Article — From the January 2012 issue

The Long Draw

On the trail of an artistic mystery in the American West

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The next day, we too climbed down into the canyon. In search of the riverside view that Egloffstein drew in Black Cañon, we hiked through a gully called Long Draw. The route is not technical, but it is extremely steep — dropping 1,800 feet over the course of a mile — and requires scrambling over large slabs. At the edge, a cold draft surges from the depths of the canyon.

As we descended, weird, impossibly balanced pillars rose above us. Gambel oak, box elder, gooseberry, willow, columbine, and larkspur grow from the talus in the shadow of the ever deepening cut.3

3 Another of Egloffstein’s engravings, titled simply Big Cañon, depicts a hornlike spire that seems to protrude above the level of the canyon. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of pillars like this at the Black Canyon, and although none actually projects above the rim, as we descended into the depths of Long Draw, they appeared to do so: another critical piece of evidence that Egloffstein was not content merely to peer over the edge of the Black Canyon but climbed into it.

About halfway down we stopped to rest. Two climbers draped in gear passed by, their quickdraws and cams clinking like wind chimes. “We heard about you at the rim,” said the lanky, slightly equine one with a little laugh, tiptoeing over the sharp stones in flimsy climbing shoes. “We thought they were lying. No one ‘hikes’ down here.”

Deeper in the ravine, a light haze lingered from massive wildfires burning in Arizona, but the air was pleasant and cool. Egloffstein would have made this descent in the middle of winter. I asked Werlin if he thought it possible. “We’re soft these days. If the weather is bad we don’t go out — but they went rain or shine,” he said. “They had a country to cross. I don’t question the toughness of people who lived 150 years ago.”4 

4 In September 1869, as rumors spread that the expedition of John Wesley Powell had been lost in the Grand Canyon, a number of opportunists emerged, seeking to use their stories of intrigue to capitalize on the Grand Canyon fever sweeping the country. Among the procession of fame seekers was Solomon Nunes Carvalho, who had accompanied the Frémont expedition and now presented his own impressions of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado — a place the party never visited. A short dispatch in the New York Times, dated September 4, 1869, reports on an exhibition of a painting of the Grand Canyon that Carvalho claimed to have made during the 1853 Frémont expedition. Carvalho’s painting looked very much like pictures I had seen of the Narrows from the bottom of Long Draw, and an excellent wide-angle counterpart to Egloffstein’s narrowly focused Black Canyon image. Was Carvalho looking to cash in on the misfortunes of the Powell expedition? Or was he merely confused — as I believe the congressional report makers were — by the overlapping names of the two rivers? 

After two hours of careful hiking, we reached the bottom. Copious blooms of poison ivy grow between boulders the size of small houses. We had to shout to be heard over the torrent. Heavy snowpack in the West Elk and San Juan mountains had necessitated the release of huge quantities of water from the dams upstream in anticipation of the melt.

I scuttled on all fours to the top of a water-smoothed stone that projected into the current. The elements appeared to be in place and of a piece. The dark walls in the foreground were in shadow and the wall behind was illuminated. Here at the Narrows the river surges through a gap a mere forty feet wide.

As I studied the copy of Black Cañon I had brought along, two troubling discrepancies emerged. The first is obvious: we were on the wrong side of the river. In the image, the viewer is clearly situated on the right bank, whereas we were on the left. The other bank might as well have been another country.

But according to Paul Zaenger, before upstream dams were built in the 1960s and 1970s, the midwinter flow of the Gunnison at the Narrows would have been a fraction of what confronts us today. Directly across the river is a steep chute called Echo Canyon, a direct route to the south rim. Did Egloffstein use Long Draw and Echo Canyon as entrance and exit points, crossing the Gunnison by wading or hopping over boulders now submerged?

The second discrepancy was subtler. From a distance, the elements seemed to align — the river sweeping from right to left across the black face of the cliff. About halfway up the prowlike rock on the right of the Narrows is an inconspicuous notch. The notch is also present in Egloffstein’s image — but it’s on the left side.

Could the drawing have been made on the opposite side of the keyhole before us — upstream from the Narrows? The boat in the image (itself a troubling anomaly because Frémont had no boats on the expedition) may offer an important clue. The man pulling the boat ashore seems to be straining against the current, which means that such a view could have been obtained only on the upstream side.

But how did the boat get there in the first place? It might have been added later by an unknown hand in Washington to conform to Ives’s narrative, which mentions moving upriver by skiff after the loss of the steamboat. Or perhaps Egloffstein added it himself as a means of showing the direction of the current and, more importantly for our purposes, a way to define his position in relation to the Narrows.

As the noon sun crested the opposite wall, the Black Canyon’s inner gorge was painted a dazzling silver. We could not linger, but I was confident that we had found strong matches for Egloffstein’s Big Cañon vantage points and strong correspondences for his “gothic” spires and pinnacles, which are not products of a Eurocentric romanticism but defining features of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Why didn’t Egloffstein speak out about the cooptation of his images? What happened to his drawings of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado? These are questions that still need answers. But it is time to clear Egloffstein of charges of schizophrenia and artistic fraud, and to place the master mapmaker where he belongs — among the West’s first great landscape artists.

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