7/8/12 – The Carnegie library in Deadwood was spectacular. I carefully photographed it with my 4X5 camera. We then quickly got out of town driving several hours to Devil’s Tower. The writer N. Scott Momaday wrote “There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’s Tower is one of them.” This massive rock rising up against the sky has a shocking presence. For obvious reasons it was sacred to the Native Americans. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Devil’s Tower the nation’s first National Monument to protect it from commercial development. It was fascinating to see how these parks help bring people together that normally wouldn’t mix. Christian bikers from the South, a Native American family, a family from France, Amish people all shared an awe-inspiring experience in this National Monument. The mingling of different people and the shared experience reminded me of the value of the shared commons in places such as parks and public libraries. Wyoming was big and he distances were vast. I spent most of the time writing the blog from the last two days while Walker drove. We visited the library and Starbucks in Gillette, WY. The library was new and quite interesting and Starbucks hit the spot. Gillette is a coal boomtown and one bumper sticker on a pickup said “My coal powers your electric car.” The Public Library in Buffalo, WY was a beautiful Carnegie. I enjoyed photographing such a pretty building in the afternoon light. Surprisingly, it was open on this Sunday afternoon. I walked inside and told the lady what I was doing. She informed me that this building was now a museum and that the library had moved to the very plain building across the street. After that disappointment we drove over the spectacular Bighorn Mountains. The pass was almost 10,000 feet and Ten Sleep Canyon was one of the most incredible drives on this trip. The town of Ten Sleep, WY had a plain library that actually looked good in the late afternoon light. Ellen and I stopped here in 1983 and it hadn’t changed much since then. After finishing writing the blog for the last two days I typed most of it on my laptop in the car while Walker again drove through a Wyoming sunset. After another long drive we landed in Lander, WY. This wonderful, small town on the edge of the Wind River Mountains even had great dining available late on a Sunday night. After finishing most of the blog I crashed at 1 AM.
SOUTH DAKOTA, PART I – AMERICAN THEME PARKS TO AN INDIAN POWWOW and SOUTH DAKOTA, PART II – A NATIONAL TRAGEDY AND AN AMERICAN ICON
SOUTH DAKOTA, PART I – AMERICAN THEME PARKS TO AN INDIAN POWWOW
7/6/12 – We started the day by going to Mitchell’s World Famous Corn Palace. The outside walls were covered in corn and the design changes every year. It is classic American kitsch but seemed pretty shallow. We quickly drove by the very plain library in Mitchell to the former Carnegie Library, now a Resource Center. I had been looking forward to seeing the 1940s WPA mural on the ceiling of the dome designed and painted by Sioux artist Oscar Howe. Unfortunately it was closed. We then drove quickly across the state to the town of Wall, SD. Its Drug Store is also famous but we were both pretty tired of tourist traps. In contrast to Wall’s phoniness the library was a real gem. It was old and made out of stone and had all the substance that Wall Drug lacked. Soon after we left Wall we entered Badlands National Monument. Here the contrast between kitsch and substance couldn’t be greater. We soaked up the subtle color and beauty. As always the National Park System did a great job of managing this national treasure. As we entered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation we entered another world. This is one of the poorest places in the country. The average income per capita is $1,500/year. 96% of the population lives below the poverty line. The libraries here are few and far between. In Allen, SD, statistically the poorest town in the United States, there was a library in the Oglala Lakota College. However, it was only for the students, not the public. The town looked poor with crumbling houses and trashed yards. Even though the Tribal Center was open it was dark and felt empty. We drove into the really small Lakota town of Batesland, SD. We heard a weird thumping sound from the car. We pulled into a dirt church parking lot where I used a piece of thin wire tie from a food bag to connect the flapping parts until we could get it fixed later. We drove 20 minutes down a dirt road to a B&B that Walker had found on the Internet. It was owned by a white family and is a working farm. They even had the original deed of ownership signed by President Coolidge in the 1920s framed on the wall. Several people told us that we were very lucky with the timing of our arrival. The Lakota Sioux were having their annual Powwow starting this night back in Batesland. We drove our well-worn Camry down the sandy, washboard road into town. What made this Powwow special was that this was being done by the Indians and for the Indians, not for the tourists. Everyone was friendly in this non-commercial event. We felt totally accepted as we chatted with a Lakota couple that had originally met at the Stanford University Powwow. The man, Kelly Looking Horse became the main MC as the dances began. The beauty of the swirling costumes in the red sunset astonished Walker and me. We sampled Indian tacos that were served in an open Doritos bag with meat, onions and cheese over crumpled spicy Doritos. Delicious! The only other non-Native people at the event were a group of Presbyterians from northern Virginia. They were there to do much needed work on the Reservation. These people gave Christianity a good name. Later, with the haunting sounds of the Lakota drumming and singing in our heads we fell into a deep sleep back at the B&B.
