Sunday, April 20, 2014

Los Extranjeros

This candid portrait, street photography really, has stuck with me since the moment this lovely woman of a certain age walked out of her hostel in Antigua, Guatemala. The fortuitous background shadow sets up her sunlit visage perfectly.

Below are our subject and her angular mate engaged in conversation during a pit stop on our way to Lago Atitlan.  The couple, like so many others that I encountered in Guatemala, were on their way to work among the poor of the country, in this case the Mayas.  It seemed that every adult extranjero (foreigner) in Guatemala was providing aid of some kind. One nurse, a part time resident with another home in Alaska, had just assisted in more than a hundred eye surgeries.  Another was building schools for Mayan girls who traditionally are not allowed an education. Only the first born males go to school. And yet another was installing water treatment systems. Potable water is in short supply. The needs are acute despite Guatemala being the richest country in Central America in terms of natural resources.
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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Legends, myths and echos of the past

Legendary RCA Victor Studio B was run by the equally legendary Chet Atkins who built the facility in 1957.  Until the studio was completed musicians recorded in the stair well of a nearby office building to get the echo Atkins wanted and which became part of “the Nashville Sound.”  Back in the day my singing partner and I recorded in the bathroom where the tiles worked similar magic and later in 1960 when we cut our single Once Upon A Time the echo was provided by an empty 2000 gallon water tank on the roof of Audio Recorders in Phoenix. It was the same studio where Duane Eddy had unleashed his “twangy guitar” three years before. 
Our record, alas, was on the old Oblivion label.  You may not have heard of it.

Studio B is the studio Elvis Presley built.  More than 200 of his songs were made in the unprepossessing cinder block building at 222 Fifth Street on Nashville’s Music Row.  Reputedly Elvis could enter the studio through the back door while everybody else including some of the biggest names in country and pop history had to get by a gate keeper at the front door.  Such were the perks of being the biggest star on the planet.

I'm told that Elvis had to be in the mood to record so appropriate lighting was supplied for the King. Sometimes the colored lights were the only lights. The plaintive Are You Lonesome Tonight?, a noted blue light ballad, was recorded with so little light that the pianist could barely see the keys. And, who knew?, the piano man on that midnight session was Elvis himself.
Legend has it that Elvis was on piano with only a double bass and the Tennessee Three singing back-up. Except I’ve just listened to the recording and I’m pretty sure I hear the soft strumming of an acoustical guitar and can't identify a piano at all.

Because the studio was so dimly lit I couldn’t hand hold a long shot of Elvis’s piano (that’s how it’s known) but I could brace myself against it for relatively sharp shots of its innards and of my cousin Kristin’s skilled fingers caressing the keys.


Sunday, April 06, 2014

Dry America

US 84, Sudan, Texas

The very dry Sudan, Texas
Prohibition is a blight. There’s a thread of consequences that accompanies it.  There are no good restaurants and that’s a nonstarter for me. There’s a dearth of style, vitality and worldview in these loathsome places that are stuck in the 1920s.  And in absence of any forward energy is an aging populous that sees the New York Times as elitist left wing propaganda and thinks Fox News actually produces news.  What’s more these desiccated burgs inbreed like West Virginia cousins and can’t attract educated, well travelled newcomers that would infuse new blood into the community.  It’s a double whammy of reduction and repulsion.

As of November 2013 there were eleven entirely dry counties in Texas, 194 were “moist” or mixed and 49 wet.  As you’d expect the wet counties include all the major metropolitan areas and most southern counties.  The sticks of east and west Texas contain most of the dry counties to the surprise of absolutely nobody. How they vote is a given. They’re as red as Jim Bob’s nose.

84 year old Marian Steich helped make Winona, Texas the first “wet” town in Smith County. The tea totaling, church going great grandmother decided that folks should be able to decide what to drink and where to buy it.  Steich says, “I’ve never understood why you have to leave the county to buy beer to enjoy in your own home.” And she adds,“I watched this town die, she says, “Now I’d like to see it grow.” She made an alcohol to growth connection even I wouldn't have attempted.
In tiny Winona, population 600 and nestled in the buckle of the East Texas Bible Belt, residents finally voted by the slim margin of 18 to repeal prohibition and town tax revenues quintupled with the addition of four package stores. That's nobody's idea of ideal growth but none of the drys’ warnings about crime and littering have come true.

Winona mayor Rusty Smith who cops to the occasional beer reports, “We’ve seen a reduction in speeding on the highway. Cars are stopping in Winona now.” That's opposed to getting out of Winona as fast as possible.

Not to mention drunk driving. Alcohol related deaths are nearly four times higher in dry counties, 6.8 deaths per 10,000 people to 1.8%.  The logic being that people are going to drink and they’ll drive as far as it takes sober or otherwise to get demon rum.

One in nine counties is still dry, but Tennessee communities allowing alcohol sales have grown 55% since 2003. In the same period, 22 more of Texas’s 254 counties and 235 of its municipalities have turned wet or at least moist. In Texas the “wets” have won 80% of alcohol elections in the last eight years. Even in Kansas, where Prohibition lasted from 1881 to 1948, fifteen counties have seen the light since 2002. What's the matter with Kansas? you ask.

Put a cork in it. Prohibition is a lame duck candidate with no war chest, a platform that doesn’t hold wine and whose prospects are evaporating fast. The trajectory toward universal lubrication is immutable but there are still die hards.  So in the public interest, here are the Texas counties not to visit.

