Friday, April 30, 2010
I didn’t notice it when I snapped the shutter on the former jail and sheriff’s office in Washington County—the oldest such facility of its kind in Kansas—but when I developed the image in my digital darkroom there it was, a pale mountain of a snowdrift gleaming in the shadows. Ubiquitous to the Kansas landscape for our incessantly long and brutal winter, the deep drifts are now disappearing, leaving in their wake something equally treacherous to the backroads traveler: mud.
For one raised in the city, this is something of a novelty. However, novelties are novel for only so long. Eventually reality rears its ugly head and truth becomes evident: muddy roads are anything but novel. In fact, they’re downright treacherous.
I read the other day that only one percent of the nation’s roads are dirt. That makes rural Kansas something of a third world country in terms of roadways but then it’s balanced by the lack of crime, the laid-back pace of small-town life and the abiding sense of community. None of which can be said about metropolitan areas.
I also learned, or am in the process of learning, that the word “dirt” when used for rural Kansas roads is not altogether accurate, and when used in the wrong circles can elicit reactions that are as swift as they are vehement.
Why this is so escapes me. After several conversations where I inadvertently labeled greasy roads as “dirt,” I was informed in no uncertain terms that the roads in question were gravel. The word was uttered with a sibilant hiss as if to underscore the speaker’s disgust. Gravel, dirt, the delineation is slippery as far as I’m concerned. Gravel obviously denotes an underlying mixture of crushed stone, which in theory packs down to create a firm, or firmer, surface when wet. Dirt, I’m told, is a descriptive referring to roads that are hardpacked and solid only under certain conditions, primary being in temperatures far below freezing or during extended periods of drought. Otherwise, their solidity is ephemeral and illusory at best.
After almost a decade of navigating rural backroads in northeast Kansas, I’ve familiarized myself with some of the best and some of the worst roads around. Experience being a merciless instructor, this has not been an altogether pleasant tutelage. In the process I’ve developed a loose theory—very loose—that purports to illuminate the geological conditions through which roads traverse that when the soil is saturated one should avoid at all costs.
These conditions include, but are not limited to, level places, places where the road skirts hillsides, bottomlands along streams or rivers, inclines bordering plum thickets, declinations bordering plum thickets, north-facing slopes, shadowed slopes, narrow valleys or any other geological formation that doesn’t include an eight-inch base layer of asphalt.
Admittedly, the list needs work. But it’s a start and has served me well. I haven’t been stuck yet.
Recently, my wife and I visited the site of an old one-room school near the town of Frankfort. The road—I hesitate to call it gravel or dirt for it’s a mixture of both, composed mostly of slimy muck with the consistency of axle grease—crosses a river before skirting the same in flat wooded bottoms prone to flooding.
“It’s going to be muddy,” my wife warned.
Muddy? Once again rural vernacular proved the limitations of the English language. Just as dirt and gravel are nebulous concepts, mud is an inconsistent, contradictory and whimsical description. Part of the road was soft mud while others were overlaid with gravel that summarily sank into a liquid goo; one long stretch consisted of black ooze that threatened to swallow the truck, and another had a firm central stripe balanced between depthless sludge. And those, we were to learn, were the good parts.
Some argue that the road was gravel, others dirt. I’d call it mud, but that opens another can of linguistic worms, the difference between a dirt road and a mud road.
I suppose Eskimos argue over terms for snow and ice, too. Going back to my original theory about rural roads, I’d have to let the numbers speak for themselves. With over 90 percent of our roads unpaved, the distinction is easy. In northeast Kansas we have good roads and bad roads. Any differences are merely a matter of timing.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Music was the great equalizer but exacted its own unyielding toll. It could uplift and resuscitate or deconstruct with ruthless efficiency. But no matter the genre, it was the single universal relevance binding us together, at once a source of solace and suffering, and always partaken of behind closed doors.
Our rooms in Grants were surprisingly spacious but mostly devoid of furniture. Mine contained a small bed and nightstand, a table and chair and a small refrigerator that rarely held anything other than liquid nourishment. A pinup tacked to the wall added the single acknowledgement of a more promising existence beyond the gritty confines of our banishment. I don’t remember a television but if there was I never watched it. At all hours of day or night a disparate medley of music cloyed the hall like the commingled fetor of desperate men reeking of sweat, poor hygiene, cigarettes, booze and despair.
