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Adak, September 2016

As a landscape photographer, I don’t know how to make a picture of COVID 19. So, a metaphor…

 

Adak, September 2016

 

Adak, September 2016

 

Adak, September 2016

Adak, September 2016

 

 

Fonk’s cafe, Colfax, Washington, August 16, 2019

 

Fonk’s Cafe, Colfax, Washington, March 19, 2020

 

Enough said.

Wallingford, February 28, 2020

 

The dog kept stopping to sniff the ground. I don’t know what he smelled. I’m sure he didn’t know why I stopped to look. But I waited for him, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, the same as he waited for me.

 

Wallingford, February 28, 2020

 

Wallingford, February 28, 2020

 

Wallingford, February 28, 2020

 

Wallingford, February 28, 2020

 

Wallingford, February 28, 2020

 

Wallingford, February 28, 2020

When I rode bike across the country in the first half of the 1980s, I would often stop at gas stations, to fill my water bottles, and to buy a can of cold soda from the vending machines that were almost always out front by the gas pumps.

 

Gas Station, North Carolina, 1983

 

At that time, a gas station had two or three gas pumps, (one for each grade of gasoline), a coke machine, maybe a vending machine with few candy bars, and an owner/mechanic who could fix a tire or replace a fan belt.   As a child, I remember when a service station attendant would come out of the gas station to pump the gas—most stations had a rubber hose across the front that would ring a bell to let the attendant know that there was a customer out front.  My dad usually paid cash for the gas, handing the attendant a few bills, getting change back, often from a metal coin holder on the attendant’s belt.  I don’t think my dad had a credit card then, but when credit cards did come along, the transaction required a paper form that would take an imprint of the card, and required a signature on paper.   Sometimes the attendant would offer to check the oil, or clean the windshield.   Mostly the gas station attendants were high school kids—the mechanic was often busy working on cars inside the garage.

 

Richmond, Indiana, 1981

 

I can’t remember when gas stations became mostly self service—I think it was about when I began to drive—and a big part of the reason we didn’t need attendants anymore was the advent of the auto shut-off valve that cut the gas flow when the tank was full.  The self service station meant that a single attendant could manage more gas pumps while sitting next to a cash register.  At the beginning of the self service age, you had to pre-pay for the gas—the pump would shut down when you hit your limit—or leave your credit card with the attendant.

 

Eastern Oregon, 1985

I recall the evolution of the convenience stores back in Pennsylvania—Turkey Hill started small stores to directly market milk and ice cream to customers—over time they added junk food and packaged sandwiches.  I recall when they first added gas pumps to their new stores—they needed a larger lot to handle the extra cars.  In the beginning, you needed to go to the clerk to pay for the gas at the pump, which often meant standing in line behind people buying cigarettes and lotto tickets.  The advent of the credit card pump meant that you didn’t even have to enter the store to get your gas.

 

Florida Panhandle, January 2020

Florida Panhandle, January 2020

 

On the trip my wife and I took in December and January, we bought gas at convenience stores almost exclusively.  In the mornings, we bought coffee on the same stop.  In most of these places, the coffee stand is huge—lots of choices of fresh coffee, plenty of cream to add.  Sometimes we bought a breakfast sandwich from the hot deli.  In the Midwest, the chain we used was Casey’s, in the south it is Circle K.  The Circle K stores have coffee machines with computer interfaces that grind beans and brew the coffee fresh into the cup, a far superior product compared to the aged and burned coffee from the glass pots of years ago.

 

Gatesville, Texas, January 2020

 

Illinois, December 2019

 

In the smallest towns there are now unattended gas stations (locally known as “kiosks”)—gas stations that require a credit card, and have no attendants.  These gas stations sell only fuel—no oil, no coffee, no candy bars.

