“NATIONAL GUARD IN CAMOUFLAGE” />
In the past 24 Hours I have driven halfway across Arizona following the US-Mexico Border photographing “the Wall” and looking for the National Guard–reportedly there are 1200 guardsmen working in support of Homeland Security, half of those are watching cameras, the other half are in the field!
I’m climbing out of my Xterra and Chester jumps out to stretch after the long dusty, rocky, climb up Montezuma Pass to this scenic viewpoint where I scan the horizon miles distant deep into Mexico and Southern Arizona. “Can I pet your dog”? I turn and there is the National Guard marching right toward me, “Sure, Chester doesn’t mind,” drawing them in closer. In the parking lot, is a ford 450 with a funny looking gizmo spinning 360 and the windows are blacked out. “Are you with this I ask”? Naw, we’re bivouac up the hill keeping an eye on the border” I sure miss my golden”, he adds stroking Chester who is patiently putting up with the glib soldier. “we’re 4-man teams, 24 hour shifts staying at Ft Huachuca 22 miles away when they aren’t sitting on a rock overlooking the US – Mexico Border. They scan the terrain, looking for UIA’s (undocumented illegal aliens) or smugglers, if they see something, they call the Border Patrol. How good are these guys coming in I ask, “Extremely good”, he retorts three times in succession. “I saw ll guys slipping past 1800 meters beneath me, called in BP and had my binocs on them in a draw, watched them the whole time, maybe they heard us but I directed BP in and they had slipped away, “they are there-I saw them”, nope says BP, “not anymore”. “They are extremely good”, he repeats, “another team saw 38 crossing”, they know we are here “we’re just a deterrent”, he adds. “We’ll be here as long as the politicans want us here.” “They are paying me $5,000 a month to sit on this rock and watch Mexico”, we can stay as long as they want.
The gizmo on the Ford 450 is still spinning and I ask, does it scan the entire valley and point to a distant ridge 5-6 miles away and ask if that ridge is in play. “Absolutely, he says, “it’s like in Preditor”, he says referring to the scifi flick where the alien has heat-seeking thermal signature vision. These guys (Homeland Security) get a lot of training how to read thermal signatures, how to avoid cows, rocks heating up! We (the guard outpost) have a hand-held thermal binco says the guardsman. That thing, (the gizmo on the 450) is 3 and a half times stronger than ours. “Can you see faces I ask” “Kinda, he says but it is the preditor-thing, they are kinda hard to make out.” Anyway, we gotta go. Needed a puppy-fix we gonna get coffee. “Can I checkout your outpost?” Sure the guard says, it’s a public hiking trail. You will see the camouflage.
They’re gone and I stick Chester in the car and head up the rocky, exposed trail up to Coronado Peak a half mile to the summit. At the top, 6575’, there is a bench and shelter and the wind is just whipping anything in its path, down below on a hillside perch are two more guardsmen. I make several photos from a distance and finally I announced myself and a head pops out of the camo. “Mind if I checkout your outpost”, closing the distance between myself and the two dumb struck soldiers. “Well, we’re not really open to the public” one guardman offers. “Do I look like the public?,” I ask as I snap a few frames, the other guardsman busies himself with picking up two M-16 automatic rifles with clips engaged and moving them out of sight in the camo. The other guard man, flustered, turns toward Mexico and looks through his bincos and I get my photo. The wind is still flaying in gusts, under the camo are packs, two cots, a water jug–pretty Spartan I think. “Well, I can see you folks will be more comfortable if I wasn’t here…so I’ll just move along.” “THANK YOU”, both guard men say in unison. They were all perfect gentlemen.
From Flagstaff to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon the color shift has begun, first with the Aspen, so prominent now-days because it gets the first foothold after forest fires and followed in the Flagstaff Walnut Canyon area with yellowing Oaks. While tempid temperatures have quieted the shift, it is advancing slowly and may yet reach an ultimate peak. However Northern Arizona is forecast for showers and frequently downpours and accompanying winds knock off the final coat. Southern Arizona is still several weeks off, on an average I find, that the final weekend of October is usually the best to get out and look around. Watch out for the deer hunters, they show up in great numbers at that time, and frequently take all the campsites.