It was here that I first heard the sorrowful refrains of country music’s saddest songs. What I had dismissed as low-brow entertainment suddenly resonated on a personal level. While classical could certainly stir the senses, lyrics were necessary for genuine melancholy, and the words of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and others seemed written expressly for me. It was as if they peered deep into my soul to unearth my most intimate secrets, and in so doing assured me that I was not alone.
At night, with my back to the looming bulwark of the San Mateo Mountains, I thought of the thousands of other faceless people listening with me to the same songs in the same unfeeling dark. I wondered if they were lonely, too, if their wives had left them for other men, if their prized ’68 Mustangs had been repossessed, if everything they’d known had been corrupted and despoiled. If they like me were the dispossessed. Ours was the music of the broken-hearted and the imprisoned, the song of the working man cursed never to succeed. I might not be entombed within the cold gray walls of Folsom Prison or be listening for whip-poor-wills too blue to cry but I had the rolling thunder of the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe gearing up to hurdle the Continental Divide, and like old Hank I was so lonesome I could cry. And sometimes, in the sanctity of my room with the music turned up to mask the sobs, did.
Early on a Sunday morning Union Pacific’s No. 844 backed out of Marysville’s dead-end docking spur and joined the main tracks, bound for Texas.
Fifteen or so miles away as the crow flies I nosed our truck down a wide road bordering the tracks and Frankfort’s towering grain elevator. According to Internet satellite images a narrow lane branched off the main thoroughfare to follow the tracks a short stretch on the east side. A fellow train-watcher had told me of a place to the southeast where a small rise provided an aerial view of a long sweeping curve of tracks, but for now I wanted something that spelled out rural in nothing less than iconic terms. If I could get the elevator in the background, I’d have my shot. The question was whether the road was a road and not a ditch, something the resolution of the satellite image failed to clarify.
Three men waiting for the train waved as I angled past. The road was rutted and narrowed as it progressed with the main thoroughfare cutting away into town. Beyond it a lane meandered on, adorned with piles of iron and steel and construction materials. No signs forbade access so I drove to its end and then back, keeping an eye on the elevator. Once I was fairly certain of my position, I parked and walked the tracks with the camera glued to my eye to fine tune my selection. I then backed the truck into a spot about 20 feet from the tracks, climbed into the back and waited.
The morning was unearthly still. A few birds called from a nearby yard and fell silent as if in expectation.
Visibility down the tracks was only several hundred yards. I studied the other watchers for their reaction but they appeared almost disinterested. A pair of pigeons wheeled around the elevator before winging out over the lowlands flanking the Black Vermillion River. My ears rang fiercely.
The men stirred and walked onto the tracks. I listened harder and hearing nothing felt an inaudible shift, a subtle mutation coming from the air itself like a whisper of breeze so faint it seems imagined. A hand cupped behind my good ear brought a muted roar and an indistinct chuff that resolved into a rhythmic chuff chuff with an underscore of metallic clattering that joined it note for clamorous note. I dropped my hand and gripped the camera and stabilized myself against the cab of the truck and felt the chorus gaining in force until the nearby tracks set up a thin keening and the air shuddered as if alive, the tempo increasing to a chuffclatterclatterchuffclatterclatterchuff and a single horn blast splitting the morning with a explosive white plume billowing above the trees and the coal-black face of No. 844 rolling into sight wreathed in a pearlescent mantle.
I was grinning like a love-besotted adolescent who’d just reached first base. I wanted this moment to never end but continue unabated for all time but the engine was moving fast and the lowering gates adding a new dimension to the rhythm which was soon matched by the ratcheting of the shutter and a throbbing roar that drowned everything as the train roared past. I panned the camera to follow and let the buffer fill until the shutter stilled. And still watched breathless and dizzy through the viewfinder, unwilling, unable to break contact, memorizing every detail from the early morning sun gilding the boxcars and the undulant plume to the graceful curve of the tracks and how they caught the light so it seemed the train rode on twin luminous shafts intangible as air, and passing around the bend No. 844 chuffed and clattered out of sight and forever into the deepest recesses of my being.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
It was, to say the least, an underwhelming debut.
My wife and I, along with dozens of others, were gathered on the graveled edge of the Union Pacific rail yard in Marysville, the old one whose tracks branched off the new bypass to wing like an arrow through the center of town. Only, alas, to end ignominiously near Jenkins Street; the remainder of the tracks pulled up like so many dandelions, sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.
