Sunday, August 14, 2011

The West Desert

Springtime on the Sevier, 11" x 14" Oil on Canvas Panel

The Basin and Range area of Utah doesn't have the abundance of superlative landforms other parts of the state do. Some see it as empty and useless, fit only for radioactive waste dumps or to be run all over by ATVs until the sparse desert vegetation is gone. The land has it's beauty, though, and is far from "wasteland." The West Desert, as I like to refer to it, is a place of broad sagebrush valleys, hills and mountains, many with scattered patchworks of juniper trees. It is a land of sandstone mingled with basalt, lava, and jumbled rounded outcrops of granite. The landscape varies from gently rolling hills and low mountain ranges to jagged barren mountains that look like they're from a different planet. The hills and mountain ranges are separated by wide open valleys that draw the eye across vast distances. The scenery changes for the traveler sometimes subtly, gracefully, sometimes jarringly. Water is very scarce. Wildlife includes pronghorn antelope, elk, deer, antelope squirrels and kangaroo rats, curlews, ravens and horned larks, gopher snakes, rattlesnakes, tarantulas and horned toads. Human communities are few, small, and very far between. The West Desert is a land of subtle hues; golden summer grasses, blue green sagebrush, the bright yellow blossoms of late summer rabbitbrush, the earthy warm greens of juniper trees, and an endless variety of grays, ochers, muted reds and blues. It is a land full of light, and a land that exudes mystery both day and night. It is among my favorite places to explore and paint.

The painting pictured at the top of this page is of the Sevier River in Sage Valley. Sage Valley is a middle-of-nowhere place of hills, bluffs, and river plain, covered with a scattered patchwork of juniper, grass, sagebrush and greasewood. 

As I turn the car from pavement onto the winding dirt road, I'm greeted by the sparkling glitter of abundant mica mixed in with the tawny-gray dust of the road. The sparkles in the road accompany me for many miles. On one trip, two dazzlingly brilliant white birds spring from the top of a juniper tree as I drive past. I brake to a stop to see what these glorious angelic-looking things are. As they rise above the tree and begin to turn, their dazzling brightness darkens and they turn into ravens. The angle of sunlight had been just right.

On another trip, I parked where the dirt road terminates at the river. From there I hiked over red bluffs on the outside of a bend in the river, and crossed a grass-covered ox-bow to another river bend. Setting up by some greasewood near the river's edge I painted the Sevier at dusk, finishing before it became too dark to see the colors on my palette. Cleaning off my palette, I was startled when a little upriver a coyote suddenly began to howl. Walking back in the dark, I stopped at the red bluffs for a few minutes. The sky was cloudless, and an abundance of stars began to take over the evening sky. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, as it always does on clear moonless nights like this in the wild, and as it never does in the city. Standing on the red bluffs, I looked down into the clear, dark waters of the Sevier River. The river's placid waters reflected the stars back to the sky, and to me. I had to resist the urge to step closer to the edge of the bluff so I could see deeper into the river's dark mirror. The ledge is soft, undercut and could crumble, dumping me several feet down into the water. During the day the dirt road had sparkled in the sunlight, and now the Sevier River sparkled in the starlight. The West Desert doesn't have the abundance of dramatic landscape that the Wasatch Mountains or the red rock canyons of Utah have, but who can deny that it is beautiful?

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