Cursed Earth - Canyon Diablo and Two Guns - Arizona by sam taylor

Canyon Diablo - Volz Trading Post Ruins

Canyon Diablo - Volz Trading Post Ruins

Traveling in the West, there are plenty of places with history. Plenty of places that will rep old-west happenings of various repute - train robberies and wagon trails, battlefields and ghost towns, petroglyphs and ancient ruins. We’ve been to many of these places - Mesa Verde, Canyon Pintado, Santa Fe Trail, Rhyolite.

But this place - this place is something else.

I’ve never been to a place that had so much of this history all packed into one, small, area. One spot of ground that has seen drama and tragedy for more than 300 years. This place may be the most intense alignment of all these things that I have experienced - anywhere.

The History of Canyon Diablo

Postcard Image of the Original Canyon Diablo Bridge

Postcard Image of the Original Canyon Diablo Bridge

The geographical feature “Canyon Diablo” is a classic western canyon, cutting across a part of the Colorado Plateau, and is a tributary of the Little Colorado River. It’s a steep canyon, and formed an intimidating barrier to travelers headed west. The name of the place should have been a hint - “Canyon Diablo” was a name given to the canyon by the Spaniards - but the name was apparently based upon Native American superstitions that the canyon was haunted. Maybe they were right.

The first real stories you find about this place center around an incident in the 1870s, where a group of Navajo trapped a raiding band of Apaches in a cave on the banks of Canyon Diablo. They burned the Apaches in the cave - killing 42 of them - as reprisal for the raids. The “Apache Death Cave”, as it became known, is only the first of a series of crazy stories - all within about 5 miles of this desolate place.

The town of Canyon Diablo was initially settled in the 1880s, in support of the transcontinental railroad. In 1880, the railroad “ended” at Canyon Diablo - the last stop - while a bridge was constructed across the canyon. This town became very dangerous, very quickly. According the newspaper in Flagstaff, Canyon Diablo was “more dangerous than Tombstone”, and hosted 14 saloons, 10 casinos, 4 brothels, 1 grocery store, and no law enforcement. After some time, it was felt that the town needed some law - and 6 town marshals would all die in the line of duty - the longest lasting one month. A pretty spectacular train robbery also happened at Canyon Diablo - making off with over $100,000 in currency, 2,500 silver dollars and $40,000 in gold coins - all of that in 1880’s dollars (a little over $3 million in current dollars - not counting any appreciation in gold itself), most of which was never recovered. For a short time, the town had 2,000 residents - but after the bridge was completed, the town died almost as quickly as it had been established. Leaving only the Volz trading post (first image in this piece) and train station behind. But history - and misfortune - weren’t done with Canyon Diablo yet.

Looking toward the town of Canyon Diablo.

Looking toward the town of Canyon Diablo.

Visiting Canyon Diablo

I’ll confess that we didn’t know anything about Canyon Diablo when we first “discovered” it. Our atlas listed it, with the ever intriguing words “ruins” next to it. As we headed into the desert on a road that I wouldn’t recommend you take your rental car on, we gazed across the wide-open desert, searching for signs of… something. After a few miles of “putting the tires on the high places”, we saw trains - great, long, hurtling trains, racing across that transcontinental railroad - they don’t have to slow down for the new bridge.

As we approached the tracks, a train had stopped on a siding, blocking the “road” as it was shown in our map. So we eased up to the bridge, and started looking around. The “new” bridge, built in 1946, is built right next to the original - the foundations of which are still visible. Then, we started to see the walls of what was the town of Canyon Diablo itself. The main thing still left standing is the Volz Trading Post and the cistern behind it. There is still a relatively clear path up to the ruins, which appear to follow the alignment of the original “main street” in town. Rusting cans and pails litter the desert here, scattered everywhere with random chunks of lumber and wire. Things hang around for a long time in the the desert.

The History of Two Guns
Approximately 4 miles upstream of the Canyon Diablo bridge was the site of the aforementioned Apache Death Cave - and, coincidentally, a reasonably moderate place to cross the canyon for settlers and their wagons.

Mountain Lions

This location wasn’t lacking for outlaw history either - Billy the Kid and his gang hid here in the winter of 1879, Eventually the wagon trail became the “Santa Fe Highway”, and a road bridge was built at the crossing in 1914 - and in a few years, the road was named part of the original Route 66. In 1922 a couple purchased land at this spot, and built a store, restaurant, and service station - and the history of Canyon Diablo got a bit more interesting. In 1925, a gentleman going by the name of “Chief Crazy Thunder” (actual name Harry Miller) decided to capitalize on the road and tourists, and built a zoo - “one of every animal that lives in Arizona” - including snakes and mountain lions. He also built a gift shop on top of the Apache Death Cave… and decided to sell the remains - skulls, bones, and the like - as souvenirs.

