Have you ever desired something but were forced to wait to fulfill that longing for an interminable time. If after the long wait you are able to scratch that itch, it seems like the experience is heightened beyond your wildest expectations. One finds themselves running down a list of “super adjectives” trying to find the one word that encapsulates the glory of the experience. However I’m unable to settle on just one, so let me tell you about the trip instead.
In October I had the extreme pleasure of traveling to a location that I’ve dreamed of ever since I first heard its name and saw some images made there. Like many a good thing, it began quite simply and then the “Topsy Effect” kicked in. A family of very good friends was returning to Seattle after an extended stay in Boston. As it neared time for them to board a plane which would jet them off to the other extreme coast of the US, they expressed a desire for us to come and visit them as soon as they got settled in. Generous beyond belief, they offered to sponsor the plane fare to get us there and of course suggested their home for our accommodations during the visit. Discussing this with Dotty, I mentioned that we’d be so close to the Palouse farming region, an area I’ve wanted to photograph for many years. In the meantime she had been searching for a real “doozy” of a present for me to celebrate my 70th birthday in a big way. Of course you recognize that a trip to a dream location qualifies as a “doozy” of a present for any photographer and she did as well, so together we planned adding an additional week to our trip west and a journey by car to the rolling hills of the Palouse Region.
The farmlands of the Palouse in the Pacific Northwest are known to be extremely photogenic and although I was traveling there during a season which is defined by many as the least desirable, I found so much to be excited about during my short stay that I am glad that I wasn’t there during the “fat” season as I surely would have fractured my shutter finger. The Pullman Chamber of Commerce website states “There is never a bad shot on the Palouse!” and while I would normally tend to disbelieve most Chamber of Commerce clichés as marketing rather than truisms, this time I was to discover that the statement had veracity.
Almost at the opposite coast of the U.S., in some ways, the Palouse area boasts a remarkable similarity to its contrasting coast. Without some geographic reference, the town of Colfax, WA has a marked economic resemblance to the far Northeastern town of Cutler, ME. where I recently traveled to photograph Puffins. Many storefronts are boarded up, homes are in various states of disrepair or complete abandonment and the common means of locomotion is not a BMW but rather a Ford F-150 (aka backwoods bimmer). Of course the hills of the Maine coast aren’t quite as tall as Mt. Ranier and they’re not snow covered year round. Likewise, the principal industry the Northeast was fishing while the Northwest favored farming due to the near perfect soil and weather conditions for growing wheat and Brassica napus otherwise known as Rapeseed; the plant from which we produce Canola Oil. And speaking of golden wheat and yellow Canola flowers, this is where part of the geographic beauty of the Palouse comes into view, spectacular view matter of fact! But alas, I was there after the planting, growing and harvest seasons and wasn’t sure what to expect. However, that’s what the photographers mission is, observe what’s there and bring back the shot and that’s indeed what I would set out to do.
So after first spending a wonderful week with our hosts sharing music, warmth, conversation and good times in their wonderful Seattle home, we set out for our Palouse shooting base location; the Best Western Wheatland Inn in Colfax, WA. I had 40 lbs. of assorted camera equipment and full intentions of having the photographic experience of a lifetime. As I’ve mentioned before, arrival at a new location that requires planning and travel encourage one to engage in a lot of “spray and pray” shooting at any and everything that catches the eye. After all, you must get something out of this experience as you may never get a chance to be there again. The second dynamic is that no matter how much preparation and research one may do, the first visit to a locale, much like a first date, is always an exploratory mission.
For example, here’s where initial planning fell on its head. Intending on shooting landscapes as well as hoping to get in some west coast birds, I brought an EOS 7D along with an assortment of lenses such as my 100-400mm, 28-135mm, 70-200mm, 10-22mm and APO 500mm f4.5 EX. However since I was also spending several days in Seattle I skipped packing a second DSLR body, instead substituting a smaller, lighter and very versatile premium superzoom Sony RX10 into the bag for my backup and walkabout photo rig. Well, though the Sony has a much smaller sensor, its availability turned out to make good sense because Washington has some of the biggest trucks I have ever seen. Truckers call double trailers hinged in the middle “pups”. I’ve seen “pups” before but these northwest double dump trucks are huge, heavy and very scary. Comparing these to conventional pups is like comparing Rottweiler’s to Pugs. I’m sure they create enough draft to suck a smart car underneath and tote it all the way to Canada.
