Monday, December 27, 2021

Sign Language, Part Three

In this the third edition of Sign Language I’m offering three pairings. Pair One tells the tale of a leather tanning town in Provence that was left empty when that odiferous trade left France for North Africa. Pair Two hales from the epic Verdon Gorge. And Pair three juxtaposes photographs from places more than 5,500 miles apart that show that the American West has long tentacles and broad appeal. 

Tannerie A. Plauchud Fils, Barjols, France

Galeries Ateliers des Artistes

Barjols in Provence Verte was home to 24 tanneries and 19 tan mills in the late 19th century. It was the home of the finest French leather. But in 1983 the last tannery closed, the victim of international competition. The gritty village is trying with limited success to reinvent itself as an artmaking mecca.

Watch your step, Verdon Gorge

Steep and Deep

Just 50 miles away from Barjols is the gaping 1,300-foot-deep Verdon Gorge, the deepest in France. Image one warns you to watch your step. Image two shows you why.

Sitting Bull Boots at El Rio Grande in Saintes Maries. Note their website

And from the real west is this rope twirling cowgirl on Santa Fe's Guadalupe Street.

Saintes Maries de la Mer on the other hand is a bustling tourist town in the Camargue that can swell from 2,680 locals to 500,000 tourists on a hot summer day. It’s charming enough but the mosquitos will eat you alive. Because the Camargue is home to sturdy white horses and local cowboys called guardiennes who are devoted to the 17,000-year-old breed an unlikely connection has been forged between Saintes Maries and the American West.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Sign Language, Part Two,

Shep's Liquor, Cottonwood, AZ.

Pine Café, Independence, CA.

Sundial Motel,  Gila Bend , AZ.

Second in my series about signs are these disparate numbers. Three are mid-century items with highly stylized fonts that I identify with the mid-fifties. The establishments advertised above have long been shuttered.

The Fifties to me were open collared shirts of pink and lavender, gray suits with wide shoulders and thick soled brogans. Fashionistas of the era called the lavender hue heliotrope. Funny the things we remember. Earlier in the late forties in the Bay Area we riffed on the clothes of pachucos defined as Mexican American gang members. It’s analogous to rappers today whose threads are often derived from gang attire.

My fourth-grade class was half Mexican and my bestie was Ramon Gutierrez. He and I copped the pachuco look, no mean feat when you’re a nine year old blonde, blue-eyed wasp. We wore Levis with the belt loops cut off and the pant legs turned under to form a perfect cylinder that didn’t touch our calves. The jeans had to be unwashed. The ideal was to be able to stand then in the corner, stiff as a board.

This bit of nostalgia has nothing to do with signs but that’s what I’m reminded of when I see the sign for Shep’s Liquors. Shep's brings to mind my first restaurant job at The Huddle at the corner of  University and Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. The Huddle had a quintessentially fifties sign, too, I was a busboy at 14. It was 1955. God, I hated that job. 

MOTEL 3 Blocks East, Desert Shores, CA.

$500 Fine For Littering, Desert Shores, CA.

Amboy School, Amboy, CA.

The other three come from the nothing there or long gone schools I so favor.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Sign Language

Opera House, Randsburg, California

Famous ABC Beer, Keeler, CA

I hadn’t given it much thought till I posted the Art Deco signs from Oklahoma City’s Automobile Alley a few weeks back. That’s when it occurred to me that I’ve been fascinated by signs since I was a kid. Signs, it seems to me, say a lot about a place at a point in time. That was true about the handsome mid-century signs in OKC and of weathered and peeling ones that tell us that a place’s time has passed. It no surprise that my favorites populate latter camp. Despite my interest I’ve made no demonstrable effort to photograph signs over the decades. If I see one that I like, I’ll take its portrait and that’s that. I even started a portfolio of signs 15 years ago. It was tepid effort at best. Some of that are included today are from the portfolio which I called Signs of Times back in 2006, so named because signs speak so eloquently of the era in which they were painted, assembled, and mounted.

Valve In Head Buick Motorcars, Oklahoma City, OK.

Navajo Handmade Jewelry here, near Monument Valley, AZ.

Nothing sold here, Peñasco, NM.

Another appeal to signs is my abiding appreciation of graphics and design, generally. A sign that is mostly logo or logo type is the simplest. Other signs may reinforce the notion that Buick is a handsome, elegant, and substantial machine. Others may present a benefit promise like “Clean Restrooms” or “Navajo Handmade Jewelry Here.” Sometimes the sign is void of a message. And empty vessel tells a different kind of story.

