What a long, strange trip this has been. We spent a month and a half on the road driving across the country, doing a week-long Library Road Trip in Canada’s Maritimes, conducting two presentations of our Library albums in Montreal and Boston, having a wonderful family visit in Vermont, surviving a major car crash in Maine, coming down with Covid in Nova Scotia and spending 10 days back at the Farm recovering, and we weren’t done yet!
Ellen had spent more than a year developing and working with Kenda North and Barbara Houghton to create a four-day conference in Trinidad, CO called Framing Place and Time. It was meant to frame the history of a place (Colorado) and time (the 1970s) through the extraordinary burst of energy and creativity in photography and education that occurred there at that time. The conference was a unique gathering of people that had participated in that history. It was an enormous effort to actively secure the history and create an archive of photographs and taped interviews to be housed in Denver with History Colorado (formerly the Colorado Historical Society).
After the car crash, when Ellen and I came down with Covid, it appeared that a third disaster would occur with Ellen missing the whole conference that she had done so much to conceive and create over the last year. After ten days recovering in Vermont our doctor said we were safe to fly. We then hopped on a plane the next day in Boston, flew straight in Denver, rented a car and drove 3 ½ hours south in a rainstorm at night to Trinidad, CO where the conference had just concluded the opening lecture. When we stumbled through the front door, we were warmly received even though we were still weak and could barely stand. Ellen received the adulation she richly deserved, and it seemed like a miracle that we made it. I kept saying to everyone that I was just happy to be alive.
The conference went very well and exceeded everyone expectations. More than a gathering of 70-year old’s reminiscing about the crazy times in their 20s (although there was some of that), it was a serious effort to write history by the people who lived through an unusual historical time. Participants also included a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution who came to observe the event as did a staff member from the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
It was also a chance to renew friendships where some people hadn’t seen each other in over 40 years. It was also a time to make new friends and contacts in this aging photo community. A Zoom gathering connected photographers that couldn’t attend either due to circumstance or because of health Issues.
We also enjoyed the unique community of Trinidad—the home of Mark Johnstone, one of the principal organizers of the event. Nestled against Colorado’s Front Range, its’ unique character fit well with the creative edge of the participants of the conference. It was a place of history going through an historical transformation.
Leaving the conference was emotional for everyone. As some friendships were renewed, others understood this may be the last time they would see each other. Everyone vowed that they would get together again, soon. But everyone understood the limitations of time and age which made securing this history so important. We all felt lucky to be involved in such a significant event.
While driving back to Denver, we had one last hurrah by running into Barbara Houghton and her husband Keith at a sleezy gas station. The Denver airport was a nightmare, but we were such zombies that we just stumbled through the crowds and collapsed into our seats on the plane. When we arrived, we were ecstatic to be back in San Francisco. After Walker picked us up, we had dinner and some wine and then slept a deep and profound 12-hour sleep that was much needed.
Thus ended the extraordinary 2022 Library Road Trip. I will keep you up to date as our work develops. Until then, we hope to hear from you all. Stay safe…
Having Covid sucks. There is nothing good about it. The only saving grace is the degree of infection. In our case, both Ellen and I both got a milder form of the virus. Mine was moderate and felt like a bad cold. Ellen’s was milder, without the congestion I had. We were able to get the medicine Paxlovid early which immediately helped. Fortunately, except for the recently released booster, we had taken all four shots and boosters which also helped keep us out of the hospital.
The best thing about our bout with Covid was being able to recover at our cabin in the woods in Vermont which we call the Farm. For eleven days we hunkered down and tried to heal. The biggest event was hearing an apple thump on the ground or spotting a deer far away nervously munching the grass. Phone calls on our landline helped but we didn’t get around much in our isolation. Watching the New England autumn light change over the course of a day was a cheap thrill.
We were both really tired. Occasionally, I would take short walks just to do something different. Later, when we had more energy, we’d take short walks in the Vermont forests marveling at the dappled light and the little wonders of nature like a cluster of mushrooms growing on a dead tree. We both knew we were feeling better when Ellen felt strong enough to give me a haircut.
Mostly, we slept the deep and profound sleep of a dark and quiet place. Often, we would sleep 11 or 12 hours a night. And then take a nap in the afternoon! Being able to sleep this deeply was the best medicine. Also, being forced by Covid isolation to slow down allowed us to watch a cloud float across the sky or enjoy the flickering red light of sunset through a pine tree. This too helped us along to the road to recovery. Coffee, of course, made everything better.
