Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

5/15/22

On a planet containing seven billion people, it is difficult to imagine that there are still places as empty as the Northwest Territories. A vast swath of boreal forest and Arctic tundra five times the size of England, it has a population of a small provincial town. After driving through one of the most remote stretches of highway in the world, we arrived in Yellowknife. Coming into the Capitol of the Northwest Territories, we discovered a vibrant and crowded city that contains 50% of the Territories’ residents. Sadly, like many Canadian and American cities, it also contained a sizeable number of homeless and destitute people. The city was founded in the 1930s as a gold mining town and the Old Town still retains the look of its rough and tumble roots. Diamond mining has replaced gold mining and Yellowknife still has the feel of a boomtown. However, like in many boomtowns, some locals are wondering what comes next when the stones run low in the next decade or two. 

After checking in to the Explorer’s Hotel, we were surprised to find an excellent Ethiopian restaurant in downtown Yellowknife. The refugee couple that owned and ran the business were struggling but somehow managed, through hard work and deep faith, to keep their hopes alive. After today’s long drive and a great meal, we decided to spend the rest of the evening enjoying the clear sky and perpetual dusk of the Far North.

We followed a beautiful trail the city has created along a shore to the Museum and the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly. We later walked over to the Old Town and immediately felt that this part of town was our home in Yellowknife. It was filled with small, funky shops, cafes and old pioneer houses. From the Bush Pilot’s Monument atop a large rock, we had a sweeping view of this entire area. We looked down on a small frozen inlet and noticed several people on cross country skis out on the ice. After our initial trepidation, we gingerly stepped out onto the frozen lake and immediately understood why this is a magical place. We walked out to the hand-built houseboats frozen on the lake and talked to a young man living in one of these quasi-legal homes. It reminded me of a photo-essay I did years ago on a similar quasi-legal community living on boats in San Francisco Bay that were called “anchor outs”. The people here embodied the free spirit of this alternative community living at the end of Yellowknife Highway.

The next morning, we photographed the exquisite Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Library. The librarian explained that this modern circular building was built to mimic the design of an Indigenous igloo. Prior to the construction of this building in 1990s, the Legislative Assembly would meet in different communities throughout the Northwest Territories carrying a large, throne-like chair to establish their authority. 

Our next stop was the Public Library of Yellowknife. The library seemed to have some issues with security. I was asked several times to show my letter of permission to photograph in the library which indicated that the mean streets outside sometimes came in here. However, it was full of great public art purchased by the city created mostly by local artists. Libraries like this are often a reflection of the complicated reality of the communities they are in.

After photographing these two libraries, we were determined to see and experience as much of this area as possible. Although located next to the vast Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife didn’t seem to have much public access to the fifth largest lake in North America, and the tenth largest in the world. We drove along the Ingram Trail to the Indigenous community of Dettah which is right on the lake. From the shores of the Great Slave Lake, we could see the ice-covered water stretching off to infinity. The opposite shore was beyond the edge of the horizon.

We continued east from Dettah on the Ingram Trail until the paved road ended. Ahead was a gravel road that continued for a few more miles and then, no road at all between there and the North Pole. This spot defined the word “remote”. This marked the most remote Walker and I had ever driven.

Driving back, we stopped at one of the most amazing hikes that I have ever been on. The Cameron Falls Trail in the Hidden Lake Territorial Park clambered over Canadian Shield rock through pine (what kind?) and birch forests ending at the breath-taking Cameron Falls. The river had been covered in ice that had recently partially collapsed revealing a raging torrent beneath the blanket of ice. For both of us, this view represented one of the defining moments of the trip and one of the highlights of the spectacular Northwest Territories.

Back in Yellowknife, we headed to the oldest building in Old Town called Bullock’s Bistro. This place has been through a lot and it did a good job of retaining the memory of its earlier, rowdy days. The character of the place seemed real, but it is very popular with tourists, especially during the summer. When we were there, all the people we talked with were locals and everyone wanted to talk with us. We became instant celebrities when we said that we had just driven from San Francisco. The place was filled with characters. Our French-Canadian waitress was speaking in French to our neighbor who was Arcadian from the Maritimes. Her husband was a mining engineer who spoke French and Spanish and had worked for long periods in Mexico. The couple in back of us invited us over for drinks and everyone thought that Yellowknife was the greatest place on Earth. After today, we would tend to agree.

We ended the evening with another short hike out on the nearby ice lake. The temperature today had gotten up to the 60s and we could tell that the ice was thinner. At one point my feet broke through the crust and my boots got soaked. Fortunately, the underlying ice held, and I quickly scampered away to more solid ice. Of course, this didn’t stop me from photographing several of the quirky houseboats sitting on their icy beds in the Arctic twilight. 

We will be very sad to leave tomorrow after our impossibly short stay in Yellowknife. As we headed back to our room at the Explorer’s Hotel, we paused to take a selfie in front of a much-photographed polar bear. I am thankful for our explorer’s spirit that compelled us to make this long but incredible journey. I am sure that we will be back.  

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EDMONTON TO THE ARCTIC

5/14/22

International jet travel has given us the ability to quickly see parts of the world far away from our normal lives. But by driving to the Arctic from San Francisco, we are able to see the gradual change in the landscape and culture from the Pacific Coast of California to the high latitudes near the top of the word. Northern Alberta is little visited and even less known. North of Edmonton the population drops off to Siberian levels. The sense of remoteness here is almost eerie. After we left Edmonton, we left the Great Plains and entered the Peace River Valley. The hard scrabble town of High Prairie, AB had an unusual looking library that obviously meant a lot to this working-class community. The photograph of Queen Elizabeth at the entrance was a good reminder that we were in a country with deep English roots. The next small town we visited was the proudly French-speaking community of Fahler, AB. Alberta has a surprisingly larger number of descendants of French settlers showing the important diversity that is one of the best things in this vast country of Canada.

