A few miles west of the Oregon-Idaho border, after driving through Boise and what felt like a high altitude wind tunnel on Highway 84, we happened upon a little RV campground called Catfish Junction. On a less dramatic portion of the Snake River, the grounds are nestled in golden hills. There we met the tall, scraggly-bearded groundskeeper, Daren. Wearing a dilapidated black hoody and blown out denim jeans, his demeanor was laid back as one would expect from a cat fisherman and rural RV site overseer. He kindly lent us an old taped-up fishing pole and some fresh night crawlers. Seemingly, Daren doesn’t often meet many young travelers willing to step out of their RV’s, and was happy to chat with us about our adventures with Brownie In Motion.
On the boat dock, we cast out our lines while I played guitar to the rapidly shifting sunset. Ten minutes in, Daren got a bite. Casually working his fishing pole, he effortlessly reeled in a catfish over 2 feet long. “That’s your breakfast,” Daren said as he plopped the fish into a bucket for overnight storage. While removing the hook, he muttered, “Stupid cat,” over and over….
Friday morning, we mingled with Daren while I prepared our catfish and French press coffee breakfast. He regaled us with stories about the Junction: natives raiding travelers on the Oregon Trail, an eccentric who used to farm a small island in the lake, and his own experience working heavy machinery in L.A. As we drove off, I couldn’t help thinking of this adventure as our own little salute to the Oregon Trail.
The day after our sunburn-inducing adventure in the Bonneville Salt Flats, we spent time in Twin Falls, Idaho reaching out to contacts in Oregon and lazing in the park next to the local library. This was much needed rest after our foray in Bonneville’s muddy expanses. Before leaving town, we felt compelled to do some sight seeing.
Snake River runs westward through the awkward little town in an epic canyon ¼ mile deep. The site of Evel Knievel’s failed Skycycle X-2 steam-powered rocket jump across the river, a dirt ramp on the south side of the falls still serves as a tourist attraction. The canyon is littered with waterfalls cascading brilliantly into the river, however the overabundance of strip malls and buildings around the falls dilute its natural beauty. I’m not sure if it was the town or the lack of sleep, but it left a strange taste in my mouth.
The amount of distance traveled and total waking hours began to take their toll on us. From Carbondale in Colorado, to Idaho via Utah in 72 hours, with no more than 10 hours of sleep we longed for rest. But movement is the name of the game; with only 48 hours until The Great Oregon Steam Up, again we hit the highway.
After being stranded in the Bonneville Salt Flats all day, we cruised the strip in Wendover, Utah; the nighttime streets lined with $35 motels. On the Nevada side of the border, bright Vegas-style lights advertise penny slots, $6.55 senior discounts, and all-night buffets. A weird neon glow rises up into the desert sky. A place for Vegas dropouts, and vagrant Mormons to drown their woes, Wendover was clearly not built for high rollers. Technicolor temples of debauchery are seemingly the only things West Wendover has to offer.
After scanning the strip, we decided to get some cheap grub at a casino. Inside the Red Garter, patrons sit hypnotized by machines ringing out the merry music of paychecks being tossed aside. Countless slot machines and who-knows-what-else awaits the avid gambler inside these establishments. We ate our dinner at the Prospector Lounge, a neglected section of the casino with busted-out satin chairs and dull historical paintings commemorating the old west. The food was good enough; a simple biscuits and gravy for myself, and two eggs and toast for Steve. After reflecting on our day in salty hell, we chose to move forward and immediately made tracks for Twin Falls, Idaho. Driving up an old dusty portion of 93, I stayed wired on caffeine and chewing gum.
It was 3:00 AM before we settled into a RV park, a few miles north of our intended destination. Out in the open, surrounded by rural-suburban sprawl, our choice of campground was anything but ideal. Instead of a tree-lined grotto in the woods, the desolate concrete pad was lined with water and electrical hookups. Steve was furious about my decision to camp here as we rolled up to our pseudo campground. As we drifted to sleep in the parking lot, distant footsteps shocked my dull brain with a jolt of paranoia. Exhaustion took over and, before I could peek out of my sleeping bag, I was overtaken by troubled sleep.
