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'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.