As we drove north of the Peace River Valley, we left behind the last of the agricultural lands of the region and entered the lower Arctic. The transition was gradual as we entered the mixed forests of birch and pine. We could see that the trees were shorter here than the forests of the south, but we had been told that these woods very old. We were surprised to see over a hundred kilometers of burnt trees from a vast forest fire. Although we are far north, this region is relatively dry, and climate change seems to have taken its toll here too. At this latitude, these Boreal forests of the North stretch all the way around the globe. I imagine that this forest in Canada looks a lot like forests in Siberia and Scandinavia.

Continuing  north, we began to notice that vast areas of water and ice had formed on both sides of the road. Parts of the road itself was severely damaged or even under water. Our mighty Prius is definitely not an off-road vehicle but passed the rugged conditions in great shape. We had hoped to spend the night in the small town of Hay River on the shores of the Great Slave Lake. As we checked the road conditions ahead, we saw a warning that the entire town of Hay River was being evacuated due to a massive flood. We quickly made reservations to stay in the small Indigenous town of High Level in northern Alberta, the last settlement of any size before the Northwest Territories border. It was a good thing that we called ahead because all the motels in town were filled with the people evacuated from Hay River. Most of them were Indigenous, and we began to understand a little what people fleeing a natural disaster go through. The motel had special programs and meals available for the evacuees and we began to see how people within this region help each other. The Canadian government also played a big part in the relief effort.

The entire staff of the Best Western were very polite and helpful under extremely stressful circumstances. I was surprised they were all from the Philippines and wondered how theyl got to this remote outpost in the Canadian wilderness. Walker and I drove around the community in the impossibly long Artic evening. The plain looking High Level Public Library was closed and looked like a police station. But it was surprisingly beautiful in the crystal-clear light of the Far North. Later, we took a short walk through the woods near our motel in the slanting sunlight of the late evening. A white-tailed Deer scampered into the darkening forest as we marveled at the red dappled light and the strangeness of being here.

As we crossed the border into the Northwest Territories, we were amazed that we had traveled this far so quickly. Crossing the invisible 60th Parallel made us feel we had finally entered the far North. The forests continued to shrink and thin. Strange new trees appeared, and the fire damage and flooding continued. We were trying to travel long distances on these drives but vowed we needed to stop at some of the scenic spots along the way. One of these places was Alexandra Falls on the mighty Hay River. Never before have I seen such a powerful river so close. Coming to this remote spot and standing next to such a full-throated force of nature was emotionally overwhelming. Frothy muddy water carried giant trees over a roaring waterfall to the white foam-covered river below. Massive sheets of ice clung to the shear cliffs on either side of the river. We met a small group of Mennonites from a nearby village. As we happily chatted with the men, the women stood silently in a group to the side in their long skirts and head coverings.

From the Falls, we continued north along the Hay River near the south side of the Great Slave Lake on to the Mackenzie River. The small Indigenous village of Ft. Providence is beautifully situated on bluffs overlooking the Mackenzie, the longest river in Canada. The ice had broken, and the river was making time here on its way north to the Arctic Ocean. The river becomes an ice highway for cars during the frozen time of winter but today it was blue and fast. The Aurora School in Ft. Providence contained a small library open to the community. I walked into the office with my camera gear wearing my Ukrainian flag cap. The principal immediately recognized the flag, smiled and said he was of Ukrainian ancestry. I photographed some wonderful symbols of this village’s Native heritage in the library such as a small teepee and Native language books. I then went outside and photographed a large teepee in front of the building in the snow. In this region the teepee is a ubiquitous symbol of Native America.

Heading north, we drive over roller coaster bumps caused by the melting underground permafrost through bogs, taiga and pinkish outcrops of Canadian Shield rocks. We follow the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary which is home to Canada’s northernmost population of around 4,000 free-ranging Wood Bison. The animals are bigger than our car and have tempers, so we give them a wide birth as we slowly pass them by. We continue our long-haul journey to the northern most spot on our journey – the Native village of Behchokó. This is the largest of the NWT’s First Nations. This area had no community library, but we felt it important to see this remote but busy Indigenous village. After we got out of our car, we were dazzled by the crisp, clear light and the clean, bracing air. We stood on the banks of the North Arm of the Great Slave Lake and tried to soak it all in. I even photographed the Prius next to the water to prove to myself that we had really made it to the Arctic. Next to us was a beautiful old wooden church where we met a gentle local Native man who was my age and had lived here all of his life. We also met Father Mickey who came from Eastern Canada and now led this humble church as a missionary and community leader. In some ways, Benchokó represented our ultimate point north into Arctic Native America. From here, we turned east and slightly south driving along the edge of the Great Slave Lake to our final destination of Yellowknife.

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EDMONTON

EDMONTON, ALBERTA

5/11/22

Western Canada is remarkable because in many ways it looks like the Western United States, but in many ways is so different. Besides showing our passports to enter at the border, it is easy to feel like we are not in a foreign country. As we drive north from Lethbridge, even the natural landscape feels like a continuation of the Great Plains, which it is. In Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park, we both felt like we were back in the Badlands of South Dakota, an arid landscape full of fossils and hoodoos.

