Friday, September 2, 2022

Hollowed Out

Empty marquis. Granville, IL.

I drove twice this summer (2022) from Laramie to Tidewater Virginia where my parents retired over twenty years ago. My father died in 2019, but my mother clung to their home on the Chesapeake Bay as long as she could before reluctantly moving to Austin, Texas in July, closer to family but far from her Gloucester friends. 

I grew up in Northern Virginia, but after my first glimpses of the West, I was eager to leave. A family road trip in the mid-1970s took us through Wyoming, sealing my fate, and I moved to the Tetons soon after college. My father's parents loved the Tetons, visiting in the 1940s and spending time on Jenny Lake. Eisenhower's interstate highway project didn't begin until the 1950s, and for Easterners, trips "out West" were slower; small towns with their "classic" diners and gas stations interrupted two-lane highways devoid of fast food. 

After World War II, the Midwest thrived for a time (see Flora and Flora 2014) even as the seeds of its decline took root. Towns bypassed by the new interstate highways eventually faltered, corporate agriculture subsumed family farms, and opportunity lured young people to cities. 

I deliberately stayed off the interstates on my first drive east this summer, hoping to photograph small towns along the way ala Stephen Shore, but I was plagued from Colorado to Virginia by relentless rain. St. Louis was inundated soon after I passed through, and later in the summer thousand-year floods devastated Eastern Kentucky. I stopped to photograph when the rain slowed, but the trip left me wishing I had more time and better weather. 

I've heard the rural Midwest described as "hollowed out" but despite boarded-up storefronts and empty streets, stone and brick architecture transcends the crass and impermanent suburbs and strip malls that have replaced them. The country is divided and much grievance festers in this "flyover country," festooned with Trump banners and American flags, maybe because people struggle to find someone or something to blame for so much loss. 

Abandoned house. County Road 119, Colorado.

Abandoned building, highway 14, New Raymer, CO.

Window displays, New Raymer, CO.

John Deere and grain elevators, New Raymer, CO.

Interior, northwest Kansas.

Interior, northwest Kansas.

Easy chair, northwest Kansas.

Broom, northwest Kansas.

Kansas plains.

MacDonald, Kansas.

"God's Promise for the Future" (mural), Bradshaw, Nebraska.

Tilted building, Norcator, Kansas.

Abandoned farmhouse, Rt. 24 west of Clay Center, Kansas.

Troughs west of Clay Center, Kansas.

Farm interior west of Clay Center, Kansas.

Drilling equipment, Carmi, Illinois.

Empty church, Hwy. 168, Indiana.

Church interior, Hwy. 168, Indiana.

Fire hydrant, Hwy. 168, Indiana.

Cook's Marine, Georgetown, Indiana.

Dehart's Bible and Tire. Morehead, Kentucky.

Hinton Hardwoods, Hinton West Virginia.

Hinton, West Virginia.

Manequins, Rts. 3 and 12, West Virginia.

Vegetation, Blue Ridge Mountains.

Forks of Buffalo, Virginia.


Friday, February 4, 2022

Photographing the Nebraska Panhandle in Black and White


Grain storage in Crawford, Nebraska.
(Click on images to view larger)

In his book, Dirt Meridian, photographer Andrew Moore published a series of color photographs of the western Great Plains, many taken from a small plane flown low over the Nebraska Panhandle. His images capture stark landscapes, abandoned farms, and people who live and work there. 


I love this genre: documentary images of hardscrabble scenes. Moore’s website suggests that his projects “record the effect of time on the natural and built landscape,” but they transcend a mere record, blending documentation with a keen aesthetic eye


Color photography has always felt the most natural to me, but I also admire the black and white masters whose craft requires a less intuitive way of seeing, translating color to tone and managing complex tonal relationships. Recently, Gregg Waterman, himself a talented photographer, pointed me to the work of David Plowden, who spent over 50 years photographing landscapes like those featured in Dirt Meridian, but in B/W and from the ground rather than the air. His work documents the natural beauty of the Great Plains and Midwest but also the remains of farms and ranches abandoned in the American migration to cities. Plowden recognizes this change in a quote on his website:


I have been beset, with a sense of urgency, to record those parts of our heritage which seem to be receding as quickly as the view from the rear of a speeding train. I fear that we are eradicating the evidence of our past accomplishments so quickly that in time we may well lose the sense of who we are.” (Source)


Plowden studied under Minor White, a pioneer of meticulous B/W photography of subjects ranging from rural America to the male figure, and he rubbed elbows with Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Weston. White’s influence is evident in his work, but Plowden’s photographic voice is his own. 


Inspired by Plowden’s photographs, I drove east from Laramie to the Nebraska Panhandle on a warmish late-January day, first to Sidney and then north to Chadron, stopping to explore along the way before turning towards home. It was fun but a little sad to be out photographing small towns and old farms. Many buildings were boarded up and downtowns mostly abandoned despite the nice weather. I enjoyed not-too-bad onion rings from a tiny store and basked in the warm sun, welcome after months of Wyoming wind and cold.


These photographs are my favorites from the trip, clumsily processed. B/W requires different skills than color photography, and I’ve always enjoyed the photographing more than the processing, but these scenes, especially in winter, lend themselves to monochrome. 

