Yuma County Grain

For whatever reason I’m drawn to the the less popular; the rag-tag, rumpled, untucked misfits of the world. Not as some sort of contrarian act – but more in a search for intrinsic worth. In all things. Acknowledgement of  life’s many, many dimensions.

Yuma County Grain, Yuma, Colorado
Yuma County Grain

One of my favorite things to do is head East, towards the less notable portions of this glorious state of Colorado. I don’t know if it’s out of some sort of escape mentality; wanting to get away from the usual surroundings into a different environment.

Yuma County Grain, Yuma, Colorado
Yuma County Grain

I suppose it’s one reason I love to drive places rather than fly. I’m OK with flying when necessary. I just prefer passing through places – touching them – rather than over them.

Yuma County Grain, Yuma, Colorado
Yuma County Grain

Time… who cares. Really. Save time here, spend time there. It’s all the same. Where do we choose to spend time? What’s valuable?

Yuma County Grain, Yuma, Colorado
Yuma County Grain

Stories unfold when you take time to stop, listen, look.

Yuma County Grain, Yuma, Colorado
Yuma County Grain

Imagining what others do, see, think, feel… nicely grouped pens in a mug on a clean desk late Friday before knocking off for the weekend.

Yuma County Grain, Yuma, Colorado
Yuma County Grain

There’s no conclusion; repeating itself again and again, feeding the soul, constituting life’s experience. So blessed to live in such a rich, beautiful state as Colorado.

Covering Country: 4042N, Year 8

I realized something of great importance this past Saturday while traveling Iron Mountain Road in Wyoming: I love Wyoming. I love it the way you love something you didn’t realize you loved at first. The way some things kinda sneak up on you when you’re not looking then bam – there they are and you wonder how long this has been going on.

I love Colorado too, but Colorado’s easy to love. Everyone loves Colorado. Wyoming’s different; it’s the less-polished version of Colorado – where wild still lives.

I love the people of Wyoming too.

I’d pulled over on the side of the dirt road, loading film and making some notes, when next to me appeared a Laramie County Sheriff. “You OK?” he asked, rolling down his window, towering above me in his heavy-duty truck. “I never see anyone on this road,” he said. We chatted a bit, I thanked him for stopping and assured him I was fine.

Nunn, Colorado

There is literally no end to the maze of wild dirt roads running through Wyoming. My Delorme Atlases travel with me everywhere I go. Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. I have one plastic sleeve that I slip which ever one I’m using most heavily at the time into; hoping to postpone the inevitable. Scouring these maps with a headlamp in a dark car in the middle of nowhere trying to figure out just where on earth you are… one runs into another and another and another – then you look at the time, and you look at the fuel gauge and you make hard decisions to turn around and save that next turn for the next time. The inside of my car smells like a dirt road. The cabin filter has been changed so many times the service center knows me by name.

Bigham Hill Road and Bellvue, Colorado

I climb out of the car and scamper up an embankment looking for a view. Prickly pear tries to stick in my boot soul and I’m glad I’m not wearing sandals. The smell of sage is heavy in the air. In the distance the railroad cuts south through the broad, flat center of the valley. Miles and miles of barbed wire note ranch boundaries punctuated with “No Trespassing” signs. I never, ever trespass. Not only because it says ‘No Trespassing,’ but because a lot of these guys are pretty good shots, practiced at picking off coyotes or prairie dogs.

Chugwater, Wyoming
Chugwater, Wyoming
Yuma County Grain, Yuma, Colorado
Yuma County Grain, Yuma, Colorado

Just before the sheriff stopped I’d been tracking antelope. Not on foot, but following small herds in the car. They’re wary of vehicles; rifles emerging from rolled down windows. If their sharp eyes or ears pick up any sudden motion from the road they’re gone. And they’re fast. I slow, they lift their heads. I stop, they stop. I open the door and have three, maybe four steps – and they’re off. Getting one to sit still long enough for a portrait is never going to happen.

Antelope, Iron Mountain Road, Wyoming
Antelope, Iron Mountain Road, Wyoming
Chugwater, Wyoming
Iron Mountain Road, Laramie County, Wyoming
McDonald Crossing, Iron Mountain Road, Laramie County, Wyoming
Anticline, Laramie County, Wyoming (2017)

Late in the day the light came out for just a bit. There was a rolling, gorgeous anticline bisected by the road, running to the south. Greens were sage and junipers; muted and soft, mixed with ochers and other no-name earthen colors difficult to describe. There was no wind. I pulled over for the twentieth or thirtieth or fortieth time and approached the fence line to watch. As the light hit, the internal debate whether it would last long enough to set up the tripod ensued. Deciding to try, a few frames of color slide film clicked off before clouds once more swallowed up the sun. One of the sweetest parts of the day followed. Sometimes there’s no clear indication when it’s over. There’s this transition as the sun takes a final bow. Sometimes dramatic and flamboyant; sometimes simply drifting behind distant clouds unobtrusively disappearing. You stand and wait, wondering if it’ll come back. Hoping it will, but OK if it doesn’t.