The differences become more apparent with the people. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have some of the largest numbers of people from Ukraine outside of Ukraine itself. The small towns east of Edmonton contain the children and grandchildren of the early twentieth-century wave of mass migration from a troubled Ukraine. They came here for many reasons including friendly Canadian immigration policies, cheap land and that this part of the world looks and feels a lot like Ukraine.

Every person that we met for the next few days were descendants of these early Ukrainian settlers. In Vegreville, we encountered the world’s largest easter egg painted in the bright colors of traditional Ukrainian decoration. A sad, hand-painted sign listed the number of people who had recently died in Putin’s stupid war in Ukraine. We were told by several people that this region will soon receive another massive wave of refugees from Ukraine. I wondered how this new group of people will interact with the descendants of the old. Walker and I drove for many miles down a muddy dirt road (in the mighty Prius!) to a remote Ukrainian Catholic church. Many of the headstones in the adjacent cemetery were in Ukrainian and told the story of these early pioneers. That old saying that the past is prelude seemed to resonate here.

As we drove west towards Edmonton, we encountered Elk Island National Park. This small National Park receives a fraction of the visitors of the nearby and better-known Parks of Jasper and Banff. However, outside of Africa’s Serengeti, it contains the highest concentration of wild hoofed animals in the world. We saw many White-tailed Deer, Elk and a close-up and personal encounter with a herd of massive, wooly Wood Bison. The entire park is surrounded by a high fence which is a sad but good thing since many of the animals would probably not survive on the nearby roads.

Edmonton is the northernmost city over a million people in the Western Hemisphere. It is located roughly at the same latitude as Moscow, Russia. In 2019, Ellen and I visited the big city of Calgary, Alberta. Now, Walker and I drove into Alberta’s other metropolis of Edmonton. Both cities are vibrant places, and it seems accurate to describe Calgary as white-collar and Edmonton as blue-collar. With a population of around 1 ½ million downtown Edmonton rises from the prairie with a surprising density of sparkling corporate glass-towers and a fairly desperate street life. Much of the wealth here is from oil money or corporate agriculture and it’s obvious that income inequality is high. And like many cities, Covid has taken a high toll on the small businesses here. Like in San Francisco, the neighborhoods seem to be where the city comes alive. We are staying in the oldest part of the city called Strathcona. Old brick buildings, great hipster restaurants and coffee shops are here but also many closed businesses. The gloom is accentuated by the unusually bitter-cold weather. Wind and a swirling snow keep the street life scarce. I glance at the calendar and can’t believe that it’s May and not March. We were told that this weather is weird, and the locals are emphatically sick of the endless Winter. 

The Main library in Edmonton is extraordinary and serves a vital role as an oasis for the community in an otherwise sterile downtown. The cold weather outside drives a large number of homeless and desperate people indoors. The librarians go from being information workers to social workers, but this library seems to be able to manage the tough situation with compassion, outreach and lots of security guards. The background for this is a spectacular atrium soaring up several floors from the ground floor to the high ceiling. I encounter two Indigenous people that work for the library as roving ambassadors/social workers with people in need in the library. In another room, I met a librarian organizing the first seed library in Edmonton. The optimistic, positive force behind that effort reminds me why I still feel that libraries are so vital.

We spent the rest of the day visiting six different branch libraries throughout Edmonton. I photographed the amazing 100-year-old Strathcona branch library, the oldest in the city. It had one of the best restorations that was wonderfully sensitive to its original design. I also photographed the two beautiful Modernist branch libraries of Calipano and Jasper Place. I included two branches in shopping malls that surround the city in an endless sprawl. One of the great things in doing these endless Library Road trips is to see each community we visit on a local level and not just as an outside tourist. Our drives today throughout Edmonton gives us a much better understanding of what life is like in this part of the world.

After an amazing dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant run by a 3rd generation Ukrainian, we walk off the meal at sunset along the beautiful wooded banks of the North Saskatchewan River.   

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN, DRIVING TO THE ARCTIC

5/8/22

In spite of everything, this seemed like a good time to head to the end of the road. Driving north from San Francisco, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada is where the pavement ends. From there, If you draw a line from Yellowknife to the North Pole you would find no roads. Ellen is off organizing a big Colorado photography reunion for the Fall, so my traveling companion on this trip is our son, Walker Dawson. Like our big Library Road Trips of 2011 and 2012, this is another epic father-son bonding road trip.

We left a strangely warm San Francisco and scooted up Highway 5 and then over to Bend, OR. This wonderful town has been discovered as a remarkable small Western town that has grown dramatically with people fleeing the large urban West Coast cities of Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area and Southern California. Our hipster tacos were delicious but as we tried to sleep in our cheap motel, we were interrupted in the middle of the night by a tweaker party in the room below that lasted for several hours. Nothing like being back on the road.

After a fairly sleepless night, we drove 14 hours north by northeast through eastern Oregon, the Columbia River basin, Spokane, and then eastern Washington to the border. The Canadian border guard was a little puzzled when I said we were really excited about seeing Edmonton. We then proceeded to have one of the most beautiful drives that I have ever experienced. This part of the Canadian Rockies is just north of Glacier National Park and just south of Banff National Park. But it is just as beautiful as its more famous neighbors. The weather cooperated as well with a dramatic dusting of snow and rain as we drove through massive, jagged, heavily snow-covered peaks towering in the sky filled with enormous clouds. Spots of sunlight occasionally ripped through the complicated weather. I realized that my ability to comprehend the profound beauty around us was limited but I knew that this was a great, life-changing experience.