 

Mississippi, January 2020

 

Occasionally, there are problems at a gas station—like when the credit card reader doesn’t work.  My response is usually to drive off—why reward a station with business when they can’t keep their pumps running.  And on this last trip, I had a gas pump where the auto shut-off failed to work—I was adding oil to the engine—and several gallons of gas spilled on the ground.  When I told the attendant about the spill he brought out three absorbent pads—not nearly enough to absorb the spill—I left as quickly as possible—wanted to get away before a fire started.

 

Texas, January 2020

 

Driving across the landscape, it’s apparent that in most places, the small independent gas station is gone as a functioning businesses.  The ruins of old gas stations dot the landscape.  Some have been converted into other businesses—coffee shops or antique stores—and a few have become tire shops—but the mechanic running a gas station is mostly gone.   One reason why the old gas stations have disappeared is the problem of leaking underground gas tanks from these small gas stations.  Typically, a steel tank will rust out after a few decades, releasing gasoline into the local water table—not a good idea—so the EPA began requiring double walled tanks for underground storage.  However, the investment required to dig up the old tanks and replace them with the new ones is significant—which provided the opportunity for consolidation of the market.

 

Abandoned Gas Station, somewhere in America, 2019

 

 

 

For years I’ve been flying over the continental US, looking down on crop circles and major rivers from 30,000 feet, wondering what was going on down there.   A few times I drove across the country by car, moving, but always on interstates, always in a hurry.

Apalachicola, Florida    January 15, 2020

When my wife and I decided to take our beater van east for Christmas, we agreed that we wanted to travel slower, using smaller highways, and to travel only in daylight, (a real constraint on travel time in December).  We were aided by our cell phone navigators, set to “avoid highways”, which often put us on the old highways and back roads not much traveled these days.  In the end, we managed to cover 8200 miles, crossing parts of 25 states in a total of 29 days on the road.

 

Iowa, December 14, 2019

Fort Madison, Iowa December 14, 2019

My plan had been to write a blog post every few days while on the road—a plan that worked fairly well during the trip east, when we were twice stopped by snow and had a few extra hours off the road to rest.  I used the time to download picture from the camera chips, and gather my thoughts enough to write a brief blog post.  But the trip south and west did not involve any snow days—we did stop in to see a few family and friends along the way—but not enough time to gather my thoughts.

 

Nebraska, December 12, 2019

 

We’ve been home for about 5 days now, and I’ve just managed to go through the 27,000 photos I took—about 21,275 of them through the windows of the van.  I exported them to a chip, and am watching them in random order on a small digital picture frame.

Of course, life does not occur in random order, and looking at 21,375 photographs twenty years ago would have required a mountain of paper.  But photographs have always been about seizing moments out of the stream of time, then viewing them later in a different context.

 

Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, December 18, 2019

 

Of course, I could have set up a dashboard camera to record every foot of highway we traveled down—as at least some people are doing, to provide evidence in case of accidents.  But using a hand held still camera allows some choice of viewing angle (straight ahead through the windshield vs looking out a side window, plus the ability to aim to the side of the road) and the selection of the instant of exposure.

 

Maryland, January 9, 2020

Of course, there is the issue of safety.  Shooting pictures through the windshield from the passenger seat is not a problem, but since my wife and I split the driving evenly, and I was not willing to forgo photographs of half the trip, I needed to devise a way to make photographs that didn’t interfere with my ability to keep the van on the road.  My method was to keep the camera on my knee, and to raise and trip the shutter with the camera off to the side, without attempting to view the image in the camera.  Needless to say, the camera frequently was not level, but it was usually close enough.  I have auto focus lenses, but these frequently spend time “hunting” for the focus point, and often settle on the dirt on the windshield, not on the more distant subject I want to focus on—so I used an old manual lens.  The problem there was that on the repeated trips to and from my lap, I would sometimes inadvertently move the focus on the lens—a problem solved with duct tape.  And I discovered that of the two camera bodies I carried on the trip, one could adjust the exposure much more quickly than the other—so that became my default camera.  And I put the camera down during times that driving required my full focus—in snowstorms and heavy traffic.  In addition, my wife was very adept at alerting me to hazards she thought I wasn’t reacting to fast enough—a service I sometimes return.  But I do think about the worst vehicle accident I was ever involved in—incited by a temperamental tape deck that diverted the attention of the driver (not me) who allowed his front wheel to fall off the edge of the road, followed by rolling the car down an embankment…

I did do some writing on the road, and will share some of those thoughts in the near future.