The Nikon F6, my constant companion out traveling.
The Nikon F6, my constant companion out traveling.

I found some water and an unopened bag of Beer Nuts Bar Mix buried in the car’s long term storage and stood on the road side in the peaceful dim, happy. A quarter mile away a small herd of mule deer stood silhouetted against a gray sky, in the middle of the dirt road, unafraid.

After a bit I packed up and headed south, tired of being in the car but deeply in love with the country I was in.

Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I have had the privilege of living in Colorado since 1981 when I moved to Fort Collins to attend Colorado State University. Having moved from Illinois, I’d literally do anything to get into the mountains. At first a poor college student with no car, I once borrowed a friend’s bike – two sizes too large – to pedal up Thompson Canyon from Fort Collins, backpack with ice axe and all. I remember a sleek, streamlined peloton of cyclists in fancy gear and even fancier bikes whizzing by up the canyon, looking at me and smiling. Like they knew… ‘yeh, I’m new here and I’m not going to let anything stop me from getting up into those hills.’

All these years later that same drive hasn’t diminished one bit. Living along Colorado’s Front Range, any opportunity to get deeper into the mountains usually involves at least one trip over Trail Ridge Road. For those unfamiliar with it, Trail Ridge Road (also known as U.S. 34) is a 48 mile stretch of road connecting Estes Park, Colorado with Grand Lake, Colorado by traversing Rocky Mountain National Park at a elevation high point of 12,183. If I can’t get up there for sunrise (leaving Fort Collins by 4am usually) – then I try to time the return trip with late afternoon/evening light. Many times I’ve gone up and just spent the night on the road, sleeping in the back of the truck. Coffee on the tail gate in the morning at 12,000 watching the sun rise over the Mummy Range, Gore Range, and the Medicine Bow’s is pretty tough to beat with a hot cup of french roast.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The above view is accessible to anyone who has made the journey up Trail Ridge to the Alpine Visitor Center. This view looks down what I call the Fall River Valley – the prior route up to the Visitor Center years ago. There is a one way, dirt road buried in the trees at left that winds up from the valley floor – an alternative to the paved Trail Ridge. A common route is to go up Old Fall River Road, then down Trail Ridge Road. Often time elk may be seen grazing in this valley, high above treeline. If I were an elk I’d sure elect to eat dinner here.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
A distant storm forms over the Gore Range, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Ypsilon Mountain and the Mummy Range, RMNP
The Mummy Range from Rainbow Curve, RMNP
Longs Peak and Glacier Gorge, RMNP
Longs Peak and Glacier Gorge, RMNP

And finally, the Monarch of Colorado’s northern Front Range, Longs Peak and Keyboard of the Winds on the upper left horizon recedes into the east flank of Glacier Gorge, surrounded by high, wild country in beautiful light. The views on Trail Ridge Road are constantly changing, largely driven by weather and of course time of day. Storms move in fast – and often are gone just as fast. If you’re not prepared you’ll be soaked and freezing – for a time. Then the sun will come out and the high altitude mountain air will whisk away the water and leave you dry and chilly.

We recently had family from North Carolina visit who had not yet been up Trail Ridge. I was excited for them with anticipation knowing what a thrill that first trip over can be. Several times since moving to Colorado, when I’ve found myself temporarily living in other places, the realization that I can’t hop in the car and – in an hour be up in Rocky Mountain National Park – is a cold smack in the face. I’m humbled to realize that others save their vacation time all year just to spend a week’s vacation in Colorado. And I wake up here every morning. Even after all these years I will never take living in Colorado for granted.

Spieker Wedding
Longs Peak, with the lesser peak Mount Lady Washington along the ridge line in front. Mount Meeker can be seen to the left of Longs Peak’s “knob” like appearance from this angle.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Alpine Visitor Center Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Spieker Wedding
Medicine Bow Curve, with the Never Summer Mountains in the background.
Spieker Wedding
Upper reaches of Forest Canyon
Spieker Wedding
Hayden Spire looms over Forest Canyon from Forest Canyon Overlook.

Elk Mountain, Wyoming

South Brush Creek, Snowy Range, Wyoming
South Brush Creek, Snowy Range, Wyoming

At first it looked like a dead animal – a brownish, furry lump in the middle of the dirt 320. The wind blew and late morning sun peeked in and out of an active sky. Through a dirty windshield it was tough to make out. As the car slowly rolled closer, the profile of a small head emerged from the fur, then turned a few times trying to get her bearings and let out a cry. As she began struggling to rise my first thought was she’d been hit by a car . Once erect I could see new, young legs, thin and delicate wobbling as they tried to support her tiny mass. She couldn’t have been more than a few days old. The baby antelope took a few steps then stumbled, her front knees dropping to the dirt road. I wondered if she’d have bruises or abrasions on her bony, new skin. She struggled to get up again, now in a panic. “I’m not gonna hurt you… just calm down” I said to no one.

