Article — From the January 2012 issue

The Long Draw

On the trail of an artistic mystery in the American West

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In its narrowest section, the Black Canyon is more than twice as deep as it is wide. “No other North American canyon combines the depth, narrowness, sheerness, and somber countenance of the Black Canyon,” wrote Wallace R. Hansen of the U.S. Geological Survey. Once the eye has adjusted to the surreal view, the ear perceives the Gunnison’s roar, which is ever present even at the canyon’s rim, some 2,000 feet above the river.

On our first morning at the Black Canyon, we set out to find the vantage point for the panorama Big Cañon from Colorado Plateau. Our guide, Jeremy Werlin, a volunteer rescue climber at the canyon, led us to an overlook on the north rim known as Dead Horse Point. Not only do the pinnacles and steep side canyons here conform to Egloffstein’s panorama; so, too, do the pine trees on the ledges that protrude over the canyon. The plants of the lower Grand Canyon are a prickly cohort of Sonoran desert species — agave, barrel cactus, cholla, ironwood, mesquite, Mormon tea, and ocotillo — all adapted to the heat and aridity of the region. But jutting into the foreground of Big Cañon from Colorado Plateau is what appears to be an Engelmann spruce or Douglas fir, alpine species that would wither on the dry benches of the inner Grand Canyon but that are common along the rim of the Black Canyon.

We had little doubt that Egloffstein’s panorama is situated in this section of the canyon, but we could not make the elements match perfectly. We could situate ourselves so that the canyon had the correct profile, but it lacked the rock outcrop and jutting tree in the foreground. When we moved to the outcrop, the view of the full sweep of the canyon was lost.

All around are signs of mass erosion. Not the slow, smooth scouring of the Grand Canyon but the explosive tearing away of huge columns of stone. Had a ledge fallen away in the intervening 150 years? Had Egloffstein synthesized key botanical and geological features in the foreground, in this case the rocks and trees, along with Dead Horse Point’s most encompassing background sweep — essentially loading the scene to offer an intensified vision of this section of the canyon?

The vantage point we found for the next Egloffstein panorama was a closer match. Paul Zaenger, a ranger at the Black Canyon, said the mittenlike stone towers in Big Cañon Near Diamond River strongly resembled the Great Pillars, spectacular formations visible from the south rim’s visitor center. When we got there, we climbed down to a stone platform on the canyon’s edge. The background of Egloffstein’s panorama came into alignment, and in the foreground we saw small rock projections that match those in the drawing almost perfectly. Beyond, the canyon opens in the same configuration depicted in the drawing, with the narrow side canyon and pillar on the left and the tapering V of the Narrows receding into the hazy distance on the right.

But how did Egloffstein get here from Dead Horse Point and the north rim? In a straight line, the distance between this vista and the pine-covered platforms of Big Cañon from Colorado Plateau is probably no more than half a mile. Tracing the rim, however, would have meant a difficult overland journey of at least fifty miles. With the party battling the cold and subsisting on horse steaks fried with tallow candles, a likelier explanation is that they took a far more direct route, dropping into the canyon and climbing to the other side.

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