Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Eye Divine

A wedding photographer looks for overcast skies on wedding days, hoping to get just the right brightness to enhance the colors of dresses, grass, trees, and all the decorations that make the whole of a wedding day. That’s not unlike many photographic situations. The absence of direct sunlight allows the richness of color in outfits, foliage, and decorations to flourish. However, in the American West, an ironic situation occurs. The exact opposite happens.

In the high mountain areas, where coniferous forests choke the landscape, gray skies make for very dark landscapes. The evergreens appear black, and the views are without definition. Hiking through these forests, it is easy to feel the weight of the lack of color, and eyes often look to the sky with hope that something will break the cloud cover. When it does, the brilliant green spreads down the mountains, and a smile reaches the lips.

Of course, the sky plays a deep and lasting role in the landscape, and when the sun beats down, brilliant deep blue stretches across the horizon. Looking up, it extends without any washout that is often present in more humid environments. When the lucky traveler stumbles across an alpine lake, the reflection of sky on water will make knees buckle with beauty.

Heading deeper into canyons, moving towards the rock of the Great American Desert, ridding trees for the sake of sand, the sky deepens to the darkest of blues. It is here that the sharp lines of the landscape are at their zenith, where leaves of cottonwood trees have such precise definition it seems clearly possible the eye can count each individual leaf…and the clearer the skies, the easier the task. The sky deepens in color, the leaves so green in the trees, and the towering walls then take on a stark contrast in their reds, browns, and tans. It brings tears to the eyes embracing that silent, beautiful isolation, so divine in its spiritual presence.

Those lucky enough to view these landscapes, maybe even to catch them in fleeting photographs, will be transformed with the philosophy of the ironic, beautiful western landscapes. And their lives will never be the same.

Monday, August 3, 2009

No Weather Map Gets the Four Corners Region Right

Watching The Weather Channel, a traveler might feel eased by the sweeping forecasts for rain, snow, heat, and cold. The truth is, the maps never get the weather right. In the valleys, it’s always warmer, and in the mountains, the weather is always changing.

In the desert regions, even a 50% chance of storms is a crap shoot because the dry air just sucks the life out of storms. A quarter of an inch could fall in 15 minutes at one location, and a half mile away, the rock remains dry.

During the winter, temperatures are vastly different from the maps, as even slight elevation changes will affect the precipitation and temperatures. In just a matter of minutes, I have moved from 35 degrees to 65 degrees, just by going down a couple thousand feet in elevation.

People will always ask about the cold conditions when I’m traveling in the winter, and I always have to explain that I am avoiding the colder temps by staying in the valleys. Though an eye has to be trained on possible monster winter storms that can spread across a state at a time, it is usually better to gain a feel for the ripples in the landscape. The bends and rises become a part of a trip, and directions traveled run like rivers of relief from extremes.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Motel Coffee

Staying at a motel that has good coffee is just as likely as expecting good food from White Castle. They all use some bottom-end coffee that gives the needed caffeine boost but adds a little rot-gut to the mix as well.

That’s why I was surprised when we rolled into H and H Motor Lodge in Idaho Springs, Colorado. With no continental breakfast and a basic pot with foam cups at a small table, I thought I’d never even try the stuff. After all, we planned on settling in to the JMR Coffee House for some wake-up later in the morning. But out of that caffeine necessity, I walked over in the crisp early morning, filled a cup from the office, and on first sip, I couldn’t believe it. Smooth. Tasty. Just refreshing and surprising.

Never forget these places. Finding another is quite unlikely, and remembering where we stop for a night is always hazy on future trips. I can just imaging saying, late at night and ready to pull off anywhere, even if lot lizards troll the joint, “Where was that place in Idaho Springs that was cheap and had good coffee? Of fuck it, let’s just go HERE.”

So I have to remember, H and H Motor Lodge is a basic motel among many comparable places in Idaho Springs. The owner is kind enough to feel comfortable with the stay, and the rooms are not cramped. However, the reason to document the place is for its coffee. It’s velvet in a sea of bitter, gut-busting brown sludge. We will be back.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Art of Leisure

The ability to find leisure in our lives thins as we grow older. It's not that opportunities don't present themselves, but there seems to be a level of guilt that attaches to down time. We should be doing something...anything. Resting or relaxing is just another form of inactive lack of productivity. Clean the house, check the e-mail, deal with the kids, take out the dog. We find things to take our time.