I grew up on a small farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Some of my earliest memories are of time in the barn.  My dad had a very small dairy herd, 14 cows.  In winter, the body heat from the cows would keep the barn warm and moist, and I remember the smells—the breath of the cows, wet and sweet, the smell of the molasses in the ground feed, the dust from hay and straw, the acrid smell of silage, and the smell of fresh cow manure.  Above the cows was the hay mow—one of my jobs was to pull the bales out of the stacks and drop them through a hole in the floor so they could be fed to the cows.  In summer, I helped my day bring the hay in from the fields, always on the hottest day of the summer, or at least it seemed—we didn’t have an elevator, so the hay had to be heaved up into the mow, and stacked.  In addition to the big barn, the farm also had a pig house and two small chicken houses.

 

Iowa, December 2019

 

My dad sold his cows when I was 11, and the barn was never quite the same after that.  He raised steers for a few years, but there was no twice daily milking to be done—only feeding once a day.  He tore down the pig house and the chicken houses.   After a few years, he stopped raising steers, and the barn had no animals.   The barn had a cistern to capture rain water for the cows, but it developed cracks, and the water seeped into the back stable.  Eventually the water rotted the bottom of one of the tree sized girders that held up the barn, and the whole barn began to sag.  Plus the wood shingles on the roof rotted and the roof began to leak.  By the time I left the farm for graduate school, the barn was mostly empty, though for a few years he continued to make hay and sell it to some local neighbors who fed it to horses.   After he stopped making hay, he filled the barn with discarded furniture he brought home from the local college where he worked as a janitor.  However, there were still pigeons living in the barn, and everything got covered with layers of poop.

 

Illinois, December 2019

 

For years, I was embarrassed at how the barn had fallen into disrepair under our watch.  But it wasn’t just our barn that was in trouble—many other barns on surrounding farms were also failing.   I recall talking to an Iowa farmer, who noted that the increased mechanization had reduced the physical work required for haymaking, which had previously limited the size of his dairy herd.  In response he had added more milking cows, hoping to increase his income, but found that other farmers had done the same, resulting in a glut of milk and falling prices.

The increased mechanization of hay making—making large round bales weighing half a ton—or automated gathering and stacking systems for smaller bales—made the old style hay loft and hand stacking obsolete—it was too slow, required too much labor.  Which, in turn, meant that the old barns were outdated.  Newer barns were built to house lager groups of animals and facilitate mechanized feeding and manure removal.

 

The modern barn, Lancaster County, December 2019

 

Driving across the country in December through farm country, I paid attention to barns, photographing them through the windshield.  Almost everywhere, the old barns have fallen into disuse.  Many are unpainted, falling down, or have been completely demolished, and only isolated concrete silos remain where barns once stood.  Functioning farms have become larger, with new steel pole barns for storing hay, and large grain metal grain bins for feed.  Silage is stored in large trenches covered with white plastic and old tires.

 

Indiana, December 2019

 

In Lancaster County, where I grew up, there are quite a few barns that remain in good repair, for two reasons.  Amish farmers who still farm with horses still have small farms, and use the barns to store hay and house animals.  The barnyards there are still covered with manure in winter.  But non-Amish farm barns are either in complete disrepair, or have been “Martha Stuartized”—painted and decorated to look nice, but their spotless barnyards show they are obviously are not used for any farming function.

 

Look what they done to my barn, Lancaster County, December 2019

 

I suppose I should be grateful to the affluent property owners who have the money to put on new roofs and paint the old barns—they are preserving at least the look of the old landscape—but it also makes me a bit sad.  Barns were made to be functional, and whatever is inside the newly refurbished barns, it isn’t hay and cows.  Some have been converted into storage areas for businesses, some are used as party spaces (the barn wedding has become popular), but I suspect that most are just used for storage.  Particularly sad are the old barns stranded in the middle of suburban developments or industrial parks, where they seem as mournful as shipwrecks.  How did they veer so far off course as to wind up here?

