Uncle John and the Rock With Wings
by Peter Shelton
Dec 03, 2008 | 664 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print

I missed my Uncle John’s show of aerial photographs in San Diego. It ran to much acclaim through the summer. He made it to the opening reception, though at 94 and in poor health, he had to be wheeled about the gallery. Cousins at Thanksgiving showed us pictures. John looked very pleased indeed, still tickled in fact, still fascinated by the mysteries yet to be explained. He died in July.

The black-and-white photos were displayed as no one had ever seen them before – huge, blown up to wall-map size and digitally printed to within a pixel of perfection. Most were images we knew, photos from among the hundreds in John’s 1966 textbook, Geology Illustrated. Each one tells a story of dynamic earth, caught from above as it were, revealing its changes – fault lines and mountain upthrusts, lava flows and ancient shorelines – all photographed from John’s airplane, and all of them clear as glass in the unadulterated air of the American West in the 1940s and 50s.

This last fact added a poignancy to the show’s media coverage. Every reviewer noted that air pollution today virtually guarantees that none of these images will ever be recreated.

The cousins in Santa Fe had a special reprieve for those of us who hadn’t made it out to California for the show. We could order digital prints from the show’s catalogue. I poured over the thumbnail pictures and finally decided on a photo I’ve always loved, of Shiprock in northwestern New Mexico.

John shot it flying in from the south in the golden hour after dawn, the great sail of basalt standing 1,700 feet above the surrounding desert and with its five-mile-long dike curving back to the viewer like a dragon’s tail.

I love it because the story is so naked and clear, of a volcano’s neck (and arteries) exposed after 30 million years of erosion. I love it because you just know an anomaly this beautiful must be sacred to the Navajos who live there. And it is (although I had to look up the details after I got home).

The natives call it “Rock with Wings.” It was once a great bird that had lifted the people from a dangerously competitive situation up north (the Bering Straight?) to their home in the Four Corners region. These days, it is a destination for young men on their solitary vision quests.

I also knew a little bit about the rock’s climbing history. In the 1930s Shiprock turned back scores of America’s best climbers until it became known as “the toughest climbing challenge” in the West. David Brower, who would later lead the Sierra Club to prominence as an environmental organization, led an all-star crew from Yosemite on the first successful assent in 1939. The “Rock with Wings” has been off-limits, technically, to climbers since 1970. Though word is, if the locals are approached respectfully, permission to climb is often granted.

The highway that goes by Shiprock, the one that used to be U.S. route 666 until somebody worried too much about the faux-satanic reference, is almost always out of our way. Trips to Flagstaff or Santa Fe or Albuquerque, where Cloe and Adam and baby Alexander live, take us north of Shiprock, through Teec Nos Pos or southeast through Cuba on highway 550.

We had planned to drive home after turkey day on 550 via Cuba and Durango. But then fate intervened. Cloe and Adam forgot their front-side baby carrier, their Baby Bjorn. (The one we had when Cloe was tiny was called a Snugli.) They had traveled west to Gallup for the weekend, where Cloe was moonlighting at a little hospital there. Poor Adam would be stuck in the motel room all day, unable to take Xander out on walks. Unless we brought them their Baby Bjorn.

It meant going out of our way an hour or two. But what the heck, we would get to see them again for a quick lunch, solve the baby-walking problem, and head north via the renamed highway 491.

This was Friday, the second day of a four-day Thanksgiving storm. To our left the dark wall of the Chuska Mountains rose out of a treeless plain dotted very occasionally with hogans and trailers. The top of the wall disappeared in cloud. Below that line, piñons formed a lace of branches topped with snow.

We drove nearly a hundred miles on wet pavement under a dark-sky lid. Until, that is, Shiprock appeared, its top sails poking above the horizon. Everything else was a silhouette. But that huge fin sailing across the desert was at that moment lit by a random, slanting beam. Uncle John would have loved it.
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