Rural Atrophy

The degradation, erosion, withering--whatever you want to call it--of rural America is most definitely taking place.  The movie-going public was recently made aware of it in the animated Pixar feature a few years back called Cars.  In that movie, the residents of the fictional town of Radiator Springs, located along the non-fictional (and famous) highway Route 66, lamented the decline of their once-proud and thriving town.  Since the the expansion of the freeway system had taken over traffic through their town had dried up.

Suzie and I witnessed some of it this last weekend.

Our photography trips are very fun for us.  We really like to travel the "road less traveled" and stay off of freeways if at all possible.  Old, broken highways, small roads, dirt roads--whatever.  I've made the observation several times at how the small highways and roads are very often in much better condition than the freeways are--probably because they don't get used very much.  Anyway, our wanderings take us through a lot of small towns.  During our weekend we went into lots of small towns and we only saw two or three that looked like they were still getting by.  They still had activity.  The rest were basically empty shells.

Remember in those stereotypical old western movies when somebody would wander into a sleepy town and you would hear a little bit of wind blowing followed by a tumbleweed or two blowing across the road?  That's not far from what we experienced.  Like I mentioned in my previous post, more than once it felt like we should be whispering when we got out of the car in one of those small towns.  It was eerie.  With only a few exceptions there were no sounds of car traffic, lawnmowers, barking dogs, or any other of the usual activity we take for granted in Smalltown, USA. It's like the towns of rural America are drying up and blowing away in the wind.

I'm no socio-economic major but here's my take on it.  I figure there are several factors at play:

  • The farms have gotten bigger.  Farming machinery has gotten more complex, and now it takes far few humans to run a farm that's probably even considerably bigger than in the old days.  Aerial seeding, huge combines and harvesting equipment, and other advancements in farming have removed a lot of the farm workers from the towns.
  • Leaving the nest.  There are always going to be the children that find greener pastures (so to speak) in other places.  Nowadays everything costs more, and for someone who is just starting out on their own and trying start a family and succeed in life they need to pursue well-paying jobs.  As we all know, most of the well-paying jobs are all located in big cities and urban areas.
  • The funneling of traffic.  I already mentioned how the main stream of drivers in the U.S. have been herded onto the faster-moving freeways.  They are just a better way to go when speed is your only criteria, and face it--we all know the faster you can get somewhere the more time you have to yourself after you arrive.
  • The current economy.  The economy of our country since the financial meltdown of 2008 has been in steady decline.  Just when we think things are starting to turn around, another ripple appears.  I'm wondering how many years we are going to be affected by those ripples.

One town we stopped in was Lind, Washington, self-proclaimed "Home of the Combine Demolition Derby".  The town was a pretty good size, but is a shell of what it probably once was.  At one point I was taking a picture of Slim's Bar & Grill from right next to the curb when an older gentleman walked by.  He was moving pretty slowly--not hurrying at all to get to where he was going.  I was surprised to find that his destination was the very place I was taking pictures of as I watched him walk up and unlock the door.  It was early afternoon but he apparently had no customers even though it was a nice day and it was right after lunch.  By the looks of his pink face I'm thinking that Slim might have been his own best customer.  No matter where you looked it was hard to tell which businesses were open and which were not.  There was just no activity.  At least they have the combine demolition derby to look forward to.  Oh, and someone somewhere has to keep the website going.  Maybe it's Slim.

Part of me thinks it would be pretty cool to live in a town like that, but another part of me screams, "What are you--CRAZY?!" I guess rural America as we once knew it is fast becoming a closed chapter in the history of our country.  When you go into a small town like I've described here you don't stop for gas or food, you stop for curiosity and interest.  To most of us it's a wondrous glimpse into the past of our country--A place full of curiosities, collectibles, and artifacts, but to the few remaining citizens of those small towns it's different.

It's the end.

Washington Backroads

We took another of our favorite type of weekend excursions:  Exploring the "road less traveled".  These are the types of road trips where we try to stay on two-lane blacktop (or even less!) as much as possible.  We do our best to avoid freeways. The last time we did it was when we wandered the Okanogan county area last year.  Several times we found ourselves on dirt roads too.  They tend to be our best experiences.

We loaded up and took off Thursday right after I got home from work.  We drove a total of 977 miles, and took over 2000 pictures between the two of us during this weekend.  The weather was nice and mild, the car got good gas mileage, and nothing went wrong.  It was a great time.

One of our more interesting drives was our first departure from the freeway.  The Vantage Highway parallels Interstate 90 going east from Ellensburg, so we opted to take that route to get "off the beaten path."  As we approached the west side of the Columbia River, we found ourselves among the many wind-turbine generators (149 of them I found out this morning) that Puget Sound Energy has built there, called the Wild Horse Wind Farm.  It was quite a sight to see--Those things are huge!  On our return trip last night we stopped for better pictures and an even closer look at them:

We didn't do much straying from the highway on our way over because we needed to get to our little motel (which I'm sorry to say we failed to get a picture of) in beautiful downtown Colfax, Washington. The next day was when our photographic adventure really started.

Our main objective of the trip was to go to the top of Steptoe Butte, the highest point around, and take pictures of the rolling patchwork display of farmlands below.  We arrived there easily (it's not far from Colfax), and was at the top by about 8:45.  While it wasn't the most perfect lighting, it was nevertheless pretty awesome and well worth the drive up.  Here are a couple shots from up there:

We spent the rest of the day wandering all sorts of small roads.  We kept coming to little sleepy towns--some of which were little more than just an intersection--and took pictures of whatever caught our eye.  Sometimes old buildings, sometimes scenery, sometimes just something interesting.  The weird thing was when we'd stop the car and get out.  I remember more than once hearing nothing at all.  Total silence.  Sometimes we'd hear a lawnmower in the distance or something like that.  There was one stop in the town of Oakesdale where we stopped on the main drag and got out.  There were people coming to the town post office to collect their mail.  I was near one lady when she came out and, just making small-talk I said, "I feel like I should be whispering when I talk in this town."  I meant just that it was quiet.  She apparently took it slightly different:  "I know," she said, sadly, "We've lost 4 businesses last year."  She shook her head, adding, "it's a shame."  I looked around.  Four businesses was probably a quarter of the whole town.  No wonder it was so quiet.

It was at that point that we hit one of two things that totally "made" our weekend.  A cropduster!  From the edge of Oakesdale we could see the bright yellow plane in the distance.  We blasted up the road and stopped near where he was turning around.  After a couple passes we'd move the car closer and closer.  Finally, we were practically beneath him.  We timed it well, because we got a couple more passes from him before he finished up.  The best part was when he buzzed us after he finished!  Too cool.

Several more jaunts into small towns like Rosalia, Tekoa, Latah, and many others and we decided to head over the border into Idaho.  Almost instantly after crossing the border the weather and terrain changed.  There was snow almost everywhere we went.  We "chased" down a couple leads for potential pictures, like Wallace and the little town of Murray, but we finally gave up.  The weather was "iffy" while we were there, and nothing was really jumping out at us.  We gave up, hit the freeway (gasp!) and headed on a breakneck straight shot back to Steptoe Butte to see if we could add sundown shots to what we had taken up there that morning.  We made it (just barely!) and got some pretty interesting shots up there.  We hoped to get "long shadows" before the sun went down, but we apparently missed that part.

The next day was our last day.  After leaving the motel we headed out, determined to zig-zag our way home, staying on small roads.  Well, boy did we hit the gold mine!  One road we decided to take was a dirt road, and we stumbled across a bunch of cowboys with a big corral of calves, all ready to be branded.  After talking with them, they let us have the run of the whole thing, taking as many pictures as we wanted.  It was a blast!  That totally made the trip.  I mean really--how often in our lives to we city folk get to take part in a cattle branding event?  We took tons of pictures of that, but here are a couple:

After we left the branding, we found ourselves stopping at several other places.  We got pictures of hawks circling above us, screaming at us to leave their nesting area, pictures of podunk little towns, pictures of decaying structures, signs, and lots of other things that caught our eye.

Like I said--we've got tons of good pictures but it will take us a while to get them put up on our Smugmug site.  Stay tuned!

The Naked Finger

I had one of those gut-wrenching moments last night.  You know--the ones that give you a cold feeling of dread, coupled with a little sprinkling of vertigo.  You know what I mean.  When your mind screams, "Oh no!" (That's the rated-G version of what my mind said.)

It happened as I was getting my laptop out of its case.  Something either caught my eye or didn't feel right.  That's when I noticed it:

My wedding ring was gone.

I have always had a problem with that finger.  I broke it back in 1981 when my motorcycle and I parted company and I kissed the pavement.  I had just taken my old Honda 305 Superhawk for a breakneck ride down the street and back--pretty much going flat-out as I did.  Anyway, on the return trip I shifted down a little harder than I should have.  Normally that would have been fine, but unbeknownst to me the rear tire was a little under-inflated.  When I downshifted, it revved the engine, skidded the rear tire, and spun the tire far enough that the valve stem ripped out of the inner tube.  That resulted in an instant flat tire.  It happened as I was turning into the parking lot driveway where I lived.  I don't know how hard I hit the ground or anything, but I picked myself up thinking (hoping?) I was okay.  I found out differently when I went to pick the bike up and noticed that my left ring finger was pointing a completely wrong direction and in the way of one of my other fingers.  I stared at it dumfounded.  I'm pretty sure I was in shock.  I poured myself a shot of some kind of liquor and tried to sort it out.  I finally decided I needed to go to the hospital.  I had no real pain in it luckily--probably due to nerve damage.  On the way to the hospital I was sitting at a stop light staring at my defective finger.  Then I remembered how they fixed stuff like that in the movies.  I grabbed it, pulled it outward, aligned it, and pushed it straight back in.  Perfect!  I flexed my fist a few times, determined it was fine, and went back home.  It may have been my ignoring the hospital that caused the knuckle to be a little large, or it may have that way regardless--I don't know.  All I know is that ever since then I have had to buy an over-sized ring to get it over that knuckle.

Fast-forward to now.  When it's cold and dry weather my fingers will be thinner and drier and I find my ring occasionally coming off in my gloves or something.  It's loose to say the least.

Last night when the realization that it was missing struck me I had just finished putting a lot of pine needles and crap into our garbage can out on the street.  I couldn't recall when I had last seen it either, and that made it worse.  I drug the can back into the driveway and closed the gate behind me.  The daylight was fading fast, but with the help of a flashlight I found it.


I would have cursed myself the rest of my life I'm sure.  My wedding ring is very important to me.  It's a symbolic and sentimental thing.  Losing it is not acceptable.


I haven't posted any general blogging in a while.  I've posted chronological events like our Iceland trip, and a few poems, but not just a "what's on my mind" sort of blog post.  The funny thing is, those are the kind that made up the majority of my blogging in the past.

Maybe it's a winter/cold weather doldrums thing.  I don't know.  I sit here and, while part of me wants to blog, I just end up staring at the screen.  I think ahead at what I want to blog and realize it's all whining, griping, or "woe is me" health (or lack thereof) coverage.  Given that realization I just move on and don't write.


I'm frustrated at my attitude towards my Harley.  My heart is just not in it any longer.  Part of me wants to ride it, and part of me wants to sell it.  The trouble is, the Harley market is flat due to bad economy and lots of other sellers swamping the market.  Then I think, "Do I really want to sell it?"  Maybe not.  Given my fickle nature it's hard to tell.  If I do sell it I may be sorry.  Then again... Cash is always nice.  It would buy a few vacation trips or some new photography equipment.

Photography--another source of frustration.  My photography drives me nuts.  My 365 project ended last month, and now I have nothing forcing me to take pictures.  I'm glad it's gone, but I miss it.  Now I can take pictures of anything, any time, for any reason, but find myself not doing it.  Then when I do do it, I get frustrated with the outcome.  Part of me wants to upgrade my camera to a "new" (I'd buy it used) 50D, but part of me says, "What for?  You'll still take crappy pictures."  I sigh to myself.  I know without a doubt that Sue's camera does take better pictures than mine does.  I'm not talking about the art end of it--I'm talking about the camera itself.  Hers meters light and colors much better than mine does.  I have to "correct" almost every picture I take.  I have also found that I like to post pictures in blog format more than gallery format (which is what our Smugmug account is).  The blog format allows creativity on multiple levels that the galleries do not.  That's another issue:  When I take pictures, where do I post them?  Smugmug or blog?  I want to showcase them, but who am I showcasing them for?  Does anybody really look at them?


You know what else frustrates me?  I've been itching for a good week or better now.  You ever had hives?  It's no laughing matter because you can't really do anything about it.  If nothing caused it (which it didn't) all I can do is wait for it to run its course.  You can't scratch because it makes you want to scratch even more.

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day.  I got my car washed for the first time in probably half a year.  I also washed Sue's car.  So what do I hear as I sit here?  Rain.  We have had the most attitude-testing weather lately--It's driving everyone nuts.

Our economy is another source of frustration for me.  I'm not a smart man when it comes to investing.  I know it's a "buyer's market" out there right now, but I don't know what to do.  Sue wants me to invest her money for her, but I feel like I would lose it instead.


I Saw a Man

I saw a man who was painfully thin
his clothes were dirty rags;
he was standing in a garbage bin
digging through the bags.

Briefly then, his gaze met mine;
his red-rimmed eyes were pained.
If they ever held a shine
no trace of it remained.

I saw a man with mismatched shoes;
his dirty ankles bare.
He clutched his paper bag of booze
and peered through stringy hair.

He stared down at the littered ground
as if it wasn't there;
oblivious of things around,
lost in his despair.

I saw a man upon the ground
in dirty blankets rolled;
he slept and as he did he frowned
outdoors in bitter cold.

He has no place to call his own
and has to search for food.
He spends his empty days alone
no friends he can include.

I saw a man that spends his nights
inside a cardboard box.
Enduring insects and their bites
he has no doors or locks.

Sometimes when he'd go and roam
to find something to eat
he'd go back to his makeshift home
and find but empty street.

I saw a man in an alleyway
huddled near a warm air vent;
at his side a small dog lay
sharing space on the cement.

Whenever there was food to eat
he fed his puppy first.
Although they lived out on the streets
alone it would be worse.

I saw a man that wandered nights;
he found it best to stay
away from all the noise and lights
and sleep during the day.

He rested in the doorways, dark
and hid from public eye;
he'd sometimes sleep in city parks
under the open sky.

I saw a man hunched in the rain;
he once had pride and wealth.
From drug use he could not refrain
and it cost his job and health.

His energy, once strong, was spent;
he had nothing to give.
Begging handouts he stood, bent;
doing what he could to live.

The stories of these fallen men
are varied, yet the same.
They know they can't go back again
their pasts can they reclaim.

The human need to cling to life
is all that drives them now.
Their days are filled with pain and strife
but they survive, no matter how.

Rick Williams

Turning It Off

It's a strange thing, but I don't remember having to get into the groove when I started my 365 photography project last year, but it's strangely hard getting out of it.  I think it was because it was a new and exciting thing then and I saw it as an effortless task that really had no boundaries.

First let me say:  I'm not trying to get out of taking pictures--I'm trying to savor the fact that I'm not forced to take pictures any longer.

The reality is that now I can't seem to get rid of the nagging feeling that I am neglectful.  It feels like I should still be sitting down at my computer and reviewing the "day's catch" to select the daily picture from.  Every day since it ended last Thursday I've made the same, lame statement at some time during the evening hours: "Oh crap, I didn't get a picture!"

It was funny at first.  I'll try to stop now.

It occurred to me yesterday how often that thought does pop into my head.  I find myself still carrying my camera with me almost everywhere I go, and most likely will continue to do so.  Oddly, the part I have trouble with is the fact that everywhere I go I still scan the surroundings.  While I'm driving I'm constantly on the lookout for something--anything--that is picture-worthy.  That's the trouble.  I don't need the "anything" part any longer.  When I find something worthy of pictures I will make it happen, but I don't have to keep thinking the anything portion.  The requirement part of the equation is gone.

A couple times this weekend I saw a neighborhood kid go zooming by on one of those little mini crotch-rockets.  We have seen it off and on for several months and I had long ago added it to my mental list of 365 possibilities, but during the course of the 365 project I never did around to attempting it.  The nagging feeling is still there though--Like I still need to cross it off my list.  I have to say that it is sort of an interesting and challenging subject to shoot.  Partly because it would be a panning action shot (and I'm not good with those), and partly because I don't know him, so I don't know when or how often he will zoom by.

I also have trouble with the fact that now I have no real blog activity any longer.  While I hardly ever got a comment from anyone on my 365 blog, it still didn't keep me from looking to see if I did.  Now there's nothing to look for.

I wonder if this is the same feeling that people get when they find themselves retired?