Back when San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit trains had fabric-covered uplholstery , the seating inspired a story: “On BART Trains, the Seats Are Taken (by Bacteria).” That piece was published in 2011 by The Bay Citizen, a short-lived regional news site that partnered with The New York Times, and it disclosed that the fabric seats were crawling with the nastiest-sounding of microbes. Soon thereafter, BART installed vinyl-covered upholstery— easier to clean, when you get around to cleaning it — on all trains.
Of course, the fabric seats, whose reported rampant filth I was blissfully unaware of and thus unconcerned about after 35 years riding the system, wasn’t why I took this shot back in 2012. Those origami flowers someone left behind were one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen on BART or any public transit. They also remind me of “Blade Runner.”
We’re down in Los Angeles for a few days. The quickest way of getting here, obviously, is to fly. It’s a one-hour flight. But we generally drive, and that’s mostly because we like seeing the country along the way.
The main route between the Bay Area and L.A. is Interstate 5. And while a lot of the territory between metropolises is interesting and picturesque, and all of it is worth seeing and contemplating, that particular highway is a real drag. The volume of traffic can be intense, for one thing. For another, many, many, many, many drivers tend to camp out in what is known unironically in much of California as “the fast lane.” That’s especially true if a driver sees a truck somewhere up ahead — “up ahead” meaning “within sight.” The appearance of truck traffic, which in California has a 55 mph maximum speed limit, causes many drivers to get over into the left (a.k.a. “passing”) lane minutes before they will actually overtake the truck. Once past a truck, many drivers will sight another truck up ahead and figure they might as well just stay over there in that left lane until they pass that one, too. The result is long strings of vehicles lined up in the left lane, even when the right lane is empty. Not only are the lines of “fast lane” traffic long, they usually feature dramatic slowdowns and speed-ups as more cautious drivers brake to maintain some sort of minimum distance between them and the vehicle they’re following; sometimes the slowdowns occur because faster traffic has come up in the right lane and merges into the long line of left-lane traffic; sometimes the trucks get into the act when a slightly faster-moving truck moves to the left to pass a slow-poke semi.
That’s pretty much the way I-5 works most of the 275 or 300 miles or so down the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, and it’s kind of a drag. Yesterday, with less than half of that part of the drive done, I commented to Kate that I wished there was an alternative. Of course there are alternatives if you’re willing to take a much less direct (more time-consuming) route. But having voiced the thought of taking another way, we acted on it. I got off I-5 at Highway 41, the main route between Fresno and Paso Robles and the coast, took it west to Highway 33, then headed south through the Kern County oilfields, and across the Coast Ranges to Ojai and Ventura. I rode the same route on my bicycle years ago, and the memory of the trip across the mountains is vivid. The road did not disappoint yesterday, either.
We finished by taking 101 from Ventura into L.A., arriving early in the evening and well after the most excruciating hours of Friday afternoon traffic. We may have spent an extra couple of hours on the way than we would have if we had stayed on I-5, in part because we could stop as often as we wanted along the way and there was nothing pushing us (me) to go fast. We got where we were going, not necessarily soul-refreshed, but maybe a little less beat up from the tension of a long drive.
Like everyone else who’s walking around with one of these “phones” equipped with a high-quality camera (or are they really decent cameras with mediocre-quality phones?), I take lots of pictures. Sometimes I try to discover a theme in what attracts my attention, but aside from “landscapes” or “birds” or “infrastructure” or “stuff on the street,” I would struggle to name any real thread that ties any of my images together.
But a couple of days ago I was looking a few pictures — just three — I had taken on three separate trips to other parts of California over the last few years and was surprised to see something of a story there.
Here are the images:
That first shot is the Los Angeles Aqueduct, in the Owens Valley just across the highway from Manzanar, the site of the internment camp where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Kate and I camped nearby, just outside the town of Independence, in 2018. After spending a beautiful September afternoon touring Manzanar, we wandered down to the aqueduct as the sun was setting.
The second shot is the Hollywood Reservoir and Mulholland Dam in Los Angeles. I had wanted to see this place for years, and we made it up on a Sunday afternoon last June while visiting our son Thom.
