In mid-October, I headed to southern Utah for a painting class at the artist Maynard Dixon's homestead northeast of Kanab. But I really didn't have autumn on my mind.
I was coming from the Mohave Desert, after working on rare plant surveys for the last month. The Mohave is exquisite, but its hardscrabble beauty doesn't scream fall.
My route was from southern California, up to St. George in Utah and then east through Zion National Park. Zion was new for me, and deep red maple leaves and soft yellow willow leaves and the like cast against its steep canyon walls did speak to the grandeur of autumn.
The campground there looked like the place to stay, tucked into a big old cottonwood grove. It's a place I hope to take my daughter there to camp and hike next October. From there, it was onward to Mount Carmel, Utah, further east.
All of the drainages and canyons along the way were on fire with hot pink maples and lush yellow Fremont cottonwoods. I was led to dismiss western fall colors as they are more subtle than those of the endless deciduous forests in the eastern United States.
And yet, the color of the land and the leaves and the light this fall have, as always, reminded me of the remarkable nature of this time here.
A lot has been written about autumn. It has been described as a bountiful time, a melancholy time and a metaphor for the very nature of our lives -- complete with sadness and joy. Many of my friends find it to be an emotional time.
I've been thinking about the season a lot lately, and I consider it to be a truly unique time of the year for several reasons. The light is softer because the sun is lower and about halfway toward its winter position over the Tropic of Capricorn.
With this softer light comes the most intense colors of the year in the leaves of deciduous plants, as their green chlorophyll is diminished, revealing the red and yellow pigments that it masks. I think the softening of the light and bold colors of leaves -- fiery reds and buttery-soft yellows, soft yet vivid -- are the qualities that really yank the senses in the fall.
My painting class met at Maynard Dixon's studio at his homestead in Mount Carmel. Not only was it set in this beautiful fall, but we painted in settings that Dixon had worked, and got to see what he was talking about in his paintings.
Dixon, a god in my world, painted the West during the first 45 years of the 20th century. The man was a master. For my money, his bold vision and assured rendering of the western landscape are unparalleled.
He really worked hard at it, traveling throughout the Southwest often during his life, studying the land through painting. I like to think he became an artistic nomad out of an imperative to visually grasp this region, and then southern Utah grabbed him.
Dixon built his summer home and studio in Mt. Carmel in the 1930s, spent much time there and ultimately had his ashes were buried in the hills nearby. In addition to landscapes, his work includes powerful images of the world of Native Americans in the Southwest.
Many of the latter became especially prominent works, as they were rendered in enormous murals and illustrations in public and commercial buildings and in major western newspapers and magazines. He brilliantly brought his sense of the Southwest to the world through mass media.
Dixon's homestead was purchased by the Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts in 1998, and was restored, in part, to honor and preserve his work. The Foundation also built the Bingham Gallery next door, where they feature paintings by some of the most exciting contemporary landscape painters working in the American Southwest.
It is a beautiful and important gallery. They also sponsor a number of exhibitions and art classes each year, including the Maynard Dixon Country festival each fall devoted to Maynard Dixon's vision.
This art festival features an art show, public gathering and sale of works by 35 of America's premier artists, which support the foundation, the artists and art programs for high school and special needs kids. In October 2011, the gallery featured photographs taken during John Wesley Powell's 1872 Grand Canyon expedition.
Dixon has been on my radar for more than 20 years. To be able to join an art group in his studio for lectures and demonstrations was a dream come true. This wonderful convergence of fall light ... the golden cottonwoods against hay fields and sandstone bluffs and blue sky, and the landscapes made recognizable by Dixon will surely be one of my finest memories in this life. I had a grin on my face and a very full heart the whole time I was there.
Anyone traveling toward Mount Carmel should stop at the Bingham Gallery and maybe schedule a tour of Dixon's homestead, his home, studio and guesthouse. Artists can apply to stay at the guesthouse for four nights for a nominal fee for working in the area.
From Mount Carmel, going west on U.S. 89 takes you to Zion and then Las Vegas, while going east leads you to Bryce National Park and on to Escalante Canyon.
During the workshop, I stayed at the Mount Carmel Motel and RV, a charming, vintage place tucked under the big cottonwood grove there, with great prices and rooms that are clean as a whistle. There's a Best Western available, as well. By the third week of October, the morning temperatures were frosty, but then perfect a few hours later.
Although the fall colors are well on the wane, anyone with extra time in this last week or two of November can make a foray into the canyons of southern Utah. Here, some cottonwoods might hold on to the last of their canary yellows against the pink bluffs of sandstone that fill the area. Even when the leaves are gone, Southern Utah's destinations are only a few hours away, and they are always beckoning.
Note: Gwendolyn Waring is a Flagstaff artist, naturalist and writer. She is the author of the recently released book "A Natural History of the Intermountain West," which is published by the University of Utah Press.
If you go
What: A road trip into southern Utah
Directions: Take U.S. 89 northbound and then U.S. 89 or 89A to Kanab, about a three-and-a-half hour drive. From there, Mt. Carmel is about 20 miles to the north. From there, many loops abound into Zion or Bryce national parks or Dixie National Forest.