Tuesday, March 30, 2010

One Just Never Knows

    Steve says that he comes out here several times a week, to paint. When he's done with this painting, he intends to head over to Moab, to paint some more. And here I thought he was a vandal, or worse.
    Life in the west is not like it was, say, a century ago. Plenty of open spaces, and few people to bother you; populating our common mythos with legends of outlaws, thieves and killers, roaming the badlands.
    Per capita, the concentration of law enforcement in the rural outreaches of the west are probably not much less than other, more populous areas. What is certain, however, is that the concentration of law enforcement per square mile is very low. You'd have to drive - or walk - pretty far to come across a lawman in time of need, unless you were on the highway, or state or national park. The cell phone becomes your friend, if you're within reach of a tower, out within the vast wastes of wilderness.
    One happens across small towns and villages in the west, populated sparsely by folks who value their privacy and uninterrupted communion with the vast emptiness. At least, that's the commonly-held belief. The truth is more complex; people find themselves in the hinterlands for various reasons, not all of them romantic or spiritual.
    I happened into a curio shop this week, in Cerrillos, New Mexico, along Highway 14, the Turquoise Trail, just down the road a spell from Santa Fe. I hadn't taken the paved road, however, but cut across from I-25, near La Bajada Hill, on a dirt road, scoping out scenic areas to photograph. So I entered town the back way, off the dusty trail - literally - and sauntered into this curio shop (which I already mentioned) after having captured an exposure down the road.

    The shop, it was crowded with dusty shelves of rocks and minerals, and the clutter of thrift shop discards. I half expected to be greeted by a homey, talkative sort, friendly to her potential clientele, if I understand the business model correctly.
    The first thing out of her mouth surprised me. "I can't wait to get out of this place."
    I knew immediately that here was a person dissatisfied, shall we say, with her life. That might be an understatement. True, there's not much going on in the little village of Cerrillos, even on a Friday night. But one doesn't come to these places to live with expectations of a neon-lit urban frenzy. I suppose, in her case, that "this place" might be more a state of mind than a mere geographical description.
    One just never knows what to expect around the next bend in the road, out here in the American west. It's big enough to contain everyone's idea or dream of serenity, and also big enough to disappoint time and time again.
    I drove down the Turquoise Trail a few miles, into the former mining town of Madrid (pronounced mah'-drid, unlike the proper Spanish pronunciation; go figure) and there also found the unexpected.

    First, there was an old Honda motorcycle, obviously had been out in the weather a spell, almost hidden from the road, parked behind one of those mobile food trailers we used to call "roach coaches" in the Navy, only this roach coach, painted bright red, had steel railroad wheels. I maneuvered my tripod, backpack and box camera around behind the roach coach, between the unkempt limbs of a nearby shrub, far enough back to capture a good side-shot of the bike in all of its rustic glory.
    Further down the road in Madrid I stopped for a cup of coffee at Java Junction. There, a young gal I found to be just the opposite of the one up the road in Cerrillos: friendly, outgoing, happy to be working, talkative almost to a fault. She, although at work on a Sunday afternoon, was enjoying her day, and warm, spring-like weather.
    One just never knows what to expect.
    I lived in a rural "community", years ago, east of Albuquerque near the town of Tijeras. An old, battered trailer park, which had seen its heyday in the era of Route 66, before the Interstate highway drove business away. It had the ruins of a former gas station on the property, now used for storage by the owner, and an old cafe, which was rented out as a one-room flat. The rest of the property was populated by ancient, single-wide sheetmetal trailers, bullet-hole-ridden and rusting, and which were well beyond their prime. People came here to live for a variety of reasons. The summers were cooler, in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains, than down below in the city, and the rent was cheap. But that's not the main reason; the winters were just as harsh as the summers were pleasant, and the low cost of rent was offset by the high price of propane required to heat the trailer with its paper-thin walls.
    Privacy: people came here to get away. Or hide. Some of my neighbors were hiding, for certain. From the law, or insurance claimsmen, or from some inner demons. The guy next door had three dogs in his small yard, which were perpetually chained up next to their little plywood hovels, and barked constantly, day and night. The fellow, he was okay when the weather was dry, but when it rained, he would put on his military camo fatigues and sit out in his old rusted van, armed with an AR-15 rifle, just watching the rain come down. The rain, it reminded him of Vietnam.
    Other neighbors grew cannabis, over the fence on National Forest property. They'd just throw the seeds out their window, over the fence, and wait until after the summer rains for the next harvest to appear; God's little acre.
    I used to take hikes out in the National Forest, behind the trailer park. I'd come across evidence of people living out here, off-grid, on the edges between things, an interstitial community.
    It takes a certain kind of inner fortitude to handle the vast emptiness, the aloneness, of the great west. Some people need the company of others, can't handle being alone with only one's thoughts to keep them company. One has to be prepared to handle the unexpected; self-sufficiency is of high value out here.
    Today I headed north from Albuquerque, to the town of Bernalillo, then northwest on Highway 550, almost to the town of San Ysidro, where I turned west, off the Highway, onto Cabezon Road and out into the Ojito Wilderness.
    The Ojito is like the west in general, both near and far; near enough to town that help, should one need it, is not that far away; but far enough out to experience the dry, dusty aloneness and dramatic scenery of wilderness up close and personal. Yet, no matter how far out one drives, or hikes off the main road, there are signs that someone else has already been here before you. Bright red, blue or green plastic shotgun shells, tarnished brass shell casings, broken clay pigeons; broken glass or crushed metal beer containers. Trash. Footprints, tire tracks, cattle droppings. From the road, Ojito Wilderness, like many other parts of the west, appear devoid of the human presence, until one stops, gets out, and walks a bit, quiet but observant, up close and personal.

