The ranch land near Zion Canyon in Utah is among the most scenic in the country.
We might as well face it. America is no longer what it once was. Not long ago this was a country that relied on small-scale farming and ranching. They fed the cities with their increasingly important manufacturing economies. Perhaps more importantly they helped to form the country’s very identity. Farms, ranches and small towns have traditionally been a well that we drew upon to create a dynamic, growing nation. Many American thinkers and inventors were born and raised in small-town farming communities. To take a more specific example, American fighter pilots in both world wars learned their bold flying skills as young men in crop-dusting planes. There are countless other examples.
Nearly every region of the country has become more developed and populated. Cities have grown steadily; suburban areas surrounding them have grown even faster. And it’s these so-called exurban areas that have spilled out into formerly rural areas. Large parts of rural America have literally been paved over, changing them for the foreseeable future. But it’s not all gone, not by a long shot. You can still experience much of this country’s rural charm if you’re willing to leave the cities, get off the main highways and slow down.
And that is what this series is all about: travelling off the beaten track to experience some of the country’s rural charm. The introductory post discussed the growing rural-urban divide in America, but Part II left politics behind and focused on my home-region, the Pacific Northwest. This post will zero in on a unique part of the country: the amazing Desert Southwest.
It’s always fun finding an old buckboard wagon. In the dry air of the Southwest, they are well preserved.
Geography & History
The unique geography of the Desert Southwest is centered on an enormous geographic feature called the Colorado Plateau. This large chunk of elevated land extends across southwest Colorado, southern Utah and northern parts of Arizona and New Mexico. But the desert SW region extends west of the Plateau into the southern Great Basin of Nevada and SE California.
It also includes the low, hot deserts of southern Arizona, and actually continues south into Mexico, though it’s a different culture altogether there. Anyone considering a trip into the far southwest of the U.S., however, should seriously consider Baja California as an extension. The peninsula is amazing, the people friendly, and it is far safer than mainland Mexico at the moment.
What draws visitors today presented challenges to early explorers and settlers. It is an arid region of vast treeless plains on one hand, and steep bare-rock canyons and mountains on the other. Rivers are often incised into inaccessible canyons and follow torturous routes. One can’t easily follow a river for a distance then take a shortcut across a meander to save days of travel. And if you do manage to exit a precipitous canyon, water is very difficult to find.
The beautiful Baja Peninsula, Mexico, is an extension of the Desert SW of the U.S.
Ancient Ones to Spain to Mexico to USA
This region has been occupied for thousands of years by native groups. Spanish explorers entered the region beginning in the 16th century. During America’s westward expansion in the 1800s, the Desert Southwest was merely a barrier to cross in order to reach California. Most of it then belonged to Spain, and all roads led to Santa Fe. This still-beautiful city was the only significant settlement in the entire region. Today you can see some of the earliest buildings constructed by white people on the North American continent in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico (see image below).
But you do not have to travel very far to see houses built long before that. Chaco Canyon and other sites are what remains of the ancient ones. Ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi), and before them the Basketmakers, inhabited these parts for thousands of years. They had success farming maize (corn) and beans, and they even mined for copper, silver and gold.
A hike in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon takes you past the so-called Supernova pictograph.
Despite the area’s harsh climate and geography, this region has the longest history of European incursion in the west. That is because the Catholic Church in Spain, specifically the Jesuits, established missions here going back to the 16th century. Santa Fe was founded in 1608. That’s 12 years before 102 travellers aboard a ship called the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.
The San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, originally built in 1610.
Santa Fe is the oldest capital city on American soil. It served as the capital of New Mexico for Spain, then Mexico after their war of independence. It was not long Mexico’s, as in the 1840s first Texas, then the U.S. military fought for control of New Mexico. It was ceded to the U.S. in 1848 after the Mexican-American War.
Taos to the north is also very old. The famous American frontiersman, Kit Carson, who first arrived in Santa Fe in 1826 and made his fame as a mountain man, scout and fierce fighter, lived there for years with his Mexican wife Josefa. They had eight children together.
Window on the historic Kit Carson home: Taos, NM
The famous Santa Fe trail, like the Oregon Trail to the north, began as a trading route that later became much more important as a route carrying American settlers west. Unlike the Oregon Trail it traveled through truly hostile (American) Indian country. The Apaches and Comanche did not tolerate trespassers and were feared much more than most tribes to the north (some Sioux bands excepted).
An old trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico.
