Thursday, July 30, 2009

Reykjavik, Iceland

The first day of Icelandair's non-stop service from Seattle to Reykjavik featured flowers and music, champagne and fanfare. The second day was business as usual, with the full menu of petty indignities that modern air travel has on offer.

Extortionate baggage fees? Check. Ten bucks for a pastrami sandwich? Got it. Seven hours in a cramped tin can? Coming right up.

It's been exactly two weeks since I limped home from my lap around America. Two weeks of doctor's appointments and acupuncture and endless whining about my aching sciatic nerve bundle, whose very existence I was blissfully unaware until 19,000 miles of driving brought it to my attention. I spend my waking hours in a narcotic haze; a walking, talking (or limping, mumbling) advertisement for the unpleasant side-effects of animal tranquilizers.

In reality though, nobody wants to listen to you bitch about how much your ass hurts, so maybe it's just as well I can no longer string a complete sentence together.

There was, however, the matter of preparing for four weeks of arctic travel in the midst of Seattle's glorious Mediterranean summer. I dig through piles of smelly expedition weight fleece and gore-tex while the sounds of summer echo through my open windows. I somehow cram it all into my cases, carefully weighing each one on my bathroom scale and then making my way onto the plane with nerve bundles dancing with excitement.

Once on board, I pop a couple more Percocet to change the subject and hours later, somewhere over the high arctic, orange light fills the cabin as the sun skirts the horizon. I sit there half-baked in the warm midnight glow, speeding over Greenland's melting ice sheet and toward the volcanic island beyond.

I land as evidence of civil unrest is being cleared from the downtown streets. Turns out it's just the broken glass and debris from another wild Reykjavik Saturday night. The Icelandic economy might be on it's knees, the once-proud currency a cruel joke, but none of it is slowing down the hard-drinking sons and daughters of Viking blood.

The upside of all the economic turmoil is that suddenly, the whole country's on sale. The downside is that hordes of cheapskate Europeans know it, and have descended in noisy crowds to this rugged arctic wilderness. Last time I visited here, I was surprised to share the nation's waterfalls and geysers with the country's Vice President as his security entourage of one napped in the parking lot.

This I'm elbowed aside by a knot of French backpackers and trampled underfoot by busloads of ill-mannered Italians. I try to remain philosophical. The VP didn't seem all that thrilled to see me, either.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Seattle, Washington

I follow a parade of RV's wallowing up the winding highway passing Oregon and Washington's coast. From time to time I pull over and walk across the sand to the ocean's edge, and reach down to touch the cold sea.

I'm getting close.

I arrive ten minutes after the Bremerton ferry sails, so I have an hour to kill. Walking up to Starbucks, I see a big "Welcome Home" sign in the window. How thoughtful, I think, until I see it's dedicated to returning sailors aboard the USS John Stennis.

The Hyak sails away from her dock right on time, and we share Puget Sound on a summer afternoon with a bevy of powerboats and yachts under sail. A lone jet skier romps in our wake.

Mount Rainier rises above the haze, and the Seattle skyline slides into view from behind a headland. We sail closer and I can't imagine a better way to approach home than from the sea. In truth, I've spent the past week thinking about this moment, closing the circle I've made around the country.

I'm shooting and shooting, waiting for some epiphany to bring it all together for me. Just as the city fills the frame, my camera batteries fail.


Welcome home.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Coos Bay, Oregon

I breathe deep the evergreen and ocean scent of my beloved Pacific Northwest. But my reverie is broken by the whine of two-stroke engines, the smell of exhaust and the bully's spray of sand in the face.

To some I guess, nothing says appreciation for the wilderness quite like donning Mad Max body armor and helmet, hopping on an unmuffled four-wheeler and racing like a banshee across miles of coastal sand dunes.

I admit that I sometimes forget my little tribe of tree-hugging, latte-sipping NPR listeners share this little corner of paradise with other, less effete types.

And I find myself squarely in their midst here at SandFest.

