In the Jaw of a Dragon: Searching for Tao Canyon

In these book excerpts, adventurers reflect on four decades of discovery—and friendship—in the American desert southwest. Words :: Jeremy Schmidt // photos :: Pat Morrow, Art Twomey, Jeremy Schmidt.

The book Searching for Tao Canyon was a long time coming. It’s the result of a decade-long photographic treasure hunt that began over 40 years ago when we first learned about the northern Arizona slot canyons and their potential for mind-bending images.

 

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It took some learning. At first encounter, slots were just cracks in the desert—inconspicuous and easy to overlook. They didn’t show up on topographic maps. We couldn’t see them from a distance, and sometimes not until we were nearly on the edge of one.

But from inside looking up, we found ourselves in an unexpected world, a new habitat for a different species of light than any we’d known before. It wasn’t the light alone that made magic: the smoothly carved rock played with it, tossing it from side to side, bouncing it up and letting it fall like some sort of photon feather.

In the best slots, we could sit for hours watching a sort of kaleidoscopic dance as the sun arced overhead. Patterns might suddenly emerge. Unexpected alignments would click into place, and the previously jumbled scene would suddenly make visual sense.

Art Twomey, the late Canadian photographer and filmmaker, got us started. He found the first one, purely by accident, and published a memorable photograph that prompted the three of us—Art, Pat Morrow, and me, along with various friends who joined us—to spend months at a time probing one of the most rugged and intriguing landscapes on the continent.

 

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Art Twomey.

 

It helped that we were climbers. We saw slot exploration as inverse mountaineering. The direction was downward but the skills and equipment were much the same for peaks and canyons. Now they call it canyoneering in guidebooks that didn’t exist back then, and in hundreds of brochures, websites, blogs, and tour company ads for slot canyon excursions.

One of the finest and best-known slots is now a Navajo tribal park. In the spring of 2018, Pat and I stopped in to check out the scene. Bus tours poured in. Visitors from around the world lined up in guided parties, most with advance reservations. No more than 2,500 people are allowed per day, though demand can be twice that. Tours last about 45 minutes, and everyone we talked to said the canyon was a wonderful and thrilling thing to see. We could only agree, but felt privileged to have known it when we could spend days at a time down there, cranking Kodachrome film through our cameras.

Not all slot canyons are famous. The slickrock desert is full of them. We could point you towards hundreds of slots but we’d rather defer to Art, who knew half the reward was in the finding. When people asked him for directions, he would say: “I found them. So can you.”

 

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Art had found the canyon on a topographic map. It appeared as a series of squiggly brown contour lines crowded against a blue line indicating water. That meant cliffs and a stream. As for anything more, a paper map could only hint at the true nature of the place. Their hike started out as they expected, sand and thorny shrubs and not much else. But canyon country delights in dealing surprises. Just when you think you know where you’re going, and how to get there, you find you don’t know much at all. True to form, a few miles from their planned destination, as if enjoying its big joke, the desert opened in a jack-o-lantern grin. They came upon it suddenly—a ragged crevasse in glaring bedrock, a dark slash directly across their path of travel. It was almost narrow enough to leap across, if they’d been brave enough, but it made them nervous just to stand on the edge of what seemed a bottomless void… They started walking, looking for a place to get across, following the canyon upstream. In places, the rim resembled a giant funnel, its smooth walls sloping down 40 or 50 feet to a narrow mouth, and then—blackness. If you slipped it would swallow you, no stopping the slide… After half a mile of walking, they came to the end. Or rather, the beginning, a place where the canyon was no more than a shallow ravine. Had they encountered it at this point, they might have crossed it without a thought and kept on walking. Instead, they dropped their packs and slipped down into the shadows.  At this point, the floor of the ravine was a smooth slickrock slab, in the middle of which ran a tiny waterworn groove.

 

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Quickly it grew to something more. It became a narrow slit, hardly a foot across, diving steeply underground. Water had carved it. The water had pulsed through in flash floods. Finding a weakness in the bedrock, it had sliced downward like a wire melting through butter, except that as it went, it twisted on itself, writhing, coiling, hesitating, then plunging deeper, hurrying toward the distant Colorado River. Dry now, the canyon looked like the sort of place only a snake with wings would have any reason to venture into. Nonetheless, drawn by curiosity, turning their shoulders sideways, Art and Joanna edged their way deep into the bedrock.  What they found was an illusory landscape that twisted their perceptions and tweaked their sense of reality. It was a desert funhouse, a whimsical structure of cool, shady rooms connected by narrow passages, beautifully rounded and lit from above. The light bounced down in the same way their tossed pebbles had done, ricocheting, echoing, becoming distorted and, the farther they walked, becoming almost too dim to see by. Almost never was the sky visible. The shapes were extraordinary. Water had carved the sandstone in its own form, complete with waves and eddies. It was liquid made solid. Motion petrified…  Not until he got home, processed the film and saw the photographs did Art realize how unusual a place they had found. There was light down there that he hadn’t seen, or rather hadn’t interpreted. It was a gentle, multicoloured light that mixed with the fluted sandstone in a way that defied ordinary perception but revealed itself on film.

