Assistant Professor of Art and Art History
Here on the prairie quiet markers of history that represent aggressive acts surround us: historical markers, Conestoga wagons, rebuilt forts, and representations of buffalo. These items simultaneously speak of our settling this nation and the destruction of other cultures and ecosystems. I set about traveling the Great Platte River Road from just east of Kearney, Nebraska to Fort Laramie in Wyoming and slightly beyond to photograph the intersection of our history and our contemporary landscape. I juxtapose these culturally significant symbols with the environment to inform the viewer of the impact our actions have had on the landscape and peoplescape of this region. As I have traveled this trail as a “contemporary pioneer,” I have had few experiences that photographs have not captured that have enhanced my understanding of this region and our culture in general. Here is one of those stories.
I sit in my minivan, contemplating the signs of the trails I am following, contemplating a peanut butter sandwich and a drink of water. It is hot and dry and I am hungry.
A large dual wheel pick-up truck pulls in front of me and a husky woman gets out. I sit and watch in curiosity as she strides purposefully toward my minivan. She raps her knuckles on my window. I hit the switch, the window smoothly goes down, cock my head, give a quizzical smile, and say to the stranger: “Greetings. How may I help you?”Not knowing her intentions, I generally find outward friendliness and mental readiness always the best weapon with which to approach the unknown. She nods her head in kind and replies “fine,” and gets down to business.
“I was wondering why you were photographing my gasstation?” she challenges.
Guilty! I was photographing her gas station. And as any good photographer, I took my time exploring my subject, finding the proper angle and exposure. I lingered. I studied. I made another trip to my minivan and back for different equipment, deciding I wanted to use my large format camera loaded with an emulsion coated piece of “tin” as well as my digital camera. All of this I am now sure was observed and could understand why I appeared an oddity, for who photographs a gas station with a large format camera! What could my reasons be?
I had no answer other than curiosity. Curiosity as to how we are connected to history, how our historical actions affect us today, and how the landscape and peoplescape of this trail known as the Great Platte River Road have changed since the great migration West. I am curious as to how the flora and fauna have changed; I am curious as to the sustainability of our land use; and most importantly I am curious how our visual monuments to the past interact and create metaphors for all of these concerns. I have researched pioneer journals; talked to historians, amateur and professional; I have watched documentaries; and scoured the web for information about the pioneers and what they encountered as they traveled through this “Great American Desert,” as one Lt. Long of United States Army described this land as he explored the trail along the Platte River in the 1840s.
So I am traveling this trail along a land most pioneers found uninhabitable and harsh, wondering if their impressions are more accurate than our current one of an Eden that, if only given enough water, pumped from the limitless Ogallala Aquifer, can feed the world. How to explain all this to someone who appears ready for confrontation? I play dumb.
“I just like your old oil wagon thingee,” I state simply.
“Oh, so you’re not a terrorist?” She retorts.
I suppress all laughs, for she looks dead serious as she delivers this comedic line, and transform my amusement into a surprised look, and simply state “No,” successfully suppressing all smart-ass responses.
“Good day then,” she parts with as she turns decisively and swaggers back toward her truck, successfully protecting America for another day.
I watch as the dually roars to life, burning enough gas to go the block back to her gas station to send me twenty miles or more. I sit and start to laugh quietly and then loudly. I begin thinking about terrorists, trying to change people’s opinions and lives with senseless violence.My laugh softens as I look through the windshield at the signs confronting me. The Mormon Trail. The Oregon Trail. The California Trail. Some claim Jihad. Some claim Manifest Destiny.