Mining in the Southwest
The Desert Southwest has from the beginning of European exploration been a target of mining. While ranching and farming faced the realities of the region’s dry, harsh climate and geography, mining had “only” to overcome the fierce Apache. I mentioned the early missionary efforts by Spain. If you know anything about imperial Spain, you know their desire to bring savage tribes into the Catholic fold was only surpassed by their lust for silver and gold.
When the U.S. took control of the Southwest, mining continued. But since the American military generally had more success putting down native tribes than had the Spanish and Mexicans, and because the U.S. government put in place several incentives and subsidies (e.g. the 1872 Mining Act), mining bloomed in the region. For visitors interested in history and in exploring rural parts of the region, the remains of mines large and small are not hard to find. And so are the ghost towns that once boomed in support of the miners.
Old mine workings like this one are not hard to find if you ramble around exploring in the Southwest. This is in New Mexico’s Mogollon Mtns.
In the early 1850s Mormons began to settle the Desert Southwest. Originally settling the Salt Lake Valley, they soon pushed south into canyon country. The remains of their homesteads are visible in many places, and often in very scenic locations (see image below). Like the Catholics long before them, they too founded missions in order to convert the natives.
Cowboys & Indians
One final piece of the region’s history has perhaps received much more attention than it deserves from a historical perspective. Stories of the old west that romanticize cowboys and outlaws have always had the power to capture our attention. In the Desert SW you can visit the old hideouts of legends like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, James Averill and the Hole in the Wall Gang. It’s also easy to visit old movie sets and eat at the same cafes, drink at the same bars as did old-time movie stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck.
Billy the Kid started young. Click image for the source webpage.
For example, Kanab, Utah celebrates the era of Hollywood westerns at the same time it enjoys its location close to scenic wonders like Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. Monument Valley is a place where the Navajo Nation shares the spotlight not only with the dramatic scenery but with the area’s history as setting for the famous collaboration between director John Ford and actor John Wayne.
The old Mormon homestead at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.
Road Tripping the Southwest
It is somewhat overwhelming to contemplate a trip to this enormous region. You can too easily bite off more than you can chew. And you can’t have a good time if you’re behind the wheel for your whole vacation. Decide what you’d most like to see and how much time you have. Then decide whether you can swing several trips (preferable) or must choose the one area that most ignites your imagination.
In succeeding posts we will travel from west to east in a series of road trips. They are those I have done, many several times, and I chose them because they not only visit spectacular natural wonders but take off down two-lane country roads with only locals (mostly bovine) for company. The idea is to get you off the beaten track to see the charm of the rural Southwest. I’ll repeat myself: whatever you do don’t try to see everything at once. You can’t travel, for example, from Anza Borrego in California’s Mojave to New Mexico’s high desert and hope to see much outside of gas stations and roadside eateries. That is, unless you have at least 3 months to travel. Thanks for reading!
Sunset at Monument Valley.
This farm, with its mossy old barn, lies at the foot of the Olympic Mountains, a truly beautiful corner of America.
After a short break I’m going to return to blogging with a change in focus. I’m getting away from photography tips and how-to for awhile. In all honesty I was beginning to think that most of what I could impart in terms of photography expertise I’d already set down in this blog. Search “Friday Foto Talk” in the blue bar at left to see how many articles I’ve posted (hint, it’s a lot!). Of course there is always more to relate, and the fact that I’ve been in a photo drought probably has the most to do with my waning interest in Foto Talk posts.
What I will continue to do is feature some of my favorite images. I hope you enjoy them, and remember if you’re interested in hanging one or two on your wall or otherwise using any for other purposes, just contact me. I’ll be glad to quote a good price.
Politics and the Urban-Rural Divide
Since the last election in this country I’ve been thinking often about rural America, in particular the ways in which it has changed. If you live in another country, or are a newcomer to the U.S., you probably became quite confused when we elected Donald Trump for president (someone I usually call “Mr. Pumpkinhead”). He obviously sold a bill of goods in order to get elected. In some ways that should come as no surprise. He is, if anything, an accomplished con artist.
But it goes much deeper than that. I’ve traveled extensively through small-town America in recent years, and I’ve discovered that things have changed in significant ways. I did a similar amount of road-tripping in the 1980s, and while some things remain the same, a lot has changed. Of course I’ve changed a lot too. But it’s hard to deny what has happened over the past 40 years, and especially in the last decade or so.
America is politically and culturally polarized to a great degree right now. This divide has always existed of course, but the degree of mutual distrust along with a general inability to find common ground, or even to simply speak to each other is unusual and disturbing. The divide doesn’t simply equate to city versus rural. Even within metropolitan areas, a divide exists between those living closer to the center and those in the outer suburbs and bedroom communities. This last factor had much to do with D.T. being elected president. Without those suburban voters he would have never won. There simply are far too few people in truly rural areas of this country to get anybody elected president on their own.