Elk Mountain, Wyoming
Elk Mountain, Wyoming

Out of the corner of my eye to the left I picked up a flash moving fast across the sage. I turned to watch momma hurtling towards us full tilt. She was strong and powerful, leaping 8 foot spans each stride until she appeared heroically 10 yards in front of the car – between baby and me. She turned and looked squarely at me, then swiveled her tan and white head towards baby who was continuing to stumble in a panic down the road.

Pass Creek Road, Wyoming
Pass Creek Road, Wyoming

She stood for a moment – which itself is remarkable – out here antelope have learned to fear vehicles; rifles emerging from a slowed truck’s rolled down window. After a moment she took off for baby who had continued to run. Momma took the lead, baby trying to keep up, her head turning this way and that attempting to assess the threat. Momma led the way until they both crossed the road again and bounded up the hill.

Virga, The Medicine Bow, Wyoming
Virga, The Medicine Bow, Wyoming

In the distance they stopped; baby nowhere to be seen, having dropped in the sage somewhere. Mom and dad stood together 200 yards away watching the car slowly drive off.

Medicine Bow, Wyoming

Sometimes when visiting a new place surrounded by such emptiness there’s a mild reservation about leaving the imagined security of whatever semblance of civilization there is – and striking alone into the void. With minimal maps and no idea what really lay out there I check the fuel gauge and tires, listen to the car carefully for any indication of malfunction and make sure a little food and water are close at hand.

For some reason Medicine Bow, Wyoming calls to me. In the late 1800’s Medicine Bow was a mildly prosperous stop along the transcontinental Railway due to its proximity to water provided by the Medicine Bow River. Later – it was a vibrant stock and cattle holding operation and a stop for auto travelers along the old Lincoln Highway. In the early 70’s Medicine Bow was effectively cut off when Interstate 80 was built 35 miles to the south. Medicine Bow is one of the windiest places in America, a fact I can attest to from my visits. Often times when opening the car door, the wind catches and violently cranks it against the hinges causing the car to lurch.

Medicine Bow River, Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow River, Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)

 

 

Rock River, Wyoming
Rock River, Wyoming

 

Rock River, Wyoming
Rock River, Wyoming
Rock River, Wyoming
Rock River, Wyoming

My first intentional trip to Medicine Bow was several years ago as I determined to follow 287 north as far as I practically could. Outside of Laramie there’s not much topographic relief as one travels along the bottom of the enormous Laramie River Valley, ringed with high, wild peaks in the distance. The car drifts sideways in ever present wind as you unconsciously pull to the left while heading straight North. All but empty enclaves like Bosler, Rock River and Como Bluffs distantly dot the highway – a mirage providing the hope of relief that vanish as you approach, then roll through with no visible sign of activity. For a large portion of the drive the highway parallels the railroad and trains pass in either direction, the smile of their headlights providing brief companionship. Beyond the tracks, hidden from site by the risen berm lies the Laramie River, winding its way down from Wheatland Reservoir, 30 miles to the north east.

“Let Them Know” Highway 287 north of Laramie, Wyoming

It’s the very definition of solitary.

Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)

Upon arriving in Medicine Bow I was struck by its sparse, barren landscape, wind, and intense, western afternoon light. Long, coal and cattle-laden freight trains regularly tear through the town’s center at full speed as I prowl around the tracks. Sometimes when visiting a new place surrounded by such emptiness there’s a mild reservation about leaving the imagined security of whatever semblance of civilization there is – and striking out alone into the void. With minimal maps and no real idea what lay out there I check the fuel gauge and tires, listen to the car carefully for any indication of malfunction and make sure a little food and water are close at hand.

Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)

On this most recent trip the emptiness is tempered by the presence of our one year old chocolate lab Tecla. As the sun begins to sink I start the car. 4 mule deer amble across the dirt road in front of me. Tecla erupts in the back seat, bouncing back and forth from passenger to driver side angrily barking at these large, four-legged invaders. Though the windows are up they glance briefly at the car, assess the threat, then pick up the pace as the rail road crossing sounds yet again. I drop the car into drive and head into the late, windy afternoon.

Lincoln Highway designation sign, Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Lincoln Highway designation sign, Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)

Coming home that night, topping the snowy pass separating Wyoming from Colorado the headlights catch a large, still shape sprawled across the road. It’s a deer. She’s been hit and killed and lay still, alone in the night. I stop. At the top of the cold, foggy pass visibility is low and I sit for a moment in the dark car deliberating. If another car hits her it’ll surely create problems for everyone. Tecla wakes up in the front seat and looks at me as I open the door and step into the night.

I grab the doe by the front legs and drag her across the road. She’s heavier than anticipated. ‘I’m so sorry, sweetheart’ I say as her head arcs back and the friction of the blacktop tries to prevent us from our task. The hair on her legs above her hooves is wet and my bare hands slip, then grab tighter. Leather gloves  are somewhere in the car but I couldn’t risk the time to find them. A trail of blood is left behind on the road pointing to where she lay, and a large, round organ the size of a small beach ball that’s been dislodged, sitting in the road like a rock cairn on a hiking trail.