Finally, despite the brain fog, I was able to finish the delightful book by the famous Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov called Grey Bees. It is a novel about a Ukrainian beekeeper caught in midst of the earlier war in eastern Ukraine. I just started a book by the incredible Atlantic writer Anne Applebaum called Red Famine Stalin’s War on Ukraine. You may notice a theme here. Ellen and I are preparing to produce a public program on libraries and Ukraine in October at the San Francisco Public Library. This is part of my way of getting prepared. I am thankful I have the time and now the strength to read these two exciting books!
We are now headed to Boston where tomorrow we will take a flight to Denver for the final chapter of this most unusual journey. Stay tuned…
I always liked the Ry Cooder version of that old song. I never thought it would apply to the next section of our Library Road Trip. We began the Canadian Maritime part of our journey with a bang. While driving in heavy, fast-moving holiday traffic just north of Portland, ME the pickup in front of us instantly came to a complete stop. I swerved to the right as I slammed on my brakes and avoided hitting him. But the car behind me ploughed right into our left rear end and totaled our car. Miraculously, we were completely unscathed.
But the oddest part of this story came next. After our demolished Prius was put onto the tow truck, our nice young driver gave us a ride to his shop in a remote area. As we settled into the office to get a car rental and motel, I slowly began to realize we were in the headquarters of the MAGA Trumpers for central Maine. All around us were “Make America Great Again” signs, photos of Trump look alike political candidates, even a life-sized doll of Trump himself. We were still pretty shaken by the accident, and we had to deal with the here and now of what to do next. I engaged the owner in some friendly conversation to soften him up. After he heard how expensive motels rooms were on this holiday weekend and how expensive the Lyft ride would be, he took pity and offered some good advice. They knew we were from San Francisco, drove a Prius and probably suspected that we sipped lattes and voted for Nancy Pelosi. Despite all that, they turned out to be some of the most decent, friendly, generous people that I’ve met in a long time. Then, the owner gave us the keys to an old red pickup truck that would get us to our distant motel room in Portland. I was speechless and told him later that he sort of restored my faith in humanity. After months of reading New York Times stories about the absurd and precarious political situation in our country, it was important to have my prejudices and preconceptions about Trump supporters challenged.
Shockingly, all the moving parts fell into place, and our journey continued to Canada the next morning. Immediately after crossing the US/Canada border we entered Campobello Island, New Brunswick. This was the summer home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and of the Campobello Public Library. FDR was one of the founders of the library and he served on the board for decades including throughout his long Presidency. After yesterday’s traumatic events, it felt very soothing to be in such a peaceful and idyllic environment. The Roosevelt summer “cottage” was enormous and the 2,800 acres around it are called the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, one of two National Parks jointly administered by the US and Canada. We then took a family ferry to Deer Island and then another ferry to the mainland. In the sunset, we could see some of the weirdly tricky tidal currents and whirlpools that were connected to the phenomenal tides of the nearby Bay of Fundy.
St. John, NB is home to one of the oldest libraries in Canada. This gritty industrial port was once the economic engine of the province and it was now struggling to reinvent itself as a cruise ship mecca, among other things. Strangely, the library was in a garish indoor mall next to the cruise ship docks. Somehow, it was all so bad, that it made for a good photograph. Heading to Prince Edward Island, we made a side trip to Fundy National Park and the poetically named Cape Enrage. From a strange, cairn strewn beach, we could see the churning, tortured waters of the Bay of Fundy.
We stayed in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and one would be hard pressed to think of a prettier small town in Canada. On the eastern end of the Island (and our farthest point east on this trip) was “Canada’s Smallest Library” in the small town of Cardigan, PEI. Like the “personal” library I photographed years ago in Monowi, Nebraska, this hand-built library was open to the public and reflected the vision of a person who just loved sharing books. Like in Nebraska, the check-out system was a well-worn notebook that contained what book was checked out, when it will be returned and lots of gratitude from countless library patrons from all over the world.
Halifax, Nova Scotia is the central city of this region. Its small size, fresh air, hipster vibe, and dynamic emigrant community made for a very lively and engaging place. Unfortunately, it has been less than kind to some of its architectural heritage, but the new Central Library is considered a masterpiece and is one the city’s top tourist attractions. I photographed the lit exterior in the evening and the interior during the next day. It was a stunning, well-used and much-loved community gem.
