Cliche

We were pushing for Zion, forced to cut some stops from the itinerary to accommodate the contracted start date in Tucson. As we neared Page, I realized that we would change roads a mere 7 miles from Horseshoe Bend. It was nearly twenty years ago I’d last looked over that ledge and Justin had never seen it. It seemed like a more than worthwhile detour and a great place to cook dinner, so we went left at the intersection instead of right and pulled into the full parking lot just as the sun began its descent towards the golden hour.

As we walked the trail down towards the famous bend in the mighty Colorado River, we were once again among the throngs, once again “traffic.” I thought of the camera in my hand, the tripod on my back, and I wondered if I should even bother. Horseshoe Bend is one of the most photographed locations in the country, usually shot from the exact location I was planning to shoot from. If you search the location on Instagram, it’s image after image of nearly the exact same photo. What could I possibly contribute? Would I just be adding to the noise? Was I just going to shoot another cliche image of a cliche landmark? 

Well, that sure is one way to look at it. 

Or…

(1) I find Horseshoe Bend (and the Grand Canyon and the jagged Tetons and the Oregon coast and Big Sur…and, and, and…) to be unbelievably beautiful and moving places- places that I deeply hope everyone gets the opportunity to witness in person, flesh to wild air. I am a solitary heart and would, of course, relish the chance to experience such a place in solitude. But these places are public treasures and I will gladly trade that solitude for the protection and devotion to them that comes directly as a result of public access. It’s the cost of #publiclandsinpublichands and one I’ll gladly pay. 

(2) I had a professor in law school who was fond of the verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: there is no new thing under the sun.” Hey, I’m not inventing the wheel or curing cancer here. I wanted to take a photograph of a place I find beautiful, a lovely moment that I experienced, a memory that Justin and I shared. So what if someone finds it cliche? I didn’t shoot it for them, I shot it for me, in service to my creativity, to my self-expression, to my journey through this life. I didn’t copy anyone’s work, didn’t set out to recreate someone else’s artistic labors. No, it’s not my most unique photograph ever, but I had a great time getting it and I sure do enjoy looking at it and that’s the part that matters most to me. Sometimes our true story, our actual and authentic experiences and opinions overlap with those of others. I think that’s okay. I think that’s to be expected. Call it collective consciousness, call it trend, call it whatever you’d like, but often shifts in thought (artistic, scientific, political) happen across a wide swath of people and places at once. I think that’s pretty magical, actually, and if I find a place like Horseshoe Bend truly beautiful and moving, I just can’t believe that my saying so and attempting to share that beauty in whatever small way I’m able makes me a cliche or somehow less because I wasn’t the first person to express such a sentiment. That said…

(3) There is always room to find our own voices in our creative work. If I’d been truly intent on creating something unique of Horseshoe Bend, I could have worked harder. From hauling a bunch of ND filters and a few other lenses in order to create a more artistic rendering, to brainstorming a way to tell a story of this land or its history or the cultures that have called this place home, I’m sure there are as many unique ways to express a vision of this landmark as there are people who visit it. We each bring something of our singular selves to work that we sink real time and attention into. There is always room for each of our voices and our perspectives, unique value in our true experiences, so don’t let some fear that yours is “noise” stop you from sharing it. You never know who might find your particular voice the inspiration they need to share theirs. Which leads me to...

(4) Make it anyway. The photo, the essay, the knit hat, the Instagram post, whatever. Maybe the process of making something is the point. Maybe that process unlocks a new idea, a new way of saying or seeing something. There will likely be people who don’t like it. Someone may very well call it cliche. Whatever. We can’t please everyone. Hell, it’s hard enough to please myself most of the time. Just keep at it. It’s easy for people not making anything to be critical of what others are doing, what others are putting out into the world. Those people deserve our compassion (it’s a painful thing to feel stifled and unrealized), but not our attention or energy. We need those to keep coming at our work, whatever that work might be. I think often of Elizabeth Gilbert’s words in Big Magic:

“Recognizing that people's reactions don't belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you've created, terrific. If people ignore what you've created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you've created, don't sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you've created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest - as politely as you possibly can - that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”

Right?!?! Seriously. It’s not up to us to manage the reactions of others to our heartfelt work, it is only up to us to keep doing it. So let’s keep doing it. And in case you were wondering, ignoring the “haters” and laboring on also applies to the nasty critic that lives in our heads. Make it anyway, y’all. 

