Blogs

Oct 1: Small Town U.S.A.

Land Use in USA
Make note that urban areas makes up less than 4% of the total 48 contiguous states land use.

“City people. They may know how to street fight but they don’t know how to wade through manure.”  Melina Marchetta, On the Jellicoe Road

As we drove a backcountry road that led us to our home for the night, we passed yet another remnant from days long ago. It was an old barn barely standing with a caved in roof that might have been destroyed by a UFO landing, like out of some old B movie. It is one of many that we have passed during our maiden RV voyage through America’s rural Eastern Heartland. Logging almost 2000 miles on backcountry roads of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, we see a lot of evidence of days long past, and that has left a couple impressions.

Nappanee
Northern Indiana, Amish country.

 

My first impression was from witnessing the widespread blight and poverty in these rural areas. I realize this is not news, but as we drove through depressed areas, we wondered how it got to be like that and how it could exist along with obvious signs of relentless prosperity. Usually these signs were in the form of a large modern home sitting on several well-manicured acres of land on the outskirts of some little town. Quite often, small town neighborhoods were a mixture of occupied homes that were either well-kept or in total disrepair. Certainly, a large city has its pockets of wealth and poverty, but when you drive through a small town and its outskirts, the contrast is more obvious.

TC
Love seeing a small town theatre still in use.

I know cities have had their share of economic hits as well. But big cities have the advantage of being big cities, which means they have resources such as people to make a comeback. Urban areas have the upper hand given that four in five Americans live there, which makes up only 3.6% of the total size of 48 contiguous states. In 2016, 40% of the GDP came from the 10 most productive metro areas. Meanwhile, rural populations are declining, while poverty levels increase. Add to that, problems such as crime and opioid abuse are increasingly rural phenomena.

Topinabee
Every small town has a bar, unless it’s in a dry county.

It wasn’t always like that. After WWII, small towns prospered by contributing to the industrial economy. But much of that prosperity has disappeared for several reasons, including automation and jobs moving overseas. Among the rumblings coming out of rural America these days, perhaps the loudest comes out of coal country. Coal production today is twice as high as it was in 1920. Yet, current employment is about 10% of what it was back then (80, 209 in 2013 vs 784,621 in 1920). You can’t totally blame clean energy for that – instead, it’s technological advances in coal mining that have decreased dramatically the need for manpower (Sourcewatch). Indeed, a once prosperous coal town, Beattyville, KY was given the dubious distinction of being America’s poorest white town from 2008 to 2012 according to Heather Long of CNN Business. It once boomed from coal, oil and tobacco industries and the county where it is located was the No. 1 oil producing county east of the Mississippi for much of the 1900s. Now, 57% of its population receive food stamps and 58% get disability payments from Social Security.

Nashville
Our Harvest Host MOO-ville Creamery contributed to the Guiness World Book of Records for the town of Nashville, Michigan.

At first glance, it is easy to suggest that people from towns like Beattyville should just buck up and move to where there are opportunities, like cities. I don’t doubt that some have, but this is not easy or even possible for many, especially older workers. Plus, living in most cities is not cheap and housing costs continue to outprice the average person’s income. So, is this the final predicament of rural America? I am going to go out on a limb and say no, it does not have to be that way. While poverty seemed to prevail in many areas we drove through, what we also saw were many small towns that were doing quite well.

Cedar Key
There’s a lot of history in Cedar Key, Florida.

Which leads me to my second impression and that is, each little town has a rich history and stories to share. It seemed no matter where, each town had an interesting fact or person associated with it. And quite often, the history of a small town would include a period of booming industry of some kind. And what I also learned is that a rich history can be turned into an economic resource for a small town.

Window
A little home spun philosophy from Eufaula, AL.