A small part of the history of Black Nova Scotia is perfectly illustrated in the Africville Heritage Trust Museum. Nova Scotia had a significant population of formally enslaved Blacks who escaped to freedom with the British during our Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. After the British lost both wars, many of them fled to Canada and especially to Nova Scotia. After years of discrimination and bitter disappointment, the local Black population were pushed to the edges of the society and wound-up living in marginalized communities such as Africville on the edge of Halifax. In an urban renewal effort in the 1960s, the city of Halifax decided to relocate all its residents, demolish the community, and rehouse everyone elsewhere. Africville residents had no power and, as a result, no voice over this tragedy. Years later, realizing the errors of its way, the government issued the “Africville Apology”, recreated the old Seaview United Baptist Church, and put in it the wonderful Museum that we visited. Later still, the Canadian government issued a postage stamp to honor the loss of this once vibrant community that had been erased.
One other part of the local history that has been erased but not forgotten was that of the Acadians. While walking along Halifax’s theme park-like redeveloped waterfront we came upon a monument that stood out. Unlike the cheery, upbeat, touristy mood of the rest of the waterfront, the monument was positively gloomy, showing the banishment of the locally born French Acadians by the British after France lost a major war to England in the 18th century. “Le Grand Derangement” affected everything including sending thousands of Acadians to Louisiana where they would later become known as Cajuns. Canada’s current divide between the French and English speakers can partly be traced to this moment. Ironically, advertising for a massive hotel development being built right behind the monument showed a nearby island where thousands of miserable Acadians were imprisoned before being scattered to the winds all over the world.
The next day we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Landscape of Grand Pré in Central Nova Scotia. It is the iconic place of remembrance of the Acadian diaspora and the infamous Longfellow poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie begins here. I never cease to be amazed by the cruelty we humans inflict upon each other.
So as not to be too depressed, we visited a “Coffee Museum” on our way to the next library. They had excellent cortados but what really knocked me over were the Vegan Nanaimo Bars! The barista explained to me that Nanaimo Bars are, indeed, mostly a western Canadian thing.
The Kenville Public Library was another wonderful example of a former church being turned into a beautiful library. This was one of the best conversions that we’ve seen, and I admired the intelligence that went into the successful design.
We drove west along the northern edge of the large province of Nova Scotia. Most of the names of the towns and landmarks had been in English. We began to see more French names and entered an area called the Acadian Shore. After their expulsion, some of the Acadians came back to this part of Nova Scotia. Because their farms had been stolen by the English, and this area was not good for farming, many of them started the famous local fishing industry that continued into the 21st century. We visited a tiny library in the little Acadian town of Metegan, NS. I asked the young librarian if there was still resentment felt by Acadians to the English. She replied that that dark history is still taught in their schools and that the anger is still deep.
We arrived at the far western coast of Nova Scotia in a town called Yarmouth. It had been a big fishing community and was the terminus for the Ferry that goes to Maine. As I sampled some of the famous Digby scallops, I noticed being a little tired and having a small cough. Back in our room I tested for Covid and, dang, there it was. After spending years dodging it, it had finally caught up with me in this remote little village by the sea. Everything changed and we immediately made plans to get back and isolate in a place of recovery as soon as possible.
While this drama was playing out, Walker was sending images of himself on assignment for CBS News in Kodiak, Alaska. Even with my Covid brain, the Kodiak Bear cubs looked awfully cute.
Originally, I had lined up several libraries to photograph on our way back from Yarmouth. I skipped the ones that would require me to photograph inside. The Pubnico Public Library was housed in an old church in the oldest continuously Acadian town in Nova Scotia. The exterior of the library in Truro was stunning and a great way to end our study of libraries in the Canadian Maritimes.
We hated to leave Canada, especially being battered by the car crash and sick with Covid. We eventually made our way back to our Farm in Vermont to collapse and contemplate the future. We were sad to hear that Queen Elizabeth had died but we were very happy to be alive.
I spent much of my early career as a photographer thinking about water in the American West. California had been in the grips of a terrible drought in the 1980s and it made sense to focus my attention there. Ellen and I later started a large-scale collaborative effort called the Water in the West project which was made up of a talented group of photographers who were also interested in the subject. After working on that for ten years, we placed much of our work in the permanent archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Many of us then moved on to other subjects such as my work with libraries.
New England is in the middle of a drought right now. Approximately 25% of Vermont and New Hampshire are heavily affected and a small percentage is in severe drought. It seems weird to me since everything here is so green and humid. The American West was settled by people who brought their habits of a lush eastern US to the West and planted inappropriate, thirsty crops, lawns, and swimming pools in a semi-arid region. The writer Wallace Stegner wrote of the West “The most splendid part of the American habitat, it is also the most fragile. It has been misinterpreted and mistreated because, coming to it from earlier frontiers where conditions were not unlike those of northern Europe, we found it different, daunting, exhilarating, dangerous, and unpredictable, and we entered it carrying habits that were often inappropriate, and expectations that were surely excessive.” Ironically, I find myself coming from the West to the East with my own attitudes about drought and find myself shocked to see a region that should be green turning brown.
