Quotes Heard and Overheard During a Week Traveling in the West

I just got back from a great trip driving from Phoenix to the Tetons and back. I took many pictures and took many walks, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to put a meaningful newsletter together during my travels. So, in an effort to capture a bit of this adventure for now, I collected some quotes along the way that I thought would be worth sharing. They are in no particular order.


“I never messed with drugs or alcohol, I just have my coffee and my cigarettes. But I’ll say, you touch my coffee or my cigarettes and I’ll take my teeth out and gum ya.”

- Sheila, talking about the drug problem in her community - Black Canyon City, AZ


Guy #1 - “Maybe next trip we can find someone that actually has PCP.”

Guy #2 - “Yeah man I don’t know it’s always hard to find, especially in the West.”

Guy #1 - “Yeah you’re right.”

Guy #2 - “Yeah.”

Guy #1 - “I want just to go somewhere that has fireflies. I’ve never seen fireflies before.”

- The two campers in the sight next to mine, discussing plans for their next trip - Grand Canyon, AZ


“Is that your bed? Badass.”

- Mike, walking by while I roll up the twin air mattress and sleeping bag in the trunk of my car - Yuba Lake State Park, UT


“On real warm days, I’ll walk down to the cafe and buy an ice-cream and just lay on this one big rock on the way back to camp. It’s just the best view.”

- Alan the campground host, on his favorite nearby trails - Grand Canyon, AZ


“TRAIN YOUR BRAIN

WATCH OUT FOR TRAINS

RAIL SAFETY WEEK”

- Every big overpass sign in Utah


“Just don’t let anything fall on the car.”

- Brendan, while we were setting up the 8x10 camera to photograph his 1964 Shelby Cobra - Grand Teton National Park, WY


“Barcelona? No, I don’t know, too many fish with eyeballs.”

- Guest at the Jenny Lake Lodge discussing the group’s next vacation - Grand Teton National Park, WY


“I was just kiddin’ about gummin’ people, I say that just to freak my grandkids out. It really drives them nuts.”

- Sheila, on her previous statement - Black Canyon City, AZ


“Holy shit. Sheep.”

- Me, alone, driving past three Border Collies and two women on horseback herding what looked like a thousand sheep up a steep hill - Somewhere in Utah


“CHOO CHOO

CHOOSE TO LOOK OUT

FOR TRAINS

RAIL SAFETY WEEK”

- Every other big overpass sign in Utah

Why I Take Pictures of Mailboxes

I am sometimes asked why I took a certain picture, and often I don’t have a very good answer. It usually takes me a while to understand what I initially saw in a scene or an object or a person to warrant stopping and making a picture. And it takes even longer to know if I did a good job translating everything I found interesting there into the flat, colorful rectangle on my computer screen. Some pictures are easier to understand than others, but almost all of them take work. Almost all of them. The few pictures that I never have to think about, the ones for which I can always and immediately explain the why and the how, and the images that I find myself constantly remaking and returning to, are my pictures of mailboxes.

I don’t want to make a one-to-one comparison between photography and food, but pictures of mailboxes are my “comfort food” photos - easy, uncomplicated, delicious, and usually somewhat nostalgic. This isn’t to say that all comfort food is easy to make (God knows I still can’t make a good meatloaf) but there is a certain simplicity to the food I find most comforting. There isn’t a lot of cleanup, no hard-to-source esoteric ingredients, and the recipe with all of the measurements and instructions can fit on one side of an index card. I find taking pictures of mailboxes just as simple. They’re pretty much everywhere (especially walking around the suburbs), they don’t move around much, and they’re actually quite photogenic. Mailboxes fit well in a vertical frame, sit separated from any distracting elements in the background, and are made of shapes that lend themselves to a good picture (the hard-edge rectangle, the swooping arch). Pictures of mailboxes even title themselves - there's no better signifier than the name of a family or number of a house stamped right into the thin metal. And so I take pictures of mailboxes because it is easy to take a good picture of a mailbox, and to take lots of them. But that isn’t really why I love pictures of mailboxes.

I’ve always been drawn to mailboxes for what they say about their owners. Sure, most mailboxes are bought at Home Depot and never considered again. But some mailboxes, and I’m sure everyone can think back to a few of these, were made with real care and attention. Homemade and customized mailboxes are sculptures that tell a story about the person living at that address. The interesting mailbox says something about whoever lives in that specific house, and I find these public displays of creative selfhood fascinating. Even better are the ancient mailboxes with jury-rigged repairs and visible patches, a sign of the owner’s ingenuity and determination to never buy another new mailbox. To me, taking a photo of a mailbox is as close to taking someone’s portrait as you can get without having the person in the picture. 