SOUTH DAKOTA, PART II – A NATIONAL TRAGEDY AND AN AMERICAN ICON
7/7/12 – Walker had never stayed in a bed and breakfast before. We participated in the slightly awkward ritual of having breakfast with our hosts and guests. They all turned out to be great people and even all had a liberal bent. We drove back to Batesland to get the car fixed. The Indian man that worked on it had just come from a memorial service for his daughter who had been killed by a drunk driver. The sky was gray and it was raining as we drove into Wounded Knee, SD, site of the last big massacre of Indians in 1890. The US Army slaughtered over 250 mostly women, children and old men as they were surrendering. This national tragedy felt very current here today. In the 1970s the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee for many days precipitating another tragedy as the government tried to evict them through force of arms. It was drizzling as we climbed the hill to the mass grave for the 1890 victims. Walker and I felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness and shame. We stopped at the unlit and very poor Visitors Center that was basically a monument to the American Indian Movement. We bought a bundle of sage as a gesture to healing. We drove on in silence listening to a Lakota Christian radio station broadcasting hymns sung by local people. The station also broadcast testimonials by locals on why they were Christians. I will never forget the guy with the shaky voice recalling his alcoholic parents who abandoned him, the older man who raped him and his anger turning him to join gangs and worship the devil. He broke into a local house and stole much of what they owned. When the family turned around and prayed for his soul he found God. And then he married the daughter of the family he had robbed. We arrived in Pine Ridge in a dark mood. This town was very poor and filled with problems, especially alcoholism. Life expectancy here is lower than in Afghanistan. We went into the local market and I discovered an amazing photo book on the local area. Walker bought an Oglala Lakota Nation hoodie. We then drove two miles south to the Nebraska border town of Whiteclay. Located just outside the dry Reservation it is a magnet to Indians looking for alcohol. 13,000 bottles of beer and malt liquor are sold here everyday in a town of 11 people. The New York Times did a recent story about this national tragedy (see attached article) and the businesses fueling this addiction. The story states “In February, the Oglala Sioux filed a federal lawsuit against the stores and Anheuser-Busch and several other brewing companies, accusing them of encouraging the illegal purchase, possession, transport and consumption of alcohol on the reservation. Fetal alcohol syndrome, fatal drunken driving accidents and beer fueled murders have cast a pall over Pine Ridge for decades.” It is estimated that 1/3 of the women on the reservation have been raped. I had never been in a town where everyone was drunk all the time. Zombie-like men staggered down the wet sidewalk and collapsed. The gloominess of the day added to the desolation of Whiteclay. Walker went into a food store to get a sandwich while I fended off drunken men rapping on my car window begging for money for booze. I texted Walker that he should get back to the car “quick” but in my haste sent it to my wife Ellen back in San Francisco. She was quite concerned. We couldn’t get out of Whiteclay soon enough and spent the rest of the day trying to recover from this horrible experience. Neither of us had seen anything quite this bad, except perhaps Walker’s trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh. We eventually made it to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Here was the scene of an earlier tragedy and also the creation of an American icon. After signing a treaty with the Indians in the 19th century guaranteeing them ownership of the Black Hills forever gold was discovered. General Custer (yes, that Custer!) was brought in to remove the Indians and make the area “safe for the prospectors”. No Indians live in the area today. After photographing the old Carnegie library in Hot Springs, SD we wound our way through the length of the Black Hills. We photographed buffalo and antelope by the side of the road in the beautiful Wind Cave National Park and the Custer (yes, that Custer!) State Park. History is indeed written by the victors. We were desperately in need of the solace of open spaces after what we had seen in Whiteclay. The Black Hills were beautiful and we could understand why they were sacred to the Indians. Mt. Rushmore is impressive, even from a distance. The Iron Mt. highway is absolutely insane with its one-lane tunnels, 360-degree hairpin loops and tiny wooden bridges. It was actually fun to drive this crazy but beautiful highway. Mt. Rushmore was even more impressive up close. I was last here with Ellen on our honeymoon in 1983. It was much more chaotic back then and again I applaud the NPS for making this place a great and accessible experience. We ended our drive in Deadwood, SD. This was the colorful 19th century mining town that today is a western theme park living off its past. I called it Disneyland in Deadwood. Walker and I were both overwhelmed by the range of experiences that we had today. The destruction of the Indian tribes continues in Whiteclay and Pine Ridge. Good people are trying to change that but is an ongoing struggle. The Black Hills saved our sanity. The redemptive power of nature is real. But at night as we were trying to sleep both of us were silently crying inside with grief for the insane, third-world conditions that we saw today in this part of Native America.
IN THE HEAT OF THE HEARTLAND
7/4/12 – As we entered Nebraska we quickly saw why it is called the Cornhusker State. Endless acres of corn stretched off to the horizon. Much of this was to feed Big Agriculture’s desire for corn-fed beef and ethanol. When we filled up our car I noticed that 10% of our gas was ethanol. Nebraska was also the land of great libraries. Rulo and Pawnee City , NE were just the start. One of my favorite libraries of the trip was in tiny Burchard, NE. Although it was closed Walker noticed that the door was ajar. Inside was another archive of a small American town. The library included lists of fallen American soldiers from WWI and WWII. High School trophies and ribbons dating back to the 1930s were in a dusty display case. Dozens of mysterious small white crosses were in boxes. Old books and magazines were on the shelves. A beautiful wooden desk sat next to a window. It had little wooden boxes each with the names of Nebraska cities. It was stifling inside and as I photographed I was literally dripping with sweat. We stopped briefly at the Homestead Act National Monument that was celebrating the 150th anniversary of this pioneering legislation. Walker and I had an interesting debate over whether this Act (generally seen as a good thing) was worthwhile. Undoubtedly it was crucial to the settling of the area. We tried to find a library in another small town but was told it had been torn down. It was still well over 100 degrees when we came to Lincoln, NE. Because it was a holiday everything was closed including the library. I quickly photographed the exterior and jumped back into the car. We have been listening to “The Peoples History of the United States” and the reader Matt Damon was speaking about the Vietnam War period. For some reason when he started talking about Ron Kovac, the crippled veteran turned anti-war activist I really got choked up. He had written a book called “Born On the Fourth of July” about his experiences that later became a famous movie. Here we were in the heat of the Heartland on the 4th of July photographing America’s public libraries. I started to think back to when I was Walker’s age living through those chaotic, revolutionary times of the Vietnam War. Each generation has its own cross to bear and ours was that war way back when. Weeping Water, NE got the award for the most poetic name for a library and a town. The library was originally built as a church and academy before it became a library. The old limestone walls exuded rust colored stains that made the library look like it was weeping blood. It was a strange but fascinating effect. After driving many miles on dirt roads we were hot and exhausted but we stopped for one more library in Wehawka, NE. In the last sunlight I photographed this incredible log cabin library. Nebraska has great libraries and the state gave us a good look into rural, mid-Western America. We ended the day in Omaha, NE and I felt like we had accomplished much during our long dive. As we watched the fireworks from our hotel I felt glad we were doing this project. In a way, it is our chance to understand this big, complex, fascinating country through its public libraries.