Thursday morning in Jerome, Idaho, the fair grounds where we camped were milling with lazy preparatory activity for an upcoming event. Having expected to be harassed by the police, or worse, twisted local bumpkins whose motives and ethical standards would be no doubt questionable, rising to the gentle murmur of friendly fair grounds employees was a relief. The clanking of tent poles and humming of diesel engines quietly emanated from surrounding lots while we slowly and crustily rose from slumber. Despite our ratty appearance, we — wild-eyed, dusty punks passed out in their parking lot — were greeted with an offer of showers, friendly conversation and use of a hose to clean off our van.
As I hosed-off the salty mud caked onto the bottom of our vehicle, I was struck by how fortunate we’ve been. All along our journey, the kindness of people we encounter continues to surprise and amaze us. From gifts of Girl Scout cookies to perfect strangers offering a place to stay, we’ve are grateful for everyone’s generosity and willingness to help two road-worn travelers.
7:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning we were rearing to get out on the Bonneville Salt Flats to make photographs with the camera obscura. Our frolic in the mud the night before had caused some apprehension but thorough testing of the ground assured us of a securely packed salt flat with only a little water from the rain resting on top. In cinematic form we sped through to the flats with our video camera rolling. The loaded down Ford maxed out at 93mph but driving on the famed salt was an experience non-the less. We made a beeline straight into the immense salty white expanse while I stared off, hypnotized by the road cones and mountain ranges swirling past us.
The road to Salt Lake City caught me off-guard. I knew Mormons had found the salt lake valley after wandering through the desert and decided it was a divine gift, but I was never aware or concerned with the logistics of this gift, nor had anyone ever described it to me with particular enthusiasm.
Cruising through the mountains was awe-inspiring. In the south near Route 70, the rocks are hard and craggy; large double trailer coal mining trucks speed through the hills. As you proceed north, the landscape starts to undergo dramatic transitions. Within 100 miles, you travel from the Moab desert, up into the mountains, and then down towards Lake Utah. The descent is nothing short of magical. At the top of the mountains, the landscape becomes more fertile; shrubs and trees to rise in frequency, changing the world from the dead whites and greys into deep greens, blues, and browns. For a moment, mind you, just a moment, I think I saw what the Mormon’s were speaking of when they thought they had found Eden; sunlight gleaming through majestic peaks brushed by clouds while mighty pines climb steeply upwards. We sped through Salt Lake City with the commuters on the 8-lane, mega-highway-mecca-Blvd. The city at night was impressive. We cruised down 80W towards Bonneville, still tired from Arches, doing our best to stay awake.
The further west we went, the stranger things seemed to become. At one point along the freeway we saw what looked like a giant illuminated cactus, the only structure for 50 miles. Our eyes started playing tricks on us. Apart from our headlights, there was nothing but total darkness and some industrial operations deep in the hills. My eyes locked onto something in the distance, maybe a mountain range, maybe a UFO; I had no idea. It turned out to be the lights from Wendover, the town nearest the flats. We pulled into the Bonneville Speedway around 1:00 A.M. and started exploring.
A sign filled with bullet holes, eerie wind, and a blanket of stars became our playground. I had noticed earlier that day while setting up at Arches National Park that the poles of the Brownie’s frame sounded like giant wind chimes when struck against the ground. I unpacked a few and hit them against the hard packed desert floor. The vibrations I had heard earlier sustained a long ringing enhanced by the wind and silence of the desert. Different lengths of poles created wild overtones, slowly receding in the expansive nothingness. Steve set up a remote sensor on a flash behind the bullet-hole-ridden Bonneville Speedway sign, revealing the negative space created by gun totting yahoos that regular the flats. We spent at least two hours in the cool desert night.