When I climb back in the car Tecla is awake and smells the dead animals’ scent on my hands. She aggressively sniffs and licks as one arm shoes her away, while the other searches the console for something to clean up with. There’s nothing. I drive 20 minutes down the pass and stop at Ted’s Place for a $2 bottle of hand sanitizer, then wipe down the steering wheel. This is life in Colorado and Wyoming, I think to myself – knowing I can’t share the event with my wife. “How was your trip,” she’ll say as I walk in, hungry and tired of being in the car. “Good. Really good.” And leave it at that.

Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Lincoln Highway Garage, Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Lincoln Highway Garage, Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016)

 

The 440

A few weeks ago I needed to get out – as in far away from the computer – in a big way. The weather wasn’t good along the Front Range and checking the iPhone confirmed pretty much any place within easy driving distance was experiencing the same. It looked like the only thing to do was out drive the front. I fueled up, stopped for the requisite Americano and headed into the rain not knowing what the day held. Not knowing what lie ahead isn’t just part of the fun – it’s the reason I go.

There are a number of different ways to connect with my favorite haunts – North Park/Southern Wyoming. Memorial Day this year marked the opening of Trail Ridge Road, which connects the front range with the deeper mountains through Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a bit circuitous route, but any day beginning on Trail Ridge Road is a good day no matter what happens next. I headed up to the Park, bought the annual pass and wasted no time getting high. That’s a eyebrow-raising phrase here in Colorado these days… what I mean  is quickly gaining elevation. On a week day there was little traffic – one of the wonderful benefits of being able to take off in the middle of the week instead of waiting for the weekend.

Highway 14, North Park, Colorado
North Park along Highway 14 south of Walden, Colorado (2015). Nikon F100 + Ektar

At the bottom of Trail Ridge you wind up in Grandby T-boning at the intersection of Highway 40. A right takes you towards Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling. I stopped at the market in Kremmling for a break, the weather already improving, and considered my route. I only had the day, needing to be back that night – so was somewhat limited by daylight. The western edge of North Park is unofficially bound by 40 as it winds up over Muddy Pass. From there I picked up 14 and headed east towards Walden.

White gate near Rand, Colorado, North Park, Colorado (2015)
White Gate, North Park, Colorado (2015). Nikon F4s + Velvia

A great thing about being open to the day is a willingness to detour onto new roads. There are roads I’ve driven by many times making a mental note to return someday to explore as time allows. Nearing Walden I came upon one of those roads; a dirt road peeling off across the pasture lands to the east. With plenty of fuel and a cooler full of fruit and water this was the perfect opportunity and I didn’t hesitate.

I have and shoot a lot of cameras – many of which I was carrying on this day – all loaded with different films. I think back to a story once read about Robert Frank (The Americans) who was one day detained in a small town by a police officer who noticed he had an unusually large number of cameras visibly scattered about in the car. I smile as I think about the packed Pelican crate tucked safely in the back of the Subaru, beneath a foil space blanket to keep it cooler in the high-altitude sun shining through the rear window. I also make a note to check the cooler containing extra film brought along at the next stop.

I know some people think you should only only shoot one film, getting used to its characteristics in certain light, the look it produces etc. I understand the reasoning behind this – but toss it out the window. Different films are for different light, different applications, different scenes, different subjects. A film camera loaded with roll film can only practically shoot one roll at a time. Having different cameras loaded with different films allows greater flexibility for an image that may be better suited for a chrome (slide) film, or C41 (color negative) or black and white.

There has been a great deal of rain in Colorado this year; a wonderful break from the high and dry monotony pestering ranchers, farmers and other ag-centric folks over recent past. All this rain has turned browns into greens; refilled drainage ditches, draws and ponds, and contributed to an overall pleasant aroma to the high prairie. Standing water also means lots of bugs.

Roadside drainage ditches and draws are full these days in North Park with all the standing water that's fallen.
Roadside drainage ditches and draws are full these days in North Park with all the standing water that’s fallen. Nikon F4s + Velvia
Clouds hover over Wyoming to the North of North Park, Colorado.
Clouds hover over Wyoming to the North of North Park, Colorado. Nikon F4s + Velvia

After Rand I picked up 125 North towards Cowdrey, veered left at the Dean Peak Junction and was on my way North into Wyoming.

I was eager to shoot my new F5 for the first time and had both it and the F6 on the seat next to me just in case. Sometimes things catch your eye and digging a camera out of the crate takes time. Only a few frames had been made thus far in the trip. Light during mid-day isn’t ideal, which is why that time is spent moving between places – to be in position for the edges of the day. Often times I’ll think I see a shot and head down a dirt road looking for the right vantage point. More often then not things don’t line up, or the light’s wrong, or there’s too much mud (which has happened a lot this year), or I’m met with a “No Trespassing” sign (I always respect No Trespassing signs) and the detour is chalked up to a learning experience as I head back to the main road. As I’m driving down a double track or dirt road I’m always considering my exit plan. Once while trying to turn around on a double track in Sweetwater County the car became stuck – high-centered in the middle of no where. I try to avoid this.

