St. Petersberg, Russia, 2005

The Hermitage.

Visiting The Hermitage for a couple of days would be like visiting The Louve for a couple of days–barely scratching the surface, and we only have two hours. As we enter and see the line for tickets and the security line (bag scanner and magnetometer) a young man comes up to us and offers a private guide service with priority admission for not much more than the cost of the tickets. A quick look at the lines and we said yes. It was also a way to prioritize getting to the specific things we were interested in seeing. Paid, he said, “Follow me,” and we walked just past the guard manning the magnetometer where our guide unhook the ropes and walked us directly into the museum. No scanning. I had a camera bag weighing in at about 45 pounds, but nobody looked inside. Must be my honest face.

Quick, but focused, tour done, we meet a friend, Ben, on our way out and decide to get lunch. Somehow we know that there are several restaurants at the L’Europa, St. Petersberg’s classic, grand hotel, including one focused on caviar. We discover we can go from the museum to the hotel by horse and carriage; I can indulge an occasional anachronism.

The caviar restaurant was closed so we ate in a hotel cafe, and plotted our next day, thinking our best choice was to get out to Pushkin to see Catherine’s Palace. Barbara went to the front desk to see about a map and any suggestions for transportation and came back saying we were all set. Turns out the Concierge had a fleet of cars and drivers available (grand hotel indeed), one of which she booked immediately. A polite 30ish man, trim and impeccably dressed in a suit, picked us up in a large Mercedes sedan at the appointed time, ferried us to the Palace (beautiful) and when he dropped us said, “Take all the time you want; I’ll just be here when you are ready to go.”

What I remember first about St. Petersberg though, is that we were there for two days and never got any caviar.

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Grand Teton N. P., Wyoming, 2002

Jackson Lake and Tetons

Hiking in back country, some people will wear bells to alert bears to their presence. Some wilderness wags will tell you they can tell the difference between Black bear and Grizzly scat: the Black bear’s will have undigested berries, the Grizzly’s will include bear bells.

The Tetons seem to shoot straight up from the flat, glacially scoured landscape, unlike approaching most mountain ranges where the elevation gradually builds. The peaks are sharp and angular because they are a relatively new upthrust and not as old or worn as a place like the Appalachians. The tallest, Mount Moran, is almost 14,000 feet, and there are eight peaks over 12,000 feet. The first Europeans to see them were French-Canadian trappers who called the three largest mountains, “Trois Tetons.” Three breasts. Mount Moran was Grand Teton, “big tit.” Ya’ gotta love the French. They travel halfway around the world, into wilderness unlike anything anyone on Earth today will ever experience, and that was the first analogy that came to mind. Just to be clear, I like that.

I was cruising around the few small local roads that run through the park, because it is beautiful, and peaceful, and offers much opportunity for solitude. I was also scouting for a good sunrise photography location. Near the top of Signal Mountain Summit Road is a small parking lot for a short trail leading to Jackson Lake overlook, facing northwest across the lake and into the range. In the middle of a pleasant summer afternoon it was a short, easy hike, arriving at a view with some potential. Of course it will look different at sunrise, and the weather will impact that, too, but the only way to know what it will look like is to be there, at that moment.

To shoot sunrise you need to be onsite an hour before “official” sunrise and most of your best shots will be in the lead-up to the sun breaking the horizon. Sunrise comes very early in June in northern latitudes, and most locations will be at some distance from any lodging. So I got up in the middle of the night, in the middle of the dark (once you leave the lodging and commercial area there is very little artificial lighting), and headed out. The trail was not so easily seen in the dark, but I’d rather avoid a flashlight which will illuminate only what it’s pointed at and make everything else less visible. It’s also chillier at altitude and without sun, even if it is June. But I was ready, with Polartec, and a coffee thermos, and a camp stool, and cameras and lenses, and tripod. And I had the mountain top all to myself. Remembering it now, it sounds wonderful, although at the time I was probably thinking of how long it was going to be before I could go looking for breakfast.

I geared up at the car and headed down the trail. Almost immediately I realized I didn’t know if a moose or bear might be using the same trail. I don’t remember what I sang, but I sang loudly, enthusiastically, much more than I ever will in public. I banged my stool and tripod against each other. I scuffed my feet. I made all the noise I could just so I did not surprise any cohabitant. It either worked, or there was nothing there. Moot point.

