Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

ROCKY ROADS

Explore the U.S. southwest's COLOUR PALETTE

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Outside Las Vegas, at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, the seasons jumble together.

Under a blueberry summer sky warming a winter-like barrenness, I stood on top of autumn. The mountain beneath my feet was as deep red as the oak leaves in New England circa October. Yet, unlike the fleeting foliage, the desert's vibrant hues resist nature's cycle, holding fast through all four seasons.

Every year, without fail, splashes of red, gold, orange and yellow electrify landscapes dense with maples, elms, aspens and other deciduous trees. The colours distract us from reality: Summer is gone, winter is encroaching and the glorious leaves are a few Earth rotations from drying up and dying.

To avoid the perennial despair this invokes, I searched the United States for colours that wouldn't split on the coattails of chlorophyll. I wanted an autumnal palette January through December. With the spirit of a pioneer, I headed south and west in search of gold -- and red and yellow and orange and purple. I planted my boots on spots in western Arizona and eastern Nevada where the colours change not by season but over many millions of year.

Describing the desert landscape at Red Rock Canyon, 27 kilometres west of the Vegas Strip, Kathy August drops names such as sandstone, iron, manganese and oxidation. The land is always saturated in red, and visitors come year-round.

"Colours do change here," said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger, "but really slowly -- in geologic time rather than seasonally."

The 80,000-hectare park is a blank canvas for fog-grey limestone (ocean deposits) and fiery sandstone (windblown dune deposits), as well as the rainbow of hues that bridge the two. The canyon receives 1.3 million visitors a year, about the same number as Death Valley but nowhere near the tally of its tarty urban neighbour -- more than 23 million people through July this year. If you're torn between the two colour zones, remember, neon makes the skin look sallow.

A 21-kilometre scenic drive, at a slowpoke pace and myriad scenic viewpoints, is a centrepiece of the park. The route wiggles around sculptural rock formations that shift in shape and colour like a giant lava lamp. The Calico Basin nails the colour-blocking trend with large swatches of persimmon red and vanilla cream. The Red Canyon wears a Breton shirt of red, mauve and gray stripes. The Lost Creek area parades the shades of an exotic garden: shiitake mushroom brown and Japanese eggplant purple.

"Every single canyon has its own personality and its own colours," said Kathy. "You can't really get bored here."

Kathy and I set out in the late afternoon, her Jeep snuggling like a bug against the outsize landscape. We passed Joshua trees with spiky mop tops and snakeweed bushes sprouting buttery flowers. Add to the list chinchweed, brittlebush, rabbitbrush and cottonwood trees, one of the rare foliage splashes in the Mojave Desert.

"Everything we have here is basically yellow," she said of the monochromatic flora, "or variations of yellow."

Compared with the muted tones on the ground, the colours really screamed at Sandstone Quarry, an active mining site in the early 1900s. From the parking lot, I scrambled onto the smooth red boulders for an in-your-face view of the lichen. The organisms, as tiny as pinpricks, came in such trendy shades as fluorescent yellow, light green and lavender.

A number of hiking trails fan out from the quarry, such as a four-kilometre trek to the Calico Tanks or an eight-kilometre one to Turtlehead Peak, 1.9 kilometres above the valley floor. Kathy and I, however, went down instead of up, dropping between the canyon walls to a sandy trail shaded by pinyon pines. Graffiti was splashed across a lower portion of the rock face, including carvings by miners. Chalky white smudges marked a climber's ascent.

After we crawled out of the canyon wash, Kathy told me a Paiute tale about the origins of the red rocks, a much livelier story than the geologist version (oxygen meets iron, and they marry). According to the legend, a young warrior set out to kill a bear, a rite of passage for male tribe members. The blood of Nevada's last bear spilled all over the rocks, soaking them in crimson.

The anecdote, however, doesn't explain the genesis of the other vibrant colours, leaving much of the Southwest paintbox a mystery.

At the entrance to Petrified Forest National Park, I confessed to the ranger that, yes, I was carrying rocks. She had to ask: The park in eastern Arizona is very protective of its cache of petrified rocks. And I had to answer in the affirmative: More than 450 kilometres back, in the Sonoran Desert, I'd filled a plastic bag with rocks. She sealed my sack with tape and let me through.

Rockhounding, a catchy name for rock collecting, is a popular activity in the Copper State. The region's geology (in short, tectonic movement and the crystallization of magma-related liquids and silica) has transformed the state into a bedazzling scavenger hunt of gems and stones.

The colours of the southwest really sizzle during the bookends of the day -- sunrise and sunset. During the in-between hours, they take a light siesta.

Richard Eskin, an artist-in-residence at the Petrified Forest, revolves around the sun. He photographs the park at the beginning and the end of the day, when the light is soft and forgiving.

"Every time the light changes, the whole landscape changes," said the Towson, Md., resident. "As the light warms, the colors of the rocks become more intense and saturated."

I met Richard at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, on the northern end of the park. He was halfway into his two-week residency and knew the optimum viewing locations categorized by colour and time.

The 90,000-hectare Petrified Forest National Park is within the Painted Desert, a sweep of Rothko-brushed land from roughly the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico border. A short film in the visitors centre provided context and background. It explained the origins of the desert's name -- Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado called it El Desierto Pintado -- and its legacy in America's national landscape. In 1906, then-president Theodore Roosevelt declared the forest a National Monument; 26 years later, the protected site added 1,100 hectares of the Painted Desert. Last year, it again expanded, with about 10,500 more acres.

Richard and I started our expedition at the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, a Civilian Conservation Corps project that was rehabbed about six years ago. We walked along a rim trail that drew us to the edge of a world that swept like a frozen sea out to the horizon. The mountains swelled with tides of grey-blue and dusty rose.

To bide our time before sunset, we poked around the petrified remnants in Crystal Forest, a time capsule of the Triassic Age, with one adjustment: Instead of dinosaurs, we had a busload of French tourists.

The petrified logs started life more than 200 million years ago, appearing as nearly 60-metre-tall trees in a tropical wetland. Silica, a mineral from volcanic ash, seeped into the trees' tissue and, like a pushy houseguest, replaced the wood with quartz coloured by such minerals as iron and manganese.

The Crystal Forest trail hops and skips through an open field of petrified logs tossed willy-nilly. They remain as the river left them. From the path, I could crouch down close to the logs and inspect the striated colours as glittery as Faberge eggs. One specimen alone crammed in gold, lavender, maroon, ochre, nectarine orange and skim-milk white.

Without looking at the clock, I knew that showtime was nearing. My shadow appeared long and stretched out. Richard and I planted ourselves on a wall at Pintado Point and volleyed our heads from west to east, from the setting fireball to the fading light over the desert.

"The day dies quietly and the shadows move in," he said. "Suddenly you realize you can't see much anymore."

As the sun lost its wattage, the colors of the desert stepped up and stole the light. One by one, the peaks glowed pink and red and purple, then dimmed. When the mountains finally turned dark, the Arizona sky took over, spending twilight bathed in a Painted Desert palette.

-- The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 D1

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