Sunday, December 08, 2019

Turning Corners

Serious breakfast at Sears Fine Foods in San Francisco
When I woke up at 5:00am on the morning of my 78th birthday I had the sinking feeling that I had finally turned the corner to oldness and should stop fooling myself. That’s never happened before. So, why now? There’s no demonstrable difference between 77 and 78 after all. Yet it felt wildly different. I suppose those blues can be attributed to seeing a tractor-trailer full of 8 Zero steaming toward me like a tsunami of decrepitude.

I came out of my funk over breakfast. Food will do that for me. We had a wee celebration that included half a dozen birthday cards and calls from my son and four buddies of long standing. Peggy had me giggling by third cup of coffee and left for her studio so I could do whatever the hell I wanted. And, as always, that means something from columns A through D. Exercise, ideally both cardio and strength training, a creative pursuit which more and more is writing, a good meal with an interesting wine and a page turner before I turn off the lights. The best days have all of the above.

Yet, a malaise has swept over me since September 11. Not exactly depression though writing the word suggests otherwise. What’s missing is the impetus to finish any job that requires a real commitment of time, energy and focus. Maybe there's some what's the point in the situation. My week begins with a Sunday to-to list that stretches in into the low forties and has been topped by Create a new website, Complete the sheep book, Become a competent Spanish speaker, Pitch the sheep story to the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center and Sell the Porsche for five years and counting. And now I’ve added learning to edit video and mastering blues guitar. All of those take concentration and discipline which are apparently in short supply. “Get a grip” you say. “Pick one and finish the son of a bitch.” Good advice I’m sure but how to I choose?

Basically, I won’t apply myself for the two, three or four hours at a sitting required to finish any of the jobs I’ve started. Writing this blog is the exception and it can take as much as a day to complete. Had I actually studied Spanish for two hours a day since studying in Guatemala in 2013 I would be an accomplished speaker by now but I don’t study the language at all except for writing a three paragraph story for my Friday Spanish group, itself a six year staple of my life without which my Spanish would have withered into nothingness. Studying Spanish doesn’t even make the list of forty most weeks. The same would be true of video editing, a newer interest. If I had systematically ploughed through my video editing course with its how-to CDs and sample videos, I’d have that complex process as wired as the Spanish.

Thankfully I’ve signed on to man the second camera on a video project helmed by my good friend Terry Thompson and will force me to man up. Terry, a former movie producer, won’t let me not do the job. Last week we did a short practice video of a two-camera conversation between the two of us.  While I watched he edited the first five minutes of the piece and it was remarkably good for a first effort. The clip looked half-way professional despite our rudimentary tools and my non-existent skills. We’ll do another test this week before shooting a real story which will involve three subjects and three locations including a car interior.

The only pursuit where I have a modicum of discipline is fitness where I work out as much as I ever have except for the triathlon years of the mid-80s.

In the runup to my 78th I had a revelation while driving to Albuquerque for a doctor’s appointment. I found myself thinking of myself as a writer first and a photographer second. That may be hubris but after 650 blog posts totaling at least 3,000 pages and a couple of years contributing my series Telling Stories to Shadow and Light Magazine, I have earned the right. 3,000 pages you say. That’s a lot of books. What you really mean is that if I’d invested that kind of time on a real book I’d have ten of them.

At the dawn of old age one asks, “What’s next?” aside from general pleasure seeking. Not to suggest seeking pleasure is a bad thing. In fact, I’m pondered making it what's left of my life’s work.

It’s well established that good food and wine make my world go ‘round. And the fact that I’m always hungry makes me an eager participant. As I’ve written in these pages, my memories a laced with dining experiences and food epiphanies. So, why not make the pursuit of culinary delights under the broader banner of travel be my be all and end all. Because it’s self-indulgent and frivolous and it accomplishes nothing. There is that.

