Wednesday, September 24, 2008

If given the chance, go

The best part of any trip surely is in the planning. Anything is possible, success guaranteed, and all the exhaustive details, the wearisome driving, the expense, the long miles of nothingness or the sudden claustrophobic panic of heavy traffic on unfamiliar roads, are relegated to an unforeseeable future. A sort of time travel exists when deep in the art of planning, an effortless leap from origination to destination without the messy middle ground. Even the mundane things, the endless lists, the penciled reminders, the growing piles of books, maps and paraphernalia, are imbued with the magic of potential. True, reality can kick the teeth out of any plan no matter how finely honed, but that comes later. For now every idea or suggestion glimmers with its own sorcerous enchantment.

This concept has been forming for some time, a slow evolution in part fueled by something I read last week and in part by ruminations on my recent codgernautical voyage across portions of the West. For here is my confession: I almost did not go. The exigencies of work, a pending remodeling job, finances, an innate penchant for reclusion and a preference above all for my wife’s companionship (and that of our rabbit, Sheba), were all invisible anchors chaining me to the hearth. If not for a desire to see historic sites I’d read about and imagined as well as having a relatively new camera and lenses to capture those visions—to create art, if you will—I might well have stayed home. 

And gained—what? Nothing I can think of. Oh, I would have been there when lightning hit the house and fried the air conditioner, furnace and stereo system, and I could have supervised the contractor a little better than did my wife so that the new electrical outlets were, shall we say, plumb (though their lack of lateral solidarity certainly matches everything else in our century-old home), and when hellish storms threatened life and limb I would have been there to do my manly duties as protector and comforter, so in some ways my presence would have been beneficial. I’d certainly have more money in the bank. But I would not have that photo of snowy Mount Moran and the sweeping curve of the Snake River, among others.

For I found it’s easy to get to the Tetons but much harder to leave them behind. It’s tempting to say this is really about photography but I think it goes deeper than that. Certain images remain with us for the entirety of our lives, if not in print or pixel form then in the deeper recesses of our consciousness. They become us and we become them. Photography just happens to be my medium and my passion, an evolutionary process in my becoming the man I want to be. And art, well, art is what we make of it, our personal expression generated by whatever means, be it canvas and paint, pencil and paper, disposable film camera or expensive digital single-lens reflex system. Don’t let the snobs tell you different: if the image you created pleases you, it’s art.

I returned with what I consider the best work I’ve ever done. The realization that I almost didn’t go sends a shiver down my spine whenever I view the images. It casts a shadow impossible to dispel by light, a sort of afterimage or negative effect, and while at first this bothered me, it now stands as a cautionary note or warning. 

Chase Jarvis, a professional photographer, recently wrote a similar thread on his blog. He had just cranked out 14 days of hard work in locales as diverse as Seattle, Washington D.C., Phoenix, Buenos Aires and Chile, when he finally found time to sit at the bar and relax. “Melting,” he called it, bonding with a glass of the local wine, when in comes an agent and a model for a casting call he’d forgotten about. Seeing the fatigue written on his face, Jarvis’ producer and art director agreed to do the shoot for him. Off they went, leaving him to unwind until his conscience got the better of him. 

He hurried upstairs with his camera. “Fifteen clicks,” he wrote. “The model genuinely comes to life, as do I, and 30 seconds later—literally 30 seconds later—it's the best art I've made in a long while.”

The point, he said, is this: “If ever given the chance to go or not to go, for the sake of making art, you should always go.”

And I almost did not go.

Allow me to amend the idea slightly. While the act of going is certainly paramount and the making of art doubly so, at least for photographers or other dreamers, for the sake of making memories you should always seek a new adventure. Take a different route, discover an out-of-the-way historical site or quaint shop, lollygag, look around, pay attention. If you’re a photographer, do your best to capture one iconic image that sums up everything about the trip. Don’t just go—seize memories.

Once again I find myself almost overwhelmed in the planning stages for a family reunion in another state. It comes down to this: juggling schedules, the scramble to find a suitable replacement for one of my part-time jobs, financial concerns, questions over whether to take Sheba or let her stay and the sudden realization that our route could be slightly amended to include a ghost town on the lower slopes of Raton Pass and the shell of an old mission church I’d always wanted to photograph but, honestly, forgot about. If given the chance... I’m going.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

In whose dark eye the seasons change

One bitterly cold afternoon I stood beside an icy slough not far from where the Black Vermillion River joins the Big Blue, my hands stuffed into a heavy jacket, winter hat pulled low. The 10X Swarovskis were an anchor around my neck, dangling unneeded as I studied a river of crows silently flowing southward. The land was gray with frost and graying deeper still as evening fell under a gray sky and the distant hills fading away. A harrier quartered the marsh in search of a last-minute morsel. At my feet, surrounded by several spent shotgun shells, lay the body of a crow.

