Category Archives: Vas-y Fille

Invitation: A View West | Photography Exhibit March 4

The ad Johnston Architects created for the exhibit opening.

This winter I was offered the opportunity to exhibit photographs of my travels throughout the American West. Now, after a couple months of selecting, editing, printing and framing, the show is coming to life.

I’m looking forward to seeing everyone there:

Open Invitation: A View West
Featuring landscape photography by Jonna Bell

Opening: Friday, March 4 from 6 to 8 p.m.
Exhibit: February 25 through March 25
Johnston Architects, Seattle (map)

View Featured Images

The American West has long sparked our collective imagination. Its expansive landscapes take many forms, frequently succumbing to human presence but resisting occupation. It captivates our senses and defies our comprehension.

The following photographs offer viewpoints of a range of natural forms that endure – rolling prairie hills, a distant mountain range, a frenetic tide – and humble our repeated efforts to intervene. And yet, we persist in engaging. Fields are plowed to the shape of rolling loam, a season of speed waits for water to dissipate, a boardwalk leads to primitive hot springs, a fishing village becomes the backdrop for winter’s churn.

Despite our repeated efforts to negotiate with the land, it persists at setting its own terms… All the while tempting us with an infinite horizon.

In preparing, my respect for those who exhibit regularly has grown significantly. Special thank yous for my exhibit go to:

Mom “Cat” Bell
Anna Bell
Jody Jahn
Richard Beall
David Blair
Stan Laegreid
Sean Watson
Brian Greller
Min Cho
Wyn Bielaska

Traveling through Montreal

Traveling through Montreal for the next few days. First task – learn the proper pronunciation:

On the Road: What’s in a Name?

Notes from the Road: Grangeville, ID – Before leaving on this road trip I was given a book entitled The Last Indian War by Elliott West. A non-fictional account of the year 1877, West reveals a pivotal time in U.S. history when American Indian nations were driven headlong into the unyielding power of the United States government. Specifically, he details the Nez Perce, the events leading to the Nez Perce War and finally the land that resolved to be the tribe’s homeland, the state of Idaho.

Map of Nez Perce War

Map of Nez Perce War. Click to see full size.

Seizing an opportunity to find out more about the landscape on which our teenage years alighted we took West’s book and a knack for asking questions and planned our first leg to follow the Idaho panhandle across the now finite boundaries of the Nez Perce reservation. This path would take us to our hometown of Grangeville 17 miles outside the Nez Perce borders. There we would cross the Camas Prairie, its purple flowers and retired trestles patched with fields of young wheat and furrows of black loam, and follow Hwy 95 to the canyons of the White Bird Battlefield, home to the battle that launched the Nez Perce War.

Deciding on a Story

With West’s book as companion, we decided to skip the 38 historic Nez Perce landmarks in lieu of elsewhere revelations. We were more concerned about Tolo Lake, Yellow Wolf Road, the town of Denver and others. Places where stories embodied the minutia left off the historical markers or out of the mainstream history books due to simple limitations of space and time. In his book, West writes:

Segmenting time, or periodization, is something we have to do if we want to organize the past and give it meaning. But it’s dangerous. By choosing some dominating event and saying that its period starts here and ends there, we run the risk of neglecting other events that don’t fit well into the scheme we’ve created, and that in turn risks distorting our view of how events have worked and built on each other to make the America we have come to know… History is not the same, no matter how you slice it.

I was very aware that even by reading West’s book, centered on 1877, I was in effect “slicing history.” But that’s a risk I was willing to take. It’s easy to know you live near a battlefield when the road to a favorite beach is impregnated with historical markers. Like some giant historical painter’s wheel or even an epic lottery, smaller stories lend their names to sign posts on gravel roads and prairie knolls by edict of the historical society or the simple weight of history.

And these were what we were after.

Up next… “History, a Town, a Lake”

Do: On the Road with a Childhood Friend

Earlier this spring I received an invitation to join one of my closest and oldest friends on a drive between my home and his. With no agenda other than to explore a loose route from metropolis to metropolis we interspersed detours wherever possible and settled on this weekend to pack bags and commence.

Our path from Seattle, WA to Surprise, a town in the suburbs of Scottsdale, AZ, carries us through Idaho, Nevada and Utah. On our first leg we’ll leave the far western coast of Washington and cross the border into Idaho where the Northwest transitions from Pacific to Inland. From there we’ll pass through an area rich with history that includes the Nez Perce tribe and Basque settlers. We’ll pass into Nevada on our second leg and soon travel east toward the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Utah border. Once in Utah we’ll wind our way through the western side of the state toward the hoodoos of Zion and Bryce National Parks, and finally slip into Arizona. Our most concrete destination is Sedona and we plan to spend at least three days exploring the town and surrounding landscape.

