A Moment in Monument Valley
In The Slow Approach, we share individual perspectives on what it means to slow down, and how doing so can have a positive effect on our experiences as well as the images we capture.
I woke from a deep sleep to the sound of the alarm clock ringing on the motel’s bedside table. It was 3:00 a.m. I peeked out through the curtains at the skies above Page, Arizona, noting how the clear view of a river of shinning stars promised a good sunrise. Meaghan (my then girlfriend, now wife) did not look happy at being roused so early for the third day in a row, to humor my desire to hustle to a distant location to photograph another sunrise. We both stretched our muscles, sore from several days of road tripping and hiking. She offered the same advice she had given previously on the trip: we needed to slow it down for a change, and just take in the moment.
We packed our bags and loaded everything into our rental. As we drove out of town, I looked out on the dark desert landscape and thought about needing to slow my life down to a more manageable pace. She was right. I had become accustomed to life at full speed, after four years of working two full time jobs and pursuing two undergraduate degrees. The pace of my life was moving so fast I didn’t even realize it anymore. This trip was just a microcosm of what every day had been like the past four years – trying to cram as much as possible into the time available. Soon, a moment in Monument Valley would show me that the slow approach is as beneficial for photography as it is for everyday life.
The day’s first light began to illuminate a dramatic desert landscape, which reminded me of another desert landscape from earlier in my life. Fifteen years prior, I had spent a season volunteering as a back-country ranger in New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument. I spent the summer and fall living alone, buried away in the mountains, mesa country, and high desert of northern New Mexico, in a small log cabin with no plumbing or electricity. I had never felt as alive and in tune with the natural world as I did during my time there. Life moved at a much slower pace. Being back in the northern Arizona desert brought back those memories. I made a silent promise to myself to find some time that day to be fully present.
Shortly after sunrise, we reached the Navajo Tribal Park of Monument Valley. The inspiring views I had seen over the years in so many photographs and films became reality, and they did not disappoint. It was a dramatic desert landscape laid out in grand fashion. After a few hours of driving and hiking around the park, we decided to park the Jeep to get some fresh air. Meaghan opted to take a nap in the back seat and catch up on some overdue sleep. I took this opportunity to go back out in the desert alone, for a little bit, like in the good ole days. I set off hiking along a rock bottom arroyo toward some golden colored sand dunes in the distance.
Eventually I reached the edge of the tall sand dunes and began hiking up the wind-blown slopes to take in the view of Monument Valley. Tall, red buttes of rock rose off the flat desert floor in the distance. It was a view filled with a strong feeling of nostalgia. The smells, sounds, and feel of the hot sun all reminded me of my time in New Mexico, but it also brought me back to my childhood as I was reminded of the great western movies I had watched over the years. I stood there with my camera, taking in the moment, and contemplating how best to capture that nostalgic feeling in a photograph. I wanted a photograph that would capture both my love for old western movies and my time living alone in Bandelier. As I looked out to the north, I heard soft footsteps approaching from behind. I slowly turned around to see a lone caramel colored horse with a black mane, a long black tail, and black socks on its legs. It was walking across the dunes toward me.
The sight of this lone horse felt like something out of a dream, almost like a vision as I stood on sacred Navajo lands. It represented, in so many ways, exactly what I had been thinking of and looking for. As the horse approached I let it smell my outstretched hand, and began petting it, talking to it soothingly while smiling from ear-to-ear. After a time, the horse moved forward a step and stood along side me. We stood side-by-side looking out to the sprawling desert plains and the grand view of the valley. Then the horse began to slowly move past me to continue walking off across the dunes. As it did so, I stepped aside and looked down at the black hooves next to my feet and caught my breath. Right next to the front left hoof of the horse was a gold colored arrowhead lying in the sand.
I watched as the horse walked away and proceeded along the edge of the dunes to the north, right into the frame I had been thinking about. Now the tableau was complete. It captured the beauty and majesty of the location, and encapsulated the nostalgia I had been feeling all day. Once I had the photo I was looking for, I set my camera aside and reached down and picked up the arrowhead. I looked at the beautiful hand cut stone and shook my head in disbelief. I desperately wanted to keep such an amazing artifact as a keepsake of this magical moment, but decided against it. It was a sacred item that had come from sacred lands, and I was a guest passing through.
I stood awhile longer, holding onto the arrowhead and taking in the moment as the horse slowly walked away and out of view. I turned with a smile and hiked back to the Jeep to share the story with Meaghan. It turns out she had watched the whole encounter from a distance, photographing it with a telephoto lens, and was in as much disbelief as I. Before leaving the park, I placed the arrowhead under a bush, and thanked it for reminding me of the rewards of slowing life down and taking the time to experience moments like these.
Later that evening we sat on the rim of Horseshoe Bend above the Colorado River, enjoying one last sunset with a bottle of wine. I sat thinking back on the day’s events and I realized that I did know how to slow down life’s fast pace when I chose to. Spending more time in nature, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, was part of the answer, but I realized the other key element to being fully present in the moment is focus. In this case it was focusing on capturing the moment with a camera lens. A comparable example is meditation or yoga, when a person focuses on their breathing to help quiet their mind and be in the moment. The slow approach to photography that day served as a means to help me focus and be present in that amazing moment in Monument Valley.