Sunday, December 14, 2014

Empty Space

An abandoned ranch cabin on the Bar X Road, deep in the Red Desert.  
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Many of us who have lived in Wyoming for a long time but weren’t born  here (and some that were) notice from time to time how lucky we are.  Imagine how many people can’t imagine living in the mountains, or driving 15 minutes to go skiing or mountain biking, or that the Red Desert exists.   Imagine antelope being exotic or not seeing storms or the lights of home fifty miles away.

Earlier this fall, I camped one weekend with Ed Sherline (another photographer) near the Oregon Buttes, a landmark on the Oregon Trail.  Migrants traveling west along what now are just wagon ruts through the sagebrush were probably less romantic about all of the open space and the badlands, but Ed and I both grew up “out east” and noted after we left our camp and were driving home that we had traversed more than fifty miles of territory without seeing another car or an occupied dwelling. 

Remnants of an old mind near South Pass, near the Sweetwater River.


Sandstone on the southern flanks of the Oregon Buttes.

The Oregon Buttes, viewed from the south.  On the Oregon Trail, these marked the passage into Oregon territory.

Badlands south of the Oregon Buttes.  

Badland erosion.

The view southwest from atop badlands south of the Oregon Buttes.

Wild horses south of the Oregon Buttes.

Coyote taken at the same cabin as in the lead photo.  

The Bar X road with typical traffic.

A very long, but not very watery watering trough.

Red Desert highway.

Desert elk, south of the Bar X Ranch, heading for the sand dune in the distance. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Canyoneering: Capitol Reef

Steve Millard setting up an awkward rappel in Pandora's Box.  You are standing on the chockstone anchor.
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I’m not proud of this, but I ate an entire package of beer brats the night before Steve and I headed into Pandora’s Box, a famously skinny Wingate slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.  Steve, equally hedonistic, tucked into a couple of big burgers, and we both washed down our meals with margaritas (me) and wine (Steve).  This was a cocky move, since we were already anxious about being too fat to fit through the canyon.  Famously, one large canyoneer had become stuck in Pandora’s Box, requiring a helicopter rescue that arrived not long after he drank his own urine to stave off dehydration. 

I felt periodically nauseated throughout the next day, which began for us at 4:15 a.m. after a night of fitful, anxiety-plagued sleep, but as it turned out we neither got stuck nor had to drink our urine.  In fact, the canyon went more easily than we anticipated with only a little strenuous chimneying over narrow spots and a few episodes of laying on our sides in the mud to wriggle through low passage where it was slightly wider.  We completed the last two rappels by 1:15 and began the long and exhausting hike back over Meek’s Mesa to our camp, arriving in time to eat dinner (no brats!) and visit with Larry Scritchfield, who had arrived that day from Arizona to meet other friends for a week in the park (Steve and I had to return to work). 

While in the Capitol Reef area, Steve and I warmed up in a couple of the disappointingly short, but pretty “Wives” (side canyons that drain into the popular Cohab Canyon) above the Visitor’s Center on Saturday before grappling with Pandora’s Box on Sunday.  The Blue Gnome provides painstakingly detailed beta for all of these canyons, so I won’t repeat it, but I’ll post a few pictures—I felt too busy in Pandora’s to take many, and it was so narrow that much of it was fairly dark.

Campsite, Pandora's Box trailhead.

Steve Millard following intricate Blue Gnome directions to the beginning of Wife #3.

Beginning the 200' rappel into the head of Wife #3.

Wife #3.

Rappeling in Wife #3.

Deadman rappel anchor in Wife #5

Wife #5

Wife #5.

The exit rappel from Wife #5.

Steve hiking down from The Wives.

Sunrise at the drop-in for Pandora's Box.

Awkward rappeling in Pandora's.

A textbook rappel anchor.  

Resting in a wide spot in Pandora's Box.

Steve, showing off the physique that somehow managed to squeeze through Pandora's..

Me near the end of Pandora's.  Another pair of canyoneering shorts destined for the dumpster at the Capitol Reef V.C.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Back to the Salt Mines

The salt mine at Walvis Bay, Namibia.

As mid-August arrives, the idiom “back to the salt mines” comes to mind as I feel the gnawing need to prepare for fall teaching and to catch up on all of the other work that I’ve neglected since June, when summer seemed infinite.  Of course, it’s a stretch to equate a university teaching job that has great benefits and summers off with working in a salt mine, though later in the semester, when it comes time to grade 40 undergraduate research papers, I might think fondly about big white piles of salt waiting to be shoveled into trucks.    

