Setting Out

June 29, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

Pawnee National Grassland, June 28, 2020Pawnee ButtesPawnee National Grassland, June 28, 2020; photo: Vyvyan Brunst

It's almost too early, even for the sun, but David is an early riser. Somewhere in a kitchen in Fort Collins, he has fed the dogs, made coffee, packed his Fujifilm X-T2 into the Subaru, and is preparing to drive east to the plains. It was my idea, a brief photo session on the weekend in Colorado's Pawnee National Grassland, but I am used to him being a step or two ahead of me. He's the better hiker, a veteran of five thru-hikes on the 500-mile Colorado Trail and many more rugged miles in other states: he travels light and fast, advises Forest Service volunteers on gear, and mentors many others. When we began our photography business we called it Ultralight Images, with a nod to the wilderness trail as well as to that indispensable element of all photography, light. It's in the word. The Greek φωτός (phōtos), light, and γραφή (graphé), drawing. Drawing, or writing, with light. We do both, and plan to do both, to tell stories with light, lightly and well.

There is little traffic as I head out: tanker trucks and night-shift nurses heading home. I pull down the driver-side visor and swing the Jeep onto Highway 14, where it will stay for the full 42 miles to the Crow Valley Campground. Older men — mature men, experienced men, my wife would object; old men is ageist — mature men are sometimes given to quixotic adventures. Cervantes's hero himself was fifty-something, well advanced at a time when life expectancy was thirty-five, but he had the good sense to also set out with a companion.

The landscape quickly turns rural. It's the nature of the Front Range: with the Rockies at your back, and the college town at its feet, the Great Plains begin only steps away. Greeley, off to the south, was founded as a utopian agricultural community a few years after the Civil War ended, and it grew out of its pioneer roots into sugar beets and cattle — like many pioneers, enterprising, even experimental, in some ways; deeply conservative in others. I used to drive Highway 14 every weekday morning on exactly the same route I was driving this morning, to work at Greeley's sparkling performing arts center, one of the largest in the state. But now, instead of taking a right onto the 85 at Ault, I keep the Jeep pointed east, into the rising sun.

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David W. Fanning at Pawnee National GrasslandDavid W. FanningAt Pawnee National Grassland, June 28, 2020; photo: Vyvyan Brunst

In a photograph from our session, David stands on a stretch of shortgrass prairie, within easy sight of the buttes that push up like ships' turrets, and looks back down a dry wash, along the way we came. It is late June and the greening rains of the spring are done. Now, the pattern is still-cool nights and building heat — today will reach 91 degrees Fahrenheit. By afternoon, thunderheads have stacked themselves over the northeast and north-central parts of the state, and lightning storms will slash at the chalk bluffs, the red-chestnut and the bleached-sand, the buffalo grass and the blue grama, scattering occasional jackrabbits and pronghorn antelope. But it is still mid-morning. The clouds drift across out of the southeast, stratocumulus, low, broken and benign for now, shielding us from the intense glare of early summer. David is dressed practically, in shorts and short sleeves. There is no high brush to navigate, nothing to tear up the legs, just a grove of Rocky Mountain juniper in the arroyo, where flash floods have drained off the high ground, and prickly poppy, Yucca glauca, pricklypear cactus, easily dodged.

He seems to be gauging the light, watching shadows splash artfully on exposed slopes. Hidden to the viewer is a camera held close to his chest. We have come here to add to our landscape portfolios, a collection for David that includes stunning shots of the Weminuche Wilderness, an area bisected by the CT that covers more than twice the acreage of the vast national prairie we are on. He shoots casually, between snatches of conversation, but the ground in the photo seems to pitch awkwardly, like the deck of an ocean liner in unsettled seas, and David is angled forward as though balancing himself against the roll of the ship. In the journals of the Corps of Discovery, recording the three-year expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Lewis wrote that sometimes on the plains it seemed like you were out of sight of land. When I repeat the observation, folks tend to look at me oddly. But it's true for everyone who loves the peace of the prairie, its endless rolling expanse, its uncertainty, even its frightening implacability. What is out there, and what will it give or take from us?

The sides of the ravine at the picture's bottom right, at the end of David's gaze, are lit up in a buttery sheen. He stands in patchy shadow, though, and when I processed the image, I couldn't help thinking how the weather seemed to register the dramatic and shifting changes we've seen over the last four months. Even today, the two of us are learning how to navigate a start-up business under the shared menace of a global pandemic. It affects our hike. There are no hugs or handshakes; we keep a reasonable distance — easy enough in the remote grassland with only a red-winged blackbird, meadowlark, or lark bunting to interrupt.

Later, stopping at a roadside pioneer cemetery (a compelling, otherworldly place for photographers), we lean against our cars and talk over the divide, planning a business, talking about weddings, charity events, wildlife assignments, at a time when many businesses are struggling. We have logged too many miles on the trail, like the Corps of Discovery, like Quixote and his neighbor, to be calmed or put off by the weather. It rarely happens as you expect. A good hiker is a good planner, but an experienced hiker adapts, knowing that there is almost always something extraordinary around the corner. Images to keep. Stories to tell.


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