I’m not complaining, mind you. I remember all too well having to stop and wait (and wait) for trains to pass before continuing into town. With 140 or more trains per day, the chances of having to wait were almost assured. When faced with the rare opportunity of finding the tracks devoid of rolling stock, the usual reaction was to stomp the gas pedal, speed limit be damned. A human foible to be sure but all the more mystifying because I never once saw cops running radar through that stretch. It would have been a cash cow for police coffers but maybe they felt the poor bastards were justified. Give ‘em a break.
The reason for our gathering was the imminent arrival of locomotive No. 844. It was the last steam engine built for UP, 114 feet of coal black ugly that made its debut in 1944. As we waited, I asked several strangers if they’d ever seen it before. Not only had they, but they returned to the yard every time the engine docked. It was like a religion or something. I had a feeling that Lori and I were the only steam-engine-virgins there.
After what seemed an interminable wait, a pinprick of light appeared on the bridge spanning the Little Blue River. A ripple shuddered the crowd. Some began surging forward while others held back. The train inched forward, coasted to a stop, inched forward again. Several workers walked the tracks ahead of it, either inspecting the metal rails or tired of waiting for the engine to move. It started and stopped and mostly just idled.
“Like watching paint dry,” I said aloud.
Two men glanced at me as if I were a terrorist.
I moved off to find a good vantage. Each time I had an unobstructed view someone stepped in front of me. Several other photographers were having the same difficulty. Not that there was anything spectacular to shoot—the engine crawled forward with only a whiff of steam bleeding from the stack, a background of barren trees and featureless sky, a colorless foreground of gravel and dirt. Its size was impressive, though.
The train passed the depot and chugged to a stop. Workers wearing Day-glo vests swarmed it like angry yellowjackets. Circling the crowd, I angled off and knelt for a shot directly down the tracks. A police officer watched intently as if to say, this far and no more. Using a wide-open aperture to blur the background, I focused on the brass bell and touched the shutter release. Something was missing, though, some ineffable quality. At rest, leaking tendrils of white steam, the massive engine seemed anemic, almost caged, barely contained in its immobility. Before the shutter snapped I knew I had to see the engine in motion.
I never was around trains much when I was young so I have no real reference point other than the cheesy country songs I used to hear in the late hours of the night. Those came later in life, after I’d left home. Before that we listened mostly to classical music (my father was particularly fond of Wagner and the symphonies of Beethoven), with a sprinkling of Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell and a few others who escape me now. It’s worth noting that after we three boys flew the coop my mother grew addicted to the music of Willie Nelson, whose crooning my father compared to a cat with its tail caught in a fan belt. Willie’s nasal whine was a sore trial for my father. When my mother played his records my father promptly abandoned the room. It was his room, too, his den, manly with scale models of P-51 Mustang fighter planes and a gun rack prominent on the east wall. But I think Willie’s outcast status appealed to my mother’s own sense of rebellion, though hers was certainly more controlled. And, too, I think she was branching out into the woman she would become, seeing a new life sans children and electing to step out of my father’s shadow. Not too far, mind you, but far enough to hear her own voice.
Sometimes on quiet spring mornings when the windows were open I would hear a train rolling down the valley. It was miles away but still an audible presence, making the air throb with a dull rumble that seemed to come from the earth itself. Now and then a whistle would blow, a sonorous note that hung in the air like woodsmoke. I enjoyed listening to the train on a subliminal level but had no desire to see it. What was surprising was how far the sound carried.
Years later after a divorce and exile to Grants, New Mexico, I was thrown in among a motley band of misfits and losers, none of whom cared for Wagner, Beethoven or Mozart. Theirs was a more earthy refuge, booze, drugs and primordial violence underscored to a soundtrack of loss and yearning. Classical couldn’t quench the ache nor did it have the necessary incendiary ingredients to fuel it. Country music was as American as it got, but not the America of my middle-class upbringing. It was trailer trash and Southern gun-and-bible hillbilly, with iconic references to mothers, God, whiskey and unfaithful wives. Prominent within those heartrending lyrics was the lonesome wail of a train whistle, usually at night when loneliness was at its most compelling, piercing like a knife to the heart.
(Continued next week)
Thursday, April 08, 2010
Up at 5:30 after getting to bed late, wind howling, snow stopped. Made a pot of coffee, dressed in warm clothing, unscrewed the Black Rapid camera strap from the Really Right Stuff L-bracket and stuffed the Nikon D700 with 14-24 m/m lens in the Think Tank camera holster.