7/5/12 – The Central Library in Omaha was plain and boxy. But it was representative of a style of modern, utilitarian, urban architecture that is fairly typical throughout the nation. I hesitated but finally decided to photograph this library that was nicely situated amongst Omaha’s tall buildings. Also, this site was the location for the famous photographers William Henry Jackson’s first studio. His adult life spanned from the Civil War to WWII. He was best known as a photographer for the great 19th century geological surveys of the American West including the first one into Yellowstone. His photographs of that area were used in the effort to create the world’s first National Park. The small library in Wisner, NE had potential. Great silos and towers loomed in the background but from the street they were hard to see. I tried to go into every story across the street from the library to ask if I could photograph from the roof. Every one was shut as was much of the town including the library. It is hard to believe that Nebraska had so many topnotch libraries. Rudy’s Library in Monowi, NE was one of them. The entire population of this town consists of one woman, Elsie Eiler. She runs the only business in town, a local roadhouse. Over the years she watched all the other town residents move away or pass away. Her husband Rudy died a few years ago. Because he had collected so many books she decided to pen Rudy’s Library in a small shed next to her home. The memorial to her husband was free and open all the time. People can self-check out books by signing a notebook and return them when they are done. People from all over had checked out books and presumably mailed them back later. Again, the shed was stifling hot with seat pouring off our faces and hands making the photography a little slippery. I happily photographed the old books, magazines and newspapers. Some of the papers dated back to the 1940s. I photographed a magazine article about Elsie and an etching of Rudy having a beer in the bar. A wooden sign off in the corner simply stated “Rudy’s Dream”. After I finished I walked into the roadhouse, bought a cold soda and thanked Elsie for creating such a memorable library. Our next step was in the tiny town of Lynch, NE. Its library had a simple style and the late afternoon light made it beautiful. One reason we found so many good libraries in Nebraska was because of Walker’s research. He discovered a Flickr page that sowed every library in this state and we were able to narrow it down to the most interesting ones on our route. Missouri came from a Google search for libraries in Nebraska. Little by little our research from many different sources produced the Library Road Trip for 2012. We entered into South Dakota again and soon crossed the Missouri River. We had been driving north since the Ozarks and we could really tell the difference in the longer hours of daylight. Our last library today was in Tripp, SD. This small farm town had a beautiful country library that glowed in the setting sun. Behind it towered a huge bank of clouds that seemed to envelop the whole blooming sky. We finished the drive at dusk in Mitchell, SD. We ended the day with our usual routine of a Mexican dinner, changing the 4X5 film in the motel bathroom, downloading the digital photos and then we crashed.
KANSAS CITY AND ARTHUR BRYANT’S
7/3/12- The Central Library in Kansas City, MO is housed in a former bank. I had initially been attracted to this library because of the large book murals I had seen on Google and the library website. It turned out that the murals were on a nearby parking structure next to the stunning library. Inside the early 20th century design for a large bank was everywhere. Big columns, a large entrance and dark wood paneling gave the impression of dignity and authority. Downtown Kansas City was going through urban renewal and this former bank-now-library served as an anchor for it. One of the most interesting parts of the library was the old bank vault. It had been turned into a movie theater where they now showed free movies. It reminded me of some of the original Carnegie libraries that I photographed last summer in Pittsburgh. These first Carnegies were intended as more than just a place for books. They included gymnasiums, basketball courts, swimming pools and luxurious theaters. The small movie theater in the Kansas City library showed how some of our contemporary thinking about libraries is connected to the early Carnegie ideals. There was a large homeless population in and around the Kansas City library. It was over 100 degrees outside and I could understand the attraction of a large, beautiful, air-conditioned refuge. But the aimless wandering of some of these sad people clashed in a weird way with the luxurious setting of the beautiful building. Until our society can find a way to compassionately help the mentally ill or the poor or the homeless this part of our nation will continue to use the public library as an opulent sanctuary. I spent several hours admiring and trying to understand the Kansas City library. Two hours later we drove across the river into Kansas. Because the distances were large and we had started late we were only able to photograph one library in Kansas. But it was a great one. The Coal Creek Library was founded in 1859 and this building was built in 1900. It was the oldest subscription library in Kansas and the oldest west of the Mississippi River. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Abolitionists called Jayhawkers founded the community and it was in the pre-Civil War violence called Bleeding Kansas. I spent over an hour in the +100 degree heat photographing this link to the past. We drove back to Missouri and went to a Kansas City barbeque landmark – Arthur Bryant’s. As I later wrote to my friend Craig Weiss this was the “best damn barbeque on the trip”. After eating our way through Texas and Oklahoma last summer we had high standards. But unlike last summer this incredible place was a black owned, urban steak house that was as plain on the inside as the food was good. Photos of customers included Danny Glover, President Jimmy Carter, candidate John McCain and (gasp!) Sarah Palin. After dinner we needed to walk off the rich meal. Walker discovered the National WWI Memorial. It was a stunning monument built in Egyptian Revival Deco style in the 1920s with great views of the downtown. It was huge and almost Stalinist in concept and scale. It would be appropriate on the National Mall in Washington, DC. We wondered why this monument to a war in Europe was built here. Perhaps it was because we are near the geographic center of the US. Perhaps it had something to do with Kansas City itself. This City has been called the Paris of the Plains because of its great architecture, broad boulevards and tree-lined streets. It has the second largest number of fountains of any city in the world after Rome. Disproportionate to its size, it has made a huge contribution to American culture through its jazz music and food. We looked out over this beautiful place and savored the meal, the heat and the sunset.