Certain images linger with unwavering freshness long after time should have erased them from our memories. A dead man sprawled on the sidewalk in front of a bank in downtown Las Vegas, New Mexico. A serpentine line of sixteen vehicles winding through a narrow valley in the hills north of Grants, some with headlights snapping on in the growing dusk, my partner and I blocking the road with our truck, our palms sweaty with fear. A man sitting in the middle of a Denver street weeping and rocking in grief as rain falls and his business collapses in fire, dancing flames reflecting in the wet pavement and the night pulsing with flashing red lights.

The poignancy of these images are haunting not for their beauty but for the emotions they ignite. In each instance, the emotional impact is as crystalline as the images themselves. The human drama played out in a  mostly-public sphere, with tragedy, pathos, loss, ignominious death and the threat of extreme violence—all that was lacking was a camera and a photographer. Instead, the images were burned into my psyche, synaptic snapshots of another time and place, pulled from the hoard when least expected, a flash of recognition and renewal. 

So it was with the crow. Frozen to the slough, wings splayed, head submerged, it was a black stain spreading across the faintly luminous ice, no more than a scruff of midnight feathers in an arctic wasteland. It seemed a pitiable end for such an intelligent creature, gunned down for what passes as sport, its meat left to rot. Something in its shattered husk epitomized the bleak midwinter, a mesmeric cruciform in whose elements the sky and the earth were joined. For a long time I stood transfixed, the river of crows forgotten, and I thought of taking a photo but the camera was back in the truck, a good half-mile away, and I was cold and beginning to shiver. 

For many Native America tribes, the crow was associated with kachinas, or spirits, and in many myths acted as a messenger between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Like the raven, it was once white, but through folly or avarice it was scorched and became black; but when sunlight hits the feathers just so one can see it in its original color. It was looked on with a mixture of fear, humor and respect, perhaps a little less so to those tribes that farmed. When crow populations exploded in the Southwest and Hopis were forced to deal with agricultural depredation by a bird considered sacred, some farmers took up shotguns and others scrambled for reasons. The natural world was unhinged, some said, an imbalance corrected only through prayer and ceremony. Others suggested darkly that witches sought to harm the tribe. 

Here in northeastern Kansas, their arrival coincides with the departure of many of our songbirds as well as shortening days and lengthening nights. The timing cannot be overlooked. So what to make of the hundreds of thousands of crows that descend on our river valley in early autumn? Perhaps a new mythology is on order, a reassessment. For followers of the Native American mystic Wovoka, Crow was the messenger who would bring the ancient people and mammals back to the world of the living. The arrival of Crow was the moment of purification and redemption. In their Ghost Dance, they sang:

The crow is making a road,

He is making a road.

He has finished it.

He has finished it.

His children,

His children,

He has brought them together,

He has brought them together.

Last Friday, rain started during the night and never let up. It drummed softly on the roof as I rose from bed in darkness and padded downstairs to start the coffee, and it was tapping on the downspout when I fed Sheba her broccoli. Dawn came in a gloomy half-light and a steady downpour. Rivulets flowing down the driveway to join a broader current by the street. By noon Juganine Creek was flowing strongly and the rain unabated. Only at twilight did it relent, unleashing a flood of nighthawks on their southbound journey.

The next morning broke crisp and sunny. When I stepped outside to take the measure of the foundling day the raucous cries of several crows rose from the woods along the railroad tracks. Two more winging down from the north circled above their assemblage and cawed loudly before spiraling out of the sight behind the trees. These few corvids were the vanguard of a coming flood, and on their tailfeathers the first frosts and the winds of winter. Crow is making a road. It seemed too sudden, too early. 

But then, it always seems too early.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Last house on the right (Part 14)

In the half-light of dawn I opened my eyes and listened for movement but the house was still. Soft breathing coming from the couch at my feet and the contours of an unfamiliar place at first unsettling and then a mystery to unravel. I was tucked into a small space between the couch and a staircase leading to the basement, a piano at my back and before me a portion of blank wall and the outline of a doorjamb. On the floor near at hand were my boots, socks, watch, flashlight, a small notebook and pen and a yellow iPod case, headphone wires spilling out in an untidy tangle. 

Snaking one arm out of the sleeping bag, I checked the time on my watch and set it back beside my boots and thought of where we had been and where we were going and of how only four hours separated me from Lori. Four hours. The thought sent a current through me and I sat up and reached for the pen and notebook. I’m going home, I wrote, and thinking of nothing else to say shut the notebook and placed it on the floor and wrote no more.