But leisure, that time we give to ourselves in solitude just to breathe and deflate and maybe explore without planning, helps rejuvenate the mind and body. Giving ourselves a break once in a while centers the mind and detaches us from the treadmill of life. At its best, leisure is a personal journey of self-discovery. Other times, it is an exploration with others, perhaps on a road trip to nowhere in particular. Discoveries and possibilities are endless, but only if we actively make an effort to grasp those opportunities.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Where Is My Mind? Out to Lunch...

There are days that boredom sets in and the mind wanders. It would be nice to have profound thoughts all the time, or at least appear to be that way, much like the imposing journals of Emerson. However, when I get the time to sit and stare into space, I think of old childhood items that somehow were lost along the way. Today, I have been searching for an old Tony the Tiger cereal bowl. At one time, I found it on eBay for 20 bucks, but of course, a level head prevailed, and it was not purchased. Now, the hunt begins again, with what conclusion, I do not know. Maybe tomorrow, it will be a search for Dukes of Hazzard action figure from the early 80's. Ahhh, it's great to have this summertime freedom.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Magical Belmont, Part 3

The morning of the Belmont began an hour later than usual because we did not expect to go to the backside. With all the extra security, it seemed like a fruitless effort, as I did not have a valid visitor's pass anymore, and she wouldn't be able to get photos of the horses galloping due to the closed track.

By this time, there had been so many bold moves on our part that we slowly changed our minds about the backside. What's the worst that could happen, eh? Famous last words that have come back to haunt me many times, but this time, nothing ever did happen. We went through the barns to the track kitchen, The Morning Line, which had nourished us well for the last few days. While rubbing shoulders with the likes of Edgar Prado and D Wayne Lucas, we sat in our newly traditional spot, and gave our order to the smiling waitress, who was used to us by now.

The tone was set for the day. It would be relaxing, at least in the beginning. With all the pressures of the upcoming tasks for Jamie's photo shoot, this quiet morning helped ease some of the anxiety.

By the time we got to the track, it had opened to the public, and thousands of people were already staking claim to spots in the shaded picnic area, as well as on the rail near the finish line. Immediately, I noticed folding chairs at the rail, which meant I would have a spectacular day! Just in case, I always keep a folding chair in the trunk for just such an occasion. So, while Jamie kept my spot, I ran to get the chair. What a start to the day! I would be able to sit after all!

The key to enjoying a day at the rail is to get to know the people around you. Friendliness develops an aura that sticks, even when the heat of the sun pounds for hours on end. Even after someone is drunk by 2 in the afternoon, if there has been an effort to be kind, it's likely that person will stay kind, even if his/her noise level escalates.

To the left of me was a couple connected to the racing secretary for Belmont. To the right of me was a woman attending her 15th Belmont. Both were quieter than normal, but there were enough conversations for us to feel obligated to defend our seats in the event one gets up and some fan attempts to steal the spot.

The day couldn't have been more perfect for weather, though the sun was rather hot on the head. No matter. The breeze was cool, and the fans seemed to be in great spirits. Throughout the day, I watched for Jamie as she moved all over the track taking pictures. At times, she could be seen herding with the group of quirky photographers that had quickly become a tight-nit posse. At times, even on the rail, I missed that action of personalities that I had experienced the previous two days.

Though there were about 8 hours of racing that day, the time went by so fast. Great performances by Munnings, Gabby's Golden Gal, and Fabulous Strike accented the day, and I was very happy to see Benny the Bull make a comeback with a strong second-place performance. Also, the buglers opened the races with excitement with their unique calls to the post. Smiles were abounding all over the track.

The good-natured crowd would creer for the most umlikely of things throughout the day. Of course, they would cheer any time a camera turned to them. "I'm on TV!!" Other times, they would cheer for obscure things, like a truck full of people or the tractor that pulled the gates for the Belmont race. Once, one of Jamie's colleagues, Lauren Pomeroy, had a huge 600mm lens poked into the ground right in front of us. In a moment, the people behind me were snapping pictures of and cheering the lens. Lauren never knew, but I was laughing the whole time.

