Category Archives: Profiles of the Southwest
Dedicated to Louis Johnson and Everett Boutilett, thank you for being my friends
There is a pervasive desire, at least in the outdoor community, to live an authentic life. Within that culture there is a subculture that has become disillusioned with the American Dream and is leaving corporate life and churches in droves because they are finding that the authentic cannot be found in material wealth or promises of rewards in heaven.
The authentic life is lived now, in each moment, in each choice, in the culmination of one’s brief and only life. To find it, more and more are turning to nature to face its landscapes, natural elements, and accept the challenge of surviving the wild essence it has to offer, because it, more than most things, requires an honest assessment of oneself.
There is nothing more insightful than testing oneself against nature because it cannot be faked. Stomping the earth with your own two feet and challenging your own endurance, strength, and ability against the elements of nature is the ultimate testing ground for a gut-wrenching dose of reality and adventure, and produces a self-assured authenticity. Knowing you can do it, have done it, is the reward. Sharing those experiences with others is the sustenance that keeps you coming back for more.
In order to say, “I did it,” however, one must do it. To get to the top of a mountain, one must hike it. To ascend a wall, one must climb it. To ride a wave, one must surf it. Nature has and always will hold the promise of finding the authentic because one must face it with their own strength and willpower and through it learn to face their fears, possibly overcome them, and discover the depth of their courage, tenacity, and endurance.
It is one place where action must follow desire. Authenticity comes from doing, and doing is what earns you a seat at the table of the authentic and nothing says doing it like those who live on the precipice of adventure, consistently navigating the razor’s edge of life. It is those who face a survivor’s glory on one side or dying an adventurer’s death on the other, who are living life at a dead run. Dead run meaning all in, fully committed. We typically associate this type of living with those who are young and in the prime of their lives because as the saying goes, “There are bold and there are old, but there are not bold and old.”
Many who have lived on that edge accept the advance of time and age and scale it back, having discovered they have what it takes. They have lived and done it and because they know it, they no longer have anything to prove. But some never stop with the answer; rather, the answer becomes the sustenance that fuels and keeps them going.
Whether we are among those who seek to find out, testing our courage and strength for the answer or are one of those who lived adventurous lives in our youth and only after taking the risk, discovered how foolish or risky it was, and left it alone – and even if we are in the group of those who never tried – when we see those who are still living on that edge past their prime, we can’t help but watch in wonder, awe, and possibly envy, cheering them on with baited breath, knowing death is ever lurking and hoping they beat the odds.
While death is certain, how we die is not. As Edmund Vance Cooke so eloquently stated in his famous poem, “Whether death comes with a crawl or with a pounce, whether he’s slow or spry, it isn’t the fact that you’re dead that counts, but only how did you die?”
It is this sentiment that leads many to say, “At least she died doing what she loved,” when someone has died suddenly on an adventure in the wild. It does not diminish the loss for those left behind, but it does enable them to experience a sense of catharsis when a life lived at a dead run ends in a manner befitting the person, their life, and their values. It is when people can say that it was a good death, not a senseless death that enables them to understand it, learn from it, and accept it.
The acceptance that death is a part of life is a bitter-sweet reality that if taken seriously requires one to define the rules by which they choose to live, knowing that those rules can be their reason, but can also lead to their demise. It is this choice, made with eyes wide open that seemingly so few make, but the few who do, accept with a full knowledge of the inherent risks, dangers, and rewards involved. It is this choice above all others that define us in life and after death, and by which those with the most conviction, solidified by action, earn the respect of their peers in both.
Christian Louis Johnson was one such person. He was not a famous athlete and he was not young, but his name is well known in the canyoneering community of southern Utah.
On October 2, 2015 he died falling from a rappel in Zion National Park on the first drop into Not Imlay Canyon. While horrific, it was one of those “good deaths,” and though most of us have accepted the tragic loss, his death has lessons for those left behind – the most important being that nature does not allow much margin for human error, and that while outdoor adventure does require a certain level of fitness, it is a lapse in judgement that is most often fatal.
The simple oversights that Louis and his husband Everett made on that fateful day were mistakes that anyone could have made. These men were experienced and safe canyoneers; it was not their lack of experience that left one dead and the other a widower, it was quite literally a couple of oversights that they might not have made if they had slowed down and thought them through.
In order to understand what happened the day Louis died one must understand a few things about canyoneering in Zion National Park. The first being that Zion manages the routes in so far as they permit them, allow new routes to be developed, and have search and rescue teams for emergencies. They do not, however, maintain the routes, keep maps of the routes, or provide gear for people venturing into canyons. The beta, or information on the routes, is typically found on the net and provided by guide services. In other words, the park provides the permits but assumes you know where you are going and what you are doing. The second is that while most routes are established and have good beta on them, sometimes anchors are missing or beta changes. You have to be prepared for contingencies.
Last year, November 2014, Louis and Everett did Not Imlay Canyon with Tom Jones, the local canyoneering guru, and a few other people on a rope retrieval service project. According to a post on Tom’s blog, the original first two rappels of the canyon were “dirty” and “inelegant.” The original first rappel was done from a tree to the left of the water course down to a sloped ledge where the second rappel was made from another tree. Tom had heard that instead of making the two rappels one could make one clean 300’ rappel to the bottom. They did the 300’ rappel from a tree to the right of the water course.
When Louis and Everett prepared to do Not Imlay Canyon in October 2015 they checked the beta provided on the BluuGnome’s website which showed the two original rappels. According to Everett, Louis said Tom did not have beta up on the canyon yet. Clearly he was unaware of the blog post Tom had put up about it.
Either way, when they got to the canyon, the sling that had been on the tree to the left of the water course was gone and there was a sling on the new tree to the right for the straight 300’ rappel.
According to Everett’s account of what happened, “As we made the final walk down the beautiful slickrock ramp, the “new anchor” stood out like a beacon. We had used it last year. Before setting the rope, I pointed out the location of the old anchor. There was no webbing/anchor on the tree. This is when lightning bolts of caution should’ve hit us. They did not. At this point, Louis and I had no memory of doing the first and second raps as one single combined rappel. This is where our inexcusable, baffling, horrible lapse in judgement occurred. I can honestly say we both thought Louis was going down 100’ to a ledge.”
To further compound the miscalculation, Louis had their only other 200’ rope on his back, he did not have ascenders, and he had not tied off the ends of the rope. At the point he realized the predicament he was in he either slipped off the end or attempted to land a drop and it turned out to be fatal. He had shouted up that the rope was eight feet short, but according to Everett and to the photo of that rappel sequence, it was probably closer to a 20 foot drop to the nearest ledge. Either way, eight feet or 20′, not being able to land on the nearest ledge and stick led to him falling 180′ to the bottom.
In the end, there is no one to blame, only lessons to be learned.** The beta provided by the BluuGnome was accurate and the day would have turned out differently if a sling had been placed on the right tree. Alternatively, had Louis discovered Tom’s blog post about their trip a year earlier, one can assume with a level of certainty that his memory would have been jogged and they would have prepared for the 300’ rappel. As it stands, forgetfulness, simple mistakes, and plain bad luck led to the events of that day.
But in the aftermath of this horrible tragedy something remarkable was revealed. The web that made up the life of these two men became clear through the lives touched and impacted by them like a spider web covered in water droplets, and what surfaced through everyone’s stories about them revealed a life made up of a curious mixture of intention and abandon.
If their lives were measured by possessions, there wouldn’t be much to measure. But if their lives were measured by the people they touched, a mountain would grow up behind them.
Wallace Stenger said, “It is the beginning of wisdom when you recognize that the best you can do is choose which rules you want to live by, and it’s persistent and aggravated imbecility to pretend you can live without any.”
While I do not know the depths of the character of these men or all the rules they chose to live by, there are some so readily apparent they can’t be missed – and equally clear that Louis lived and died by his.
Louis and Everett chose to live simple material lives in order to have the time and freedom to live full recreational and relational lives. But more than that, their authenticity went beyond recreation; they were authentic in all things and their lives reflected their values.
They didn’t just take from the earth, they gave back to the earth by using it with care and by walking lightly on it. This walking lightly stemmed from an ethic that required they be conscientious with how they lived, the food they ate, the materials they consumed and disposed of, how they spent their time, and how they treated people. In order to claim an ethical life they had to live it, and they did.
Beyond their ethics they lived, loved, and played with abandon and invited any and all to join them. They selflessly gave their time, their expertise, and anything they had to share with the people around them. They maintained a childlike awe and wonder for the natural world and dove in head first, living life fully committed and at a dead run. They knew the risks of their activities, accepted the dangers and responsibilities, and not deterred by age, chose to live – living their lives on the razor’s edge of adventure whenever they could.
Ever the consummate yin and yang, Louis the bright-eyed and bushy tailed and Everett the rational and level headed, they balanced out each other and all who ventured out with them. They had a code, and that code placed them securely at the table of the authentic. When one is faced with such individuals, the only conscious or unconscious response is to try to secure a place beside them. From the outside looking in, H.R. Ellis Davidson’s words about the Norsemen is an appropriate summation of their code and what it felt like to spend time in their company:
“They knew that the gods whom they served could not give them freedom from danger and calamity, and they did not demand that they should. There was no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us.”
At the end of the announcement that Louis was gone Everett said, “Louis would want everyone to keep getting out there and living life to the fullest.” Not surprisingly, Everett wasn’t sure if he would ever venture back into a canyon, but Louis’ call to live life to the fullest would probably have started with his life partner and husband of 21 years and as such, Everett has now bravely proclaimed that he will continue to descend the ever alluring canyons in Zion.
Like all great legends, Louis’ glory will outlive his death. And to those who choose to live life in a similar vein, those living life at a dead run, as Louis said, “If it stops being fun, don’t do it,” but as Everett said, “Be safe, be safe, be safe.”
**End Note: While no one can be blamed for this tragic accident, and people are ultimately responsible for their own safety, people who remove anchors and/or gear in canyons, thereby changing the beta significantly, and do not make it known, are increasing the risk and danger for those who come after them. Especially when the beta change results in a significant change in rappel lengths.
Also, further data was added to clarify how far Louis fell after this was originally published. When he said he was only eight feet from the ground, he meant he was only eight feet from the closest ledge, not to the bottom.**
“It is easy for us to assume that as the result of modern science “we have conquered nature,” that nature is now confined to beaches for children and to national parks where the few remaining grizzly bears have been shot with tranquilizers and removed to above the timberline, supposedly for their safety and our own. But we should be prepared for the possibility, even if we are going to accompany modern firefighters into Mann Gulch, that the terror of the universe has not yet fossilized and the universe has not run out of blowups.” ~ Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire
Robert Sallee died a week ago at age 82 on Monday, May 26, 2014. Does this mean anything to you? It didn’t to me either until I bumped into his obituary two days ago. In 1949 15 men were dropped into the Gates of the Mountains in Montana to fight the Mann Gulch Fire; Salle was one of only three smokejumpers to survive and was the last surviving member to pass on. The Mann Gulch Fire was one of the worst tragedies in the history of the U.S. Forest Service. It was Sallee’s first and last jump.
As I ran up into BLM land just behind my house today, the scent of juniper thick in the hot desert air, I thought of recent fire blow-ups that cost lives; the most recent being the Yarnell Fire in Arizona in 2013 that took the lives of 19 firefighters. While we can analyze events in hindsight and question decisions and subsequent actions, the truth is, fire is a reality, it is normal and it can be managed, but it is also and always dangerous. Though firefighters love what they do, whether it is the adrenaline rush, out-smarting the fire, problem solving, or traveling around the country rather than sitting in an office, none of them goes into a fire to give their lives. They are all equipped with the training and tools to do their jobs and all expect to be successful and drink a cool beer at the end. As Norman Maclean wrote in Young Men and Fire,
“Jumping (wildland firefighting) is one of the few jobs in the world that leads to just one moment when you must be just highly selected pieces of yourself that fit exactly the pieces of your training, your pieces of equipment having been made with those pieces of yourself and your training in mind.”
But with the effects of global warming and radical or bleak weather, drought, bark beetles, invasive grasses, and low budgets set by Congress, it appears even more daunting a task to be a wildland firefighter these days, even with the right pieces and training. As we on the sidelines watch the evening news and catch glimpses of the battles being fought in our forests and across our lands, we must recognize that our one vote and voice does matter – it matters where it counts most: money allocation.
While Congress cannot control the weather or events that take place on the ground, they do control the purse strings which should provide adequate funding for personnel and resources. Unfortunately, land management agencies routinely get their budgets cut and these agencies have to do more with less – less firefighters, less gear, less equipment. We have a responsibility to turn to our representatives and demand that they fund these agencies accordingly, and if their records show a history of voting for cuts to budgets, to get rid of them.
We all have a stake in our land – whether it reaches the boundaries of our property or not. We also have a stake in providing funding to the men and women who choose this profession. If we can’t control the weather, the wind, or the fire, we can at least control the money flow while we enjoy the great outdoors that so many manage, work on for our enjoyment, and protect.
Luckily today the smell of juniper was not a thick blanket of smoke hoping to choke me out or burn up my lungs – it was just the warm, earthy scent that naturally rises off the plants and seemingly out of the ground. It was a beautiful, if not hot, day. But if this fire season turns out the way that many are predicting, it may feel like the world and sky is burning. It is good to learn the names and remember the people who choose to do this job and who face greater risks and more fires in the future. With scarce water and ever mounting CO2 being blown into the air by burning forests, we have a stake in their success. It could not be more appropriate as fire season ramps up that Robert Sallee died on Memorial Day 2014. May he rest in peace.
“For many former Smokejumpers, then, smoke jumping is not closely tied up with their way of life, but is more something that is necessary for them to pass through and not around and, once it is unmistakably done, does not have to be done again. The “it” is within, and is the need to settle some things with the universe and ourselves before taking on the “business of the world,” which isn’t all that special or hard but takes time. This “it” is the something special within that demands we do something specials, and “it” could be within a lot of us.” ~Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire
For a look at the South Canyon Fire where another 14 firefighters died in Colorado:
Zion Search and Rescue: The High Angle with Bo Beck
Bo Beck, Photo courtesy of http://www.elveschasm.com
Bo Beck is a household name in southern Utah, at least in the outdoor community. Even if you don’t know his name, it is possible you have seen his face in the Desert Rat if you have gone in there for any outdoor gear. Though Bo is often synonymous with Zion National Park because of his co-written book with Tanya Milligan, Favorite Hikes In & Around Zion National Park, and the fact that he knows quite a bit about all things outside in this area, it is his service to the outdoor community that marks him as a local icon. Not only is he a great and personable guy, not only is he an avid outdoorsman, he is also part of Zion National Park’s high angle search and rescue team. In other words, if you get into a bad situation out in the wild and need to be rescued, there is a high probability that Bo will be one of the rescuers on the scene. It is for these reasons that I wanted to get to know Bo and get out on some adventures with him, but also why I wanted to tell a part of his story to the community that benefits from his expertise and watchful eye.
It was still dark as we sped toward Zion National Park. The plateaus and bluffs were just large shadows against the night sky as it turned cobalt blue with the approach of dawn. The roads were largely empty as the towns lay in slumber. We were on our way to hike Lady Mountain, one of the peaks in Zion National Park. An earlier attempt had been cut short due to an injury, so I was inching for that summit. I was hoping it would not elude me again. Lady Mountain was the first maintained front country trail in Zion. It still has remnants of the Park’s attempts to maintain it as shorn off metal bolts can be seen periodically sticking out of rock faces on the scramble up, hinting at a time when chains, rails, and ladders were installed to help people up the strenuous route. Though it is no longer listed by Zion National Park as a designated trail, it is still a popular backcountry trail for those who know it is there. Our group consisted of two vehicles. I rode with Bo to get an interview with him on the way up.
Bo is not a native to southern Utah, but despite his somewhat misleading Midwestern accent, he is a native to the Southwest. Originally from New Mexico, and not far from southern Utah, he took the long way to get here via a stint in the Air Force, sailing around the world, and ultimately taking a job at an outdoor retailer located in St. George. Most people who know Bo know him as the manager of the Desert Rat, the local outdoor store, or as part of Zion Search and Rescue (SAR). Though I have known Bo for half a dozen years, we didn’t become friends until a couple of years ago. Strangely enough we got to know each other through tragedy, which I am certain, is probably true of a lot of people who know him. He was friends with Lyle Hurd who died rock climbing in Zion 2012. He had been there for the recovery, and we were both part of the long funeral process.
But it was my first outing with him that really put some meat on our relationship. I had wanted to do a canyon with him for some time, so when he invited me to do Employee Canyon with him and a group of people, I excitedly said yes. After I accepted the invitation he told me that the trip was being done for a woman who wanted to put closure on her sister’s death that had happened some 15 years ago at the very canyon we were going through. That knowledge added a solemn hue to the trip as we traced the route that Tiffany’s sister Sasha had taken. We hiked to the top of Mountain of the Sun and then canyoneered down through Employee Canyon, also known as Lodge Canyon. There was no way around imaging Sasha’s death as we made the final rappel where she had fallen 150 feet to her death. In the hanging garden at the bottom songs of remembrance were played, tears were shed, and hugs were passed at what felt like another funeral. I felt humbled to be there and will never again do or look at that canyon without thinking of the young woman who fell while trying to duck out of the way of a falling rock.
Outdoor adventure is dangerous and carries a certain amount of risk, no matter how prepared or skilled. The recent base jumping deaths at Zion show that even professional outdoor athletes die from mishaps and chance. Due to my history with Bo and the fact that we were heading out to do a dangerous hike, I asked him how he had become a part of Zion’s SAR team.
His career with Zion’s high angle search and rescue unit happened by chance through his big wall climbing partner, Dean Woods, at Zion in the summer of 1996. Dean was amongst a handful of other big wall climbers who had volunteered to help Zion National Park’s Acting Chief Ranger Dave Buccello, who was in charge of emergency services, with his high angle rescue team operations. Dean had asked Bo if he would help out with a mock rescue operation on Sheer Lunacy, a climbing route near Angel’s Landing. Bo was intrigued and accepted. He climbed to the top of Sheer Lunacy and lowered himself a few hundred feet so that the team could affect a rescue. At the end of the day as they were getting ready to leave, a call came in for the rescue of a woman in the Subway. Dave asked Bo if he would like to come along and help. He accepted. The next morning he got a call from Dave asking him if he would like to be a part of the high angle rescue team and the rest, as they say, is history.
That was almost 20 years ago. Bo is now a seasoned, crusty, mid 50 year old man with near a quarter century of experience in rescue who could out-hike most 20 year olds. He is not only knowledgeable and experienced, he is unabashedly protective of the role of search and rescue and the people who choose to do it. “Ultimately, your safety is up to you,” Bo said, “Do the research, get trained, know the routes, have the right and necessary gear, and if possible, go with someone experienced and responsible who knows the route. The SARs mission is not to save people, but to rescue people – if possible.” While it is understandable that when someone dies out in the wilderness the loved ones left behind want to know the details about how and why it happened, it is also often the case that they are looking for someone or something to blame. Unfortunately that blame is often directed at search and rescue personnel. I asked him about the placement of blame on SAR personnel.
“People look for somebody to blame. Maybe there is somebody to blame. When something goes wrong, families and people are looking for answers. Sometimes it’s nature. Sometimes it’s a decision made by someone that ended up being fatal. Search and rescue cannot be blamed for anything. Search and rescue is not there to keep everyone safe. They are there to rescue someone if they can, but not at the expense of their own lives. Training is a big part of that. Sometimes it turns out, sometimes it doesn’t. Mistakes can be made. But again, for search and rescue, the number one priority is the safety of the SAR team. Period. They don’t want another injury or fatality. When the safety of the team is secure, they then go in for the injured person. Teams are constantly training for different scenarios, but situations are always different, and all you can do is continue to learn and do the best that you can.”
I asked how dangerous it was for SAR teams to go out on rescues, “When someone engages in dangerous activities there is always risk involved. It’s always dangerous, there is always danger involved no matter what.” I asked Bo what his advice would be to people wishing to canyoneer or get into the backcountry. “Training, get the training,” he said, “By training, that danger can be mitigated to a certain degree. But there’s always going to be danger. You can’t control if a rock is going to fall and hit somebody, or if someone is going to slip and wasn’t properly tied in, or the wrong knot was tied or something of that nature. So it’s always constant, but you can mitigate risk with the proper training. You have one opportunity for a mistake. You can’t learn on the fly. If possible, go with someone who knows the route. Someone conscientious and capable will be able to help you and give you sound advice on the beta to safely do a route.” We briefly talked about expert athletes getting injured and killed to which Bo replied, “Nobody’s exempt. Nobody. You can’t control everything; you’ve just got to control what you can based on what you know.”
As we drew closer to The Lady, my stomach started to get tied up in knots. I felt like a superstitious sailor engaged in conversation about capsized ships and drowned sailors while heading into a storm and wondered if we should stop talking about dislodged rocks and people falling to their deaths. Lady Mountain is 1.9 miles of near vertical scrambling and climbing, with an elevation gain of 2,345 feet in 1.6 miles. The narrow trail has a couple of sketchy 5.7 climbs on sheer walls with high altitude drop offs, as well as several steep pitches. I was familiar with these sections as we were almost to the summit when we had to abandon the trip out of safety concerns for our injured team member. I prayed this trip would be successful and injury free.
Do you dread the calls when they come in, fearful it is someone you know? I asked. “Yeah, I think I have from the very beginning,” he said, “Prior to Sasha I had done maybe two or three other body recoveries in Zion and I didn’t know who they were, but after a body recovery the National Park Service has you attend a critical incident stress debriefing. You sit with someone who is trained to help you deal with it emotionally. I went to the first couple of those and it wasn’t really too bothersome to me; however, when I went to get Sasha’s body, you know she’s about the same age as my daughter. I imaged if it was my daughter and how it would have crushed me. I put myself in the shoes of her dad who was there that evening and it was tough. I didn’t go to the critical incident debriefing after her recovery. I think I held that in. I didn’t let it out. It was with me for all those years. Then when Tiffany wanted to do Employee Canyon to get closure, I looked at it as an opportunity for me to get closure too; maybe I needed it as well. And it was great, it was beautiful, to finally let go. It was kind of a double release for me because I had been on the recovery for Lyle’s body a year prior, who was a pretty close friend. I was finally able to let go.”
I asked him if he felt a responsibility to people since Bo is often the go-to man when people have questions about canyoneering, climbing, hiking, and anything outdoor related. I would image he talks to hundreds of people. “When a customer I knew had to get rescued twice I thought, you know, maybe I shouldn’t be dispelling so much information to these people. Maybe I shouldn’t be prodding them on to pursue this. I should probably get to know the people a little more and see what their capabilities are.” I could imagine that given Bo’s experience in search and rescue, he might feel an added burden for the safety of people embarking on such adventures. I asked him if that was why he was so giving with his time and so willing to go out with people. He had always been willing to go with me and I knew he went out often with others, friends and strangers alike.
“I think I do not consciously feel that weight. Honestly, it is more of an ego thing. I like to take people out and show them what I’ve done. It may make me sound like a jackass, but in a way, it’s an ego thing. I enjoy doing it because I like showing people what I’ve done. But at the same time, yeah, I think I like to ensure people are safe and I try to instill in people to be safe. You know, you were there on the last Lady Mountain trip. I said let’s stick together as a group. Well, half the group took off and I thought later, maybe if we had stuck together nothing would have happened. I can’t blame myself. I’ve been with a good friend before where I told her not to do something and then when I turned around; she did it anyway and almost fell to her death. So I kind of feel like a father figure, or an authority. Maybe that’s wrong, I don’t know. I’ve been in positions and seen where people have done things that I wouldn’t have done and it got them into trouble.”