Which leads me to ponder what to do for my 80th in 2021. Extravagance on that scale requires serious contemplation. Not to mention planning. Among the ideas for monumental self-congratulation are things so sweeping or expensive that I’ve haven’t done them yet. Now I’ll have an excuse. They’re experiences that I’ve dreamed of for decades. Live in a bustling neighborhood in foreign city for a full year through all its seasons, celebrations and attendant tribulations. Meander without an itinerary anywhere in world for all of 2021. Naturally, I’d keep a serious journal of my life on the road or in the 6th Arrondissement. The 6th is a place holder. I’d probably want to live where Spanish is the language of choice and that could be Latin America or Europe.

Third of the big three possibilities would be to sell the sweet 1980 Porsche 911SC with 74,000 miles and buy a Sprinter van and do the big mosey all over North America.

180 degrees from all of this self-indulgence would be a year in service. I’m the first to admit that I haven’t given back enough. That I haven't explored this option more fully is telling.

We’ve all heard the Shakespeare’s line, “What’s past as prologue.” So, looking back, even at failures or goals not met, may be instructive. Reviewing the odd success and understanding what experiences provided the most satisfaction might inform the next 78 years. Or at least one of them, the all-important 8 Oh.

I’m open to suggestions on how to waste my time in 2021. What would you do?

Saturday, November 30, 2019

In like a lion

The back Forty at twenty.

Here in Taos we’ve been hit by three snowstorms in as many weeks. And with the early onslaught has come mid-winter temperatures. Saturday we had a low of 5 and the high has been 30 for several days. That’s the price a guy pays for the glistening beauty and cinematic skies for which we’re famous. Better yet the Ski Valley opened on Thanksgiving to ten inches of fresh and I don’t have to write much. The images will tell the story. Or so I say.

Wagon, La Hacienda de Los Martinez, Taos, NM

Cattle in falling snow. Arroyo Hondo, NM.

Puffs of snow. La Morada de Valdez, Valdez,NM.

Here rests Bernardo Salazar, Valdez, NM
Yesterday we had a ground blizzard. That’s a term I’d never heard till Melissa, our favorite server at Taos Diner II, described the gusting snow Saturday morning. She said that she hails from South Park, Colorado where the phenomenon of gale force winds blowing fallen snow horizontally is called a ground blizzard. Earlier I had seen the wind blowing the snow on our pasture northward at daybreak. It was almost enough of an impediment to keep from my Huevos Rancheros. Green. Then again nothing keeps me away from food.

Frolic, El Prado, NM
To our north I-70 traffic was paralyzed all the way from Denver to the Kansas border and 125 miles south of us Albuquerque had record snow for November. From the Sierra and the Rockies, across the plains and up the coast to New England has been a video game of spinouts and 50 car pileups. Travel ground to a halt some places and thousands of flights were cancelled. We, happily, were basking in the warmth of friendship and an extraordinary Thanksgiving dinner. Thanks for the memorable evening to Jamie, Elizabeth and Bob.

Take heart Taoseños, it’ll be 46 by Tuesday. Maybe we’ll go to Palm Springs.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

El Rancho Grande

Elena, the manager of the Riata Motel in Marfa, told me that she was from Valentine, Texas. Her hometown lies 36 miles north on US 90, It's on life support, but it is the location of the fabled Prada Store art installation. No, it is not in Marfa as you have been led to believe. It's in an even more unlikely place. Valentine is as far from Milano as you can get without leaving earth. 

When I asked Elena about the changes she’d seen in Marfa. She said, “This was nothing but a ranch town when I was growing up. And now it’s a suburb of Austin.”

