Driving 200 miles through open space on a straight westerly path void of most anything except cattle herds and Wall Drug billboards hypnotized us. As we passed one cattle field after another, I knew we were getting closer to something so severely different from this grass prairie landscape that it was difficult to imagine how it could be so hidden away from our highway view or how it could develop out of such flatness.
Finally, we turned onto exit 131. From there, highway 240 continued south through more open prairie. Everything looked the same except for the 12-ft, 6-ton concrete prairie dog that stands in front of the Ranch Store not far from the entrance to Badlands National Park.
At last, we arrived at the north east entrance to the park. Still, the prairie land prevailed as we continued driving, now officially within National Park. But then in a blink of the eye, we were transported to a completely different world; a landscape so strangely unique as to attract a million visitors each year. A land that compelled Frank Lloyd Wright to describe it as follows, “ “How is it that we, toward the Atlantic, have heard so much about the Grand Canyon and so little of this, when this is so much more miraculous?” We were entering the ‘land of stone and light’.
With our 33-foot fifth wheel, we normally stay outside of national parks and enter one only after we unhitch and leave the home parked. This time, our campground (Badlands/White River KOA) location necessitated us to pull the RV through a portion of Badlands National Park. Thanks to the National Park Service that maintains a scenic highway, we were given a generous preview to the oddly formed rocks that radiate a mesmerizing beauty ever to behold. I witnessed this scene as Vivian drove the 11 miles from the park entrance to the campground. While pulling the RV slowly up and down grades through a dense outcropping of layered and jagged sandstone cliffs and pinnacles, my jaw remained dropped. Like a kid walking into a candy store, I became overwhelmed with anticipation of photographing those exquisite rock formations against a brilliant evening or morning light.
Our campground lays adjacent to the White River near the tiny community of Interior. Located within Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota tribe, we are a short distance from the national park boundaries. The fact that we were surrounded by Indian land made it difficult to ignore history and the current state of affairs among the Oglala Lakota people. Pine Ridge encompasses one county in its entirety and partially two others, three of the poorest counties in the country. The reservation contains the southern portion of Badlands National Park and since the time of COVID, has been entirely shut down. I could not help but think of the tragic consequences of foreign viruses introduced to native Americans by Europeans immigrants. Indian tribes throughout the country were shutting down completely due to COVID and in the case of the Pine Ridge Reservation, this necessarily closed a large portion of the national park. But most of the park remained open.
Being inside the Badlands National Park requires all your senses and pondering the history of its native people rarely came into thought as I photographed and took in the scenes. I simply wanted to capture the moment. Later while staying in the nearby Black Hills, Native American history would come into focus for us. In the meantime, I simply wanted to capture the stone and light. And the park service makes it so easy to do so. The highway gives visitors unprecedented access to the Badlands with continuous sweeping views, opportunities to hike short distances easily through canyons and views of wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs.
The word “Badlands” comes from the Oglala Lakota description of the harsh landscape as ‘mako sica’ which translates to ‘land bad’. The 244,000 acres of national park use to be under water. When the water receded millions of years ago, perhaps as the Rockies were formed and forced it out, it left behind sediment deposits that comprise the rock formations. Basically, the Badlands terrain was shaped by water. On the Badlands scenic drive starting at the northeast entrance and driving west to the Pinnacles entrance, we witnessed dramatic change in landscape beginning with tall jagged pinnacles that look like castles to colorful rolling mounds of rock interspersed with grasses, to flat open grasslands pock marked by prairie dog holes.
And we saw wildlife. As with the Everglades, the crown jewels of the park are the wildlife. Instead of an alligator near the road, it was a bison. Herds of bighorn sheep grazed in large numbers on the grassy prairies instead of flocks of wading birds in the shallow waters. The elusive prairie dogs contained in large underground communities reminded me of the hermit crabs that populate the tidal zones of the gulf coast. Wildlife viewings are reminders that these wilderness areas are not ours alone. The Badlands is not just to photograph, it is home to much life. Check out this next slide show for some wildlife images.
The animals of course define much of the Badlands, but for me, it was the light and the exquisite power it has over the rocks. The rocks themselves have so much character and all one needs to do is drive through the park to witness how that character changes profoundly. Amazed at how bright it is outdoors well before sunrise, we drove a backroad from Interior into the park 45 minutes before the sun peeked over the horizon. We pulled off at a lookout point to view the magic as the sun eventually lit up the rocks. Meanwhile, beautiful clouds formed in the sky and soon they were painted with pastel blues and pinks. Eye candy everywhere, Vivian used her artistic eye to point out scenes to me so I would not miss out. With the changing light and clouds, we spent an hour in one location as I created several compositions while the clouds and sun did what they do best. Only one time did a car pass by. We had the Badlands to ourselves and it was extraordinary.