About the time I rolled into southern Wyoming it was later in the day and the light had improved considerably. I’d left rainy skies far behind and was enjoying fresh air, brilliant bluebird skies punctuated by dramatic, enormous cloud masses as the edge of the front just passed through quietly lumbered its way east.

Riverside, Wyoming (2015)
Riverside, Wyoming (2015) Nikon F5 + Ektar

Riverside, Wyoming is a quiet town just north of the Colorado/Wyoming state line. I pass through Riverside often, en route to other destinations. This day it marked the point I was to turn east and head home. The Trading Post sits on the corner of Wyoming 230 and 70. The tired me planned on rolling right on by – until I saw the clouds, and what the light was doing. Thanks to the high pressure system chasing the front east, the air was freshly scrubbed and crystal clear. Brilliant light screamed across a fresh atmosphere and slammed into the wood siding, red roof and white accent signage. I suppose I’ve spent enough time cruising around to notice a gas station or two – and this was spectacular.

No tripod, no filters, no nothing other than f8 and be there. 2 frames clicked off the F5 loaded with Ektar and on I went. My real goal was trying to hit peak light on Snowy Range Road and I knew I’d be cutting it close.

Libby Flats Observation Point, Snowy Range Road, Wyoming
Libby Flats Observation Point, Snowy Range Road, Wyoming. Nikon F6 + Portra 160

Snowy Range Road – like Trail Ridge Road – is closed during winters. Signs along the approach alert the traveler well in advance whether it’s open or closed. Even with all the snow the mountains received this year I knew I was safe and car churned its way up the steep grade. I spent an hour milling about looking for a good composition vantage point based on what the light was doing – but wasn’t able to line up what I’d hoped. I used to become anxious during these moments, but now I’m relaxed. If the world aligns and an image is presented – wonderful. If not – you’re up in the mountains watching this etherial scene unfold. Where else would you rather be? A scene doesn’t need to result in an image. Just relax and enjoy not being parked in front of the computer.

Undiscouraged, I packed up and headed further up the road towards Libby Flats to catch last light on the Overlook. Almost immediately after making the one frame, shadows swept up and over, engulfing the stone structure until morning. It was time to head home. I put in 440 miles that day (and I wonder why I’m chewing through tires so fast). Driving home in the dark I was satisfied; happy to have been out wandering in the west with no agenda and plenty of cameras loaded with film. The net result was, I felt rested and ready to face another day tomorrow – at my best thanks to the break.

 

 

4042n: Poudre Canyon, Cameron Pass, Jackson County, Rand, Walden

Nothing hits the reset button like a road trip with a couple of old, film cameras – even if just for the day. On this day it was my favorite home away from home, North Park, Colorado. North Park is still “old Colorado” and I enjoy that immensely. North Park sits unassumingly, tucked quietly between the heavily traveled Steamboat corridor and Poudre Canyon.

I’ve written about North Park quite a bit before – there’s just something appealing about it that draws me there time and again. The lack of people? Guilty. The grand vistas? Surely. Old, weathered buildings and funky road-side machinery with tons of character. What photographer wouldn’t be?

Miles and miles of nothingness. Quiet. No franchises or big box stores. Just enough convience stores to keep the car going. Very few stop signs. Even fewer stop lights. And plenty of high, wild mountains as far as you can see in every direction. Unpredictable weather producing ever-active skies. Wildlife. Great fly fishing when the light fails to cooperate. A hop, skip and jump from southern Wyoming.

Any time of year… who could want anything more? I’m about as happy as a guy can be when I’m wandering around North Park.

Rustic Inn vintage sign along Colorado Highway 14's Poudre Canyon. Larimer County, Colorado (2015)
Rustic Inn vintage sign along Colorado Highway 14’s Poudre Canyon. Larimer County, Colorado (2015)
Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, Jackson County, Colorado (2015)
Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, Jackson County, Colorado (2015)
North Park, looking towards the Rawah's, Jackson County, Colorado (2015)
North Park, looking towards the Rawah’s, Jackson County, Colorado (2015)
Streamliner Mobile Home along Colorado Highway 14's Poudre Canyon. Larimer County, Colorado (2015)
Streamliner Mobile Home along Colorado Highway 14’s Poudre Canyon. Larimer County, Colorado (2015)
Old Dodge Gasoline hauler, Walden, Colorado (2015)
Old Dodge Gasoline hauler, Walden, Colorado (2015)
Jackson County Courthouse, Walden, Colorado (2015)
Jackson County Courthouse, Walden, Colorado (2015)
North park home, Jackson County, Colorado (2015)
North park home, Jackson County, Colorado (2015)

Happy New Year from the West

As the year winds down there’s a tendency to review and reflect – and anticipate with great excitement the upcoming year. The beginning of a new year has always been especially welcomed. Not prone to unrealistic, over enthusiastic expectations, but instead new goals. Fresh starts.