 

So down the trail we went, to the edge of a red rock precipice to peer over and to look down on the immense power that slow moving water has if given enough time. This magnificent bend wasn’t formed of cataclysm or fury, but by stubbornness and a refusal to take any path aside from the one called forth. The river showed up day after day and season after season, growing faster and fatter when the rain was plenty, and slower and more deliberate when the fodder was scarce. But on it flowed, inviting one small speck of stone to join its movement at a time, asking it to break free from what it knew and to take a wild ride to parts unknown. 

We were not alone as we drank the sight in. Not the only ones standing at the edge with a camera at our sides as we looked with two open eyes. We weren’t the only ones who gasped a bit, who were struck by the sight, who couldn’t stop some form of exclamation from escaping our lips. Eventually we all lifted our cameras (or phones or selfie-sticks or whatever) and tried to capture some small rendering of our wonder to take with us. There was not a photographer there who didn’t fall short, not a one who managed it fully- by its very nature, such a place and such an experience simply defies capture. But we had to try. Had to grab something tangible to remind ourselves of the moment, of the ways large and small that the sight of steel blue water and sienna stone and geologic time both renders us minuscule and also breaks us wide, opens us to infinite possibility.

What could possibly be cliche about that?

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Just a quick reminder that the print shop changes tomorrow. Be sure to head over if you would like to grab a piece of art for your home or as a gift for a loved one! And don't forget that 10% of all gross sales from this month's shop go to The Access Fund, making sure these public lands remain protected and accessible to us all.

Desert Rains

For days now it has been raining here in the Sonoran Desert. There have been moments of downpour, but it has mostly been a quiet, insistent rain, steady and soft and unceasing. Flowing Wells Wash runs next to our little RV park, under the railroad tracks and down towards the road and I’ve watched as it transformed from dusty ditch to tumbling stream. Water has pooled in every dip, every dimple, reluctant to sink into the hard and unyielding earth. The mighty winds that proceeded the storm seems to have pushed back the unseasonably warm temperatures and it is cool and damp and raw on this February morning, even as the rain recedes and the sun tries to push some watery light through the mist and overcast skies.

The desert has sprung to life. The creosote has filled the air with the very essence of the smell of rain, earthy and fresh and sharp. The ocotillo has sprouted tiny leaves overnight and the palo verde has deepened its green into a rich, Dr. Suess inspired color. The birds are ecstatic and their songs drown the distant rumble of traffic and trains. They are deafening as they sing in celebration, the cactus wrens and mourning doves and white-throated swifts, the golden plovers and vermilion flycatchers and even the flighty Gila woodpeckers as they race in and out of their homes in the stalwart saguaros. The small creatures scurry, jackrabbits dart behind the jojoba and bursage and pocket mice horde the short-lived windfall in their nests beneath the prickly pear. Even the coyotes could be heard in the wee hours, yipping their gratitude for the wealth of water.

This desert landscape is a relative to the dust-bowl survivor, to the grandmother who tells stories of the Great Depression as she eyes her stock of canned goods protectively. There is no room for waste, for ingratitude here. Every drop of water is earmarked for survival. The lazy or slothful don’t last long and the desert is short on second chances.

This is the lesson, and the desert teaches it well. Opportunity doesn’t wait, doesn’t hang around hoping we will eventually recognize its proffered gifts and take advantage of them. Opportunity often arrives in the midst of high wind and a bit of chaos, blowing around the order in our lives, and presents a small door to the observant, a fleeting invitation to do the work that can mean our deepest sort of survival. It is to be celebrated with song and scurry, and allowed to bring richness to the colors in our lives. Because work doesn’t have to be drudgery- it can be a gathering, a washing clean, an elixir that nourishes our parched hearts. 

It won’t take long for the last dewy remnants of this rain to soak into the soil, for the ocotillo to drop its newly sprouted leaves and the palo verde to fade back to its usual shade. We can batten down the hatches and simply hunker down through the storms of our lives- wait, protected, until the status quo returns. Or we can take the lesson the desert offers and step into the rain, listen for the quiet and insistent invitations to grow, to thrive, that are hidden in the discomfort and thrown about by the winds.

 

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On the road west...we craned our necks for days across the prairie center, on the lookout for the first sign that mountains had returned. Hours after crossing into Colorado, we saw them peeking up along the horizon...