Between the two of us we hold a wealth of familiarity with these five states and will each have a chance to travel between shared stories, guide and guest. I’ll update the Vas-y Fille blog with our experiences but you can also tag along via Facebook and Twitter at the links below.



Vas-y Fille Facebook Page


See: Time is Irrelevant: Winter in Southern Utah

Winter in Bryce Canyon Utah

Bryce Canyon under a blanket of fresh snow.

This post comes from a journal entry written after a winter trip through southern Utah. Taken in January 2008, the trip was one of my most visually compelling: Navigating southwestern snowstorms, witnessing my breath linger across Canyonlands cliffs and seeing the contrast of white on red soil in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. I was witnessing a landscape I had fallen in love with during summer heat now resting beneath delicate blankets of the whitest snow and crystallized waterfalls. As you’ll find, it also left me thinking about time – how much we depend on it yet how insignificant it truly becomes when we walk away and focus on the experience.

Enjoy, vas-y fille.

Time is Irrelevant

Sunset outside Zion National Park

Outside Zion National Park

Sunset in the desert remains one of my favorite experiences. It’s a ceremony I become a participant of in no other place except there. Always, when it begins, the hairs on my arm rise on end. Of one particularly memorable evening I wrote:

Around me the earth pauses, air baited, breath still. Crows cease calls and settle flights. Mule deer twist their felted ears. Even the wind halts its frenetic search.

The corners of my eyes turn to soft velvet and my own breath slows on intake. I find myself leaning in as, I imagine, the coyotes and the jackrabbits, the ravens and the rattlesnakes. We follow the final arc of the sun’s orb as it sinks beneath the covers of the western flank. With solemn reverence it severs true from the eastern horizon, that final brilliance a token herald to the pregnancy of the day. The formal permission for all things night to hasten their ascent and all things day to soon give their leave.

Stand at a cliff’s edge in the Canyonlands maze; gaze across its plateaus, its

Sunset in Zion National Park

Sunset in Zion National Park

rivers and their valley offspring. Snowshoe through Bryce Canyon; run your hand down a hoodoo in the Great Cathedral or the Queen’s Court. Step from your car at the Waterpocket Fold; gaze west then east at 7,000 feet of mismatched sandstone. The seasons, the geology, the animals, the plant life even the people that enrich the history all weave together in the desert wilderness.

Sudden ecological turmoil is threaded with slow erosion and constant evolution becoming one vast landscape that defies definition by the movement of a minute hand or the passage of millenia. It becomes familiar only through a collection of experiences rather than moments: A balanced slab of rock breaking from its support; Anasazi drawing the success of a harvest; an owl hunting. Each event holds space within it’s own occurrence yet lingers so explicitly into the next: The shattered stone on the floor of the ravine; a warn trail leading to a sheltered wall; a rabbit’s footprints suddenly gone.

One by one the events build until time is nothing but a simple case of mistaken identity.

Do: Dive On

dive_flagGetting my dive certification has been ever present on my list of adventure goals. Probably somewhere down near #5 (put there about the time I saw the intro credits to Thunderball). So when a friend mentioned Underwater Sports in Seattle was hosting their annual dive fair complete with steep discounts for certification and gear, I couldn’t resist.

Diving, I’m realizing, is an expensive hobby – I had an inkling but didn’t fathom the complete extent – but it’s also evolved to be considerably more practical and achievable than history has provided. The cut, hollow reeds of ancient swimmers are the first documented examples of rudimentary snorkels. Soon these were combined with eye goggles fashioned from thinly sliced and polished shells of tortoises – popular with Persian divers in the 1300s. A few hundred years passed and with the invention of the air pump by British engineer John Smeaton in the late 1700s diving took on a whole new meaning – surface collaborators now had the ability to pump air to divers. And then came the coup de grace (not literally) when subsequent English and French inventions perfected the closed-circuit oxygen rebreather and Cousteau released his notorious Aqua-Lung in 1943. Now more commonly referred to as scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), the invention officially cut the air-filled umbilical cord between diver and surface.

Walk into any dive shop now and you have a plethora of options to experience the deep frontier. I don’t intend to get into details here but I’ll note that the sales people and instructors in attendance all rested on two pieces of advice: You get what you pay for and it all comes down to what feels the most comfortable to you. Hmm.

For training the dive shop supplies the wet or dry suit (needed for both pool and open water activities), regulator, air tank and BCD (bouyancy compensator device – an inflatable vest that attaches the air tank to you). I come pre-equipped with booties and gloves – procured for surfing in the Pacific Northwest – so all I needed was mask, snorkel and fins.