Ruins on top of the Apache Death Cave, and the original Rt 66 bridge in the background.

Ruins on top of the Apache Death Cave, and the original Rt 66 bridge in the background.

You read that right - he sold the skulls from the Apache Death Cave as souvenirs.

The store burned in 1929.

The alignment of the road changed in 1934, and a new service station was built, but personal tragedies stalked the folks that lived there - leading to the property being bought, sold, and abandoned several times into the 1960s.

In the 1960s, a new service station, rv resort, and campground were built - and it looked like the curse of Two Guns might just be over. Interstate 40 was built, and a dedicated exit ramp was built right to the campground. Things seemed to be going well, until a huge fire consumed virtually all of the town in 1971.

That was the end of Two Guns, deserted ever since.

Visiting Two Guns

It’s not often you get to visit two ghost towns within 5 miles of each other. I’ve traveled quite a bit in the southwest, and every time I have a chance to explore a piece of old Route 66, I do. Maybe it’s a bit of that old romanticism, the “mother road” and such. While much of old Route 66 is romantic, I’ll say that Two Guns isn’t one of those places. Maybe it’s the graffiti, maybe it’s the scale of the ruins - but this place felt unsettling, even before we knew the history of it.

The ruins are rambling - on both sides of the canyon, up and down stream for probably a quarter of a mile - and stretching from the 1900s until the 1970s. The original Route 66 bridge is still standing, accessible. We drove across it (perhaps ill-advised), as we explored. In the older part of town, the buildings on top of the Death Cave were built to look like the ruins at Mesa Verde and other cliff dwellings of the southwest. On the other side of the canyon, the ruins of the original fuel station and zoo still stand - “MOUNTAIN LIONS” painted across the facade of the one building, still facing the old highway.


The newer parts of the ruins were the creepiest to me, feeling like a set-piece from a dystopian movie. There is an abandoned in-ground pool, completely covered in graffiti, and its pool/shower house. The view from the pool must have been nice, once upon a time - soaking up the desert sun, the snow-capped top of Humphrey’s Peak rising far off in the distance.

We drove around carefully - nail-studded wood, trash, jagged metal, and…. RV hookups?… littered the scrub brush, and it definitely wasn’t the kind of place that I would have wanted to have car trouble. It felt like the kind of place where something - or someone - might step out of the ruins at any moment.

The last remnant of the campground check-in building is a disembodied roof that reads “KAMP”, standing on a pile of rubble. The taggers have hit it too, at least as far up as they dared to reach without climbing on it.

The fire that hit this place in the 70s must have been incredible. We found melted glass around the ruins (kids that got to put their bottles in fires will know what I mean), and what must have been some of the animal “cages” at the zoo still had chicken wire around them - apparently those cages didn’t hold the mountain lions.

So there you have it. The story of Canyon Diablo and Two Guns, Arizona. I don’t tend to buy into stories about “cursed” places, but the few times I’ve considered it have been in the southwest.

After visiting this place, I may have to revise my opinion on “cursed earth.”

Two Guns

Too Good To Be True by sam taylor

Ok Folks. I’ve talked for years about how we try to “show it like it is”. We go to out of the way places, and try to represent our experiences honestly. Sometimes that is incredible, sometimes we get worked over - but we always strive to be honest about our experiences. For years I’ve complained about “unreal” landscape images. Sometimes, it’s because I went to the place in the photo and was pretty bummed that it didn’t look the way I expected, or the photo totally misrepresented the conditions of a place. Sometimes, its because I’ve had a student or a client that is really frustrated that they can’t make the image they’ve seen online - and they are upset to find out that it “can’t be done” without a lot of manipulation and software.

Straight Out of Camera

I’m going to take some time today to talk about and give some examples of these types of manipulations - and this won’t even get into heavy “compositing”, where parts of different images are assembled to make a new image. Compositing is an art form to itself, one I have a great deal of respect for - but it isn’t photography, and it isn’t what we’re going to talk about today. Instead, we’re going to talk about how to spot images that have been manipulated - and how different it might look, if you go there. From where I stand, this place is beautiful enough - we don’t need to fake it, unless the point isn’t about the place, but about the “likes and shares”.