Marfa still a ranch town at its heart. It’s but a speck on the broad Chihuahuan Desert and all that surrounds it are ranches. The real economy of the Trans-Pecos is ranching and always will be. The Border Patrol must be second. Its green and white trucks riddle the landscape like Halliburton vehicles that dominate the roads in Wyoming. They are also green and white. Who modeled whom? That’s my question.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Marfa Live

Saint Paul's Episcopal Church, Marfa, Texas

The target of my four-night sojourn was the tiny art mecca of Marfa, Texas. Or maybe Marfa was an excuse for a road trip through the part of New Mexico called “Little Texas”, a sprawl of ranch and scrub that looks, feels, smells and votes like the Lone Star State. Along with ranching and the frontier mentality that comes with it is Big Oil. Southeastern New Mexico is exploding thanks to due to massive oil reserves in the Delaware Basin that runs six miles from Ral to Carlsbad. These riches have created boom town conditions that have driven real estate through the roof and created a housing shortage that has forced drilling companies to build workers camps with temporary housing made from shipping containers and with 24 hour security to keep out hookers and drug dealers. $100,000 a year jobs abound for low skill workers and so does simmering resentment for taxes that mitigate real estate taxes and pay for much of elementary and high school education throughout New Mexico. New Mexico is now the third largest oil and gas producer in the country after Texas and North Dakota. And by 2023 the Permian Basin in Texas and the Delaware Basin will combine to be the world’s third largest oil producer behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. It’s a very big deal.

The Palace Theatre and the Presidio County Courthouse

Just south of Carlsbad, the epicenter of Little Texas, I drove south through the Guadalupe Mountains, sped through the lamentable Van Horn, Texas and dodged the gauntlet of green and white Border Patrol trucks that line the road to Marfa. The Border Patrol is a huge presence on the highway and on hillsides that overlook migrant routes in ribbons of arroyos that point north into the United States. Hidden by a stand of Mesquites ten miles south of Van Horn were two young soldiers with semi-automatic weapons at the ready. It was a chilling moment. 

Then 37 miles past the famous Prado store in Valentine I was in Marfa and found the antidote for the heartburn I contracted in Little Texas.

The Saint George Hotel

The Hotel Paisano

To have a hipster enclave in the middle of no damn where Texas is quite improbable. There really is no there there and yet it seems to work. The town enjoyed a flicker of fame when the film Giant was filmed there in 1956. Its Hotel Paisano co-starred in the movie and was Marfa’s first claim to fame.

Donald Judd's concrete installation at the Chinati Foundation

In 1971 the Minimalist artist Donald Judd from New York City fell in love with the Chihuahuan desert and rented a house for the summer. When he needed more space to produce and display his large scale art he bought two aircraft hangers at the WWII era Marfa Army Airfield. Then he bought two ranches and in 1979 acquired Fort D.A. Russell which became the Chinati Foundation which exhibits the work of modernists Ingólfur Arnason, Don Flavin, Claus Oldenburg, Choose van Bruggen and IIya Kabakov along with Judd.

Marfa Books in the Hotel Saint George

Clearly, Judd’s Chinati Foundation was catnip for the wave of artists that have descended on Marfa. The Lannan Foundation has established a writers-in-residency program. There’s a theatre troop and the Marfa Ballroom shows art films and hosts live music. Marfa Myths is an annual music festival that has its roots in the stark landscape of Far West Texas. There are 19 galleries in the town of 2,000. And I do mean 2,000. There are no suburbs and the nearest towns of any consequence are 20 miles away.

On two warm October days Marfa felt a little like Southern California, a touch of Palm Springs and a whisper of Santa Barbara. The simplicity of the architecture and of the contemporary art scene was somehow freeing.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

But for the railroad

Abandoned gas station, Vaughn, NM.

When I finished with photographing lovely Encino, I continued on US 285 to neighboring Vaughn, NM. That’s 16 miles that follow the course of the BNSF Railroad. Unlike Encino, Vaughn is still breathing. There’s a gas station and convenience store, a Standard Oil bulk plant and a thriving burger joint, the Chuckwagon. Compared to withering Encino it’s the picture of life. It lies at the junction of the BNSF and the Union Pacific Lines and boasts a population of 400 isolated souls. It was 888 when the town was founded by the railroad in 1920.