“You should have been here Friday, the place looked like a tornado hit it!” My friend Joe Powell has a firm grip on the obvious and continues. “You should have been here Saturday and seen those 500 Latter Day Saint Volunteers who swooped into the devastated Flagstaff Meadows subdivision to help several of their own church members and their neighbors. Today is Tuesday and last Wednesday at least one tornado dropped from the sky and swept right down Bellemont Springs Drive blowing out all the windows and garage doors and hitting four homes at the end of the street head on and ripped off their roofs. No one was seriously injured, more 200 homes were damaged, forty were uninhabitable. Today Bellemont Springs is choked with repair trucks, dumpsters, insurance adjusters and the American Red Cross and security guards keep an eye on everyone and everything. On the other side of I-40 ten miles west of Flagstaff, Arizona on a rail line running through the Navajo Army Depot 30 Santa Fe railroad cars were derailed and rolled off the tracks. The hundred mile an hour winds also tossed idling semi trucks on their sides today work crews are trying to repair the rail bed and to right some of the derailment. “Not a soul was injured” insisted Powell, a Williams residentwho is helping out with residents tearing out the bad and replacing the good. Joe’s not really for hire, he just does it to salvage some supplies to build a storage shelter at home. Someone gave him a banged up BBQ, he says he will fix it and give it to a friend, today I’m his friend and he takes me around the corner of a home he is working on to see the 12′ boat foot jammed into the gable of the home. “Isn’t that remarkable!”, we both mouth in unison. “These folks should get down on their knees and give thanks” says Joe. Minutes before the first tornado in Bellemont touched down, Jeff Cox was standing in his garage, his children nestled in bed. Rain and hail pounded hard against the windows and a fierce wind made it look like houses were swaying.Then Cox heard a deafening sound and ducked beneath a trailer when the tornado struck, it tore off the roof of nearly his entire home and throwing it into the nearby forest. The Cox home was at the end of Bellemont Springs Drive and the tornado went right through it and exploded the four homes surrounding it. In the driveway of ground zero lies a “Camping World” sign in fair condition but almost two miles from its perch on the other side of i-40 where the RV business suffered huge losses as much of the inventory was slam banged onto the stores’ parking lot and swept into a pile, the business was not open today. This storm continued into Nevada leaving record rainfall and into California bring heavy snow in the High Sierra. Tornados are rare in Arizona and while the state averages four twisters a year rarely do they all come at once.
Last Wednesday four or more Tornados slammed into Northern Arizona while I was driving from Tucson to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I had left Tucson 6am and was just 30 miles from Flagstaff when I heard a radio severe weather warning advising everyone to be on the lookout for funnel clouds until 11am. Around noon, another twister was reported off 1-17 about where I heard the first reports. Apparently around 5:30 am two f1 tornados hit Bellemont, Az with more than a 100 mph winds ripping off roofs, rolling semis trying to sit out the storm and then derailed a freight train, damaging 200 homes before moving north toward Flagstaff. This tornado or another later dropped suddenly into the forest west of Flagstaff cutting a mile-long path through the forest, across AzHwy 180 and eventually mowing down 250-300 fir and aspens. Many of these trees were 40′-50′ in height, some were topped, others snapped at the base, even more were pulled from the ground–roots and all. While there were no serious injuries most folks in this neck of woods won’t soon forget the Day of the Tornados.
