Desperation sets in as the final days of my Vernal Equinox Project bleed away. Four days before the grand finale I didn’t want to go anywhere much less aimlessly search for an image but then I remembered a conversation I’d had several weeks ago with a friend. The sun was low but not that low when I set out for the ghost town of Cleburne, and this time I brought the Glock.
Some places possess a menacing aura completely at odds with their pastoral settings, as if the ghosts of past souls linger against their will and none too happy for it. I’m reminded of the forgotten campground in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and of an old stone house in a hollow along the foothills of the Sangre de Christos outside of Las Vegas, N.M. And others, the litany goes on, and what’s surprising about the list is that I don’t consider myself particularly well-traveled. I’ve certainly never sought out places of paranormal influence, indeed I prefer to leave them to their own dark deliberations. In Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring there’s a scene where Frodo and entourage are trying to enter the abandoned dwarf mines of Moria, and Boromir tosses a rock in a dark pool of water. They’re frustrated at being blocked by a massive gate, harried by all sorts of evil creatures and Boromir’s act is as impetuous and angry as it is regrettable. You know he shouldn’t have done it, that something will awaken that should have been left sleeping. Some waters are best left undisturbed.
I won’t say Cleburne is that way. A good haunting would be more preferable than what the place has degenerated to, a hangout for louts and drunks, most of whom appear to be armed and eager to crank off dozens of rounds when the mood strikes them. From the littered shell casings and empty beer cans (all samples of the least expensive alcoholic beverage known to man), the old town of Cleburne is often a free-fire zone no sane person would care to visit.
And all the more distressing because of it. Its jewel-like setting tucked against the low hills bordering the Big Blue was an ideal spot for a town, and for a while it prospered as most small rural towns did, even if insular what with the conditions of the roads and the mode of travel. Like Randolph, Irving, Mariadahl and others, it was dissolved by the creation of Tuttle Creek Reservoir, an ill-named (some would say deceptively-named) flood control project in the 1950s. What remains is a small grassy park with a few splintery swing sets, mismatched picnic tables covered with an awning plus several frost-heaved sidewalks disappearing into the encroaching woods. At one time a small house was visible through the trees but on my return visit there was nothing left but a charred foundation. The only building of any kind was a toppled outhouse. Below the town a stone-arch bridge crossed a narrow trickle of water. Most visitors probably never see it because of the dense woods, and indeed in summer when trees and shrubs are leafed out it recedes into the vegetated background.
To the south stretches a wide slough, from which rose a din of thousands of chorus frogs. With the late afternoon sun breaking through the clouds for the first time in days their songs gave the place a festive, springtime air, lightening somewhat the gloomy atmosphere that seems to perpetually endure. It didn’t prevent me from slipping the pistol under my sweatshirt, though. It wasn’t ghosts I worried about, but people.
But any high hopes I might have brought to the venture were quickly dashed. There really wasn’t much to frame or shoot, as if the brooding ghost town repelled creativity or vision. A nonstick veneer meant to send packing the itinerant artist. Later I was relieved to learn that I was not alone in feeling unwanted at Cleburne. A friend confided that he and his wife had regularly camped there for years until they chose to seek alternatives. When asked the reason, he just smiled and said, “You know why.”
The bridge was my only chance at redemption. As if deliberately derailing any likelihood of success, I made the mistake of wandering down with my normal lens instead of a wide angle that the bridge patently called for. Walking back through thorny locusts under that oppressive air didn’t appeal to me as much as making a rapid getaway, so I used what I had. It struck me that some days the magic is there and a photographer can do no wrong while other days the photographer couldn’t take a good picture if his life depended on it. David DuChemin called it the “suck-mode.” I’d classify Cleburne in the latter category. One image I thought almost perfect refused all manipulations in Photoshop, Lightroom and a host of presets, leaving me with the bitter reminder of a What the Duck cartoon where the duck tells a cohort who’s spent all day trying to fix an image, “Around here we call that ‘polishing a turd.’” My polish job ended up in the trash.
I used to believe that if you did something on a daily basis eventually you’d get so good at it that it came effortlessly, sort of a magical transference of creative genius bestowed by the gods of expression. From what I read from seasoned photographers, that’s not the case. Some days you can do no wrong and some days you should have stayed in bed, but then you never know until you’re neck deep in failure. For the past week I’d felt dried up and this only heightened the sense. So much for practice makes perfect. We’ve been lied to from day one. It was time to go home and lick my wounds, and to plan the final push.
(To be continued)
Tom, only perfect practice makes perfect, and that way lies a path free of growth and understanding. Failure and struggle are the keys to enlightenment.
The single worst thing you can do is believe that the image is the only product of your daily efforts. Your images are evocative, often mysterious, sometimes dangerous and contain the dormant seeds of many untold stories of the Plains and the people who lived there.
I, for one, have enjoyed every minute of the trip and waited patiently for each new installment. I marveled at your resolve.
We of the urban persuasion have a filtered view of life away from the asphalt and concrete - romanticized, gingham-checked Rockwellian tributes to a simpler life. We promise ourselves that the next time, we'll take highway 36 instead of sailing by on the low-altitude flyover of I-70. Instead, we prefer to zoom on by, afraid that we might not be able to see the Real America if we ventured afield, that our purpose might not be somehow pure enough to see the truth and beauty. The result would be heartbreak and depression.
What we fail to see on our own, but can see thanks to your efforts is the reality of the outlanders' lives in various stages - boarded-up windows, isolated outposts, optimism come and gone,- along with the understated but often rich beauty of the Plains.
Keep doing what you're doing.
Congrats on completion of your project. It's hard to imagine where you found enough material for the many photos you've taken over the past half-year...and yet, there they all are.
I will not submit my name for another give-away photo because I'm so lucky to have a favorite from my last lucky encounter. However, I will look through your work and vote.
Please remember my invitation to come to Topeka and gallery-hop with me. I'd love to see this work on gallery walls someday.
Big Bunny -- Well, I'm not sure how to respond other than to say thanks. We're in Great Bend as I write this and the amount of empty storefronts, abandoned industries and shuttered businesses is frightening. A partner on the journey said it was really bad but I said it no more so than any rural town we'd passed along the way. The economy hasn't hit bottom yet but we're getting close out here in the middle of nowhere. It's not all ugly, though, there's still great beauty out here, and often in the least likely places. Come out some time and see. We're hardy folk out here. We'll make it. Somehow.
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