Drylands: The Deserts of North America 5

February 19th, 2022 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Excerpts From The Text And Photographs of Drylands: The Deserts of North America by Philip Hyde, Part Five

Continued from the blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts Of North America 4.”

Canyonlands From the White Rim, Monument Basin, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, 1982 by Philip Hyde. (Click to see large.)

Drylands: The Deserts of North America with photographs and text by Philip Hyde” came out of nearly 60 years of exploring and defending western North American wilderness with special emphasis on the five deserts of the continent. Yolla Bolly Press, which also packaged “Mountain Light” by Galen Rowell and other well-known landscape photography titles, donated its archive to Stanford University, where the Drylands manuscript archive resides in the Stanford University Archives at the Green Library. “Drylands” is now out of print, but can be found used at various online booksellers by searching, “Drylands Philip Hyde.”

Blog articles in this series consist of the original text of the book, “Drylands: The Deserts Of North America.” Parts 1, 3 and 4 contain the opening section of the book called, “The Five Deserts of North America,” by Philip Hyde, which is like a preface, but is not titled as such. The Introduction by the well-known naturalist, David Rains Wallace, discusses the evolution, adaptation, migration and other mysteries of both the flora and fauna of North America’s deserts. The blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts Of North America 2,” tells the story of the making of the book. The following blog post continues the text with Part One: The Painted Desert. Drylands contains no chapters, only the sections described above plus one section for each desert: Part One—The Painted Desert, Part Two—The Great Basin Desert, Part Three—The Mojave Desert, Part Four—The Sonoran Desert, Part Five—The Chihuahuan Desert, a Photographer’s Afterword, List of Photographs, Bibliography, and Index. For a defining explanation of the boundaries and characteristics of each desert, see the book, or the blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts of North America 4.”

Part One: The Painted Desert

The Painted Desert is a country of soaring cliffs, great buttes, labyrinthine canyons, high plateaus and mesas, beautifully sculpted rock, and, in some of its more open precincts where softer sediments lie on the surface, lovely varicolored hills. It was probably those hills that first inspired the name, but the whole landscape seems painted, and sometimes even the clouds that float above pick up and reflect the color of the land below.

The country sometimes goes by other names: Plateau Province, Canyonlands, Four Corners Country, Indian Country. This colorful landscape occupies southeastern Utah, extending to the Wyoming border along Utah’s eastern edge, and includes part of western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona.

The centerpiece of this landscape filled with marvels is the complex drainage system of the Colorado River and its tributaries—the Little Colorado, the San Juan, and the Green. The scenic climax is the Grand Canyon of the Colorado on the western edge of the Painted Desert. Some of the oldest rocks on earth lie exposed at the bottom of this vast meandering trench that the Colorado River has cut through the rising Kaibab Plateau.

Since I live in California, I enter this country from the west—through Nevada, across the Great Basin, and into Utah. Over the years my travels in Utah have given me a very special feeling for that state and its colorful land of sediments. The actual state border is an insignificant place, but crossing it always seems to evoke a mood of anticipation and jubilance. It began, I suppose, with the first crossing, when I was eleven. My family and I were on a journey by car from California to New York and had made the long transit across the Great Basin. At Panaca, Nevada, we left pavement to take the little dirt road that went to Cedar City. It was afternoon, and a summer storm was gathering. On current maps the distance between Panaca and Modena, the first town we came to in Utah, is about thirty miles, but my memory says it was several hours, increasingly punctuated by thunder and lightning. The storm came ever closer, until the interval between blinding flash and deafening roar was imperceptible. We must have been somewhere near the Utah state line when it started to rain, the pelting drops adding their crescendo to the din. I remember fearing that lightning would strike the car. And I remember great relief as the lights of Modena came into view, and we found a room and trooped upstairs to its haven. In the brilliant sunshine of the following days, we experienced the wonders of Bryce Canyon’s fairyland and looked from the North Rim into the great abyss of the Grand Canyon.

Memories of that trip were reawakened some years later, in the waning months of World War II, while I was waiting to be “separated” from the service. I discovered the post library and its fine collection of American Guide Series—Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon. As I pored over the guides, the idea of a grand celebration of liberation began to take shape: I would seek out all the parks and wild places in the West I could find. I though I had first thought of it as a summer’s trip, I couldn’t be satisfied with just a summer, and the plan I’d made turned into a blueprint for my life work.

Sometime during those weeks in the post library at Maxwell Field, I wrote to Ansel Adams for advice on training in photography. Back from Ansel came the news that he was starting a school in my native San Francisco. After a detour to the University of California at Berkeley, where I found my wife, Ardis, I enrolled in Ansel’s school, which was part of the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). I spent the next three years acquiring the tools I needed to become a photographer. Then Ardis and I began seeking out those wild places.

In 1951, the Sierra Club commissioned me to photograph Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. A controversy was brewing over two dams the Bureau of Reclamation wanted to build on the Green River in the heart of the monument. The plan would flood the choicest, most scenic areas in Dinosaur’s canyons. Dinosaur was then a little-known place, and my job was to find out what was there and to bring back photographs of it.

Continued in the blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts of North America 6.”

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