The shuttered auto repair shop that adjoins the station.

The Standard Oil bulk plant in Vaughn. A bulk plant is a distributor of petroleum products.  

To my delight Vaughn has its share of derelict buildings. The discarded buildings aren’t old by New Mexico standards and seem mid-century modern with a southwestern bent. The architecture suggests that Vaughn’s heyday was the 1940s and 1950s.

Later, I back tracked on 285 past Encino where the BNSF railroad tracks cross the highway. I turned southwest toward Corona and on to Carrizozo, Tularosa and Alamogordo. In the postage stamp village of Corona alongside the railroad tracks is the shell of a handsome general mercantile store.

The old general mercantile store in Corona, NM

The connecting thread of these villages is the railroad. It’s no revelation to recognize that the iron horse really did build the American West and by extension America itself. When you drive just a few of the blue highways of New Mexico and West Texas as I have recently done the importance of the railroad is writ large. Even Marfa, the hipster haven, lives in the middle of no damn where, began as a water stop for the Texas and New Orleans Railroad. Today the Sunset Limited passes through Marfa three times a week but doesn’t stop.

The railroad connects far flung communities that have few residents across great swaths of prairie. Marfa is two hours from El Paso, the nearest real city, and 20 miles from Alpine where there’s a an honest to God supermarket. Neither Encino or Vaughn has even a mom and pop grocery store. As far as I can tell you have to drive to Roswell 70 miles distant to find such a treasure. Talk about a food desert. And to think we besmirch rural Mississippi.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

The more things change

First sighting, Encino, NM, 2019

When I left Rudy Mauldin at the ranch I was totally exhilarated by my good fortune to meet the gentleman cowboy at the side of the road. The encounter proved, I thought, that hitting the road and being a vessel for whatever comes your way is a key to finding stories, maybe even life. My chest was full of high desert air and Rudy's story launched me full tilt toward the adventure just around the bend. I can't express how alive I felt in that moment. I haven't found the words though I've written and rewritten them in my mind all week long.

It reminded me that the most memorable moments in travel are those where you connect with another human being. Certainly, the thirty minutes with Rudy were the highlight of my four-day photo safari through southeastern New Mexico and far west Texas. The handful of images that are keepers pale compared to meeting him and learning his story. It's the people that make the memories.  Like Mimo, our world wise driver in Rome during our inaugural trip to Europe or Carolina, the owner of Por Que No the tiny bar near my Spanish school in Antigua, Guatemala. Her rags to riches tale enriched my life. That she greeted me like her long lost uncle after a three years absence is the foam on the cerveza obscura that I happily quaff. The bonds we make leaven the bread of travel and keep us hungry for more. Or thirsty, for that matter. Without them a trip is just trip.

I stayed on US 285 and crossed I-10 at Cline’s Corner, the big sign for the storied truck stop looming above me to the right. I followed the highway south to the fading railroad town of Encino where I lingered for at least an hour photographing the residue what once was. My search for the forgotten and forlorn continues. And I’m not even talking about photography.

Good Luck, Keeler, CA, 2005

There’s not much left of Encino. It's nothing but a tumbledown railroad siding built by the BNSF that's hanging on by the thinnest of threads. There are no retail businesses left in Encino. There is a church and a high school. I didn't see a soul. I photographed on US 285 which is Encino’s Main Street. Then I drove every single street in the burg in search of my relic del dia. Two blocks north sat a promising aluminum trailer. Trailers, as you know, loom large in my pantheon of pathetic objects. One of my trailer shots in fact, the one called Good Luck from Keeler, California is one of my top five selling images according to my ever present abacus. So, I am understandably drawn to the metal clad dwellings.