The one library I photographed in the Rockies was in Ferney, British Columbia. A major ski resort exists here but the downtown of this former mining town had been restored in a beautiful and not overly precious way. The library was a classic old brick building offset by the huge, snow-clad peaks surrounding it. Two of the windows contained displays with red dresses and signs about “missing sisters”. This reminded me of the sad displays we saw in Canada in 2019 about the ongoing tragedy of missing Indigenous women.

As we exited the Canadian Rockies we entered the Canadian Great Plains. We arrived exhausted in Lethbridge, Alberta after our long drive, glad to have traveled so far and seen so much beauty. Sleeping that night was more like passing out after the previous night of no sleep. The next morning, we decided to photograph the childhood home of an old friend of ours from the Bay Area. His family left Lethbridge in 1957, but he spent the formative part of his childhood in this house. As we pulled up to front of this humble little home, we found it surrounded by a chain-linked fence and a crime-scene sign posted by the police. A passing neighbor explained that the place had been raided by the police five days ago and it had been a famous and dangerous drug house for the last three years. Guys in hazmat suits had been cleaning it out over the last few days and it would soon be torn down because it was beyond repair. It was hard to comprehend the tragedy of this place and to link it to the sweet memories of our friend’s childhood memories. But as is often the case when traveling, truth can be stranger than fiction.  

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Seeing America, Whole

A strange thing happened as we pulled into our driveway in San Francisco at the end of our epic Library Road Trip, 2021. At exactly the same moment that we finished seeing our country whole, we also completed hearing the whole history of our country through the magnificent podcast “American Elections: Wicked Game”. We did not plan on this, nor did we ration listening to the 59 episodes to make this happen. Near the beginning of our journey, just as we drove into the driveway of our cabin in Vermont, we had finished listening to the first half of this long podcast. Now we had completed the entire program just as we finished our long and exhausting cross-country journey back to California. It was a thrilling way to complete a thrilling trip.

When we left Jackson, MS we headed west to Vicksburg, MS. Combined with the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, the battle of Vicksburg is considered a turning point of the war. One cannot escape the legacy of the Civil War as you drive through the South. We had stopped at many places connected to that bloody conflict and every one of them leaves a deep and sorrowful impact on me. Vicksburg National Military Park is interesting because it is one of the most memorialized battlefields in the world. Every state, Union and Confederate, that had soldiers in this battle later erected all kinds of monuments to preserve the memory of their fallen sons. In my interest in containing memory through libraries and archives, this is another, heartfelt way of preserving the past.   

As we drove over the Mississippi River into northern Louisiana, the landscape and foliage abruptly changed. Mississippi is hilly and forested. This part of Louisiana quickly flattens out and the vegetation turns from forests to farmland. I had photographed in this part of the South during my 2011 Library Road Trip with our son Walker and his friend Nick Neumann. As we were driving through the poor and mostly African American community of East Carroll, LA I spotted the public library that I had photographed in 2011. Of course, we made a quick stop there and I marveled at the continuity of the positive impact libraries make on struggling communities. As in 2011, this library is an oasis in a place that continues to experience hard times.

We had a long drive as we continued north and west into Arkansas. Ellen and I mostly listened to music, podcasts and talked about what were seeing and what it all means. We also had a long time to listen to the sounds of silence and think. The landscape gradually changed as did the sky. As we headed northwest, we slowly, almost in perceptively, began to feel the rise of the Ozark Mountains. The sky progressively grew into darker shades of gray, threatening rain. As we began a steady ascent into the Ozarks, the rain began to fall with a force that we Californians had not experienced in a very long time. A Biblical deluge ensued as my white knuckles gripped the steering wheel and our Prius performed like a champ. Fortunately, the roads were good and most of the other drivers on the road were sane and slow. We pulled into our destination of Bentonville, AR with high fives and a big sigh of relief.

We came to Bentonville because of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It was started by one of the members of the Walton Family which owns Walmart. This is one of the wealthiest families in America and Sam Walton started his first store here. This thriving community stands out from the otherwise depressed northwest corner of Arkansas. This is certainly a happy company town but feels oddly perfect, like something out of the movie The Truman Show. It was nice to see the Walton family investing heavily in this area even as Walmart challenges unions and pays its employees less than adequate wages. All of this was in the back of our minds as we met with a Museum librarian and showed her our public library album. The museum was magnificent with its incredible, world-class collection. We took it all in after our meeting and toured the Museum and the outside grounds.

The next day we drove on to Sallisaw, OK. This was the home of the Sequoyah’s Cabin Museum owned and run by the Cherokee Nation and is also a National Historic Landmark. We came here because a Cherokee named Sequoyah invented the first written language for his people in 1809 and it is still in use today. His achievement was one of the few times in recorded history that a member of a pre-literate people created an original, effective writing system. His creation of the syllabary allowed the Cherokee nation to be one of the first North American indigenous groups to have a written language. It became a model for other Native written languages. For a time, the Cherokees were more literate than the surrounding white settlers. They called their written information “talking leaves” and they understood that a mastery of a written language was also a valuable form of power. The Cherokee are a great and complicated people. Ten percent of them owned Black slaves before and during the Civil War and some of the Cherokee were allied with the Confederacy during the war. None of this takes away from the great accomplishment of Sequoyah but it does point to the complexity of history.

