Sep 3 Full Circle

The two most engaging powers of a photograph are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” William Thackeray

Wild River
The sun peeks through the fog over the Jordan River Valley.

 

It was like old times, driving down the rutty dirt road through the remote Jordan River Valley looking for a place to pull off and get out to access the river. Back in the day, a back country drive like this was a way for me and friends to seek thrills and mostly stay out of sight of the police who might spot one of us chugging a beer. This morning, I left our RV campground an hour before sun rise as I always do when I am on a photographic mission. Instead of a cooler of beer in the back seat, there lay a tripod and a backpack full of camera equipment.

Photographing the River
The best part of RV traveling, I have all my photography equipment ready to go at any time.

The pristine Jordan River, designated as Michigan’s first natural river, meanders 32 miles through the northwest region of the state. It is where fly fishermen and canoeists work the shallow and rapid waters and where hikers trek for miles along the river’s edge through low lying wetlands and up and down hilly forests. In many areas of the river it is concentrated with fallen trees strewn about randomly, fodder for beaver dams. In the spring, multiple colors of wildflowers sprout from the dead wood while low lying fog hangs eerily over the water for hours. In the winter, ice and snow accumulate allowing only the fastest moving water to penetrate the whiteness. It’s so wild here and at first glance, appears messy and chaotic. In many ways, it reminds me of the Florida Everglades where I spend most of my time photographing.

Fog over the water
Fog lays heavy over the water, creating a mystical scene.

The entrance to the Jordan River watershed area is a short drive from where I was born and bred. Geographically speaking, my home town, Gaylord is about 50 miles south of the Mackinaw Bridge that connects the upper and lower peninsulas. Ask any Michigander from the lower peninsula where they are from, and they will most assuredly point somewhere on the palm side of their hand and say, “Right about here”. Anatomically speaking, Gaylord is located on the distal interphalangeal joint of the middle finger. Or more appropriately, in the middle of the “tip of the mitt”. The small town of 3600 is surrounded by a vast wilderness. For many of us growing up in northern Michigan, driving for miles on dirt roads through dense forests was a favorite pastime if you were fortunate enough to have a car. The vastness of the wilderness meant freedom.

Map
A trail map of the Jordan River Valley area.
Dirt Road
I love to drive down these roads.

When I left Gaylord 35 years ago, it was mostly to start a new life in a city rather than to escape a rural life. I had goals, and Gaylord was simply not in the plan. I never disliked Gaylord, in fact, I rather enjoyed it. The wild remoteness of northern Michigan was a bonus to me, but when the time came to leave, I never looked back as the city sirens called.

Hint of Fall
I was in Michigan only long enough to see the first hint of fall color.

City life and building a career meant so much more to me at a young age. The irony of it is, as I got older, I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to escape the city. But it wasn’t until I became a nature photographer that my connection to wilderness became poignantly purposeful and later, a significant reason for my RV travels. For the past 15 years, my canoe explorations of the Everglades and other south Florida waterways has been the driving force behind the photography. I spend days at a time paddling the canoe to remote hurricane-swept islands where I find the most beautiful waterscapes to capture. It’s nothing for me to go out in the canoe before sunrise and paddle through a wetland marsh, completely alone and surrounded by water and the wildlife it supports. The south Florida wilderness has been my home for a long time.

Wildflowers
Before we came here with the RV, I visited in late spring just in time to capture some wildflower color on the Jordan River.

Since Vivian and I started traveling and living fulltime in our RV this year, Michigan has been at the top of our list of travel destinations. As we planned our first RV trip, my thoughts went back to the beautiful Jordan River and how I might photograph it. While Vivian researched fly fishing opportunities, I researched photo opportunities.

Wild River 2
Chaotic and messy, such is nature in the wild.

After finding a small area to park, I got out and walked carefully down a steep grade through the dense forest that led to the Jordan River. I’ve been here before many decades ago, but back then the river was nothing more than a playground where I could jump logs and see how far I could get without falling into the water. This time, I took my time and carefully stepped over each log while I studied the terrain looking for pleasing compositions and good light. This could go on for a very long time, sometimes resulting in photos, other times not. But I was in no hurry and I could come back again on another day; after all, the RV was parked nearby in a campground for an entire month. I had the luxury of spending hours studying the river’s nuances. Indeed, we planned our RV trip so that we had quality time in one place to make the most of photographing and fishing.

Some color
Come on fall colors, you can do it!

