Sunday, July 02, 2006

Destination with a big hole—photographer walking from Wisconsin to the Grand Canyon

On all grand adventures, it’s wise to have a backup plan in case something unforeseen happens. Scott Edwards has such a plan.

Plan A: Walk from Neenah, Wisc., to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Plan B: If injured, lay up until healed, then continue.

It might sound crazy—his daughter certainly thinks so, though his son thinks it’s the coolest thing he’s ever heard of—but he admits to doing crazy things before, like the time he hitchhiked to Mexico, or spent a summer in the Canadian wilderness, or lived in a primitive cabin in Alaska. This time, though, it’s for art, to reconnect to a vision, to be enveloped in a purity that can only be expressed through large format black-and-white photography.

It helps that it also fulfils a boyhood dream.

And that he just turned 50.

And that four of his best friends passed away within the last few years. “It creates an urgency to take inventory of those lingering dreams that I haven’t endeavored, and get them done,” Edwards said.

Besides the boyhood dream to walk from Wisconsin to the coast—didn’t matter which one—Edwards said there were practical matters to consider. As a photographer, with portfolios for sale both online and in several galleries, he was used to driving great distances to such locations as Glacier National Monument and the canyonlands of Utah. Gallery shows, and the collectors who frequent them, want new works, he said, not the same old inventory. New images are a requisite.

He thought of driving to Utah, and of all the potential photographs waiting for him along the route if only he would see them. Which is difficult if not impossible when traveling at 65 miles an hour. And anyway his car was a piece of crap, and it was doubtful it would make it. And since the half-formed idea already had him packing—lightly, very lightly—walking didn’t seem so farfetched. “It’s not about the going, it’s about what’s in between,” he said.

His journey began on April 22. He couldn’t wait to get out of Wisconsin—“The people are different there,” he said—and once he did, he opened up to the journey. Each day he’d walk between 12 and 20 miles, and sleep in city parks. That is, unless people invited them into their homes, which happened several times.

By the third day his feet were trashed. So he bought a colorful jogging stroller, stashed his pack and supplies under a tarp, and found the going much smoother, and with less strain on his feet.

A stress fracture laid him low in Frankfort for three days. With donations from the two banks and the newspaper, he was put up at the Bankers Inn, a bed-and-breakfast on Main Street. It was enough to get his foot back in shape.

So far, he said Kansas has been the highlight of the trip.

“Your landscape has a natural rhythm to it,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking for in my photos. I like playing with contrast, rough versus smooth, hilly versus flat, and you have that here. I like the feel of it. I like the look of it.”

He said up until now he had only a single photograph of Kansas in his collection, one taken near Montezuma in the southwestern part of the state. “It’s all about the sky out there,” he said. “I love the starkness.”

Edwards’ medium is the black-and-white gelatin silver film using medium and large format cameras. For this trip he brought his favorite, an old Busch Pressman. Each shot requires a tripod and critical exposure, something he says digital photographers rarely need. And with only a few plates of film with him at any time, each shot has to count. “Every shot I assume is going to end up in a frame,” he said.

As he walks, his eyes rove the contours of the land, looking for that intoxicating blend of contrast and light. “The pictures find me,” he said.

“There are certain qualities of light I see, certain shapes I see in nature that remind me of childhood memories,” he said. “So I try to reenact that with the images I shoot. And that’s what first got me started shooting black and white. All my images from my childhood are in black and white, and of light falling on things. I used to spend a lot of time alone when I was a kid, just looking at stuff. I was a very visual kid.”

Being in Kansas gave him the itch to relocate here. In 2002, after a trip to Catherine, a small town outside of Hays, where his great-great-grandfather bought a house and where three generations of his family were raised, he began formulating a plan to move. But now he isn’t sure if that’s the area he wants to live. “Kansas is special,” he said. “Everything makes sense out here.”

The kindness of strangers still amazes him. While on the road between Frankfort and Blue Rapids, a van pulled up in front of him and parked. Before he could practice his speech on why he doesn’t accept rides, a lady approached him and asked if he’d care for some peach cobbler. He would, and very much so, he said. The family—Dick and Joyce Blaske and their son, Max, and daughter, Rosa, all of rural Blue Rapids, spilled from the van, set up lawn chairs, and had an impromptu picnic on the shoulder of the highway.

“I should expect kindness by now,” Edwards said. “But I never, ever do. It just floors me.”

Especially after his stay in Vermillion and Frankfort. In Milo, Iowa, he injured his left foot while walking gravel roads. It turned out to be a stress fracture. By the time he reached Vermillion, he was limping hard.

“My foot hurt so bad to the point of where I was questioning whether or not I’m going to make it through this trip,” he said. “So I thought I’d better rest up.”

It turned out to be a two-and-a-half day stay. But when he went to pay for his meals at the restaurant, he found that others jumped to beat him to the ticket. People would stop by his camp in the park and talk, and once a KDOT crew took their lunch break with him. He eyed up one of their fluorescent T-shirts and asked where he could get one. Walking at dawn and dusk posed visibility problems, and he was afraid someone would run him over. One of the supervisors handed him an orange vest and told him to keep it.

The trend continued at Frankfort. After Connie Musil, editor of the Frankfort Area News, interviewed him, she asked if he preferred to sleep in the open or if he might like a real bed. The paper offered to underwrite a night at the Bankers Inn. Edwards was ecstatic.

Two other nights were donated courtesy of the Vermillion State Bank and the First National Bank in Frankfort—this after he decided to use his charge card to pay for an extra night. “A guy who wants to be honest can’t win in that town,” Edwards said.

In Blue Rapids, fresh-brewed coffee was waiting for him at the park and breakfast was provided by an anonymous donor.

At stops along the way, Edwards updates his personal blog so friends and relatives can track his journey. (It can be found at On his first entry, after explaining several of the reasons for making the trip, he finally summed them up in a neat and tidy package, just as he packed lightly, one set of clothing, his camera, film, sleeping bag, pack, water bottle.

“I am going on a long walk,” he wrote. “I have always believed that the world is my backyard, and there is a great big hole in it about 1800 miles from here. I intend to walk over there and have a lookie.”

When he crossed into Washington County last Monday, a small moving figure on an endless ribbon of asphalt, he was almost halfway there.

1 comment:

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