This old mill and accompanying covered bridge lies in eastern Missouri and is protected as part of a historic district.
In general the more liberal Americans live in cities and (more extensively) on both coasts. The rural west, the southeast and (with a few notable exceptions, California being a big one), outer suburbia throughout the country is where conservatives are concentrated. But today’s conservatism would be unrecognizable to conservatives of just a few generations ago. Mr. Pumpkinhead was no conservative before he decided to run for president, and it was only as the campaign ran along, and especially now that he’s in office, that he played chameleon. He is now a prisoner of stronger forces than he in the legislative branch and among the super-rich.
Politics, however, is not where I want to go in this blog series. I find the nature of people and their communities to be of much more interest. Rural America has traditionally been a place where people move at a slower pace; where they are more trusting and welcoming of others, including travellers and strangers. In that way it is not much different than any other country. For instance if you’re French or have traveled much in France, try to say with a straight face that Parisians are as friendly and easy to get along with as the people of the countryside along the northern flanks of the Pyrenees.
I’ve said enough to serve as an introduction. Next time let’s dive into the details and look at different parts of rural America and the important ways in which they have changed over the years. I hope you get away from work and responsibilities this weekend to have some fun. Thanks for reading and happy shooting!
The rural Willamette Valley of Oregon was the destination of pioneers who journeyed the Oregon Trail in the1800s.
Farm near the Ochoco Mountains, central Oregon.
Yesterday I finished the series of travel posts for the John Day region in Oregon. So for today’s image, here is one of Oregon’s many great barns. I captured this shot in the afternoon when the light was still quite harsh. Normally I would pass it by because of the time of day. But it pays to keep an open mind about time of day. Here the colors were so vibrant I thought it was a worthwhile shot.
So after passing it by and thinking twice, I turned around and went for it. I captured several angles, moving closer each time, both with and without a polarizing filter. As often happens, I decided on the shot closest to my main subject, the barn, and selected a shot without polarizer. Perfectly blue skies like this often end up with uneven brightness when you use a polarizer. The wider the angle, the more uneven the color in the sky. Please let me know what you think of the image. Hope you all are having a great weekend!
The vibrant green of the Palouse in eastern Washington after a spring shower.
The Palouse in southeastern Washington is one of those areas of the Pacific Northwest that does not receive many visitors. It is out of the way and not nearly as spectacular as the Cascades or the Coast. But if you are into photography you really can’t do much better. It is a slice of rural life in the drier eastern parts of the Pacific NW. Perhaps it doesn’t belong at the top of your list during a first visit to the region, but it should definitely be considered on a second trip.
WHEN TO GO
The Palouse is best in spring and fall. It is quite windy and cold in winter, and in high summer it’s a dry and often dusty place. When I say summer I mean from July through early September. June is really late spring in these parts. The flowers, which are only found in certain areas, begin to bloom in mid- to late-April. The bloom continues through May or early June. The splashy yellow sunflower-like balsamroot peaks around early May. Spring is a very green season, with the rolling fields taking on an almost electric hue. Fall offers superb golden wave-like fields of wheat.
A patriotic barn in the Palouse of Washington state.
WHERE TO STAY
Despite its lack of big towns and parks, it is fairly easy to find a good base from which to explore the Palouse. You can stay in the small town of Palouse, which is very central, but there are only a few motels. You’ll find more choice in Pullman or Moscow, Idaho. Realize that, depending on where you intend to photograph at sunrise, this will involve getting up VERY early. Tekoa in the north is also a good base, with several places to stay. Throughout the Palouse lie scattered B&Bs to choose from, so google this.
Newly planted rows of wheat grace the smooth terrain of the Palouse in Washington state.
For campers there are several options. Towards the western end of the Palouse, you’ll find Palouse Falls State Park. This compact little park has a big advantage in that you can photograph the stunning waterfall here at any time when the light is good. Near the eastern end of the Palouse, there is a beautiful campground at Kamiak Butte. This county park has a great hiking loop that takes you over the top of the butte, with flower-fields and views of the rolling fields below. The problem with Kamiak is that the gates are closed at dusk, ruling it out as a base from which to make forays for sunset photos.
You can also camp at the Palouse Empire Fairgrounds 20 miles north of Pullman. The Boyer Park RV camp 22 miles SW of Pullman is a good choice if you have a camper/RV. They have showers and laundry there. Wherever you stay, note that the region is fairly spread out, so prepare for some driving. The great news is that the roads are pleasantly rural with little traffic.
