Posted by: kerryl29 | August 2, 2021

The Desert Southwest: Clay Beds

After the morning shoot at White Pocket on the second full day of the trip, we had a decision to make: stick around White Pocket for another day (i.e. the rest of that day and the morning of the next) or head out. Given the flexibility in our itinerary (as described in the introduction to this series of posts), either option was a legitimate possibility. We decided to let the conditions decide, and since those conditions called for increasing cloudiness (leading to full-blown cloudy the rest of the day) and strong winds (which would mean blowing sand at White Pocket), we decided to pull up stakes.

Our plan was to hit the Escalante area of Utah next, but we had a location on the way out of Vermillion Cliffs that we thought would work given the expected conditions (which we could see coming to fruition as we broke camp, as the clouds dominated the sky and the wind kicked up): a series of bentonite clay hills off House Rock Valley Road.

There are a number of spots in the western interior of the United States made up of bentonite, including one in the Lower Cathedral Valley of Capitol Reef National Park which we hoped to visit later on the trip. (Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen.) We hoped we’d get an opportunity to photograph this area in even light and so the cloudy conditions were welcome.

The problem was, we didn’t know exactly where these “clay beds” (as we took to referring to them) were located. But, after traversing the gnarly areas of the unpaved roads that connect White Pocket with House Rock Valley, we made a right turn on House Rock Valley Road, in the direction of U.S. Highway 89. About halfway back to the highway, we spotted the hills, to the south, well off the road. There is no trail to the hills (there are actually several sets of “clay beds”); we simply had to find our way there, which is more difficult than it might seem at first because simply walking overland directly towards them isn’t possible (a series of good-sized gullies and canyons dot the landscape between the road and the clay beds). So, we parked the vehicle in a lonely turnout, got out and hiked down an unmarked dirt road to see if we could find a route that would work. I took the GPS with me and marked our vehicle location, just in case the route wasn’t easily retraceable. (This proved unnecessary, but better safe than sorry; consider this foreshadowing for events later in the trip.)

We followed the road down to its end–more than a mile, based on the GPS–and then followed a dry wash in the direction of the hills and, after another a mile or so, we found another wash intersecting the one we were on, and what looked like a faint trail. We lost sight of the hills, due to the topography, but we followed the trail, through a sort of canyon and within about a quarter of a mile, we found ourselves smack in the middle of one of the clay beds.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

These bentonite clay features are truly fascinating subjects, with swaths of swirling colors and textures–basically the same raw set of attributes (i.e. colors and textures) as the rock formations at White Pocket, but with a dramatically different appearance because the specific elements are entirely different.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I treated these features, compositionally, as abstract or semi-abstract subjects. Any temptation there might have been to include the sky–which obviously would have reduced the abstract character of any rendering–was removed due to its featureless gray appearance.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I shot extensively with both my telephoto lens (with some images in excess of 300 mm) and my wider angle optics. I felt that the subject matter lent itself to both approaches, with (unsurprisingly) very different results.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I even produced a pure abstract closeup, of sorts, highlighting the crusty patterns that provide the physical and aesthetic foundation for the broader features.

Bentonite Clay Beds Abstract, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

All of this photography took place in a relatively small area–roughly 1/4 mile by 1/4 mile, I would estimate. Maybe even a bit smaller than that.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

In a nod to my previous post, note that none of the images from this location have been rendered in monochrome. That’s because I felt that color was a crucial element in all of the clay beds images. If the idea of “black and white” ever popped into my head while photographing at this location, it was summarily dismissed.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Despite the small area, there were a lot of options, as you can see, at this location and we spent at least two hours here.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

We were able to retrace our route without any great difficulty, as it turned out, making the GPS unnecessary.

Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Bentonite Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I suspect I could find my way back to this location, but I’m being deliberately vague about how to get there. As I mentioned earlier, anyone driving through this area on House Rock Valley Road can see the formations from their vehicle; the Clay Beds aren’t hidden from view. The hills aren’t a secret.

But actually reaching these hills–and there are multiple different clusters of them (I have no idea how many)–as I noted earlier, is by no means a straight forward exercise. The hills are extremely delicate and it would be a travesty if this area was overrun. Jason and I were scrupulous in avoiding stepping on any of the hills.

When I return to this chronology I’ll begin the process of describing our adventures in and around Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.


Responses

  1. You continue to open my eyes to new and wonderful landscapes. These are fascinating, so now I need to use the wonders of the Internet to learn more.

    • Thanks, Ellen!

  2. Fascinating abstracts, Kerry.

  3. Reblogged this on Manolis.

  4. […] was quite late in the afternoon when we wrapped up at the Clay Beds and transitioned from the Vermillion Cliffs area to Escalante, Utah, which would be our base for […]


Please feel free to comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: