Twenty feet away from arguably the most spectacular high desert scene lay a pile of photographic detritus. Busted tripod legs, smashed lenses, and camera bodies pulverized beyond recognition, the scene looked more like a badly bungled camera store robbery than a National Park vista.
You could say the incident began 20 million years ago with the uplift of the Colorado Plateau that ultimately exposed the vulnerabilities of the 180 million-year-old Navajo Sandstone, from which Mesa Arch was carved. Maybe it was the onset of human history, the Paleoindians, 10,000 years ago, eking out a living on that high desert plateau that first drew eyes to that picture window we now call Mesa Arch. Perhaps it was the designation of Canyonlands as a National Park in 1964 that contributed to increased demand for bearing witness to that perfect aperture in the rock. Maybe it was the advent of the internet, digital photography, Facebook, Instagram, that led to Mesa Arch transmogrifying into The Arch.
In fact, it all began with the arrival of Eric Cooper.
Eric arrived at the Mesa Arch trailhead at 2:15 AM the morning of May 11th. His excitement masked his weariness, which was earned after a nine-hour drive from his home in Boise, Idaho. He’d never visited Canyon Country before. Since getting into astrophotography three years earlier, he had dreamed of visiting Utah’s second most famous arch under the cover of stars. On this, a clear moonless night, his dream was being realized.
Eric was surprised to find the parking lot empty. He knew it was a popular location and had expected to bump into a few other astrojunkies. Buoyed by his good fortune, he hoisted his camera bag, grabbed his coffee, and began the half-mile walk to that famous, soon to be infamous, arch.
At 3:40 AM, Alicia and Samantha arrived at the trailhead. The two women had slept, albeit fitfully, in their car just outside the National Park boundary. Having made the mistake of arriving 15 minutes before sunrise the previous day and finding the parking lot full, they had resolved to try again. Seeing only one other car in the lot, Eric’s rig, they were encouraged. They quickly shouldered their camera bags and disembarked.
Within the next five minutes, a caravan of four Range Rovers arrived. A photography workshop. The group was led by a pair of first-class landscape photographers turned YouTube stars turned first-class landscape photographers. Aside from being first-class landscape photographer YouTube stars, Ramone and Charles offered the swankiest high desert photography workshops around. High-end accommodations, luxury SUV rentals, five-star dining, full-body massages, and the occasional photo lesson, their clients wanted for nothing. This was Arch day. The Arch. Every Ramone and Charles workshop culminated in a sunrise shoot at The Arch. Their clients, eight in all, were promised the shot and they were here to get it. The party of 10, in unison, lifted their triple-shot caramel macchiatos to the sky, clanked rims, and set out.
As the workshop stepped onto the trail, three more cars pulled in. Five minutes later, another two. By 4:30 AM, a total of 14 cars and 23 people had arrived to photograph the 6:13 AM sunrise. This was the early crew. This was the crew that had done due diligence. The Arch is not a casual sunrise location. No, it is a photographic pilgrimage. Most notably, it is a photographic pilgrimage with limited space for adherents. As Alicia and Samantha, pilgrims themselves had discovered the day before: you snooze, you lose.
The Arch was smaller than Eric had imagined. He had poured over images of The Arch in advance of his trip but never had gotten a true sense of the scale of the thing. He had assumed it was at least 100 feet wide. Now, standing before it, he thought it at least half that. Nevertheless, he was thrilled to have the first hour and a half to himself. The solitude was sublime. He had never seen such a vivid night sky. Eric could, in that single tableau — The Arch, the maze of canyons below, the snowcapped La Sal mountains beyond, and a billion stars above — sense a powerful force that evaded understanding. These were the moments Thoreau and Muir had celebrated in their wilderness wanderings. Transcendence. He forgot about his camera, the device responsible for his being there, and just looked. This was it. This was everything.
The silence was broken, but only slightly so, with the arrival of Alicia and Samantha. Their arrival was more surprising to Eric than it was upsetting. He counted himself lucky to have had a few moments alone with The Arch, with transcendence. The women introduced themselves to Eric and him to them. They were kind and interested. They inquired about how long he had been there, what he had been shooting, and if he “got” anything. Eric had his tripod set up a dead center to The Arch, no more than a couple of dozen feet from its edge. The distance was a logical choice. It allowed for the entirety of The Arch plus a few feet on either side, of course, to fill the frame of his full frame DSLR at 16mm. The women joined him. Without a thought, they retrieved their tripods, expanded them to full height, and locked their cameras in place.
The Arch crew, now three strong, turned their heads in the direction of the trail behind them. A cacophony of voices sounded from just beyond the nearest pinyon trees. The workshop. A moment later, the group was upon them. They exchanged pleasantries: “You shooting with a DSLR?” and “What do you think of that Peak Designs tripod?” It was unclear to Eric, Alicia, and Samantha who the leader or leaders were. Ramone and Charles, for their part, ran the kind of workshop that was predicated on osmosis. Clients were paying for the privilege to be in the presence of the great Ramone Bachari and Charles Van Houten. After a few days with the masters, the clients hoped, they would, somehow, magically, be great too. Ramone and Charles set up, along with their eight clients, on either side of Eric, Alicia, and Samantha.
There they were: 26 eyes, 13 cameras, one shot.
Moments later, the steady stream of loyal pilgrims began arriving at The Arch. To the untrained eye, that is, a non-photographer, the unfolding ritual would seem fairly bizarre. In an early morning stupor, these folks were arriving in virtual silence, untethering a three-legged stand from their packs, expanding it to head height, and placing a camera on top. They were then lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder, with their three-legged stands, and pointing cameras at a hole in the rock millions of years in the making. Bizarre indeed.
By 5 AM, all 23 arch pilgrims were in position. Eric had top billing for the shot. Everybody else, 11 to his left and 11 to his right, felt increasing degrees of dissatisfaction the further they were from the earliest bird. “At least,” veterans of The Arch thought, “we are in the first row.”
For 45 minutes, no one else arrived. The pilgrims sipped their caffeinated beverages and waited.
Just before 6 AM, the second wave of photographers began to arrive. These photographers, like Alicia and Samantha the day before, were uninitiated in the ways of The Arch. They treated the location like it was a run-of-the-mill landscape, no jockeying for the position required. Although discouraged to find the wall of pilgrims stood before The Arch, the latecomers accepted their fate and began forming the second row of wildlands paparazzi. The second row positioned itself behind the shoulders of the first row: a classic portrait stagger. The Arch, non-sentient as far as we know, must have longed for a camera of its own to capture the perfectly spaced rows of photographers. It would have been a fine portrait save for the fact that no one was smiling.
By 6:05 AM, 57 shutterbugs were packed tightly into two rows. The tension amongst the photographers was intensifying in direct proportion with the increasing light. Shoulder to shoulder, tripod legs overlapping tripod legs, morning breath hanging in the air, the cramped quarters were beginning to wear on the photographers. Eric, Alicia, and Samantha, the original crew, were growing especially weary. They had gotten into landscape photography through their love for nature. They loved visiting wild, people-less places as a restorative exercise. It was calming. In the quiet of the woods, they could think more clearly, dream more wildly, and love more deeply. It was only after years of wandering with their eyes that they thought to bring a camera with them. They found the practice of landscape photography rich: it heightened their visual acuity and provided a process to chronicle their wanderings. They, most assuredly, did not get into landscape photography to play sardines with dozens of strangers. With roughly 640 million acres of public lands in the U.S., it seemed absurd that 57 souls were packed into 1/100th of an acre. And for what? The shot? And then what? An Instagram post? Possible print sales? The hope of increased workshop attendance? But, at what cost? These were the questions being squeezed out of Eric, Alicia, and Samantha by the shoulders of strangers.
It turns out the first three weren’t the only ones experiencing this existential crisis. Their 54 companions were all experiencing versions of the same frustration. Nobody was pleased with the arrangement. Even Ramone and Charles, intimately familiar with the intimacy of a Mesa Arch shoot, longed for client-less wanderings in the high desert. But the lure of The Arch is strong: a picture-perfect frame. They were all there now. Their fate was sealed. They need only capture the shot and get the hell out of there.