But everyone was waiting for the big moment. The Belmont. That event that is nearly impossible to comprehend due to its history and status. Secretariat's ghost looms strongly over the track at all moments, and these horses were going to run in his wake once again. How would they fare? Would it be another embarrassing performance in 2:31 with a longshot, or would it be a solid performance for the ages?

Really, it was neither, though it was exciting in all the right ways. The crowd surged at ever moment Mine that Bird passed them. Clearly, he was the favorite in the hearts (and pocketbooks) of the fans.

Waiting with my heart in my chest, the horses loaded right in front of me. When in the gate, the roar of the crown nearly lifted me of my feet, and then in a flash, the horses were out of the gate and down the lane.

We all watched the monitors as the horses galloped down the backside. At this point, the front runner is not usually a factor, but surprisingly, Dunkirk was setting a blistering pace. 23 and 47 for the first two quarters. Though he is a blue blood as they come, I had no belief that he would hold that pace and win.

On the far turn, the crowd began to surge, and fingers pointed at the board. Mine That Bird's number 7 had flashed onto the fourth place spot. There was another surge when he hit the second spot. He was making his move! And then, after all these weeks of his stardom, he did the impossible again...he took the lead. The crowd went wild, jumping up and down and hoping he could keep the lead.

But Dunkirk was not through! After such blistering fractions, he refused to fade away and sped back to challenge for first.

And then, it happened. Summer Bird.
The horse that had a similar running style to Mine That Bird was making his move. He was one of my picks for the Belmont, especially after Bill Nack singled him out, and I had though of putting 20 dollars on him to win just for fun (and for respect of Bill's expertise). I should have done it. In a flash, Summer Bird mowed down the competition and surged to a convincing win.

The 141st Belmont Stakes belonged to a long shot once again at 11-1, but this time, it was a long shot who legitimately had a chance in this field.

Hopes and dreams were born and dashed in the respectful time of 2:27 for the race. Some booed, and some cheered. An inquiry involving the second and fourth place horses subdued the crowd a bit. However, it was exciting all around. Nobody got hurt, and it was a real racehorse race. The drama to all of it, both behind the scenes and on the track made for memories that I will never forget.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Magical Belmont, Part 2

Thursday and Friday brought nonstop rain. At times, it was light and refreshing, but usually it was miserable and soaking. Still, after an hour or so of misery, the mind seems to accept the fate, and by 8am, we didn't really consider the rain to be a hindrance.

Also, it helped to balance the trips to the rail and to the backside with some exciting travels behind the scenes. Up to the Belmont, Jamie had kept in contact with Bill Nack for nearly a year, discussing various news from the racing world. When we got to the track for the races on Thursday, we were able to connect with him, and he was gracious enough to take us to the press room, introducing us to writers from Sports Illustrated, Bloodhorse, NYRA, and more. Jamie made some good contacts for her photography, but more importantly, it was great being able to see another part of the track that is otherwise inaccessible to the general public.

That night, we had dinner at Waterzooi with Bill, Jenny Kellner (from NYRA) and her husband (from the AP). By this time, we were settling in to these experiences that never happen to us, and we had a great time discussing all kinds of topics, from horse racing to Cormac McCarthy. The highlight had to be Bill's recital of the final page of The Great Gatsby. There were no egos at the table, which helped because we were certainly sharing a table with some very accomplished professionals.

The next night, we found ourselves rushing to buy some kind of decent clothes so we could attend the NYRA party at the grand Garden City Hotel. The invitation marked the location as "posh," and upon entering, that felt like an understatement. With new clothes in tow, fitting in visually was not a problem, though all the giants of the industry were there. By the end of the night, I had conversations with Chip Wooley, D Wayne Lucas, a handicapper for the Daily Racing Form, and of course Jenny and Bill. Though we are not party people by nature, the night still brought smiles and often incredulous looks between us..."Look where we are!"

Between our arrival early Thursday morning and that party Friday night, we had experienced more than we ever could have expected from our first Belmont trip, and the crowning event hadn't even occurred yet. The mother of all American races, the test of champions, the Belmont was looming with less than 24 hours before post time.