A great example of this is Eufaula, Alabama with a population of about 14,000. It was once a major shipping center on the Chattahoochee River and played a significant role during the Civil War. The City of Eufaula’s website describes its current economic base as a “healthy mix of tourism, light manufacturing, industry, service and agriculture. The city has enjoyed steady growth due to expansion of existing industries and recruitment of new industries. I can personally vouch for its tourism industry having spent time visiting its historic downtown area, museums and historic mansion district. The city has a fascinating history to share and it’s does a good job doing so.

Poverty
Seeing small town poverty is unavoidable when driving through rural America.

Given that 96.4% of America’s land is not urban, it is no wonder that a large part of RV traveling is through rural and low-population areas. Cities offer a grand view of history, art and culture, but there is something very interesting out there in rural America. A small town can be much more than just that place you want to get through as quickly as possible and certainly don’t want to be stuck in with a repair. The freedom to travel leads us to any place we wish, but we have found good reasons to travel to small town U.S.A. Here are three; the satisfaction of an RV lifestyle that contributes to small town economies, small towns have entertained and enriched us with their histories and stories, and we visit small towns for the first time, but never feel like outsiders. Small town, U.S.A. – more than what meets the eye.

Gaylord
The little town where I spent the first 24 years of my life.

Sep 19: We’re not in the tropics any more

37
Not what I wanted to see on a September morning!

“Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories.” Anne Bradstreet

Using the reclining chair heater for the first time, I sat huddled in a fetal position under a crocheted blanket that was given to us as a wedding present from a dear friend who has always lived in Michigan. I was so pleased to have something made by my talented friend that I put the thought of never having to use it way in the back of my mind. But now, I was struggling to get every inch of my body under its warmth. Feeling like a wimp, I drank my hot coffee as I stared in horror at my ipad screen. The weather app was telling me it was a frightening 37 degrees outside. This is going to be an interesting month in Michigan.

Hiking
T-shirt weather.

Only three days ago it was Labor Day when we drove the RV into the northern Michigan campground that would be our home for 28 days. 70ish degree temperatures made camp set-up quite pleasant as we listened to the rowdy glee of several campers in the outdoor pool squeezing out as much summer as they could before winter preparations fell heavy on their minds. The amiable weather continued for the next couple days as we explored the outdoors in t-shirts and long pants. Fall can be so lovely in Michigan. But then reality caught up and it became clear as we watched the temperatures dip well below our comfort zone that we would have to buck up if we were going to do any kind of outdoor activity for the next four weeks.

Beach
Ahhh, the beach. That’s me off in the distance photographing Lake Superior. I don’t know what everyone else is doing!

 

When I left Michigan over 30 years ago, I moved to warmer climates and never looked back. My spouse Vivian is not from Michigan, she comes from a region about as far removed from the north woods as anything can be. Sixty years ago, she was born in Cuba, only 90 miles south of Miami where she has called home for the past 57 years. She is, for all intents and purposes, a tropical girl. To put her in the middle of northern Michigan is like planting a palm tree in a snowbank. As for me, I rarely miss the cold weather and am quite content sweating through a south Florida summer. When temperatures drop below 70, my body goes on alert. Get below 60 and it goes into defensive mode. Vivian, never having had a steady relationship with cold weather just doesn’t know how to respond, except to panic over how few articles of clothing she owns for such climates.

the falls
Well worth braving the cold temps, don’t you think?

 

During our visit to northern Michigan, the fall chill gradually became more consistent and during that final week up to October 1, we were completely covered in clothing while inside the RV and spending a good portion of each morning strategizing our wardrobe before braving the outdoors. Do I need my long johns? Do I need a hat? Which socks should I wear? Are you taking your Marmot jacket? But somewhere in there, a funny thing happened. Somehow, we began to embrace the cold.

the falls
You can tell who the Floridians are.

