Natural Bridges: Beauty, Bears, and Backaches Picture of the Month - Natural Bridges National Monument

Eroded rock overhang with dark varnish stains in Natural Bridges National Monument
Ancient Waterway Overhang with Varnish Stains—Sedimentary layers and mineral stains highlight the geological history of this Natural Bridges formation.

I may not be the rugged outdoorsman that I appear to be. Until two years ago, Queen Anne’s and my camping world revolved around our little Casita trailer. We took it everywhere, from the Grand Canyon to Alaska. However, we had to part with it due to unforeseen circumstances and began using motels for our overnight trips.

As much as we enjoy watching The Big Bang Theory reruns in our motel room at night, it’s not the same as sitting around a campfire under the stars and eating Jimmyums. Recently, I decided that I would get back to basics on my next photo shoot—and the perfect opportunity was coming up.

Queen Anne’s Adventure

Anne’s sister Jane called about one of her bucket list items: a road trip to Utah’s Mighty-Five National Parks. Anne jumped at the chance to travel with her sister and even offered to drive. Their tour started for two weeks but got whittled down to a week by the time they left. While they were off ‘Thelma and Louise’-ing their way across the Beehive State, I decided to use that time to explore the Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding. After all, when we bought the Turd—my RAV4—I made sure there was room for me to stretch out in the back.

View of Owachomo Bridge from the canyon rim in Natural Bridges National Monument
Natural Beauty: Owachomo Bridge from Above- The delicate span of Owachomo Bridge is set against the rugged canyon landscape.

Preparation for the Trip

As I prepared for my adventure, I dug out the remains of our camping gear from the attic and added some kitchen items to augment them. Since I’d be alone, I bought a bunch of canned goods for food, reducing the need for an ice chest. I always heated them on my single-burner propane stove when I camped as a younger man. Besides, Cup-O-Noodles and coffee make for an easy, warm meal on those chilly mornings.

One thing I splurged on was a heavy-duty air mattress. I can no longer tolerate sleeping on a hard surface without a cushion. The one I bought from Amazon was designed to fit in the back of SUVs. It’s T-shaped and broad at the back doors, then narrows between the wheel wells. Another nice feature is that each side inflates independently—so I could pack my camp boxes on the deflated side while day traveling. Did I mention that it was guaranteed not to leak? Yeah, about that…

Once the girls got a head start, I carefully packed my new mattress, all of my photo gear, plenty of clean socks and undies, and the rest of my provisions into the Turd and set off on my 9-hour journey to Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah. On the road again—what could go wrong?

The Struggle

I arrived at the park after 4:00 p.m., so the campground was full. I expected that, but the BLM runs the Mani-La Sal forest, so throw-down camping is permitted, and I had ample time to find a good spot. Before long, I backed into a lovely level spot surrounded by Ponderosa pines beneath the towering red cliffs of Bears Ears.

The air had a damp-cool chill, so I put on the sweater I brought before setting up camp. Since I didn’t have a table, I used my sturdy camp box for one, which doubled as an ottoman after dinner. I stowed the rest of my boxes on the truck roof to keep them out of the dirt.

After emptying the back of the Turd, I unrolled my mattress and started inflating it using the portable pump that it came with. Before I began to inflate the passenger side, I looked closely at the sky and felt it would rain, so I moved the rest of my boxes back inside along the flaccid side of the bed. It cramped my bed space, but I’d be fine since I wasn’t planning on spooning with a bear.

Before dinner, I had time to wander and capture video clips of the red cliffs and trees in the sunset. Upon returning to camp, I prepared an Epicurean meal of warmed-over canned ravioli, a cup of peaches, and a cup of tapioca pudding. As the night grew late, I gathered my things and climbed into the back of the truck. Ah! The life of Reilly.

Outside was silence except for the trees rustling in the gentle breeze—a cowboy’s lullaby. The yellow moonlight was coming in the passenger side windows as I dozed off. I watched it a bit before snuggling into my sleeping bag as sleep crept over me.

