The Vermillion Cliffs reminded me of hard red foreheads, big red chins, broken promises, busted white molars, black slag pits, cracked vermillion nose bridges, ancient sand-colored Spanish castles soaring above rivers. But below the towering Pariah Plateau there are no rivers, just red and rocky washes—arroyos, the Spanish Conquistadores called them.
This is the land of the last American polygamists, cattle ranches, Kaibab deer with trophy sets of horns, elk, scraggly juniper, the Kaibab Paiute tribe, scraggly piñon trees, the memories of the Mormon pioneer s at Pipe Springs, Fredonia, Lee’s Ferry, scraggly Ponderosa trees, chamisa, red tail hawks, the Navajo.
We stopped and shot photos of the dark, ruddy faces we saw etched in the Navajo sandstone looking south from the escarpment. No pronghorns or big horn sheep in sight, but hopes that lodge in the throat every time we descend from Jacob’s Lake down into the arching curve of US Highway 89-A at the base of the cliffs. For years we’ve hoped for a glimpse of the California Condors turned loose here over the last twenty or so years.
California Condors are one of North America’s largest birds but were eradicated from Northern Arizona in the 1920s. Now they are back, or so we have heard. But we have never seen the wide expanse of wing, the red head of this mighty raptor.
Yesterday, December 9, 2010, was a beautiful day to photograph the reds, the blacks, the whites, the yellows of the land, the faded gray clouds caught swirling in the sky, the blue behind, a doors-wide-open blue that beckons like a siren, or a Circe, beckoning you to fly into the wide arms of the universe.
But we didn’t have time to get entrapped, so we forged on for the Colorado River that cuts away a ragged jag of sandstone, limestone, and shale in multi-hued layers. At Navajo Bridge in Marble Canyon, we parked to walk over the old bridge, now closed, an early stab at white-eyed civilization in the cold, hot, windy, sere, dry, red land. Three Navajo women displayed jewelry and horse hair ornaments in the parking lot.
We walked out on the bridge to take photos and Lo and Behold, there stood Betty making wild gestures, pointing, bending, waving at me to hurry up and there on a span on the new bridge just east of us, perched, their black backs turned towards us; California Condors. I pilfered digital pictures with my digital zoom lens, the hard straight walls of the vermillion canyon as backdrop, the partially iced-over Colorado, the red peaks beyond and again, the luscious arms of the wide-lipped blue on high where condors soar. If they like.