Sunset at Cape Royal on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is a meeting place for serious-minded photographers, it is the place and the time to be there. So as the sun sinks, lens men from all over the world begin to show up, lineup and watch the ski and imagine the possibilities. “Looks like it might be really special tonight”, says a photographer with an Australian accent as he eyes the break in the clouds at the horizon and the band of clouds above it–excitement builds and photographers work one angle and move on, cameras play musical chairs as the light plays across the landscape. On my rock, four photographers trade place and war stories, everyone is having a really good time, it is a creative moment and the possibilities endless. “Hey, you’re not going to stay in that spot, are you?” questions another photographer on a different rock, to one photographer on my rock. “Yes”, I believe I will” he retorts. “I’ve been lining up this shot for an hour” yells the questioning shooter from his distant perspective to the newly arrived photographer who has set up his tripod to shoot south when everyone else is shooting west into the sun. The new photog unravels a bit and complains “its my second night at the canyon, and I’m tired of folks bitching at me. The conversation turns dark, the light continues to peak and soon the cameramen know–the new guy is not moving and the distant rock guy is going to come over and stand in front of him, he promises, steam appears at both sites. Meanwhile, everyone else is wondering if this will escalate into punches being thrown, at the moment it could go either way, but as the sun sinks behind the ridge and night advances–photographers deal with the limitations of the moment and little more is said. “I thought those two were going to slug it out”, said a NPS park ranger at the scene but “in civies”, if I had entered the dispute–I would have pulled the new guy off this perch on the edge of the rock. The fella on the distant rock, was on solid ground, but the other was in harms way even if he didn’t think so”, the ranger said. Since 1860 more than 600 people have fallen into the canyon averaging 4-5 a year, last month a 18 year old French photographer fell 75 feet and survived, in 2007 the youngest fatality, a four year old rolled off the Mather Point viewpoint, as had the Frenchman, so it happens with some regularity. It is sad that a grand moment like that had to deteriorate into such a scene I think to myself as I walk back to my Xterra. I experienced a similar scene at Delicate Arch in Central Utah at Arches National Monument, a few years earlier at another sunset, there another mass gathering for the religious experience of watching the sunset set on a rock so remarkable that every Utah license plate carries a photo of Delicate Arch for the all the world to see. As today, photographers line up and wait for the sunset, most taking care to stay out of the view of the other cameras, and then as the light finally reaches its peak, a obtuse individual walks into everyone’s view stands under the arch, looks up and makes a picture. Everyone waits, each chews his lip and expects the photog who now has the photo, to leave, she doesn’t–she pauses to enjoy the moment and then it begins “get outta there” yells one and then another, the offending photographer begins to make the case for her doing whatever she wants–wrong tact I think–as I and everyone else literally yells her off the mountain. To be fair, that evening there had been no light, the sun was hidden in the clouds–still folks made the uphill three mile hike on the possibility–then the sun popped out at the last moment rewarding dozens of photographers who had traveled amazing distances to be there for this moment. So then when someone defies their investment with such obtuse behavior, it seems, understandingly she was granted a temporary pass, but then crossed a bridge too far when she failed to quickly retreat, the chorale response from dozens of photographers was deafening and in fact, lacking in tact. Desperate people can say almost anything when pushed–and pushed they were. Every park incident incident reflects a microcosm of the real world where we all find difficult and dysfunctional people every day–some can be reasoned with and others will do it their way– the hell with everyone else… “where has the love gone” you ask! Love indeed, love of US Parks is peaking, toss in the competitive creative pursuit of digital landscape photography and folks may drive 500 miles in a day to make sunset on a distant rock which builds expectations for a photographers with only this chance to get the photo. One such photographer a day earlier had arrived from Michigan, on his first night he raced to Cape Royal for the legendary sunset, and arrived three minutes too late, he had seen the view from the trail but pushed on to the viewpoint instead of grabbing what would be his only opportunity. He freely admitted he should have grabbed the moment instead of rushing on ahead for the perspective he thought would be better. Tonight’s classless late arrival had rushed up late and settled into what he thought was his picture and blocked the shot of a photographer who had done the same a hour earlier without him being an element–the closed minded and late photographer–fought for and kept his precious angle and never moved out for any thing else. All the other photographers on my rock had worked that angle and moved on. “I didn’t think his picture was very good anyway” said the ranger “he had no foreground” but still he stayed, to assert his rights and screw the other shooter who had given him shit. I often find that serendipity can be a photographer’s best friend, the best pictures come from where we don’t expect, and we need to be open to all the possibilities–in other words–sure lineup your best photo, track it and work it and make it if you can but look around, over your shoulder, up and down but be flexible and your pictures will improve.
Remember, the age old photographic adage, “F8–be there!”