While here in the drought-stricken East, I have been re-reading an incredible book by the New York Times writer Timothy Egan called The Worst Hard Times about the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The Farm Security Administration photographers such as Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee and Dorothea Lange created searing documentary photographs of that region that helped shape the visual memory of that era. Here in Vermont, as I watched our pond drying up and the forests stressed by lack of water, I began to make plans to visit the former Dust Bowl in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the panhandle of Texas. While driving back to California, I’d like to see what became of this ravaged, destroyed part of the American West. Egan wrote about “how the greatest grassland in the world was turned inside out, how the crust blew away, raged up in the sky and showered down a suffocating blackness off and on for most of a decade”. I’d like to see if some of the grasslands were restored. What happened to the families and communities that didn’t leave their dusty homes in the dirty 30s? And what happened to the old idea of returning this region to something called “A Buffalo Commons” – restoring parts of the vast prairie grasslands and returning some of it to its Native people and the buffalo? Sadly, I’ve read recently that the remaining grasslands continue to be turned into inappropriate use and the underground Ogallala aquifer continues to be pumped dry. Whether you live in the East or the West, it’s all about water.
One of the great things about our little cabin in the woods in Vermont is bringing new and old friends to spend time in this idyllic place. One friend that first visited in 2019 was Sammy Kwesi from Ghana. Walker first met him in Guatemala when he was attempting to come to the United States as a refugee with a “credible threat” against his life back in his home in Africa. To make a long story short, Sammy finally entered the US and then spent the next 8 months in a private prison in Louisiana waiting his refugee status hearing. He finally moved in with his sister in New England where he lives today. Sometimes people with the most difficult lives tend to be the nicest people, and that is certainly the story with Sammy. Walker and his friend Rosa had arrived just before Sammy, and we spent two wonderful days together enjoying the Farm and Sammy’s delicious home-made African meal. Rosa was originally from Mexico, Sammy from Ghana, and Walker, Ellen, and I from San Francisco. I marveled at this diverse group of people coming together over an African meal cooked in Vermont.
Throughout our month in New England, the Farm functioned as refuge and social hub for a whole range of dear friends and family. We also visited our friends Jacques and Leslie in their beautiful new home that they are building in Woodstock, VT. Of course, on our many travels on the back roads of Vermont we kept our eyes peeled for the endless variety of wildlife in the deep dark woods. We took a great day trip to Northern New Hampshire around Mt. Washington. We ended the day revisiting the fabulous Library/Athenaeum in St. Johnsbury, VT. I had photographed this extraordinary place for my Public Library project in 2001 and found it to be just as beautiful as it was back then.
Montreal is a city in Quebec which is in the wonderful country of Canada. Traveling north from our Farm in Vermont it takes about 2 hours to get to the border and another 1 ½ hours to get to a truly different world. Montreal is interesting because it is a North American city with deep French roots. Most of the signs are French and parts of the city feel like Paris. While gazing out over the city skyline from the high point called Mount Royal, I spotted a huge mural of the local son and musical icon Leonard Cohn. Cities that honor their artists are really inspired.
One of the cultural high points in Montreal was the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Ellen and I showed our American and Global Library albums to one of their curators. We also saw a wonderful exhibit on cultural and landscape design among the Native people of the Arctic in Canada and Europe.
High atop another high point sits the massive building called St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It is an interesting remnant of when the Catholic church used to dominate French Canadian life. Over the last twenty years, church attendance has shrunk among the French Canadians but has been bolstered by the large influx of migrants coming from other Catholic countries. We saw this new diversity in the crowds inside the Cathedral. As I wrote in earlier blogs, one consequence of the emptying pews has been that many churches and religious centers have been abandoned and converted to other uses. Some feel that a public library might be an appropriate use of a formerly religious space. I did photograph two former churches in Montreal that are now libraries.
Finally, one of the subplots to our Canadian travels has been Nanaimo Bars. Some of you may remember the Christopher Guest film A Might Wind where one of the characters wishes that she could have stayed at home and made Nanaimo Bars. When Walker and I were driving back from our trip to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in Canada’s far north last May, we drove by the coastal British Columbian town of Nanaimo. Walker remembered the line from the movie, and we have been on a quest to find them ever since. We were convinced that it must be a western Canadian obsession and we were shocked to find them in Montreal. Of course, after we dropped Walker and Rosa off at the airport, Ellen and I had to buy some on our way back to the Farm.
