By Nathaniel Smalley
The American Southwest, a land of raw elements and rugged terrain, a place where only the hardiest wildlife and plants survive. This corner of the world has captivated the imaginations of people for centuries. Once known as the great frontier, it drew settlers from all corners of the world seeking to make it their home. Today we read in history books about ‘How the West was won’, but my recent travels throughout Arizona and Utah would indicate that the wild west is anything but tamed. While crowds of tourists surely pour down its main highways in the summer months, just over the distant hills remains a land of unexplored beauty and silence. There the sun rises and sets over a stunning landscape, painting shadows in the corners that act as a supporting cast to the elaborate sandstone formations.
This was the first year since moving to Arizona in 2007 that I have not been in some remote corner of the world for the season of Spring. I took full advantage of this opportunity and spent the past three months chasing the light throughout the American Southwest. I was recently asked by Arizona Highways to lead a Best Of The West Photo Workshop for them in April of 2018, this was the perfect opportunity to scout for that upcoming itinerary and fill out my portfolio in those areas of the State.
My adventures of the season took me to countless iconic destinations across the gorgeous Arizona landscape. Monument Valley has long been known as the back yard playground of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, most notably John Wayne. Standing there overlooking the vista dominated by towering rock buttes that are illuminated by the setting sun one quickly realizes why many have been so easily drawn to this magical place.
The beauty of this region extends below the earth’s surface as well, deep into narrow slot canyons that have been forged by flood waters rushing over the sandstone for centuries. These powerful torrents carry rocks, logs and other debris with such force that they carve out fantastic underworld realms that are incredible places to explore and even better to photograph! During the Spring and Summer months sunbeams occasionally make it down through the top of the canyon walls painting the walls with light and revealing their amazing textures and patterns. Walking through the chasm one can often hear the call of a Raven perched by the top echoing through through the passage, or that of a Great Horned Owl if you’re lucky!
The plant life in the Southwest is unlike anywhere else in the United States. Gigantic Saguaros and other varieties of cactus decorate certain sections of the landscape while other parts support species that dominate a specific region as is the case in Joshua Tree National Park. I happened to be there during the season when these ancient trees bloom and found some wonderful subjects. This image of one bowing down to the earth burdened by the weight of time was one of my favorites due to its unique shape.
I would be remiss if I didn’t share one of the wonderful shots I captured of the Grand Canyon during this adventure. Here is a place that is impossible to put into words or offer an image that dose justice to the majesty and glory of gazing out at one of the seven wonders of the world. When the sun cuts across the ridge line at sunset and casts beams across the vast opening it is truly breathtaking.
Another location that I photographed during this whirlwind tour was the beautiful Canyon de Chelly. Here a towering sandstone spire rises up 750 feet from the canyon floor reaching to the sky. The Navajo Nation has a fantastic legend about Spider Woman surrounding this formation that would impress even the most dedicated comic book enthusiast. Sunset overlooking this valley is unforgettable.
No trip in the American Southwest would be complete without walking around under the cover of darkness in the shadow of ancient rock formations, so I returned to do just that last weekend. My travels took me north where there is limited light pollution in order to photograph the Milky Way. Here in the wee hours of the morning the galaxy explodes above and leaves one feeling incredibly small. It is therapeutic, it puts life in context and heals your tattered soul. The adrenaline that courses through you standing there can not be duplicated. What a wonderful world.
The simple reality I discovered is that the West will never be won, it is a wild and free land for those who are willing to go out and seek its raw dimensions. If you would like more information on my upcoming Best Of The West Photo Workshop you can find complete details at this link. Three spots filled the day it was announced and space is limited. I can’t wait to return to these exceptional destinations next year with my group and look forward to sharing our images with you at that time. I am now off to lead my Ultimate African Adventure Safari, I’ll put together an in depth trip report from our experiences once we return. Thanks for reading!
Nathaniel Smalley is an Instructor with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops