The Man on the Mountaintop

Lessons on art from the Utah desert

This spring break, I spent a week in Arches National Park, Utah with a group of fellow Alternative Spring Breakers, exploring the park and hoping to learn something along the way. On an ASB trip, reflections and discussions abound. Sometimes, the lessons to be learned about preservation, nature, and societal responsibility are obvious when you’re walking in the natural beauty of a national park. But my most impactful lesson came as a surprise.

One evening, just before sunset, we hiked a mile and a half up a mountainside to see the famed Delicate Arch.

Delicate Arch at sunset

You’ve probably seen its image before. Each season, the arch attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. They come to see its strange curve, its sediment patterns, the way it’s hidden in an alien world behind a wall of sheer rock.

The perils of reaching the Arch

The Arch isn’t easy to reach. But even after we climbed slippery inclines and shimmied across the edges of cliffs, when we arrived on the mountaintop, a hundred other people were there for the same thing we were: not just to see the Arch, but to be moved by it.

A crowd waits for the sunset

And up there, waiting for us, was the man who would teach me the most important lesson I learned that week.

He was older, maybe earlier 70’s, and had the oldest camera I’d ever seen. My guess is 1920’s era, probably restored, with an iconic accordion-style lens extending from the camera box and a black hood that he crouched underneath to line up his shot. He wore all black as well, and his white hair and five o’clock shadow were set off starkly by the rest of his features. He would disappear for minutes at a time under the hood, come back out to peer at the arch in the orange sunlight, and then back under again continue with his work.

I watched him for a while. When I actually started talking to him, though, he wasn’t quite the self-effacing “wise man” I had half imagined him to be. My compliments to the craftsmanship of his camera and my high opinion of someone willing to work with the medium of film were met with lazy grunts and eyes that said only, “yeah, kid… I know.”

As my fellow spring breakers sat next to him watch the sunset, they were met with not-so-subtle remarks on how rude it was that people would dare stand under the arch, ruining his chances for the “perfect” shot. He bemoaned the actions of families, groups of teenagers like us, and what seemed to be park visitors in general. Whispers of his rude words spread throughout the whole crowd — groups we passed left and right spoke in hushed, angry tones about the man with the camera who did all in his power to guilt visitors into leaving. This carried on until we left, long after sunset, and the man stayed, still hoping in vain to get his perfect shot.

That night, the man already a distant memory, a member of our group, Erin, led a discussion on art — poignant in a tiny campsite surrounded by millions of years of rock sculpture, and ironic due to the events of the day. She talked about the power of art, of creating something that means something. She told her story of how important art has been to her self-expression, and then asked us to talk.

Erin, our resident artist

We sat around the fire in the freezing cold March desert for over an hour. We talked about our favorite photos, childhood art projects, family heirlooms, classical masterpieces, music and painting, literature and photography. We drew art of our own, sketches on little neon note-cards with neon markers, tasked with making something we connected with. And then, ceremoniously, we tossed our work into the flames.

It was one of the most interesting and entertaining discussions I’ve ever had, and it was led by Art History majors, avid painters, photography enthusiasts, and people who’d never even come close to an art studio. As we sat there, laughing at one another’s odd artistic tastes, listening earnestly to stories on our personal connection to art, I felt for the first time truly connected to my group.

Watching the sunset the next day

Art, especially photography, is something very important to me. My love for photography comes from my grandfather, who carries his camera with him everywhere he goes. In the thousands of pictures he’s taken of me, my whole life is documented in moments in large part thanks to him, and today, I try to honor him by doing the same on my own. In lugging around my camera everywhere I go, I’ve learned so much about photography — but as I sat on that mountainside, admiring the strange geology of Arches, I learned something about art.

The old man on the slope believed in vain that art is supposed to be perfect. In waiting hours for his perfect shot, he left without a single positive thing to say about one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. In trying to make art, he lost sight of what art is all about.

That night, Erin taught us art isn’t supposed to be perfect. Art is supposed to be meaningful. It’s supposed to evoke emotion and feeling. 

Stepping into the unknown

It’s supposed to connect us, not draw lines between us.

A quick rest among the arches

Art can be laughed at, enjoyed without the need for seriousness.

Facing the wind and cold, and losing

Art can be big or small, as long as it captures something special.

A stunning vista hidden deep into a hike
The hidden beauty of the desert

Any art created without love is no art at all. That man up there on the mountain may get his perfect shot eventually, but the sketches I saw my group make on little notecards will mean ten times as much as that picture ever will, because they were made to draw us together.

In this article are the pictures that mean the most to me. They capture the friends I made, the misery and triumphs along the way, and the views I will never forget. They may not be perfect pictures or technical masterpieces, but they are special to me, and that’s what art is all about.

The last view of the trip, experienced together under the sun

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