Fall Foliage

My “Normal” Edit

Every year we travel this state like maniacs - searching out the leaves, chasing the views. Much of the time, I try to use photos I see from around the state to guide my travels. Fellow photographers I know make gorgeous images of Southern West Virginia - and it lets me know whether it’s a good weekend to head south or not. In the last few years, though, it’s been tougher - we’ll see images online that are all orange and yellows, even though it’s green everywhere we’ve been, and everywhere we’ve talked to people. How is that? Well, let’s take a look.

This first image is “straight out of camera”, taken at Holly River State Park. Pretty green. The next image is my “base” edit of the same image, and is the basic edit I apply to almost all of my images. But - it doesn’t look like “fall”! I can’t gain Instagram fame with this image?! The third edit is all in Lightroom - and requires no specialized techniques, just moving sliders. And boy, does this look like a lot of images I saw this fall. Lots of oranges, lots of yellows. But the big giveaway for me? The rocks and water. Other than AMD, we don’t have a lot of orange rocks and orange water in West Virginia. We also don’t have wall-to-wall yellow and orange trees typically in this state. Weird. And I would have been pretty upset for driving 3 hours expecting to see those wall-to-wall colors instead of what was actually there, based on this photo.

Fall Foliage! Sort of.

Fall Foliage! Sort of.

Beautiful early fall day at Seneca.

Oranges! Oranges everywhere! (including in the rocks)

Lets try one more, of another landmark in West Virginia - and one I seem to see every fall, Seneca Rocks. Once again, the top photo reflects my basic edit, the type of image I would post on our page, or share in our social media.

The bottom photo looks lovely, and nothing like most any fall I’ve seen in West Virginia in the last few years - and again, isn’t the product of anything exotic or specialized, just Lightroom. Which one is more likely to get shared across the internet? I have a pretty good idea, but it isn’t real, and if someone took the time to drive there, they might be pretty disappointed with the result.

I think this also speaks to one of the reasons this rankles me as well - fall is a BEAUTIFUL time in West Virginia, but it is also fleeting and elusive. We have years where it’s a little too dry, or a little too wet, or bugs get to the leaves, or the frost comes on too early, or storms come through and knock the leaves right off. It’s hard - and rewarding! - to find these beautiful places, because it doesn’t often set up in wall-to-wall “carpet of color”.

Sometimes the urge is to make it “what we want it to be”, but that isn’t what it is, and it diminishes the value of these things when they actually happen.

Super Moons

Super Moon over Morgantown. 24mm

Another one that I see all the time - especially whenever there is a “Super Moon” - is a rash of cartoonish-ly big moons over scenery. This is a more intentional bit of fakery, and is also hugely discouraging to folks that are learning photography. In general, the moon can only take up a certain amount of the frame in photography. Cropping and such will help a bit, but if you are out landscape shooting, there is only so big that the moon will be in a given frame for a given focal length.

For example, the first photo above is of a full super moon over downtown Morgantown. This photo was taken at 24mm focal length, a pretty common “kit” zoom length for point-and-shoot or SLR cameras. Notice how small the full moon is at that zoom length? Similar to how the moon “follows” you in a car, the moon is big enough - and far away enough - that it is always going to look that big, at that focal length - you can’t get “closer” by walking up or changing compositions to make it bigger. Also - take a close look and notice how you don’t see any stars in that image - but we’ll talk about that more later.

Full Moon from my porch - 250mm

Here is a photo, from my front porch, also of a full moon in the morning. This was taken at 250mm focal length - not a common “kit” length, but folks may have it around, or maybe with “digital zoom” you can get this equivalent focal length.

While the moon is “bigger” in this image, you can see how zoomed in I am on the surrounding scenery. To get the houses in my neighborhood in my frame, I would have to back up - a lot - which in our part of the world (hills and valleys and trees) isn’t always possible.

The Famous Lindy Point at Sunset.

To illustrate this, I’m using an image I’ve taken of Lindy Point at Blackwater Falls State Park. The first image is the original - no moon - taken at 24mm focal length. If you’ve been there, you know that the observation deck limits how far back you can get.

A little moon never hurt anybody! (24mm equivalent focal length moon composite)

In the next image, I’ve composited (added) the moon from the top photo, also at 24mm, into the image. There are probably a few times a year that Lindy Point looks something like this - with a full moon in the western sky, and the moon is proportionally sized to what you might actually see.

But that moon is scary! (250mm equivalent focal length moon composite)

In the third image, I’ve used my “250mm” moon from above. To me this looks terribly fake, and more importantly, there is no way to capture this image in real life. Quite literally, it will never, ever, actually look like this. If that image were taken to capture the moon at similar size, it would look something like the image below.