I suppose what I resent the most isn’t the disappearance of the functioning barn so much as the end of small farming as a viable lifestyle.  It seems to me that both humans and animals have suffered with the industrialization of agriculture.  I recall my father knowing the personalities of each of his cows—some were gentle, others always kicked at the milking machine and my dad—they weren’t pets, but they were part of the family.  I can’t see the same kind of relationship between a farmer and his cows when the herd size is 2000, and he hires illegal migrants to do the milking.

Of course, my father also worked extremely hard, and for very little return on his effort.  Each year when my mother returned from the tax accountant, the farm showed a clear loss.  The only way to be a “real farmer”—that is, one that made a viable living from his farming—was to get big.  Two of my uncles decided to take that path, buying big tractors, building large chicken houses and pig houses, and both of them ended in bankruptcy.  Which is, unfortunately,  the usual way farmers end their careers…

In high school, I remember reading Authur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”—the title referred to suicide by automobile, when a salesman grew too old to compete.  The old barns, falling down or pimped out, stand as monuments to the end of the small farmer.

 

Industrial Park and Barn, Lancaster County, December 2019

 

 

 

On the Road—Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois

The Van trip continues—my last blog post was from a hotel room in Rock Springs, Wyoming—a town full of empty hotel rooms, located between the national parks of Utah and Wyoming. The hotel we stayed at was cheap—a nice room for $45—with a special discount based on the fact that the building heat wasn’t working properly—we had a small electric space heater to keep the room warm.

 

Wyoming December 2019

The worry in Wyoming was the wind. Gusts up to 60 mph, warnings about blow over potential for high, light vehicles. Our van doesn’t do well in the wind, so we got off of I-80 and followed the lower, slower Route 30 through Medicine Bow.

 

 

Wyoming, December 2019

Out of Laramie, we decided to head south, into Colorado, to meet up with my old bicycle trip route from 1984, which began in Denver and headed into the high plains east of town. The road between Laramie and Fort Collins had a few patches of blowing snow, and a few cars and trucks in the ditch, but we made it through safely. Fort Collins and Greely were crazy—traffic—and we noticed that we were getting a pronounced wheel vibration—perhaps a thrown wheel balance weight—but perhaps warning of a tire failure—the tires were new in 2002. We stopped to have the tires checked in Fort Morgan, and decided to have them replaced at a Walmart there. The ride was much smoother after that.

 

 

Colorado, December 2019

 

Colorado, December 2019

After buying new tires and fretting about why we didn’t do that before the beginning of the trip, we realized that when we began this trip, we weren’t sure how the trip would go, and the possibility of needing to abandon ship along the way is something we discussed. When I first tried to start the van last summer, the van wouldn’t start—dead battery. I bought a new battery, still wouldn’t start, spun over without catching. I bought a can of starter fluid—and it started—drove it a quarter mile to the end of the driveway, then back to the house. The van was covered with decaying leaves and moss from years sitting idle. The windshield had a crack, but we weren’t sure it was worth replacing. In early November, we drove the van down the hill so it wouldn’t get snowed in at the farm. We weren’t sure the van would make it to Spokane, but it did—so we took it to the car wash and got the worst of the accumulated grime off the outside, and vacuumed most of the mouse poops out of the inside. The fan belt failure was a warning about how old this vehicle is—and how the rubber parts especially were aging.