The last two weeks in Vermont were a whirlwind of gatherings with friends and family, hikes in the woods, more family gatherings, cookouts, reading books and news stories and finally, eating the last of the Nanaimo Bars.
Coming up next week: a trip to Canada’s Maritime Provinces.
When you are trying to understand our country, it helps to drive across it. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to comprehend the USA. Most of the photo projects that I have done over the years have been in service to that end. It helps to get outside of our bubble to get a better idea of how this country ticks. After six days upon the road, we are still impressed by our nation’s inspiring vastness and the grandeur of its’ land and the fundamental decency of its’ people. Of course, parts of it are frustrating, tragic, and incomprehensible. But the big take away from our big drive is hopeful. Especially if Trump serves jail time.
“Save a Cow, Eat a Chicken” was a sign in a beastly hot, down-on-its-luck, small community in rural Utah. I’m not quite sure what it meant, but it brought a smile to our road weary faces. The small towns in the American West are often harsh and filled with endless chain stores. But it is the monumental expanse and big skies of the West that are truly exhilarating. Wallace Stegner and others have written eloquently about the sense of space in the American West. It is difficult to describe and hard to photograph but it is something to experience.
The big stretch of Highway 70 through central Colorado is one of the most spectacular highways in the world. It is insane that they built an interstate through Glenwood Canyon with its twists and turns, elevated freeways, rivers and avalanches, and narrow lanes filled with summer traffic. Both of my hands were firmly gripping the steering wheel as I tried soak up the scenery while also trying to stay on road. After we passed the ski town of Vail, we headed up to the 11,990-foot Loveland Pass, the highest mountain pass in Colorado that regularly stays open during the snowy winters. As we approached the pass, dusk turned to dark, it started to rain, the highway lights ceased to exist, and any highway painted lane markers disappeared. As the road began to disintegrate into big potholes, what I could see of the road dissolved into various shades of black. The only thing white at that moment were my knuckles in a death grip with the steering wheel. When we finally reached the Eisenhower Tunnel at the top, we let out a big sigh of relief from what moments before seemed like a suicide mission.
We eventually landed in the old mining town of Georgetown, CO and collapsed into our motel beds in utter exhaustion. The next morning, we explored the quaint 19th century town that retained its small-town charm without being overly gentrified. It contained sites that had been photographed by the famous photographer William Henry Jackson over 100 years ago and a delightful park where we had breakfast. We even discovered this small town’s wonderful public library.
We quickly descended from the Rocky Mountains into the Great Plains of the West and Midwest stretching from here to the Mississippi River and all the way up to the Boreal Plaines of Northern Canada. This flatland is covered with tallgrass prairie, steppe, and grassland. The entire region is known for supporting extensive cattle-ranching and dryland farming and its grasslands are among the least protected biomes in the world. As our elevation went down, the temperature soared reaching 104 degrees by the time we got to Denver. Urban sprawl has reached this part of the world big time. It took us a long time to drive beyond the last edges of Denver and enter the true farmlands of eastern Colorado and Nebraska.
Many hours of roads and podcasts passed until we reached the delightful college town of Lincoln, Nebraska. This enlightened community is a sanctuary city for refugees from all over the world. The diversity here was astonishing and city seemed to be doing pretty well despite the crippling drought hammering the surrounding farm economy. We met our friends Wesaam al-Badry and Maliha Zuberi al-Badry for coffee in a hipster cafe. She grew up in LA with her Iraqi parents. He was a young child when his mother escaped with all her children by walking out of Iraq. They eventually moved to Lincoln, NB where Wesaam grew up. He later studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and later still at UC Berkeley’s Journalism School where he met our son Walker. He is now a well-known documentary photographer and artist, and they have a wonderful three-year old daughter Naia who will one day become President of the United States.
Driving across Iowa was a treat. We were riveted the whole time to the podcast “Will Be Wild “which was about January 6th. Listening to it led us to realize how close our country came to being taken over by a Trumpian coup. It also made the wheatfields and cornfields go by very quickly. One of the things that most impressed me about Iowa was when we shut off the terrifying podcast and stopped at a rest stop. It turned out to be a literary themed rest stop set up by the state of Iowa. How enlightened is that? Throughout the small park next to the rest stop were quotes by famous authors, a statue of a fountain pen and a sculpture of an eraser. Why can’t other states do this? We ended the day by driving across a red, white, and blue themed bridge in the city of Davenport, IA and having dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant run by a refugee family that came here in 1985. The next morning started by having an amazing cortado at one of the best hipster coffee shops anywhere on the trip. Iowa is amazing!