I selected a frameless mask and an SV1 snorkel (both Atomic Aquatics): The frameless mask means I don’t get annoyed by a dark ring interrupting the periphery of my vision and its low volume means if it gets bumped and filled with water, I have less to clear. The snorkel’s tube hosts an internal scupper valve which allows water to pass through the snorkel without collecting at the bottom of the breathing passage. The tiniest burst of air clears my mouthpiece. It also features a quick disconnect and sliding snorkel keeper – a small thing but a fixed snorkel was my biggest complaint in Hawaii. I’m still in the market for flippers so I’ve borrowed a friend’s. I’m debating about the merits of split fin vs. solid and a variety of buckle styles so I’m content to use hers and a set from the dive shop for a bit.

Choosing to acquire dive certification on your home turf gives you a couple of different options for scheduling, initial cert and continuing education.  When I’m finished (yes, I have my fingers crossed) I’ll be considered a PADI Open Water Diver and certified to dive up to 60 feet independently (without the supervision of a divemaster – required if you receive only PADI Scuba Diver cert, typical when you get certified on vacation).  This also means I’m doing no-decompression diving – safety stops aren’t required and I can go straight to the surface at any point without risk of decompression sickness (the bends). After full cert I can choose to pursue specialties and/or continue to Advanced Open Water cert and then Enriched Air (deep open water dive) cert. With practice and over time I’ll be ready to dive to 100 feet and then to the 130 feet mark. Depths beyond this are reserved for technical or commercial diving. View the PADI course levels.

Rather than bombard myself with a weekend intensive, I’m spreading my coursework out over two weeks. Two days of open water diving at Mukilteo, Wash. will be the icing on four nights of pool time (confined water dives). During the course I’ll be responsible for in depth review of a 260+ page instruction book, learning to read dive charts and do the calculations even under stress and learn to stay calm when a panic situation arises. I’m taking the course by myself so my instructor will assign me a buddy and we’ll be responsible for each other throughout the course.

Though it’s been on my list for years, aquiring my certification is a uniquely sensitive goal for me. Shortly after graduating I learned a college friend drowned while diving on vacation. I wasn’t particularly close with her but we ran in the same circles and had spent some time together. Dena was recovering from the flu and panicked underwater – either from feeling ill or being disoriented. And though I’ve been told multiple times that it’s never safe to dive while ill or recovering and I don’t intend to do so, it’s still a lingering thought in the back of my mind – as these things are and should be – and a primary reason for my delay in getting certified. But, like I said, sometimes these opportunities come along that you can’t refuse and here I am: registered, gear acquired and ready to pursue another means to adventure.

Getting Certified:

Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) – The world’s leading scuba diving training organization, PADI provides a diver education system, access to equipment, environmental conservation initiatives and opportunities to experience diving. | Locate a PADI dive shop

Seattle & adjacent cities:

Underwater Sports
Seattle Scuba School
Sound Dive Center

Insurance, Safety & Emergencies:

Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) – As a nonprofit, DAN exists to provide expert information and advice for the benefit of the diving public. DAN’s primary function is to provide emergency medical advice and assistance for underwater diving injuries, work to prevent injuries and promote diving safety. DAN promotes and supports underwater diving research and education particularly as it relates to the improvement of diving safety, medical treatment and first aid. And DAN provides accurate, up-to-date and unbiased information on issues of common concern to the diving public, primarily, but not exclusively, for diving safety. |

The DAN Student Membership Program is free to all entry-level divers. When you enroll to become a student member, you’ll receive these benefits, including up to $20,000 recompression treatment insurance. It’s unlikely you’ll ever need to use it but, if you did…

DAN America membership and dive accident insurance are available to residents of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and 44 other countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Defining Vas-y Fille

Though there’s no experience that sources my desire for adventure, there is one that tells the source of the phrase vas-y fille or ‘go girl’.

It comes from a simple text of encouragement early one morning, from one best girlfriend to another, as I departed to document the harvest season on Idaho’s prairies. An annual trip since college, I travel each August to photograph the burning fields, the ubiquitous columbines and the rythmic towers of hay that become the sole purpose of the prairie’s community. But this time I was barely off crutches from a bouldering accident that left an ankle bruised and torn and a knee battered and twisted. And I would be on my own.

To myself I needed to prove that a part of me which previously spurred my speed in escape, my agility in adventure and my presence when standing would not be forced to now place governance over those very abilities. I had already spent two months fighting the mere existence of crutches and listening to my ankle specialist describe the ‘damage done’ while telling me it was the worst ankle injury he’d seen in his career. But worse, I’d always had the ability to get up and walk it off. And now I simply had to sit and weather.

And so I packed my camera, my cowgirl boots, my sleeping bag, my pillow and I departed. Always one to let someone know my destination status, I sent a quick text “on my way sister, see you Sunday” to one of my best girlfriends. And the response she delivered became a totem phrase that defines these stories, what I hope readers take from them and what life should be for any woman: Go girl.


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