The next thing I knew was feeling uncomfortable and opening my eyes to figure out the irritation. The moonlight was now at the back door, so hours must have passed. The mattress still had air, and the sleeping bag was warm. What’s nagging me? Then it hit me: as an old man with a prostate the size of a grapefruit, I had to pee. The one thing that I hadn’t taken into consideration. I needed to get up and out of the truck—NOW.

First, I untangled myself from the twisted sleeping bag and opened the zipper. I began feeling around for my boots, and as I tried to put them on, the laces were tight, so I had to fix that. Once I had them on my feet, I opened the door on my right. While grabbing the handle over it, I tried lifting my legs and pivoting them out the opening, but my right leg got caught in the useless seat belt harness. After freeing myself from the straps, I successfully extracted myself. As I slowly unrolled into a standing position, my back said, “Don’t ever do that again.” But it was not to be. Simone Biles would have been proud to pull off that gymnastics routine once, but I did it three more times that night—and my back seized up in protest.

View of Kachina Bridge from the canyon rim in Natural Bridges National Monument
Natural Splendor: Kachina Bridge from the Rim-Kachina Bridge’s grand arch spans the lush canyon below, offering a stunning contrast of colors.

Where’s My Towel?

I could barely walk when I got out of the truck the final time. Dawn lit the eastern sky, so I hobbled over to my chair and managed to put on a pot of water. As I sat and drank my instant coffee, I pondered my predicament. I had driven a long way and hadn’t snapped a single photo, but I certainly couldn’t spend another night injuring myself in the truck. Not until I can figure out a better method of extracting myself.

I threw in the towel. After my coffee, I started packing the truck, including the camp box that was now too heavy for me to move. I had to remove its contents, then drag the big empty box into the Turd, and finally repack it.

Play Through the Pain

After I had loaded the RAV4, I drove back to the park’s visitor center. It was closed, and I had the entire park to myself. I convinced myself that I could do some shooting even if it meant not hiking down into the canyons. So, as daylight broke, I raced another car from Texas from overlook to overlook, taking pictures. Where the hikes were level and short, I walked like Quasimodo, pulling myself on the handrails where I could.

Storm clouds gathering over Cedar Mesa Sandstone in Natural Bridges National Monument
Thunderstorm Approaching Cedar Mesa Sandstone in Utah – The interplay of storm clouds and Cedar Mesa Sandstone highlights the raw beauty of Natural Bridges.

Notes To Future Self

After I returned home and reviewed my images on the computer, I was happy to find they were publishable—I must have been on auto-pilot. They weren’t the ones I hoped to get, but that encouraged me to return soon. Even hiking in pain may have been beneficial. My back feels much better after a week of rest and light work. The constant low-level pain is there, but that’s how people my age know which of their body parts are still attached. I also conjured some strategery for the next trip—like providing a handy stash for my car keys, opening the tailgate with my remote, and then rolling over on my hands and knees and backing out that door. I’m also going to keep a pair of loafers in the Turd.

Thank you for joining us again this month. I hope you enjoyed my Utah horror story more than I did. As we customarily do, larger versions of my photos are available for you to examine on my website <Jim’s New Work> and on the pages that I created on Fine Art America <FAA Page>. They will be on display for three months before being rotated. Finally, Queen Anne and I can hardly wait to hear the ribbing you’ll give in the comment section. Please share your thoughts about the photos, camping, Utah, or travel horror stories. We love to hear from you.

Until then, keep your spirits high and your Ben Gay handy.

Twilight’s Ember: The Last Rays on Valley of Fire’s Red Rocks Picture of the Week - Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

A towering red sandstone formation illuminated by the golden light of the sun, set against the clear blue sky in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.
Twilight’s Ember – A Natural Sculpture Carved by Time – Witness the interplay of light and shadow on the ancient red sandstone, highlighting the peak as if it were aflame in the heart of Valley of Fire State Park.