MISSISSIPPI DELTA BY DAY AND THE OZARKS BY NIGHT
7/1/12 – The two southern Illinois towns of McLeansboro and Cairo were way off our route but had incredible libraries. We had tried to go to Cairo last summer but we just couldn’t make it fit our tight schedule. Today we plunged into the heat and humidity determined to make it work this time. The sign next to the library in McLeansbooro said 106 degrees but later went up to 108 degrees at 1:08 in the afternoon. The library was closed on this Sunday but was truly a gem. The town was closed up tight with only the Dairy Queen open. Even the charity run had been cancelled because of the oppressive heat. We drove to the southern tip of Illinois and entered the northern edge of the Mississippi Delta. Cairo, IL was an important steamboat and shipping town during the Civil War. It had fallen on hard times and had an astonishing history of racial violence during the 20th century. I gasped as I read to Walker the details of this history from Wikipedia on my iPhone. Like many of the shattered towns we have visited (East St. Louis, Detroit, Newark, Camden) it had an incredible library built during better times. Walker literally ran around the almost empty town taking pictures while I focused on the library. It was difficult to understand how towns that are suffering so much had once been able to produce such opulent libraries and civic infrastructure. Cairo’s racial violence was famous but so was the library, a symbol of hope and transformation. Although Illinois is considered a Northern state Cairo is culturally closer to the South. Its’ long history of black and white violence along with high unemployment eventually depopulated much of the town. Today it seemed like a collapsed city. This was the southeast corner of this summer’s Library Road Trip. As we crossed the Mississippi River we turned west towards the Ozarks. Last year we had a wonderful drive through these unusual mountains with Nick Neumann. That day was mostly in Arkansas and today we were in the Missouri Ozarks. We ended our drive in the little town of Eminence, MO. This area is famous for kayaking, fishing and adventure sports and I was expecting it to be something like Moab, UT. There were some recreational tourists but mostly this was a poor, white town. We stayed in a cabin on the edge of town at the Shady Lane Motel and Cabins. I asked the clerk where she would recommend for dinner. She asked with great concern in her Southern drawl “Are you looking for a place that serves adult beverages?” I knew then that this was mostly a dry town and I went back to our cabin and drank one of our beers. We had dinner at a drive-in restaurant called Hawg Heaven. It was incredibly packed on this warm night and felt a little like our favorite rural Vermont drive-in called Sandys. Except this was Sandy on steroids. Everyone was white and either a hell raiser or a Bible thumper. Walker and I felt very out of place in our “Vegas!” and “Zzyzx” t-shirts. As it was getting dark we went down to the nearby river. The water was cool and we could see little critters scampering in the woods. The sun finally set over the good old boys with a Confederate flag on their pickup truck.
THE MISSOURI OZARKS TO KANSAS CITY
7/2/12 – Eminence had a red brick City Hall/Library combination in the center of town. It had dozens of American flags next to the prominent Veterans Memorial. Some of the flags had the names of individual soldiers attached presumably from our recent wars. These memorials are another example of the library as a home for the collective memory of a community. Although we photographed one small library in Bunker, MO today was more of a vacation from libraries. Walker had discovered a Missouri State Park called Johnson’s Shut-In. The name referred to a geological formation that was like a box canyon with a river running though it. The rocks of the riverbed had been wildly eroded and there was a large, happy crowd of people splashing in the water. We enthusiastically joined them. It felt great to chill in the pools of water in the middle of the Ozarks. We felt very far from San Francisco. We spoke with a man floating in the water who told us about the extreme meth problem throughout this area. The white poverty we had seen reminded us of the movie “Winters Bone”. This area is both culturally and geographically remote from the rest of the US. The twisty roads and the isolated valleys help create pockets of poverty where the production of meth for some seemed like the only way out. We drove north through occasional pounding rainstorms that helped cool the temperature below 100 degrees. After many hours we arrived in Columbia, MO to visit the parents of our friend Michael Black. Flos and George Black are in their 90s and in a very nice retirement home. When we left it was a bittersweet departure and we hoped to see them again soon. As we drove west we finished our book on CD called “1491”. We immediately started a new book on CD called “A People History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. I had read it before but purchased the CD set because I thought Walker would enjoy it. We ended our long drive in Kansas City, MO.
