The line of cars snaking up the windy road to Delicate Arch was my first indication that I would not find solitude and silence. Silly me; a Saturday in June, in the coolest national park around? What else besides crowds? Try crowds with cameras, tripods, and a congenial spirit. At least a hundred people are heading up the slickrock trail at about 6 pm, just to get up to ‘The Arch’ and hang out and revel in the party atmosphere waiting for ‘The Moment’ in which to snap ‘The Shot.’ Or, the 400 shots.
I had not hiked to this most iconic of all arches before. It is a destination with a universal attraction, because it is perched on the edge of a deep sandstone bowl on one side, and a steep drop-off on the other down into one of our valleys. The La Sal (“the salt”) mountains sit ceremoniously in the background, sometimes with a dusting of snow up top as the tallest are above 12,000 feet. Put all that together and you have a pretty spectacular photograph, in the right conditions.
The camaraderie among the hikers is easy and natural. We’re all headed to the top, a 3-mile round trip across slick hot rock and ledges that would be scary if you had a fear of heights. If you’re walking near someone else or keep leap-frogging with them, you greet them and ask where they’re from, and suddenly you have instant friends. Or, you get someone to take your picture of you with your own camera, and then you have a new friend. Very pleasant group.
UNTIL you get to the arch. That is where the jockeying for position begins. Arch hogs get booed off; if you want your pic taken underneath that arch, you’d better be quick about it and vacate immediately! One elderly man with a tripod tottered over there and was taking a bit too much time photographing, and people across the bowl (remember, at least 100 cameras poised) started whistling for him to move, or offering him a beer if he moved, etc. He moved. There is power in a crowd.
You wait. You wait for a cloud to pass. You wait for the sun to sink with long rays. You wait for the arch hogs to vacate. You wait for the ravens to go away from your backpack. And, ultimately, all the waiting is rewarded, this night, with some spectacularly ephemeral lighting opportunities. In the seconds that the sun sprays its light on Delicate Arch, all the folksy chit-chat suddenly ceases and shutters begin to click from every perch. This is serious business, hiking up here for a perfect photo.
I excuse myself after about 30 great shots over 20 minutes, wanting to get down in silence. Leaving the 100 behind, I realize that the temp has started to drop; instead of the day’s high of 89 degrees, it is now 82, and the trek back is ALL downhill. The sun has made its grand disappearance, and the quality of the light is diffused and softened in the desert. Color goes away, leaving just large monochrome shapes and silhouettes. I stop to listen — to the silence, to the heart of the desert, and to my own inner longings being satisfied in every moment.