Finding any clear information about camping at the flats had been a bit of a challenge. The BLM website (Bureau of Land Management) make vague statements about camping being permitted on adjacent land. So Steve pulled of on the side of the road to set up camp. There seemed to be a great deal of space to explore and camp on even further off the road, so I egged him on. It turns out a van with front wheel drive does not fare that well in mud. About 40 yards from the road, the van stopped and wheels started to spin. We freed ourselves by emptying some of our photo sandbags to gain traction in the slippery mud. About ten minutes later we were back on the road. Crisis averted we headed onto a deserted desert road to camp.
A tarp behind the van on the shoulder of the road was our campsite and sleep came easy. Having learned our lesson about the mud we were ready for the flats. Tomorrow would be a day of photographic fun in the bizarre desert world. Or so we thought…
Colorado was a blur and our workflow was irregular at best. Between visiting with friends and family, being rained out of several locations, and wanting to sightsee, the Brownie-In-Motion team managed only 2 camera obscura shoots in our 8 days there; the Genoa wind farm, and the Red Rocks Park. We fell in love with the rapidly shifting landscape, the color palates painted on various altitudes. It was with a heavy heart that we left Carbondale on Monday, quietly driving away from our little mountain paradise.
Our next location, Arches National Park just outside Moab, Utah. That evening we cruised through the park scouting locations for our shoot the next day. The surrounding landscape, epic in proportions, compared with nothing I have ever seen. To the south, Mt Peale darts into the clouds and the Moab fault runs into an adjacent valley seeming to stretch on forever. Deep reds, washed out greens, and endless blue skies serve to accentuate the stone formations that towered around us. Throughout the whole time at Arches, my sense of awe never diminished.
Overnight we camped out on Route 162 about 10 miles northeast of Moab. Route 162 is a scenic byway that runs down the Colorado river in Southeastern Utah, coming out of the Rockies and slowly dissipating into the desert. It was dark by the time we arrived, but our camp setup is rather minimalist and easy to accomplish in the dark. A hammock, sleeping pad, or simple tent make for good sleeping pretty much anywhere.
Our campsite was hot, humid, and riddled with insects of all kinds. Not 20 minutes after we set up and prepared dinner, a strong wind picked up and our non-rainproof camping arrangements started feeling quite inadequate. We rushed to get our things packed away again but before we finished the rain came on without hesitation. With one of our tarps and a nearby fencepost, Stephen created an impromptu lean-to that connected to the back doors of the van. With our aluminum Bud Light bottles and mac n’ cheese, we settled in for a nice, albeit wet, dinner. Laughing at the improbability of rain in a desert, we slowly got cold, drenched, and dirty. When the rain let up, we relocated camp to a picnic shelter down the road. On our nighttime drive through scenic 162, we laughed, shivered, and sang ‘Strangers in the Night’ to passing cars as we made our way down the lonely road.
By 6:15 A.M. the next morning, with only 3 hours of sleep, we were back at Arches ready to work. The only others inhabiting the park were clearly photographers, hobbyists & professionals alike. No one in the park seemed to interested in our giant camera; a few tourists scampered by with raised eyebrows but during our 6 hours there we only spoke with three people. Right as Steve was finishing what would be our final shot at the park, a ranger approached us. We narrowly escaped a $500 citation at the graces of the ranger, and were issued a verbal warning. Luckily the large paper negative Steve had just developed turned out to be perfect
After breaking down the camera, I encouraged a little more exploration since we hadn’t actually got to go up to the rocks much. I climbed around gaily while Steve snapped some pictures inside the Double Arches. The next destination for us, the Bonneville Salt Flats. Hopefully we catch some wild speed trials, or at least perform some ourselves.
On 10:15 A.M. on Thursday, July 17th, Stephen and I blazed a trail westward from Columbus. We had been at his studio until 3:00 A.M. the night before; packing, plotting, and recording one hell of an inspirational monologue from a fellow artist at 400 West Rich. The van was filled to capacity with the world’s largest Brownie camera, 5 tripods, 12 other cameras of various sizes and styles, Stephen’s homemade developing cart, a guitar, a ukulele, camping gear, darkroom supplies, and a cooler filled with food.