There’s all kinds of speculation on the web about the origin of the phrase.  The common theme is that working in salt mines isn’t at the very top of the career ladder for most people, and that the work is dangerous, arduous, repetitive, and unpleasant.  Many accounts reference a particular salt mine in olden Siberia, used as a prison by a cruel Russian ruler.  Workers there were reportedly flogged to death for not working hard enough (denial of tenure?). 

Even the word “salary”  (Latin salarium) apparently has “salt” at its root, and the expression “worth his salt” is based on payment to Roman soldiers in salt, a valuable commodity in those days. 

An article by Natalie Houston in the Chronicle of Higher Education laments the increased use of this idiom by teachers as summer draws to a close and they prepare to go back to work.
Each time you say something like “back to the salt mines” (which is usually accompanied by a shrug, or slumped shoulders) you reinforce your own attitudes about your workplace as being somehow like a dangerous mine where prisoners labor.  Sure, maybe you didn’t mean it, or not at a conscious level.  But if you think or say “salt mines,” “salt mines,” “salt mines,” several times a day, you’re probably not going to be feeling lively, energized, or creative.
But a comment on the article notes that, “While work may not be killing them in one fell swoop, the cumulative effects of email, being available by mobile, insomnia, high stress, eating lunch at one’s desk, etc., don’t seem to add to life expectancy either.

I had the good fortune to visit actual salt mines in Namibia this summer, and though I wouldn’t want to work there, they seemed like reasonable workplaces in general.  The Namibian mines I saw were located on the Skeleton Coast and they were evaporative rather than underground.  The biggest mine, south of Swakopmund at Walvis Bay covered a vast area of salt flats where salt from evaporative ponds was gathered by big bulldozers, cleaned at a salt refinery, and loaded into trucks for shipment.  The seawater here is supposedly especially good for salt, because the cold Benguela Current flowing northward up the coast is unpolluted.  

A news article in “The Namibian” says that the Walvis Bay mines produce about 780,000 tons of coarse industrial salt and 60,000 tons of table salt each year. That’s enough to raise your blood pressure more than a back-to-school ad in the local paper.

Salt, Walvis Bay.

Evaporation pond, Walvis Bay.

Salt road.  Atlantic Ocean on the left, salt ponds on the right.

Salt for sale.  Cape Cross, Namibia.

Salt for sale, Cape Cross.

Cape Cross.

Cape Cross.

Salt mine, Walvis Bay.

Unclimbed salt peak, Walvis Bay.

Salt evaporation, Walvis Bay.

A familiar Laramie scene, but here it's salt not ice, and the temperature was in the 90s.

Salt truck repair shop, Cape Cross.

The Atlantic Ocean, where the cold Benguela Current brings clean salt to the Skeleton Coast.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Brandberg Mountain Pictographs, Namibia

A bushman pictograph, high in the Brandberg Mountains of Namibia.
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On what was almost certainly a bright and warm Namibian morning two thousand years ago, give or take a few decades, a small group of Bushmen hunters left camp and headed out across the plains of southern Africa in what is now called Damaraland, Namibia, bows in hand, to find something to eat.  Tall golden grass brushed against their legs as they walked, and their bare feet left temporary impressions in the sand. It may have been even drier then than it is now, but if you lived in the desert, you knew where to find water and you knew where to find animals to eat. Kudus, oryx, and springboks were plentiful, and, if you were particularly ambitious (reckless?), you might even try to bring down an elephant with your puny little bow. 

Some animals knew how to find you, too. Maybe you were higher up the food chain than your ancestors, and your descendants would continue the ascent, finding clever ways to hunt and protect themselves, but you could still get eaten if you weren’t careful, and sometimes even if you were.  Still, it was a nice morning to be out hunting with old friends, sharing stories under the bright desert sun. 

That very same morning, a lioness waited in the tall grass for food to wander into her range.  She watched for much of the same prey as the Bushmen—small to medium sized ungulates for the most part.  Unlike the cocky Bushman, she knew better than to try to jump an elephant by herself, and she also knew that the Bushmen themselves could be either prey or predator, depending on circumstances.  As the small group of Bushmen hunters came into range, her ears perked up and her tail twitched back and forth involuntarily.  Her focus became absolute.

