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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.


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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.


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Upcoming exhibition at the Main San Francisco Public Library

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.

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The Global Library exhibition

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.


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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…


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Yellowknife, Northwest Territories


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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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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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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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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