MARK TWAIN TO ST. LOUIS
6/29/12 – I was excited about photographing the Iowa City library. We hadn’t planned on spending the night here so this was an unexpected treat. This literary city had book sculptures in the library and on the street that reflected the values of a town that thrived on writing. How unusual! In doing our earlier research for this trip there were certain libraries that we marked with a * for being especially important or beautiful. On Google the library in Letts, IA was small, old and beautiful. When we got there it was closed and had been replaced by a brand new library. Ordinarily the severe, clean lines of this new building would have been a big disappointment. But just in back of the library stood a large complex of silos and towers that were extraordinary. Combined with a flapping American flag it made for what could be a first class image. Again, Iowa forced me to adapt. We crossed the border dividing the Northern state of Iowa from the more Southern state of Missouri. Another *’d library was in Hannibal, MO home to the famous writer Samuel Clemens. Hannibal was a poor town that was trying hard to cash in on the legacy of Mark Twain. The library was built in 1901 and was a gem. Unfortunately, the inside had been all chopped up and the new additions did not integrate well with the old. The outside was spectacular. Even though it was 107 degrees in the shade I spent a long time photographing this unusually beautiful library. I finished by photographing parts of the interior that reflected the community. One display of old photographs had a haunting image of what appeared to be ex-slaves. It was faded and of poor quality. Someone had added back the eyes that presumably had blurred. Along with the more expected images of steamboats and panoramas of the town the photo of the African Americans added a surreal touch to this area’s history. Missouri was bitterly divided by slavery and the Civil War. The Ken Burns PBS documentary on Mark Twain helped explain some of this troubled past. Perhaps we are overly sensitive to it but it seems that places like Hannibal, MO are still struggling with its bitter past. We finished our day in St. Louis, MO. Hannibal felt like a small Southern town but St. Louis had the complexity of a larger American city. Immense wealth and poverty existed side by side along with a recent history of racial tension and white flight. We saw gated, private streets not far from desperately poor neighborhoods suggesting a fearful place. One dinner at Milos Bocce Garden was an example. It was located in what appeared to us a remnant Italian working-class neighborhood. The inside was noisy, packed and air -conditioned. The outside patio was a tolerable 103 degrees and was next to the well used bocce court. This was an exciting sports bar/restaurant that gave us a glimpse into what much of St. Louis used to be.
MANY SIDES OF ST.LOUIS
6/30/12 – I knew that the Central Library in St. Louis was closed and was being rebuilt. I photographed it anyway as an example of another grand urban library. In this case with a chain linked fence around it. It was a hot Saturday but downtown St. Louis seemed quiet. A large group of homeless was camped near the library but otherwise we saw very few people. The Carondolet Carnegie branch library had just reopened two weeks ago. They had done a beautiful renovation on the inside. Unfortunately, the Central Library had failed to pass on my earlier request to photograph here. As a result, I had to jump through some hoops to be able to photograph this beautiful place. In a poor section of North St. Louis I photographed what used to be a branch library. It is now an empty lot with the St. Louis Arch in the background. We were surprised to see such large areas of extreme poverty in this city. Both of us were exhausted from the heat so we spent the hottest part of the day indoors at the Missouri History Museum. We gulped down cold drinks and saw a good exhibit on the Civil War in Missouri. Coming from California where the Civil War seems far away it was useful to see how the effects of that terrible conflict are still felt here. After a few hours in the museum we felt refreshed and ready to plunge back into the heat. Right away we visited three extraordinary places. The first was an old club that later became a library and is now an abandoned building in East St. Louis, IL. Much of the town looked like a war zone. Empty buildings that you could see through sat next to open lots. Once beautiful structures had trees growing out of them with grass on the roof. The abandoned library had once been a nightclub where Miles Davis got his start. As in Detroit last summer, we felt that we were protected here by this brutal heat wave. Nobody messed with us because it was just too damn hot! After photographing this relic we almost ran out of gas in East St. Louis. We pulled into the only gas station around. I debated whether or not to become invisible while pumping gas. I realized that in this weather nobody cared about the color of my skin. The second extraordinary place we visited was Cahokia Mounds Historical Site. We had been hearing a lot about this place in our book on CD called “1491”. In pre-Columbian times this was the only city north of the Rio Grande River. Because of its extensive network of mounds it contained the largest earthworks anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. “1491” has been invaluable on this trip by providing the historical context for what we are seeing. We climbed the stairs up the gigantic Monks Mound and off in the distance we saw St. Louis and its Arch and a giant chemical plant belching smoke. We sat on the far edge of the Mound in the late afternoon heat and light savoring this beautiful place. We imagined what it was like here 800 years ago at the height of its power. We think of the utter devastation we just saw in nearby East St. Louis. We wondered about this thing we call progress. Apparently, the Cahokian civilization ended because they destroyed their environment, were poorly managed and their leaders indulged in political hubris. Sounds familiar. We ended the day by visiting one of the great American icons – The St. Louis Arch. This extraordinary monument to Western American expansion is brilliantly conceived and produced. The setting is stunning and the National Park Service does a great job of managing it. However, in some ways it is similar to Cahokia. It is a monumental expression of our country’s great power and ambition. But across the Mississippi from the Arch is the collapsed civilization of East St. Louis.