Would we prefer it to look this way? I’m not sure - I think I would be alarmed if the moon looked that big in our sky. But I have folks ask me how to take pictures like this, and they become very disappointed when the answer is “you can’t, not from there”.

Not as unbelievable as before, but also not the entire scene

Not as unbelievable as before, but also not the entire scene

This seems like a good time to talk about “compositing” - there are a lot of opinions about compositing, and folks that are good at it are true artists. But by definition, a composite means that the image is not a “single photograph”. Some folks will take a photo for the foreground, and then a second from the same place, at the same time for a different part of the image. This can often be well done - and can be used to capture what it actually “looked like” to the naked eye when they were there - but to a new photographer, it is important to note that it would be impossible to do in a single frame.

Other composites (like my image above) aren’t - they take images from different places, and different times, and create a scene which may never even be possible in the real world. For me, personally, I would hesitate in calling this a “photograph”.

As an aside, there are ways to make beautiful “super moon” photos with landscapes in the foreground - but they are very, very difficult to make as an actual photograph, and not a digital manipulation. They require getting far enough back from your subject to fit it all into the frame. Not an easy thing to do, generally - and remarkably hard in a place like West Virginia, where trees, ridges, and valleys all conspire to get in the way of your view.

A nice example of a photo made in this way (and explanation of how) is here: ( To put it in perspective - the beautiful image he describes there took a lot of planning, a 1,200mm lens, and he was standing a little over a mile away from the subjects when he took the photo.

Stars and the Moon and The City (Just Not at the Same Time)

Full Moon over Woodburn - Note Overexposure on the Moon!

Full Moon over Woodburn - Note Overexposure on the Moon!

Last but not least, I see so, so, many “full moon with sky full of stars” shots, and those are almost universally the product of compositing. I’ll give a couple of examples, and then talk about the technical reasons a little bit.

This photo of Woodburn Hall in Morgantown. The moon is over-exposed - no seeing the “man in the moon” here - but it was the exposure needed for the foreground scene. Why is this notable? The foreground was lit, extensively with lights - and yet was too dark to properly expose the moon! The full moon is extremely bright - way brighter than we tend to realize - and can dominate an image as a result.

Also - while there are a few stars peeking through here, note how it isn’t a “sky full of stars”. Why? Because, again, the moon is too bright, and I couldn’t make the exposure bright enough for stars without overexposing the entire image.

For perspective, this is a 1/4 moon!

This is an another example. This image was made in a very dark place (Canaan Valley, WV) - but more importantly, this was a waning crescent moon (2/10/2018). Note, even though the moon was only ~1/4 full, how bright it looks on the ground and in the sky when the rest of the image is exposed for stars.

So why does it seem like we can see these things with our naked eye? The biggest reason is that the human eye can see an incredible range from light to dark at the same time - about double the range of the best cameras.

In big cities, this becomes a very difficult thing because of light pollution. If you are in a city, and can barely see the stars, your camera is going to struggle just as much.

Full “Super Moon” over Morgantown. The moon is brighter than town!

Full “Super Moon” over Morgantown. The moon is brighter than town!

My final example is comparisons of two shots of Morgantown, from roughly the same place (the Westover bridge), one illuminated by a full moon (I used this image earlier), and one without.

No Moon Over Morgantown - See a few stars?

In the image with the moon, I had to make a compromise in exposing the city - the moon was that bright, and would have been way overexposed if I’d been any brighter. In the image with the stars, I was able to go brighter with the city, and pull out the stars a little bit as a result. Even in the starry image, this was getting to the limit that I could expose the city - any brighter would have overexposed the city lights, and it isn’t the “carpet of stars” or “milky way over the city” that I see in some obviously composited images.

I haven’t even started talking about shooting the milky way - we’ll just say that it is challenging to do, in terms of finding dark enough places to really make the image. A milky way image over Morgantown would be technically impossible, as the city lights would overpower the stars - and Morgantown is a relatively small city. Again, if you can’t see it all with your naked eye, it’s going to be tough to do with the camera.

So what’s the conclusion today? Well, I have a couple of goals. Firstly, I wanted to give a bit of encouragement to folks that are learning photography. There may be a reason why you can’t replicate a favorite image you’ve seen on the web, and it might not have anything to do with your camera equipment or your skill set as a photographer. I also wanted to put some light on the “real world” effects that come from these heavily manipulated images - folks make plans, take time off, to go to beautiful places or to enjoy the seasonal scenery, and it can be very discouraging to go somewhere and find that it doesn’t look anything like the photos you saw on the internet.

Lastly, I hope that it will help folks to understand what they are seeing when they see images that seem “too good to be true”. In many cases they are, and I think it takes away from the good - and hard - work that dedicated photographers do when pursuing this art form.

