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.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Bighorn Basin Photographs

A farm building in the southern Bighorn Basin, Wyoming.
(click images to view larger)

I started this post a little over three years ago and never finished it after getting wrapped up with new (then) work responsibilities. Now retired, I'm cleaning up old blog drafts, and I enjoy these images enough to publish this without much text. For those who aren't familiar with the geography, the Bighorn Basin occupies a large area in north-central Wyoming between the Bighorn Mountains to its east and the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains and Yellowstone National Park to its west. The Owl Creek and Bridger Mountains wrap around the southern edge of the basin and the Pryor Mountains rise just over the Montana border to the north. The basin is sparsely populated and agricultural where there is water to irrigate and very dry elsewhere, occupied by sparse shrublands and a lot of saltbush. It's a beautiful place to explore. has an excellent overview of the basin and its history that I won't paraphrase here. The photos in this post were collected during several excursions.

Grain elevator, Greybull.

Trees, Northern Bighorn Basin.

Gate. Greybull Livestock Auction.

Trailer with statues. Greybull.

Boulder, Red Gulch. Eastern Bighorn Basin.

Stop and Proceed.

Rags. Industrial area, Greybull.

Greybull Livestock Auction.

Chairs. Greybull Livestock Auction.

160-180 million year old dinosaur track, Red Gulch. Species unknown (Therapod?)

Chute, Greybull Livestock Auction

Chute, Greybull Livestock Auction

Greybull Livestock Auction.

Trees and wind leave their mark, Greybull Livestock Auction.

Badlands, Eastern Bighorn Basin.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Ancestral Puebloans and Climate Migration


The Dollhouse Ruin in the Bear's Ears region.
(Click on images to view larger)

The U.S. desert southwest is remarkable in its concentration of archaeological sites, relics of the Ancestral Puebloans who occupied the Four Corners region until about 1300 AD when, somewhat mysteriously, they left. Anthropologists have pondered the abandonment of places like Cedar Mesa, Chaco Canyon, and Mesa Verde for over a century, and many theories have emerged to explain why these people abandoned elaborate structures and a well-developed civilization. The simplest explanation is that a “megadrought” in the late 1200s drove them out, but hypotheses are more nuanced, invoking resource depletion, violence from both within and outside, the breakdown of complex religious hierarchies, and increased vulnerability to environmental change caused by reliance on agriculture, to name a few. 


Reliance on corn may have been a mixed blessing for Ancestral Puebloans because of increased vulnerability to changes in climate. (Comb Ridge, October 2021).

A granary on Cedar Mesa used for storing corn. (October 2021)

There is general agreement that by 1300, most of the sites across the Four Corners were abandoned. Evidence suggests that the Ancestral Puebloans migrated south and integrated with Hopi and Zuni peoples and other groups in the Rio Grande drainages, though it is still unclear why they moved from one dry place to another. What is clear is that environmental pressure led to a breakdown in society that culminated in abandonment and migration.

Masterfully constructed structures at Hovenweep National Monument, Utah. Why were these built on boulders? (October 2021)

A ruin at Hovenweep as a storm builds in the distance. (October 2021)

While I was in the Southwest this fall, I read Douglas Preston’s book, Talking to the Ground, about a 400-mile horseback trip he and his family took in 1992 across the Navajo Reservation, tracing creation stories and talking with Navajo people along the way. In his 2019 epilogue, Preston espouses the idea that Chacoan power hierarchy depended on the belief that religious leaders controlled the rain, a strategy that worked well for them in wet years but not so well when multi-year drought inevitably arrived. This led to violence and the breaking of bonds holding geographically disparate groups together. Though theories continue to evolve, the gist remains the same—drought-caused stress catalyzed changes leading to abandonment of vast areas and dissolution of a well-developed civilization. Preston writes: 

“What we know is this: one thousand years ago, the Anasazi embarked on a great religious experiment at Chaco Canyon, an experiment based on the (illusory) control of nature. It was an experiment whose ultimate consequences the Anasazi did not foresee. And it failed.” (Preston pg. 261) 


Ruins at Chaco Canyon (June 2018).