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We drove without cruise control, rolled the windows down, and chain-smoked unapologetically. Our only mission for the first day was to put as many miles between Ohio and us as possible. The first 600 dusty miles brought us through western Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Eastern Missouri. I picked out a campsite about an hour west of St. Louis, Little Lost Creek Nature Reserve. I really had no idea what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised when we discovered a secluded, shady site well removed from the highway.
Upon arrival, Steve serenaded me on the ukulele while I prepared our kielbasa and canned sauerkraut dinner over a fire. We drank some tall cans of beer and waxed philosophic. I brought two hammocks along and that first night on the road found us sleeping suspended by pine trees. Camping by hammock is super comfortable. Normally, I sleep like a baby but late that night, I was startled awake by coyotes howling recklessly from what sounded like 20 yards away. Unable to fall back asleep, I nervously awaited sunrise, losing myself in the textures and sounds of the woods. Serious moonlight gently brushed the top of the old pines, cool air swaying above our heads. I listened to the crickets, frogs, and coyote as one listens to an orchestra. Breathing gently with the crescendos and lulls. Each creature instinctively knowing its place, without a conductor they perform in perfect time.
The next afternoon, we stopped in Manhattan, KA to grab some food, recharge our batteries, and plot our next move. In Caribou Coffee tucked inside a Hy-Lee grocery store, it was decided that we camp at Lake Wilson around 120 miles west on I-70. I picked up a Go-Pro in Manhattan and I was excited to shoot some underwater footage in what was reported to be the “Clearest Lake in Kansas.”
As the van eased through hills towards Lake Wilson, the sunset highlighted the rocks filling us with awe. Steve had expressed interest in shooting a wind farm, and on the approach to the lake the prairie landscape populated with giant turbines and the occasional limestone outcropping seemed perfect; the kind of landscape we were thirsty for. Inspired to shoot the next day, we slowly rolled around to the east side of the lake to inquire about a campsite.
Connie Cash was checking in RV’s at an info kiosk across the damn. Connie was the first person we made a real connection with on this trip. She was excited to guide us to all sorts of strange eccentric local attractions, the kind of things unique to rural Kansas. Following her suggestion, we checked into a Camp Lucas on the North shore of the lake. We ate apples and cheese in the cool windy twilight as we set up camp. Our plan had been continue to Denver in the morning, but, like an unexpected love interest, Kansas had seduced us with her landscapes, setting the stage for our first Brownie shoot.
Following Connie’s suggestion, our first stop on Saturday was an old dusty town called Lucas, 14 miles north of Lake Wilson. Known for it’s eccentric art installations. This funky town in rural Kansas is full of limestone carvings, industrial farming equipment, old limestone buildings, and numerous oddball tourist attractions. From a giant mosaic sculpture of a toilet to the Garden of Eden – the residence of an early 20th century sculptor concerned with class struggle – I found Lucas thoroughly full of the kind of weird that only the rural Midwest can provide. (Inside of the Garden of Eden, the sculptor is preserved in a glass casket.) In Lucas, a 4th generation meat market making old school bologna and pepperoni from a 100-year old family recipe caught our attention as a potential subject for the Brownie In Motion project. The owner seemed uncomfortable with the idea but tipped us off about getting access to the wind farms the next county over.
An hour later, driving along unpaved country roads, we knocked on the doors of several farmhouses to ask permission to photograph on their land. On the third try, a greasy farm dog greeted us and a quiet old man gave us permission to shoot in his pasture down the road. A few miles later, we saw what we thought was a good spot to setup, tall grass and corn beneath massive spinning industrial wind turbines. The location was surreal, scenic, and reassuringly Kansas. Brimming with optimism, our dynamic duo pulled in and began setting up.