LITTLE FREE LIBRARIES TO CLASSIC OLD ONES, MILWAUKEE AND MADISON – TALES OF TWO CITIES and IOWA SURPRISE – CORNBELT BEAUTY AND NEW WAYS OF THINKING
LITTLE FREE LIBRARIES TO CLASSIC OLD ONES
6/26/12 – We spent one of the most interesting hours of this trip with Todd Boi and the Little Free Library project in Hudson, WI. This project has spread throughout the country in a short time. The idea was to have free libraries placed in the crate-sized structures that looked like little houses or small libraries. People put them in their front yard or other public spaces. Readers could borrow books and return them when they are done. They can add their own books to the collection as well. It is a way of building community through Little Free Libraries. Todd and his wife are delightful. They charm Walker with their adorable puppies. They give me a cup of coffee in a Little Free Library mug and tell me to keep the mug. We left feeling like we had met kindred souls. The Sparta, WI library was a stunning Carnegie. Because we were traveling far today I only photographed the beautiful exterior. Oshkosh, WI was a surprise with its faded charm and large Carnegie library. As usual, I walked through the library first with my digital camera sizing up the interior and deciding if I wanted to speak with the librarians. If the interior is interesting I then come back with my film camera and tripod. Because we were in a hurry I didn’t expect to stay long. Unfortunately for our timing, the interior was really good. The librarian was patiently talking on the phone with an abusive library user about a book fine. After she finished that frustrating call she graciously gave me a wonderful tour of the library. Talk about being flexible. This is one reason why I have so much respect for librarians. We ended our long drive in Milwaukee, WI. Neither Walker nor I had any idea that this city would be so great. We drove straight to the Central Library to catch the remaining light of dusk. The lighting on the old building was spectacular. The streets were deserted but I felt very comfortable in this big city on Lake Michigan. We ended the day over dinner wondering why a city of this size and character existed so close to Chicago.
MILWAUKEE AND MADISON – TALES OF TWO CITIES
6/27/12 – Our day began talking on the phone with Ellen while sipping great coffee in the sun on the shores of Lake Michigan. We were delighted to experience this part of the city. We went back to the Central Library in Milwaukee and I spent two hours photographing the massive interior of this great library. In every library I try to photograph things that are unique to the local culture. Here I made images of model trains and Lake-going ships that reflect the commercial background of this city. I also photographed the grand architecture that fortunately had been preserved. Although we enjoyed the pleasant parts of Milwaukee we also knew that it was more complex. The city is one of the most segregated in the country and one of the poorest. As we left Milwaukee we wanted to see other parts of the city. We found it in a large area of poverty in a mostly African-American part of town. Like Duluth, the economic collapse of manufacturing in our country hit this city especially hard. The L.D. Fargo Public Library in Lake Mills, WI was next. It too was a unique place that looked like a Tudor-castle fantasy that was actually beautiful. The pace of this year’s Library Road Trip has been intense and unrelenting. At this point we realized that we needed to eliminate some of the libraries on our list that we had hoped to visit. Goodbye Sheboygan, Kenosha, Lake Geneva, Janesville Jefferson and Mazomaine. We wished we had the time and energy to visit them all. We ended our drive in Madison, WI meeting Richard Brooks, co-director of the Little Free Libraries project. Like his partner Todd Boi, Rick was a wonderful character and a fascinating person. He showed us little libraries for sale and a few in place on the streets of Madison. Later, we walked over to the house of a wood worker named Eric who showed us a modular design for Little Free Libraries that could be easily shipped. Eric’s wife gave us ice-cold lemonade that was greatly appreciated on this warm evening. We ended the evening having dinner with Greg Conniff, his wife and a neighbor named Andy Adams. Greg was one of the original Water in the West project members. He is whip-smart and one of the best photographers that I know. He spent his Guggenheim Fellowship time photographing in Mississippi and we see some of this stunning work on his walls. Andy was a 32 year-old blogger who had an interest in photography, landscape and the internet. The topics of our high-octane conversation included the recent recall-Governor Walker election, Mississippi, Water in the West, music and life-in-general. The margaritas and the home cooked food were excellent.
IOWA SURPRISE – CORNBELT BEAUTY AND NEW WAYS OF THINKING
6/28/12 – After a quick stop to photograph the unusual library in Fennimore, WI we entered Iowa at Dubuque. The Carnegie-Stout Library there was one of the last that Carnegie built in the US. Greek classical ideas were all over the exterior of this beautiful building. The interior had been nicely renovated and the friendly librarians were delighted to show me around. While I photographed, Walker scoped out Dubuque. The130 year-old vertical tramway traversed the steep hills of this Mississippi River town. The beautiful old brick architecture and the verticality of the city reminded us a little of Duluth. As I packed up my camera I noticed a parked car with many anti-abortion bumper stickers reminding us of another part of this otherwise delightful town. We spent the rest of the day driving through the rolling hills of the beautiful Iowa corn belt. As we listened to the radio we alternated between NPR and Rush Limbaugh. The surprising Supreme Court decision on the Health Care Reform Law had the radio station all abuzz with the news. The tone of the coverage was fascinating. The NPR commentators sounded calm and rational while Fox Radio’s Rush Limbaugh was hyperventilating on air about what a disaster this was. It was especially interesting to hear him target the Supremes Chief Justice John Roberts as a traitor to the cause. This divide that we heard on the radio reflected the divide in our country that was being played out in this battleground state of Iowa. The small farming communities of Coggin, Garwin and Chelsea all forced me to rethink my approach to photographing libraries in rural Iowa. These mostly stripped-down, no-nonsense buildings reflected the communities in which they existed. The proximity to large silos and grain elevators added a new element to my photos. Chelsea was the nicest looking of the three and I spent some time photographing in the sunset light. Before Chelsea we had driven down a dirt road through the Mesquake Indian Settlement , the only significant Indian community left in Iowa. This area is almost a secret and we only found it because of our map. We guessed that the large Casino on the highway helped make this Settlement seem relatively well off. After Chelsea we made a beeline to Iowa City. This area has the highest number of PhDs per capita in the country. It is designated a “Literary City” by UNESCO because of its excellent University and the Iowa Writers Workshop. We had dinner at a great hipster, organic, locally sourced restaurant. My beer came from the nearby Amana Colony. Iowa was a delightful surprise!