Two thousand years later, in May of 2014, on another bright and warm Namibian morning, I stood in front of a large granite boulder in the Brandberg Mountains, high above Damaraland, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the rock art before me.  The red ochre paint on light orange rock depicted a Bushman, fully panicked, running for his life, the lioness close on his heels.  His penis is fairly large in the picture (cultural vanity?), but his scrotum is nowhere to be seen; undoubtedly his balls had withdrawn deep into his abdomen for safe keeping.  He had the presence of mind to try to protect the rest of himself as well, and in the painting he strains desperately to look over his shoulder, mouth open in horror, preparing to shoot an arrow back at the lioness even as he runs full speed into the fog of time. 

We’ll never know how the story ends, but the humor suggests that it resolved well for the Bushman and perhaps not so well for the lioness. Or maybe not. Maybe Bushmen had a better sense of humor about carnivorous death than we do. 

There are lots of reasons for making art, and scholars speculate at length about the meanings of prehistoric rock art. In the Brandberg, there are thousands of rock art sites, and archaeologists like Harald Pager, the German who collaborated with Angula, my Namibian guide on this recent trip to the Brandberg, have made careers of documenting and interpreting it. Much of the art was more serious or ritualistic than the image of the hunted hunter. With great skill, Bushmen painted images of African mammals, snakes and lizards, and other Bushmen, alone and in groups, men and women.  Their work is dynamic, elegant, and beautiful, and I feel privileged to have seen some of it, guided by the man who discovered many sites.

The quirky filmmaker, Werner Herzog, explored 32,000-year-old art in his documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the paintings in the Chauvet Cave in France.  In an interview, Tom Keogh of the Seattle Times asked Herzog what it was like to stand before the charcoal drawings, deep in the darkness of the cave.  “It’s just an overwhelming feeling of awe.  You sense somehow this is the origin of the modern human soul; this is the origin of art.”         

These days, most of us are hyper-connected to our circles of friends, obsessively informed about local and national politics, and at least aware of important global events. We are brilliant at connecting across space, and we like to brag: The world is small (!!).  

We brag less, though, about the passage of time, and most of us, without thinking about it very much, are more ephemeral than our grandparents, who left us boxes of meticulously written cursive letters describing their lives and black and white photographic prints.  We leave our grandchildren digital files in MS Outlook format and jpeg images stored on hard drives.

Two thousand years ago, high in an isolated mountain range in the Namib Desert, a Bushman left a picture of his panicked friend being chased by a lioness.  He committed his memory of that sunny morning to stone, format be damned, and gained a measure of immortality.

Angula near the top of Amis Canyon.  He originally discovered many of these rock art sites while working with German archaeologist, Harald Pager, who died in 1985.  Angula is still guiding (with his son Thomas), almost 30 years later, and he knows the Brandberg like nobody else.

A less traumatic hunt.   Pictograph in Gaasep Canyon (spelling different in different sources).

Giraffe with Bushmen.  In cave I call the Wave Cave because it resembles a breaking wave of granite.

A typical rock shelter.  Pictographs here are on the right-hand wall. 

A Bushman carrying arrows and a bow.

Pictographs in the Waterfall Cave, named for the seep dripping off the lip of the cave.  

Elaborate pictographs in the Snake Cave, one of the premier sites in the Brandberg.  It's names for a big pictograph of a "eared snake" on the outside of the cave.

Snake Cave pictographs.

Unusual pictographs in the Snake Cave.  I have no idea what they represent, but they are different than any others that I saw on the trip.  
The Snake Cave.

Pictograph with rock damage, probably natural.  Unlike in the U.S., I saw no obvious vandalism or graffiti at these sites, perhaps partly because they are difficult to access.  

What could go wrong?  Shooting an arrow at an elephant.

Thomas, son of Angula, at the Giant Man Cave, named for the obvious pictograph.

Giraffe pictographs in the Giant Man Cave.

Humans and giraffes in the Giant Man Cave.

Human figures in the Giant Man Cave.

Giant Man Cave.

Intricate running bowmen.  Notice the strange arrowheads, which seem two-pronged.  I saw this in a lot of pictographs, even though arrowheads found here are pointy like they are in most places.
The spectacular cave at the top of the Amis Gorge.  We hung out in this wonderful spot for a couple of hours during the heat of the day.  

Pictographs in the Amis Cave.

Amis Cave.

An "eared snake" and other animals in the Amis Cave.

Giraffes.  Amis Cave.

The view from the Amis Cave at the top of the Amis Gorge, our descent route out of the Brandberg.

Rock art in the upper reaches of the Amis Gorge.

Similar events, different weapons, 2000 years apart.  Brandberg pictograph on left with Robert Capa photograph of the Spanish Civil War.