Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: October 2012

It’s only mid-October…

Snow and Tracks, Fairbanks, October 19, 2012

In all probability, this snow will be here till Easter…  Which happens to be a LONG time away…

Fairbanks, October 19, 2012

I’m back in Fairbanks for a few weeks, packing up my books and my prints, making the move.  I’d been hoping that this would be one of those years when the snow came late (occasionally there is no snow on the ground until Thanksgiving), but this year the snow is here right on schedule, in mid-October.  It’s still relatively warm–low at night about 10, high in the 2os–warm enough for the snow to stay squishy, to melt a bit during the bright afternoons–precisely the miserable snow I remember from my childhood in Pennsylvania.

In 1985, I attempted to ride my bicycle across the US, beginning in Astoria, Oregon—the end of Lewis and Clark’s journey—and the site of the last images from Robert Adams’ From the Missouri West—a journey attempted on a budget of $600—I had to make it home before the money ran out.  The trip failed on several levels—I abandoned the trip, exhausted, in central Illinois—the post office lost a package containing a dozen rolls of film from Oregon—and I have been struggling ever since the trip to try to convert the pictures and stories I collected into a coherent book—about once a decade I waste a year on the effort—and I still can’t make sense of it.

Canyon and Truck, Central Oregon, August 1985

It was my first time west of the Rockies—and the landscape of the deserts of Oregon and Idaho were my first experience of a place shaped by volcanic forces—the basalt flows in layers exposed by rivers—the color and texture of the rocks—and the way rivers cut huge gashes through the land.   Because I had so little time, and I was traveling by bicycle, I had to pick a line through the landscape that was both direct and at least somewhat occupied (I needed water)—which meant that I had to pass by many places and features that looked fascinating to me.   One of them was the Hell’s Canyon area of the Snake River—on my map, it looked vast and wild—and anything with a name like that was sure to be good—but the line I chose to ride took me about 100 miles south of the area.  I followed the Snake the whole way across Idaho, and then into Wyoming, to the Tetons, where the river begins.

Snake River, Idaho, August 1985

Spokane is only about 100 miles north of the Snake—an easy day’s drive (especially after the distances I’ve become accustomed to in Alaska), and I had a free day yesterday, so I decided to make an excursion towards the Snake, towards Hell’s Canyon.  The drive crosses the wheat country, the Palouse, a huge landscape of rolling hills covered with beautiful fields—industrial farming on a vast scale—and I found myself wondering what this landscape looked like before the big tractors.   But that wasn’t my destination—it was the Snake River, and so I pushed through to Lewiston and Clarkston, where the Clearwater River enters the Snake River, just north of Hell’s Canyon.

Truck and Canyon, Snake River, October 2012

There is a road along the river for perhaps 25 miles before the canyon becomes too steep, and heads away from the river.   Along the river, there were the mansions and horse paddocks of the one percenters, mixed with old house trailers and abandoned farmhouses of those who had once tried to make a living off this hard land.   My Rand McNally atlas showed a gravel road that crossed into Oregon, and entering the Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area, but I never made it that far—the “road” became narrower and narrower until it was a single lane, and full of 10 inch rocks.  Progress was slow—and I realized that I didn’t have the time or the mind frame to push on—I had neglected to fill the tank back in town, no one knew I intended to drive the road, and I wasn’t sure my spare tire was in good condition—so I turned back, taking time for pictures on the return trip.

Sun and Shadow, Snake River, October 2012

Sun and Shadow, Snake River, October 2012

I love the light in the canyons, especially the afternoon light that O’Sullivan captured so well in his photographs.  This landscape is not pretty, but it is beautiful almost beyond words.  Much has been written about the catastrophe theory of Clarence King, who O’Sullivan worked for—how he believed that the landscape was formed from a series of cataclysmic events—and these canyons, cut through layers of lava seem to verify that view of the world.  In the late afternoon light, the canyons become deep shadows and blown out sunlight, a harsh land of extremes.  O’Sullivan came to this land not that long after photographing the dead from the civil war—the cataclysm caused by a failure of political leaders to resolve the polarizing issue of slavery—and he pointed his lens boldly at rivers and rocks, making pictures from the abyss.