Have you ever had the sensation you could see into the past just by looking at an object from a particular place in time? I had that sensation so many times this past weekend that I feel like I was actually time traveling. Back to the 50’s and 60’s, when Route 66 first connected the plains of the Northern MidWest to the vast, open country of the SouthWest and the coast of Southern California. A time when gas was cheap, cars were huge, neon was cool and the hunger to jump in the car and explore a little known part of our own country was just beginning. Myself, along with a group of a dozen other photographers had come to Barstow, CA and the surrounding desert to try and capture the essence of that time. To hone our craft by pointing our multitudes of lenses and cameras at anything we saw that we thought could convey the exuberance of that joyous time. We came, in effect, to get our clicks; on Route 66!
And get our clicks we did! We starting shooting on Friday afternoon and didn’t stop until Sunday at lunchtime. We did sleep and eat in-between, but only barely. On Saturday we started at 7am and didn’t quit until after midnight; swapping our cameras for laptops so we could share what we’d captured so far and get feedback from the group. My first photography workshop ever, I had no idea what to expect. The first stop scared the bejesus out of me. We went to the end of a dead-end street where sand dunes were slowly advancing on the aging blacktop. The wind was blowing something fierce and I was so paranoid of what the blowing sand was going to do to my essentially brand new camera that I couldn’t focus on trying to capture photos. Luckily one of the leaders of the group, Ted, pointed out a scene that he and Art were shooting and I joined in. It turned out to be a great shot, and for the brave souls that ventured out into the blowing sand, we all came away smiling, once we jumped in the car and cleaned our cameras that is!
The next stop was Tom’s Welding, just up the road a piece. Tom has been collecting Route 66 memorabilia (and anything else that suites his fancy) for decades and his shop is a proverbial candy store for anyone who digs this time period. Old gas station signs, highway signs, phone booths, railroad cars, motorcycles, cars, trucks, bicycles. There was even an old, patina’d water slide laying on its side in the ‘yard’. Some stuff was cherry, like his old Indian motorcycle. Other stuff showed it’s age but was still organized and displayed in cohesive groups. Then there were the piles of stuff that had yet to be elevated to those statuses; just laying around wherever there were last dropped, still looking as fascinating as ever. My mouth was open in a big ‘O’ the whole fricken time. Tom even broke out his welding torch to cut some wheel wells off of a trailer so we could photograph the sparks. It also allowed us an opportunity to see how his pet pit bull would try to bite at the sparks as he was welding; like most dogs try to bit the water coming out of the garden hose. It was a sight I doubt I will ever have the pleasure of seeing again in this lifetime.
We stayed at Tom’s for nearly an hour, maybe more, but the light was rapidly heading towards those magical last few moments before Sunset, and Dave, the workshop organizer, had a very particular place he wanted us to see before nightfall. Into the cars we hopped and down the road we went, to the long shuttered Dunes Motel. This place was seriously creepy. It felt like the owner just up and bolted one day, perhaps after he heard his bank was going to foreclose on the place. There was no fence keeping us out or the decay in, except for the fence that had been erected to keep vandals from getting to the pool. There were broken windows, missing doors, and even a pile of what might have been the owners stuff, including a family album. It was the sign out by the road that really caught my, and most everyone else’s, attention. We photographed the hell outta that sign, capturing all the subtle changes reflected and absorbed from the amazing light in the sky. I got an amazing shot with a lenticular cloud atop the sign like a hat, glowing purple and pink from the last seconds of sunlight. It was in that moment that I realized just how awesome this all was and how awesome the next day and a half were going to be!
That night there was a short talk/lecture, pizza dinner (which I skipped, cheese not being a good friend of mine) and some night shots of the neon at the hotel next door. I do like neon, but the sickly green color they had chosen to decorate with, and the fact that a wicked cold wind was blowing, kept me from staying very long there. I saw later that many people in the group had caught some awesome shots there, but I was glad I got the extra sleep that night. Saturday was a long day!
