Wednesday, May 19, 2010

May 19 - Antelope Canyon

Wednesday May 19th, Antelope Canyon, AZ

We start at a dirt lot in the high desert off highway 98 within spitting distance of the Navajo coal fired power plant, and after passing through a simple gate in the cattle fence, we walk 50 yards down a sandy trail and stop at a serpentine crack in the red brown sandstone earth. Looking up and down stream, the narrow opening with rounded edges heads off endlessly. I wonder, where is the canyon? Then, the indian guide simply motions downward and says "watch your step" and disappears down step by step into a crack no wider than his body - as if the earth just swallowed him up. When its my turn to descend, I just make out the narrow steel ladder that forms the entrance to Antelope Canyon.

To call it a canyon is misleading. It is a slot canyon to be specific. The bottom is formed by an off camber undulating sandy deck usually no wider than your two feet side by side - but sometimes narrower. From that narrow sandy wash, the walls rise up and swell outward in wavy patterns, never parallel, and rejoin again closer together overhead in a close embrace - as if in a delicate tango - teasing a touch, but never really connecting. The undulating and warm rose colored walls flow evenly from one bend to another, forming arches, tunnels, ridges, and bowls.

The bright sky overhead provides the soft light that has filtered down to where we stand, bouncing like a mad fuzzy pinball from one surface to another. As my watch hands rotate,at twice their normal speed, an occasional beam of direct hot white light flashes down and illuminates the floating sand particles that have been kicked up by our passage. They sparkle like diamonds - a temporal illusion, a translucent apparition, dissipating as gravity calls the wisp to earth, or a soft down slope breeze reorganizes everything as the sunbeam swings out of position.

The eyes, ears, skin, and brain are stimulated as an integrated organ while your consciousness tries to make sense of this magical place. Eyes scan around in any direction to gain a fundamental horizon and give up, left swirling like the sandstone layers. The harder and softer layers of stone have left signature lines that follow the wall's curve like topographic lines on a map. The ancient seabed gives up season by season of its story from wet years to dry years and the walls are painted with the pulverized remains of the eroded mountains upstream. The fingers touch canyon walls, often no more than shoulder length apart, first one side then the other as we tip toe down the narrow bottom of the canyon, performing some odd dance that only the river and winds of time could choreograph. Trying to use normal walking skills to navigate the terrain is useless so we resort to more of a crab-walk push-up, hop, skip, and slide maneuver to move around the sinuous path. The fine grit on the surface clings to our fingers as we first touch, then release the handholds.

It's quiet, except for a raven's nest of fledglings. This pair of imposing birds have chosen this section of the canyon for a nest. The twiggy perch is over our heads, but below the canyon rim above, affording protection from a predator coming from either direction. The chicks complain as the parent bird flaps once and lifts off their perch and seems to float effortlessly away into the light and blue and sky above.

In places the canyon widens, carved by a swirling eddy at the base of a now-dry falls, leaving an oddly symmetrical cylindrical chamber with more breathing room for us and a place to gather different types of reflected light. In one such chamber, a Navajo guide passes us walking downstream. He offers a simple greeting and then begins to sign a harmonious melody as soon as he rounds the next corner away from us. The tune fits right in, folding in and on itself and finding the harmonies we've so associated with native American music - a fluted tune that sounds as old as these rocks and one which throws us back in time 1,000 years and back again once it subsides. The singer and his music are swallowed by the canyon and both disappear in short order. Was he real? We never saw him again for the rest of our tour.

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