The Pullman National Monument outside of Chicago is also an amazing place. Here, a visionary and paternalistic community was built for the workers who built the luxury Pullman railroad cars in the late 19th century. When the economy crashed, so did the community as workers could not afford to continue to live there. A brutal strike put down by Federal troops goes down as one of the darker chapters of US labor history. But for ex-slaves after the Civil War, being a Pullman Porter offered way into a newly emerging Black middle class. Although demeaning in some ways, these jobs became very desirable for many African American men with few other options. Michelle Obama’s grandfather helped his family by being a Pullman Porter for many years.
Two of our all-time favorite people are Terry and Sam Evans who we stayed with in Chicago. Terry is a well-known, brilliant landscape photographer who was an original member of our Water in the West project in the 1990s. Sam was the head of the International YMCA and has traveled all over the world for his work including over 40 trips to the Middle East. They both have deep roots in Kansas, and we spent a fascinating evening talking about many things including the recent, unexpected vote in Kansas on abortion. There needs to be more people in the world like Sam and Terry!
As we left Chicago, we quickly entered Indiana. The main memory I have from there is the maddening frequency of the toll booths that required everyone to stop and fork over lots of money to a toll taker in the booth. Automatic toll booths or license scanners was not an option here. I suspect that because of the conservative politics here the state went for low taxes for its citizens and soaking the helpless people driving through the state to pay for the crumbling infrastructure. Take that, Mike Pence!
On these long, cross-country drives it is interesting to see how parts of the drive are defined by the podcast we happen to be listening to at the time. On our drive through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and later upstate New York we were absorbed by a series called “The Apology Line”. This is a true story about Mr. Apology narrated by his wife Marissa Bridge. He put up flyers around New York City in the 1980s inviting people to anonymously leave a recorded phone message with an apology for anything they had done. What started out as a quirky art project soon took on a life of its own consuming even Mr. Apology. It was creepy and fascinating. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about the states we drove through while listening to this riveting story.
On our way to Vermont, we made a quick stop at the Saratoga National Historical Park in upstate New York. Here, in 1777, during the American War for Independence, American troops battled and beat a British invasion force, marking the first time in world history that a British Army ever surrendered. This crucial victory secured essential foreign recognition and support, instigated world-wide wars, affirmed United States independence, and changed the face of the world. Not bad for a bunch of New England farmers!
Finally, after 3,486 miles we arrived at our place in Vermont! It was so nice to not be in motion for a while. Sitting still and just watching the birds flitter and the grass grow sounds just about perfect right now. I will post the next blog in a few weeks.
We shot out of San Francisco like an arrow leaving the bow. Powered by strong coffee from Martha & Bros. we felt like we could leap across the continent to Vermont in a single bound. We knew that leaving our cool, gray city of love we would also enter another world. Sure enough, as we crested the Coast Range on Highway 80 and entered the Sacramento Valley the sun came out and the temperature began to soar.
Driving across the country has its advantages. You really get to see the country and its slow changes of geography and culture. Nothing prepares me for the mind-boggling open space of the American West. Nor for the sour-crushing uniformity of suburban sprawl in California and western Nevada. I have driven around the West most of my life. But every time that I do, I am still surprised by the physical experience of being surrounded by the West’s fragility, beauty, cruelty, and intensity of this beguiling awesome space.
One of the other great things about driving across the country is listening to podcasts. For some reason, Ellen and never find the time to listen much at home, but for a 10,000 mile drive we binge without limit. Last summer, Lyndsay Graham’s American Experience: Wicked Game got us all the way across country and back with mile-melting, fascinating stories of every American Presidential election, from Washington to Biden Today we listened to his American History Tellers podcast series on the Lewis and Clark expedition. It seemed appropriate as we had just plunged into our own expedition in search of America.
As we drove into Reno everything changed again. The temperature spiked to 103 degrees, and we entered the Great Basin of Nevada. This beautiful state is called Basin and Range country because of the undulating landscape of mountains and valleys carrying on like an endless set of beautiful waves to delighted surfers in Santa Cruz. And we were the surfers sailing over the crests and down into the troughs.