Hope y’all have a great week.


Tamarack "May Your Days Be Bright" Opening! by sam taylor

Cast - West Virginia

A bit off schedule, but I wanted to let folks know my excitement at having two images selected for an upcoming show at the Tamarack David L. Dickirson Fine Art Gallery!

The two images, shown below, are titled “Cast” and “November Mood”.

It is always an honor to show at Tamarack, and I hope folks are as excited to see these - and all of the incredible work that makes up these shows, as I am to present them.

The opening reception is this weekend, November 10, from 5-7pm - while we won’t be able to attend the opening this time, we look forward to seeing the exhibit during its run from now through January 6, 2019.

Hope folks have a great day, and thank you for your continued support!


November Mood - West Virginia

Thoughts On Fall by sam taylor

Old Friends - West Virginia

Pumpkin Stuff, Cute Sweaters, Crisp Days

So it’s started.  It starts every year, really, with the start of school.  The “leaf themed” sales at the stores, even though school starts at the beginning of August these days.  It progresses pretty quickly from there.  Some years its Labor Day first, and then, the first not-hot day we have, a bunch of people talking about how it “smells like fall”, or “feels like fall”, or something like that.  Other years, it’s the reverse, but every year it happens.  And every year, I fight screaming at them to keep it to themselves.  That I don’t want pumpkin-anything before October 30th.  I fight a rising tide of anxiety.  A rising wave of regret.  Melancholy.     

Grimes Golden

Grimes Golden - West Virginia

It’s funny how we, as a culture, trend toward stuff that’s new or pretty, versus what’s “good”.  Growing up, we always had one of these trees in the orchard, and I never thought much about it – I just knew it was my “favorite” of the apples to eat.  As with many things, I got older and moved away (and around), and I spent a lot of time buying grocery store and farmers market apples, and never found any that were as good to eat.  Plenty that were prettier, plenty that were bigger, but none that were as good. 

A few years back, I pulled my dad aside and asked him, “what are those called?”.  “Grimes Golden – I think,” he said.  Continuing, “they’ve been here for a long time, so I’m not exactly sure.  I’ve planted a few when the older trees start to decline, just because I like them so much.”  I laughed pretty hard at this – that he didn’t really know either – but his answer was better than mine.  I’d always called them “ugly apples”, because they came off the tree a little rusty, and lumpy, and misshapen – but my oh my were they good. 

I did a bit of research, and I think I agree – Grimes Golden.  According to what I’ve read, they are a parent to the Golden Delicious apple – and a no kidding native of West Virginia, dating back to the 1830s in Brooke County.  This may be my favorite part of autumn.

The Things That Happen

Glory - West Virginia

“Yeah man, that sounds like a hard drive problem, if your computer won't start”, I said. 

“Cool, I think Jason and I will run over and see if we can get one.  You coming in this weekend?”, he said.

“Yeah, I’ll be glad to see you.  It’s been a crazy couple of weeks.  I’m seeing a girl, I’d love to talk to you about her.” 

Sometime the next morning, I was awakened by a phone call.  He was gone.  Car accident.  

My memories of that time are a bit of blur – some of it drunken – but I remember the leaves changing.  Full color.  I remember standing around with my friends.  Peers. Realizing that it was probably all going to be different after that.

I have a photo of it.  One of the most incredible photos of my life – I’m not sure who took it – because everyone is “in” the photo.  Of all of us sitting under the maple tree in my parents yard, in a pile of leaves, all of us grieving in the cool, crisp, fall air. 

I would leave the state within a year of that, with that girl I wanted to talk to him about. 

I’d divorce her a decade later.

Going Hard

Fall truly is the most beautiful season here.  The leaves are incredible, and it seems to be our “dry season”.  Perfect for doing everything outside.  Hiking, biking, rock climbing – they call it “Sendtember” around here.  Everyone is psyched about playing outside – Gauley Season, Football Season. 

We definitely turn it up a notch.  Weekends packed to the gills – take a half-day on Friday, drive out to the mountains, get a couple of mile hike and setup camp before sunset.  Get the sunrise, marvel at the beauty in the leaves changing, in the smell in the air.  Drive through the hills and climb with your friends till dark – which isn’t that late – so you can have a few beers and dinner, and still be in bed before midnight, ready to do it again. 

We push hard, because we know that literally the best thing we’ve seen all year may be just around the next curve or over the next hill. 

But part of me thinks we push hard because we also know time is short.  That in a few short weekends, it will be too dark to hit it after work, and too cold to camp happily.