By the time we had wrapped up our conversation, we were pulling up to the gate at Zion. I knew I felt better going out on adventures with Bo, he was always safe, patient, and was the consummate guide. Whether for ego or not, when you go out with him, it comes across like an act of service. He almost always goes first, does the sketchiest climbs in order to help others, and is always giving advice about how to stay safe. Our mission to reach the summit of Lady Mountain was a success. It was a cool, beautiful spring day. Bo had brought a canteen of wine that got passed around the group as we took in the breathtaking 360 degree view on top of what seemed like the stairway to heaven. We didn’t see a soul the entire trip until we got back down by the Emerald Pools.
I considered myself lucky to be counted one of Bo’s friends, and to get the chance to spend time with him. Bo is funny, unselfish with his knowledge, giving with his time, and is one of the most caring and sensitive men I know. It is said that we care about what we invest in; if that’s true, Bo invests in people and for that, he feels deeply for them, and they for him. I am certain that on any given weekend, Bo gets half a dozen invitations by people wishing to spend a day with him, and you are lucky if you get to. If our treasure is where our heart is, Bo’s is the outdoor community that he serves, spends time with, and searches for and rescues. It has been his life’s work, and because of it, he is deservedly an icon in southern Utah.
Through the Eyes of Regina Pagles
Regina Pagles appeared on my radar screen about a year ago. Photos started to show up all over Facebook, photos taken by Regina Pagles. There was a sort of verbal swagger that accompanied these photo shoots, a sort of, “Oh, I’m doing a shoot with Regina Pagles.” Who is this woman, I wondered, is she a famous photographer? Why do people speak about her with an air of privilege, as if knowing her automatically places one in a special or elite class? Her photos did stand out. They are good – really good. They are simple, clean, crisp – even elegant. But it wasn’t until I went to her studio and looked through all of her portraits that I got the full scope and breadth of her work. People that I knew and didn’t know were transformed before my eyes into works of art, masterpieces. The subjects look like they are glowing, as if God had just breathed life into them, and at that moment, when they were chosen and called out of a dark fog, human not angelic, Regina caught it. Her photos seem to say, “As I see you.” Of course this description comes after putting some serious critical thought into her artwork, my attempt to explain what I see in her photos and why I like them.
So when she said in passing that she was trying to recreate the use of lighting that Rembrandt captured in his paintings, it all made sense. She was imitating a master. Not a master of light, but a master of contrast, a master of what is known as chiaroscuro, the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting the whole composition. Immediately, her work made perfect sense. As I conjured up images of Rembrandt in my mind, I could see the similarities and had that, “ah-ha,” moment. After the photo shoot she shared commonly heard criticism of her photos: they are too staged, she directs too much, she is too controlling, she doesn’t bring out the unique personalities of the subjects, or they all look the same. To which she replies, “I am not trying to capture the personality of the subject, I am imposing personality and character on the subject that I want to see. I am shooting the photo for me, for what I like, for what I want to see.” She went on to explain that many of her models hate the photos she takes and she has learned to accept their criticism because ultimately she shoots for her own pleasure and passion. Spoken like a true artist. I was intrigued, asked her for an interview, and yes, wondered how I would look through her eyes.
Regina sounds like a New Yorker, so it was no surprise that she is originally from Long Island. Of course the next obvious question was: how did you end up in southern Utah? To which she explained, “I saw a photo of the Narrows.” By her own profession, she was not a hiker and was scared to death to do a hike like the Narrows, but she had to hike it, and when she did, that was it for her. She went to see the Grand Canyon on that same trip and ultimately visited many national parks. “I had no idea what the Grand Canyon was before visiting Zion. I didn’t know what a national park was. On that trip I talked to a person in the parking lot at Arches National Park and they told me how they were going to all the national parks. That was so foreign to me, that people would arrange their vacations around national parks. I just couldn’t grasp it, but by the time I got home, I realized and I understood that there was a world so far away from New York and the national parks were – they became my ultimate goal.” That was 15-16 years ago. She was in her late 30s when she made the trip. It took her nine months to decide to leave the city and head west.
Regina is the only girl and youngest of four children. Her introduction to photography came through her father, who was a photographer by passion. “My dad was a photographer. He didn’t like to go to work. I would always hear my mom say, dad doesn’t want to go to work again today, because dad was in the darkroom.” Her father worked as a line type operator for the New York Daily News, but he was big into photography. “I followed in the footsteps of my dad. Every step that he took, I followed. And photography was one of those.” Following in his footsteps, Regina started out as a landscape photographer. “Horrible, horrible landscape photographer. I did the darkroom thing and then embraced digital when it came out. My dad introduced me to the first version of Photoshop over 20, almost 25 years ago on my dad’s first Apple computer. We would put my dad’s head on Arnold Schwarzenneger’s body. Ever since then I have wanted to master Photoshop.” She paused, “A photo of the Narrows does not need to be photo-shopped.”