Now I’m not a smart car but I’m no dimwit either. It just didn’t seem prudent to set up a tripod on a narrow shoulder by the side of the road, with my ass in the breeze, eyes focused 90° to all traffic while commercial monster trucks like these blew by in excess of 70 mph. Not to even attribute mayhem-to-malice, what’d happen if the guy was takin a pinch of snuff and sneezed? (Involuntary eye closure. Obit for a little brown photographer.) And yet scores of beautiful scenes were just off the main highway and in many cases weren’t approachable by some direct access road or at least none that I knew of. Of course skilled Palouse photo veterans know the back roads and scenic places by heart but as a newbie I jumped at anything I could see and some of that was in pretty precarious places. With the little Rikky I could hop out of the car, frame a shot of some roadside beauty and count on that “image stabilization” firmware to give me a fighting chance, whatever the lighting conditions were. Rikky suddenly became the “little engine that could”, the private who snuck behind enemy lines and won the war, the kid off the bench who scored the winning touchdowns and all the other heroic metaphors and clichés one could think of. Meanwhile the big guns sat in the bag, in the back seat, bitching about seniority, loyalty, “maybe we should unionize” and “there ought to be a law” kinda stuff. But not all was lost for the big boys. All would eventually have their day in the sun.
The first destination was Palouse Falls. Like many destinations in this sprawling land, the 1.5 hour drive accentuated the sense of space every step of the way. Unlike thoughts of distance in the city, when you say a mile in this land, you can actually visualize it. Everywhere there is breathing room and fresh air. While the falls are a popular tourist “stop and pop” with the ever present cell phone, I had the time and temerity to erect tripod, mount DSLR and explore the views “the right way”. Immediately I discovered what was probably a bit of “insider” knowledge. Between 5:00 to 6:00pm in October, there is a shadow that cuts across the falls making a diagonal line of dark contrast right where you’d like to focus. Here, the solution is the same one that is useful most photographic situations; patience. In this case wait patiently till the sun swings around to a more favorable angle and the shadow goes away or alternatively, go shoot something else and come back later; I did the latter.
Then, attempting to maximize a day we got back in the rental car and made like Mario Andretti heading 85 miles in the opposite direction to Steptoe Butte. Thank God for the Garmin GPS we brought along which provided flawless navigation the whole time we were there. More than just the “turn left, turn right” voice assist; the device gave great hints as to coming road undulations as well as “miles to go” indicators that kept me from thinking “Ooops. Been too long on this road. We’re lost.”
While it wasn’t a trek through snake infested jungles, Steptoe Butte did require nerves of steel for other reasons. It seems Washington doesn’t care to ruin many of its scenic views by constructing guard rails. So what you face driving up Steptoe is a narrow winding road with a threateningly steep drop-off on your right and no safety shoulder. Fortunately no one came down hill toward us to force some harrowing decisions as to how close were we going to push that outer limit. However, the reward for the nail-biting climb is the gorgeous view from the top. First of all you’ll notice there is a restroom at this “top of the world” so if you’ve gotten the crap scared out of you on the way up, you at least have a place to clean-up your skivvies. Then let the amazement settle in as you look at the 360° view stretching without interruption from your feet right to the horizon. As you look at the landscape you can see the contours of the land like waves on the ocean and the patterns carved into the land by the farmer’s enormous disk tillers and plows. It’s plain to see that the farmers are proud of the scenic quality of this beautiful land. They are like painters with steel paint brushes creating beautiful green and gold abstracts in the earth and doing so even in the “off season”.
From 8:30pm to 9:30pm I shot 350 photos using both the 7D on the tripod and the RX10 for shots where I didn’t want to change lenses on the big setup. Incidentally, at 3600 feet, it’s breezy and chilly up there and the temperature drops precipitously as the sun drops toward the horizon. As soon as the sun reached the rim of the world, we hit the john and jumped in the car so that there would be at least a little light left to negotiate the twisty road back down. Then back to the lap of luxury at the comfy Wheatland Inn in Colfax.
The next day we drove a scenic outer loop from Colfax to Pullman to the town of Palouse and back to Colfax. This tour featured two lane roads, mostly paved and reasonably maintained but then there are others which are shown on maps as “primitive” roads; single lane gravel and dirt affairs which were likely as much fun to navigate after a heavy rain as a shave with a kitchen butter knife. On the way there were farms that appeared to be oases in a desert of wheat. However there were also classic fallen-to-ruin shacks and sheds which attract us photographers like magnets. We love to capture images of decaying structures that cause us to wonder what kinds of stories they would tell if they had mouths and we had a lot of time. There was one derelict shed in particular that was literally being held up by an old truck frame and a few poles salvaged from some no longer used tractor equipment. Interestingly, I know that famed bird photographer Artie Morris discovered that same dwelling just this past year as it is displayed on one of his advertisements for his upcoming Palouse Instructional Photo-Tours (IPT). And both on brochures printed and distributed by the Pullman Chamber of Commerce and local tourist leaflets, the region shows that it is well aware that farms, businesses and the local economy in general can benefit from photo-tourism and they’ve made efforts to attract us Shutterbugs at all costs. Maps and booklets show the location of windmills, old decrepit farmhouses and red barns which seem to be indigenous to the area. As a matter of fact, rumor has it that one of the major brochures actually used (read “ripped off”) images made by a local photographer without credit or payment; I understand a lawsuit is pending. The Wheatland Inn was so attuned to the photo-tourist trade that they actually served an early breakfast before sunrise so that us camera-schleppers could grab a cup of coffee and a lite repast before heading out for first light.