The third shot shows part of the wreckage of the St. Francis Dam, in San Francisquito Canyon, in northwestern Los Angeles County. The dam collapsed in March 1928, killing about 450 people downstream. You have to hunt a little for the site of the dam, which Kate and I did on the same 2018 trip that took us to Manzanar.
I like the fact all three images were shot on film using relatively antique (1970s-era) Japanese rangefinder cameras. But what ties them together, perhaps obviously, is the connection to Los Angeles, water, and L.A. Department of Water and Power chief William Mulholland.
Mulholland was the principal architect of the Los Angeles water system: He played a leading role in helping secure (or steal, depending on your perspective) the Owens Valley water rights for the city. He engineered the aqueduct that brought the water to Los Angeles. Although he was initially reluctant to build dams and reservoirs to store that water, he designed and supervised the construction of Mulholland Dam, which took all of 16 months to complete in 1923-24. He used that structure as a sort of template for the St. Francis Dam, which was completed in 1926. Mulholland visited St. Francis Dam just hours before it disintegrated and pronounced it sound; the catastrophe ended his career. Although he apparently believed Owens Valley saboteurs were responsible, as they had been for the destruction of some of the aqueduct facilities in the eastern Sierra, he took public responsibility for the tragedy. “Don’t blame anybody else,” he told a coroner’s inquest. “You just fasten it on me. If there is an error of human judgment, I was the human.”
As I say, I just happened to look at the three photographs together the other day and see a story. If I ever have a show, I thought, I’d want to present them as a group. For some reason, I thought a presentation like that would be more complete with a fourth image. I remembered a 2017 visit to Los Angeles during which we stopped at the Department of Water and Power building (a.k.a. the John Ferraro Building), at the corner of First and Hope streets, and just across the way from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the former home of the Oscars.
I took some pictures when we were at the DWP building — all with a digital SLR, not film. Looking back, I found one that I thought I could add to the group — post-processed from color to black and white. It’s looking up from a corner of the building up toward the roof, with the sun just obscured:
What kind of statement is that making? I haven’t come up with words yet, though I like the image. And as I say, if there ever is a show, this one’s going in.
We spent last weekend in the San Joaquin Valley looking at birds. Thousands and thousands of birds — snow geese and white-fronted geese, shovelers, pintails and teals, killdeer and meadowlarks, avocets and ibises, stilts and wrens, red-winged blackbirds and red-tailed hawks, tundra swans and sandhill cranes.
Part of the experience of entering into the world of the birds is the sound. Actually: part of the experience? Visiting these places where tens or hundreds of thousands of migrating birds have gathered is mesmerizing, electric, sometimes overpowering, utterly enveloping and at moments gives a hint of what this place we live was like before we began the project of radically reshaping it.
Here are three snippets of that sound. The first is from Super Bowl Sunday, when Kate and I found ourselves virtually alone — except for the birds — in the 10 square miles of the Los Banos National Wildlife Refuge. After that clip are a couple from the Merced National Wildlife Refuge — the crazily energetic stylings of a marsh wren and a surprise overflight of about 300 sandhill cranes at midday on Valentine’s Day.
The title overpromises. Here’s just one bird in review from a weekend in the valley: the sandhill crane, Antigone canadensis. Among many other things one might write about the bird is the fact the original English common name assigned to these creatures in the mid-18th century was “the brown and ash-colour’d crane.”
Where can you see them? Over the late fall and winter, we’ve encountered them at several wildlife refuges: Llano Seco (near Chico), Cosumnes, Merced, and San Luis. There were small groups at most of these places when we visited. At Merced, we saw thousands.
More sandhill crane lore (and birds to be reviewed) later.
I wish I could say that in a trip that covered something like 6,000 miles over 23 days that we met lots of people and had deep conversations that led to profound personal discovery. We didn’t. And maybe the stats mentioned in that first sentence explain part of the reason. We were actually actively traveling for just 15 or 16 days, which means we were covering 400 miles a day on average. That’s nothing for The Great American Road Warrior, for whom 500 or 600 or even 1,000 miles a day is routine (I once took a trip back to Chicago from Berkeley with my son Eamon that covered 2,100 miles in all of 40 hours, even with an overnight stop in Cheyenne, Wyoming). The point being: Even at 400 miles a day, the modern traveler isn’t going to spend a lot of time in intimate conversation with random acquaintances on the road. Even if you’re the kind of person who easily strikes up a conversation with a total stranger, which mostly I am not.
