Poetry | Prose
A Year Later
A year ago was me at the grocery store
buying camping supplies a day early because
I got wind of a growing panic.
Endless lines, unease building.
The lady behind me asking if I had a horse
because of the size of bag of carrots I was buying.
Me thinking — I can wait to get Easter candy.
The drive out to the Chihuahuan Desert
punctuated by worried daughter texts:
Will I be able to co me back home.
What if I get stuck in Utah.
Us reassuring, come hell or high water,
even if we have to drive up there, you’ll get back.
The question in every face at the campsite.
The one jackass who insisted on blaring
Bernie’s speech from his car stereo, even though
we were all there to escape politics.
All except him, I guess.
The applause when he turned the damn thing off.
The day after we left, they shut the park down.
Within a week, they’d shut school down too.
One week in the desert, and everything changed.
We are preparing to go back to Big Bend for spring break this year, and as I write out my shopping list I can’t help but think of last year. Spring 2020 was the ultimate dreadful time of whispers, fear, panic spreading like an infection across the whole world. . . . and then came the even more dreadful blossoming of hatred and blame. I don’t want to remember it, but like anything else in the past I do believe it deserves the dignity of being kept alive, for the sake of lesson learning if nothing else.
Every road trip I go on involves a lot of photography, and this one will be no different. For the next few days I will be loading up film and numerous cameras, since half the fun of film photography is picking the right tool for the moment at hand. Sometimes I use a Hasselblad, sometimes it’s a little plastic Vivitar that has built in exposure and focus. Sometimes I pick pinhole: the above photo of Burro Mesa attracted the attention of a family who had stopped to enjoy the view and ended up watching me stand on a rock and bake in the sun for a few seconds while the image burned into the film.
Last year I made a bunch of images with the Widelux and a variety of color films, like the one above. It may have been older film, or I may have just done a less than perfect job developing it; scanning those photographs was the pain of all pains and I still don’t think I got it right. I love the look of rain on the horizon, though. The first time I visited Big Bend, in high school, we watched a similar storm from the school van window and later found the deluge had been falling on our campsite, where several tents had been left open. Speaking of valuable lessons from the past. . . . . .
We camped at Cottonwood last year, which was near Santa Elena, so we made several trips to see her. I love the canyon; I love the memory of being caught in the rain there, talking to friendly strangers and watching their young sons play in the mud. This year we are hoping to float between these walls in our inflatable kayak, so that means I had better pack a waterproof camera. Last year, every kid who made that journey in a boat belted out Elsa’s call from Frozen 2.
Film photography is slow, it takes time, it embraces the process. It memorializes light. Using pinhole cameras, which often require long exposure, means I step back from the camera for a breath and look around. Standing at the edge of the Rio Grande to make the photo above gave me time to think about the enormous process of geology, how that same river had eaten away at what millennia had deposited as sediment, and later turned into rock, back when the spot my tripod perched on was covered by a warm inland sea.
I love the desert. It’s a place of grace and a quiet beauty that lies deep within, the kind of beauty you have to look for and be willing to appreciate. It’s a place of renewal, which is what we need. Once again, our trip falls not only during the season of renewal but also during the season of Lent, so I will take my parched soul into the dry dust of West Texas and seek wells of hope. You know what happens when you seek, don’t you?
Readers, if you made it all the way through my words and photos, you deserve a pat on the back! High five and thank you!