We listened for many hours to the toils and troubles of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery fighting off Grizzly bears, prickly cactus, endless clouds of mosquitoes, cold, heat and starvation from the comfort of our air-conditioned Prius. On this trip, we chose to drive east across Nevada on Highway 50 which promotes itself as the “Loneliest Road in America”. Actually, I think Highway 6 in Nevada is lonelier, but this title makes for good copy. Cumulous clouds begin to form in the east and grew bigger and blacker and eventually it began to rain. It turned out to be a gentle rain but as we rolled down the windows of our car, the desert began to smell like rain. The overpowering aroma of sage was intoxicating, and the physicality of the West finally kicked in. We stopped in an open valley near the Naval flight school outside of Fallon to photograph the dust storms blending with wispy sheets of rain backlit by the sun. It was a magical moment in the great American West surrounded by a crazy blend of nature. As we continued to drive east, the miles drifted by with a combination of piñon pines and sagebrush, rain and sun, basin and range, and Lewis and Clark. We pulled into Ely, NV at the end of a long day – happy, exhausted, and glad to be back in the land we love – the great American West.
Some of you have been following my occasional Library Road Trip posts since we began this work in 2016. I am happy to announce that Ellen and I will finally have the first public expression of our Global Library Project starting this weekend. I will be giving a slide talk on Saturday, June 11th at 1 PM and Ellen and I will do a gallery walk-through and reception afterwards. The show will have several public programs during its five month run. We hope to see you at the opening or at a later event.
Thank you for following our travels around the world photographing libraries and culture. The first public expression of this project will open at the Main San Francisco Public Library on June 11, 2022 at 1 PM. There will be a reception and I will give a slide talk and gallery walk-through. The Library will sponsor several other public programs including a film series over the five-month span of the exhibit. We hope to see you at some of these events.
Although we knew we had to do it, we found it hard to turn our car south, leave Yellowknife, and head back to San Francisco. A local man at a gas station spotted our California license plates as we tanked up before we left. He was shocked that we had driven four days from San Francisco to Yellowknife and we were about to do the same heading home. “Are you rich?” he asked as he glanced at the current insanely high price of fuel. It was a hard question to answer since being “rich” is relative. I assured him that we were not rich, drove a hybrid that got around 50 mpg and ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches along the way. Then his face brightened as he exclaimed “Oh, coming to Yellowknife is on your bucket list”! In a way, he was right. Walker and I have always wanted to come here. Walker, the born geographer, had already travelled all over this area on Google Street View. For both of us, this trip was a chance to literally travel to the end of the road. Our lives tend to be circumscribed by geography, circumstances, and our imagination. This trip was our chance to be blown by the wind to a far corner of the earth and break the boundary of the world we know. After years of Covid restrictions, Donald Trump, and Putin’s stupid war in Ukraine, we just needed to do something different. Like explorers from the past, we chose to go somewhere that we’ve never seen. It was a crazy, exhilarating, life-changing adventure!
Before we head back, I wanted to share a few images buried in the mountain of photographs made on this trip. I usually take a while to edit and sift through photos from a long journey. It is hard to do while traveling and the best images usually take time to rise to the top. The first is the High Prairie Public Library in central Alberta. The panorama of this unusual library gives a good sense of the dusty streets of a small town on the Canadian High Prairie. The second library is the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly in Yellowknife, NWT. The library there was fantastic, and this photo is of the nearby Legislative Assembly chamber itself.
The third image is a grid of the hand-built houseboats on the still-frozen Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife taken over two evenings at sunset at 10 PM.
The last is a photo of the little Yellowknife Dene village of Dettah, NWT. When we visited this place on the remote north shore of the Great Slave Lake, we had no idea that England’s Prince Charles and his wife Camilla would be coming there soon to meet the Indigenous people of the area. One of the topics they will discuss will the horrible treatment of Native Canadian children in some of the Indigenous boarding schools in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Libraries and education continue to be an important subject here, especially among the Native people.
We left Yellowknife at an un-Godly hour and all the good coffee shops were still closed. The only place open was Starbucks and I was amazed by the sign in front that speaks to our current economic situation.
Driving south we encountered many large mammals by the side of the road. The bison we saw were near the vast Wood Buffalo National Park, the largest in Canada. Straddling the border between northern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories, it contains an area larger than Switzerland, and is the second-largest national park in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its biological diversity and for the world’s largest herd of free-roaming Wood Bison. We also encountered elk, moose, deer and even a black bear. We had been told the polar bears didn’t come this far south.
By a miracle, we mostly had good weather throughout our trip but barely missed the major catastrophic floods in Hay River, NWT on our way up. We still encountered parts of the road that were flooded, but fortunately our mighty Prius never wavered through all the challenges.