Jackson's Garage, Bridgeport, Nebraska.

Jackson's Garage detail.

Abandoned farm, Rt. 20 west of Crawford, Nebraska.

Jars and workbench, abandoned farm west of Crawford, Nebraska.

Ranch signs south of Dalton, Nebraska.

Trees and fields, Route 20 near Nebraska-Wyoming border.

Grain elevator near Bushnell, Nebraska.

Insulators east of Dix, Nebraska.

Building, Bridgeport, Nebraska.

Downtown Crawford, Nebraska.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Backpacking in Grand Gulch: Collins Spring to Kane Gulch


Scott Lehman at one of my favorite petroglyph panels.
(Click on images to view larger)

When I first visited Cedar Mesa in the 1980s, Grand Gulch was obscure, with word-of-mouth descriptions of arduous bushwacking and secret ruins. Since then, guidebooks have been published, books written, and the Bears Ears National Monument created, diminished, and finally restored, hopefully forever. A growing number of people hike regularly in the Gulch and its tributaries, and it seems that everyone has a secret undisclosed discovery, enticing the rest of us to keep looking. Despite growing popularity, it remains one of my favorite places; no one will ever peer into every hidden alcove or look behind every exfoliated boulder to find the last undiscovered treasure, and even without its cultural heritage, Grand Gulch is stunning. 


In March of 2021, I spent a week with Ellen and our friends, Scott and Bay, hiking from Collins Spring to Kane Gulch, about 38 miles. We’d all walked much of this section and many of its side canyons before but in pieces on many trips over many years, so it was fun to traverse it in one hike. 


While the walking was easy (we planned short days to leave time for ruins and rock art), the drought presented challenges. Water in much of the canyon had disappeared, and hikers, us included, planned our days and camps around what little water could be found, some barely drinkable even with filtering. I recently wrote about climate migrations in the Southwest, partly stimulated by this experience of traversing the canyon in a dry year. Until about 700 years ago, it supported a thriving Ancestral Puebloan community. The gist of that post was that drought destabilized their society, leading to abandonment. 


While on this hike, I realized that drought need not be long-term to drive people out. After a few years without good monsoon rains or winter snow, most of the water was gone. How long could permanent residents of Cedar Mesa live and farm without regular rain? A few years? A decade? How much water could they store from ephemeral summer showers or winter snow? Are there enough obscure springs to sustain a substantial population through several dry years? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but when we were in the canyon in March, there was barely water to support a few dozen backpackers on their vacations, passing through the canyon for only a few days. 

These are a few pictures from our trip. Except for some of the well-known sites, I don't specify locations.

Ellen and Bay (not Bei, our daughter!) enjoying pictographs in a Rincon north of the junction of Grand Gulch and Collins Spring.

The Bannister Ruin. We camped near here on the first night. Bannister spring was dry (we carried water from the trailhead) but I scrambled to a pothole above the canyon floor that was filled with good water.

An arrowhead found in the wash and returned to it after being admired. I recommend Craig Child's book, "Finders, Keepers" for those of you interested in respecting archeological finds.


Routefinding is not too tough when you are following a major canyon, but keeping track of side canyons requires some attention.

A small man (me), and woman (Ellen) sit below the Big Man Panel north of Polly's Canyon. 

More handprints. Bay recreates the moment.

An intact granary tucked beneath a reticulated roof.

The bird panel. I carried my lightweight backpacking camera without a very long lens, and these were high above the canyon floor, but you can zoom in to see better. The pictographs are exquisitely detailed. 

Ellen and Bay scrambling to see a ruin and rock art in a side canyon.

Bay (left) and Ellen enjoying rock art.

The breech birth panel. 

Our camp on a ledge above Coyote Canyon. The spring in the canyon bottom produced good water.

A potsherd inside a ruin.

A wall tucked behind a fallen boulder, with pictographs lined up under the arch behind it.

Bay admiring a petroglyph panel at the mouth of Todie Canyon.

After the hike. Left to right: Bay Roberts, Scott Lehman, Ellen Axtmann, and me.

Water info: Grand Gulch was very dry after a multi-year drought and the failure of the monsoon the previous summer. We found water in a pothole (ephemeral) at our first camp near the Banister ruin on a slickrock shelf that required scrambling to access. There was water in lower Collins Canyon and for short way up Grand Gulch from the confluence, and again in pools in the main Gulch just downcanyon from Polly's. Water was available a short way up Green Canyon and farther along in Green Mask Canyon below the well-known rock art site. The Coyote Canyon spring was running. Farther up, we filtered nasty water from a pool under a pouroff down canyon from the mouth of Todie Canyon. We were told that there was water up Todie in the North Fork, but we used our filtered water instead. From there, we walked out to Kane Gulch. 

Don't rely on the BLM office in Monticello, though they may have some information. If the Kane Gulch Ranger Station is open, it’s a more reliable source of information. Of course, there can be much more or much less (!) water depending on the year. 

Another much more detailed blog post on this hike going in the other direction is at this link and there are many other detailed accounts online if you search for them.