The early morning scene was a hard act to follow but as the day progressed, it just got better. Such is the Badlands. Just wait a second and it will change dramatically before your eyes. Drive a short distance and another world will appear. We left the pull-off site and continued west on the scenic drive. It was early enough in the day that cars were few and far between. Clouds remained prominent in the sky creating an everchanging show of light.
This is what the Badlands were to us. Yes, we did drive out of the park to see the infamous Wall Drugstore, but only from our truck. And we did visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site but our self-guided tour lasted only minutes. These were meager diversions eclipsed by stone and light. On day six, we left our campground and pulled the RV one last time through Badlands National Park before returning to I-90. Once on the interstate, the Badlands was again hidden away as if it never existed, somewhere beyond the grass prairie that lay out in front of us. Soon, we would enter yet another enchanting land. Black Hills, here we come.
By the time we got to Mississippi, we were road weary. And Mississippi didn’t help that either, it just seemed as weary as we were. It was a sad place in many ways with remnants of tragic history made mostly during the Civil War. We came to Vicksburg to continue our casual studies in American history and this year, most of our lessons were on the Civil War. They began in Florida, continued to Fort Sumter, then Gettysburg, and now Vicksburg.
Although by this time we came here with a respectable level of Civil War knowledge, Vicksburg opened our eyes wider. Our visit to Vicksburg National Military Park was a sharp reminder that the Civil War was not a war of soldiers that fought on battlefields isolated from the American way of life. Rather, it was a war fought (mostly on southern soil) where American towns and cities existed, where American women and children lived, where American farmers grew crops and raised livestock, and where human beings were bought and sold by Americans.
It wasn’t as much the National Park that reminded of this fact; instead it was Vicksburg’s Old Court House Museum that sits atop a high hill. It was well worth the struggle to push Vivian’s wheelchair up the very long and steep handicap ramp leading to the entrance. The museum is cluttered with artifacts of antebellum life, including a confederate flag that was never surrendered and the tie worn by Jefferson Davis at his inauguration as Confederate President. This is also where a first edition copy of the 1864 book titled “My Cave Life” written “by a lady”.
After a few days in Vicksburg, our morose spirits needed lifting and I thought I knew exactly how to do that. As it were, the most anticipated part of our itinerary was yet to come; and besides, we were not about to limp back home feeling defeated. Let me put this into context. We live in the far southern region of Florida’s gulf coast and before retirement we lived in Miami, equally as far south. We love south Florida’s Everglades, Biscayne Bay and Big Cypress and spend as much time as we can in the wilderness. But there are areas north of us that are equally as appealing to us. We dream of spending quality time up there because there are some drop-dead gorgeous rivers, salt marshes, pine forests and pristine beaches including the Emerald Coast. That’s a problem for us because it takes an entire day to drive to the panhandle and northern regions of this long state. Consequently, northern Florida has eluded us. But not anymore! Now that we are retired and full time RV’ers, we finally have the wherewithal to get to these places. And I had every intention of doing that as a finale to our 2019 travels.
If you understood how insanely difficult it is to reserve a campsite in Florida, you will understand why an ankle break was not going to stop us from reaping the benefits of our hard-earned campground acquisitions. Like how a marathon runner gets a second burst of energy at mile 25, the final three weeks of our 4-month travels were planned ambitiously to include five Florida campgrounds in these hard-to-get places. Several months prior, in an act that can only be described as a coup, I fought my way through ReserveAmerica.com and Recreaction.gov to secure reservations at Fort Pickens campground and four Florida State Parks (including the highly coveted St George Island).
Fort Pickens campground is on the Gulf Shore Islands National Seashore. From a photography perspective, it is one of Florida’s prized beachy waterscape locations. And naturally, it is fishing paradise for Vivian, so much so that her longtime fishing buddy Jimmy planned to drive all the way from south Florida to stay with us a few days so that the two could do some serious fishing together. This highly anticipated event was the icing on our travel cake.
But it was NOT going to be easy. There was after all, this nagging inconvenience of a broken ankle. Vivian’s friend Jimmy would help overcome this. Our super idea was that he would help Vivian access the water and the two could fish together while I ran off into photographic bliss knowing Vivian was well taken care of. But alas, Florida had other things in store for us.