I beg your pardon.

Sign can be handsomely presented or gone to seed. Like the decaying buildings in the desiccated landscape that I favor, signs that advertise something that no longer exits are the most poignant. They can be funny, too, or attention grabbers like Egg Slut the egg dish emporium in LA’s Grand Central Market. In the shot above the provocative name vies with the implausibly beautiful customer for our attention. My choice is clear. I like signs but I'm not dead yet.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Testing 1 2, 3

 Sierra View

In a castle dark

The second photo essay from Landergin ghost town is of the grain elevators and an abandoned farmhouse just the west of the graveyard of dead trucks. I say elevators plural because there three cylindrical elevators within the towering structure.

I can’t explain the appeal of elevators except to say that the soaring height of the vertical tubes seems outsized and ominous when plopped onto the plains of the Texas Panhandle or the big empty of, say, Kansas. You can see the monoliths across miles of grassy flats. They are beacons of a sort, erected as if to say there’s something here. Visualize a lighthouse protruding from a rocky promontory at the edge of the earth.

In Landergin I was transfixed by the fallow elevators, the empty farmhouse and fifty bent metal carcasses from last week’s post. Landergin in its heyday was barely there. At its apex in the 1930s 15 lonely souls and a couple of a stores called it home. The sign over the truck repair shop tells us there was once a restaurant, maybe gas station and truck stop.

Nothing captures my attention like nothingness.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Test pattern


Austin's Store, Randsburg, CA

After 15 years of my blog posting at around 4:00am every Monday morning last week it posted on Sunday afternoon when I finished writing and clicked Publish. This week it didn't publish at all as far as I can tell. Neither Peggy nor I got the email that indicates the post in online. It's disheartening to miss a post after something like 735 weeks without missing a post.

So, this is a test to see if you get the blog right now, 10:36am MST or tomorrow or not at all.

Good luck to me.

The photo above has nothing to do with anything.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Full Metal Jackets

We drove east on I-40 from Tucumcari to Oklahoma City, a stretch of ugly nothing punctuated by the occasional grain elevator and a mile long feed lot whose odor stays with you for an hour. It’s not a trip you take lightly. Actually, it's not a trip you want to make ever. But we had to and there we were midway between Godforsaken Ron Jon, New Mexico and OKC.

Forty miles before Amarillo, speaking of ugly nothing, I saw a towering elevator on the horizon. I am drawn to cylindrical forms anyway. As we came abreast of the elevator, I saw a line of semi-trucks and semi-trailers lined up along the north frontage road. It was like the back-up at an inspection station at some state line somewhere. The vehicles were all pointing west as if waiting to enter New Mexico.

It was odd. I couldn’t explain why there would be a dozens of dead trucks in the middle of no damn where. Come to think of it I still don’t know why. And damned if I’ll go back.

We didn’t stop for photographs or for an explanation, but I filed the sight under “have to stop here on the way back.”

I had the bent metal cemetery in my mind when we headed back to Taos on Saturday. For reasons I can’t explain I knew that the the ferrous conglomeration was going to be the very next exit. And, sure enough, in the distance I saw the elevator in question. I didn’t know the number of the exit, the name of the town or if there was name for the place at all. I learned all that via Google and Google maps in the comfort of my office.

The place that I later learned is ghost town of Landergin, Texas gave me a passel of worthwhile photographs and two blogs worth of fodder.

Today’s chapter features the bodies of the dead trucks and next week’s will be the grain elevator looming over the whole shebang.

Landergin, it turns out was founded by the John and Pat Landergin whose father had escaped Ireland’s Potato famine of the 1840s. It began as a cattle ranch and when the Chicago Rock Island and Gulf Railway came to the Texas Panhandle in 1908 the town of Landergin was born. Then the nearby town of Vega was founded, and John Landergin opened the First State Bank. The brothers bought more ranch land and in 1912 built a mansion on Amarillo’s Polk Street. Their company floundered after John’s death in 1923 and their holdings were auctioned off.

