 90 minutes after dark and let it run until 4am).

I made images in all directions, but my best ones either had the shadowy shapes of the mountains or had the North Star as the hub of the night sky with the stars spinning around it.

As the night approached twilight I was even able to get more detail in the landscape and still get the stars -like the third image looking north across the range to the distant Sacramento Mountains.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Return to the Lost Mesa

I returned to the Lost Mesa in the first part of November. I was looking to tie in a visit on the open range with the right time of year for fall color in the nearby Guadalupe Mountains.

I arrived on the mesa on a spectacular afternoon. The sky was blue and a few white clouds sailed across it. The mesa has seen some nice summer rains but now was a fairly dry and dusty time. I set about exploring knowing that I had three days to see things.

After the long drive I decided to start with the area closest to the Horned Mountains. I got in a nice afternoon hike and really started to get a better feel for the big open empty quality of the place. A nice sunset turned into evening and then a star filled sky. The moon was barley more than a quarter but with the area being so dark it seemed much brighter.

I was up and photographing early the next day. At first it was stars but as dawn moved closer I began to see some clouds were slowly drifting across the sky. I knew this had some great potential for some great images.
The dawn arrived full on with soft glow, orange sky, and glorious clouds. It was perfect.

Actually it was almost too prefect. There were sights all around. There were glowing clouds in every direction too. I could not move fast enough. I had cameras pointed in three directions trying to capture the moment. The top image was pretty close to it. See the best one in my gallery Lost Mesa II where a longer exposure gave movement to the clouds and Orion still hunts in the sky.

As the orange light faded in the clouds and the daylight grew I began to work farther images such as the view north across miles of open range toward the distant Sacramento Mountains (image 2).

Later that day after the clouds moved away east the sky took on a blue so clear and crisp you could almost taste it.

I hiked for rock art, drove through a yucca forest, and explored the Horned Mountains. Th view here is in the afternoon. From left to right we have Wind Mountain, Flat Top Mountain, and San Antonio Mountain (which is actually in Texas).
I also saw pronghorn, although they usually saw me first and were usually long gone before I could grab the camera. But this one time they stood and watched me for a while and I was able to get this image. They are still aways out there and since my lenses top out at 200mm they are quite small in the frame (glad I had a few extra megapixels to work worth) but this is a maxed out closeup.

I was again struck by the big quality of the open range here. How big is it? At 1.2 million acres it is almost 50% bigger than Big Bend National Park. And I had it all to myself. It was me, the sky, and the open range.

This is a big, empty, lonely land.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Petroglyphs of the Southwest

After seeing the rock art of Utah I was inspired to find more of it in Texas. There are several places in the Big Bend country one can find pictographs and El Paso is also home to some great examples at Hueco Tanks. But I wanted to look further afield.

I went west for fall color last week and while exploring some of the rocky slopes near a (now dry) spring I found some great rock art. There were petroglyphs carved into a dark rock of volcanic origin (different than the sandstone carvings in Utah).

I picked the location as I had heard there might be petroglyphs there. As I walked the slope I went for a while without seeing anything but the rock looked promising and I kept walking. Having the spring nearby meant people would have been coming here for a long time, so I hoped and kept looking. Suddenly I saw this first rock with some carving on it. It was a couple of small simple designs. This was encouraging. Where there was one, I hoped there would be others.

I went a bit further and suddenly I saw a Tlaloc man!!!! Wow-this was a great find-a Tlaloc man! Tlaloc was a rain god, notice his large round eyes, and the trapezoidal shape. I could not believe how large this carving was. This one measures a good meter tall (over 3 ft) and is 15-18 inches wide. The carvings around him look like either other versions of or maybe "sample" Tlalocs.

Talk about luck. This is a graphic I had heard of but had never seen. There is a famous Tlaloc drawing at Hueco Tanks State Park near El Paso, but in my several visits to the park I never saw it.

This one was amazing. Here on a rocky desert mountainside staring at the sky was a magnificent piece of rock art. The detail was superb, this must have taken some time. The rock had four other carvings that looked trapezoidal and I wondered if they were prototypes for the final carving or if they were graphics of their own.

After photographing the Tlaloc for a while, I walked further and found several other small carvings. Then I found this panel. This rock was at least 10 feet wide and 8 feet tall. On it were carved several petroglyphs it was practically a mural. I photographed the panel and some of the individual carvings. Again the detail was amazing

All told, I saw dozens of carvings this afternoon, yet I know I found only a fraction of what this site has to contain. The rocks of this hillside must be covered with them. I think a return trip is on order to further document the area.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Land of the Ancients

The southwest is an historians and archaeologists dream. From Chaco Canyon to Mesa Verde and beyond there are signs, paintings, and ruins left by the Anasazi. It is the land of the ancients. The sites make for a fascinating visit and offer up some interesting photography too.

There are several areas with petroglyphs in the area around Canyonlands and Arches. The most famous of which is west of the Green River in Horseshoe Canyon. I was unable to work in a visit there but I did explore some areas along the Colorado River with Petroglyphs.

Areas with desert varnish (areas of very dark brown) often have petroglyphs carved on them (see the first two images and notice the desert varnish). Remember that Petroglyphs are carved in rock and Pictographs are painted on rock.

There are other signs of the past too. One my favorite on this trip was an granary high on a butte in Canyonlands National Park.

The Island in the Sky section of the park sits about 6000' high and about 2000' above the rivers. It is basically the top of a huge mesa. The extra elevation makes it a little cooler and also makes it a decent grassland. Although it is mostly flat there are still some hills and small buttes that can be found there. One of the small steeper ones is Aztec Butte. There is a great hike the slowly winds up the face of the slickrock and summits the butte. There one can walk the rim and take in both canyons and the mesa top. At several places tucked just beneath the rim are some overhangs. Some of which have granaries.

The one pictured here was my favorite. The overhang is right about 6' tall. The granary is in a corner, built of stones and is maybe 4-5' tall. Two small arches help frame the scene and the deep Taylor Canyon is visible beyond.

I was lucky to have the 10mm lens (16mm eq on a FF camera) to fit the whole scene in. This granary is on the north-northwest side of the butte, but I believe it gets late afternoon light on it in the summer months. I was not sure it would get it in October so I did not make the late afternoon trek back this trip. BTW this hike is a bit of a scramble toward the top and probably not for everyone, but for those who do not mind heights and a little bit of vertical exposure it is a great destination.

Side note- movie fans will see that a young Indiana Jones was adventuring around Moab area and Arches NP in "The Last Crusade".