To begin, getting into our campsite at Fort Pickens was nothing short of a comedy of errors and quite possibly the turning point of our travels. I was not expecting a narrowly paved campsite with significant drop offs along its entire edge, but that is what we got. The severe lack of space for maneuvering the 21-ft truck with a 33-ft fifth wheel attached and the fact that Vivian (the driver) could not get out to assess the situation made it all too easy for me to relinquish to strangers’ willingness to offer help, which ultimately made things worse. A series of unfortunate events resulted in me waking our neighbor to ask him to move his truck which was unavoidably in the way. All that and a growing line of cars waiting to get past and the increasing number of neighbors coming out of their campers to share their unsolicited 2 cents made 30 minutes seem like an eternity.
At one point, Vivian had no choice but to back the RV over the pavement drop off and into the sand to allow cars with honking horns and impatient drivers to go by. I cringed as I heard the tell-tale noises emanating from the suspension that was straining under the weight of 12,000 lb while the driver-side wheels rolled off the pavement. It was not pretty. That compromising move was the price paid to get the truck and RV lined up suitably to pull forward and successfully back-in with about 1-inch of pavement to spare on either side of the wheels. Later, we learned it probably cost us much more than that.
The backing-in debacle ended just in time for a hefty afternoon storm to pour down on me as I connected the electric and water. By then, the dark mood had already set in, so I didn’t care anymore. There was some bad juju going on and it did not help that I was feeling guilt for wanting to be here so badly while Vivian would not enjoy this place as much as I would.
There was another dark cloud coming for us and it was tropical storm Nestor. We anticipated Nestor before we arrived, and shortly thereafter we were almost certain it would necessitate our leaving this hard-earned campsite earlier than planned. That ball was already set in motion as Vivian’s friend Jimmy cancelled his plans to visit because of the impending storm. On our second day, we fully expected the park to evacuate its campers before the weekend and we did not want to be there when that time came. We planned our exit strategy.
After only two days and three nights at Fort Pickens, we cancelled our remaining three nights and pulled away from the crowded campground. Everyone seemed oblivious to what was brewing in the gulf and I could only imagine the scene on evacuation day when reality finally hit. And they did evacuate because Nestor came right toward Pensacola. Meanwhile, we headed for safer ground inland, which eventually led us to the Suwannee River.
Nestor resulted in nowhere near the level of destruction that this coast suffered from Hurricane Michael last year, not even close. But still, it was strong enough that our moves were justified, and we took bittersweet comfort in knowing we did the right thing. The coastal campgrounds would soon be back to normal, but our plans were already altered and there was no going back at this point. Instead, we found ourselves betting on pigeon races and playing chicken poo bingo at the Suwannee River Rendezvous RV Park, a charming out-of-the-way river park.
After the Suwannee River, Paynes Prairie Preserve and Colt Creek were our final Florida State Park destinations and luckily, the weather did not force us to cancel them. Vivian missed out on long hikes through Florida’s savannah and a climb up to the lookout tower to view the wild bison and horses that make Paynes Prairie a unique Florida park. But not all was lost, we both enjoyed the Florida Museum of Natural History in nearby Gainesville.
Our final three days were spent at the remote Colt Creek State Park, Florida’s newest. It is so new that the washing machine and dryer are still in good working condition! Doing laundry while traveling in an RV is no picnic but when the primary laundress in the group has a broken ankle, this task becomes insurmountable. So thank you Colt Creek State Park for making that task a bearable one.
Did I mention something was wrong in paradise? Did I also mention that the Fort Pickens back-in spectacle was a turning point in this story? Well, here is how it ends. After our first night at Colt Creek, I noticed something terribly out of place as I walked around the RV. As part of the suspension, the equalizers hang between the front and back wheels and are normally shaped like a ‘W’. This time, the driver’s side equalizers resembled a ‘J’. This could not be good. We were both perplexed because the RV was perfectly level. The Fort Pickens nightmare suddenly came back to haunt us.
The first call to Lippert Components (manufacturer of the suspension and frame) was short and not so sweet. “Check the hanger bracket” was the technician’s immediate advice. We did, and in horror discovered the culprit that caused the equalizer to lose its form. The hanger bracket, which attaches to a leaf spring which attaches to the equalizer had sheered off at the weld. And God only knows how many miles were driven in that condition.
