farther east: 2009 – 2011
“The virtue of the camera is not the power it has to transform the photographer into an artist, but the impulse it gives him to keep on looking and looking.”
– B. Atkinson ‘Once Around The Sun’
In July 2009, I replaced my sketchy Toyota with an even sketchy minivan and left West Virginia for the east, specifically New Hampshire, Vermont, and Upstate New York. I had envisioned a continuous road trip through the upcoming fall color, a constant moving from state to state but my vision had long been blurred and this, combined with minimal planning, put me on the road at a deficit. But some clarity arrived that first day as I rolled through a couple of reality checkpoints: One being that my sketchy minivan was getting sketchier by the mile and two, my $500 budget, everything I had, was not nearly enough to support a multi-mile, multi-month adventure. So, to no great surprise, I arrived at a brookside campsite in the Adirondack wilderness of Upstate New York low on cash and deeply concerned.
The van was operable but would eventually need attention and after a few days shooting along the brook, which yielded some inspiring new pictures, I decided that it was in the Adirondacks I would stay. Still, the Pacific-bred OCD in me demanded completion, even if it meant a breakdown, so I drove as far east as possible, dipped my toe in the Atlantic, and sped back before the van could take a dump. I ditched my former campsite for a roomier spot in some trailhead parking outside the little hamlet of Keene Valley and this was to be my base camp for the following month.
From there, the days got routine: Exit the parking lot in the morning, turn left then up the 73 to the 9N towards Elizabeth Town, where I would get supplies if needed, then down the 9 to rejoin the 73 where a right turn would take me into Keene Valley. Once there, I’d hit the library for a bit of relaxing and a quick preview of the day’s work then back up to the trailhead and call it a day. This constant moving from location to location, in concert with the sun, along prominent waterways like the Ausable and Bouquet Rivers as well as many lesser creeks and streams, allowed me to add the desired water to my shots. It was an incredibly productive itinerary made even more so by the desire to bury my escalating van and cash concerns. I had a simple strategy: Focus totally on the pictures and when the worries boiled up, I would beat them down with the camera.
Sometime in September, I was hanging out in the library talking to a lifelong resident about my plans for the winter months when he said, ‘Son, this ain’t California’ and proceeded to explain the harsh realities of an Adirondack winter. That fact immediately put me on edge and when I left the library, I knew I could no longer ignore my deteriorating situation. That night at camp I came down hard on myself and rolled into Keene Valley the next morning unrested and emotionally damp. I grabbed some coffee and the local penny paper and headed back to camp. Picking through, I came across a classified ad looking for help at the ADK Lodge outside of Lake Placid. The pay was minimal but it was the perks that really got my attention: room and board included. I shot out of the van and ran to the only spot I could get cell service and called; yes they were still looking for help and yes, room and board was available if you weren’t a local. I drove up, met with the lodge manager and got the job. I couldn’t believe it. I went from grim to great in a matter of hours – An incredible stroke of luck. I moved my gear into a staff tent behind the lodge and got on with work and winter.
It was quite a change from the solitude of the van to the peak-season busyness of the lodge. Historic, beautiful, and built on the shore of Heart Lake, it’s a beloved and popular Adirondack destination and has been so since the late 1800s. I’d been isolated, focused, and without any kind of job or schedule so my new surroundings and duties felt a bit like a slap to the head. I mean, in a fairly short time, I went from business owner to real estate agent to busboy, dishwasher, and toilet cleaner. I went from a large beachside home to a cramped, unreliable minivan to an old, musty canvas tent that probably housed General Grant in the Civil war and while he battled the South, I fought with various forest rodents who daily chewed up and shit on everything I owned so yeah; my confidence took a bit of a hit. At the end of the day, everything hinged on the pictures and without them, I was nothing but a drifter, a bum and this got me fired up and motivated. This also got me drinking and smoking and anything else I could get my hands on but that’s another story. Regardless, all of it could be redeemed, all could be made whole and right only by the pictures and after finishing my lodge duties, I headed out to find them.
“Lodge work seems strained and difficult and I’m feeling more and more cut off and isolated from the others. If there ever was any doubt about my need for solitude, then my experience here has proven that it is indeed a necessity…
Its lightly snowing this morning which seems odd after two weeks of exceptional weather. My only regret is that I did not spend more time shooting the lake when the ice was in and the light was perfect. Still, I can’t complain. Been looking hard at the pictures from the last couple of days, quiet as everything is now.“
-from Beauty and Debris
Because of its proximity and beauty, Heart Lake was a consistent motif and I photographed it through the final weeks of the fall and into winter with limited success. The snow reflected an enormous amount of ambient light which made it difficult to keep the camera in the proper shooting parameters but the season kept me corralled and I did whatever I could to stay busy. When spring rolled around I revisited the old and sought out the new: Heart Lake, Ausable River, Connery Pond Road, and many, many others. As always, some days were better than others, but I kept at it and learned something new every day, motivated by the feeling that I’d be leaving at some point.
By summer, I’d quit the lodge gig and returned to the van. I briefly got a room in Keene Valley which I paid for by working on the property and doing other side work for other locals, mostly labor jobs of some kind. The money from the lodge and side work also allowed me to complete the extensive repairs needed on the van, which was a huge relief. By the fall of 2009, I knew I wouldn’t make it through another winter and I was feverish for pictures and constantly made the rounds to my spots. On a side job, digging a ditch for a gas line from a cabin to the road, the season’s first snow began to fall. I hurriedly completed the job, collected my pay, headed out of the mountains for the lowlands, and made it just as the ‘chains required’ signs came up – A quick stop in West Virginia to finish another cash job and then on to California and home.