We drove up from Alamogordo on a blistery Saturday morning. Most of the drive was through arid, hilly terrain with an occasional dusty small town to pull off in to get gas. As we approached Shiprock, the elevation began to climb and the outside palette shifted from fine sand to a mix of rock and snow. Setting up in the dark isn’t much fun but by this point we have a pretty good system and in less than 15 minutes we were setup for the night. The blistering cold of the desert will always be a shock to me. When I was growing up, I always pictured deserts with extreme heat, tumble weeds and lizards skittering across the sand and baked earth. Being out here is a completely different experience from the images conjured from my childhood imagination. Even in the RV the cold air could be felt seeping in through any nook or gap it could possibly find. Fortunately, we were prepared and have a number of heavy blankets to keep warm throughout the coldest nights.
When we awoke we were amazed to see that even from the RV park, about 40 miles away, we were able to see Shiprock jutting out of an otherwise flat landscape. We spent the day stocking up on supplies, taking care of some necessary repairs and a bit of photo editing. We went to bed early to ensure we would be able to get up at 3 to go out and attempt astrophotography. Brandon had done research on different websites to find the best route to get there but since the roads weren’t part of any mapping software, we knew it might be a bit of a challenge to find. There had been a mild warning that the roads would be rough. When we actually found the first service road, we realized that it might have been a bit understated. It was by no means as rough as the road out to Hole in the Rock in Grand Staircase Escalante, but it was still not a route I would recommend for anyone driving a sedan. Unless you have a truck or an off-road vehicle, I would recommend not taking that route at all. In the pitch black of 3AM, we couldn’t really see much other than what was directly in front of the headlights. When we finally reached the end of the road, we were a bit baffled. The GPS showed us being nearly on top of the mountain but there was no more road. We decided to turn off all the lights and wait a few minutes to see if we could get a better feel for our surroundings. Almost immediately after we turned off the headlights it was as if Shiprock had magically appeared. We were both so startled at how close we were that we both burst out laughing. Just out of range of the beams of our lights Shiprock emerged from the earth and we had failed to see it till that moment. Once our eyes adjusted we took the time to plan out where we could shoot from. To our disappointment, the Milky Way was over the city itself and not over the rock as we had hoped. Brandon didn’t let that discourage him though as he decided that he wanted astral shots either way. After taking a few shots of the mountain with the stars above, we bundled up in the truck and waited for first light of sunrise to finish getting the shots we wanted. Before long we had the brilliance of morning shining down and snapped a few more photos. However, they lacked something. The sky was bright blue and not a cloud in the sky. It sounds ideal, but photos that lack clouds also lack the colors that can be found on the undersides of clouds as the sun rises and sets. We headed back to the RV and Brandon began his work. By the time sunset rolled around, the wispy clouds had taken over the sky and Brandon was eager to get out and try again. Before long we were rumbling down the service road once again and the clouds streaked the sky with deep purples and shimmery pinks as the sun started to set. While we waited for the peak color, I spent some time testing and playing with the Lensball that Brandon had purchased on a whim. The crystal ball was fascinating, and after some playing around I learned a lot about what I could and could not do with it. Despite the fact that I am by no means a professional photographer, and only use my phone, I still enjoyed finding out how I could push the limits and broaden my abilities with this new tool. Brandon was pleased with the shots he managed to get in the dusky sunset and so ended a rather long and eventful day.
As the week continued we took every opportunity in the evening after Brandon finished his work to race down to Shiprock and try to find a new angle to shoot. The week was going rather well until I came outside one afternoon and discovered a giant wet patch behind our RV. We had just had the fresh water pump repaired after we were told that it just had an air pocket stuck in it. As I watched, I found the fresh water tank gushing with water out of the vent and forcing its way out of the cap. After some fiddling around and trial and error, I found that every time I turned on the city water connection, the fresh water tank would begin dumping water out onto the ground. This is less than ideal in a desert setting where water is precious. I made some frantic searches on Google and discovered that there were two likely possibilities for the problem. The most likely candidate was the center valve of the fresh water pump. Usually it is supposed to make sure that the two tanks are partitioned off so that water from the city water connection can’t flow backward into the fresh water tank. I made a trip up to the front office and they gave me the number for a local RV repair company. Shortly after calling, a repair man discovered that the issue was not actually the center valve, but that the diaphragm inside the pump had failed and instead of keeping the water separate, it was causing the water to flow backwards and out of the fresh water tank. We ended up having to replace the entire fresh water pump. Considering the RV is brand new this was a bit annoying but at least now we had a working water pump.
After work Friday, we hopped back into the truck, and set out to Monument Valley for the weekend. It was a short drive with a minor detour to the tourist trap of Four Corners. We arrived just before closing and took the customary pictures of standing on all four states at once. Another hour or so driving through winding hills and rusty colored rock formations and we were there. Once we set up at Goulding’s campground, we set about arranging tours for the next couple of days. The town itself sits in the Navajo Nation and most of the surrounding lands are owned privately. In order to access many of the most beautiful areas, you must travel with a local guide that will help navigate the many sandy roads that weave between the rock formations. The next day, we met our guide, Tully, who took us deep into Mystery Canyon. We spent the afternoon traversing a dizzying array of intertwining back roads to cliff faces, arches, and ancient ruins of the Anasazi people who once lived there hundreds of years ago. One of the most fascinating sites was Honeymoon Arch, which was once a granary storehouse for the area. The small structure was built almost like a beehive against the sloping arch of the stone and with the exception of the intricate pattern created by the rocks placement, it would have utterly blended in to the surroundings. Once the sun began to set, we headed back to Monument Valley to see the Mittens and Tully told me about the Man and Woman. The Man is the ‘thumb’ of the Right Mitten, and he watches out over the valley to the north as a protector. The Woman is the ‘thumb’ of the Left Mitten And she watches over The Man and to the south of the valley. By sunset the clouds in the sky had taken on a bright array of purples and oranges and we scurried about from spot to spot trying to capture the best views, which is rather difficult when they all look amazing.
At 5:30 AM the next morning, we caught up with Tully again to traverse the main valley. He drove us out onto private roads, past the home of the late Susie Yazzi, an accomplished and famous local weaver who lived to be 106 years-old. We continued onward, drifting over sand filled ruts and roads to get morning shots of The Totem Pole and The Dancers. We parked and ascended a series of sandy dunes so that we could capture the first burst of sunlight coming over the horizon. The valley lit up orange and gold as the sunlight poured over and lit up the sky, banishing the night. We traveled out to The Sun’s Eye Arch and were able to observe many ancient petroglyphs of big horn sheep that has survived over a thousand years. The Sun’s Eye itself had streaks of ‘desert resin’ caused by the minerals from the rocks and rain, making it appear as if the Eye were crying tears. Next we ventured to Ear-of-the-Wind arch and found, not only a great site for photos, but also a set of fresh fox tracks. We followed the tracks for a ways until it crossed with rabbit tracks and signs of a scuffle before the rabbit tracks went one way and the fox went another. Last on our tour was Moccasin Arch and Big Hogan arch. In the Big Hogan arch I found myself feeling rather small as I gazed up at the almost perfectly round hole in the top of the massive arch of a cliff face. Although we try our hardest, it is nearly impossible to actually capture the true scale of the cliffs and arches out here in the west.
Once we got back to camp we broke everything down again and were trundling our way to our next destination: Zion National Park. The drive wasn’t long but took us through some interesting weather as we somehow passed through a snowstorm on the way through the desert. Once we reached Zion, we settled into our new campsite, ready to plan out what the next week would have in store for us.