Let me pause the story for a second and mention once again how inconvenienced Vivian has been since breaking her ankle and how critical it is that both partners at least understand each other’s respective RV duties. On Vivian’s OCD routine checklist are inspections of the suspension at every stop as we move down the road. Among other things, she looks for loose bolts and cracks. Would she have noticed a crack in the hanger bracket before it broke off? Perhaps, but we’ll never know because in her state of disrepair, she was unable to perform her routine inspection. I could have stepped up and done her work, but too late for that now.
Long story short, by the grace of God or pure damn luck the worst-case scenario did not happen. We found a hanger bracket at an RV parts store and bought two. The next day a mobile welder was on site by 9 am to remove the broken one and weld on the new one. We had a spare leaf spring and had him put that on as well. A flat tire on the weld truck and a welding machine that decided to die before the weld began delayed the repair to well past 9 pm. Welding in the dark is not ideal. We had only one thought and that was to cross our fingers during the 220-mile drive back home.
We did make it home safely on November 3 after leaving Colt Creek. Once set up on our lot in Chokoloskee, the RV would not move for 6-7 months. Nevertheless, plans to resolve the hanger bracket issue began. Not only that, we had another RV issue that needed to be addressed. Both would lead us back to the RV capital of the world in Indiana where our Grand Design home and Lippert suspension were born – the room where it happened. We had some serious repairs and a few upgrades to be made and with that, our 2020 travels began to form as we settled in for a winter in the Everglades.
RV Tips and Issues. We pull a 12,000 lb fifth wheel. That fifth wheel contains most of our possessions. Supporting all that weight are the tires, frame and suspension. Things can go bad when any one of those is compromised. Therefore, frequent inspection is essential. Occasional bolt-torquing and moving parts – lubing, as well as annual bearing maintenance are essential. And don’t wait to do your inspections after you’ve driven down the road, start at the RV center where you are purchasing your new rig. Inspect, inspect, inspect. Don’t know what to look for? Educate yourself. Ask questions. Learn as much as you can about that rig, especially if it’s going to be your home. If you don’t take the time to learn, then you have two choices – don’t live in one or plan to spend a lot of money and a lot of wasted time dealing with repairs and hoping the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen. Always remember, the road is unforgiving.
Feeling relieved to have survived the 120-mile drive on I-95, we happily pulled into Santee State Park’s spacious Cypress View Campground. We backed in easily to our site that appeared to be the only empty one in the middle of a holiday weekend. The next day, we visited Fort Sumter and Charleston and came back to an empty campground. For the most part, it stayed that way until we packed up and left four days later. We basically had the entire back forty to ourselves while camped at Santee.
After our day trip to the coast, we spent the remainder of our time within the state park. Vivian would finally do some fishing from the inflatable kayak on Lake Marion two mornings in a row. Meanwhile, I explored the large wooded state park by bike. I loved every minute of it, except for that one time when I dropped my wallet in front of the RV door and didn’t notice it was missing until I was 10 miles into my bike ride. I raced back to the campsite, not knowing where the wallet had dropped but suspected it was near the RV. And there it was, in clear view next to the stairs where it had laid for an hour.
Santee State Park is adjacent to Lake Marion, the largest body of water in South Carolina and the result of the largest earth moving project in U.S. history. It is essentially a reservoir along with Lake Moultrie created by the damming of the Santee River in the 1940s. Lakes Marion and Moultrie are separated by a canal and together have 450 miles of shoreline. This, like so many other reservoirs were made to supply hydroelectricity to rural areas of the south as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. And as with many of the other reservoirs, its creation came at a cost. As the largest earth moving project, 160,000 acres of pine forests and swamp were flooded. Submerged in Lake Marion is the town of Ferguson and curious folks in kayaks can find some of the remains of the watery ghost town. One of the interesting views of Lakes Marion are several cypress trees standing in the water. Apparently, the creation of the reservoir was a rush job (we had just entered WWII) and they flooded the area before many of the trees could be cleared.
Camping at Santee allowed us the opportunity to continue our intensive history lesson of the Civil War by visiting Fort Sumter near Charleston which proved to be a turning point for me in my Civil War lessons. Fort Sumter is one of many sea harbor forts built along the Atlantic coast as a defense against attacks on important seaports, such as Charleston.
On April 10, 1861, confederate forces in Charleston demanded Fort Sumter to surrender knowing that a resupply ship was on its way from the north. The commander, Maj Robert Anderson refused. On April 12, confederates opened fire with cannons. The next day, Anderson surrendered. The Civil War began and the first death from the war was recorded.
