At Wupatki National Monument

I learned from a Wikipedia article that, in Navajo, Wupatki is called Anaasází Bikin, which translates as Houses of the Enemies. This dates back long before photography was imagined, and coincidentally parallels my feelings about the site—I always fight with it, visually, returning home empty-handed after every visit, every failed attempt at capturing the ancient spirit that moves in sync with the shadows.

Initially, I thought this occasion would be no different. (And in fact, it hadn’t been in our plans.) We’d hustled down from Monument Valley and Kayenta along the ragged eastern edge of a powerful storm, breaking only for fuel and a fast-food meal in Tuba City. Heavy rain and hail remained a threat, the rocking winds a reality. I thought of John Ford’s Stagecoach more than once as we neared Flagstaff.

But as the sun declined toward dark clouds the rich light on the landscape was irresistible, and so we diverted into the monument and were soon parked at the Wukoki ruin, its most desolate example of ancient architecture.

Let the fight begin.

With a half-hour of light remaining, I walked a widening loop well away from the structure, out through the scattered brush, keeping to hard, rocky areas. I’d noted several new signs planted near the ruin itself, warning visitors to stay on the main path, and countless footprints around the signs.

I took several shots as I walked, including foreground rocks or sage as a lead-in to the ruin, but I was again feeling that something was missing, an element I couldn’t exactly put my finger on, and then the obvious became obvious—clouds. On prior visits here the sky had been blank, either too blue or harsh and cloudless—wasted space in the photo I wanted. Now, spreading out in every direction, these evening clouds added a big-sky sense of expansiveness, whether of time or distance, and the ruin huddled beneath it took its proper scale.

Walking back to the truck, it felt good to finally win a round.

Next Week: The final post from my trip to the Southwest.


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