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.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Southbound US 285 to 54 to 90

Water Tank as sign, Santa Fe Railyard

I had the occasion to enjoy the open portfolio walk at Review Santa Fe Friday evening and then meandered into the hinterland along US 285 from Santa Fe to Vaughn before heading southwest on US 54 to Carrizozo, Tularosa and Alamogordo. I always appreciate seeing trends in photography from year to year. And Review Santa Fe is just the place to take the pulse of the art form. This time there was, as there always is, a lot of derivative work but also some important story telling. One was an exploration of US communities that voted for Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016. There were 311 such towns according ot the photographer. He cautioned about judging the communities or their citizens by the way they look in his photographs. I told them they looked like Trump voters to me. That meant was I stereotyping these folks that look undereducated and decidedly blue collar. He cautioned me about doing that. I'm going to take it to heart.

Another was a superbly photographed set of portraits of blue color workers displaced from Willets Point in Queens, New York to make way for a new sports stadium, City Field. Willets Point which is part of Flushing was once called the Iron Triangle so named for the junkyards and auto body shops that proliferated there. It had essentially vanished by 2011 with a population of 10.You read that right.

Review Santa Fe was the first stop on my photo safari leading to Marfa, Texas which I’ve wanted to explore for years. There’s more to Marfa than I expected. And, yes, it is a village which gives me the warm fuzzies. The hipsters have definitely found it. All for the better in my opinion since I play one on TV. Not everyone agrees though. Somebody in deep red San Angelo, Texas told Peggy that the Californians have found the town and have "ruined" it. I beg to differ. I'd say "made" it. Then again Marfa was a ranching town and now it's Brooklyn West.

There’s not a hell of lot of copy in this post. So, a short and sweet will have to do until I download and process the gazillion images I will have made by the time this trek is complete.

Airstream gallery that can park anywhere at all.
It's called Axle Contemporary
Another trailer to add to my collection from Encino, New Mexico. It's an acquired taste I grant you.

Hasta la vista, babies.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Los Corrales

I keep going back to this rustic beauty near the junction of US 285 and NM 586 in Tres Piedras. The Sangre de Cristos in the distance lend an epic quality to the scene.

Corrals are among the most evocative icons of the American West. They range from sturdy metal structures back at the ranch to ramshackle affairs made from whatever's available on the prairie. The crudest and cheapest materials suffice; the trunks and branches of trees, for example, and all manner of wire even bed springs. I've observed that they are communal structures that anybody can use if idle. In a hundred westerns the corral is where the new hand proves his mettle by breaking the bronc that can't be ridden.

Another favorite is one on US 64 between Taos and Tres Piedras

On the Taos Plateau's TP 120 on the way to the John Dunn Bridge in the Rio Grande National Monument

Aaron Abeyta and Victor Hernandez closing the gate of the communal corral just north of San Antonio Mountain. 

Late afternoon in Sheep Springs, AZ

In the west corrals host cattle, sheep and horses. Whether you call them corrals, from the Spanish corrales, pens or paddocks they’re enclosures meant to keep valuable stock contained and predators out. They are photogenic contraptions for sure. Add a big sky and it's magic.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Rare Beauty

Of my gazzilion portfolios
Sketches of Winter and the Fog Series are probably my favorites. They’re more graphic and abstracted than my other stuff. And the Fog Series which started twenty years ago keeps growing. In fact I’ve driven to the California Coast three times in the past five years to find more of the moody brew. But last time I was met by blue bird skies and had to find solace in a robust, fruit forward Turley Zinfandel in 100 degree Paso Robles. Have a fall back plan.That's my motto.

On the odd occasion the soup even finds the high desert as it did at our rancho Saturday. We don't need no stinking ocean.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

36 hours

I drove to Denver for the weekend. It’s become a regular event that started in the summer of 2017. It happens when I’m gripped by cabin fever and have to get off the island. Each time it’s been a 36 hours door to door adventure in which I soak up some urban energy, do a little street photography, ferret out a good dinner and go for a longish run on one of downtown Denver’s trails. The city has quite the trail system and I’m lifted by the community of runners, cyclists and walkers that share them. 

This time I stayed on the west side of El Centro for financial reasons. I've always stayed on the Capitol Hill side of city center but this time chose hotel on the wrong side of I-25 for a savings that approached $100 if you include parking. I was a little anxious about the hotel’s location on congested Speer Boulevard but found that I preferred my newly discovered 28th Avenue neighborhood by a mile. To get downtown I could avoid Speer completely by heading west on 28th, taking a right on 15th Street and a direct shot to Union Station, Larimer Square and the rest of Denver’s bounty.

As usual my scheme was to arrive at the hotel precisely at its 3pm check-in time, unpack and wander aimlessly downtown. So, by 3:30 I was strolling to the Denver Museum of Modern Art and on to Union Station which I had never visited. Along the way and on my return to the hotel I did smattering of street photography all the while scoping out restaurant possibilities for the evening. I considered going back to Union Station which, like San Francisco’s Ferry Building, has a host of choices including a raw bar. I've loved raw bars since our earliest days in Boston at the Union Oyster House. Then three blocks shy of my digs I saw a promising establishment called The Truffle Table at the corner of 15th and 29th. It was an airy tapas place with a welcoming neighborhood vibe. Since I’m devoted to both I decided to give to a shot. If I could get a seat at the bar I’d be all set. And I could crawl home if need be. No, wait. That was forty years ago.

The 28th Avenue Historic Neighborhood was a charmer replete with late 19th century brick houses on leafy streets and that boasted a hillside view of downtown. Along with The Truffle House was a nifty café for breakfast, a strip of saloons just down the hill and an REI flagship overlooking the confluence of the South Platte River and the Cherry Creek Trails. Everything a boy could want. I felt a rush like the one I felt on my first weekend in Boulder with a memorable run along the Boulder Creek Path. That was 1995 five or take.The combination of youth, health and hipness is a tonic. No wonder I need it every year. Or more.