When I opened my eyes again an hour had passed and people were moving around. I slipped into a shirt and laced my boots and crammed the sleeping bag into the stuff sack. Everything else I tucked into a tote bag and set beside the front door. I was ready to go.

But first came an enormous breakfast and coffee and a sort of lull before the road. Larry and Terry prepared much more food than we could eat but we kept at it until most of it was gone and our belts tight. As we helped clean the table Jim made a call on his cell phone and listened and spoke a few words and snapping the phone closed stalked into the living room where he stared soundlessly out the window. We looked at one another in askance while a terrible silence fell. Chod finally broke it with a choked whisper: It’s Pattie. 

He explained, as I had forgotten, that Jim’s wife was going to have a biopsy taken. A cancer survivor himself, this must have weighed heavily on Jim during the trip, and yet he had made little reference to it. For all his volubility, the Shaman could be remarkably secretive at times, almost stoic, preferring to melt into the background, to watch silently, predatorial, the unfolding of human foibles and tragedies. (When he finally weighed in it was usually with wit and wisdom far exceeding what you’d expect from him, his gruff  demeanor camouflaging a sharp mind seasoned with a biting sense of humor. But he was no pedant; when he cut loose with profanities, paint would blister and milk sour. Sometimes I wanted to grow up to be just like him. Now, thinking of my own wife so close, it was the last thing I’d want.)

If I was clueless how to respond, the others weren’t. Our hosts, old friends of his, gently brought him back to the fold, and he told us that Pattie had cancer. His eyes smoldering, withdrawn for a moment to some inner hell, fists clenching, he spat out that cancer could be fought, that it was a mind game which must be won. We’ll beat this, he swore. None of us doubted whom he was talking to.

Outside the sun slanted brightly through a cobalt sky. The morning was cool with a hint of heat rising from the gravel road. A pheasant called. Kittens on the porch swatted halfheartedly at each other until boredom dragged their eyelids closed, victims of late-spring lassitude. The universe carried on unabated. Somewhere in the world the moon lifted from the horizon and stars wheeled across dark heavens. Tides rose and fell. On the outskirts of Norton, Kansas, six people walked to a vehicle and hugged and shook hands and said their goodbyes. Four drove away, homeward bound.


It was the same stretch of road we’d taken more than a week before and yet it had changed. Trees were the most evident testament to a fury that was as erratic as it was unsparing. In places shredded beyond measure, limbs hacked and splintered, bark stripped, they had borne the brunt and drew our eyes to their suffering. At least two houses were gone, their contents scattered across gouged fields, hugging anything taller than a blade of grass. Center-pivot irrigators lay toppled or twisted like pretzels. What wasn’t harmed seemed scarred by its very normality.

In the back seat, staring out the window, I wondered what was left of my own neighborhood. If, indeed, it was touched at all. News had been scarce, damages still being assessed, according to reports. The destruction we witnessed fed a fear that had been growing for some time, that the West was where we belonged and not this tornadic bulls-eye. I remembered staring at Lander Peak and lamenting all that we’d lost, the sorrow almost crippling. It seemed a million years ago. And yet even as we traveled eastward, fields greening by the mile, draws and gullies filling with woods and the land undulating like rising ocean swells, I felt a tug, faint at first but growing ever more insistent, as if I’d passed into the gravitational pull of a celestial object. It wasn’t simply that these were fields I knew, recognition and no more, but something resonating in the very core of my being. I plucked my notebook from the tote and opened it to explore the feelings but no words came, only a sensory vibration. It was all emotion. After a while I put it back and resorted to staring out the windshield, mentally charting our course and seeing as I would the tall elevators counting down the towns until there was one only remaining and it growing closer until we turned onto a dusty road and bouncing down it came finally to the last house on the right. I could see it as clearly as if we were already there, a woman coming down the steps and the question I asked in Wyoming turning back on itself in reproach, asking how could I have left this, how could I have left her, and finding in her embrace all the answers I would ever need. 

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Deja vu all over again (Part 13)

No dawn but a paling only and in that gloom a faint hiss, almost metallic, of sleet and snow falling through pines. The first week of June and spring barely here in the foothills of the Rockies. Here our number grew by one, Linda hopping a ride to Abilene. We found room for her belongings solely through equal measures of creativity and imagination plus some forceful shoving. Waiting outside for her to say goodbye to Dwight, Jim turned to us and growled, you guys have to clean up your language. 

Does she know what she’s getting into? I asked.