On the other hand, the conversations that do happen tend to stand out.
When John and I stopped at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, one of the main destinations on our trip, we encountered a group at the top of what has long been known as Last Stand Hill, the place where Lt. Col. George A. Custer and the remnants of his command died together on June 25, 1876. People were listening to a ranger named Michael Hasch recount the progress of the battle. I was impressed by Hasch’s command of the lore surrounding the battle, including the many first-person accounts from Native American participants. One moment I remember in particular from his talk: The moment when a Cheyenne named Lame White Man rallied fellow warriors to the attack by shouting, “Come! We can kill them all!” Hasch has a deep voice, and it carries. He spoke slowly, deliberately, and when he intoned those words, it was like the moment was coming alive again. After his presentation, I talked to Hasch and discovered he is a former Pittsburgh newspaper reporter who began volunteering at the battlefield a decade ago. One of the people listening to that conversation was a woman who used to be a local news anchor in San Francisco, and that led to yet another conversation with a stranger. But that’s another story.
So, that’s one encounter during our trip across the country. Here are a couple of others:
We met Laura and Jamie at the top of Teton Pass, Wyoming (elevation 8,432 feet above sea level). We had driven up the west side on our way from Idaho to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. They arrived pushing a heavily-laden tandem bike up the east side.
What was their story? They said they had both quit their jobs, sold their home and most of their belongings and had a custom tandem built. Their plan was (presumably still is) to spend five years cycling around, mostly in Europe. They had ridden from Connecticut by way of Louisiana to get to this spot on Wyoming Highway 22, and planned to cycle up the west flank of the Tetons before heading east into Yellowstone. After that, they’d make their way east and south to Florida, where they planned to spend the winter before heading to Europe. The biggest impression they made on me was how cheerful they were after pushing their machine up the last two miles of busy roadway up to the pass. I, too, have pushed my bike up steep mountain roads, and I’m not sure I was smiling all the way.
What more can I say about these two? Godspeed, Laura and Jamie.
The motive for our road trip (or excuse, maybe) was to commemorate what would have been our dad’s 100th birthday in early September by visiting his birthplace and first hometown in northwestern Minnesota. We got to Marshall County a few days after the actual centennial, and spent much of the day taking pictures at a rural Lutheran church where our grandfather, Sjur Brekke, was pastor a century ago. The we headed to Alvarado, population 300, where Sjur, our grandmother, Otilia, and dad lived (and where Sjur saw to another Lutheran congregation). After that, we drove the five or six miles east on Minnesota Highway 1 to Warren, the county seat, where Dad was actually born. One thing I had discovered about Warren during a 2018 trip through the area (and somehow had missed during a couple of much earlier visits) is that the town’s drive-in theater, the Sky-Vu, is still in business.
John and I pulled in to the Sky-Vu to take a look. Like everyplace else where we stopped for more than a couple of minutes, we brought out cameras and started strolling around taking pictures. Next door, a man on a riding mower was cutting the grass on a sprawling lawn in front of a big ranch-style house painted the same pink color as the concession stand/projection booth at the theater. After about five minutes, he drove the mower over to see what we were up to.
“Your place?” I said. Or something like that. And it was. His name: Leonard Novak, and he said he’d bought the Sky-Vu in the early 1970s and that he and his family have been running it since; a grandson is doing most of the work now. As it happens, KFAI in Minneapolis did a nice radio documentary about 10 years ago featuring the Novaks and the Sky-Vu in which Leonard says he doesn’t foresee the theater closing, ever: “We’re the only one (drive-in) between Winnipeg and Minneapolis.” And judging from the fact it’s still open, and still showing first-run movies, maybe he’s right.