 

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The pictures showed a dizzy confusion of up and down, in and out, conveying no sense of scale or substance. The pictures were at least as weird as the place itself.  The best of those photos, which he called Sandstone Alcove, appeared on the cover of the 1974 Sierra Club Wilderness Calendar. It was perhaps the first slot photograph to appear in a widely distributed, popular publication. It tantalized thousands of viewers who had never seen any landscape to compare with it, and caused a minor stir. Hundreds of people wrote the publishers wanting to know where the photo had been made. One man wrote a long poem. Some accused Art of manipulation, as if he had used lights and distorting lenses. But of course it existed, in solid rock and ever-changing light, a fantastic space both physical and ethereal with its own definition of how three physical dimensions can seem to represent more.

That first year, while snow still covered the mountains of British Columbia and Yellowstone, we met in red rock country and spent two months scouring the region for the narrowest, deepest, most visually alluring canyons we could find. We did it again in the fall, and then the following spring. It became an informal tradition—especially in spring, when, weary of severe northern winters and eager for the fragrance and soul-warming colours of desert sand, we would get together in the slickrock with new ideas and new maps, and poke our noses into the most obscure corners we could find. Over a span of ten years or so, we shinnied and wiggled and swam and walked through many canyons, large and small, not all of them pleasant. Some were as lovely as that first one where Art shot Sandstone Alcove. Others were grim places filled with cold water and cold, dull light. We oozed through those, slipping and shivering, and didn’t go back. Finding slots could be a matter of dumb luck. They showed up unpredictably, almost always in massive, homogeneous sandstone, the pure stuff uncut by shale, mudstone or other messy layers.

 

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Michelangelo demanded perfect Carrara marble. To the desert sculptor—nature, that is, wielding wind and water as its primary tools—Navajo sandstone is prime. Geologists have a beautiful word for this kind of stone: aeolian, from the Greek god Aeolus, Keeper of the Winds. Up to 2,200 feet thick, white or pink in colour, Navajo sandstone began as dunes piled high by Jurassic winds in a Sahara-like desert. Its neighbour the Entrada sandstone is good, and so is the Wingate, both of them deeply red and orange. But slots occur in all kinds of rock, and knowing the stratigraphy only begins to narrow things down… Usually, finding a new slot involved a lot of walking, more or less blindly scouring the dendritic headwaters of major canyons where streams were small and intermittent, and slots were likely to begin. Maps might show a thin blue line, or not. Even on large-scale topographic maps, contour lines run across slots with scarcely a nick. You wouldn’t know there was anything to see except flat desert, prickly pear and blackbrush tearing at your legs. Then the sand gives way to smooth rock, the rock slopes downhill slightly, and within a few steps you’re standing on the edge of one…

 

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The narrow, usually dry slots were comforting, in their enclosed, enclosing way. They had the finest sculpting and the most abstract juxtapositions of curving shapes and shadow. They were enough in their own right, but if we followed them far enough, the best ones opened into much bigger canyons, still slots in their general shape but scaled up and big enough to hold churches. These were glorious. You wouldn’t have to knock off the steeples to fit whole churches down there in the shade of opposing rims that nearly touched, but below them the canyons widened out to form vast echoing amphitheatres. It might have sounded good to hear a pipe organ in those spaces. It surely would have. Yet to us those big slot canyons were better than any churches could ever be, and the music that filled them was older even than the rocks…. At every turn there was enchantment of the sort Loren Eiseley meant when he wrote, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” The canyons were water as much as they were rock. They were carved by water, were filled with the music of its flowing. Water sustained the birds that danced in the air above and the insects upon which they fed. It dampened the maidenhair fern and yellow columbines on dripping walls, and filled the pools where frogs made their own croaky but harmonious songs of water.

There were no guidebooks or GPS units to show us the way and spoil the joy of discovery. No mountain bikes, dirt bikes, bungee jumping or ziplines. No helicopter tours, parasails, flying squirrel suits or personal aircraft, never the angry buzz of drones carrying cameras, no ATVs, and few vehicles overall. The explosion of outdoor toys that have so altered the wild landscape, and the way people get around in it, lay in the future like a hidden crate of dynamite at the end of an unlit fuse. We felt free, and we were, and we had the canyons to ourselves. We rarely encountered anyone else in them and came to think of slot canyons as our personal secret gardens. We spent days, even weeks, in the best ones. With tripods set, we watched shadows move, and shapes shift as the sun arced through the unseen sky above.