Finally satisfied that I had something worthwhile to photograph, I went back to the truck where I put on my waiters and boots and prepared my tripod and camera. Tripod on shoulder, I walked back to the water where a beautiful scene unfolded before me. As I placed the tripod legs firmly in the sandy bottom, I imagined I was back in Florida’s swamp, it looked and felt all so familiar. I was home again.

The River
The wild Jordan River.

Please check out my YouTube video on photographing the Jordan River.

Aug 27 The Rally

I meet people and they become chapters in my stories.” Avitjeet Das

Vivian and I are not the type of people to join a crowd or follow a trend; in fact, we typically avoid both. Nevertheless, by purchasing a fifth wheel and going full time, we automatically became members of several RV-related groups. Not only that, shortly after purchasing a Grand Design fifth wheel we signed on for a Grand Design rally.

Fairgrounds
Where the Grand Design Indiana rally took place.

According to the Meriam Webster dictionary, the noun ‘rally’ can be defined as a mass meeting intended to arouse group enthusiasm. Therefore, by definition, a rally is something we would feel utterly uncomfortable attending because of a group mentality that is fixated on one thing. It is true that we believe Grand Design RVs to be of quality, primarily because of their excellent service record. Thus, attending a rally would seem like a natural way to show our enthusiasm for the manufacturer of our home while locking arms with other owners and singing “Proud to be an American” (an actual rally activity).

Grand Design Poobah
During the opening ceremonies, 800+ rally attendees were cued to hold the cut out face of Grand Design’s VP of service operations, Jerry McCarthy as part of a joke.

The fact is, we attended the rally with ulterior motives, and those were to get as much service done on our RV as necessary, attend several workshops to acquire valuable knowledge, take advantage of the vendor deals, and bug the hell out of the technicians from all the manufacturers with a kazillion questions. We wanted to take advantage of having the experts literally within arm’s reach and be able to meet other Grand Design owners who might willingly share their lessons learned. Yep, that’s right, we were in it for ourselves. Being part of an aroused group of enthusiasts never crossed our minds. We were going because we own an RV that we call home, and well, things break often in an RV. And if you have ever attended a manufacturer’s rally, you can relate.

RV weight
We were eager to get our rig and tow vehicle weighed. Feel free to examine the numbers.

At the rally, we parked our little 303rls Reflection along side several others in the middle of a field on the Elkhart County fairgrounds for five nights. Ours was a Reflection fifth wheel in a sea of Reflection fifth wheels. Solitudes tended to have their own place, as did the Momentums and Imagines. But we were all there as Grand Designers. And we even have the t-shirts to prove it. I’m not one to wear a t-shirt that advertises, especially when it displays a hackneyed phrase such as “It’s a Grand Design thing, you wouldn’t understand”. But, being retired on a fixed income, I looked beyond the advertising and saw only a free article of clothing.

Rally
The rally’s opening ceremony.

Our view was a corn field on one side and the back of another Reflection on the other. Water and electricity were provided, and I ensured our full comfort by signing up for two mobile dump services. We considered our selves lucky not having to join several dozen RVs that were relegated to the middle of the horse track. Races were not deterred because 400 plus RVs were strewn about the fairgrounds. The races prevailed and rally attendees were aptly warned to cross the track carefully at certain times of the day. And then there were the trains. Not one, but two train tracks ran very close to the fairgrounds and this is no exaggeration, a train passed by at least every 2 minutes, 24 hours a day. Amazing to me how collectively, hundreds of people train themselves (no pun intended) to ignore the loud sounds of a train. Within the first day, it became nothing more than background noise.

Fairground Row
Reflection row, ours in the foreground to the right of the silver Ford.
Race track
A rare moment when horses were not running on the track.

But I digress. We didn’t come for the ambiance, we came to get things fixed and to learn how to fix things. We especially wanted our brakes serviced, so we made an appointment for a mobile tech to come to our campsite. He did, he removed the wheels and immediately said, “You don’t have any brakes, you need to contact Lippert.” Please go back to our first blog for explanation, but in short, we burned out our brakes during the first five miles of our maiden voyage because the break-away switch had broken away, unbeknownst to us. So, Lippert came to us ready to replace the brakes, no questions asked. However, they also offered an exceptional deal on their disc brakes, so guess what? Not capable of passing up a great deal, we upgraded.

Brakes
The “brakes”, or what was left of them.