VACATION TIMES IN THE APOSTLE ISLANDS (sort of) and MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL – TWIN CITIES ON THE PRAIRIE
VACATION TIMES IN THE APOSTLE ISLANDS (sort of)
6/25/12 – Waking up at the crack-of-dawn we take the 7:30 ferry over to Madeline Island, part of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. The library is in the little village of La Pointe, WI and is housed in a former schoolhouse. It is one of the cutest libraries on this trip and I enjoyed photographing it in the early morning light. Later, we walk into the local coffee shop and Walker taps me on the shoulder. “There’s Wanona La Duke “ he said nodding in the direction of an intense middle-aged woman sitting behind her lap top and talking on her cell phone. She ran twice for Vice President with Ralph Nader for the Green Party. She is a well known, Native American, environmental activist and now has a project that is part of Earth Island Institute where my wife Ellen has worked for years. She seemed pretty pre-occupied so we don’t introduce ourselves. I spoke with the café owner explaining our project and telling her that I regretted not being able to photograph the interior of the local library. With classic Wisconsin friendliness he said “We’ll fix that” and ran off to call the local librarian. Five minutes later the librarian showed up at the library with wet hair having just gotten out of the show. She gave us a wonderful tour of this amazing library. Small towns are great! After taking the ferry back to the mainland I quickly photographed the beautiful old Carnegie library on a hill in Bayfield, WI. We spent hours doing research looking for interesting libraries before the trip and it has really paid off. The Forest Lodge library Cable, WI is an example. It is a wonderful, early 20th century log cabin that is unique and thus important for this project. After quickly photographing a Victorian house/library in Taylor Falls, MN we drive into Minneapolis, MN to stay with our friends JoAnn Verburg and Jim Moore. Jo Ann is a brilliant photographer who worked with Ellen and Mark Klett on the Rephotographic Survey Project. She recently had a one-person show of her work at MOMA in New York. Her husband Jim is a brilliant poet who recently received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his poetry. Their home is beautiful and is filled with art and books. They live near the Gutherie Theater in an up and coming neighborhood. We feel right at home. JoAnn took us on a fascinating walk through downtown Minneapolis along the shores of the Mississippi River. I am intrigued to think that this river links Minneapolis – St. Paul with New Orleans. Walker felt that Minneapolis was more energetic, diverse, and grittier than he expected. The River is at full volume and during our nighttime walk makes an impressive sight with the beautiful skyline in the background. We will spend the much of the next week meandering down the mighty Mississippi.
MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL – TWIN CITIES ON THE PRAIRIE
6/25/12 – In the morning I brought JoAnn and Jim a pot of freshly brewed Martha & Bros. coffee from San Francisco. They are real coffee fanatics and I am happy to share what we consider the best coffee in the universe. JoAnn had taken us by the Central Library last night on our walk. Because of that I know to drive to the top of the nearby six-story garage to get the elevated shot of the library in the morning light. The building was very new and had a fantastic peaked roof and a beautiful atrium inside. I photographed a shelf of Minneapolis phone books from the 1950s and the ultra modern Teen Center. Minneapolis had a large Somali refugee community. We had an excellent, spicy lunch at the Safari Express, a Somali café in a food court. It is located in a old Sears & Robuck building that housed many ethnic stores. This place reflects the new ethnic diversity of the area. The library in St. Bonefacius looked really good on Goggle Street View. After lunch we spent the next hour driving through endless suburban sprawl to get there. This is Michelle Bachman country and we got very tired driving through identical malls and subdivisions. St. Bonefacius used to be an isolated, rural community but now was the far western edge of metropolitan Minneapolis. The library was beautiful and originally was a bank. After I spoke with the librarian I passed by a man who gave me a hand written note. It read “The Sacred Beatle (sp) or Scarab has been used by the Masons since Egyptian times. It is a symbol of new begging’s and fortune – Beatles (sp) are hatched at night & this is where we get the saying ‘It is Darkest Before the Dawn’.” After pondering this message I walked outside and found the molded Scarab (or “Beatle”) on the wall left by the Masons that built the original bank. We spent the hour drive back listening to “1491” and ignored the sprawl. We drove past Minneapolis into St. Paul to it old, massive Central Library downtown. For some reason not apparent to me the inside had been chopped up into little rooms. In spite of the large size of the library the general impression was claustrophobic rather than grand. To end our visit to St. Paul we drove past the impressive Capitol building and went to Lonely Planet’s highest recommendation for this city – the Hmong Marketplace. Like the Somalis that we saw earlier the Hmong had escaped violence and oppression in their homeland of Laos and Vietnam. Here and in the San Joaquin Valley in California are the largest concentrations of Hmong outside of Southeast Asia. We had flavored bubble tea and toured the fascinating Marketplace. Old men sat around swapping stories and watching videos about the homeland. We saw Somali women wearing colorful East African dress and headscarves shopping among the Hmong. Little plastic wrapped toy kits reinforced gender stereotypes. Pink doll kits for the girls and violent war toys for the boys. We left St. Paul driving back to Minneapolis along the wealthy, historic part of the city on Summit Avenue. Here was the home of F. Scott Fitzgerald and old money. The complex relationship between the Twin Cities fascinated us. Finally, we quickly visited JoAnn’s beautiful but subtle public art piece in a train stop located in a Native American neighborhood. We ended the day having a great dinner with JoAnn and Jim. Walker and both hope to come back as soon as possible to this great and welcoming place.