And I could go on - I’ve thought often about the mailbox as a symbol for our collective trust and appreciation of our amazing postal system, and I’ve thought about the irony in the fact that no one actually owns their mailbox (the inside of every mailbox is technically the property of the United States Federal Government, and government agents called Postal Inspectors are authorized to enforce any tampering with this property). And I can't ignore the hint of nostalgia in my love for mailboxes, reminding me of the neighborhood I grew up walking and riding my bike through. There are really countless reasons why I take pictures of mailboxes, most of which I have come up with while staring at the now hundreds of images in my collection. I’ve listed here the reasons that seem the most important, and I’ll spare you the rest.

I’ll end by recommending everyone find their own “mailbox” -  something out in the everyday world that you can look at and through close observation learn something about a stranger. Outward displays of personal creativity like this are pretty much everywhere; cars, gardens, front stoops, tote bags, graphic t-shirts. It can really be anything. The trick is to look close enough and often enough so as to notice the differences, to see which of these certain things are crafted with real intention and love, and to craft your own compassionate story about why a person might express themselves in such a way. For me at least, this process helps in understanding, relating to, and respecting the people around me, even if I will never meet them. Painting a mailbox to look like a cow barn takes quite a bit of creative energy, and I will always want to celebrate that.


Links to Things I’ve Enjoyed Recently:

Every Walk is a Story

Even the Boring Ones

The narrative structure of a walk lends itself to a good story. You start from a familiar place, somewhere to establish the characters, motivations, and conflict before the action starts. You leave this comfortable place and move out into the world, with a goal in mind (even if that goal is just to move, to experience the world around you, to get some exercise or some fresh air, to take out the trash). There are unknowns out in the world that you could not have accounted for before leaving. There are new people you will meet and people you will ignore and others that you might recognize. There are both familiar places and new locations that you must traverse, all the while taking in information and using that information to help you reach your destination (whatever that may be). You eventually meet your goal, after overcoming specific issues or conflicts that hindered your progress. You return to your comfortable place, or a new comfortable place is formed through the process of being on the walk (or journey, adventure, etc.). At the end, you recount what you learned, what you lost, what you gained, and how you changed. And most importantly, this walk-as-story framework scales. I could have just described The Lord of the Rings. Or it could have been a walk to get groceries. 


You leave your comfortable house or apartment on a walk with the goal of buying food that will last you and your roommate for at least a couple of days. You know what route you will take to the store - you have taken it many times before. But you find out upon arrival that your regular grocery store has suddenly gone out of business. You now must now figure out the route to the next closest grocery store, and while you are looking at your phone in the mostly empty parking lot someone approaches you and asks if you know how to change a tire.

You do; the question makes you think of your dad carefully walking you through all the steps the day after you got your driver’s license. You help the stranded stranger change the tire, they offer you a few dollars as a sign of thanks, you attempt to refuse, and they insist. You take the money reluctantly and say goodbye to the stranger, whose name you forgot instantly. You start off for the next closest grocery store and find yourself walking through a part of town that you are almost completely unfamiliar with. Maybe you rode your bike down this particular street a few times growing up, or maybe this is where the detour led when the town was doing all that work to expand Main Street? You could find where you are on a map, but you don’t know who lives in these houses. You think you may recognize the person mowing their lawn across the street but you really can’t be sure. But, oddly, you do recognize a walking path through a dense patch of trees, and all of a sudden remember walking this path to a friend’s house many years before.

It leads through the woods right to the intersection where the next closest grocery store is located. You take the path, get to the grocery store 5 minutes earlier than Google Maps originally estimated, and go about shopping. This grocery store has a slightly different layout than your normal store, and so it takes a bit longer to find everything. Eventually you make it to the checkout and pay for all of your items. On your way out, you notice the scratch-off lottery ticket machine near the exit. You think of the few extra dollars in your pocket, and you end up spending about half of those dollars on some of the cheaper tickets. You throw them in your grocery bag and head home, back through wooded path, past the person now sitting on their porch admiring their freshly mown lawn, across the empty parking lot of the now-defunct grocery store, and finally through your own front door.

You put the groceries away before any of the frozen items get too melty, and after finding them at the bottom of a bag you leave the lottery tickets on the kitchen table. The whole trip took much longer than expected, so you sit down to think of what to do next. While you are resting, your roommate comes home from work and asks how your day was. You think back, and already seeing the plot points and funny coincidences lining up in your head, you start, “I took a walk to get groceries, and it ended up being a real adventure.”

And you will not be exaggerating. That walk was certainly an adventure. The stories we tell others about our day-to-day experiences almost always pertain to the surprising, unusual, exciting, or interesting things that happen to us. Everyone on some level understands that these happenings make for good stories. The story of an eventful walk is something we share with others because you can talk about, discuss, dissect, laugh at, wonder about, and return to everything that happened. That’s not to say every walk will be an adventure - not every story is good. Storytelling (to me) is much more about carefully choosing the story you want to tell than it is about creating an exciting story out of nothing. Walking helps practice the skill of noticing important plot points, picking out the exciting parts of daily life, and lends a structure to form these vignettes into something that captures an audience’s attention, even if that audience is just your roommate. 