Soon we’ll travel back to Chicago to visit family. After having done this drive for 30+ years now it’s easy to understand those who grow weary of it. For us though it’s one of the highlights. We love road trips – and with the additional hook of using every opportunity to contribute to the 4042n project, even more so – especially during winter months when one may otherwise not be as inspired to get out exploring.

I was doing a little research this morning on a particular item of interest that caught my attention last year on my return on US Highway 34. There is a literal, definitive point in Lincoln, Nebraska where “The West” officially begins, according to lore. This point is marked by a star at the intersection of 13th Street and O Street in downtown Lincoln. While researching the exact location with hopes of finding it on one of our refueling stops I ran across this book titled “The Nebraska Dispatches” by playwright and director Christopher Cartmill. In it he quotes excerpts from a poem by Arthur Chapman titled “Out Where the West Begins,” and thought it a wonderful way to close out 2014 and usher in 2015.

Out Where the West Begins

Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger,
Out where the smile dwells a little longer,
That’s where the West begins;

Out where the sun is a little brighter,
Where the snows that fall are a trifle whiter;
Where the bonds of home are a wee bit tighter;
That’s where the West begins.

Out where the skies are a trifle bluer,
Out where the friendship’s a little truer,
That’s where the West begins

Out where a fresher breeze is blowing,
Where there’s laughter in every streamlet flowing,
Where there’s more of reaping and less of sowing,
That’s where the West begins.

Out where the world is in the making,
Where fewer hearts with despair are aching;
That’s where the West begins;

Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,
Where’s there’s more of giving and less of buying,
And where a man makes friends without half trying,
That’s where the West begins.

-Arthur Chapman

Here’s wishing you and yours peace, joy and countless blessings in 2015.

 

Crane Hollow, Boulder County, Colorado

At the end of the day it’s light that’s the star. Great light can turn nearly any ordinary scene into something extraordinary. Those days I’m fortunate enough to be out in that wonderful, glorious autumn light with a camera are good days indeed. Making photographs is as much about the process as it is about the final image.

There’s something special about the color along Colorado’s Front Range in late Autumn. The Front Range is where the plains finally begin to rise, turning then into mountains. This transition zone has always been a special place to me. It possesses an understated beauty not found elsewhere; a gentility as one ecosystem makes room for another.

Crane Hollow Road, Boulder County, Colorado (2014)
Crane Hollow Road, Boulder County, Colorado (2014)

The fall is one of my favorite times to be out with the camera – but not for what may be considered the typical subject matter. Brilliant colored leaves tend to attract people from all over the country – and for good reason. Explosions of magnificent, bombastic color creating high drama are everywhere. I photograph these, too – and they’re smashing. The truth is though,  the time of year I look forward to the most is when the leaves fall from the branches and the people go home. Especially when we’re blessed with a beautiful Indian Summer; fall stretching out into the waning days of November and early December – sometimes beyond. The downside is of course lack of moisture. The upside is, there’s virtually nothing green left. It’s then the land turns countless shades of gold, brown, tan, ochre, beige, sienna and red – all laying dormant most of the day, going unnoticed in the high-altitude, high angle bright, Colorado sunlight.

Hygeine Road, Rural Boulder County, Colorado (2014)
Hygeine Road, Rural Boulder County, Colorado (2014)

Towards evening, however, when the sun begins its downward journey and the angle of light changes, spectacular color begins to emerge. It’s brief – the last hour of the day you can feel it building. But what happens in those final moments before the sun disappears behind the foothills west of Boulder is spectacular. Crane Hollow Road is an unremarkable dirt road in Eastern Boulder County. It’s probably no longer than a mile or so, and it travels north to south, connecting Hygiene Road and St. Vrain Road. Earlier in life I would cycle these roads back and forth from Boulder to Longmont routinely, eager to escape pavement on my mountain bike – for safety reasons as much as the aesthetics. Now I drive them, slowly in search of beautiful light. Every once in a while I get lucky.

Boulder County, Colorado (2014)
Boulder County, Colorado (2014)

Ektar is perfect film for this type of work. Its vivid color with a slightly warm bias lends itself well to reproducing dramatic light when it makes is appearance. Its fine grain faithfully reproduces subtle details emerging in the luminescent landscape. One of the unique things about photographing on film is this sense of anticipation and excitement when you think you’ve preserved a moment of beautiful light – but you’re not able to actually see the images yet. There’s a tendency to replay the sequence in your mind’s eye and go over your technique. When you find great light it’s easy to get excited and hurry through set up. Changing lenses, extending the tripod, connecting the cable release, screwing on filters… then quickly getting in position before everything simply disappears. Was the tripod on solid ground or bouncing on bending grass. In the excitement to get the camera in position and ready to shoot, did you remember to carefully focus? Shoot Mirror-Up? Did you bracket your compositions well – wide, mid and tight? Did you set the polarizer properly? Clean the lens? Choose the right lens? Use the right aperture? All these things swim through the mind’s eye as dusk encroaches and you make your way back to pavement, the car’s heater kicking in, then head home. There’s something exhilarating about that moment – when you think you got it right – but you won’t know for sure for several more days, until you’re holding the film in hand. Only then will you know.