As of 1936 Landergin had one store and 15 residents. By 1980 two businesses remained and today there appears to be a truck repair shop and the hulks 50 or so vehicles that have had their last rites.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Oklahoma OK

Buick Valve In Head Motorcars

Two weeks ago, Peggy and I drove to Oklahoma City. It’s 450 miles of flat and mostly ugly, especially the Texas Panhandle part. It's a vast nothing punctuated by the occasional grain elevator and a mile long feed lot whose odor stays with you for half an hour. But the trip was essential since Peggy was part of the prestigious Small Works Great Wonders show at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. According to the museum, “The exhibition features works by 100 of America’s finest artists.” With that billing she had to attend and, as her spear carrier, I came along for the opening shindig. Turns out the 200,000 square foot museum was epic in scale, had the largest collection of paintings by the Taos Society of Artists that I’ve seen and the Small Works Great Wonders opening was boffo. That’s theatre lingo for huge crowds and huge sales. 

Coffee with a splash of Buick

Nichols Energy Services

The museum alone was worth the trip and Oklahoma City isn’t the backwater I have avoided like the plague for decades. It is after all in deep red Oklahoma and my expectations were muy low. 

But, cowboys and cowgirls, Oklahoma City was a real city, had a measure of sophistication, a bounty of charming historic neighborhoods and quite a food scene. I am chastened by my misjudgment of the place. Next year I’ll almost maybe look forward to returning.

We stayed in Bricktown in a decent hotel but in a neighborhood long past its prime. Once a vibrant entertainment district Bricktown is a somnolent, shabby cluster of 1980’s chain restaurants and karaoke bars. It’s the kind place with the kind of restaurants that, and I quote, “Appall me.” Bad chain restaurants make me lose my appetite until I find redemption in a well operated local establishment. 

I have a nose for good restaurants if I do say so myself. So, to escape Bricktown I found an all-day breakfast place at the corner of NW 10th Street and Broadway. Breakfast is my favorite meal as you know. In the neighborhood called Automobile Alley, so called because it was once ground zero for car dealerships, were myriad locally operated eateries including the worthy Hatch Early Mood Food. It served one Hell of breakfast and boasted a buzzy clientele that streamed in and out that Friday morning at 10:30.

Where good restaurants congregate you'll find a healthy residential neighborhood supporting them. Such was true in Automobile Alley. Handsome brick car showrooms had become cafés, bars, restaurants, fitness studios and hip looking engineering firms. 

And more importantly as Automobile Alley gentrified it kept its early 20th century bones and a trove of Art Deco signs the likes of which I’ve never seen. I haven’t done the neighborhood justice with these meager offerings, but you get the picture. 

High wire act

The stairway to nowhere

And there was an architectural novelty, a spiral fire escape suspended in the alley between Broadway 10 Chop House and the parking garage where I was standing. The metal snake led nowhere and didn’t reach the ground. It was mysterious and playful at the same time. The relic was salvaged from Marion Hotel across the street and became a quirky piece of public art.

The Marion is becoming luxury apartments which will make the lovely folks at Broadway 10 and Packard's where we dined muy happy.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Sublime Solitude

Nested in the rolling desert is a trim single wide and a shed.

Connecting the Grand Canyon to the Four Corners are two-lane roads that traverse Navajo and Hopi country. For the second time in three months, I’ve driven those roads. In September we drove US 160 from the Grand Canyon to Chambers, took a right through Tuba City and on to the Four Corners and Shiprock. As I expressed in an earlier post, I was more enchanted by those 150 miles of stark emptiness than by nine days at the Grand. More recently I drove to Bluff, Utah after photographing Mesa Verde and Hovenweep. As I drove to Bluff on San Juan County Road 162, I saw a part of the Navajo Nation I’d never seen. It was as captivating to as the Navajo Trail, perhaps more so because it was even less populated. And that’s saying a lot. It was on that short stretch of road that I came to understand the chest filling appeal of the Navajo homeland. It’s well established that I am drawn to forever vistas. It’s the number one reason I give for choosing to live in Taos. But there’s more to it than that.

Scattered homesteads flicker below a wall of red rock.

