Utah Jazz, Part 1. Bryce Canyon

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This month’s article is likely to turn into more of a photo essay rather than hard core bonsai knowledge. What it is meant to be is bonsai inspiration. More than that, I am planning on a three-part series, so strap yourselves in for the dreaded family slide show. It may seem strange that I am including photos of myself, or my wife, Lisa, but when I do it is solely for scale. So, what brought me to this? A wedding. Two years ago, Lisa’s cousin’s daughter Alicia married in Scottsdale, Arizona and after we attended that event, we headed north to the Grand Canyon, which I reported in these pages. 

Fast forward to this October when Alicia’s younger sister Emily married her beau in Sedona, Arizona, land of the red rock. So, of course we took the opportunity to take in a few more National Parks, heading north above the Grand Canyon and crossing into Utah. Almost twenty years ago I postponed my trip into this area of southern Utah to take one of Boon’s intensive courses. That led to three years of study with Boon, which is really what catapulted my bonsai world. A fair trade indeed. But now it was time to resume the trail to the deserted, desolate world of beauty and wonder that national parks of Utah hold. 

Emily’s outdoor wedding barely escaped a heavy thunderstorm the night before and as we headed out of Sedona, it was still raining. We drove north through the stupendous Oak Creek canyon and on to Flagstaff. We were fortunate to avoid a 200-mile detour from a washout earlier in the week. Crews had just repaired the road a day before our drive. As we drove, there were fewer and fewer trees. 

Nearing Page, Arizona, I spotted small sign that said Horseshoe Bend. To the left across the highway through barbed wire fence there was a gravel road across the dry grass with a bunch of cars parked about 200 yards away. I thought, could it be? Naw, can’t. But if it is, I can’t possibly drive by, so my blinker went on and we dove in for the adventure. Not knowing exactly what was going on, we struggled to find a spot to park amid the tour buses and cars parked in the red sand. Then we spotted the long line of folks trudging up the barren hill. The busloads of Asians were great. One guy spent five minutes as we were parking making sure that his hair was just right. Others were trekking out in the desert in their snuggies and slippers, while there was still drizzle in the air. 

When we got to the top of the hill, I could see that we were in the right place, but the view point was another quarter mile down across the swale, with hundreds of folks passing each other back and forth. Our destination was Horseshoe Bend, where the Colorado River makes a 270-degree turn, almost reaching back to touch itself. But the thing is, it’s about a thousand feet down to it! I had seen it many times in photos while doing research for work, but with conflicting info, I had no idea what state or river it really was. And here I am, all of a sudden standing at its edge. The distortion in the photo comes from the fact that I had to use a wide-angle lens to get it all in. I have some great, clean shots, but this one shows you just how awesome the view was. It is the single most impressive site I can remember seeing, and it was just an impromptu minute off the road. It was the unexpected delight of the trip for me. But enough of rock and water. We need to see some trees! 

Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado. 1000 feet to the bottom. 270 degree turn.

Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado. 1000 feet to the bottom. 270 degree turn.

Now we were back on the road again to Bryce Canyon. We drove all day through a bleak landscape, going hours at a time without seeing trees of any kind, or at least it felt that way. Then we would see empty stands where native Americans sold their wares during the summer and realized this was the land they were left with and expected to survive on with zero resources. A sobering moment indeed. 

It was still raining when we arrived at our little cabin after dark. The next morning as we drove into the park, it began to snow. Would we even see the canyon? We retreated to the visitor center, then decided to make a go of it. 

On our first stop, we decided to go for broke and hike into the canyon. It was an otherworldly experience and the only way to really appreciate what the canyon was like. From above, Bryce is just peering over the edge like the Grand Canyon, but on a much smaller scale. But that smaller scale means that you can access its beauty on foot and it isn’t really apparent until you get down into Bryce. 

It rained our whole hike, so the photos were marred with raindrops, but our spirits were high. The canyon like the rest of southern Utah is sandstone. But the stuff here is soft and eroding, leading to the formations that we see. I started snapping pictures almost non-stop. The trees seemed like the original inspiration for exposed root style bonsai – as they grew larger, the grounds slowly diminished below them. 

Part of Bryce Canyon. The trail we took can be seen meandering in the middle of the photo.

Part of Bryce Canyon. The trail we took can be seen meandering in the middle of the photo.

A Pinyon Pine with the sandstone crumbled away, leaving the roots exposed

A Pinyon Pine with the sandstone crumbled away, leaving the roots exposed

A Ponderosa Pine with more exposed roots. What a great bonsai example

A Ponderosa Pine with more exposed roots. What a great bonsai example

Getting up close and personal to the rock formations

Getting up close and personal to the rock formations

More great Bryce scenery on the trail

More great Bryce scenery on the trail

Foliage of Utah Juniper with berries

Foliage of Utah Juniper with berries

The orange is mistletoe on a Utah Juniper

The orange is mistletoe on a Utah Juniper

Yes, this was the climb out of the canyon. Over a dozen switchbacks

Yes, this was the climb out of the canyon. Over a dozen switchbacks

We were hiking in a fairy land with impossible formations of both rocks and trees abounding. I think that most were Ponderosas and Utah Junipers. At higher elevations there were Doug Firs, and some Pinyons, too. I just can’t stress enough how inspirational this all is to a bonsai person – to any person. You can see a few of the hundreds of photos that I took that morning, and they will explain some of the awe and wonder we experienced. 

We never knew what the next turn would yield walking around and between all these formations with tunnels and switchbacks. We spent the rest of the day, driving along the rim up to Rainbow point, which at 9,000 feet is getting pretty high, and there was definitely snow there. On our return, I was trying to check out Inspiration Point, with the mega-view, but the wind was blowing so hard that the snow was coming up the canyon into my face so that I couldn’t even peer over the edge. But then a half hour later, I got some great light for some great photos. It can be so unpredictable. 

If you haven’t guessed, my purpose here is to get you to go, get out. See. Explore. Make a connection to the outdoor world. It is really helping me pursue and define the type of bonsai that I really want to do. Something that is expressive of wild nature and the land that we are blessed to live in. Next up will be a trip just a half hour down the road from Bryce to Kodachrome Basin, which is very aptly named. There will be a lot more photos of trees in that installment! 

Scott Elser