The magic of The Arch is twofold. First and foremost, it is the quintessential high desert frame. Through its window, the rugged canyon country of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below, opens up. Spindly sandstone towers and precipitous canyon walls comprise the lower half of the frame. The upper half of the frame is dominated by the 12,000-foot summits of the snow cone peaks of the La Sal Mountains. The view itself, light aside, is tremendous. Secondly, well, the light. Oh, the light! The Arch is perfectly positioned above the canyon walls to reflect the orange glow of the sun’s first rays. The underside of The Arch angled slightly in favor of the mesa-top photographer glows spectacularly in that rarefied air of the high desert. Taken together, the natural framing of The Arch and its sunrise light-gathering capabilities, it is no wonder that 57 landscape photographers (elite professionals, pro-ams, and hobbyists) were clustered together on that Island in the Sky the morning of May 11th. It was all but inevitable.
And, it was also all but inevitable that the next scene unfolded.
At 6:20 AM, with the famous arch glow beginning and shutters snapping away, a tourist (no tripod and an iPhone, albeit the newest one with the wide-angle lens) stepped confidently in front of the first row. Specifically, he stepped in front of Ramone and one of his clients. Ramone, serious but kind, politely asked the man to move. The man, only a few feet away, ignored him and switched his iPhone to panorama mode. Charles chimed in, politely, but firmly, asking the man to move. No response. The tension in the group was palpable. Aside from completely obscuring Ramone’s shot, the man was in at least 20 other viewfinders. The orange glow of The Arch intensified and so too did Ramone’s frustration. Now, a chorus of voices, led by Ramone, remonstrated the man for such flagrantly antisocial behavior. The man, the tourist, iPhone photographer, completing his third panoramic pass over The Arch, turned to Ramone and exclaimed: “I have just as much right to be here as any of you.” He wasn’t wrong, but somehow, he wasn’t right either.
The tension amongst the photographers at the peak of The Arch Show was no longer tenable. The uncomfortable crowding, the jockeying for position, the developing need for a bathroom break, and now this, an entitled tourist. Weren’t they all tourists, though? Mere visitors of the wilds. Everyone, including Eric, normally a peacekeeper, could feel the rising temperature of the crowd. Ramone had had enough. Out of character, but in harmony with the group’s energy, Ramone retorted, “But we have been here for two hours, you selfish idiot. Move!” The tourist, satisfied with his shots and aware of the escalating mob, smiled at Ramone, then proceeded to calmly hook his foot around the front-facing leg of his tripod and pull.
It was one thing to see a $25,000 camera setup — Hasselblad, only the best for Ramone — fall in slow motion and yet another to see seven other tripods, their fates inextricably linked with Ramone's, succumb to gravity. Eric and Samantha reacted quickly enough to save their cameras. The other six, including Ramone, were not so lucky. The sound of $50,000 worth of camera gear crashing on slick rock is a memorable one, especially for those whose gear was in the mix. The sound, Alicia — one of the unlucky ones — later recalled, was reminiscent of a car accident: shattering glass, ringing metal, crinkling plastic, and screaming. Lots of screaming.
What followed is of little consequence. The damage was done, the illusion of tranquility broken. The scuffle, according to most, lasted no more than a couple of minutes. Fortuitously, a pair of park rangers were already en route — routine Arch Check — to The Arch when the $50,000 smash occurred. They had heard it. The rangers sprung into action and quickly defused the scene. Nobody was seriously injured in the melee: cuts, bruises, a broken wrist. Bystanders were questioned. Participants were interrogated. Charges were pressed. The Arch remained unchanged.
Eric followed the news coverage from the safety of his home in Boise. Arch Madness, Melee at Mesa Arch, Chaos in Canyonlands, the alliterative headlines droned on. The incident had tickled the voyeuristic predilections of a national and international audience. Amidst the noise, one piece, in particular, caught his attention. It was a story out of the Moab Sun News, the newspaper of The Arch itself. The newspaper's front-page headline read: The Battle of Mesa Arch. The piece contained extensive interviews with National Park Service employees, victims, and bystanders. Eric himself was quoted several times. The write-up, he thought, was the most balanced yet. It was the fallout of the so-called Battle of Mesa Arch that most alarmed him.
The paper read, “In the week since The Battle of Mesa Arch, National Park Service employees say that visitation to Mesa Arch has nearly doubled.”
This is a work of fiction. Any perceived likeness of the characters to real people is simply coincidental. No people or arches were harmed in the making of this story.