Although we accomplished our rally mission (fix it and learn how to fix it), we unexpectedly acquired something much more valuable than new disk brakes. While camped near Indianapolis days before the rally, we watched several Grand Design RVs come and go, and we reckoned some of them were heading to the rally only 100 miles away. One of those RVs going to the rally belonged to Lorraine and Spencer, full time travelers in their 337 Reflection fifth wheel. It wasn’t until we struck up a conversation with the two fellow Grand Design owners that we realized having an RV manufacturer in common with someone can lead to more than just a knowing glance and a friendly wave, or an occasional high five. In this case, common ownership became the impetus for a meaningful and lasting friendship. And that is the best reason to attend a rally. But then again, if you have ever attended a rally, you already knew that. Oh, and please check out Spencer’s funny and well written travel blog, “Friends along the Way“.

Friends
The best thing that came out of the rally, our friends Lorraine and Spencer.

Aug 21 It’s the Little Things that Count

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Henry Miller

tripod
What could I possibly photograph in an Indiana field?
Back lighting
Maybe this?

If you follow Instagram travel posts, you will be inundated with beautiful photos from iconic locations, primarily those we enjoy within our national parks here in the United States. Photographs of Delicate Arches, Maroon Bells, Horseshoe Bend and Haystack rocks of the Oregon coast are the eye candy that make us pause for a second or two and hit “Like” before scrolling to the next photo. It is no surprise that these iconic locations are among the most photographed and that people plan their travels around them.

More Indiana
A trail behind our Indiana campground

As a nature photographer and more recently an RV traveler, I must admit that chasing icon photos is not on my radar screen when it comes to planning our travels. In fact, just the opposite is true. I rather relish in the challenge of exploring the nature of a non-iconic location and attempting to create art from it with my camera. This approach to photography started fifteen years ago in the Everglades where there are no grand waterfalls or majestic mountains to photograph. It is in the subtleness of the Everglades that I learned how to connect photography with my wilderness experience. Through my relentless pursuit of capturing nature intimately, I learned to be fully immersed and take the time to get to know the place. By doing so, I notice the little things and discover something new to photograph all the time.

Everglades
The subtlety of the Everglades

Far away from the Everglades, it was in the middle of Indiana farm country that I came to appreciate the little things that we encounter on our travels. And it was all because family comes first in our travels, meaning our routes are designed to include quality time in and around Indianapolis. During our first family visit, we stayed two weeks at White River campground in Hamilton County, about 30 miles north of Indianapolis. Open fields of wild foliage and farm land dominate this area. And the muddy White River cuts through it. The prospects of catching fish or photographing spectacular nature seemed awfully dim to Vivian and me; after all, there is nothing iconic about this location. Or is there?

Yellow flower
Nothing iconic about a yellow flower, but it sure is beautiful.

Spending time in Indiana surprisingly piqued my photography interest. But mostly, it helped me to connect my approach to photography with our approach to RV traveling. As we traveled and observed through our RV window, we began to devote more time to researching a location and learning its most fascinating stories as we traveled through it. And when we stopped at a location for a short time, we tried to immerse ourselves in the area’s history and ecology. Our favorite on-the-road pastime while the other one drove was iphone-research when passing through a small town. We learned that each of those obscure little towns has a compelling story to tell and it is so much fun to read about it while driving through it. Our RV travels are about discovering these unknown stories and the people that make this country what it is. In a way, I do the same with my camera by taking the time to discover nature’s story, even when there is nothing iconic to photograph.

Honey bee
I spent several hours looking for bees to photograph.

Walking the hiking trails through the fields of Indiana where yellow wildflowers had seen better days, I became focused on the small things and thoroughly enjoyed it. Instead of resenting my two weeks spent near Indianapolis rather than a more beautiful and iconic location, I took it all in and made plans for future visits. So, thank you Indiana for helping me confirm that our RV travels are not about racking up icon points and “getting the epic shot” that so many others have done in the past; but rather, they are about enriching our lives through the discovery of the unknown and taking the time to notice the small things along the way. Perhaps icons can be found most anywhere if we choose to see it that way.

Intentional blur
When hard pressed to find something to photograph, there’s always the abstract intentional blur shot!
cow parsnip
Not sure, but this might be cow parsnip. Regardless, I thought it was quite interesting.