In this view from Kamiak Butte in southeast Washington, the fields of the Palouse appear to form a green carpet over the undulating landscape.
WHAT TO DO/PHOTOGRAPH
There are not many traditional tourist sights in the Palouse. There are a number of small, quirky museums and plenty of great barns and farms to see and photograph. Check out Palouse Scenic Byway and Visit Palouse, and of course Trip Advisor’s Forums. For photographers, you’ll notice almost immediately that it helps to get up in elevation a bit. The easy approach is to head up Steptoe Butte or Kamiak Butte (the latter which you’ll have to hike to access the summit). Tekoa Mountain south of Pullman is also a great choice. But since you don’t actually need to be that high for good photographic compositions, you’ll find hills when you’re driving around which will get you high enough. I’ve got a secret little hill that sticks up, but I’m going to keep that to myself for now, sorry.
Arrowleaf balsamroot bloom on the slopes of Kamiak Butte in southeastern Washington.
- Drive the Palouse Scenic Byway and turn off at random dirt roads that strike your fancy. Many of them loop back to the pavement. Take along a good atlas (such as Delorme’s).
- Visit Steptoe Butte. This isolated hill lies in the heart of the Palouse. The great thing about it is that you can stop on the road that winds its way up the butte at whatever elevation you wish. This will allow you to pick your perspective for photography. Or simply drive to the top for 360 degree views.
- Visit Kamiak Butte. To photograph at sunset and/or sunrise, you’ll need to camp here, because they close the gates at dusk. Make the short hike to the top of the butte for both sunset and sunrise. If its springtime the flowers are as fantastic as the views.
- Visit Palouse Falls. This is an amazing waterfall with a spectacular plunge pool. You can hike to the bottom or do a short loop around the top. There is a state park here which requires a Washington Discovery Pass ($10/day).
- Walk around a couple of the small towns with your camera. Try Garfield, Lacrosse & Rosalia. Uniontown has a fence made of wagon wheels. In addition, during your driving explorations, keep on the lookout for beautifully situated barns.
- If you are in the Colfax area and want a nice quiet picnic spot, check out Klemgard County Park. From Hwy. 195 heading south of Colfax, turn right (west) on Hamilton Hill Road, then right on Upper Union Flat Rd. There are signs. A short trail loops up through the small forest and there is plenty of open grassy space in this peaceful little park.
- Drive along the major watercourses in nice light for great photo opportunities. The Palouse River meanders through the countryside and is a lovely stream. Even where it flows out of the town of Palouse it is picturesque (see image below). The Snake River is accessible in several places, but for me its size clashes with the more intimate nature of the Palouse landscapes. The Pataha Creek valley west of Pomeroy along U.S. Hwy. 12 is beautiful. Wind turbines add some interest. Often in the Palouse you will be starved for subjects, the landscape is so spare, so windmills, barns, etc. are worth keeping an eye out for.
The Palouse River winds its way through the rural landscape of eastern Washington.
The Palouse is an understated yet beautiful and peaceful place to visit. If you’re looking for action or adrenaline sports, look elsewhere. But for history and photography enthusiasts, and for those who wish to spend time being transported back to America’s simpler times, the Palouse is one of the best places in the Pacific Northwest.
Please note that the images here are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry ’bout that. But if you’re interested in one of them you can either click the image or contact me with questions and requests. Thanks for your interest!
A small farm with big broad fields sits under a big beautiful dusk sky in the Palouse region of eastern Washington.
Mount Hood rises beyond rural pastureland in western Oregon.
Whenever I head out to the barn where my horses are kept I pass through a very pastoral stretch of countryside. The pictures here are from an area southwest of Portland, Oregon. It is what the rest of the city’s surrounding areas used to look like before all the development. For instance, there is a mall and freeway now where in the late 1970s when I first moved here there was country much like you see in these pictures. But this kind of beauty is still accessible. You simply have to drive further from town now.
I hope you enjoy the images. They are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry. If you click on an image you will be taken to the high-res. image where purchase of print or download, along with things like mugs and T-shirts, is simply a matter of clicking “add image to cart”. It won’t be added right away; you will get the chance to see prices and options. Thanks for your interest, and please contact me if you have any questions at all. Thanks for visiting!
Khallie the filly enjoys some nice thick green grass.
After a healthy grazing session, Gold Dancer finds all the new spring grass too tempting.
The area around Corbett, Oregon grows and glows under a spring sunset.