The turning point was at Whitefish Point and Tahquamenon Falls in the upper peninsula. I was so taken in with photographing Lake Superior and the falls that wearing four layers of clothing, hat and mittens just felt so right. I was really getting into the feel of the north winds whipping across my face as I set up the tripod on the beach of Superior. If I was going to photograph Lake Superior, I had to embrace the chill. In fact, I could have spent the entire day standing out in the cold, capturing that powerful great lake. I know from experience that as long as you can stay relatively comfortable while outside in 40-degree temperatures (wind chill well below that), you can be rewarded with warm inviting temperatures and hot beverages later on.

Superior
It looks cold, doesn’t it?

We spent the entire day in the frigid air of the upper peninsula with the exception of taking refuge at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub. And when we got back to the RV, it was warm. And it was so cozy. That evening, I wore my flannels and cooked dinner while enjoying the warmth that seemed to accentuate the smells of garlic and spices in our closed-up RV. Instead of the usual loud blow of the AC, the gas furnace offered a comforting low hum. I was loving it. I began to remember what it was like a long time ago. Even in the winter, I always wanted to be outside doing something; running, skiing, shoveling snow, chopping wood. I thought of that sensation of cold wetness and the beautiful feeling of putting on dry, warm clothing afterwards. If you want to enjoy winter outdoors, it simply requires the right attire and you having the good fortune of a warm place to come home to. I was lucky back then and I was feeling lucky now, in my RV.

breakfast
Fueling up for a day outdoors.

Two nights before our departure, I had one last opportunity to photograph Lake Michigan. One hour before sunset we drove west enjoying our view through farm lands. Once we got to the great lake shoreline, the temperature was no higher than 40 degrees. But I was prepared for it as I walked up and down the beach carrying the tripod and camera, looking for that final shot. Vivian stayed in the truck to keep warm having had her fill of the cold weather from fly fishing several hours that day in one of northern Michigan’s many rivers. We were both embracing Michigan’s great outdoors, she through fishing and me through photographing. That’s what you do; embrace the cold, one degree at a time. The evening sky over Lake Michigan was a beautiful scene unfolding and I was captivated once again by a great lake. It was so easy to ignore the cold. After the sun set and a few blue hour shots, I got back in the warm truck.

Great lake
Thank you Lake Michigan, you were a lovely, lovely subject.

On our drive home, we reminisced about our time in Michigan and believed that we had experienced it as much as we could. We never stopped, even when the weather tempted us to stay in. We began thinking about more trips to northern parts with our home on wheels. This little excursion was only a small taste of what’s to come. But that is all in the future. In the meantime, we had things to do. It was time to pack up, torque the wheels, blow the leaves off the slide outs, and so on. We were preparing to head south; you know, like any self-respecting Floridian would do at that time of year.

deer season
You know it’s time to leave Michigan when you see this.

Sep 12 The Bridge

“When I was on top of a tower on a clear night, it was almost as if you could touch the stars. The sky was so beautiful.” Ron Zielke, Mackinac Bridge ironworker

The Mighty Mac
The bridge reflects on the calm Straits of Mackinac

When I was growing up in northern Michigan, my parents often drove us north on I-75 to Mackinaw City where our favorite aunt, uncle and cousins lived. The best memory I have of that hour-long drive was the exact moment when the Mackinac Bridge towers came into site. I can even remember my thoughts when I first saw the towers. My young brain did not comprehend a bridge because all I could think of was our car on the tower itself. “Are we driving on THAT bridge?” I would nervously ask my parents. The towers represented the bridge and that’s all I could see from a distance.

I-75
That exact moment.

Driving across the bridge was even more of a thrill for several reasons. The most obvious one is the bridge itself. The design of Mackinac Bridge was inspired from mistakes learned when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed under high winds. The bridge that would cross the icy Straits of Mackinac would avoid that mishap by employing open-grids on the roadway to reduce wind resistance. Although the grids increase stability in winds up to 150 mph, it’s a little unnerving to drive over them.

Crossing
It never loses its thrill.