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Portree, Scotland, 2013

Isle of Skye, fishing village of Portree.

Just…DON’T. Whatever the question is, whatever the issue is, the answer is, “No.” “Don’t.” “Ever.”

Quay Street lines one side of Portree Harbour, on Loch Portree. The water side gives access to boats, and offers moorings. Opposite are old masonry buildings repurposed for inns, cafes, and shops, prettified to target the tourist trade. It’s a narrow street, mostly pedestrians, but also providing access for pick ups and deliveries, loading and unloading. As someone who lives in the heart of a popular travel destination, I understand the impulse to post this warning. Someone once gave me a bumper sticker that said, “If we call it tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?” I thought it was funny; some tour operators did not. In today’s world, maybe it isn’t.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Without intending to pat my intelligence on the back, travel is a conflict I struggle to resolve. I love visiting places I have not seen, and returning to some that I have, but the industrial scale of tourism which has inundated Savannah sometimes makes me wish others would just stay home. I’m appalled when I see a horde of photographers in a scrum at an iconic but fragile landscape, but then I’ve photographed some of those places and shared those pictures and may be culpable for helping create the mob. I don’t know why anyone would want nearly the same photo hundreds of others have already made, often better, or at least with better light, but then I have hundreds of photos of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.

The best I’ve come up with so far is to try to behave as respectfully and unobtrusively as I can, although I don’t always succeed. And when working with guides, pay attention to the way they interact with the community–are they part of it, or just using it as a commodity? Tip accordingly.

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Claxton, GA, 2020

The Old Home Place

What We Leave Behind, Redux:

Claxton, about an hour’s drive west of Savannah, is where my antecedent family has lived since the Revolutionary War.  Several years ago I drove there for a cousin’s funeral.  Some other cousins also attended the service, taking time to clean up a family plot in the Hagan cemetery.  Although I think I was the only one there senior enough to remember attending the old family reunions that happened the first (or second?) Sunday of every June, we got to talking about that long gone event.

We (Mom, Dad, my sister, and I) would drive up there on the Sunday morning, maybe directly from church, to participate in a potluck meal.  The location was always “Uncle Herschel’s” to me; the residents at the old house were my father’s uncle and his wife.  We’d drive down a dirt road until we came to the house, alongside the road, as the road continued on to agricultural fields.  Large planks would be set up on sawhorses in front of the house and the “table” might have been 75 feet long or more, loaded, groaning, with food in wide varieties of fried chicken and potato salad, lots of overcooked vegetables, and every kind of pie and cake you can imagine. (I was young and small then, so my estimates of size may be questionable, but not the sense of abundance.)

A local attendee at the funeral told us Uncle Herschel’s house was still there, and how to find it.  Leading a cousin caravan, I drove down the old dirt road and at some point knew we had gone too far, without seeing the house.  Backtracking, we found it mostly hidden by overgrowth.  Pushing my way past the brush, I wandered through the forgotten home.

The “Old Home Place” was an unpainted clapboard building with a deep front porch that extended across the entire width of the house.  Inside was a central hallway with two rooms off either side, extending out the backdoor with an elevated walkway to a cooking room separated from the main house, to keep the heat and fire away from the living quarters.  That walkway almost certainly led to the outhouses as well.  Somewhere along the way someone had added indoor plumbing—a kitchen and bathroom.  And then somewhere along the way the last residents left, discarding some of the detritus we all accumulate.

I’ve created a new gallery on my website with additional photos shot there and included a copy of an old photograph showing the house in the background, with my dad’s generation massed where the food table was normally laid.  Dad is the cool cat seated 6th from the left, in a sea of starched white, wearing the plaid shirt and two-toned shoes.  His grandparents Thomas Alfred Durrence (1831-1893) and Elizabeth Grice Durrence (1838-1922) owned the farm leading up to the Civil War, owned slaves, went through the war and Reconstruction; my Great Grandmother Elizabeth would have lived through WW I, and my dad would have been 5 years old the year she died; he would have known her.

“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’
Into the future….”
  Steve Miller Band

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