A throng of tourists milled around. It was your unusual untidy ragbag of a group, gaudy jumpers, open-throat shirts and creased clothing beneath a sea of excitable faces, a rainbow of complexions, all agog to peer down. One rather buff looking guy in a snug fitting t-shirt caught my eye and reminded me of Clive James’ description of Arnie Schwarzenegger: that he looked like a condom filled with walnuts.
Myriad selfie sticks were wildly waved in the air, at a ratio of one per every other person. A young girl strutted around edging closer to the precipice. No guardrails in place, the careless approach toward her own safety started to get under my skin, she then started strutting around inside my head. Easy, cavalier girl, show at least some concern for your life: for about a nano-second or perhaps even a femto-second, I thought she was going over the giant plateau and down into the fantastic abyss. A perfect place if you’re looking for a ‘beautiful’ death I suppose—as a place to jump into your ‘next’ life. A morbid point and no wonder the spot is considered the suicide capital of Arizona.
Distracted by the same Gooseneck bend (also known as Horseshoe bend) itself, I was in thrall to it all at once—oblivious about getting too close. I just wanted to peer down to see it all, and on the right rock jutting out, you can do just that. What was akin to a 99-storey building—lo!—I discovered a 270-degree emerald-green river making a terrific U-turn below the steep cliff of Marble Canyon. My brain spun momentarily and I tried to slow it down, get some traction on the sight before me.
Just a mini-trek from highway 89, the bend is a mere 2.5 miles south of Page and another half a mile from where we parked. Over the course of say a billion years, an unassuming little river, running from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and being filled up by melting mountain snow, has created tens of hundreds of miles of fathomlessly large canyons down its path. As the American Southwest goes, this was quite the example of where wind, water and passing time have carved an impossible, fantastic jewel in ancient sandstone.
Back on the blacktop, I watched my mirrors carefully. Tarmac, rocks and mountains unspooled behind us. A tad farther down the road took us and two good folks we’d met through motorcycling, Beth and Ken, to Water Holes. Not a pukka English pub, it’s a branched drainage that forms multiple slot canyons, cutting through the red Navajo sandstone around Lake Powell. Flowing into Glen Canyon, the watercourse meanders down some pretty narrow passageways, home to varied and radiant red rock formations, both jagged and smooth from eons of wind and water erosion.
Adamant that we’d left it too late, Ricky, the RV campsite clerk in Page showed an indifference that told me he’d been in his job too long. Customer service no longer featured on his radar, and dealing with me asking more questions than canyons left his shoulders sagged and his mouth flippant. I could feel the growing conflict of interests: my inquisitive ones laden with an assortment of queries versus a set of ‘Why are you still talking at me, lady?’ ones, which felt heavy and thick just beneath the tracing-paper thin conversation being had.
“The next photography tour available is the middle of next month at 2.30pm,” in a voice so saccharine, it could have induced diabetes but laced with the smallest hint of satisfaction. Well, there it was, said with absolute conviction, served straight up, no salt, no chaser. And it burned all the way down. Darn it!
Lips pursed into a grin of rictus warmth and unflinching, I gazed levelly at him. My ususal strategy of smiling sweetly and showing the utmost respect to the person in charge would have no leverage in this situation. Instead, I looked straight past his smug face on the wall at the iconic shots of Antelope Canyon; may be we should’ve booked months in advance.
I nodded in a cold fury, far from comforted. Round and round I went, spinning mental wheels, finding no place to make traction. The odds were stacked against us: it was Easter and Spring break. The place was packed, go figure. We were lucky to pitch camp in the park’s overspill area, on the cusp of the noisy main road. With a maelstrom of thoughts crowding my head out, Jason tried to pump air into my cratered hopes and stop my spirits sagging, by quietly suggesting we should just turn up on spec.
If I should have gleaned one lesson from the road by now, it’s never listen to folks with an agenda. Two orderly queues formed at Ken’s Tours: one for the epically organized, and one for people like us, who take the attitude ‘Nothing ventured…’ In fact the reservation’s line was longer than the walk-ins, securing us tickets faster than I could have dreamed.
Situated on Navajo Nation (Indian Reservation) land, close to the Arizona 98 a few miles out of Page, Upper and Lower Antelope has to be the most popular slot canyon for miles. Either are easily accessible, plastered on Google images and more popular than newborn puppies. Although the legendary shafts of sunrays bursting through the canyon in a magnificent moulin of light, would be more of a May-time feature on the Upper one. So be it. Required to prove we were both serious shooters by the cameras we carried to qualify on the photographer’s tour—what an unexpected joy it turned out from having chosen models with interchangeable lenses. I couldn’t take a good photo if a stunning composition jumped out at me and gave me a hair cut.
Speaking of stunning, while waiting for the sun to traverse on its afternoon journey before our tour commenced, a fairly young Navajo woman busied herself serving customers in the giftshop. Addressing each person behind dark long eyelashes. Wow. She had apple cheeks. She had a timeless, folklore beauty. Hair, in a glossy raven wealth tumbled from her head and pooled around her shoulders before spilling down to her waist. A living Pocahontas.
Despite the photography tour through the Lower section being a constant body-shuffling battle—treading water against a strong current of other tourists, all just as zealous to buoy their own memories if not their iPhone’s with myriad pictures—the conditions gave rise to an exquisite combination of depth, width, length, layers of rock colour and ambient light. It teetered on perfection. Constantly craning our necks to look up and behind served us well.