Tonalea Sundown

Navajo Handmade Jewelry Here

The Four Corners and the Navajo Nation’s expanse and epic skies dwarf those of my chosen home. That big empty, those towering mesas, buttes and outcroppings reduce the mark of man to insignificance. We are dwarfed by the immensity of the earth and the heavens. I was once again enchanted by the vast emptiness and by the spare habitations strewn like specks against the towering immensity of the place. The Navajo Nation boasts a population density of 6.6 people per square mile on a sprawling reservation that's larger than Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined. Manhattan sports 77,781 per square mile. It's hard to grasp. In Navajo Country the immensity of Mother Earth puts us in our very small place. That juxtaposition of the forever and the ephemeral is breathtaking

Nestled into the arid landscape are Navajo and Hopi homesteads, so small they’re easily missed. More often than not they’re trailers or manufactured homes with a corral, and sometimes a Hogan. Seen out of context they speak of poverty and desolation. But, looking more thoughtfully at the hardscrabble tableau, there’s space and grandeur in every direction. That’s the kind of wealth you cannot buy. One can imagine simply being and contemplating the land and sky at daybreak or sundown. That was my realization when I pondered a simple Navajo community glittering against a red mesa. The serenity of the scene is inexorable. The towering silence is meditation.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

The Watchtower at Desert view

The Watchtower at Desert View

As I began to research the antecedents of Mary Colter’s iconic buildings at the Grand Canyon, I referred to her recently republished 1932 book Watchtower at Desert View. It became my roadmap for a Four Corners photo safari and, potentially, an article about Colter for Shadow and Light magazine.

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. See Round Tower on the far right.

Round Tower at Cliff Palace

In her book subtitled Manual for Drivers and Guides, Colter gave special credit to Round Tower at Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park for being the inspiration for her Desert View Watchtower and to Hovenweep for being the most complete repository of Pueblo Indian architecture and construction in the Southwest. In her words, “There is no area in the United States with more archeological interest.“

Her plainly worded and highly detailed manual set me on a path to Mesa Verde near Cortez, Colorado and on to Hovenweep which straddles the Colorado-Utah border some 70 miles northwest of Cortez.

Mesa Verde sits on two mesas rising 8,500 feet above the Montezuma County valley floor. It was impressive in scope but lacked access to the major sites, Cliff Palace, and Long House. I had intended to photograph Round Tower at Cliff Palace to show its influence on Colter’s design of Watchtower. That, in fact, was my primary objective for visiting Mesa Verde. The closest I could get either site was 400 yards, so I was unable to capture the extraordinary stone and mortar work of the Ancient Puebloans a thousand years ago. And while I was able to get record shots of Cliff Palace and Long House, they fell far short of “art” and didn’t do justice to the craftsmanship on display.

Twin Towers, Hovenweep National Monument

Detail, Twin Towers at Hovenweep

Detail, Desert View Watchtower

Fortunately, Hovenweep made up for it. Tucked into the Colorado-Utah border, the compact monument afforded access to all the important sites via the Little Ruin Trail. From the trail which dropped into the shallow canyon and back up the other side I could get within a body length of every ruin. The only thing between me and the elaborate rock walls was an unobtrusive cable strung between permanent stanchions. Now I can show examples of Ancient Puebloan stonework and contrast it with the rock walls of the Watchtower. Notably, Colter employed local Hopi craftsman to apply the rock and mortar cladding of her Watchtower which was in actuality a steel and concrete structure.

The Desert View Watchtower is 70 feet tall making it, according to Colter, the tallest of the many towers that populate Navajo and Hopi country. That contention is disputed by some.

The lines and proportions of the Round Tower at Cliff Palace informed the design of the Watchtower at Desert View though the raw materials were very different than those at Mesa Verde. The rocks at Mesa Verde were carefully hewn. However, the stone available to Colter was very similar to that of Hovenweep as was the exposed position of the Watchtower akin to the towers at Hovenweep. And so, mortar less permeable than the mud used on Mesa Verde’s sheltered towers had to be used on the Watchtower. Photographs of the details of Hovenweep’s towers became the models for Colter’s masons. And the rocks for the Desert View Watchtower were used as found, another departure from Mesa Verde. The inspiration for the shape and taper of the Watchtower may have been Round Tower but the construction materials and application were all Hovenweep.

Connecting the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde and Hovenweep among others are two-lane roads that traverse Navajo and Hopi country. For the second time in three months, I’ve driven those roads. Next time I'll share my thoughts on the big empty that draws me so. 


y tuned, explorers.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Attitude Adjustment

The western view from Park Point, the height of land in Mesa Verde

8,500 feet, 30 degrees and blowing a gale

I've learned a lot about myself the last five days. I am, in short, a quivering vessel of nerves. What I've attributed to being disciplined and results oriented may be something more. On the journey from anxiousness to anxiety I’m speeding north at 90mph.