"You can find all kinds of ruins on the Great Plains; in dry regions, things last a long time. When an enterprise fails on the plains, people usually just walk away and leave it. With empty land all around, there is not much reason to tear down and rebuild on the same site. ..." — Ian Frazier, "Great Plains"
"For every surviving ranch, I passed a dozen ruined houses. The prairie was dotted about with wrecks. Their windows, empty of glass, were full of sky. Strips of ice-blue showed between the rafters. Some had lost their footing and tumbled into their cellars. ... Skewed and splayed, the derelicts made up a distinctive local architecture." — Jonathan Raban, "Bad Land"
In mid-September, my brother John and I drove west from Chicago on our return trip to California. We didn’t follow anything like a standard route. From western Illinois across the prairies and into the plains of eastern Wyoming we stuck almost exclusively to two-lane roads, or at least non-interstates: U.S. 30 and 20 across Iowa; Nebraska Highway 12 and U.S. 20 again (after veering briefly into South Dakota along the Missouri River) across the Cornhusker State; and U.S. 20 once more until it merged with Interstate 25 near Casper, Wyoming. (Here’s a collection of pictures from both the east- and westbound legs of the trip.)
One morning along the way, we backtracked from Chadron, Nebraska, to Rushville, then headed north toward the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Reservation just across the South Dakota border. The site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre is on the reservation; it’s a spot I’ve long wanted to visit, and it was sort of an obvious bookend for our eastbound stop at the Little Big Horn battlefield.
A few miles up the road toward Pine Ridge we passed the house above. Both John and I, who had brought film cameras to record our travels, said we needed to remember to stop at the place on the way back from Wounded Knee. Three or four hours later, I was speeding back south when John said, “There it is.” “Really? Are you sure? I don’t think so. That doesn’t look like the same place to me.” “No — that’s the place.”
I hit the brakes hard, and we turned onto a dirt road adjacent to the house. I took note of a man on a tractor about a quarter-mile away and wondered whether he had some connection to the house. But I didn’t think about that for long. We broke out our cameras, including John’s 5-by-7 pinhole camera, a couple of older Nikons, and one of several rangefinder models I had brought along.
After about 15 minutes, I saw that the man on the tractor had stopped his plowing, climbed down, and was walking toward the house. I more than half-expected he would ask what the heck we were doing on his land. Instead, he said something like, “Picture day, huh, fellas?” Yes, the house was on his family’s land, but he was pretty genial and really just curious about what we were doing. It turned out that this was far from the first time he’d encountered passers-by who had stopped to photograph the house.
And about the house: The farmer/rancher, who told us his family name was Viher and that he’d been born here just after World War II , said it had been owned by a family named Rush (maybe the Rushes of Rushville?) and was last occupied in the 1940s. Mr. Viher said there was a problem with occasional vandalism on the property — at some point, someone had come along and burned down a barn adjacent to the house; a half-burned shed still stood.
There’s probably an essay waiting to be written here about why ruins like this attract our attention, but given the fact it’s taken me four months to sit down and write even a bare description of the visit, this is not it.
I did think to ask Mr. Viher if I could take his picture before he went back to plowing. He was agreeable.
Afterward, I did something I’d never done before: I had the picture printed, figured out the Vihers’ address on their ranch, and sent it to him. I didn’t hear back for a while and wouldn’t have been too surprised to get no response. But on New Year’s Eve, I got an email thanking me for the picture and respondng with a collection of snapshots of the house and other ranch scenes.
And those shots, if nothing else, show me that that picturesque wreck of a house out there on the plains speaks just as much to at least some of the folks living out there as it does to the random traveler with a camera.
Well, my brother John and I got back to our starting point here in Berkeley a few days ago. So the travelogue here is a little fractured. I have told myself that maybe if I could limit my road trip postings to a single paragraph, then maybe I could keep up a daily record. But one thing usually leads to another in the narrative that forms in my head. And brevity poses its own challenges.
So here we are. I last posted a week ago yesterday, Friday, September 17, from Chadron, Nebraska, after crossing the 100th Meridian. What happened after that?
Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Oglala Sioux’s Pine Ridge Reservation. Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Casper, Wyoming. Interstate 80 and Interstate 15 on a long drive from Casper to Las Vegas. A tough Sunday drive down I-15 and associated superhighways to Los Angeles. A couple of relaxed days in L.A. hanging out with my son Thom. Then a drive through Kern County backroads and oil fields, then I-5 up the San Joaquin Valley and across the passes and valley back to the bay shore and Berkeley.
I’ll circle back to some of that. There’s much more to say, including this one observation after three weeks and two days away from home: No matter how much time I give myself to explore this world of ours, I want more.