Seven hours later, things were very different. After battling with the wind, tripping on gopher holes, being harassed by biting flies, and baking alive inside the Brownie, it seemed failure was upon us. The wind was a steady 20 mph and the Brownie’s lens shook uncontrollably as a result. The first positive shots weren’t developing well, and then the negatives couldn’t focus because of the vibration. Stephen is a persistent worker though; despite the 94-degree heat, we kept shooting until we ran out of light. I was sunburned, dehydrated, impatient, and ready to give up after this flop. Our gear was splayed out in the tall prairie grass, making packing up an even greater frustration for the both of us. Sitting in the car and waiting for Stephen, misery sank in quickly. I didn’t feel like talking. I was twitchy and itchy from black fly bites, and could feel my tired muscles screaming for hydration. The silence was overwhelming in the car, my ears longing for music. I grabbed the ipod and desperately scanned for something to get us back to camp.
“Get the hell away from this nightmare.” I was thinking to myself. I was ready to tuck tail and head home, when Stephen offered me a pull of Black Velvet. Neil Young’s Harvest, a shot of whiskey, and a few smokes on the way back had us belting out each tune with reckless abandon. Our spirits rose high once again at the sigh of Lake Wilson in the prairie sunset. Later that night relaxing under the stars was all we would manage. A few meteors glinting in the north, and the great blanket of stars pulled me into sleep. We had skirted with disaster and made it out the other end. Even with a bad taste in our mouths, tomorrow back on the road would be a better day.
The Brownie was a very successful and influential line of cameras introduced by Kodak starting in 1900. It maintained great commercial success through the 50’s and 60’s and changed photography from a highly complicated craft into something you can take on a family vacation.
My friend, Stephen Takacs has built a 17x scale model of the Brownie that makes giant prints on analog photo paper. Stephen’s Brownie also functions as a darkroom, interactive installation and a sweat lodge (depending on the weather.) We will be taking this giant camera across the country this summer and working on a project we call “Brownie In Motion.” The concept behind this trip is to find and photograph craftsman whose skills might otherwise be forgotten. This documentary / performance project seeks to raise awareness about disappearing crafts to perhaps build interest in these dying trades.
By the way my name is Micah, I’ll be writing about the journey as well as co-piloting while we take the Brownie out west. I am an aspiring chef, writer, and traveler. So when Stephen came to me with this idea it took me two days to decide to quit my job and leave Philadelphia to be part of this adventure.
It has been a fine summer rustling up support for the project, fine tuning the Brownie, and planning for the journey. We will be merrily bounding forward into a relatively hazy and unpredictable few weeks with our launch date of July 17th.
We are starting with a giant camera, a truck, two dudes, and enough gear to keep us alive for a month of driving across America. This is the recipe, but otherwise we’ll be making this up as we go. Camping and pleading with those we know (and some we don’t) to keep a roof over our heads while we speed towards our destination. Our destination you ask? Well, I don’t think we have one in mind, merely a vague idea of a lot of places to see, and people to meet with our lovely traveling companion, Brownie In Motion.
So dear followers, we will keep you updated of our adventures, mishaps, and skews from everyday life on the road. In an attempt to preserve, that might otherwise be forgotten, we forge forward into uncertainty.
Once again, I’d like to thank my friend Phil Cogley for contributing to the Brownie In Motion campaign! Many people don’t know this, but Phil and I used to ride the same drab yellow school bus many long years ago. Phil’s first band, Seraphim, used to practice in my friends basement up the street. I was always inspired by the older rockers (in middle school two years is a huge difference) and spent many sweaty evenings watching on the steps or headbanging in a mini-mosh pit awash in teenage angst.
Early on, unlike many high school would-be musicians, Phil had IT — passion, talent, and a charismatic, somewhat sardonic, stage presence, which addressed audience members in between numbers through clenched teeth. Like myself, Phil (as his alter ego, ‘The Saturday Giant’) is embarking for a long US tour. Phil is not only a great multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, but he is also a great performer. Please check out where and when he is touring by following the link below: