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Desert Wanderings

Ryan Salm

I can feel my body temperature dropping and I begin to wonder what hypothermia might feel like. There appears to be a hint of sun somewhere up there above me, but it’s definitely not shining in this place.
I’m thigh deep in a frigid, murky pool of water that hasn’t been stirred since the last flash flood. Who knows what bacteria swims within it. It’s beginning to get dark and the shadows have veiled the high walls of the slot canyon we entered hours earlier. As I trudge through the water, my previously numb feet and ankles ache for a second then return, then, to numbness. I can feel my body temperature dropping and I begin to wonder what hypothermia might feel like. There appears to be a hint of sun somewhere up there above me, but it’s definitely not shining in this place. As I finish wading through yet another stagnant pool, I step through the water and my Chacos sink into the mud. With another step I slide on a slick, clay-like surface. One thought bounces around my head: how do I keep getting myself in these situations?

My sophomore year at the University of Colorado, my buddy BJ and I hopped into the car and drove to Southern Utah for spring break. With the Grateful Dead blaring out the open windows of our Saab 900, we sped across the Colorado Plateau into the canyons of Utah, looking for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We had heard through the grapevine of a place with deep canyons, mazes, slick rock, and madness sure to open the mind of any young traveler. On stopping at the local convenient store, we asked the clerk if she had heard of the trail that leads into Death Hollow, as it was supposed to be one of the most amazing canyons in the area. Out from the back of the store came a voice that confidently opined, ‘Death Hollow is the shit. It will blow your mind.’

Since that moment I have made an annual pilgrimage to the Grand Staircase to get lost, let my mind wander, and be humbled by the beauty and power of Mother Nature. BJ moved there immediately after school, and has been working as a guide running a company which offers llama pack tours through the area. With llamas as pack animals we can bring whatever we want, from free-range steaks to cases of beer. We use them as a tool to travel cross-country to get to an area, set up a base camp, then spend days exploring slots, benches, cathedrals, narrows, pictographs, rivers, and ruins. We can stay out for longer and go deeper. Llamas can survive on minimal water (which is important in a land where knowledge of water holes and springs can be the difference between life and death). They eat anything from tree bark to greens. The best thing is: if you ever run out of food you, can eat them.

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I’m often asked, of llamas, “do they spit?” Llamas have two stomachs and eat grass. They create cud in their mouth and constantly have a green wad of gunk just below their teeth and in their cheeks. They are led by leashes in groups of two or three and are always breathing on the back of your neck. They breathe long and deep and the smell is hideous. Every five minutes or so, they sneeze or cough and, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get a green wad of llama mucous on your neck or back. It’s even worse if they get angry. You never know where the next water hole will be to clean off the smell.

Death Hollow is one of those places with a name that questions the sanity of those going there. Nestled deep in the endless maze of the southwest, it is a chunk of brilliance. Its walls rise high out of a small creek, and access to it requires serious planning and miles of arduous walking across slick rock. We have to access the place from a different trail than we would usually as llamas are not permitted into Death Hollow. We walk mile after mile, baking in the hot desert sun while taking one step forward and two steps back on a trail composed of deep orange sand. Our questioned intentions quickly turn to smiles of wonder as we reach Death Hollow after a long, slow slog in the late afternoon. The sun’s glow is hitting a west facing wall and ignites it with colour. We set up our camp, as well as, leash lines for the llamas in a spot far away from the sanctity of Death Hollow, and commence our exploration of this wondrous location.

We go deep. We forget to bring a map. We often get in over our heads. This wilderness is a maze and at times we get lost. We get cliffed out. We run out of water. We get baked by the harsh sun. We watch the sky – flash floods are in the back of our minds. We find a new route that connects prior routes we have explored. I am constantly blown away by the textures in the rock and the last rays of light that cling to the canyon walls. The thought of these canyons, and all of these experiences, are what makes my travel bug itch. It’s what keeps me coming back and wandering onward.

We go deep. We forget to bring a map. We often get in over our heads. This wilderness is a maze and at times we get lost. We get cliffed out. We run out of water. We get baked by the harsh sun.
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For the past 12 years Ryan Salm has been traveling the far off reaches of the globe contacting distant tribal groups and contracting various illnesses. Journeys on back roads with the local people have created a common theme in Ryan’s work. Radiant colors, vivid landscapes, and enticing faces are the cornerstone of his photography. When not purchasing plane tickets or wandering the world, Ryan spends his quieter days living in Lake Tahoe, California soaking up the sunshine and living life in the mountains. His photographic work ranges from fine art to commercial to editorial and can be seen anywhere beautiful imagery exists.

Find out more about Ryan via his website: ryansalmphotography.photoshelter.com or follow him on Twitter @Salmphotography

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