 

 

We hung from ropes, wedged ourselves into narrows hardly wide enough for a tennis shoe, or perched in little waterworn rooms high above the canyon floor, their walls carved round like the inside of a cured squash. Turnaround time to see the result of our processed slides was a minimum of one week. It took a couple of batches of film, and spreading out our slides on a borrowed light table at the tiny newspaper office in Page, Arizona, to see that we were initially way off in our approach to capturing the essence of these kaleidoscopic places. We learned a whole new way of seeing subterranean light and adjusted our photographic approach accordingly. Long exposures, usually 15 to 30 seconds, brought out colours that were hard to see with the naked eye. Some colours were modified by the way film reacted to different wavelengths during long exposures, an effect called reciprocity failure. Yet we enhanced nothing. All the colours were there, in the actual spectrum of the slots. We learned to see the different tones, and to anticipate how they would look on film, and then to wait for changes in ambient light… that would bring the results we hoped for. It made for a lot of time sitting still, studying shadows and watching the drifting harmonics of indirect, reverberated sunlight. Stretches of canyon that casual visitors breeze through in mere minutes today would hold us captive all day long.

 

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Searching through a stack of aerial photos one year, we found the deepest slot we know of. It appeared as a ragged black line several miles long, running nearly straight through a sandy plain covered with desert scrub. It took us a full day following dirt tracks and an inadequate map to get within walking range, then several miles to the rim of the slot. It was a classic—hidden in the surrounding desert scrub, slightly flared in the upper 50 feet yet nearly invisible until we stood at the edge. I dropped my pack and, climbing gingerly across the sloping rock, scrambled to where one wall nearly touched the other. At that point, I could straddle the slot, one foot on each wall, and look straight down. A few dragon’s teeth glowed dimly near the top, then all was black. Testing the depth, I dropped a stone into the maw. It hit early and shattered in a long echoing clatter. I tried other stones, searching for a place with an uninterrupted drop to the bottom.

After six or eight tries, one fell true. It fell for eight seconds. The report, when it finally came, was not the sound of rock hitting rock but rather a splash, deep and resonant. A distant war drum. Code for Keep Out, but for Pat, who scrambled around slot canyons with a loose-jointed ease that I found hard to watch, it was an invitation. He strung a climbing rope from a juniper tree, tied a knot in the end to keep himself from slipping off into oblivion, stepped over the edge and disappeared. I could hear his boots and clothing scraping on the rock walls, but I couldn’t see him. Soon the sound stopped. “Holy shit,” his voice echoed from the gloom.

 

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“Does it reach?” I leaned over with one hand on the taut rope. Silence. Minutes went by… Distorted, demented sounds rose from the dark. “Can you see the bottom?” More scraping sounds. Heavy breathing. At last he emerged from below the ledge… Somewhere down in the cave-like cold, illuminated only by glimmers of ricocheting light, Pat had dangled at rope’s end, spinning slowly, still far above the bottom, suspended in the convoluted space between narrow rock walls, a spider dancing in the jaw of a dragon. He had hung there for several long minutes, one foot against the rock to keep from spinning, peering into the dark but seeing only glimmers and shadows. It was still a long way to the bottom, he said, and as black as a bad dream.

Although we learned the geography well, there was never an end to exploring, consulting maps and wondering where in God’s great funhouse we had gotten to. The canyons lured us back year after year. We continued to make pictures. Thousands of them. In four decades, individually or together, we published slot canyon photographs and articles in dozens of magazines worldwide. In all of them, we kept to Art’s original policy. We never revealed locations. We never gave real names. Other people did that, even going so far as to write guidebooks to once-secret and sacred places, some of which are now famously swamped with visitors.

Looking at them now we realize they are not only a document of the invasion of the pre-recreationist physical landscape; they also represent the chronology of a friendship—a friendship that found its focus and rejuvenation in the shared pursuit of wild places. More than 40 years further on, Art is gone. But the canyons remain. Sandstone and the deep blue desert sky. Rippling waters. The croaks of canyon tree frogs beneath delicate hanging gardens. The sweet cascading call of canyon wrens. Windstorms, rattlesnakes and cactus spines. At night, tiny streams flow in ribbons over smooth shelves. They pick up the moonlight and transform it to molten silver beneath impenetrably black slickrock walls. Stars wheel overhead. The canyons call gently to us as they always have done.

Art Twomey, the man to whom The Search for Tao Canyon is dedicated, was possessed of polymath sensibilities. His partners in exploration called him “the original fun hog,” meaning not that he was a careless hedonist, but that passion, values and authentic desires lit his path through glaciology, geology, environmental activism, filmmaking, photography, ski guiding, mountaineering and mentoring. As a result of his introducing them to slot canyoneering, we are all in his debt. 

Story excerpted from Mountain Life Annual 6.

 

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