Searching for Tao Canyon
by Pat Morrow
Editor's note -- this week, we're very pleased that Pat Morrow has agreed to join us. Pat, who lives in a small town in BC's Columbia Valley between the Rockies and the Purcell Ranges, is an inspiring individual whose CV could quite easily be longer than his post. Pat is an accomplished mountaineer (he climbed the last of the highest summits on each of seven continents in 1986), photojournalist, conservationist, and along with his photojournalist wife Baiba, received the Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society in 2017. He has an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Thompson Rivers University.
Pat’s note: Before you read this, you should check out Todd Wilkinson’s thoughtful piece “Let's Not Sell Out The Places We Love” (July 5, 2020) in this series of guest editorials.
I began my career in the mid 1970s as a freelance adventure photojournalist unwittingly selling out the wild places I had discovered on my own, and like Todd, assumed that spreading the love would help protect them.
That is, with one major exception.
Forty years in the making, the non-fiction book Searching For Tao Canyon chronicles in razor-sharp Kodachrome images and text a decade’s worth of exploration in the subterranean world of the American desert, long before it was Instagrammed to global fame.
In the early 1970s, Canadian photographer Art Twomey stumbled across a narrow crack in the desert floor in northern Arizona. It was a slot canyon, a stone crevasse carved by water and wind. From the rim, he could make out only deep shadows. But from within, having climbed into it, he found an intricate underground fantasy of shape, light, and colour that defied ordinary perception.
Art published it in the Sierra Club’s annual nature calendar. He called the place by its real name, and quickly regretted it.
Snail mail poured in, people asking where this was. Hundreds wanted to go there to see it for themselves.
Art understood the risk of telling people. He knew how easily the rock could be damaged even by a careful person. He took to answering, “I found it, so can you.”
The photograph he made that day caused a small sensation in the world of landscape photography, and sent him, co-authors Jeremy Schmidt and me on a decade-long search for the ultimate slot canyon.
In all the years of having our enigmatic canyon photos published in magazines and books worldwide, we chose to use pseudonyms for each canyon in order to protect the delicate fluted sandstone features that drew us there in the first place.
We came up with the moniker “Tao” (meaning simply “The Way” in Chinese) and thought of it more as an archetype than an actual place — an idealized canyon of the mind.
About 30 “slots” are represented by the photos in our book, all falling under the Tao penumbra.
At the time, slots were virtually unknown, their exquisite beauties not yet appreciated. There were no guidebooks, no guided tours, no publicly available satellite images to reveal the
locations of these subterranean places. Our pursuit was driven by the thrill of discovery, of finding places no one knew and inadvertently becoming forerunners in the “sport” of technical canyoneering.
As a photographer intent on recording visual stimuli, the text I’ve crafted to describe the content has always sought to offer complimentary imagery not portrayed by the photo itself.
Because human traffic inside and outside these canyons can easily break off the fluted features, and leave black Vibram sole streaks on canyon walls, we early on adopted a policy of “leave no trace” travel, and abandoned our hiking boots for cheap running shoes with crepe soles that provided good rock-climbing grip while leaving no marks. The same went for taking care to lessen the scars on the sensitive cryptobiotic soil crusts when camping in the desert, and respectfully leaving any artifacts of indigenous habitations undisturbed.
Searching for Tao Canyon continues that trajectory. It is not a guidebook. It gives no directions; names no names. And for good reason.
On a recent return visit to the Southwest, Jeremy and I visited some of our old haunts. Many are still wild and unchanged, but one in particular has become a world-famous commercial attraction, drawing a “line dance” of awe-struck visitors every day for nine months of the year. Demand is so strong that the number is capped at 2500 per day, and reservations must
be made far in advance.
The book is dedicated to Art Twomey, who introduced us to canyon country and the slots. Twomey died in 1997 in a helicopter crash in his adopted home of the Purcell mountain range in British Columbia.
With this book, we perhaps naively hoped to build appreciation not for any particular places, but for what the untamed nature of canyon country can teach us, and the shadow responsibility for the public, who find it as alluring as we do, to do everything in our collective power to protect it.
For more information about Pat and Baiba Morrow, please go to www.patmorrow.com, and to check out "Searching for Tao Canyon," please see https://rmbooks.com/book/searching-for-tao-canyon/