After an 11-hour drive, we briefly stopped for dinner in the central Albertan town of Whitecourt. We were shocked to see a “F*ck Trudeau” flag flapping from the back of a white pickup. Canadians generally avoid the angry Trump-like symbols and signs that are so prevalent back in the USA. Walker said that we were driving through one of the most conservative parts of Canada. An hour later, we ended our long day on the eastern edge of the Canadian Rockies in the small town of Hinton, AB. Checking in to our motel, I noticed the Edmonton Oilers hockey team were playing LA in the Stanley Cup. I thought back to our stay in that wonderful Canadian city and immediately started cheering for the Oilers!
The next day, we drove over two huge mountain ranges. The Canadian Rocky Mountains were beautiful and still covered in snow. Jasper National Park was stunning, and it was nice to be here without the usual crowds. This large park was established in 1930 and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After traveling through Jasper, we encountered vast agricultural lands around the city of Kamloops. Walker described this beautiful Canadian city as the largest that most Americans have never heard of. We entered the massive Canadian Coast Mountains near the tiny village of Lillooet on the Frazer River in British Columbia. Situated at an intersection of deep gorges in the lee of the mountains, it has a dry climate and long growing season. These interior mountain valleys are called “Canada’s Hot Spot” and can bake in the summer. Walker described the nearby town of Lytton that had one of the highest temperatures ever recorded in Canada. Tragically, it completely burned down the next day. After I photographed the Lillooet Public Library, we headed west into even higher and more rugged mountains. As our car made the steep accent the sky got darker and cloudier, and we soon encountered snow by the side of the road and slushy rain. We stopped in Duffey Lake Provincial Park and gazed out over the spectacular lake as the rain fell and the ice was breaking up.
We continued to the famous ski resort town of Whistler, BC. This town is situated in one of the most beautiful valleys we have seen on this trip. While I photographed the attractive but closed library, I realized that I have complicated feelings about communities like this. On the one hand, the wealth here creates great restaurants, great coffee shops, and sometimes even great libraries. But the economic monoculture seemed pretty stale, predictable, and pretentious. I loved the setting for Whistler, but we were glad to move on through the beautiful mountains and eventually down the rugged coast of British Columbia to the sea.
We arrived late in Vancouver, BC and stayed in the remarkable Sylvia Hotel. It felt like something out of a Humphry Bogart movie and was situated on an inlet of the Pacific. The next morning, we hiked along the sparkly shore and gazed out into the ocean. The Greater Vancouver area is the third largest in Canada. The city is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse places in the country: 52% of its residents are not native English speakers. It is considered one of the world’s most livable and greenest cities but is also one of the most expensive places anywhere. In my mind it is also situated in one of the most beautiful settings for a large city anywhere on earth. Needless to say, I fell in love with this area again. After a great breakfast and a meeting with a friend and her new baby, we headed back to the USA.
Many hours later, we arrived at one of my favorite American cities of Portland, OR. It shares many things in common with Vancouver including a northwestern eco-friendly, hipster vibe. After dinner, Walker and I visited the site of the recent George Floyd protests in the city center. I was fascinated by the layers of graffiti sprayed on old Spanish-American war monuments by social justice, anti-antifa, anarchists, and pro-Trump people. Walker had earlier reported on these protests for his job working at CBS News, Fortunately, he was able to decipher the cryptic, spray-painted messages ironically covering the monuments to an earlier American colonial war. It was late and we were tired, so we rented a scooter and rode through the dark deserted streets of the city center back to our motel. The next day, of course, we made a pilgrimage to that towering monument of literary excellence: Powell’s Books. I was happily surprised to see our book Photographing Shakespeare: The Folger Shakespeare Library on display as a Staff Pick!
It was a great experience to spend 10 days locked in the car with our son Walker Dawson. As I mentioned earlier, it was a true father-son bonding experience. We traveled about 6,000 miles on this trip. During that time, the secret ingredient that kept us sane was listening to lots and lots of podcasts. Mostly we listened to Lindsay Graham (not the Senator) and his series called American History Tellers. You may recall that when Ellen and I drove across the country last year we listened to his American Elections: Wicked Game. Graham’s work is exceptional, and we spent many happy hours as the miles melted away listening to his podcasts on the Gilded Age, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression and the American Revolution, etc.
As I now contemplate scraping off 6,000 miles worth of bugs from the front of our car, I am thankful for the privilege of being able to make such an amazing trip. To be continued…
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.
I'm photographer Robert Dawson. Join me and my son, Walker, as we drive across the country this summer photographing public libraries for my next book, due out in 2013. Our trip will complete 17 years of field work documenting this precious American resource.
For more on my work and my upcoming American Public Library photography book, please visit robertdawson.com.