Later that day we drove into the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, OK. Exactly 100 years ago, white citizens of Tulsa bombed, burned and shot up the Black neighborhood of Greenwood, producing one of the largest and worst episodes of racial violence in the history of our country. One of the places destroyed in the massacre was the Black segregated public library of Greenwood. I located the exact address and photographed the large, luxury apartments that are being built on the spot today. Despite gentrification the neighborhood still contains memories of its past. I discovered embedded in the street several plaques naming the store owners whose businesses were destroyed a century ago. The train tracks are still there that separated the races in segregated Tulsa. Greenwood was called the Black Wall Street at the time because of its thriving economic community. But it was odd to see a giant U-Haul truck advertisement over a neighborhood where people had once been forced to flee for their lives. The best part of our visit was the newly opened Greenwood Rising Black Wall Street History Center which did a wonderful job of providing the context for what we saw.

After driving west from Tulsa, we crossed an invisible boundary somewhere near Oklahoma City. Slowly the land dries out and aridity overcomes humidity. This is where the west became the West. We spent the night in Amarillo, TX located in the High Plaines. It is where vast cattle ranches meet towering wind farms. Just west of Amarillo is a world-famous art piece called Cadillac Ranch. Several artists including Chip Lord created this iconic masterpiece. It visually stands out in this severe and austere Western landscape. It is in glaring contrast to the homogenized corporate road culture in this part of the world. Such a breath of eccentric fresh air in an increasingly conformist world!

The soul crushing, corporate America, road culture was beginning to catch up with us by this time. Endless motel hallways and endless chain stores can drain the life out of anyone after a while. We were in real need of connecting again with friends and unique places.

We arrived in the afternoon in a little bit of paradise south of Santa Fe called Galisteo, NM. Here, our friend Caroline and her partner Angie along with their very large dog Gordon Cole live in a community of artists, writers, teachers and retirees in rural New Mexico. Caroline’s father wrote the book Cherokee Tragedy about the terrible Trail of Tears. We have been following parts of that trail since we left Georgia. From there the original Cherokees and other Native people were forced to walk over 5,000 miles to their new homes in what is now the state of Oklahoma. Thousands died along the way. President Andrew Jackson spearheaded this tragedy and I still don’t understand why he is on our $20 bill. Maybe it’s time to replace him with Sequoyah? We also visited with our dear friends Meridel, Jerry and Ben. Such a talented and unique group of folks in this part of the world! Just in the nick of time, this was the elixir we needed to escape the mind-numbing monotony of corporate America.

Beautiful Silver City, NM was on the way to our next appointment in Tucson. It was an early mining town that has kept mining but has diversified with hipster coffee shops and outdoor recreational activities. Although we only stayed one night, I would love to come back and explore the large surrounding area called the Gila National Forest. Our short hike through a park that was a former mining area was spectacular.

We finished the “work” part of our journey by showing our public library album to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ. We also talked with the Center about our Water in the West archive which has been housed there for the last twenty years. This was a large collaborative project that we did with several other photographers in the 1990s. The archive is now part of the Center’s permanent collection. Later that evening, we drove to Tempe, AZ to stay with two more dear friends Mark and Emily.  

We once again entered California in a time of drought. I came up with the idea of the Water in the West project during an earlier drought in the West in the 1980s. On this trip, giant electronic signs flashed out the warning “Conserve Water. Extreme Drought” in Arizona and California. Despite the recent “atmospheric river” of record-breaking rain in Northern California, the drought continues. Our last stop on our epic journey was to visit the vast Carrizo Plain National Monument. Located just west of the San Joaquin Valley, it contains a large,  ephemeral Soda Lake and the mighty San Andreas Fault. It also is home to a vast sky and a serene, beautiful and very dry coastal California landscape.

We arrived home after driving 9,882 miles. Starting in mid-September, we drove from San Francisco to Vermont to Washington, DC to the South and then back home through the Southwest. We heard the context of our country throughout the trip by listening to the essential podcast “American Elections: Wicked Games” by Lindsay Graham (no, not that Lindsay Graham). It has been a privilege to see our country whole and we hope to take the images and writing from this trip and apply them to future ideas and books. We feel that to better understand America, it is important see it. It helps to get out of our bubbles and interact with the range of people that make up our country. It is important for us to be able to soak up the history of this place by physically standing in places of consequence. I love photography because it forces us to do that.

We did, in fact, see amber waves of grain. We also saw purple mountains majesty. Heck, we even saw some fruited plains. America is always a work in progress. Are we poised on the edge of an ideological civil war? Or do we, as a people, have more in common with each other than separates us? What if both are true? This trip has spent a lot of time exploring our country’s collective memory through historical sites, archives and libraries. Our hope is that the work from this journey will help us listen to each other. In Lincoln’s first inaugural address he spoke of the “mystic chords of memory” as a way to unite the Union at the moment when it was falling apart. Our national collective memory is still important, and this trip was our small way of bringing us together. We will see…

We are pretty tired right now after zooming around the country for almost two months. As we lay down our wings to rest, I noticed on the streets of San Francisco that a little angel had done the same.

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The Meaning of Memory

When we pulled out of the parking lot of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library in Biloxi, MS Ellen and I were confused. We looked at each other and asked, “What was that all about?” There are the many things about southern Mississippi that I don’t understand. The sparkling warm water and dazzling white beaches here on the Gulf Coast are world class. But I didn’t understand why after two humungous hurricanes smashed into this coast in the last few decades it seemed that every destroyed home, hotel and casino along the coast had been rebuilt. As we drove north from Biloxi, we admired the wall of tall Southern pines that grew on both sides of the road. But as I looked through the trees, I could make out vast tracts of land that had been completely clear cut. The dense wall of trees by the side of the highway was simply an illusion to hide the large ecological disaster to the place beyond the pines. As we drove, we listened to the song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.