It’s even more unnerving when you are walking the bridge. Each year since the opening dedication in 1958, the bridge is closed to vehicle traffic so that thousands of people can walk it, a tradition held on Labor Day since 1959. While walking, you can’t avoid stepping on the open grids. If you dare and if the bridge sway doesn’t overcome you, the grid openings give you a bird’s eye view of the frigid straits water. This is the same water that is designated as a shipwreck preserve, dedicated to those who were lost on ships sunk in the dangerous shipping lanes.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of cars cross the bridge. For example, during the two busiest months of the year, over 600,000 vehicles cross the bridge in July and again in August. As I researched the bridge, I learned a new word, gephyrophobia, the fear of crossing bridges. A phobia condition has been identified for just about everything; like for instance, fear of ducks watching you or anatidaephobia. But gephyrophobia seems quite justifiable and even more likely to be common among people living in Michigan. Indeed, it is a very serious problem, so much so that the Mackinac Bridge Authority has a driver’s assistance program for individuals suffering from gephyrophobia. Over a thousand people each year employ this service.

Long exposure
A long exposure blurs the 1000-ft freighter passing under the bridge.

The fearful Mighty Mac has acquired several claims to fame over the years and perhaps the most notorious one came from a single event that happened in September 1989 when a 1987 Yugo driven by Leslie Ann Pluhar was blown off the bridge. The fact that it was a Yugo made it difficult for some folks to avoid a hint of humor when discussing the tragic event. But surprisingly, Pluhar’s tragic death is one of only two related to a vehicle falling off the bridge, the second of which was determined to be a suicide committed by Richard Alan Daraban in his 1996 Ford Bronco in March 1997. But these are not the only deaths associated with the bridge. I can remember talk about a man’s body forever sealed inside the concrete used to build the bridge during its construction. But this was an urban myth that just made the bridge appear sinister. In reality, five men did perish during the bridge construction and they are memorialized on a plaque in Bridge View Park, north side.

Aside from the tragedies blamed on the bridge, it is an inspiring piece of architecture. At night, it lights up with a stream of head and tail lights twinkling through the multi-color bridge lights arranged neatly along the trusses, catwalks and towers that are constantly being painted, repaired or maintained. The fact that the bridge connects mostly rural areas of the lower and upper peninsulas makes it look monumental with no interference from city lights. The towers stand boldly but also appear modest against the backdrop of the great lakes, especially in the winter when the straits become an icy plain. Those northern waters command respect and the bridge is a tribute to that fact.

Vertical
The bridge never sleeps.

Vivian and I parked the RV in a campground about 30 miles south of the bridge in the month of September. During that time, a new moon offered the opportunity for me to capture the Milky Way scheduled to appear in much of its entirety in the southern skies. I had a vision; I wanted to capture it above the Mackinac Bridge, which meant I needed to be in the upper peninsula. So, Vivian and I decided to load our tent & camping gear into the truck and head north on I-75 toward the Mackinac Bridge, leaving our comfortable RV for the night.

At about 10 pm, a few hours after setting up our camp, we walked to the shoreline of Lake Huron, a hundred feet away from our campsite. We took in the uninterrupted view of the Mighty Mac while enjoying the cool, yet comfortable evening air. The bridge was rumbling with traffic that could be seen and heard. The colorful lights reflected playfully on the relatively calm waters. Below the bridge, freighters about the length of three football fields passed under and eventually disappeared into the abyss of the great lakes. The water seemed so peaceful lapping gently on the shoreline, while the bridge stood out in the distance all lit up with lights and activity. The entire scene was an interesting blend of wilderness and commerce. As the temperature dropped, I stood over my camera continuing to capture the bridge’s glory as best I could. Our cozy tent was nearby, but we stayed at the water’s edge for a couple hours, enjoying the Michigan night. “The towers touched the sky and it was so beautiful.”

Milky Way
Not exactly what I was hoping for, but still beautiful to see.

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.