Becky Selby drives log truck during the week, but for now she's leaning back on her ATV, blond hair spilling out like her rich, warm laugh. She sizes me up pretty quickly. "You're hanging out with dirty, stinky loggers now. I hope you're not traumatized."

Well, maybe just a little. But I start to wonder if we don't have time to go for a quick spin around the dunes before Prairie Home Companion comes on.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yosemite National Park, Califonia


Arriving in Yosemite Valley, I find myself asking that perennial question, "What would Ansel Adams do?"

The landscape pioneer was, at the very least, a lucky guy. To be part of the first generation of artists to discover the high Sierra and create a body of work that defines the place to this day. It feels like we all spend a lot of time looking for the old master's tripod marks.

Now, of course, everyone is a photographer, dangling iPhones and digital slr's, spouting megapixels and dragging tripods through the woods while wearing the obligatory khaki photo vest. What would Ansel make of all this? The park's change from wilderness to amusement park?

The landscape itself is unchanged, unchanging, but I wonder if the spirit isn't slowly leaching away, tiny parts of its soul stolen with each mindless snapshot.

I arrive in the valley long after dark and drive to the classic Yosemite Valley overlook. It's now a parking lot, with overflow across the busy highway. Even at 11:00pm, a half-dozen tourists cluster around digital cameras trying to capture the vista lit by a rising moon. I join the throng, watching ghostly light on El Capitan and the valley beyond. I drive the park road and hike around for hours, watching the summer stars circle overhead, the landscape gone spooky and leached of color by the full moon's glow.

By four, I'm fading and desperate for sleep. WWAAD? Maybe he'd gut it out until that magic sunrise light. But whatever he did, I'm pretty sure that he would be smart enough not to wind up sleeping curled up in the front seat his car.

And even if he did, I bet he never woke up as I did to a family taking snapshots while he drooled
in his sleeping bag.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Death Valley, California

I walk off into the desert like any good poster child. 109°. No compass. No water.

I wonder how long I can go before my tongue swells, the hallucinations start, my brain begins to shut down, the vultures circle, flare their wings and descend.

I'm guessing it will be at least a few minutes longer than it takes me to walk the 200 yards back to my air conditioned car.

Death Valley in July is hot, no denying it. But it's no worse than a Vegas parking lot, and the scenery is better.

I walk through the sand dunes here, sweat evaporating into a thin salt crust as I wonder at the sun-bleached vegetation and sand. A gaggle of German guys hike in one dune over. They strip to the waist and make one abortive attempt at creating sand angels.

From the sound of it, the noonday sand flays the skin from their bones.

I smirk and shake my head at the foolishness of youth all the way back to my car. Up to the very moment when my I sit down in shorts on the black teutonic leather seats of my sun-baked car.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Las Vegas, Nevada

I leave it to a roadside coin toss to decide. Heads it's Ely. Tails I go to Vegas.


Okay, two out of three.

I tell myself to cowboy up, but it's no use. I am just not a Vegas guy. My vices are furtive and small-bore. That is not the Vegas way.

There's a big neon sign out at the desert's edge, flashing the city motto.

"Gamblin' and Whores! Whores and Gamblin'!"

They say it's visible from outer space.

I walk from my hotel up to the Strip, and realize quickly that only losers walk in Vegas. Car exhaust combines with cigarette smoke and cheap perfume into a hot, acrid cloud. On the upside, I make faster progress than the snarled traffic.

Carrying a tripod and wearing dirty cargo shorts and a baggy shirt, I look like a cross between a Danish backpacker and a skate punk gone to seed. It is not a flattering look.

I make it as far as the Flamingo. The crowds are moving thickly between refrigerated casinos. An 80-foot portrait of Donnie and Marie Osmond stares down from the hotel billboard, distracting me from the dozens of nude call-girl trading cards littering the sidewalk.

The lights, the crowd, the noise, the frickin' Osmonds...This is not my place, and these are not my people.