 

 

Western Nebraska, December 2019

After the new tires were installed, we noticed that the van seemed to be running quite well. In Hastings, Nebraska we stopped for coffee at a Casey’s and met a man who seemed shocked to see the old van still on the road—he had been a dealer for them back in the 1980s—“we sold a ton of those rigs”—and told us that people were restoring the campers and selling them for a lot of money. Looking on the internet, I’m not so sure that there’s a real market for them—all the older units I can find are priced low—I think we’re still in the “junk” stage of collectability. Which is fine, as long as it runs…

 

Nebraska, December 2019                      Western Nebraska, December 2019

 

When I rode bicycle through eastern Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa in the mid 1980s, the towns seemed to be emptying out, a process that seems to have continued. Most of the small towns are now filled with empty main streets, the exception being the county seats where there seems to be enough work to keep a viable community going. Even there, though, it seems that Walmart and Dollar General have replaced the local department stores, and most of the businesses are small and fragile—Mexican restaurants, antique stores (almost always closed, please call this cell number), real estate offices, insurance salesmen…

 

Bloomfield, Iowa, December 2019

The grain elevators are bigger—huge steel tanks, ground piles, always next to a rail line. The smaller elevators are abandoned and decaying. Many of them have already been demolished, but a few ghosts remain.

 

Illinois, December 2019

The small towns in Iowa seemed to be doing better than the places further west, maybe because there seems to be more small scale manufacturing scattered among the farms.

We were stopped by snow in central Illinois—got a room at a motel with a whirlpool. It’s good to be in a warm, dry place when the snow is falling…

Taking a camping trip in December might not be most people’s idea of fun… But I’ve managed to cross the country several times in winter without much trouble. This time looks like it might be different.

Idaho, December 2019

We have an old beater van camper, a 1985 Chevy, with over 180,000 miles on it, and decided to give it a shot, trying to make the East Coast for Christmas. From Spokane, after a small front went through, it looked like there would be a period of calm dry weather extending out into the week ahead. So we decided to go for it.

So far, the trip has been both very fun and very frustrating. On the fun side, a couple days in Idaho with beautiful weather, open landscapes, good traveling.

Idaho, December 2019

On the frustrating side, at the start of the trip, we had a belt that squealed. We call the van a pig, partly because of it’s color, partly because it wallows down the road, and partly because it uses so much gas. So our joke was that the van was squealing like a stuck pig.

Just outside of Idaho falls, trying to make a run for the continental divide, Rachel suddenly noted that the power steering was no longer working. The belt had failed. We turned around, and made it a few miles back towards town before the engine overheated. We pulled into a safe pull out, and called a “mobile mechanic”.

The mechanic was great–stopped by after dark to look at the problem–“a real shitshow” was his assessment–one belt sliced, the other two twisted–and recommended replacing all the belts. He went to town, came out the next morning with the new belts–arrived just as the snow did. It took him about an hour to change the belts, and another hour for us to go back to Idaho falls to get more glychol for the engine. By the time we headed east again, the roads were snow covered and slick.

Fun, Fun, Fun

It took us 3 hours to drive through the snow storm–fortunately our smart phones showed us the edge of the snow just to the east of us–and eventually we drove out of the mess.

 

Wyoming, December 2019

We made it to Rock Springs and a hotel room–on I-70–but are currently worried about wind advisories between us and Laramie. But waiting means snow–so I think we are pressing on.

In Alaska, we used to joke that “having an adventure” meant really doing something stupid so that it became life threatening.  So far, so good–hope our luck continues.

Winona, WA, July 23, 2017

 

Winona, November 22, 2019

Wooden crib elevator destroyed by fire on October 22, 2019.  Elevator contained 110,000 bushels of grain, cause of fire suspected to be an electrical issue.

Wooden crib elevators are disappearing at a rate of a couple a year in the Palouse.

 

Indeed.  From the New Yorker.  Precisely my response to the article appearing on the same page.

My response is perhaps the same as one I gave, more than 20 years ago, to a dean of the school of “Engineering and Science” at a university where I applied for a faculty job, who’s son was studying engineering, a chemist who wondered why “anyone would want to be an engineer.”  My response was shock–this is the dean of the college of engineering–and it took me a while to formulate a response.  “Some people feel the need to be useful”, I said.  Which is an inspired choice, I think.  I didn’t get the job.