We started at the Route 66 Motel down the road at first light. There was an awesome collection of rusted cars, an old covered wagon, and some old gas station signs decorating the parking lot. We even chatted up a couple from Saskatchewan, Canada that were riding their motorcycles through the SouthWest. No plans, just seeing where the road takes them every day. I got some definite keepers there at the Motel and also put to work some good advice we’d received the night before during Ken’s talk. It was eye opening to see how other people shoot their subjects; professionals and enthusiasts alike. I learned a ton just by watching and a ton more by asking questions and asking for other’s opinions when I felt like I wasn’t capturing the scene the way I saw it in my head. Everyone was super friendly and I never once felt like people didn’t want to share what they knew for fear that they’d give up their ‘secrets’. It had been a fear of mine that I’m glad I discovered was unfounded.
After breakfast back at the hotel we hopped in our cars (we managed to fit the group into three cars for easy carpooling) and headed out to Dagget to photograph the town and the old West style cemetery. Now, I should tell you that Dagget, although I’d never actually been there before this, already held a special place in my heart. Raquel and I had been driving back home from a road trip on the I-40 once and having already been driving for more than 12 hours we were pretty punch drunk with sleepiness. When I saw the sign for Dagget, I made a joke about Dagget’s sister city being Damnit, and Raquel and I were off to the races from there. “You’re from Dagget!? No, I’m from Damnit, Dagget!” OK, you had to be there, but it was rip roaring funny then. The town certainly aint much to look at it, but it really does make you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. There’s constant freight train traffic, too, which adds to the certain appeal places like this have. The cemetery was really amazing. All the dilapidated crosses and the wooden frames that were built around plots. The frames reminded me of bed frames and I found it quite fitting that people would want their loved ones to ‘rest’ well underneath a hand made bed frame.
From Dagget we headed to the Bagdad Cafe in Newberry Springs. It’s well known for it’s name, sharing it with a movie that wasn’t actually filmed there. Tons of people come from all over the US and the World specifically to see the Bagdad Cafe. Granted, you only need about 15 minutes to see it really, really well, but it’s totally worth the trip. I don’t think that place has changed in decades and the proprietor’s welcome makes everyone feel right at home. Dave set it up so that we’d have a coffee and fruit break here and have some time to photograph the place and some of the relics nearby. We luckily ran into a friendly biker who was willing to let the whole group photograph him and his bike outside the Cafe. I really like the shot I got of him sitting on his bike. It fits so perfectly with the cafe and the whole aura of Route 66. There was an old neon motel sign next door that also called to me so I walked over there and got one of my favorite shots of the trip. Shortly after that it was time for a more Nature-themed stop. The Pisgah Crater and lava tubes!
It was a 30 minute drive out to the crater and when we got there I was sure someone had made a mistake. There’s a lava tube out here? Can’t be. But sure as sh*t, there was one. Actually, there are tons, but we only explored one. A very short one, thankfully. I’m not much for tight spaces and when I heard the word Spelunking I was already preparing to say “No Way, Jose”. It was a cool spot (both literally, in the lava tube shade, and figuratively) and for the first time on the trip we weren’t the only ones there. As a matter of fact, as we were walking back to our cars, a caravan of about 20 vehicles came driving up the road. It made for great photographs, but since there were about 50 middle school kids spread out in those 20 cars, all coming to go on a lava tube adventure, I was happy we were heading the opposite direction.
Our next stop was the first time I felt like we were actually trespassing, even though we had already walked through abandoned hotel rooms, loitered in a motel parking lot and casually strolled through a graveyard. Call it my aversion to tall fences topped with barbed wires. Granted, there couldn’t have been easier access than the nice little dirt hill that went right around the fence to the other side. Still, I prepared my story about following and trusting the workshop leader in case of any later troubles. Trespassing aside, this stop was epic. Imagine an absolutely huge construction site filled with old cranes, old machinery, old cars and criss-crossed by long, deep trenches filled with crystal clear salt water. You’d explore it if you could, wouldn’t you!? This was the old ‘Natural Chloride Co.’ factory. Here I wandered around in a photo shooting daze, turning my head this way and that, looking for all the different angles I could use to create scenes and then shooting each one to my heart’s content. If it hadn’t been for some members of the group itching to leave, I think I would’ve been there until the last bit of light left the sky, shooting until I couldn’t shoot no more. In retrospect, though, I owe many thanks to those folks who wanted to leave. Our next destination was the essence of Route 66: Roy’s Motel and Cafe in Amboy!