As I walked through the fort’s museum and studied each display, it seemed that all the complicated history of the war and the reasons why it happened finally boiled down to one raw fact; cotton was king. Wealthy southern landowners needed slaves to maintain their large cotton plantations, northern banks were woven into the cotton economy and New England textile mills relied heavily on it. Cotton, along with tobacco and sugar was a worldwide luxury commodity and between 1803 and 1937 it was America’s leading export, much of it going to Britain whose textile industry accounted for 40% of its exports. In short, the economics of cotton ruled the land.
Trans-Atlantic slave trade (the middle passage) ended in 1808 but only after nearly 400,000 Africans were transported directly to the U.S. Charleston was known as the slave trade capital, accounting for almost half of the number of people that came into this country. But there was also a second middle passage which involved far more black people and that was the internal or domestic slave trade that peaked from 1830 to 1860 when cotton was king. Of the 3.2 million slaves working in the 15 slave states in 1850, 1.8 million worked in cotton.
Cotton’s value was considerably lower than that of slaves. Slaves were three times more valuable than livestock and twelve times more that of the entire U.S. cotton crop. While the price of cotton and land declined, the price of slaves increased. And we can thank the cotton gin for that by increasing slave productivity tremendously, which led to higher profits and increased demand for slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, there were over 4 million slaves in the United States, owned by a relatively small portion of the southern population. Slave-labor cotton was so profitable it took a civil war and over 600,000 lives to end it.
By the 1830s, abolitionists were becoming more influential. And when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, it started a wave of anti-slavery sentiment. When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he said to her “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” And the abolitionists had their martyr in John Brown after he was tried and hung for treason following his attempted raid on Harper’s Ferry. Not only that, immigrants mostly from Germany and Ireland during the potato famine of 1840s and 1850s became an available pool of low wage laborers, decreasing the need for slavery. One by one, northern states began to abolish slavery. Finally, the creation of the Republican party in the 1850s and subsequent election of its first presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, got the ball rolling in the right direction, except there was a powerful resistance and it all began in South Carolina.
What began at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 and ended at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865 was the tragic result of a clash between a slave-dependent economy and the very fact that slavery is wrong. It is befuddling to think of how so many poor men, simple farmers and laborers joined a confederate force to fight their neighbors when the reality was that the secession attempt was about maintaining slave-dependent wealth. Somewhere in there, people were riled up into believing that the federal government was going to swoop down and steal all their rights. While abolition was moving the country in the right direction morally, it would be at the expense of a very powerful institution and the wealth it brought to many white people. In short, the federal government was taking away the right to own human beings as laborers for personal gain. In Michael Shaara’s partially fictional book about the battle of Gettysburg “The Killer Angels”, he describes a scene where a union soldier asks some confederate prisoners why they are fighting. When they answered, “We’re fightin’ for our rights”, the union soldier confused the word ‘rights’ for ‘rats’ and was even more confused to learn the confederates were not fighting for slavery.
As cliché as it may sound, we have put our home on the road and have gone to look for America. And it is this leg of our trip that we have become so immersed in the Civil War, that it seems every day we think about it and try to wrap our minds around this country’s great tragedy. How could this have happened? After so many lessons learned on this trip, it remains incomprehensible.
During our stay at Santee State Park, we welcomed temperatures below 80 degrees during these final days of our low country tour of the southern states. Soon, we would begin making our climb into the Appalachian Mountains and maybe, just maybe feel a cooler breeze. But first, we had more southern hospitality to enjoy.
RV and travel issues and concerns
Issue 1: Laundromats or lack thereof. Our laundry duties come once a week. So far on this trip, we have stayed at campgrounds that offer nice laundry facilities – that is until now. Vivian who is usually the one in charge of laundry will do a Google search and read the reviews of local laundromats. There was only one laundromat in the nearby “town” of Santee and it got horrible reviews. And now we know why, the laundromat had seen better days decades ago. While waiting for the wash and dry cycles, we stayed on guard unnecessarily because every person doing their laundry looked completely exhausted and defeated, so safety was not threatened in the least bit. After that, not a day goes by that Vivian does not lament the fact our 32-ft RV cannot accommodate washer & dryer, and dreams of one day upgrading to one that can.