The Jefferson Davis Library is located on the large estate called Beauvoir which is where Davis spent his last years writing his memoir of leading the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the South lost the war, he escaped the advancing Union Army from the last Confederate Capitol in Danville, VA. He was eventually captured and incarcerated for many years in Federal Prison. He was also stripped of his US citizenship. These punishments were justified by the scale of his crimes and in his later years an impoverished Davis survived with the help of his many supporters including the woman that gave Beauvoir to Davis after she died. There was no remorse in Davis and his memoir helped create the myth of the Southern Lost Cause that cast the war as as a noble endeavor by the Confederacy to defend states’ rights and not about slavery. Beauvoir became Davis’ Monticello and after he died, the largest funeral in the history of the South occurred in Davis’ honor.

We came to the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library with curiosity and an interest in understanding what it represented. We entered through the gift shop and I immediately saw bumper stickers and t-shirts with snarky conservative, pro-Confederacy sayings. I remembered the gift shop that we had visited earlier in the trip at Gettysburg and I was struck at how sensitive and balanced our National Park Service is in all of the areas it runs.

Monument, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA

The Davis Library is housed in an impressive large modern building that has been destroyed twice by those pesky hurricanes but, like the South, it will rise again. It is funded by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans who certainly have an agenda of promoting the Lost Cause and the Davis Library is their crown jewel. It was sad to see how little the Museum informed us of the thinking or context of the Confederacy. Apparently, the Library’s archive of Jefferson Davis’ papers is not even cataloged. The beleaguered curator that we spoke with was trying to do a good job and I wished her well in trying to reconcile the curious mission of this place. Our visit here brought up many questions about what is the responsibility of an archive? What kind of memory should a library, archive, museum or historical place preserve? Who decides which memories are deemed important?

We saw many different examples of this since we left Vermont in mid-October. We showed our Public Library album to the Boston Public Library which is one of only a few urban public libraries with a significant photographic archive. We showed our album to the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress and also to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

I also began to photograph on a new idea for the Global Library project on the relationship between libraries, education and segregation. We started with the library that had been one of the first “read-ins” in a “whites only” public library in Alexandria, VA in 1939. This was the first use of nonviolent direct action to demand equal rights of African Americans and was the precursor for strategies used throughout the civil rights movement.

Inside the Barrett Branch, Alexandria Library, VA – photo discovered by Jeff Gates

We then stayed overnight in Danville, VA where Jefferson Davis established the last Confederate Capitol. The mansion later became a segregated public library for many years until protesters demanded that if Blacks had to pay taxes to support the library, they should also be able to use it. It is now an Art Center and Museum and we gave a talk to a small audience there after I had photographed this beautiful mansion with a troubled history.

One of the most interesting days of our trip was spent with our friend and fellow photographer from California Lew Watts. We first visited a Gullah inspired public library in St. Helena, SC which is located an hour and half drive south of Charleston. The Gullah/Geechee people were freed from slavery during the Civil War by Union troops and developed their own distinctive language and food based on their African traditions. The island of St. Helena was a center of their culture. We then visited the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park in St. Helena which included a place called the Penn Center. During the war, Quaker missionaries came from the North to help the newly freed slaves with the long process of gaining literacy and education and pride in themselves and their heritage. Penn Center was where their first school operated and the National Historic Park there today was inspirational. Back in Charleston, we enjoyed a glass of wine together as Lew shared with us some of his recent work and we showed him our album.

St. Helena Library, SC

After spending the night in vibrant Atlanta, GA, we drove on to Montgomery AL by way of Anniston, AL and Birmingham. In Anniston in 1963, two African Americans asked for library cards at the public library and were viciously beaten by a white mob but managed to escape. The next day they returned and successfully got their cards. Imagine being beaten up for wanting a library card! Anniston was also the place where a Greyhound bus full of Freedom Riders was attacked and firebombed. Fortunately, the Freedom Riders were spared lynching from the white mob by the action of the local police. This violence was in the back of my mind as I photographed the memories contained in this library.

 During the time when protesters were being attacked by water hoses and four little girls lost their lives in the bombing of a Black church, the Birmingham public library quietly desegregated. This action by a government agency contributed greatly to calming the waters during a very violent and difficult time in the history of Birmingham. Public libraries were often the first, and sometimes the only government institutions that did the right thing and desegregated in the South during the Jim Crow era.  

Our most action-packed day was when we photographed three different sites in two different states in one day. We drove to the Gulf Coast city of Mobile, AL and photographed the National African American Archives in a formerly segregated library. The site was closed for renovation, but I was told by a woman there that the new archive would contain, among other things a digital archive of all the local Black newspapers when the building re-opens.

From there we headed off to the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library in Biloxi, MS. At the end of the day, we arrived at the Eudora Welty Public Library in Jackson, MS.  Here, in 1961, nine African American students from nearby Tougaloo College requested books in the “whites only” library and were arrested. For the next two days on the steps of the courthouse where they were to be sentenced a group of protesters were savagely attacked by police using clubs and dogs. Among the victims were women, children and the elderly, including an 81-year-old man suffering a broken arm when police beat him with a club. Although one of the first, the Tougaloo Nine protesters are not as well-known historically as other early sit-in groups. Geraldine Edwards Hollis was one of the Nine. I photographed her in 2013 at the Cesar Chavez Library in Stockton, CA after she had given an emotional lecture about her experiences in this early Civil Rights action.

