Leave No Trace

When traveling in the West, you’ll often see that phrase stuck to the back of Subarus and campervans, as well as printed on many of the brochures and maps handed out at national parks, national grasslands and other hiking and camping destinations. While on the road in New Mexico back in May, I was revisiting an old book that I had brought along and I found a new appreciation for the following passage, which takes the concept of “Leave No Trace” to a higher level. The book is God’s Dog: Conversations with Coyote by Webster Kitchell…

   After breakfast we snooped around the ruins, and then we climbed
to the mesa top. We looked down on Pueblo Bonito. We were silent.
Then I spoke what I was feeling.
   “It’s sort of sad and sort of moving to see the ruins people leave.
They worked so hard, and all that’s left are ruins. But because they
worked so hard and left ruins, we remember them. We know at least
they existed. They weren’t completely swept away by the sands of
the desert and the sands of time.”
   “We don’t leave ruins.”
   “And people don’t remember you a thousand years later.”
   “So what? Who wants to be remembered?”
   “We humans can’t imagine not existing. We want to exist at least in
someone’s memory. Or leave a monument that someone will find a
thousand years later and say, ‘Some clever folks lived here.’ ”
   “So what? If you’re not alive to appreciate their wonder at the
monument you left for them, what good does the monument do?”
   “It’s psychological, Coyote, an emotional thing. I admit it isn’t
reasonable. People want to be remembered, so they build monuments.
They have to make their mark on the earth, even if it’s only carving an
aspen. It’s part of being human; the persistence of being.”
   “The point of being alive is to be alive! Why do people waste their
lives constructing a monument so people will remember them when
they’re dead? They could have put that energy into having a good time
or making life better for the human race. Or for coyotes, for that matter,
like you do.”
   “It’s called ego, Coyote. I have been reading some heavy sociology
about the stages people go through. When they’re little, they are child-
like. They don’t have all this ego. They take life as it comes, as you say
they should. Then they get to a stage when they have to differentiate
between self and parents. They start to develop an ego. Which is fun!
It means I am I. I do not exist just as an extension of my mother or my
clan; I exist! And so I want to leave my mark on the earth; maybe on
the Universe.”
   “Maybe ego is what is wrong with humans. Maybe that’s why you
were evicted from the garden way back there.”
   “You could be right. Which may be why in later life, people become
aware that life and goodness and beauty transcend the human ego. In
later years, they get some child-likeness back, but at a more sophisti-
cated level. They see the whole thing and appreciate it and understand
it and don’t have the emotional need to carve their initials in it anymore.
They can just accept it as a wondrous happening, a gift.”
   “Well said!”

~ ~ ~

Quoted text © 1991 by Webster Kitchell

Give Me a Thin Slice

A new personal record: About four years ago, I photographed a slim crescent Moon that had only 2.39% of the lunar disk illuminated. I always look for these super-thin crescents on either side of the new Moon’s arrival, but where I live in the Midwest, the air quality, light pollution and horizon clutter make them difficult to spot.

Last month, on the desolate plains of New Mexico, with a big clear sky and an unobstructed horizon, I was able to image this 1.53% waxing crescent just 34 minutes after sunset on the day following the new Moon. Venus appeared first, and I knew the Moon would be close by…I just had to wait for the sky to darken enough for her to pop.

(Want to track lunar phases and positioning in real time? Get the free app from MoonCalc.org)

Seventeen Miles

Looking back, not ahead. Found this sign at the western end of the unpaved stretch of the Dry Cimarron Highway, which now had my tire tracks imprinted in its red dust. I’ve been informed that there is a similar sign at the eastern end of this section, but I didn’t see it…or maybe I did see it and I chose not to remember. What I do remember is that this seventeen miles felt more like forty miles, and that was just fine with me. Winding my way through the mesas on this narrow dirt road, in perfect driving weather, I really didn’t want to know exactly where the fun would end.

What made the journey even more rewarding was its impromptu nature. I knew nothing of the beauty of NM-456, nor had I planned to travel that road. But, ready to depart Kenton, Oklahoma, I had to make a choice: head east, back the way I came, or continue westward. Hardly a difficult decision.

Once again, I had stumbled into one of those sublime corners of the American West—stunning vistas, silence, solitude. I drove slowly through this desert wonderland, never knowing exactly what I’d see around the next curve, though it would likely be some beautiful combination of red dirt, red rocks, colorful grasses and towering mesas set against the brilliant blue sky. Couldn’t help but think that Everett Ruess would have appreciated the view just as much as I did.

Fully immersed in my element, a car & driver portrait was mandatory. And a title for the shot came to mind before I had even set the timer:

Alone, Never Lonely

 

Do It Again

Christmas Day, 1994. This is the photo that started it all. Over the next several years and several thousand miles, I would accumulate 53 such pictures…48 states, the District of Columbia and four Canadian provinces (I’ve been to a fifth province, but was unable to find an “Ontario” sign). Years later, for reasons unknown, I had grown to loathe photographs of this car with the top in the up position. It just didn’t look right to me. I realized that, going forward, I didn’t want to shoot another photo of the Pontiac unless the top was down. And I decided to replace the existing inferior images with some new top-down shots.

Looking over the collection, it was clear that I would need several years to accomplish this overhaul; of the 53 original photos, 40 would need to be redone. In those 40 scenes, the top was up due to rain, snow, bitter cold, oppressive heat or simply due to the fact that, back then, I didn’t care. A lot of miles will have to be covered in order to get the pictures I want, but I’m certainly not complaining…I’m happy with any excuse to tour the continent yet again. During October’s long journey, I was able to cross seven more states off of the reshoot list. Let’s start with Texas…

tx1

This border crossing has changed a little over the last 21 years…the old buildings in the distance have been razed, a rusty trash barrel has been placed in front of the stone Texas monument (considering the large amount of garbage on the side of the road, it appears that no one is actually using the barrel), the New Mexico portion of the highway has been widened to four lanes, vehicle traffic has increased substantially (oil service trucks heading down the ranch roads) and, sadly, this cool vintage right-of-way marker has been removed. On the day I arrived, a trucker decided to use this spot to park and take a nap. I wasn’t too keen on the revised scenery, so, for my updated Texas photo, I opted for a different arrangement…

TX

One thing that all of the old photos have in common is that they were shot in front of state line signs. It was during the first of the reshoots that I realized there was a better solution: small-town post offices. Shooting at the state line was usually problematic. Border signs are rarely posted along minor roads; they’re reserved for highways. In addition to the hazard of the increased traffic on these highways, it was often difficult to park near the signs due to the presence of guardrails, bridges, ditches or simply due to the complete absence of a shoulder, meaning that some percentage of my vehicle was parked on or near the travel lane. At the post office, however, parking is usually a breeze, especially after hours, and the town and state names are both identified. Plus, each state has many cool post offices to choose from…

Tie Siding, Wyoming…

WY

Pep, New Mexico…

NM

Kenton, Oklahoma…

OK

Manter, Kansas…

KS

Salisbury, Missouri…

MO

In Colorado, I was enjoying a Sunday drive through scenic Pleasant Valley with my friend Sarah when we spied this tiny post office across the street from a wayward cow. All of my state photos up to this point (with the exception of New York) have been self-portraits. But on this day, I had an excellent photographer riding in my passenger seat…

co2

So I asked Sarah to take my official Colorado portrait…

CO

Many states and provinces remain on the reshoot list. And, I’m eager for my very first look at Alaska, the Yukon and all of eastern Canada. One step at a time.

You can view the whole collection via this link to an album in my Google Photos account.