We left Chicago on Wednesday morning and made it to Sioux City, Iowa, following what’s become a typical late-ish start (10:30, say, due to how slow I am to get ready) and quitting just at dark. It means we’re on the road for 10 or 11 hours each day.
Thursday we left Sioux City at about the usual time and spent the day zig-zagging back and forth across the Nebraska and South Dakota border as we headed west on two-lane roads, mostly on Nebraska’s Highway 12 and, further west, on U.S. 20. Four hundred miles or so later, we wound up in Chadron, Nebraska.
Someone — one would guess tourism-minded state and local officials and hopeful Chamber of Commerce folks — has styled Highway 12 “the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway.” I can attest that the route is scenic, with sweeping vistas of the rolling country along the Missouri River on the road’s eastern end that transition slowly into the high plains and beginning of the Sand Hills on the western end. My only complaint, and you knew there had to be one, is that there’s no ready explanation along the road or on the Outlaw Trail websites about why, precisely, it’s called that.
One of the sites advertises an “adventure of friendly people, scenic sights and the history of Native American Tribes, outlaws, cowboys and pioneers. … Communities have museums waiting to be explored and murals waiting to be viewed. This region offers seasonal opportunities to hunt fauna or flora with arms or camera. Please check on the current Covid situation.”
Highway 12 crosses the 100th Meridian west of Greenwich in Keya Paha County (‘keya paha is “turtle hill” in the Dakota language, per what I see online). I have an app on my phone that gives a very precise reading (to four decimal places) of latitude and longitude. When we got to the approximate locale, we parked at a crossroad and I walked about 1,000 feet back to the spot the app indicated was very nearly precisely the exact location of the meridian (“very nearly precisely” because the app would jump between 99.9996 and 100.0005 degrees with a single stride east or west).
John and I both took pictures to commemorate the spot. I wish I’d taken a shot of the little mark I gouged out on the road’s shoulder to mark the location.
Why bother with the 100th Meridian? In the late 19th century, John Wesley Powell, the early explorer of the Grand Canyon and first head of the U.S. Geological Survey, proposed that line of longitude as marking the boundary between the wetter more humid areas of the eastern United States and the more arid regime of the West. Subsequent research found Powell’s observation to be spot on — though his other important ideas about the implications for development of the western United States have been largely ignored. More recently, scientists have been assessing how the dry transition that occurs along the 100th Meridian appears to be moving east due to the influence of climate change. You can read more here: “Whither the 100th Meridian? The Once and Future Physical and Human Geography of America’s Arid–Humid Divide. Part I: The Story So Far.“
I’ll also note before posting that we have not one but two 100th Meridian museums on the Plains: one in Cozad, Nebraska, one in Erick, Oklahoma. Next time I’m roaming around out here. …
We left my sister’s house on Chicago’s North Side at what I consider to be a humane hour, 10 a.m., headed across the northwestern suburbs to the series of toll roads that would lead us out of the metropolis and toward the Mississippi River. We got off the interstate routes in western Illinois and took U.S. 30, part of the old Lincoln Highway, across Iowa. We made a stop at the country church north of Des Moines where my father’s father’s parents and some distant cousins are buried. Then we raced across western Iowa to Sioux City, where we are tonight.
Our route after leaving the church — St. Paul’s Lutheran — took us through Stanhope, a little town I am sure my great-grandparents, my grandfather and my dad knew. We stopped at the one gas station in town to fill up. I walked in to the small store attached to the station to get a cold drink. There was a tall, gray-haired woman working at the counter.
“Hi, there,” I said.
“Hi,” she answered.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Great,” she said. “How about you?”
“Same. Beautiful day,” I replied.
“Yes it is,” she said. “Just like it was thirty-one years ago.”
“Thirty-one years ago,” I said. “1990. What happened on September 15, 1990?” I half expected to hear that a tornado or some other misfortune had befallen the town.
“I got married,” she said.
“That is a great thing to celebrate,” I said. And deciding to ignore the possibility that that marriage was over for one reason or another, I added, “Are you doing anything? Going out to dinner tonight?”
“No, not tonight,” she said. “Had to work. And so did he. But we’ll do something this weekend.’
And that was our conversation. Then we were back on the road and rolling through towns with names I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen them and double-checked them.