I strolled through a shallow canyon of new condos flecked with renovated buildings from the Industrial revolution. And since Denver like the rest of the west was built by the railroad 15th Street was severed by tracks leading to Union Station. So, the street dipped below the tracks before ascending toward Wynkoop Street. There I turned left 1-1/2 blocks to the handsome edifice that houses Amtrak, the stylish Crawford Hotel and a bevy of restaurants, bars and cafés for every whim. Union Station, I acknowledge, is a thoroughly commercial endeavor geared to tourists but was still a treat to this country mouse.

I bought a latte and sat in the lobby and watched the world pass by. Drinkers drank at the high-top tables in the Terminal Bar while others lounged in overstuffed sofas and armchairs with beer, coffee or ice cream. Travelers pulling rollers exited trains to the rear of the building and walked briskly through the terminal to ground transportation in out front.

The full length of the station was a delightful water feature with dozens of spewing fountains. Children frolicked in the shallow pool on a perfect early autumn afternoon.

Later, after changing into appropriate attire namely jeans, sneakers and a zip tee I walked to The Truffle Table. I found a seat at the bar just as I had hoped. I saw nothing resembling a truffle on the menu. There was, however, a myriad of cheese and cured meat selections and a massive wine by the glass list that ranged from $9.00 per to $55.00 per. Yes, I do mean by the glass. That stratosphere is beyond my reach, but I encroached on the limits of my wallet with a $15 cava and a $16 tempranillo. Funny how a $55 glass of wine alters your perspective. The cava was excellent. The tempranillo was serviceable. I ordered five cheeses and five meats and a dish of warm, citrus infused olives for $40. Bread included. I’d get that spread at Parcht in Taos for $27. The final tally was $81 including tip. It'd be $51 in Taos and two of us could have shared it. Score one for the burg in the desert.

Worth noting was my visit to the Modern Art Museum on 15th. It featured a show of the photographs of Francesca Woodman who died at her own hand at 22. She’s has received much acclaim for her disturbing black and white self-portraits that were obviously posed yet offhand. Long exposures and motion blur brought an ethereal melancholy to the work. Woodman exposed herself graphically and symbolically. Many were nudes. The mood of her images is dark and seemed to reflect a preoccupation with death, a foretelling. She was active for just nine years from ages 13 to 22. In that period she produced some 10,000 negatives and 800 prints. She died in New York City in 1981.

Denver’s a boom town that to me was a backwater thirty-five years ago when I opened a restaurant in the burbs. It’s had a high-tech infusion and up and comers from Brooklyn or San Francisco can call it home for a fraction of the tariff.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Then and Now

Omaha Beach looking west

Our last nights in France were spent in Normandy so we could visit the D-Day sites at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. Fittingly this happened just six weeks after the 75th Anniversary celebration of the Allied assault that changed the course of World War ll. From our base in the gothic town of Bayeux we drove 15 bucolic miles to Omaha Beach. We arrived in early morning as a squall blew in off the channel. For nearly an hour the rain came down in buckets and wind drove the torrent in horizontal sheets.

Sulkies at the surf line

We donned our foul weather gear and I ran toward the beach. I saw two sulkies cantering in the foam. It was an incongruous scene that looked like it could be a hundred years ago. We guessed that the riders were training their horses in the soft sand. A sulky is an ultra-light horse drawn carriage without a body but with a simple seat for the driver. It's most often used in harness racing today but originated in England the early 1800s as a vehicle for country doctors making their rounds. The term sulky is derived from the notion that the single passenger buggy was for folks who prefer their own company.

Harness racing in the United States was brought from England in the mid-19th century and is a popular sport in Normandy to this day. The Prix de Sainte-Marie du Mont in nearby Cherbourg and the Prix de Normandie in Honfleur are races in late spring that draw thousands of French fans.

From a bunker above Omaha Beach

Beside a concrete bunker with a sweeping view of the landing area

The brooding weather made the scene more poignant. One could imagine jumping from a landing craft into the boiling surf and slogging through chest high water to reach the beach only to face German guns on the hillside that overlooks the strand. Gun emplacements, part of General Erwin Rommel's Atlantic Wall that stretched from the Cape of Norway to the Spanish border, provided a commanding view of Omaha Beach. It was a shooting gallery where machine guns and heavy artillery slaughtered 238 soldiers and wounded 2,000 more on that singular day. Yet when you consider the German's advantage of fortifications on high ground and the Allies’ absolute lack of cover it seems a miracle that so few were lost of the 32,500 soldiers who attacked Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The scale of the onslaught is unimaginable.

Monument commemorating the First Army Division's casualties

By the time we walked up a grassy slope to a memorial obelisk the sun began to break through the gray and we looked down on the serene beach. Then we walked west along the crest of the hill toward the American Cemetery, past cows grazing in a pasture with the steeple of the church in Colleville sur Mer in the distance. I can't imagine a more tranquil scene. The irony of our sunswept July 20, 2019 and the cacophony and carnage that visited this place on D-Day was wrenching. It was hard to see this radiant place as the killing zone it was.

We’ve all seen photographs of the marble crosses perfectly set on the manicured lawns of the American Cemetery. They don’t do it justice. You have to be there to feel its power. If something manmade has achieved perfection, this may be it. This resting place of 9,400 American fighting men and women reaches into your soul and assures you'll never forget what happened in this hallowed place. It's pristine order lies in such contrast to D-Day that it's the perfect tribute. I am awed.