Since we left Washington, DC nearly a week ago, we have been traveling through the former Confederacy of the South. For many people here, memory of the past is important. For me, coming from California, the Civil War was long ago and far away. But here, memory urgently informs the present producing transformative social movements such as the ongoing fight for civil rights and Black empowerment. But it also fuels the fear, racism and anger that continues to plague Southern politics. For us, the meaning of libraries, archives, places of history and memory were expanded on this part of the trip in important ways. It will take us a while to fully absorb and understand those lessons. As we turn our car and our attention to the American West, we will let you know our new discoveries. Until next time…

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Sweet New England

10/12/21

The title of this blog comes from the lyrics of a Paul Simon song and it somehow seems to fit our one-month stay in Vermont. There are many things to love about this small corner of the country. The woods are now filled with “leaf peepers” that come from all over enjoying the incredible display of the Fall colors. Vermont is mostly a rural state. But it is unusual in the United States because its’ rural population is mostly liberal or progressive. It is one of the whitest states in the country, but I’ve seen more Black Lives Matter signs here than even my liberal home of San Francisco. Even the notorious grumpy weather provided us with mostly cool but crisp Autumn days interrupted with a little rain and a few warm days. What’s not to like?

Apples are big here this time of year. Hearing one land with a loud “thunk” near our cabin is almost as thrilling as the endless cries of the nearby birds. Most of the apple trees are very old and gnarly and speak to the early agricultural Europeans that settled in this region. The history of settlement and conflict here is endlessly fascinating and I spent most of the month reading an amazing book called “Emigration: Why the English Sailed to the New World”. It examines the reasons why there was such a large migration of people from England here in the 17th Century. Basically, things were really bad back in merry old England, especially for the poor. Of course, the consequences for the Native people throughout the New World were devastating.

Every time I come back to New England I am blown away by the mushrooms in the woods. They are everywhere and endlessly fascinating. I almost try to photograph every mushroom that I see and vow to look them up later when we have internet reception (Yep, no cell phone or wifi at our cabin). We have seen films and read recent books on our evolving understanding of life in the forest. Mushrooms seem like an alien life form that will one day take over the world. Come to think of it, that might be a good thing.

We share this cabin called “The Farm” with other members of Ellen’s family. Over the decades it has turned out to be a real refuge in this crazy world for all of us.  For me, it has also become a real education about the beauty of the New England forests, countryside and culture.

One of the great joys of our lives is, of course, our son Walker. It is interesting to see this guy who was raised in a Waldorf education in the liberal, urban environment of San Francisco take so much to the country environment of Vermont. His great pleasure is creating new hiking trails in the forests and zooming around to all different parts of this area in a Gator. After spending the last two years as a journalist for CBS News covering a lot of Covid stories throughout the American West, I think this is a good way for him to blow off steam and do something very different from his normal life.

Ellen grew up in nearby New Hampshire and has a brother and sister that live in New England. Her brother John manages the Farm and knows the land like the back of his hand. I’ve never met anyone so deeply rooted to a place.

Our one trip into the world of libraries during our month in New England was a trip to the Boston Public Library. This is the world’s oldest large tax supported public library and one of the great libraries of the world. It is also one of the few public libraries in the US that has an extensive photography collection. We showed one of their photography curators our Public Library photographic album and several prints from our Global Library portfolio.  They seemed to really like the work. It’s definitely nice to be appreciated.

We spent a large amount of time planning the next phase of the trip. Our return drive across the country will first take us to Washington, DC and then plunge south through the Deep South and eventually west arriving back to San Francisco in early November. We will visit archives to show our work; libraries that represent Black culture and formerly segregated libraries; places of Native American language, education and oppression; long lost friends in exotic places and finally complete our look at America in these frightening and troubled times. As the Emigration book was the perfect one to read during our stay in New England. For our return journey, I am bringing along the wonderful New York Times journalist Ezra Klein’s book Whey We’re Polarized. I can’t think of a better book to guide us through this dark moment in American history. And, of course, we will be listening to the historical context provided by the incomparable podcast “American Elections: Wicked Game”. I’ll keep you posted as the journey continues. Stay tuned…

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The Norm: Driving across America

9/21/21

We drove 3,176 miles across the United States from San Francisco to Vermont. Most of the time we listened to a marvelous podcast called “American Elections: Wicked Game” which covered every American Presidential election from Washington to Biden. Our son Walker suggested this as an ideal travel companion as we drove across the heart of America. He was right. We were riveted the whole time and as we listened, the miles of our journey and of our history just melted away. As we pulled up to our place in Vermont, we finished listening to exactly half of the 58 episodes of the series. Perfect timing for the return trip!

As we drove through the West early on our recent journey, I read a story online from the San Francisco Chronicle about how California, and especially the Bay Area, have been able to lessen the spread of Covid infections and how California currently has the lowest infection rate in the country. As we drove through places like Nevada, Wyoming and Nebraska we were shocked and saddened by an almost total lack of people wearing masks indoors. In the Bay Area, most people even wear masks outdoors, especially on crowded streets. I began to understand how people in the Bay Area have normalized mask wearing while people in other parts of the country have not. I also began to understand how California has been able to beat back the Covid virus and how hard it will be to create the norm for masking in other parts of our vast and diverse country. Perhaps, because the Bay Area was the nation’s ground zero for the earlier pandemic of HIV/AIDS we have learned to work with and trust science and medicine in ways that some other parts of the country have not.

Along the way, we also saw big brawny guys in jeans and leather vests riding huge Harley Davidson motorcycles zoom by us on the freeway. Each had a woman sitting behind them dressed the same way. All of them were white but the sun and wind had turned their skin lobster red. And, of course, none of them wore a motorcycle helmet, let alone a mask. Perhaps, the defiance to wearing motorcycle helmets is the same as the defiance to wearing masks. It is a visible “fuck you” to authority, even if it kills the people flipping off society.