Last week, I shared a whimsical thought sparked by our visit to the once-submerged town of St. Thomas along Lake Meade’s shores. The idea? A short video starring our unwitting adventurers in an underwater exploration gone awry. With anything SCUBA, my thoughts invariably turn to the Poteets—Fred being a certified diving instructor. My idea instantly became a classic case of good and bad news. Deb quickly noted the absence of wetsuits in their wardrobe, while Fred, ever the sport, proposed renting them for our aquatic escapade. Thus, I spent the week crafting an epic screenplay for our faux underwater archaeology saga, ready for your enjoyment.

Not Quite a Fathom by Jim Witkowski


The scene opens with FRED and DEB POTEET, waist up, sitting on the edge of a Zodiac diving boat. Clad in wetsuits, they finalize their snorkeling gear setup. Fred delivers the pre-dive briefing with a hint of solemnity.

(fiddling with a weight belt)
Remember, St. Thomas has been a memory under Lake Mead’s waters since 1938, untouched by time. The condition of the buildings is unknown, so let’s avoid the timbers.

The camera cuts to a tight shot of Deb; her concern is visible even behind the mask.

I hope we don’t stumble upon any forgotten skeletons.

Cutting back to Fred, his assurance is firm.

Fear not. Hugh Lord, the town’s final farewell, waved as the waters embraced his home in ’38. All were safe.

With a final gear check, Fred signals readiness.

FRED (continues)

Both poised on the Zodiac’s brink, a countdown commences.

On three. One… two… three…

On three, Fred leans back and rolls off the Zodiac into the water, followed immediately by Deb.

Cut to a drone camera, tight on Fred’s shocked face.

As Deb turns to Fred, her expression seems to ask, “WTF?” The drone camera slowly pulls up, revealing they are lying face-up on the dry lakebed, their legs still resting on the side of the Zodiac.

The drone camera pulls back further, exposing the dry town site’s barren concrete foundations and pads. As it gets altitude, Fred and Deb stand up, now tiny figures in the vast, dry landscape, including the Muddy River bed.

The camera ascends, eventually dissolving into a Google Earth Studio shot of the Lake Mead Overton arm, zooming out until the entire planet fills the frame.


It’s a masterpiece if I do say so myself. Now, about those props—does anyone have a Zodiac lying around? Or perhaps other treasures hidden in your garage that could bring our production to life? Share your ideas in the comments! But let’s pivot from our playful banter to the awe-inspiring beauty captured in this week’s photographs.

This week’s highlight is a breathtaking sandstone formation, its pinnacle bathed in the sunset’s final embrace. The iron oxide-rich layers glow, a fiery testament to Valley of Fire’s geological wonders.

The uplift and erosion revealing such splendor speak to the Basin and Range Province’s dynamic history. Here, the forces of nature sculpt masterpieces: holes carved by chemical reactions with rainwater, alcoves shaped by the relentless wind, and striations etched by the journey of rainwater.

Thank you for joining us on this adventure. As the Superbowl looms, I wish your team luck and, perhaps more importantly, that this year’s commercials bring us joy. Next week promises more marvels from Valley of Fire. Don’t miss it.

Till then, keep your camera at the ready and your humor dry.

A towering formation of layered Navajo sandstone, named 'whiteGibraltar', stands under a clear blue sky in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.
White Gibraltar – The Navajo Sandstone Giant of Valley of Fire – A Vision in Sandstone – Rising from the Valley of Fire’s rugged landscape, this pale monolith echoes the grandeur of its namesake, standing as a silent sentinel in the desert sun.

Techniques: Exposing for the Highlight

I spotted the Aztec Sandstone formation while returning to the Turd on a trail hike at the end of the day. My eye was drawn to the very tip of the pinnacle, still glowing in the sun like the flame on the Statue of Liberty or ET’s finger. I knew that if I exposed the shady part of the sandstone, the finger would wash out the nice red color. So, to retain that glow, I pointed my camera at the sky above the finger, half-pressed the shutter to freeze the exposure reading, and slowly lowered the camera to include the rest of the scene.

The raw image looked too dark, and I almost rejected it. However, in post-processing, I could mask off the bright areas and increase the shadows by almost two F-stops. That was enough to bring out the erosion holes and keep the glow on ET’s finger.