Like her father disappearing into the darkroom, she disappeared into her computer. “I would spend six hours a day, minimum, on Photoshop, and I still only know a fraction of how to use it – enough to get by. But all of that energy was wasted on landscapes. I never considered portraiture. Never.” That all changed at a Photoshop World Convention in Las Vegas. “On the expo floor the lighting company Westcott was doing a shoot-out with live models in different sets. It had professional lighting and professional models and I was instantly obsessed and mesmerized with what lighting can do. I brought my camera. I maxed out my card and had to buy another one and I maxed that one out too. Then the girl at the booth told me they were having a contest on Flickr for the best photo of the shoot-out. She said whoever wins will get $5000 worth of lighting equipment.” Regina went home and submitted her photos and won. One day a big truck pulled up with backdrops and lighting. Regina and her husband rented out the space next to them and converted it into a studio. “We threw the stuff in there. I set it up to see if I liked it and I never turned back. Never took another landscape picture again.”
That was in 2010. She had no experience with studio lighting, “No experience whatsoever. To this day I am very intimidated by studio lighting. Lighting is very technical. It’s very integral, but very technical. I’ve learned that a good portrait is produced through interaction and it’s my responsibility to make the portrait and to bring the person out, it’s not theirs (the models). If I don’t, they just stand there and stare. So it’s my job, but if I’m concentrating too much on the technical, it’s very hard to concentrate on the interaction.” Regina has got her lighting set up in a way that enables her to get the shots she wants with the confidence and freedom to interact with her model. “I’ve read when something doesn’t look right you can be one or two inches off. I’ve nailed it to a certain extent. I’m sure I could make my setup better, but I’m scared to death to try.” When she said this, a quote by T.S. Eliot popped into my head. He said,
“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”
Regina certainly fits this description of a disciplined artist working within a strict framework producing rich artwork.
When I asked her about Rembrandt lighting and if she had studied his work, she said no, but that Rembrandt lighting is all she will ever use, at least until she changes her mind. “I wanted to do pictures like Jill Greenberg. Her lighting setup has seven lights. It’s a very distinct style of lighting, so when you see it, you know it’s her work. So I won a contest, Winner Gets Me, and if you win you get Don Giannatti (Professional Photographer) for the weekend – he comes to you. Our first conversation we were discussing what I wanted to learn from him and I told him that I wanted to do what Jill Greenberg does and he says to me…
“That’s all fine and well, I just want you to know something, when you have all that lighting, it’s about the photographer. You look at that, you know the photographer. The less lighting you use, the simpler the lighting, it’s more about the subject and less about the photographer. The photographer is removed.”
…That resonated with me. It was like a light switch. It was so clear when he said that. I was so fearful of shadows, and it’s not just me, everyone who starts out in studio lighting, I’ve read, is fearful of shadows. When you are first working with lighting I think it’s easier to blast the face with light than to work it with shadows.”
Hence, the Rembrandt lighting. She started this process in 2010, so it has taken her three years to get her photos dark enough that she gets shadows on the face. Now if a photo does not have shadows, she doesn’t even want to look at it. As for knowing if she has gotten to a place where her photos are recognized while at the same time making them about the subject rather than herself she quoted another local artist who had commented on one of her photos saying,
“Although we know who took this photo, and we know the subject a lot of times, you’ve removed yourself as the artist – to the point where you’ve removed your ego from the photo and placed all the emphasis on the subject.”
Regina went on to say, “I don’t want the picture to be about me, well – the picture is about me, it’s all me. It’s a lot about me – it’s about what I want to see in the photo. I know what I want. It’s not about me – it is about me. I don’t know. It’s kind of funny, for how controlling I am as an artist.”
Regina is controlling and does direct her subjects during her shoots. While watching her I felt like I was watching a director, not of a movie, but of a person. She stated that many people don’t like it and ask her why she is so heavy handed, why she doesn’t allow them to be themselves in the photos. To which she replies, “Because it’s not about them, it’s about what I want to see.” And herein lies the dichotomy between the photos being about the subject while also being about her; why people who view her photos love them, but the subjects often don’t. This sort of control can lead one to question if there is insecurity or fear of failure driving it. While we all experience it to one degree or another, artists – people who produce work that will be seen and reviewed by the world, experience it acutely.
“I have been told pretty much my whole life that I am a failure. So to this day, I am a failure in my mother’s eyes. And I was a failure in my own eyes, up until Scott Kelby, the number one selling author on photography and Photoshop, allowed me to guest blog on his blog. I joined twitter – I don’t tweat – I signed up just to send this one tweat, to ask Scott Kelby if I could guest on his blog.” She had written the blog post a year before she asked, so she was ready when he said yes. Her post was the second most read and commented on post on his blog that year behind only the famous photographer Peter Hurly, one of her idols (1). After that she said, “I am no longer a slave to what my mother thinks about me. I have arrived. People like me. I then slowly started to realize – I’m not a failure. When this blog post happened, I felt released from my mother. I no longer needed peoples’ approval, I didn’t care what they thought – doesn’t matter. It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Now, if people don’t like my photos, I don’t care. It’s so liberating.”