I’m serious, you have to behave yourselves.

It seemed a dubious proposal but through decades of marriage a man acquires passable amounts of resiliency and training. It helped that Jim took the wheel and Linda the navigator seat, leaving me and Chod the back to doze. My camera bag was a comforting lump at the back of my head, and in my lap a journal, though what I really wanted was a book to get lost in, weary as I was of my own rantings, rambles and observations.

The road corkscrewed down the Big Thompson Canyon beside a whitewater river, sleet turning to drizzle and then to a driving rain obliterating any chance for speed. We topped off the tank and our snack supply in Loveland, traffic heavy and kicking up spray but slowing for no man nor anything else but the sheer density of it finally dragging it down to a crawl until we crossed the demarcation of I-25 and so departed a city I no longer recognized and sailed free onto the vast unpeopled spaces of the Great Plains.

Fields were sodden and torn, roadside ditches brimming. Cumulations of hail stood a foot deep behind buildings in the few somnolent towns staking claim to the shortgrass prairie, their streets carpeted with shredded leaves and twigs and the sky menacing more, and before us a lone jagged fork of lightning like a signal of hell to come. It was a somber and moody landscape hungover from a long night of nature’s inconceivable wrath, now breathlessly hunkered down in anticipation of the next wave. At a Dairy Queen the manager, looking haggard, answered our query with a simple but eloquent, Rough night. 

Near Wray the sun broke out in sudden shafts of light and heat. Any congratulatory impulse was quickly dampened by southern skies coagulating into seething masses laced with fire. We slivered the bottom corner of Nebraska where dismantled silos spread like Christmas tinsel across plowed fields and splintered trees implored with naked branches the unrepentant heavens. Our entry into Kansas was heralded by dire warnings on the FM dial and a horizon eclipsed in stygian darkness. Gone was any desire to tour the Arikaree Breaks. We studied that monster cell, charted its progression and knew that once again we were running before the storm.

I just love the Midwest, I said.  

We met the first storm spotters outside St. Francis. Thereafter their presence became ubiquitous: state troopers, small-town cops, EMTs, volunteer firefighters and a farmer or two, some with binoculars, others with two-way radios, all watching the approaching darkness. The radio cackled and hissed, punctuated by nagging beeps of fresh alerts. Tornadoes on the ground, heavy rains, hail, straight-line winds, the entire malevolent gamut in mother nature’s arsenal being brought to bear on western Kansas and moving at a rapid clip to intersect our path. Heedless of the increased number of law enforcement officers patrolling the roads, Jim kicked up the speed and Chod watching from the back seat said nothing.

It was a race we won, though surreally, the storm suddenly veering off outside of Norton, where we pulled in for the night, in its wake a calm stillness belying what was going on elsewhere. Jim’s friends, Larry and Terry, welcomed us to their home and made us comfortable, and as the others toured the grounds I studied the unfolding drama on the television. Severe thunderstorms were hammering the entire state, with one particularly nasty cell looming to the southwest of Blue Rapids. Seeing my worry, Terry handed me the phone and said, call home.

Lori answered and said, it’s black to the west, and I said is everything okay, and she said yes. The sound of sirens erupted in the distance, faint and tinny over the receiver, and the weather radio blared in the background. She said, I have to go, and the line went dead.

I blew out a long breath and went back to watching the Weather Channel. On the screen colorful shapes morphed and contorted, conjoining, splitting, slinking across the screen like bacteria studied through a microscope, seemingly endless loops of the same patterns only subtly different, and each bearing a signature decipherable only to the trained eye. The pretty blonde meteorologist pointed to a radar image overlying a map of Kansas, one long painted nail tracing the contours of a red amoeba-like shape. It had just crossed into Marshall County and nudged against the outskirts of our town. Hook echo, she said. Rotation. Tornado.

After that my mind went blank, and I got up and walked outside to be alone and to think dark thoughts.

If one were to have a crisis I can think of no better place to have it than at Larry and Terry’s house. For the next hour and a half I became a sort of de facto orphan with the others doing their best to calm me. The television provided no news other than the storm’s trajectory, leaving me with an imagination focused obsessively on the destructive. We sat down to a lavish feast, conversed, did the things people do in normal circumstances and yet there was nothing normal about it. A terrible emptiness threatened to swallow me whole.

When at last Lori answered the phone the relief was staggering. A funnel cloud had sent her and the rabbit to the basement, but as far as she knew there was no damage to the town. She asked, when will you be home?

Soon, I promised. But as we crawled into our sleeping bags that night we had no way of knowing there was one more crisis on our horizon.

(To be continued)