The well-known Citadel ruin on Cedar Mesa. Did ruins become more defensive as resources became scarce? (March 2016)

2008 New York Times article by George Johnson acknowledges this idea but suggests that abandonment may have been less sudden, though still ultimately driven by changing environmental conditions. The article concludes:


“Amid the swirl of competing explanations, one thing is clear: The pueblo people didn’t just dry up and blow away like so much parched corn. They restructured their societies, tried to adapt and when all else failed they moved on.”


We still have marks on door trim in our house showing our daughter's height as she grew up. Maybe the handprints above this dwelling were the same. We think of ancient migrations in the abstract, but these were people like us whose lives were uprooted. (Cedar Mesa, March 2017)

Migrations in response to changing climate were not new, even in 1300. The populating of the Americas was mediated by the last ice age as people crossed the land bridge from Asia and walked southward. Further back, there is evidence that waves of migration of Homo sapiens from Africa into southern Europe beginning almost 100,000 years ago may have been driven by periodic climate changes that opened green corridors between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Humans have always moved to more favorable environments when they could.

In September (2021) on our way to SE Utah to camp, hike, and visit ruins, we drove along I-70 in Colorado through the heavy smoke of the 2021 fire season, entering Glenwood Canyon where an extensive wildfire the previous year had denuded the canyon walls of vegetation. Earlier in the summer, unusually heavy monsoon rains generated enormous landslides, trapping people in their cars, briefly damming the Colorado River, and decimating parts of the highway, which was still being repaired months later. We arrived in Utah during an unseasonable heat wave and sweltered for several weeks before it finally cooled down. These extremes—wildfires, torrential rain, landslides, heat—are signs of a changing climate, but unlike the changes in the 1200s, modern climate change is global, not regional. 

Even in 1995, Douglas Preston and the Navajo people he visited were aware of modern parallels to the Chacoans:


“As the twentieth century draws to a close, we find ourselves in a similar effort to control nature, only this time on a much larger scale. Our experiment is not based on ritual but on technology. We believe, as the Chacoans did before us, that we have gained a certain mastery over nature. Our God gave us dominion.


The question is: have we really achieved it? Could our mastery of nature be as much an illusion as the rain ceremonies of the Chacoans? Are we, like the Anasazi, headed for an environmental or technological disaster?” (Preston pgs. 261-262 of )


Today, Preston’s last question seems quaint. The answer is clear, but still we struggle to respond in a meaningful way to the increasing concentration of greenhouse gasses we spew into the thin film of atmosphere clinging to the earth.

Wildfire smoke during the Mullen Fire west of Laramie, Wyoming. Smoky summers are part of our lives now. Ten years ago they were the exception. (September 2020)

During his journey, Preston speaks with a Navajo man named Edsel Brown. The Navajo, who themselves once migrated from the northwestern North America to the desert, believe that the earth is a living relation rather than a “resource.” Edsel Brown tells Preston (emphasis at the end is mine):

“This cycle goes back to a long time ago. It goes back to the first invention that was created. It goes back to when the Bilagaana [white man] realized that they had the power to make things. They had the power to create things. And they started to look on the land as a resource. They didn’t look at the land as relatives, as living beings, which it is. And they made these inventions, electricity, dams, cars, bombs, pesticides, everything. They kept thinking that all these inventions would help them. And yet, they’re still not helping them. And now, today, things are starting not to work for them, and they have no place to go, and they have a hard time realizing what is happening.” (Quote from a Navajo man, Edsel Brown in Preston, pgs. 263-264)

It’s hard for us to see changes that happen over decades or centuries, but the effects of climate change are increasingly obvious. Are we creating our own ruins? Who will visit them?

Ruins and graffiti at an abandoned industrial site in Laramie (2011). Where will we migrate?