I’m so anxious to get to point B that my pulse soars to 11 on scale of 1 to 10 before I hit the road. I pack my gear so quickly that I regularly forget something. I could stock a haberdashery with the garments I’ve left in hotel rooms the last fifty years. On Thursday evening when I unpacked at our guest house in Oak Creek Canyon I didn't have the power supply for my laptop. I'd left it in my hotel room in Flagstaff. Thankfully, housekeeping turned it in to the front desk and I was able to pick it up Friday morning. But it was nerve wracking and cost me two hours I can't afford to lose

Manifestations of my impatience are many. I could publish a coffee table book of the photographs I could have taken if I’d found the brake pedal. Even more times I haven’t stopped at the store that’s on my way to the buy the milk or AAA batteries that I know we need. Apparently, I’d prefer to make a special trip. The milk and battery thing actually happened Friday morning after my self-inflicted jaunt to Flagstaff. I’m not sure I’m trainable.

If recognizing your demons is half the battle, I recognize my demons.

There’s always something eating at me. I gnashed teeth for three months before I pulled the trigger on my new mirrorless camera kit, didn’t I? Would I have deserved it less if I’d bought it in the first place?

Today’s matter o the moment is getting TSA Pre-checks on our Santa Fe to LaGuardia tickets. Since I can’t see it in print I’m not confident that we’ll be in the short line that dark Wednesday morning in December. The United agent in Bangalore, don't get me started, who took our Global Entry info assures me we’re all set. I’m doubtful. And, I’ll agonize till I know.

All of this leads to an attitude adjustment that I embraced on Thursday. My life change includes the willingness to go with flow, to say yes more readily and to be less rigid with the obligatory components of my life, namely a daily Instagram post, a weekly blog and bi-monthly contribution to Shadow and Light magazine. Oh, and four hours of cardio and three of upper body work every week.

Already the new more submissive paradigm had me having a beer with lunch on the patio of the Indian Garden Store in Oak Creek Canyon on Friday. I haven’t had a midday libation since 2014. And I extended my visit to Sedona for another day simply because folks wanted me to stay till Sunday. Those adjustments were pleasurable and I felt good about them.

But the flip side is that I’m writing this stupid blog at 10:45 Sunday night. So, I didn't have Sunday in Taos to write my blog, process photographs from Mesa Verde, Hovenweep and the Navajo Nation or workout. And I didn't post to Instagram for two days, the first such failure in 15 years.

This more fluid lifestyle is going to take some getting used to. I don’t know where and how discipline and commitment will coexist with flexibility and pleasure. I haven't found the balance so far.

This stream of consciousness is brought to you by the images within, images that have nothing whatsoever to so with the text.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Route of the Silver KIngs

The Evansville Mine #1

Evansville with a slag heap and Prospect Mountain in the distance.

With my interest piqued by my first visit to Leadville in August I returned last week to partake of the mining museum and to add to my portfolio of photographs of Leadville’s abandoned mines. In Leadville’s heyday from 1879 to 1893 there were 2,800 patented claims, 1,600 prospects and 1,300 shafts. It was, in short, a big deal. The boom had a short but epic life and the opera ended with a whimper when the US Treasury stopped buying prodigious amounts of silver to back up its Silver Certificates. Then the value of silver didn’t support the high cost of extracting the mineral. The silver’s still there, pilgrim. You just can’t afford to extract it. The singing may have stopped in 1893 but the last diehard kept at it till 1999.

The remains of the Berndell and Witherall Smelter. Mount Massive looms to the west.

In 1879 there were 17 smelters. None stand today but the immense slag heap created by the Berndell and Witherall La Plata smelter testifies to the breadth and depth of a decade of pillage and plunder.

Hopemore Mine and Mount Evans.

Upper Oro Mine on Breece Hill.

Upper Oro and Blue Sky.

As I drove the Route of the Silver Kings I tried to identify and photographs the mines I missed in August. Given Leadville’s storied past I had expected to find the definitive map of the mines. Instead, thanks to a docent at the mining museum, I was armed with a suspect hand drawn sheet which was definitely not to scale. Couple that with the fact that almost none of the mines had signs. So, I’ve identified the mines with a high degree of uncertainty. Sometimes nailed it. Other time it’s a wild ass guess.

I am please to report that for the first time ever I have three subjects for my Telling Stories byline in Shadow and Light magazine. Last week I wrote about the lowly corral. And I have a story percolating about Mary Colter, the iconic architect of the Southwest and boom and bust Leadville is also a contender.

It's an embarrassment of riches. I guess I'll know which one wins the sweepstakes when I know it. I have a week to figure it out.