I turn and walk back to my hotel, stopping just long enough to buy a six-pack. By the time I get there, I can't even be bothered to decipher the pay-per-view menu.

I stop on my way out of town just long enough to take a parting snapshot. The flipside of the famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign offers some sensible advice.

"Drive Carefully. Come back soon."

Um...I'll do what I can on the first bit. But don't hold your breath otherwise.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bryce Canyon, Utah

My guidebook says the Bryce Canyon is not the place to come looking for solitude. Spectacular landscapes to be sure, but with Vegas just over the hill, you should expect company.

But I think it all comes down to timing. Roll in sometime around midnight and you beat the crowds and can skip the park entrance fee to boot.

An added bonus is a total absence of adult supervision. The signs warn of dangerous, unstable cliffs. But you want to hop the fence? Go for it. Scramble along perilous, crumbling rock walls? ¡No problema! Fall and shatter a leg and die a slow, agonizing death on the lonely canyon floor?

Knock yourself out.

Under the light of a full moon, sandstone spires and hoodoos fill the chasm beneath me. In the ghostly half-light, they look like miles of melted stone walls, the remains of some ancient cathedral forsaken by an indifferent god.

It is starkly beautiful, and after an hour of walking around in the utter silence, spooky as hell. The only sound is the gentle rustling of the cool desert wind and my own breathing.

I walk down along steep canyon trails, surrounded by an army of stone sentries, imagining movement in the shadows. It occurs to me you're never too old to be afraid of the dark.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Monument Valley, Arizona

When movie director John Ford changed Marion Morrison into John Wayne, dressed him up in a cowboy outfit and stuck him out in this arid, forbidding corner of the Arizona desert, he created the defining image of the American West.

The first time you come into Monument Valley, you're enraptured. It's instantly recognizable; the red sands, the soaring mesas, the impossibly blue sky.

Taking pictures, you feel like a genius. Every click of the shutter is remarkable. It only slowly dawns on you that it's all been done before.

I still stare out at this landscape with a feel of awe, but I despair at the prospects of creating something truly original here.

I maneuver the VW truck down a rough track to the valley floor, passing more economical compacts as they scrape and gouge oil pans in a manner directly in contravention of their rental car contracts. The sun burns the desert hot and dry, and open wheel Navajo Jeep tours pass by encased in clouds of dust. I stare at the changing geometry of light and shadow, sand and rock.

Sunset ignites the red mesas to the color of flame, and with dusk the color leaches away like a coal growing cold. The moon rises full and fat behind the cliffs. I return to the overlook, watching the twilight fade to moonlit night.

There are no cowboys and the Indians have all gone home for the night. It's just me, standing on a cliff, staring out at the desert.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Holbrook, Arizona

Holbrook lies along old Route 66, the mother road from Chicago to the California coast and all-purpose symbol of the American love affair with the open road.

The town was once home to a bevy of motels and cafes catering to early cross-country drivers, and a dozen or more garages dedicated to nursing post-war Chevrolets across the desert wastes.

The Petrified Forest National Park lies just outside town, and the area was once home to herds of dinosaur and, rather more recently, Navavo tribes. Neither have exactly prospered.

A pile of mineralized wood, disaffected Indians and a dead highway seem slender threads to hang an economy on, but you play the cards you're dealt.

The town looks sun-bleached and dusty, like a faded snapshot of itself, circa 1958. It is kept on life support by nostalgic motorists and the meager cash they drop at the gas station, Navajo gift shops or the Wigwam Motel. I do my part at the West End Liquor Store, buying a six-pack of Corona from the owner, who sits tethered to an oxygen tank while chain-smoking Marlboros. I know there's a metaphor here somewhere, but I hope for a fire extinguisher, too.

Most of the other non-chain stores have gone to seed. Pow Wow Trading Post, Crossroads Saloon, J & J Cafe, all gone. Only the dinosaurs seem to be thriving. They're everywhere in town, outside all the gift shops opened or closed. I think they outnumber the ambulatory human population.