So what does Regina want to do with her photography ultimately? What does someone who is not doing it for the money, who shoots for her own pleasure, want to do with it? She’s not sure. She doesn’t take money for her photos because she doesn’t want to be owned – she doesn’t want to give anyone creative control over her work or dictate what they want. In fact, she doesn’t want to take photos of anyone who “needs” photos. “When people need photos they have high expectations” she said, and followed up with, “I don’t want to do it for money.” She is interested in doing workshops where she can help people and give them the opportunity to learn something they might never otherwise get the chance to learn. She would like to get to a place where if she had to, she could live off of her photographic work. I couldn’t help asking her if she had considered hanging her photos in a gallery. Of course, this is because I enjoyed looking at her work – all of it – and would love to see it up on walls under gallery lighting, and I think there would be strong public interest in it as well. She said possibly – she might be open to it someday.
But her future as a photographer also has to do with legacy. She is at the point where she is asking, what does my life amount to? What was it all for? “Tell me my life has meaning, that people will remember more about me than oh, she was that big mouthed Jewish person at the bike shop.” In other words, what will she be remembered for? It is a question that all of us either have or will consider in our own lifetimes. This line of thinking struck a chord with me as I find myself struggling with my own mortality and asking those very same questions – what is it all for? Will I have done something that mattered? “I want to die and know that I left a smile on someone’s face for whatever reason – that they will remember more about me than something mundane. I think I do more in my life now for how I will be remembered when I’m dead.” At this moment in our conversation I couldn’t help thinking of Rembrandt and of Regina’s father. Clearly both of these men had left legacies living beyond them in this one woman. Though both are dead, I pictured them smiling at how their influence survived after them.
I liked Regina the moment I met her, but after the interview, I loved her. What I appreciate and love the most about Regina is her honesty and integrity, not just as a photographer, but as a person. But even if I hadn’t been drawn to her right away, if she had been more difficult to like, I still would have appreciated her work. I love that she is a purist and is uncompromising with it and I believe it will pay off. She has something special – something that sets her apart. If you are looking for a photographer, someone who will capture you, your personality, your character – there are plenty of photographers in the area capable and willing to do it. If, however, you get asked by Regina to be one of her subjects, first, say yes; and second, know that it is not about you and that you may not like the photos – but that your face will go into a portfolio – a gallery – shaped and directed by an artist that more than likely will be remembered long after she is gone.
As for legacy, I can’t help wondering if Rembrandt wondered many of the same things Regina does – struggled with similar insecurities or if his subjects looked at the finished portraits and hated them, and if he was also an exacting and controlling artist. Who knew he would become one of the greatest artists this world has ever seen. I am not saying Regina is the next Rembrandt, only comparing the plight of the artist pursuing an endeavor to uncertain ends – always unsure if their struggle will be worth it and if theirs will find a place in time, history, or the future. As for Regina’s legacy, I am certain she has nothing to worry about.
For more on Regina:
(1) Her guest blog spot: http://scottkelby.com/2012/its-guest-blog-wednesday-featuring-regina-pagles/
(2) Her website: http://www.reginapaglesphotography.com/
(3) Her Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/reginapagles/
“The West is and always should be about silence and space. Lots of it. About endless landscapes that stretch to infinity, and unbroken skies that defy description, and moments of such incredible beauty and clarity that you think you’ll burst if you don’t share this extraordinary moment with someone right now.
And what makes the West so special is that you can’t.
The West has always been about remoteness and unimagined quiet and sometimes it made us crazy trying to decide if we loved it for its solitude or loathed it for its isolation. But it was the West’s unforgiving nature that also made us feel stronger. We chose to live here with all its emptiness and hardship and unforgiving space. Being able to survive the West, on its terms, gave us a leg up on the world.
Still the West made us mad with its contradictions. We’d stand on the summit of a favorite peak or canyon rim and we’d almost be giddy. And then the silence would sweep over us and we’d search for some sign that we aren’t as insignificant as we feel, and we couldn’t. And suddenly our laughter would sound like the hollow giggles of a mad man let loose in a coliseum. And we’d feel so alone and we’d want to tell someone. We’d want to hear a voice. But we couldn’t. Because this is The West — the breathtaking, heartbreaking, unrelenting, unforgiving American West. Or at least, it was…”
Jim Stiles is one of my personal heroes. He is a tragic hero. Tragic in that he is often misunderstood. A hero because he fights for things that matter. He clings tenaciously to ideas of the West that are slipping away. He is, as well, simply human. While I don’t agree with everything he says, I agree with a lot of it, and I respect the man.
The above quote was written by Jim. It is the most articulate, profound, and succinct description of the West and what it invokes in me personally that I have ever read. If you are interested in reading the entire article, it can be found here: http://www.postindependent.com/news/grandjunction/6627805-113/west-facebook-friends-stiles
Jim also publishes the Canyon Country Zephyr – Planet Earth Edition.
It ran for 20 years as a print publication and is now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West — Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed.” Both can be found at http://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com.