Northern Arizona’s National Monuments and Exploration Expectations

Oh, expectations. We have them for travel, and we have them for life.

Since I got to Flagstaff, AZ, I’ve been wanting to drive out to the two National Monuments north of town – Wupatki and Sunset Crater. Wupatki N.M. encompasses four Anasazi/Sinagua archaeological sites, and Sunset Crater preserves the cinder cone of a volcano that erupted about 1000 years as well as the lands surrounding it.

For about a month, it was much too hot here for me to venture out into the pinyon-juniper plains. Then, Arizona’s monsoon season began, and the weather got too rainy. This morning, blazing sunshine and cool temps started off the day, so I packed up my camera in anticipation of the stunning blue sky and ancient pueblo photos awaiting me.

I seemed to have forgotten that the highly unpredictable monsoon pattern is still in effect during August. By the time I got to my turnoff, lightning was punctuating the horizon and heavy raindrops were were pelting the windshield. In all directions, the color of the sky indicated that this system would be around for a while. I wondered for the upteenth time this month why I hadn’t looked at a forecast before setting out on an adventure. So much for gorgeous high-contrast photos.

I thought about pulling the plug, since this mission was clearly not going to meet my expectations. However, I’d already driven an hour, and I still thought the storm might pass. So I kept going.


The storm didn’t pass, the skies never cleared, and I didn’t get the shots I’d driven out there to get.  I did get something, though – mostly because I let go of my attachment to what I was looking for.

In my disappointment over the flat light and uniformly drab skies, I started looking down – down at the flowers, the dried grasses, and the stones next to the interpretive walkways. Noticing that their color hadn’t been dulled by the dark clouds, I tentatively pulled out my camera and went to work. Close-up compositions were turning out well. Potential pictures were popping out everywhere. Maybe this would be a fruitful trip after all, I thought.

It occurred to me later that what made the excursion a success was not a change in weather, venue or subject matter; it was a change in my attitude and focus. I had to stop looking for the “big shots” – the ones with the dramatic light and the poofy clouds – and start looking for the little things.

Which, I realized while wandering the lava fields, is not an altogether bad metaphor for what I could stand to do when evaluating the trajectory of my life.

When I was young, I always assumed I would do something “big.” I never once had any idea what that would be, and as a curious but undirected learner, I didn’t set myself up for success. Nevertheless, I trusted the authority figures around me who assured me that I would make waves in the world.

I’m old enough now to know I’m not going to do anything big. In fact, I stopped looking for life’s equivalent of the jaw-dropping panoramic photo a long time ago. Instead, I make do with less dramatic vistas and close-ups of ponderosa pine bark – minor accomplishments, small impacts.

But I don’t yet give them equal status. The little victories I experience and the tiny ripples my actions create still don’t quite seem to meet my own standards.

Altering perspective is a process; we all know that. My ability to release my expectations of what I should do, be, and want in order to appreciate what is right under my feet is, at best, in its developmental stages.

Today, I managed to let go of goals for my art.

Perhaps if I start here, some kind of acceptance will sneak into me through the back door – kind of like these photos did.

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