Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sandstone diaries

It had been quite a while since the ardent mountain lover in me craved for a place very unlike the blinding green, dewy fresh and effortlessly charming state of Washington. I longed for some place dramatically different, one where nature has taken surprising turns, one that would sooth my eyes and quench the thirst of my soul. In short, a place that had a distinct character and oodles of it. We looked no further since it had been sitting stubbornly on the top of our must-do list from a long time - the American Old West. Rough and tough, and mesmerizing like no other. Stay with me, dear readers, for I must ramble on for quite a length, whichever way I can, to bring to you my sandstone diaries.

Though we visited a handful of the scores of canyons and cliffs that the old, wild West boasts of, I shall restrain my narration with the two highlights of our trip. Our caravan started in the Bryce Canyon National Park of Utah, the spectacular home of the legendary hoodoos that date back to the prehistoric times. Sculpted from sedimentary rocks by the perfect harmony between air, water and wind, they stand with a fixed and aimless gaze as if stupefied by magic, just like their legend goes. The Native Americans believe the hoodoos were people who were stunned to stone by a wicked Coyote. One can almost see this story come alive in their vacant expressions and mystifying orderliness as if actually punished by a cruel taskmaster. A very striking allusion that scurried past my thoughts were spells from Harry Potter - 'Petrificus Totalus' and 'Stupefy' - which when used correctly, petrifies or stuns the opponent. One just needs the proper wand of course!

The rocks that redden here, whiten there and are orange elsewhere are a sheer delight to comprehend. The unique hollows and arches, bridges and hammers, are just a handful of the popular rock formations of the Bryce Canyon. The natural bridge is probably the most majestic spot in the entire park where an arched hollow of sparkling orange gapes at you with a colour coordinated background of dark green pines. Its cave-like structure reminded me of the "cave of swimmers" from Michael Ondaatje's much acclaimed novel, The English Patient. A weaving of part reality and part fiction, it is a historic and spiritual journey of finding oneself - in life and love, as well as in the abysmal vastness of the Sahara desert. It all came back in flashes to me - the red sand, the arid topography and above all the enigmatic rock paintings. I could not help but compare the novel (particularly its brilliant, must-watch movie adaptation) to my experiences. Like its lost hero Almassy, I too, could feel reality loosening its tight hold of me. Or was it I who lost sight of it amid all that hypnotic beauty?  

Before I digress any further, there was more amazement in store for us. When the last rays of the setting sun kissed the hoodoos, they turned a magical pink. Under a stretch of lavender sky and with their bride-like blush, the landscape oozed drama and grandeur. Of course I couldn't have enough of the camera and behaved like an unruly child to the hilt. And of course the husband had a hard time managing me!

The Antelope Canyon in Arizona comprises the second half of my sandstone stories. Glued to my thoughts ever since we had been to the Grand Canyon three years back, we did not consider it worth paying a visit due to a fatal combination of ignorance and lack of time. Like the traveller who broods over an incomplete journey, I lamented our decision when I later saw some breathtaking photographs of what happens to be the most visited slot canyon of the American Southwest. Therefore it had to happen, one day or the other, come what may!
Located on Navajo land, a trip to the Antelope canyon is always a guided tour where the guide is a Navajo local. Since we opted for the photography tour, which is also an hour longer than the normal one, the guide was just the man we needed to show us the best nooks and crannies. After a fifteen minutes ride in the back of a rickety mini truck, through a desert of red sands and being thoroughly sand-washed, there we were - the upper Antelope Canyon, which the Navajo call 'Tse bighanilini' meaning the place where water runs through rocks. What looked like an ordinary cave from outside, turned out to be the most astonishing experience once we entered it. That something this spellbinding actually exists was beyond our comprehension. The wavy patterns on the walls created by flash floods looked as if a thousand magical fingers, in one fleeting moment, have run along them. A curve here, a twist there and the countless illusions the moody patterns create made us forget the muggy suffocation from the collective effect of the sand, the crowd and the outside temperature of a good 100 degree F.

The most prized moment for which everyone waited with skipped heartbeats was the appearance of the entrancing light beam through the openings on the ceiling of the canyon. That was a moment of lifetime, surreal and fragile, and to some extent divine too. Yes, all at the same time. Enveloped in a rapturous murmur of sighs, time and space froze into eternity. There was a strange and haunting silence, when one could hear only nature speak. A thousand shimmering grains of sand danced in that ray of light, as if once it is gone the trance would break.
Sandstone of every possible earthy tone - orange, rust, brown, chocolate and sometimes even a faint purple - greeted us from every inch and corner. In actuality the elusive beams of light play this colour trick but when surrounded by all that splendor and nature's glory, does it really matter? The brochure we got while purchasing the tour ticket read, "It was and still is a spiritual experience". It couldn't have been more true.

It has been a fortnight since our return home but the stories keep coming back, in images and sounds. How a palimpsest of worlds dance in front of my besotted eyes and how I keep shuttling between the past and the present. Just like that! I might have just left a piece of my heart etched on the canyon walls and my head wandering in the dreary, dusty desert paths.
Now that I've actually said much more that I had planned to, I must end this rumination with a befitting quote from The English Patient.

"I have spent weeks in the desert, forgetting to look at the moon, he says, as a married man may spend days never looking into the face of his wife. These are not sins of omission, but signs of pre-occupation."

And for those of you wanderers who are wondering how the roads look like, here is a fine glimpse -


  1. wow....some amazing shots of the landscape.....i can just imagine how beautiful it's in real life!!

  2. really nice one..loved the quote at the end...

  3. There are so many natural wonders !! That makes me dream. Your pictures are amazing !

  4. Shooting star, thank you for visiting!

    Umesh, I knew you'd like it, the quote I mean. :-)

    Celine, thank you so very much! True, I get enticed too. I have this wishlist of visiting at least ten of them, and in this life. :D
    Now how that happens, let's wait and watch!


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