“Shhhh, be still!”, I admonished Edie as she stood behind Big Red’s truck bed banging together ever item we had left Shreveport with in one enormous cacophony of sound. “I don’t see what the big deal is!”, she retorted while continuing to root around in her camera back-pack, “There’s not a soul within miles of this forgotten place!” It was a little before five o’clock in the morning and we had already been on the road about two hours. We had been stopped by a gate which disrupted our passage and mission simultaneously. At one time, that gate was opened a little before first light or about forty minutes before sunrise but now, it’s 7:00 a.m. and not a minute sooner.
Edie was right, there was no-one to be seen or any signs of life. That’s the time I like to be so quiet myself. I want to explore and I don’t want every person within miles to know I’m there. I like to get in, shoot, get out and leave no trace of my passing. I want to see wild things that roam about the high desert at night and walk under the starry sky letting my eyes guide me with only ambient starlight when possible. I want to take in the wildness and solitude of the desert.
“I’m beating this gate thing!”, I told Edie as I swung my pack up. “You better get your jack and come on!”, were my encouragement filled words. We had a short half-mile walk into the desert by a low embankment approaching an ancient canyon wall. This was the only place still accessible prior to seven a.m. and I wanted to get to work with early desert light. Tripods were shouldered and luke-warm coffee slurped up. We had our personal radios squelched way down as two pairs of Keen Targhees got into motion.
We set up on location at Una Vida, the remains of a Chacoan Great House. Like other Great Houses at Chaco Culture Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, they had been given Spanish names by the early Hispanic guides that led the Washington exploration party in the mid 1800′s. The origin of these names remains obscure. The English translation of Una Vida is “one life”. Here in the early dawn hours, Fajada Butte had a glow on it from the horizon shrouded sun. I knew I was going to see the exact same sunrise that greeted these people 1000 years ago.
In an instant, as flutes played softly in the still morning air while dogs stretched and smoldering campfires were re-stoked, I was there. The woman who had made my corn gruel cast the tiny little maize ears into the fire where they were quickly ignited. The early morning light accented her already bronze skin creating a beautiful soft glow. She kept the child at her breast in a rabbit skin sling as they moved about in the magic of first light. Carefully, she prepared some clay for modeling into a bowl latter that morning as more gruel simmered over our fire.
But, what was that incessant clicking I kept hearing. As I focused on the sound, she and the baby along with my musings melted away into the dawn light. I didn’t hear the clicking anymore but my flash card showed that it had been busy. I kicked back and watched Edie working the light off to my left about 120 feet. She must have set down both baby and sling because all I saw was a camera and a tripod. Nor was there any fresh clay in sight or acrid smell of campfire smoke in my nostrils as my senses took a quick physiological inventory. I did not taste the sweet earthiness of corn gruel on my palate or hear the notes of a single bone flute.
However, I did have an image locked forever in time and in my mind.
Take in Una Vida. The blue-green brush at the Great House remains in shadow as do it’s hand formed walls. In the distance, the awakening rays of the sun strike Fajda Butte while much of the canyon lies dreaming in those special shadows that are so full of life. I love to explore, to experience, to think and exist at the edges of light where I craft many of my favorite photographs. Chaco Canyon is such a place.