Bailey, Borden, Collingsworth, Delta, Hemphill, Kent, Martin, Palmer, Roberts, Sterling and Throckmorton.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Vantage Points

While the big river is the namesake of the newly minted Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and certainly its crown jewel, it’s the Taos Plateau that beckons me.  The plateau, a swatch of arid scrub that stretches west 25 miles to San Antonio Mountain, is a flat desert punctuated by the occasional hillock and the faintest remnants of human occupation.  Two picturesque corrals and a couple of homesteads adorn TP 71 between the Rio Grande and Highway 285 and more are bound to be discovered as I return to those dry environs.
There’s nothing like the flats to showcase the snow capped Sangre de Cristos looming to the east and to accent the epic sky that I love so. Prompted by that sky I entered the Taos Plateau from the south on Gravel Pit Road and followed high lines to a batch of hippy built residences where a taut and sinewy cyclist was popping a wheelie.
Later above the John Dunn Bridge I followed a rutted path almost to the rim of the gorge to behold the epic show.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Prime Desert Property

Area code 775 encompasses most of Nevada and has a population of exactly 12.  Pretty much everything but Las Vegas and Reno is in the big, empty 775 which is traversed by US 50, itself nicknamed America's Loneliest Highway. There’s prime land to be had in the verdant reaches of the Silver State and the price is so so right. Or, instead, you can choose a slice of paradise in the netherworld of the Mojave Desert.  Why you would do either is a question best left to psychiatric professionals.

Property number one lies just outside Death Valley, a moniker based on the likely result of being left beside the road in mid-summer.  And you’d face a similar fate were you to be stranded ten miles west of Edwards Air Force Base on plot number two.  If the temperature didn’t get you the winds would.  Last January those winds nearly tore the door off my poor Pilot.

I get a kick out of For Sale signs on worthless patches of nothing.  It goes to show that hope springs eternal or that there’s hope that one is born every minute. Unless coastal California falls into the blue Pacific, a not entirely remote possibility, these may not be your best real estate plays.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Peace on earth

When a friend told me that painter Louisa McElwain had died at her own hand at her home in Santa Cruz, New Mexico I absorbed the news in the abstract but not as a flesh and blood occurrence.  That was a year ago.  And it’s not as if I knew the backstory, the lead up to such a tragedy.  We were on a painting and photography trip into Canyon de Chelly back in 2004 and traded stories around the campfire.  And I’d spoken with her at a couple of her openings.  That’s about it.  It just didn't seem plausible for someone at the peak of her talent and success to take her own life. She was just 59.

Recently as I was sorting through some portfolios I chanced upon photographs I’d taken of Louisa in Canyon de Chelly and those images prompted this post.  She was in love with painting en plein air and her excitement to make art in the warm canyon sunshine was palpable.  Her students watched her intently, happy to be in her circle of influence.  They were acolytes.  They wanted to paint like the Louisa McElwain. 

Louisa painted big, bold and prolifically.  Two or three 3’x4’ pieces a day, paintings selling for $10,000 or more even then.  And she sold plenty.  Not that she got all the money.  She talked about one gallery absconding with $300,000. For most artists that would be a career.  For Louisa it was a nuisance. 

She was also newly in love with Joe Emerson, her neighbor in Santa Cruz.  He catered to her every need in the canyon and did so with great joy.  He was as en rapt as she.  They married.  But he died after a brief illness in January 2013.   I remember that Joe, a retired Army Major, was politically to the right of Attila the Hun and had utter disdain for all things foreign especially the French.   Xenophobic is too mild a description. Joe was a tough guy to like.
The nature of their recent relationship is unknown to me but it’s reasonable, given events, to think that Joe’s passing had affected her greatly.  Nearly as conservative politically as Joe, Louisa had recently become deeply Christian, a combination that isn't rare.  One wishes that her faith had comforted her more.  We wish that she had found peace in life. 

Sunday, March 09, 2014

High Plains Drifter

There’s a stretch of NM Highway 104 that runs east of Las Vegas for about thirty miles of undulating pastureland on its serpentine way to Tucumcari.  It’s a piece of road that has captured my fancy for twenty years or so. I do love my prairie and plains.

As we headed back to Taos after a two day jaunt to the metropolis of Canyon, Texas we found ourselves on 104. Props, by the way, to the wonderful Panhandle Plains Museum in Canyon where we were attending an invitational painting exhibition and which was the reason for our trip. Not so much for the dry little burg itself. That’s dry as in no libations to be had in the entire county, one of eleven Texas counties with that dubious distinction.  The folly that is prohibition will be studied in detail at a later time. Damn near happened today.

On the Saturday of the show it was a balmy 72 and on Sunday it fell to high of 23 in Canyon. Not only that, the forecast for the whole of the South Plains was for freezing rain and snow squalls. Heading back on I-40 just before Tucumcari we were turtling through blowing snow at 40 miles per hour.  Never the souls of patience we gambled on going overland on the aforementioned 104 as had been our plan.  At the height of land half an hour shy of Las Vega we were buffeted by cross winds and surviving slick roads but when we dipped down to the high plains the skies parted and the grasslands glowed with the saturated colors that follow a deluge.  Behind us was a crystal forest and beyond the beckoning plains after the rain.

This little spread has all the icons of prairie life that a guy could want, an abode, a windmill, a stock tank and a corral.