    I had stopped in several locations, lugging the paraphernalia of the large-format photographer across dusty, weed-strewn wastes, up and down rocky outcroppings, in search of that illusive image that signifies another aspect of the west in pictorial form. I stopped at one place, a cattle pond that's dry most of the year, and captured three images. At another, a pond that was water-filled last autumn, I found bone dry. One just never knows for sure.
    The last place I stopped at, with just three negatives left unexposed, was down a shallow canyon from the cattle pond. It was obvious, from standing within the canyon, how the pond had been built by damming it downstream, and how a stand of deciduous trees stood bone dry and dead, starved of the water they were once weaned on.
    I was out of sight from my truck, which was on top of the canyon, easily visible from the main road. I'm always conscious, when out alone in the wilderness, of what can go wrong. The truck could get stuck, or break down. Did I bring a shovel, is the spare filled, did I bring enough water?

    I had captured the starkness of a dead tree against the rugged canyon cliffs behind, having used small, flat rocks under each tripod leg to prevent the settling into the soft sand that would have ruined the multi-second exposure, and was lugging my gear further down, scoping out my next shot, when I heard activity up on the cliff, near my out-of-sight truck. I had thought to lock it, I was certain. And my digital camera was pretty well concealed within. But still; one just never knows for sure. I could have taken the digital with me; heck, I could have just used my cell phone's camera and dispensed with this large format gig altogether, but that's not the point, is it?
    I sauntered down the canyon, looking for some vista with dramatic canyon walls in the background and an interesting foreground, but the light just wasn't right; it was too early in the day, the canyon walls were in shadow, which would be pure mud on these finicky paper negatives, and I was still thinking about my truck back there, and what it was that was going on, and would I end up having to hike out of the wilderness, hitch a ride with some stranger, loaded down with tripod, backpack and large box camera? And then there's this shot that I'm trying to set up. Perhaps some interesting object, to isolate. Oh, there's something down here, next to this large boulder. A piece of dried wood, a remnant of an old fence post, perhaps; but it's so old that it looks almost indigenous. Here, let's prop it up against the boulder, that's good. Partly shaded, partly sunny behind it, side-lit by the late morning sun to reveal its interesting textures. It's not like we're breaking any rules, doing this rearranging of the landscape to fit our discerning creative intuition; think of it as Photoshop before there was Photoshop; I didn't move that piece of wood, I cut and pasted it.

    And there's one more negative left to expose, but I now feel for sure like heading back up the slope to my truck. I have this way of lugging my tripod, where the legs are extended and spread apart in their three-point stance, held by the center column - ready to set down, self-supported, should I suddenly slip - with backpack on my shoulders and box camera, in all of its bulkiness, under my left arm, which continually slides down onto my belt, pressing my cell phone that's holstered there, causing little beep-beep-beep noises to emanate as I trudge up the steep hill. I'm wondering what my phone's doing; perhaps the random button presses are dialing some phone number that I shouldn't be dialing. Now there's an interesting idea for a story, a guy whose ... and as I round the top of the hill, there's a silver truck next to mine, and a painter's easel set up behind it, overlooking the canyon I'd just hiked out of, and a man in worn clothing and weathered sun hat, seated behind the easel, dabbing at a pallet loaded with bright pats of paint.
    So much for criminal outlaws.

    We have a bit of a chat, as I set up and capture my last image, of him painting, during which, about midway through the 4 second exposure, the wind takes his canvas and dumps it off the easel, into his lap. I'm thinking that this was my last negative, I have no more; of all the times I've been out to Ojito Wilderness I've never happened across a plein air painter before, this was a one of a kind event, surely that shot isn't ruined because the painting goes flying off the easel, mid-way through the exposure, is it?
    One just never knows, does one?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I don't know if I could handle the vastness of these towns full-time, going through them on an adventure like you had sounds excellent. I'm not a camera man myself but I'd love to roll through those towns with a typewriter and a stack of paper and see what I could come up with.


10:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


1:42 PM  

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