THE NORTH COUNTRY
6/23/12 – Mahnomen, MN is a 35% Indian town in the poorest county in Minnesota. It has a fascinating rock-walled library built by the WPA in the 1930s. The friendly librarian was (as usual) a font of information about the community. She even showed me a very good book on the libraries of Minnesota. Walker pointed out what was the best view of a giant liquor sign near the front of the library. It was especially troubling given the problem of alcoholism in some Indian communities. Another great library was in the majority Indian town of Cass Lake, MN. It is one of the poorest towns in the state. The library was also made out of rocks and featured portraits of all the Miss Cass Lake winners, both white and Native. The basement functioned as a meeting room and had a wonderful rock fireplace, an American flag and “old books”. Again, the librarian was very helpful and helped in explaining the story of this town. Coleraine’s beautiful, yellow Carnegie was supposedly the best preserved Carnegie in the US. It was closed on this day and the town was very quiet. We were very excited about going to Hibbing, MN, home of Bob Dylan. Walker had read in Lonely Planet that the town’s library had a notable display on Dylan’s young life here. Unfortunately, when we got here the library was closed and most everything in the town was too. It struck me that many of the hometowns of famous writers, artists and musicians that we have (or will) visit are often tough, working –class places. Jack Kerouac of Lowell, MA; Samuel Clemens of Hannibal, MO; and Bob Dylan of Hibbing, MN all transcended the limitations of their homes to become world famous figures in their fields. I can see why Dylan left Hibbing. Was there something about this backwater, down on its luck, Minnesota town that pushed him into greatest? Do sad, soulful places sometimes encourage genius? Chilsholm was another North Country town that had seen better days. Its unusual brick library was backlit but from the side had just enough light to be interesting. Mountain Iron, MN was the center of the world’s largest deposit of iron ore. Mining that ore was one of the reasons that the United States did so well in World War II. This ore, used in the making of steel, gave us a great advantage over other nations at the time. The world’s largest open pit mine is right here. The Carnegie Library here was spectacular with monuments in front to the glory days of this now faded, working-class town. Images from the movie Deerhunter came to mind. We peeked into the still functioning mine and saw an open pit that stretched beyond the horizon. After a brief stop at the library in Eveleth, MN we drove on to Duluth, MN. This city has one of the most beautiful entrances we had ever seen. We both gasped as we steeply descended into this hilly city by Lake Superior. The sunset was magical. We both fell in love with this place as we walked over to the lake that looked like a sea. At dinner, our waitress called it the “San Francisco of the mid-West”.
6/24/12 – This morning we woke up to a steady rain. This area had been hammered by a huge storm just two days ago and we saw some of the damage as we drove around town. The downtown seemed pretty seedy with shady characters mixed in with rest of the people on the street. At Jitters Coffee Shop Walker renamed this city the more appropriate “Pittsburgh-by-the-Bay. We were still fascinated by this place but realized that Pittsburgh was a better comparison for Duluth than San Francisco. The Main Library here was ultra modern and closed on Saturday. It’s sleek lines were a great contrast with a French chateau style building on one side and a weird 1970’s housing complex on the other. While Walker was in the car I set up the 4X5 camera. While I was focusing on the library under the dark cloth I sensed someone standing close to me. I turned and found a very agitated African American woman standing three feet away with a red cell phone in my face screaming at me. She demanded to know why was I taking her picture. No reasoning would calm her down. She sobbed about her abusive boyfriend and her missing children and then swung her cell-phone camera back to my face like a weapon. What is it about photography that scares paranoid people like her? Why does this stuff keep happening to me? I thought back to being socked in the jaw last summer by another whack-job in Pittsburgh. I began to realize that Duluth and Pittsburgh really do have some things in common. The only other library we photographed today was the Bad River Tribal Library in Odanah, WI. It too was closed but I was able to take some photos through the window. One sign inside read “Indian Parking – All Others Need a Reservation.” We end our day in the delightful town of Bayfield, WI. It was selected as the Best Small Town in the Mid West for 1997 by the Chicago Tribune. We agreed. After a great dinner in a local café we hiked down an overgrown and unused trail to the shore of Lake Superior. Mist from the Lake mixed with the red clouds of the sunset. All was quiet and peaceful. This was the first time that we could truly relax after spending a week on the road.