Autumn grasses, Crane Hollow Road, Boulder County, Colorado
Autumn grasses, Crane Hollow Road, Boulder County, Colorado

At the end of the day it’s light that’s the star. Great light can turn nearly any ordinary scene into something extraordinary. Those days I’m fortunate enough to be out in that wonderful, glorious autumn light with a camera are good days indeed. Making photographs is as much about the process as it is about the final image.

Fear and Loathing in Bushnell, Nebraska

Pine (Bluffs), Wyoming lay at the extreme south-eastern corner of the state, a stone’s throw from Nebraska along the Old Lincoln Highway and I-80. My visit to Pine was late in the year with my dog Henry. Over the course of several months we’d seen Henry begin to slow and knew he’d begun his journey home. Not wanting to miss any opportunities with him I took the Jeep this trip, knowing he’s more comfortable than in the front seat of the Subaru.

Nearly a ghost town, Bushnell, Nebraska sits quietly on the extreme wester edge of Nebraska's panhandle. Though it may appear devoid of life at first glance - it is not.
Though it may appear largely devoid of life at first glance – the sleepy town of Bushnell, on the western edge of Nebraska’s panhandle – is not.

We parked at an I-80 rest area and took an hour-long hike on packed snow and frozen mud to the bluffs overlooking Pine. He labored only slightly, happy and excited to sniff new ground with tail wagging. We climbed back in and continued east along the Lincoln Highway. It was on this trip I was to meet the opposite of the wonderful folks of Nebraska, and catch my first whiff of danger in the region.

Bushnell lay a short drive east of Pine. It was a sunny, pleasant afternoon. The wind had lain down just enough to actually allow Autumn air room to breath. We did a few laps through the small, mostly abandon town and stopped to make some photographs. Henry was content in the back seat as I popped in and out of the car, occasionally opening the back door where he’d slide out into a field, wandering and sniffing as I worked. Getting him back into the Jeep was a little humiliating for him. At close to 100 pounds and not much help to himself he’d look at me, ears lowered, knowing what came next. I encouraged him as I lifted and we managed alright.

Near the end of the day in a remote corner of town I’d stopped along a public, dirt road and climbed out to consider making an image. The light was getting nice and the sky was active. Henry remained in the car, the back window fully down, his head hanging out, watching. About then is when I saw a large, Carhartt-clad figure approaching from the distance. With his head lowered, hands in pockets and a distinct and deliberate gate – I could tell he wasn’t relaxed.  My first thought was to get back in the car and carry on, but not wanting to flee, I resisted.

When two strangers approach on a lonesome stretch of road with no others around and darkness coming, the meeting could go any number of ways. We were both heading for life lesson.

When he got within comfortable speaking distance, the wind still quiet, I offered a casual “how are you today?” It was met with a nod, then a glare.

“What do you think you’re doing,” he asked as he approached to within 3 feet and stopped.

“I’m thinking about making a photograph,” I said. “Hi, my name is John Crane,” and offered my hand. Carhartt spit on the ground, turned his head sideways, raised his chin slightly and closed one eye and said, “Is that supposed mean something to me?”

Right about then several scenarios ran through my head. Part of my greeting was designed to expose his hands, revealing what they held. This failed – with hands remaining buried in his coat pockets. I withdrew my hand and smiled. “Nope,” I said. “Just being polite.”

“Oh, I am not a cordial man,” he replied. Then began a dissertation informing me of his version of Nebraska law; ‘the world according to Bushnell Carhartt.’ I listened without emotion. When he finished he nodded to my Colorado license plate and looked at me with the same, one-eyed squint. Taking half a step towards me said, “we don’t like your kind around here… you’d best just go on home.”

antique gas pumps
Antique gas pumps along the old Lincoln Highway, Pine Bluffs, Wyoming.

Now, we all have different personality traits – things that trigger different responses. Some people are affable, fun-loving, happy-go-lucky types. Others are nervous, high-strung and jittery. I’m pretty easy going and do my best to live in accordance with Biblical principles – but God’s not finished with me yet and the numbers one and two hot button issues with me are bullies and intimidation. Especially when they’re not in possession of the facts – or the truth – and are skewing events to support their mission: to bully and intimidate. I hate bullies, of any size and shape, and won’t stand for it.

Henry knew something was up and I glanced his way. The ears on his large, black head were alert and he was sitting up taller in the front seat. Carhartt’s hands were still in his pockets and I took a step forward and said, “I’m pretty sure I can do what ever I want.”