At the edge of town, there's an large billboard proclaiming "Land Available." It advertises a small patch of desert, and is surrounded hundreds of identical square miles of absolute wasteland.

Maybe the dinosaurs can get financing, but I sure don't see anyone else lining up.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Las Vegas, New Mexico

Vegas, baby! Vegas!

Hours of driving through a sun-baked desert, but this is my exit.

I am so money.

Hmmm. I have to say, Vegas doesn't look like I remember it. What's with all the adobe? The empty storefronts? The ample on-street parking?

Can anyone tell me where the Bellagio is?

Judging from all the turquoise and the absence of high-roller asshole types, I may have miscalculated. And I'm okay with that.

I grab lunch at a great little Mexican cafe and then walk up to the street fair filling up the central plaza. There's a small crowd dancing to a tejano band's spanglish version of Mustang Sally. There's not a slot machine or an Elvis impersonator or anybody singing "My Way" within a hundred miles.

And I'm okay with that, too.

Viva Las Vegas. At least this one.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Amarillo, Texas

There's dust blowing in off the scorching Texas panhandle, and the smell of spray paint on the wind.

Just west of Amarillo, the landscape gives up any pretense of topographical variety and adopts a Cartesian pancake aspect. And what better place to sink ten vintage Cadillacs nose down in the hardpan?

Located just off I-40, Cadillac Ranch is hard to miss, and hundreds of tourists pull in and stomp out through the dusty wheat field to reach the cars, spray paint in hand. This is public art at its interactive best.

Think of it as America's Stonehenge, with graffiti.

Pretty much everyone who makes the trek paints something; a name, their home town, their dogs' names. And ten minutes later someone paints over it with something new. I find the whole enterprise cool and fun in many different ways.

And it's not just the artistic, body-piercing set. Whole families are out there tagging. That is just so much better than any family vacation I ever took.

I drop to my knees to shoot from a low angle, my butt high in the air, which is enough of a spectacle to stop four Japanese tourists in their tracks. They take turns looking through my camera and then take snapshots with me in situ.

I'm just happy they didn't paint their names on my ass for good measure.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Chillocothe, Texas

A man walked up to me and asked what I was doing.

He said, "I was in the post office and was wondering what this idiot was doing standing in the middle of the street taking pictures."

But he was curious, not hostile or suspicious. His name was Cotton and he spent his whole life in Chillicothe, and he was eager to talk.

We look up and down the barren main street and he says, "These towns are all dryin' up. The kids get out of school and they're gone. To Dallas, Lubbock, Amarillo. There's just no work here, no jobs."

"We're hanging on, but it's gettin' pretty thin."

We're soon joined by April, an older woman who's finishing up at the post office, and as soon as she sees my cameras offers to show me the old Methodist Church. I accept out of politeness, but the church is beautiful and sad all at once.

Built more than a century ago, the pulpit stands in one corner, dark wood pews arranged in concentric arcs. Fine old German stained glass glows in the windows. It speaks of generations of pride and hard work and reverent faith.

April tells me, "On a good Sunday, we're lucky to get 35 people. The say that pipe organ is worth $165,000. We don't even have anyone to play it any more. Our organ player moved away."

She and Cotton chat for a while before he finally lets it slip that he's putting his place up for sale and moving down the road to Electra.

April looks up, surprised and stricken. "You're moving? Really...?"

"I finally give up."

She sighs, "Chillicothe's gonna' be smaller."

Friday, July 3, 2009

Fort Worth, Texas

Welcome to the shortest cattle drive in Texas.

In spite of its status as the (almost) biggest state in the union and home to more self-applied superlatives and boundless boosterism, twice a day a small group of cowpokes move 17 Texas Longhorns past the Hyatt and through a tourist gauntlet for two whole blocks in the old stockyards of Fort Worth.

Let's just say that it is, on the whole, rather less daunting than the Chisolm Trail.