The Day We Won.  The Day We Lost

The conditions were perfect.  It was dry.  It was cool.  The leaves were on fire.  That’s a great thing about West Virginia.  If you know the state, and watch the weather, you can chase the changing leaves from the high-country to the low-country, and stretch your fall out for a month or more.  We were out on the early part of the change, September – in the top of the high country around Dolly Sods and Canaan Valley.  We had pushed on an epic hike through the day – 8 miles – and returned to base camp with light in the sky – and realizing that it was about to be an incredible sunset.  I motivated Carmen – motivating me too – that we should go for it.  Worst case was an awesome walk in the evening.  We thundered to the top of the ridge, and we made one of my favorite images and memories of the last several years as we crested to an astonishing sunset over the mountains.   We rallied back to camp, and had a great evening with friends in a perfect Autumn night.

The next day, it felt like the wind was at our backs, that we could do no wrong, and we pushed on toward a spot that we had found earlier in the summer, and were sure we should return to.  It was an epic campsite, on the spot of a long-gone firetower, but the views were nearly 360-degrees, and we had an incredible night as a couple, dancing like pagans around a fire, watching the stars wheeling through the sky.  We arose the next morning, realizing that we had been pushing hard.  That we were tired, and we decided to make a dog-leg past my parents house.  Worst case, we’d get a delicious dinner out of the deal, and then have a mellow drive home on the interstate. 

We got there mid-day, and had some food, and then the phone rang. 

“There’s been an accident, no one can tell me what happened, but we have to go”

We got there, and our worst fears were realized.

Over the next week, I saw the best in people.  I sat on the porch, shivering in my flannel, as the weather moved between Indian Summer and cold fall rain.  And I realized it was going to be a long winter. 


 Ironic and Irrational

In the end, it will be ironic to me if what ultimately causes me to leave this state isn’t economic or environmental woes, or regressive politics, but the fall and winter.  It isn’t fall’s fault – but I know what it means.

It means me staring my own mortality in the face.  It’s me feeling like I have a set number of years left, and I’m about to spend 3 months sitting inside, waiting around in the dark and cold for something to change.   Trying to stave off my aging through another season so I can get back to what I love again. 

Because to me, Fall is waiting around for something bad to happen. 

Because to me, Fall is like watching something I love die.  Every year.

Because to me, Fall is making a plan to waste time.

One day, maybe, I’ll leave this place, and I’ll only see Fall when I want to. I’ll be able to see the leaves and smell the air and know, like the migrating birds, that it’s time to get the heck out of there, and spend the cold and dark months somewhere warm and light and not wasting time. Because I know what it means, and it’s later than you think.

Never Been by sam taylor

Text By:  Carmen Bowes

Photos By:  Samuel Taylor

From The Cities We Fled - West Virginia

Sam and I have traveled West Virginia, we’ve deeply traveled it. We know the backroads from Rupert to Carrollton to Circleville. We spend whole days taking the backway, going 5-10-15 miles an hour, just in case there’s a waterfall we haven’t seen or an old homestead on the top of some old ridge whose fields we haven’t gazed upon before. WE TAKE OUR TIME. If there are antique roses blooming messily over some fence line, we stop to smell them. We’ve bought cheap coffee from the Liberty gas station in Mt. Storm, from the Quickstop in Albright, and from the Marathon in Greenbank. We’ve eaten at Custard Stands and Dairy Queens and small-town, cinderblock diners. We’ve been all over this state, I would have said most of it. But a few weekends ago we sat down at the breakfast table, laptops out, and we found a couple days’ worth of new roads, new overlooks, new creeks, new campgrounds, new everything, completely new to both of us. Here’s how it went.

I run up the stairs and throw a bunch of clothes in my overnight bag. Raingear, swim gear, hiking gear, sandals, boots. Then I pack Sam’s overnight stuff. I run back down the stairs carrying too much on each arm and see Sam out in the driveway checking the pressure in the tires on the Jeep. I run up and down the basement stairs a few times, each trip bringing some piece of camping gear with me.  I go to the fridge. Beer. Food. Water. I zoom around the corner to the living room. Camera gear. Batteries. Headlamps. Tri-pods. Backpacks. Machete. Hatchet. Lighters. I’ve done this packing list so many times it takes almost no thought.

Feeling Our Way

Sam comes in the door. “Jeep’s had a once-over. Everything looks good.” He says.