Brochures and locals gave advice to travel the side roads to look for good vantage points and I gave that a try on several occasions. What these two resources neglected to tell me was that many farms have the local dog whose territorial instincts may encourage them to discourage you with barking and displays of canines whose efficacy should not be casually challenged. Still I chanced a few encounters with the smaller camera in hand and the car in reasonable proximity although I didn’t leave the door open as my vivid imagination pictured a manic mutt racing ahead, jumping inside the rental in front of me and deciding to claim ownership of some fresh new property with wheels. Fortunately barks weren’t followed by bites.
Now photographers agendas aside, if there are multiple days involved, one day in any location will usurp significant hours for perusing shops (gift and otherwise) and purchasing trinkets and memorabilia for friends, and treasured loved ones. After a brief sleep in on Wednesday, we rolled out of bed to do our duty to friends and the small businesses of the region. It must be said that as far as shopping districts are concerned, neither Pullman, Colfax nor Palouse offer Neiman Marcus or anything close. Matter of fact, most shops was barely holding on. In the end we were able to gingerly support the local economies but just by a hair. After we departed tomorrow they would certainly continue to be a struggle to keep the doors open and the mice fed.
Thursday, back on the road. Early in the day was spent trying to get some views from back roads but the early sky was flat gray and dull. To be candid, several of the mornings were like this and didn’t reward the famous “early bird” gets the worm photographer’s axiom. On the way back to the “inn” however, another of the famous Palouse barns warranted some attention. When thought is given to the types of building materials and machinery that was available for some of these structures built in the early 1900’s the skill and tenacity needed to create them is praiseworthy. The fact that they remain standing, however perilously, is testament to the iron will of their creators. I shot a few frames to celebrate a beautiful barn.
Picking up Dotty and having a quick lunch we then ventured out for one final tchotchke run and then off to find Kamiak Butte; one of the two “must have Butte locations that everyone evoked. While tooling through the picturesque countryside and stopping for a few potential frames, time managed to “fugit”, a skill which it has been perfecting at least since Vergilius Maro, Publius alluded to in the Georgicon, III. around 29 BC. and probably long before. At any rate, we finally set out for Kamiak as the sun began nearing the horizon and our arrival netted us two surprises. First, the highest point available by car was not the top of the table but on first glance appeared to be a tree shrouded picnic area. What folks had neglected to tell us was that the best viewpoint was an additional uphill hike of maybe 1/4 mile to the summit. This being my last full day in the area with the sun racing toward the edge of the world, I leapt from the car, grabbed my tripod, camera and two lenses and went in search of any opening between the trees that could render me a view. A sliver of light between the trees caught my eye. I dashed to the edge of the trees near a wire fence, designed to keep the careless from tumbling down a deep precipice. Wonder of it all, there was an opening, too small to accommodate the tripod but good enough for me to poke first the 28-135 and then the 100-400 through and pray for enough steadiness to grab a few shots in the rapidly diminishing light. I braced against a tree, the fence, anything I could find and fired away. The greens of the trees, golds and browns of the contoured landscape and red to mauve sky tones were a glory to see and I stayed there long after productive light for tripod less shooting was gone. Fortunately some of the frames held their integrity so I ended with a visual memory of the experience.
Friday’s drive back might have been a severe culture shock except that as we approached the tree lined mountainous path on the way back a worsening rain combined with the green canopy to form a kind of cerebral aqueduct transporting us from the farmland serenity to the teeming energy of the metropolis. By the time we pulled into our host’s driveway, the transition was complete. Although they aren’t in the heart of the city, the well populated suburb let us know we were back in the bosom of metropolis.
Our friends capped off our second weekend with more music, meals and memories that we’ll treasure for a lifetime. My 70th birthday present was indeed a doozy and I’m still editing images to decide what will become prized prints. My thanks to Dotty, Naima, Habib, Mehdi, Armine, Carol and many others who made this trip possible and special.