The stockyards themselves have seen more robust days. Once renowned as Hell's Half Acre, the whorehouses and acres of cow shit are long gone, though there is still a fair bit of bull. Wooden cactus sprout from flower pots, and you can pay 50 cents for a pony ride or a couple bucks to either straddle a bored longhorn or get tossed around by a mechanical bull. There's a number of perfectly reputable museums, an indoor rodeo and Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show and and an admirable number of watering holes and BBQ joints.

But I came for the cattle drive, so I lined up with the sugar-hyped kids and sweating parents and watched the show. Traffic was blocked, cowboys who wouldn't look out of place at a pride parade rode out into the broiling sun and escorted their bovine charges down the cobblestones. Kids darted about but I was disappointed that no stampede ensued. In eight minutes the cattle were on their way back to the feedlot, and the cowboys rested in the shade.

I chatted with one of the cowboys after the show. He has traded the cowboy life for a rather more refined career as city employee. "I used to work up at a stockyard running 8000 cattle a day. That was work. I took this job 'cause I loved the horses. The gets too much and I can say my horse needs waterin' and ride off."

We chatted for a bit longer, then he mumbled something his horse seemin' a tad thirsty, and off he rode into the noonday sun.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

New Orleans, Louisiana

The afternoon sky goes dark and ominous. Lightning hits somewhere close and I start to count. One one thousand, Two...and the thunder explodes. I can see the rain coming, a gray wall approaching fast; dust and street trash blowing out in front of it.

In a moment, the storm swallows everything, and it feels like Judgment Day itself.

I try to imagine four summers back, when the world came to an untidy end here. The raw fear to watch the monster coming and be swept up in its furious power. Katrina lumbered in off the gulf and drowned this graceful old city.

Many words have been spilled about what followed, and I'm in no place to add to the tally. Driving in, though, the scars are everywhere to see. Boarded up shopping malls, stripped and gutted houses, an emptiness still hangs in the air. But life goes on, if only for lack of any options.

I drive out along the levees as the storm ebbs and find myself out among the refineries. I spot a cemetery crucifix in the cracking towers' shadow. They call this Cancer Alley. A dull roar fills the air, as steam and gas flares rise from the stacks. A cracked marble Christ hangs from the cross, head bowed. It's a easy metaphor, and I'm not the first to find it. Life is hard out on the delta.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Slidell, Louisiana

"I am 100% Cajun, coon ass, swamp rat, red neck and I will be your captain today," announced Cap'n Jack by way of introduction.

It was 8:37 in the morning and both temperature and humidity were bounding past 90. I hadn't even made it to the boat and I was soaked through.

The guidebooks all said that if you wanted to see the bayou, visit the folks at Honey Island Swamp Tours. Normally, I'm not a big fan of group activities, but the idea of walking around some half-collapsed dock in the delta, draped in cameras and proffering cash to wary locals seemed like more drama than I could face without a drink in my hand. So for $23 I signed on for two hours in a shallow draft mud boat hurled downriver by a 200 horsepower Honda.

As a long-time Seattle resident, I've muffled most of my once over-abundant personality in a heavy blanket of emotionally-repressed Lutheran civility. I now shake hands with small babies and last raised my voice in anger sometime in 1998.

Jack doesn't have that problem. He hollers a welcome to all his passengers. He yells into his cellphone about a busted air conditioner. He bellows apologies for the delay and roars full throttle out into the bayou.

Jack spends a lot of time on 11.

But the man could work some magic with the alligators. "You want to get their attention? Throw 'em some marshmallows. Then poke some hot dog on a stick. Gators love them wienies."

I had no idea that alligators had the same eating habits as my cousins. It's not exactly textbook wildlife ethics, but it works wonders. An eight-foot alligator swims out, snarfs down the campfire fare and swims closer.

Jack raises an eye as I hold my camera down to the water's edge. "She gets ahold of your hand, it'll be somethin' gettin' it back."

I imagine the tug of war between me, Jack and the 'gator and edge a wee bit closer to the boat.