In just a few shorts months, I will have lived in the molehills of Tennessee for eight years. It’s almost impossible to imagine that it’s been that long.
I came here with just the contents of a one-bedroom apartment, my father’s car and my dog Buckley. I needed a serious change in my life and when my place of employment offered a transfer, I jumped at the chance. I came here not knowing a single person, knowing virtually nothing about the state, and having no idea how long (or even if) I would stay.
Today, the job is long gone, the dog and the car have gone to heaven, I’m married to a great girl, we own a home (something I never believed would come to pass), we have two dogs nipping at our heels (literally), and we have too many cars for the garage. Though our lives are not free of the typical complications and road blocks, we have a decent life.
But I still miss the mountains.
It’s stunning how we take geography for granted. How many of us have grown up in a place without giving it a second thought, until, that is, you leave that place. It’s then that you begin to realize how much you loved it there.
I am a photographer. My love of photography, however, did not start out as a love of photography. Rather it started out as a fascination with history. When I was ten years old, I clearly remember watching an episode of The Brady Bunch. In particular, it was episode one of season three entitled Ghost Town, U.S.A.
I was captivated! Surely if there were these (fictionalized) long-ago abandoned mining camps hiding in the deserts of Arizona, then there must be some (non-fictionalized) hiding in the vast and wild Rocky Mountains of Colorado!
I immediately asked my father if he knew of any and he told me about a place he had once been, not far from where their home sat. As soon as was possible, he and I were off to the mountains to find the abandoned silver mining town of Caribou, Colorado.
When we arrived at the place he remembered to be Caribou, I was sorely disappointed. It didn’t look right. There was absolutely nothing there: no empty saloons, no abandoned school house, no dilapidated general store, nothing at all like what the Brandy Bunch found.
I had done extensive research before heading out on this trek and I knew that we were not at Caribou. It would take another long fall, winter, and spring before we tried again and before we finally reached the real site of Caribou at 10,500 feet in the crisp, clean Colorado mountain air. It turns out that the place we stopped at that previous summer was, in fact, a ghost town, but it wasn’t Caribou. It was the completely empty site of Cardinal.
By the time I made it to Caribou, and realized that I had happened upon Cardinal the summer before, I had two ghost town visits under my belt and I was positively hooked. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Colorado ghost towns in the 1980s looked absolutely nothing like the fictitious ghost town from that Brady Bunch episode, but no matter, I was absolutely enthralled. And even if there were no perfectly preserved towns with keys to a jail cell still hanging on the wall of the long abandoned Sheriff’s office, there were, nonetheless, a plethora of abandoned buildings to explore in hundreds (maybe thousands) of ghost towns.
By that time, I had invested in (or rather, my parents had invested in) a small library of books on Colorado’s mining history. In reading those books, I realized something: The vast majority of them had been published decades before I was born. Very few, if any, were of a more modern age. By the time I visited these long ago abandoned mining camps, they had disappeared even more than the record in the books of yesteryear.
And, so I decided that I must record these places on film as those before me had. I wanted to update the record. I planned one day write my own book on the subject. I would include newer photographs and updated directions for people who wished to travel in my footsteps.
Soon I had my very first camera: a Kodak Disc camera! It took—literally—the worst photographs I have ever seen in my life. The negative was so tiny (about the size of an average adult male’s thumbnail) that even the smallest size print made from the negative was so grainy it was essentially unusable. But no matter! I had a camera; I was discovering and traveling to new ghost towns every weekend during those short Colorado summers; I was in Heaven.
In the decades that followed, I would travel to literally hundreds of ghost towns, taking thousands of photographs, and recording countless hours of incredibly detailed turn-by-turn directions to the sites.
I also learned a great deal about photography. I learned from the masters of landscape photography that a good photograph is more about the photographer and less about the equipment. A great photographer can make a photograph recorded with a Kodak Disc camera look even more stunning than the most modern, most expensive digital gear available today.
Most importantly, I found what I love and what feeds my passion and my soul.
Today, as my world has changed and expanded, my plans have also changed and my horizons have expanded.
Thirty-five years ago, I planned to write a book. Today, it will be a website (if I can ever find the time to create it). Twenty years ago, as my photographic ability slowly grew from purely evidential to true art, my subject matter remained singular. Today, while my first true love is (and always will be) photographing mining history, I now also photograph the wider, natural world around me.
But there’s just something about those ghost towns that call to me every single day; I am most happy, most content in those mountains taking pictures of those forgotten places.
On September 3, 1873, John Muir wrote a letter to his sister, Sarah:
I have just returned from the longest and hardest trip I have ever made in the mountains, having been gone over five weeks. I am weary, but resting fast; sleepy, but sleeping deep and fast; hungry, but eating much. For two weeks I explored the glaciers of the summits east of here, sleeping among the snowy mountains without blankets and with but little to eat on account of its being so inaccessible. After my icy experiences it seems strange to be down here in so warm and flowery a climate.
I will soon be off again…. The mountains are calling, and I must go.
Indeed, they are calling.
What’s a native of the mountains living in the molehills to do?
Perhaps I should be off again.