Everything done by rote but lovingly so. Extreme weariness slows action to a crawl as does exquisite pleasure. When tinged with anticipation the sensation is electric. Never having owned camera equipment this good I’m constantly taken aback by the results and effusive in my gratitude for a supportive wife. As they say, with this gear any issue with the image is not the fault of the equipment but the idiot behind the shutter. I’ve been that idiot more times than I care to admit and already sense this day falling apart. That it hasn’t even begun properly but remains cloaked behind a resolute darkness is all the more discouraging.
Outside a white wonderland. Beneath it, according to friends who may or may not come up for the Lillis St. Patrick’s Day parade, a layer of ice. Great. The road leading south from town meanders through twisty turns frost-heaved into substrata like a potato patch, treacherous when snowpacked or icy. I don’t have far to go and traffic should be light to nonexistent, but still.
A smudge of light stains the eastern horizon. Wind lashes the house, drives clouds of snow in billowing swirls. I do not want to leave the warmth and safety of the house, but I must.
Already I’m late. There is no dawn only a dawning of a paler shade of darkness. Truck heater on full blast, I scrape ice off the windshield and sweep snow from the hood. The air smells of the far north and swampy taiga and ice left over from the beginning of time. What had been a slight greening is now reduced to a monochromatic negative, black and white and shades of gray.
The sun, now a few degrees above the uncertain horizon, remains a ghost of itself, merely a lighter form against a formless field. I’m late and bitterly castigate myself for dragging my heels, but once on the road there is no hurrying, only the steady plodding to the tune of ice crunching beneath the tires. The road is slick and swept with streaks of hardpacked snow, drifted in places. Cold to look at, colder to drive.
It’s not far, a few miles at most. When I arrive I bust through a two-foot drift and park beside the house where the wind is blunted. Two red-tailed hawks lift from a spruce and wing toward a distant tree-line. Woodsmoke is heavy in the air, pungent and homey; it must be coming from the house on the horizon, tucked into the woods. The only sound the ceaseless wind whistling around the fallen eaves of the old farmhouse and whispering across the frozen stubbled fields.
It’s cold but I’ve felt worse. I sling the camera holster around my shoulder and carry the tripod. The barn is several hundred feet away, looming in the soft light, and as I approach I watch for escaping barn owls. There are as usual none but I haven’t lost hope of eventually seeing them. The door is stuck and I have to force it. I enter and close it behind me and allow a moment for my eyes to adjust. And then start climbing the worn ladder to the upper level.
I’m too late. I sense it in the amount of light filtering through the windows and the open slats in the roof, the receding shadows. Too late for the most important photo of my 79-day project. I wanted first light, the camera set to about a 20-second exposure, just enough to outline the windows and add definition to the gray rafters, but what I get is blown-out highlights from a strong luminance dominated by clouds. The largest softbox in the universe. I’m irritated at myself but carry on as if everything were preordained which according to the Baptists it was.
Ten shots max, bracketing for effect. I don’t even have to look at the LCD screen to know that they’re not that good and will never be good no matter how much time is spent in post-production. The knowledge leaves a coppery taste in my mouth. The cold seems to intensify as if fiercely resistant to the pull of spring and the changing of seasons, or to mock my feeble and ineffectual efforts.
Hump down the ladder and into the frigid air. The wind flays exposed skin like razors. Normally I’d snoop around, look for other shots, but the idiot behind the shutter has had his fill. I back out of the driveway, goose the gas into a slight fishtail, retreat northwards at 25 miles per hour tops. And then—what? More coffee to consume, Lori home from work, and the unenviable task of trying to work with images I cannot stand. My project ends with a whimper rather than a bang.
A fellow photographer from Kansas City named Bud Simpson told me that only perfect practice makes perfect. “And that way lies a path free of growth and understanding,” he said. “Failure and struggle are keys to enlightenment.”
It sounded like a Zen mantra or something the great philosopher Eeyore might have said but the wisdom of it was irrefutable. Striving for perfection is mandatory but no guarantee of success, nor are there any laurels to rest upon. There’s always the next plateau, the next attempt, the next image. The next defeat. And, yes, the next photograph that rocks you on your heels, that sucks the breath from your lungs, that makes you stare at the monitor in stupefaction and ask to no one in particular, “I did that?”
It’s all relative, all part of the journey. In the absence of laurels there was only the drive to carry on.