“Everything should be ready. Go ahead and start hauling stuff.” I say back. We pack everything into the hatch. I add camp chairs and our WV atlas. One last check around the house for anything we might have forgotten, and we pull out of the driveway and out of our neighborhood. We drive 705 to 68 headed east, way east. We’re going to a place called Wolf Gap Recreation Area somewhere just this side of the Virginia Line. There’s a campground and an overlook but the weather looks iffy. We’re going anyways.

We go through Friendsville and Deep Creek and Gormania. We take 48 through Baker and Moorefield, it’s raining and the sky looks temperamental. We stop at an overlook on the side of the highway. It’s alright but the thistle and the chanterelles are more interesting.  These are all places we’ve been too many times to count, but on the other side of Wardensville, WV we pick up fresh roads when we turn south.

We pass pretty old farm houses and drive into the national forest. A creek follows the road and we get views of it as we drive. We go several miles and then we see the sign for our stop. We turn in and drive around the loop of campsites. There is a woman and a kid sleeping in the back of a Mustang, a little odd, and a few families with tents set up. Some of the sites look unoccupied but we stop back at the front and read the information board. Camping is free, we fill out a card and mark a site. There is a single spot with cell reception, only about 5 feet in diameter. Sam finds it and looks up our weather. We are going to get rained on, so we rig up a tarp and make dinner.

Camp Dinner

We eat and talk about life and our year and how busy it will be. We talk about how happy we are to be sitting under a tarp eating dinner in the rain in this new place in our state, even if it just means we’ve found a spot for the future. We sit there for a long time. A few hours go by, the rain has slacked off and a heavy fog has rolled in. It’s the kind of fog that makes you afraid to take 3 steps out of your campsite for fear of getting taken by the monsters or never finding your way back. I stand up to stretch for a minute and Sam asks, “You think you’re getting ready for bed, Hotrod?”

“Not at all,” I say. “I’m wide awake, I think I’ll just lay there if I try to go sleep right now.” I put out my arms and lean back to stretch, and realize I am looking up at a clear sky. The stars are peaking out from the trees, they are shining at me through the layer of fog. “Sam, the fucking stars are out!” I say to him, totally and completely astonished.

“Are you serious?” He says back as he stands and comes out from under the tarp. “I’ll be damned, there they are!”

“Sam, we should go somewhere to shoot them, where should we go? We could go down the road to Trout Pond?” I ask.

“What about that trail that goes up the mountain from our campground? The sign said it was a mile and change up.” He says back to me.

I look at his face, the lantern barely lighting it. “Are you serious? You want to hike to the top of the mountain in the middle of the night in the fog?” I ask.

“You wanna do it?” He says back to me. I’ve never been good at discretion and from my time with Sam, he hasn’t either.

“Yeah! Let’s do it!” I say as I walk towards the Jeep. I gather up our gear and we walk out of our campsite into the thick fog. It’s so thick the light from our headlamps reflects off the water particles in front of us and makes us squint.

We take turns leading. The trail is wide and well-trafficked. It is desperately humid and even though the air is cool, we are quickly soaked with sweat from walking the steep grade. Our hearts are thumping as we make our way out of the fog and start to gain the ridgeline. Our trail shrinks but we follow without trouble. A rock outcrop meets us and I scramble to the top. The lights of a small town create an island in the valley, cars wind around it in the dark expanse. “Sam, come up here!” I say. He climbs to me and starts contemplating what city it must be.  

“Front Royal?” He says. “Yeah, that’s gotta be Front Royal.”  

I sit on the damp rock with my headlamp turned off. There is no light except for Sam’s camera and the town out there, sleepy and far enough away to let us feel wild.

We stay there a long while and then we put on our backpacks and walk down the mountain back into the fog. Sam set’s up our platform in the Jeep and we brush our teeth and climb inside. We get tucked in and we sleep good sleep. In the morning it is raining so we just stay in there, cuddled up, listening to the drops fall on the metal above us. It eventually quits, and I put on my boots and plant my feet on the ground. Soggy. I walk over to the tarp and I make us camp coffee to sip it as we pack up. The sky is gray as we turn and head to Trout Pond.

“You know Trout Pond is the only natural lake in West Virignia?” Sam says to me. “Golden Horseshoe coming in handy again!” He says with an ornery grin all over his face, knowing full well he is the nerdiest of the nerds.

“Woah!” I say back, followed by a conciliatory “Cutie!”

Trout Pond Reflection

We drive the 14 or so miles from Wolf Gap to the lake. Pulling into the park there is a bit of confusion, we find another lake in the same complex. Rock Cliff Lake. People are swimming at a small beach area. There is a path that follows the edge of the water. It is a beautiful place, but we want to see Trout Pond. A map in the lot helps us gauge where we are meant to go, we realize we already passed the thing. “How in the hell?” I say.