Trailer, Encino, NM, 2019

Terminus, Encino, NM, 2009

Terminus and Tree, 2019

I wandered west a couple of blocks where I met this school bus for the second time. In the ten years since my last encounter with the vehicle a tree has grown beside it. This exemplifies that subjects don’t have to be new to be worthwhile and that capturing the evolution of something is worthwhile, too. Several years ago I heard from a west coast photographer who told me that all that’s left of the trailer captured in Good Luck fourteen years ago is the facade of the poor thing. So, corollary to observing change and really knowing a subject is the maxim that photographing the subject in the first place is a good idea. It may not be there the next time.                

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Rudy Mauldin, Special Agent

I had scarcely started my road trip when my first story revealed itself. I had left the Santa Fe Plaza, headed south on Old Santa Fe Trail, merged on to Old Pecos Trail to I-10. I Drove east on I-10 so I could catch US 285 and traverse the big empty with more cows than people that leads to Texas. US 285, a favorite of mine, starts near Denver, winds south to New Mexico and cuts a diagonal across the Land of Enchantment toward West Texas and my target, Marfa.

I had driven about twenty miles on 285 past Eldorado with a short stop at the Amtrak Station in tiny Lamy when I came upon a long stuttered Standard Oil station on the right side of the road. It was the third occasion that I’ve photographed the forlorn complex.

I bundled up since it was 7:30am and nearly freezing. I was trying to find a different take on the familiar subject, when I heard a vehicle pull in behind mine. My first thought was Highway Patrol or suspicious locals. A cowboy got out of his pick-up and walking toward me. The lean gent asked, “You like it?” A smile in his voice.

I offered that I’d photographed the scene several times and was always drawn to places left behind.

He told me that he was always replacing the padlock on the gate. That folks would pop the lock to access the grasslands beyond.

I asked if he’d always been a cowboy. The answer was yes and no. Yes, he had always wrangled as had his father. But he had been Special Agent for the BLM for 26 years, 14 working under cover. He broke horses at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and worked as a wrangler in New Mexico and Utah. Then the BLM came calling. He told me the Bureau hired five agents and he focused on protecting Indian artifacts. He told me about being part of the earliest DNA testing at a pilfered archaeological site in southeastern Utah. He told me the DNA from a single cigarette butt led to the arrest, prosecution and sentencing of one Earl Shumway to five years in federal prison. He said a documentary called Secrets of Hidden Canyon had been produced about the saga. I googled the title and found the film was made by station KUED in Salt Lake City. I tried unsuccessfully to buy the DVD on the station’s website so will call today to see if I can make the purchase.

“I’m Steve.” I told the cowboy.


We shook hands. I told him that I was from Taos. He said he’d done some work there and that it’s a neat town. I said, “Sure is but that there’s a real divide between the cultures. Superficially it’s welcoming but beneath the surface there’s resentment.”

“Tell me about,” Rudy replied. “I went to high school in Pojoaque and got my ass kicked more times that I can count. I wound up in the hospital with ulcers. That’s how bad it was.”
Pojoaque is one of northern New Mexico's 19 pueblos.

He pointed at a ranch house a mile south and asked, “Ever photographed one of those homesteads?”

I allowed that I had not. “Can I get in?”

He said, “Sure. Follow me.”

I followed him to the locked pipe gate, he opened up and I followed him as far as the house. He told me to make myself at home and that he had to turn on the water at the corral. After I photographed the house, the wood barn and two windmills with missing paddles and wandered to the large pen with a handful of Black Angus cows.

As I was taking my last shots he drove up and I said I’d follow him out, so he didn’t have to hang around. I told him that I’d really enjoyed our conversation and would like to continue it sometime.

He said, “I don’t have any paper or a pen.” I gave him the pad I always keep in my right rear jeans pocket. He laid it on the hood of his truck and wrote “ Rudy Mauldin, Secrets of Lost Canyon, Earl Shumway.”

I was elated to hear Rudy's tale and it reminded me that you have to be there and you have to listen.