Saturday, April 03, 2010
Thursday, April 01, 2010
When one door shuts, another opens. Of all the adages we’ve been force-fed since day one, it’s the likeliest to come true and the least likely to be surprising. After all, it’s not as if we give up at the first sign of defeat. We’re built of tougher stuff. Failure is for quitters.
That laziness sometimes trumps determination is often as much common sense as self-preservation. Looking out the window on the second-to-the-last day of my project, all I could think of was staying close to home. A strong cold front was expected to push down from the northwest bringing rain, colder temperatures, high winds and snow, but for now it was merely gusty and overcast. Winter was going out with a bang.
Remembering an old farmhouse north of town, I called the owner to ask if I could photograph the place. Not surprisingly, the answer was an emphatic no. He claimed he didn’t want anyone knowing the place was empty, fearing vandalism. I doubt that people who trash old farmsteads favor my writing or photography, but then again I wasn’t exactly thrilled having to ask permission. Our friendship, such as it is, runs the gamut from rocky to hostile. No surprises here.
Next I called a friend who’d told me about some ancient stone buildings on her property just across the county line, including the original spring house. To the west of her family’s home was another limestone structure that was, in her words, “photogenic.” It didn’t take a genius to hear that secondary door swinging open but her next words threatened to slam it shut. Nobody was home except for her two dogs, she said, but they wouldn’t bother me.
Had I heard that before? You bet. Most dogs would as soon eat me than look at me; indeed, my feelings toward canines closely matches my feelings toward select members of our community. Nothing ventured nothing gained, though, so I kissed Lori goodbye and headed out, propelled by a stiff north wind.
I rarely visited their neck of the woods. The narrow road seesawed through deep wooded ravines and rolling hills each with competing views of the northern Flint Hills. The term hill is used loosely for want of a better word. Several years ago during a codgernautical expedition to the West we ran into actual hills and I reverted to a gibbering idiot, maudlin to the point of tears over their forgotten symmetry. For a Westerner it was a terrible shock to have fallen so low.
After a few miles I came to their driveway but kept going another half-mile or so to the stone house. After parking on the shoulder I stared balefully at the fence wondering how to get through. Though cattlemen will think me daft I consider the invention of the barbed wire fence one of the great tragedies of history. A nearby culvert required only minor acrobatics to circumvent the obstruction, and soon I was crossing a field dotted with fresh land mines of the equine variety.
The clouds were just right in a seething way making me wonder what it would be like to shoot with towering cumulonimbus spiked with lightning as a backdrop. Probably be heading for cover. A snaggletooth chunk of limestone outbuilding kept calling to me so I returned to it again and again, each time finding something different and more dark and moody in the clouds. When I was leaving I turned to find one long white tendril arcing from above the ruin and so rushed back for more. We might be heartily sick of storms but they make for good atmospherics.
Knowing I’d captured some good images, I almost drove past the driveway and on to home. The wind was rising to a hard gale and the skies darkening, and the road none too promising with interwoven ruts that bespoke of grim times when wet. There was also the matter of the dogs. Being bitten in the face during my formative years did little to endear me to man’s best friend. Why chance it?
Echoing the question came another, more intrusive: Why not chance it? If the dogs proved surly I could always retreat, and anyway my phobia is a prison I’m frankly weary of. “We must travel in the direction of our fear,” wrote poet John Berryman. Words to lead the charge. Feeling much less positive than my actions, I nosed the truck down the long meandering road that led to the house.
The hounds rushed out to meet me—two older pooches, gray in the muzzle but wagging their tails so vigorously they all but spun in circles. It came to me that if we could reclaim the amount of time spent worrying needlessly about something we’d add decades to our lives, and happier ones, too. Also another question, why the lessons we most need to learn remain so intractable.
I climbed from the truck and patted the dogs. They swarmed around me in an affable greeting and then settled back on their haunches as if to ask, “What now?” Not having any real idea, I set out for the creek with the dogs in tow. I could see the concrete arch of the spring house but the stream bank was a black liquid goo. It didn’t stop the white dog, who proceeded across to root around until it came up with what appeared to be a bloody cape from a ring-necked pheasant. On its return I saw something in the composition of the dog’s trajectory, the dark flowing water and the barren woods, and ripped off a string of shots. The other dog was sitting slightly uphill from me looking immensely contented so I nailed him, too.
I wouldn’t know until later that the two images possessed a dynamism that left me slackjawed. Being redeemed from my suck-mode by a pair of mutts I had instinctively, and unreasonably, feared, might well be the ironic—and iconic—lesson of my photographic journey.
(Conclusion next week)