The story behind the image...
This image was made on a visit to Coyote Buttes in Northern Arizona in November 2006. I was accompanied by two friends, Alex Donnelly and David Whistance. We had failed to get permits online for the north (which includes The (famous) Wave) so we had to go to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)Ranger station every morning to put our names in the lottery, a 35 mile drive from where we were staying in Page. Our names weren't drawn until the second morning so we decided to explore the south section on the first two days.
The first of these visits was to an area called Cottonwood Cove. I'd never been to Coyote Buttes South (CBS) before but some research beforehand showed that it was just as good as the north though lacking in any "set pieces". No bad thing really as there is more scope for producing something original.
It's a 35 mile drive from Page to the turnoff for the unpaved House Rock Road, then 14 miles on the dirt road (reasonable washboard surface) then turn off onto a narrow sandy track towards the abandoned ranch of Poverty Flats six miles distant (this route had been recommended by a volunteer at the BLM station as the more direct route via Paw Hole was probably impassable due to deep sand). The track was a bit hairy in places, with soft sand and rocky ledges, but we eventually made it to the ranch. Nobody had lived there since the early sixties so there was plenty of photogenic decay to make images of – in my element!
After about an hour, during which I made the image above, we set off for Cottonwood and promptly got stuck in deep sand, about fifty yards from where we had parked. We hadn't seen anybody since we left the House Rock Road and this area is the least visited part of the Wilderness Study Area so we didn't feel at all anxious... Luckily we'd bought shovels and sand ladders – no, of course we hadn't!! We set to with our bare hands to shift sand from under the wheels and put rocks and wood in the ruts for some traction. It was at this point that we discovered that our shiny SUV didn't have any drive shafts at the back – it was 2X4 instead of 4X4. No point complaining to the car hire company as the contract forbade us taking it off road anyway! After about half an hour of digging we heard another vehicle approaching. Salvation we hoped. It was a German guy called Marek who found the whole thing very amusing and proceeded to take lots of digi-snaps of me half buried under the car! He did help dig eventually and we managed to get the car out after about 40 minutes. We asked him what the road was like to Cottonwood and he told us that it was fine, or at least no worse than the ground we had already covered. Suitably reassured we set off for Cottonwood.
You can probably guess what happened next – surprise, surprise we got stuck (again!) We tried to dig the car out for about 50 minutes but only managed to move it about six feet. It was around 14:00 by this time and we had to decide whether to stay with the car or try and walk out. If we followed the road back it would be around 15 miles before we would get to anywhere that we might see somebody else. Alternatively we could cut across country to Coyote Buttes north (CBN) and hope to meet somebody at the Wire Pass entrance as they left around sunset. We knew that there were 20 people in CBN so this was probably our best chance of help. We hadn't seen any more sign of anybody since Marek had left so the alternative was to spend an unknown number of nights waiting with the vehicle. The BLM station had had 14 spare permits out of a possible 20 for Cottonwood after we got ours, so we knew that there couldn't be all that many people around.
We made the decision to walk out via CBN and thought that we would take our camera gear in case we saw something we wanted to photograph en route. We set off up the track and after about a mile came to the crest of the first ridge. It was at this point that we realised the enormity of the task ahead and that we probably wouldn't get a chance to make any images on the way! We could barely see the back of CBN and estimated that it was over 5 miles away. This would make the total distance to walk around 9 to 10 miles across rough terrain, both bare rock and soft sand carrying around 45 pounds each. Aaargh!!
I was feeling very pissed off about getting us stuck, despite assurances from Alex and David that they wouldn't even have got as far as we had if they'd been driving. This was the first time that this had happened to me in 20 years driving to inaccessible places, and I set off at a (grumpy) sharpish pace. In retrospect this was very lucky for us. It took us around three hours to get to The Wave in CBN. We'd only stopped once on the way for about ten minutes breather to eat a snack and drink some water. Sunset was around 17:30 so we knew that we were cutting it fine. There was a small pond in The Wave due to recent heavy rain (the same storm that had wiped out the ladders in Antelope). Alex decided to take his boots off but David and I just waded through. It was a good job that we did as I heard voices as we came out of the canyon on the other side. A couple were just walking past and they told us that they were the last people there! They were amazed that we had walked that far with all our gear and were more than happy to offer us a lift (luckily they had a big enough vehicle parked at Wire Pass). The rest of the walk was reasonably uneventful, though I felt that my legs had turned to lead by the time we reached the dry wash and the last half mile before the car park.
It turned out that our saviors were staying at the same hotel in Page. We offered to buy them dinner in return for their lift and arranged to meet them around 21:00. I went back to my room and had a vigorous shower to remove several pounds of sand from my ears followed by a long soak in the bath. Around 20:30 Alex knocked on my door to say that he'd found somebody to tow the car out for a couple of hundred bucks, the only problem was that they wanted to do it now! It was too good an offer to turn down but as I was the driver on the hire agreement it meant that I would have to forego dinner. The guys that Alex had met were the Navajo guides from Upper Antelope Canyon. I set off with them to pick up a bigger vehicle from the Reservation. I didn't think very much about this until we transferred to the other vehicle and they loaded a lot of equipment on board including jacks, shovels, ropes, and lastly a high powered lamp and a hunting rifle. It suddenly occurred to me that I was driving off into the middle of nowhere with a pocket full of cash and three guys that I didn't really know who also had a gun. The clincher was when then made me where a T-shirt with a target mark on the front – just kidding!
It took about an hour and a half to get back to the car. The Navajos were all really nice guys. Chatting on the way there they said that there was only one towing company in Page. They had had a fire on one of the vehicles that they use to ferry people up the dry wash to the canyon and asked the tow company to quote for removing the vehicle as they couldn't shift it with their trucks. He wanted $800 even though the vehicle was only about half a mile from the main road so God knows how much he would have charged us to pick up our car. I had contemplated telling the car hire company that we had been abducted by aliens and dumped in the middle of the desert but decided that they would probably still charge us a fortune even though they would probably have believed us.
It turned out that there weren't any tow points anywhere on the vehicle so they couldn't just pull it out. They used their shovels to dig away the worst of the sand, lowered the tyre pressures and managed to drive it out, with four of us pushing, within 15 minutes of us reaching the car. A great adventure (in retrospect) but a little worrying at times.
The next day was supposed to be a rest day. Alex had gone off early to put our names in the lottery for permits for CBN. When David and I arrived around 09:30 he was grinning from ear to ear and we rightly assumed that we had got the permits. We decided to spend the day in an area in Coyote Buttes south (CBS) called Paw Hole and had been assured that we would have no difficulty getting there in our vehicle. It was only supposed to be a short walk from the car park but when we left the House Rock Road we found the track quite tricky and bailed out after about a mile because we were (understandably) a little paranoid about getting stuck again. We then had to walk for about 3 kilometers uphill in soft sand. The rock formations were good but nowhere near as impressive as those we had seen on the previous day. We were all fairly tired on the walk back at the end of the day but looking forward to the next day. But that's another story (or post anyway).
Workshop at Linhof & Studio
Paula and I will be running another LF workshop in Leigh on Sea in spring 2008. Details will be posted on the Linhof website in due course or if you just can't wait contact Paula on +44(0)1702 716116 for further details and to reserve a place.