Aug 15 – Potholes

Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.” Babs Hoffman

Indy cartoon
Cartoonist Gary Varvel: Indianapolis potholes

Traveling through the United States in an RV makes one keenly aware of road conditions. Every slope, grade, rut, low-hanging tree, covered bridge, soft shoulder, sheer drop off, crack and pothole is experienced with a heightened awareness. And with a good amount of mileage covered, it becomes quite evident that each state and each county within a state has its own governance when it comes to road maintenance. How many times have you crossed a state or county line and encountered the most dramatic change in road conditions? Depending on which direction the conditions go, your body goes into passive or defensive mode. I understand that each state or county has its issues; but Indiana, or more specifically Marion County has a very serious pothole problem.

Repaving
They do try.

My family, including my 91-yr old mother is the reason Indianapolis is always a destination in our travels. Not that Indianapolis is a bad city but every time I visit, I ask myself why couldn’t my family, all originally from northern Michigan, have gravitated toward Seattle or Austin? I would be just as happy had everyone stayed in beautiful northern Michigan! But no, they ended up in Indianapolis, one family member after another. Having visited Indy more times than I can remember over the past forty years, I can genuinely tell you that it has been a struggle to find redeeming qualities to this city and this is largely because I am not a fan of race cars or basketball. But to be fair, it is the home town of Kurt Vonnegut, author to one of my favorite books.

indy road
My daily commute to mom’s house.

The state of Indiana is known as the Crossroads of America and Indianapolis contributes well to this with six interstate highways crossing through town. Which brings me to the topic of the blog, potholes. I repeat, Marion County has a serious pothole problem. Don’t believe me? Check out the pothole map below. I totally understand that northern cities are subjected to snow and ice, and consequently have challenges that cities like Miami do not. Knowing a little bit about physics, I also understand that cold temperatures cause water to freeze and expand, and warm temperatures do the opposite. It’s during the spring when freezing and thawing oscillate more frequently. This in turn places the greatest stress on roads and makes them vulnerable to pothole formation. Apparently, this year has been one of the worst pothole seasons for Indianapolis.

Pothole map
Commuters swerving to miss a pothole are also on their phones to report the pothole.
Pothole Data
And this is one reason Miami does not have a serious pothole problem.

No doubt, Indianapolis is not the only city challenged by potholes. Nevertheless, it is a good example of a city that does not address its road maintenance budget adequately. It has tried, more recently with a 10 cent increase on top of the 18 cent gas tax, and a hefty vehicle registration fee. And for a long time, Marion County has considered imposing a commuter tax. This would affect those suburbanites from surrounding counties who travel into the city to work. To some Indianapolis officials, it seems only fair that people who use Indianapolis streets and infrastructures should contribute to its maintenance. Just to get poor roads elevated to fair status, Indianapolis requires almost three quarters of a billion dollars and twice its current annual funding to maintain fair status. Many folks believe a commuter tax would bring in the needed funds. But, unfortunately for the city, a commuter tax requires approval from the surrounding counties and guess what? They are not approving. Does the phrase, “Taxation without representation ring a bell?

Open Source Roads
Mike Warren and Chris Lang taking matters into their own hands.

Why can’t the people of Indianapolis have good roads? There is no clear answer here, which must frustrate many Indianapolis residents. So much so that a handful have taken it upon themselves to fix the potholes. Take for instance Mike Warren and Chris Lang, who created Open Source Roads and a GoFundMe campaign to repair Indianapolis’s roads, one pothole at a time. And then there is Quinn Daily who used red spray paint to draw lines around the potholes. Soon after, he noticed that drivers slowed down and avoided the spray-painted potholes. “I was doing this just as a joke, said Daily, “I’m actually doing good!” But, even with good intentions, Open Source Roads can barely scratch the pavement surface.

wanksy
The artist learned that his city could be embarrassed into fixing the potholes.

So, where does this leave Indianapolis’s pothole dilemma? Maybe Indy citizens can learn from an anonymous man from Manchester, England who took to drawing penises around potholes out of frustration over the number of them in the streets. The artist, who calls himself “Wanksy” says the drawings fade within a week or two and are just a creative way of getting something done. Apparently, the city was embarrassed enough to fix those potholes.

Pothole art
The good side of potholes, inspired art.

In the meantime RV travelers, if you visit or drive around Indianapolis, be extra mindful of those road craters. And if you see a couple of young guys filling potholes or another one spraying red paint around them, give a honk and a wave; but please, don’t take your eyes of the road for a second, even if you see a pothole with a penis drawn around it.