At Roy’s we arrived just as the sunlight entered into magic hour. We shot the huge arrow/hyphen/delta. We shot backlit cholla cactus (where Dave shared an angle that got me my first sun star shot). We shot the hotel lobby that (we found out later) had been accidentally left open. We shot the Route 66 sign painted on the highway and we shot the epic sunset that seemed to go on forever around us. It was a quintessential spot for our Route 66 journey. I’m happy that someone is actively protecting and trying to restore that little glimpse of the glory days of the Mother Road.
After getting stuck for about 20 minutes at a railroad crossing while a military supply train blocked our passage, we finally got our growling stomachs satisfied at Peggy Sue’s Diner in Yermo. The food was what you’d expect; simple, greasy, and only so-so, but the service and the ambiance was awesome. 50’s music rocking in the background, tons of memorabilia on the walls, and the waitresses dressed as they once did in that fine time in our history. Our sodas were never allowed to go empty and the waitress even split the check 10 different ways without a complaint. You can’t beat that.
Back at the hotel some of us grabbed our laptops and shared our shots from the last two days. Steve, another workshop attendee, opened my eyes to the magic of camera profiles when he heard me complaining about how Lightroom always messes with how my images display. The group organizers gave good feedback and tried to help people narrow down everything they’d shot to the absolute best stuff they had. I wish there had been more time for critique, but the workshop was only a few days and I don’t think I would’ve traded any of the shooting locations for critique time. I think maybe the workshop just has to be longer. I went to sleep exhausted, but happy, and a little sad that there was only a little bit more left.
We started a little later on the final morning. Everyone was pretty shot from the long day before. We all checked out of the hotel in the morning since we wouldn’t be coming back later. After breakfast and a little bit of sharing / critique time we headed to the Route 66 museum. It’s a really cool spot being that it’s in the Barstow train station and all the freight trains and even Amtrak goes through there. The collection in the museum includes a Ford Model T, a 65 Ford Mustang, along with some old typewriters and a nice photography collection. I enjoyed it, but I rushed through it and will have to return some day to really soak it in. It was the final stop of the workshop that was the utter highlight for me.
Once we made a quick stop back at the hotel, we headed off to our final destination: The Bottle Farm. I know, I know, what the hell is a bottle farm!? Well, I was wondering the same thing and now I know. It’s almost self explanatory. It’s a place where bottles appear to grow on metal trees. Yes, that’s right. Glass bottles on metal trees. It looks as crazy as it sounds, but it’s also exquisitely beautiful. All that light shining through the bottles and all the shadows on the ground and all the different wind chimes blowing around. It’s a place where one man’s trash becomes the world’s treasure. George???, the owner of the farm, is continuing what his father started many years ago adding more and more as the days pass. It’s a landscape of it’s own and one that I hope to visit again and again in the future. I’ve seen many people try to make art out of junk, but I’ve never seen it done so successfully and at such a huge volume as this place. It’s only about two hours from LA so if you’ve never been you have to add it to your list!
I know I set a record for length with this blog post, but I just had to share all the details of this wondrous weekend. If any of you out there has an interest in photography and wants to find new and unique things to shoot, look no further. The organizers are accomplished photographers in their own right and just super friendly and knowledgeable guys who make the weekend an absolute pleasure. Don’t expect luxuries along the way, but do expect that your photos and your spirit will be lifted to new heights! I’m putting links to the workshop as well as the organizer’s sites down below so you can explore for yourself. Even if you don’t do the workshop – get out there on the Mother Road and seek out the stories she has to tell. Who knows how much longer you’ll be able to hear them for.