Issue 2: We bought a flow meter to attach to our water hose so we could evaluate how well we conserve water. We learned while at Santee that we could get it down to about 12 gallons per day, including both of us showering each day. This knowledge will come in handy when we find ourselves in a campground without water or sewer hook-up, and that day is coming.
“I won’t take a picture unless the moon is right, to say nothing of the sunlight and shadow!” Frances Benjamin Johnston
One thing I have learned during our RV travels thus far, is that no matter what place we visit, there is a story of a fascinating person connected to it. Who would have thought that by visiting a cave in Kentucky, I would become immersed in the unlikely story of an accomplished Victorian-era photographer.
It all began when we spent two nights in Kentucky at Lake Nolin State Park near Mammoth Cave National Park. It was a nice enough campground on a pleasant enough lake. But we didn’t come for the water this time; instead, we came for the cave. Thus, we signed up for a couple tours and spent a day underground in the longest cave in the world.
While I was fascinated with the possibility of photographing inside the cave (without use of flash, which is not allowed by the way), my interest did more than produce a few photos; it also got me intrigued with an obscure history of Mammoth Cave. In the visitor center’s museum, there hangs a large placard about a woman who photographed inside the cave over a 125 years ago. As soon as I saw the large print title “A Woman, a Cave, and a Camera”, I immediately ran over and began reading about Frances Benjamin Johnston.
What I read about Johnston was intriguing enough, but upon doing some research, I became more intrigued. Outside the cave, she accomplished many great things during her long life (1864-1952). From the library of Congress, I learned that Johnston had a 60-yr photography career that began when she studied art in Paris in the 1880s. Granted, she was born into wealth which gave her the leverage to pursue her photography career. Not only that, her parents had great social standing and connected her with highly influential people including Teddy Roosevelt and several other presidents whom she photographed inside the White House. Some of her most famous studio portrait subjects included Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and Susan B. Anthony. And her first camera was given to her by a close family friend and inventor of the Eastman Kodak camera, George Eastman.
She may have been born into privilege which helped launch her career, but her parents could as easily forbade her from pursuing her passion. When I read about Johnston’s work, there is no doubt in my mind that her success came entirely from her exceptional drive and motivation, tireless ability to work hard, and keen artistic vision. This woman, unleashed in a Victorian era was a remarkably creative and cutting edge photographer.
Johnston was one of the first photojournalists in the country (1890s) and wrote articles for several magazines. Her photos were regularly shown at world’s fairs and international photo exhibits. She took an interest in progressive education and documented schools created for black and Indian students throughout the states. In the 1910s, she began to specialize in contemporary architecture and landscape photography. For her research and her lectures on gardens, she traveled all over the United States and Europe. Later, she focused more on the documentation of historic buildings in the south by traveling thousands of miles by car to create the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South with the intention of preserving its history through her art. In addition to all that, she sold prints to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Johnston earned several commissions and grants that provided her the resources to do the work. According to Wikipedia, her collection of photographs given to the Library of Congress is a significant resource for modern architects, historians and conservationists.
Through my research, I could not determine what got Johnston interested in photographing Mammoth Cave, so I came up with my own idea. In her time, the cave was a privately owned tourist attraction with international acclaim. It was normal for high society tourists to set up a proper picnic lunch in the cave and eat by gas light. I compare this to the current ecotourism industry in that people who were able to pay for it visited the cave for a unique adventure. I suspect Johnston went into the cave not because her wealth gave her access to it or that it supplemented her Bohemian lifestyle; no, I think she was attracted to the cave for the challenge of photographing it. Her interest was great enough that she wrote a book titled “Mammoth Cave by Flash Light”. And we are not talking LED flash, we are talking dangerous explosive flash powder. Being an unconventional woman, she used unconventional methods to light the cave, all for creative and technical experimentation.
Clearly, women’s place in society has greatly evolved since the Victorian era. But even today, women still lag behind in leadership positions. For this reason and despite being from a century past, Johnston serves as an excellent role model for contemporary girls and young women. Not only that, it is these unconventional, crazy-motivated women like Johnston who help pave the way for so many women to pursue their passion. And it is so critical to women’s progress that these stories be told in public.
Indeed, in 1893, Johnston told a reporter, “It is another pet theory with me that there are great possibilities in photography as a profitable and pleasant occupation for women, and I feel that my success helps to demonstrate this, and it is for this reason that I am glad to have other women know of my work.” It’s doubtful that all visitors to Mammoth Cave will grasp all this, but maybe a young girl loving her camera just might.