Creating positive norms are a tricky thing in our troubled times. How can we move beyond the hate ginned up by Fox News, hate radio and crazy internet conspiracy theories? Especially when some people can profit from generating fear. The “Wicked Game” podcast describes several times in our past where anger, fear and passion have overridden common sense in parts of the United States. One of the quotes from the podcast is “Fear is contagious, but so is hope”. We don’t know how this tearing of our American social fabric will play out. Our culture has gone down the path of madness before. But the universal basic decency of most Americans that we met on our journey struck me as a reason for hope. When we traveled almost exactly half-way across the country, we stopped at a small museum in Gothenburg, Nebraska. It was an old Pony Express Station, and it was staffed by a local volunteer who was enthusiastic and disarmingly plain spoken in his wonderful mid-Western accent. The only other person in the small cabin was a man who had just driven from Boston to this half-way spot of America. For a moment I felt a strange uplifting unity for our country coming together in this small Nebraska town. We spent a night in Chicago visiting our dear friend photographer Terry Evans, one of the great photographers of this region. She was a part of our earlier Water in the West project. Having dinner with her was one of the highlights of the trip.

After a quick stop at the fascinating Erie Canal, we continued our journey east. We knew we would get into our hotel in Buffalo, NY quite late. We had brought food for most of our journey but by this point we were a little tired of avocado and veggie burger sandwiches and decided to get some take-out. Ellen found a middle eastern restaurant in Erie, NY and as I drove through the darkened streets of this burned-out, rust-belt town I began to feel a little uncomfortable. The restaurant was run by a refugee from Jordan and the food turned out to be some of the best middle eastern food we have ever had. I have always felt that it is often the immigrants coming to our country “yearning to be free” that provide the spark, optimism and hope that a sometimes cynical and weary America needs.

We will spend the next few weeks resting after our long journey to rural Vermont. I can think of no better place to watch apples falling from the trees and see the amazingly green grass grow. We will be taking a few day trips around New England and even do some work down in Boston. Around mid-October, we head to Washington, DC and then, depending on the Covid situation in the South, make the long drive back home driving through Dixie. Until then…

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The Body Politic

9/16/21

I didn’t realize how much I was concerned about California’s recent recall campaign for Gavin Newsom until it was over. We breathed a big sigh of relief when he won. His speech after the election was quite good stating that the voters of California had taken a No vote on the recall and turned it into a Yes for a whole list of progressive policies.

As we left San Francisco, we listened to the news analysis of the election. After Gavin won big, my worries about the voters of California began to shift to pride about living in such a wonderful place. I have always felt that California’s famous progressive politics are a mile wide and an inch deep. I’ve lived and voted here my whole life and I’ve seen our state launch the careers of Nixon, Regan and Proposition 13. It is true that the last Republican to hold state-wide office here was fifteen years ago. And that this recall was a desperate Republican end run around the normal political process. California Republicans are so far out of touch with the voters here that dirty tricks like this are the only way they could hope to gain any power in the state.

As I buried my thoughts in Californianess, I played Beethoven’s wonderful 7th Symphony on our car’s speakers. This is one of my favorites and my mind drifted between this uplifting music and the election. As we drove on through the slim waist of California’s body politic the music began to rise in tone. As the music ascended, so did we through the tawny foothills of the Sierras. As we drove through the town of Auburn, I spotted a scary looking billboard for a survivalist store showing some mean looking dude wearing full body armor and mask carrying a big ‘ol machine gun. Even a few Larry Elder signs popped up out of the weeds. As we drove higher, we noticed how smoky the air became. The Sierra’s famous blue skies were replaced by a somber dull brown gray.

My gloomy thoughts about our troubled state were interrupted by the ongoing brilliance of Beethoven. His music was built on the optimism and struggles of the Enlightenment and the Romantic era. The music of the 7th contained the battles of his time in the shadows of the minor and major chords. One never knows the outcome while listening to this masterpiece, but the general trend is towards something better, climbing towards order, rationality, and light. Like Beethoven, our recent election gives me renewed faith in the future. We can get through these troubled times by believing in the rationality of science, medicine and enlightened practical public policy. Like the measured tones of this marvelous music, a civil civic discourse can start to help tamp down the steady drum beat of rising authoritarianism. Beethoven lived in difficult times, and so do we. But this election, and this music give me hope. As we crested the Sierras, I looked forward to the future.

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The 2021 Library Road Trip takes off!

9/14/21

Our fires in California are still raging. Our governor recall campaign is still raging. Resistance to getting the Covid-19 vaccination is still raging and sadly, so is the virus. What better time to take off on a cross-country Library Road Trip? After several delays, Ellen and I will be packing up the Prius and heading out tomorrow on the open road to Vermont. We will make a beeline east mostly taking Highway 80 on a northernly route to New England. We will spend about four weeks at our cabin in Vermont making a few day trips to Boston to show our Public Library album and to visit friends and family.

The return trip starting in mid-October is more problematic. We have appointments to show the album to curators at the Smithsonian in DC, Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas, and Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ. As I mentioned earlier, we also hope to photograph places connected to African American history and segregated libraries. In addition, we hope to visit places representing Native American history, libraries, and education. The big question is the state of the Covid pandemic, especially in the South. We have already altered the return trip to avoid Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas which have sadly experienced bad Covid spikes and terrible hurricanes. We will be following the news closely and skip any new spikes and hurricanes.

I’ll keep you posted as the trip unfolds. It will be great to get back on the road. As always, feel free to send any comments, suggestions, or insights as we go off to search for America. I have attached information about our Public Library album. Onward…

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