I had expected the dust, kicked up by the horses hooves, to sting my eyes. I had expected the blinding sun and the dry, unforgiving heat which blasted the earth below and prickled my pale freckled skin. The tall, statuesque cacti were almost too clichéd to be beautiful though, towering over sturdy low bushy shrubs which sprinkled the cracked, parched soil. I had expected to wilt: too delicate, too fair, too soft. Used to more temperate climes and gentle, rolling lush vistas. This bristling, spiky landscape of extremes too hostile, too intense for my moderate habituation.
They told us about the dust storms – the haboobs – and how you didn’t want to be outside when one pitched up. We read about the valley fever. We rolled the unfamiliar terms around on our foreign tongues.
I had expected to be thirsty. All around us, as we rode, we saw flurries of rain smudging rivulets into the moody blue-grey distance. They teased us but never came our way. Forest fires painted hazy purple skies.
But I didn’t wither. I felt alive. All around me there was life. I was continually surprised and delighted by the delicate whispers of beauty to be found in such harsh conditions. An abundance of wildlife chattered around me. The desert was desolate and wild and ancient and utterly beguiling to me.
The heat, well, it grips you entirely. It crowds you and soaks into your bones. It is hard, really hard, to think of anything much but the physical presence of being, just trying to be, in such extreme temperatures.
And maybe air conditioning.
I wasn’t thirsty. Ever. An ice-cold bottle of water was thrust into my hand at every turn, for which I felt deep gratitude. I realised quickly how a place like this makes you appreciate the value of a cold bottle of water.
We helicoptered down into the belly of the canyon and rode a short stretch of the Colorado river in a boat. We looked up and saw deep, dark stains imprinted on the towering red rocks. When we asked innocent questions of our young guide about how much the water levels fluctuated she shrugged her shoulders and responded quietly: “not much”. The silence around those two words dislodged something within us and whole discourses spooled noiselessly within our minds, unraveling rapidly, wavering, as we moved slowly through the water.
Water. Everyone talks about the water and no-one talks about it. And even as we looked around us and saw all of the hundreds of tourists beholding and secreting away their own little piece of this raw, rugged wonder there was a permeating sense of urgency that was unspoken.
The stains are there to see, clearly. Blemishes. Traces of our shame.
The water is running out. The river is shrinking. This vast, majestic, beautiful river which so many depend on has already shrunk to no more than a trickle in some places along its stretch.
I really wanted to give you cacti and majestic views. I wanted to capture that scolding sunlight as it melted into a dreamy liquid gold. I wanted to show you what it was like to feel as though you are at the centre of earth’s miracle which is vanishing before our very eyes. I wanted to guide you through the hot, dusky, dusty sweetness, the dazzling silence and the immense vastness. I wanted to finish up with the profound, unending emptiness, which engulfs you entirely.
Swallows you up.
It all evaded my lens. Completely.
(Of course – how would it be possible to capture all of that?)
Still, it turns out I’m a pretty poor landscape photographer.
So, I leave you instead with the little things which, I find, are always so much easier to tackle than the big things. I came across a tangle of blackened, scorched thorns. They seemed to me to say what I couldn’t say with my pictures and my words. The stark bitter thorn and the sweet little fragile desert flowers play out their own version of the tragedy of this land. Our land.