Carhartt looked up, clearly not expecting that response, and casually took half a step back. “This is a public road,” I continued, and I’m not infringing on anyone’s privacy being here. Is this  your land?” I asked, going on the offensive, nodding to the grain bin along the road.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be here and no one has given you permission to take a picture.”

“I don’t need your permission to make a photograph on public land,” I said, not backing down.

“You’re stealing,” he said, “you’re ‘taking’ something when you ‘take a picture.’ You’d better be careful,” he threatened – now beginning to walk backwards, away from me, hands till in his jacket pocket.

At this a low growl emerged from the Jeep.

The sudden emergence of unmistakable ignorance changes everything. It’s at that point you realize further discussion is pointless and – one way or another – it’s best if the conversation simply ends.

“I’m pretty sure I can do whatever I want,” I repeated, my intonation unequivocally final. By now Henry was half out the Jeep’s window as Carhartt slowly began his retreat.

“Have a wonderful day,” I said, sensing victory.

What happened next has been a source of regret since. Carhartt’s back shown to me, Henry behind me, I added, “Can I make a photograph of you?”

“No you may not,” he said without turning around. I watched him as he strolled back to the mailboxes at the foot of his driveway a few hundred yards away then disappeared towards the shed.

Antique Dealers, Bushnell, Nebraska
Having recently purchased one of the historic, decayed buildings in Bushnell, this husband and wife were beginning the process of renovation.

I was shaking and wanted nothing more than to get out of there. He’d ruined the day. Up until that exchange I’d had a wonderful time, interacting with another couple in town, even making their portrait in the Antique Shop they’d recently purchased and had begun to remodel. It was all gone now because of this guy. I walked back towards the car, replaying the encounter in my head and realized Carhartt never removed his hands from his pockets. He’d probably been holding a gun the whole time. Shaking now, I climbed back into the drivers seat and sat for a moment – but couldn’t leave. Not just yet. He’d have accomplished what he’d set out to do if I didn’t stay long enough to finish my work.

The railroad ran through town, which always makes for interesting subject matter. I spent another half-hour shooting around there, making very certain to remain on public land. When I was finished I packed up and headed out.

I’m not proud of how I responded to this encounter. The drive home offered a lot of time to rehearse more kind, patient replies – that I’ve since forgotten. Later that evening upon arriving home I told my wife and son about the day – all of it – and realized I wasn’t setting the example for my son I’d have liked. This was humbling. I thought briefly about returning the following weekend to his home, knocking on the door and apologizing. I then remembered his hands buried in his pockets and realized I’d actually have to be on his land to do so – and reconsidered.

Interstate 80, Nebraska
Last light on Interstate 80 through Nebraska.

This 111,000 square miles of “The 4042n West” is big land. If and when things go sideways you’d better have a plan. This event began the process of considering a hand gun and concealed weapons permit – only not concealing it. In the future, allowing a weapon to be visible to all who wish to approach and say hello seems a good way of attracting the right kind of folks.

I’ve always been what I’d consider a socially responsible photographer. The last thing I want to do is stick a camera in the face of the unwilling to provoke such a response as was that of Carhartt. That said, no matter how hard you try it simply isn’t possible to anticipate every unpleasant encounter. One could elect to not risk visiting other small towns, but these people don’t just live in small towns. They’re everywhere. The truth is for every unpleasant encounter there are many others of the opposite nature. Allowing one bad apple to unduly influence decisions wouldn’t be right. Images from the day were mediocre, but the lesson grand: pay attention, keep your wits about you and know the law. Having a big, black dog doesn’t hurt, either.

Post Script no.1: Early April the following year Henry went home. He can’t be replaced. But when the time comes to fall in love with a new pooch it’ll most certainly be a large, black, labrador retriever. Maybe then together we’ll revisit Bushnell, Nebraska. And try again.

Post Script no.2: This story was originally published in late 2012, not long after the events transpired, and lay dormant until December, 2014, when the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Bushnell, Nebraska stumbled across it. This individual took it upon himself to personally write to apologize for the events of the day – which, having had absolutely nothing to do with the events himself – made quite an impression. I had all but forgotten the story was even live and visible to others, and offered to remove it if he felt it painted his town in a negative light. Quite the opposite was his response, asking permission to reprint it in the town’s newsletter as a reminder to others that each individual is an ambassador to their community. What followed was an outpouring of support from many living in the surrounding area assuring me this was not indicative of their town; their people – but an anomaly, a unusual and unfortunate exception. These people confirmed the region’s good character I already believed in. I had a few people write insisting this is a fictional account; that no one – especially someone from their town – would ever treat someone like this. I assured them it was not fictional, and really did happen.  

I leave the story up with these two post scripts, and an apology to the gentleman I encountered that fateful afternoon in Bushnell. Everyone has bad days – myself included – and to have one bad day immortalized and preserved, to relive repeatedly – hardly seems fair. I’ve thought again about removing the story for that reason – but for now have elected to leave it up as a reminder: be nice to people. You never know who you’re going to run across.