Links to Things I’ve Enjoyed Recently:

  • The MIT List Visual Art Center has been putting out walking prompts as part of their online summer programming. All of the prompts can be accessed as PDFs or audio recordings, and they are all very thought-provoking and reflective – great excuses to get outside and take a walk. I especially enjoyed David Horvitz’s entry.

  • If anyone has talked to me about social media or Instagram, they know I’m a sucker for conceptual, niche Instagram accounts. I recently came across @shoppinglistgallery, which works exactly as it sounds and is truly fascinating. Some other accounts in this vein are @crudeprunes, @lowresgoldengate, and @fruitinthesky.

What Side to Walk On

A (Possibly) Helpful Guide

I never used to walk on the sidewalk. The neighborhood in which I grew up was small enough and quiet enough that walking in the street itself was safe. I have walked more miles in that neighborhood than any other, and for a time I really did walk right in the middle of the street, where the asphalt comes to a slight peak so rain flows down into the gutter on either side. I straddled that centerline, only moving over for the occasional mini-van or sedan heading home towards its respective driveway. It felt right to be in the middle, to be the same distance from the houses on both sides of the street. I thought I might miss something if I walked on only one side, on the sidewalk.

 

I have since lived and walked in neighborhoods where you would need a death wish to walk in the middle of the street like that. The road is busier, the speed limit is higher, the drivers are not as concerned with pedestrians. The sidewalks on these types of streets are the only option, the safe banks on a rushing industrial river.

I have also lived and walked in a neighborhood where there was no sidewalk, and so whether you were in the middle of the road or not, you were sharing the same piece of pavement with the passing cars. There was no curb either, and so walking safely meant walking on that thin strip where the cracked asphalt bleeds unevenly into front yard and flowerbed. Walking on these roads, walking the physical line where development ends and dirt begins, makes me imagine roads as thin strips of black frosting laid over the earth like a giant, round cake.

I now walk on the sidewalk almost always. But a question I have yet to answer conclusively is what side of the street one should walk on at any given time. Research has shown that walking against traffic is much safer when walking in the actual road (being able to see cars coming makes it much easier to dodge them). But does this also apply to sidewalks? What other factors could there be? I have thought, mostly while walking, about what goes into picking a side of the street. I have compiled the criteria I use below.

  1. Walk on the side of the street that has a sidewalk.

  2. If neither side has a sidewalk, walk against traffic.

  3. If both sides have a sidewalk, walk on the side with the older sidewalk.

  4. If you are taking pictures on your walk, walk on the side of the street that has more sunshine falling on it.

  5. If the temperature is above normal comfort levels, walk on the side of the street with more shade.

  6. If you can see a dog up ahead, walk on that side of the street and ask to pet the dog.

  7. If you are walking with someone, ask them what side of the street they would prefer.

  8. Walk on the side of your more dominant eye.

  9. All things being equal or the answers to these questions being inconclusive, continue walking on the side of the street you are already on.


Links to things I’ve enjoyed recently:

  • In my just-out-of-college opinion, The Social Photo by Nathan Jurgenson should be required reading for photography and digital media majors. Easily understandable and cleverly constructed, it is the first piece of serious writing I have come across that puts social media in the context of photography history. And Jurgenson’s surprisingly hopeful outlook on social media is a refreshing break from the normal doomer take.

  • I recently visited some friends in West Philly, and I’m not just saying this because they’re my friends, but they’re doing some really cool stuff. Check out Latchkey Kids if you want a taste of the amazing Philly/South Jersey DIY music scene, and literally everyone should be following @lew.blum.fan.

  • I saw a desert quail in my backyard for the first time the other day, and they are really beautiful birds. The little doodad on their heads is called a topknot.


Introducing SIDEWALK

Why I am writing a newsletter

If driving on a paved city road is just a means of getting from one point on the earth to another, walking on the sidewalk is for exploring and meandering through the space between destinations. The sidewalk provides a safe path to be slow and curious, while also allowing for spontaneous divergences. The sidewalk, different from a nature path or hiking trail, puts one in direct contact with how other people live, walking past their cluttered yards and open garages and glowing storefronts and cozy apartment stoops and raised front porches. To walk along a sidewalk is to experience the jumbled mess of being a human living next to other humans, and all the beauty and displeasure that comes with that.

I see this newsletter as being a sidewalk next to the busy road that is my art-making practice. Making art, to me at least, is getting an idea from Point A (my head) to Point B (a physical object) with as few detours or delays as possible. But during that journey from idea to object, there are always opportunities to wander and explore, roads that can only be walked down slowly and curiously. And so I am writing this, a look at the jumbled mess that is me making pictures and books about the beautiful jumbled mess I live in. Topics will loosely involve walking as an aid in my artistic journey, noticing one’s surroundings, and diving deep into obscure ideas that may or may not play a part in the grander project I am presently putting together. Writing this has as much to do with motivating myself as it does with sharing my ideas with others, but your support means the world to me. Art without an audience would be like walking on a sidewalk paved through an empty field, and I prefer a busier street.

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