“This thing must be tiny,” Sam says a little puzzled. We drive around the park for a few minutes until we see a sign that says, “Trout Pond this way,” with an arrow. We park and follow a social path. It leads us to a little tiny body of water. Warnings hang on a fence that stands between us and the lake, “Caution, Sinkhole, Don’t Cross Fence.” We follow the path to a break in the trees and get our first good look at the bowl. The water is still. The reflections of the trees on the other side are crisp.

We walk further around until we get to a small observation deck. A man sits with his two daughters, each of them is holding an individual fishing pole. “Are there fish in there?” Sam asks the man.

“Oh yeah, there’s plenty.” He says back.

Sam smiles really big and says, “Cool man, y’all have a good day!” We walk back towards the car and cross Trout Pond Run, the creek that flows into the sinkhole to create our little lake. It is small and unremarkable for the most part. Unremarkable except for its glassy collection pool, water particles seized by the earth.

We leave that place like so many others we’ve left in this state, amazed that we’d never been there before; amazed that there weren’t 100 other people there with us. We drive away, amazed there weren’t businesses just outside of the park cashing in on tourists. We aim for our house in Morgantown, amazed that it is all ours. All ours, except for the man fishing with his daughters, and we’ll share with them.

Thoughts on "Wilderness" by sam taylor

Camp Site Epic - West Virginia

Good Friday Morning! 

As I briefly alluded to in the Seneca Creek writeup the other day, there were a lot of people on the trail with us.  (haven't seen that trip log?

Zion Narrows Wilderness

Zion Narrows Wilderness

While it was nice to see so many people enjoying their public lands on that fair, spring day, I'll admit a bit of conflict over the amount of foot traffic and camping that I was seeing along the stream.  Part of the attraction of wilderness and backcountry and roadless areas is that you can "get away" from the crowds, and have an experience - an experience in nature - self-reliant.  This has been a conversation I've had with folks about other wilderness areas in the east, notably Dolly Sods and Shenandoah National Park, both of which have become so busy and crowded with folks traveling out from the DC metro that it can be difficult to find a place to park on fair-weather weekends.  At what point does the crowd make the "wilderness" designation moot?  How many people can you crowd into a place, and it still be "wilderness"?

This isn't an abstract conversation to me, because on our travels across the country last year, and in the state over the last few years, there are several places at risk of being "loved to death". 

Must be a wildflower, comes up every spring.

Must be a wildflower, comes up every spring.

Gridlock on the road in Yellowstone.  Waiting in line to rock climb in the New River Gorge.  Full campgrounds in Zion, crowded spots along the Williams River in fishing season - and while many of the people are conscientious, that wear accumulates.  Add in a few "bad apples", leaving trash and building huge fire circles, digging plants or cutting trees and squatting campgrounds, and the impacts become unsustainable.  Add in that park budgets for maintenance and repairs are low, and seem to be on the chopping block every year, and it's easy to see the impacts.

And still the demand for public lands increases, as private lands become off-limits to recreational use, and growing urban areas and folks moving to urban areas leads people to seek the woods and the wilds of this country of ours. 

What to do about it?  That is a surprisingly hard question to answer.  I have my own opinions, for sure, and have done a fair bit of research into the topic, but none of those answers are popular.  In West Virginia there was a push to have admission fees to the parks, which would bring much needed revenue for maintenance - and was hated by the public and never introduced.  There have been ideas for permits or permit lotteries for some of the bigger national parks - but those are also unpopular.  West Virginia has a law that limits liability - liability often being cited as the reason folks post property - to landowners who allow people to use their land recreationally, but still the signs and painted blazes pop up every spring.  (see WV Code Here:  Folks carving out their bit of wilderness to keep everyone else off of it.  The prevalence of posting is especially frustrating to us because in many cases there is no contact information, so there is no way to secure the "written permission" that the state requires legally - and I suspect that in many cases, that is intentional.

At the end of the day, I worry that it will all become a "tragedy of the commons" - where too many people take advantage, but don't want to pay for it, and the folks that can buy or rent their own will do so to get away from the crowds.  This is especially troubling for me, where we have a state that struggles with health outcomes and mental health outcomes - and getting outside, getting exercise, and being in nature, can help.  That's something this little outfit is built on, trying to inspire folks to come out and have their own experience; but it is also "for" us, and for our enjoyment - and I need that solitude. 

At a minimum, I hope having a conversation will make folks more aware of the impacts they are having, and maybe they will think differently about needing to clear a huge place for a camp, or about needing to dig that trash bag full of ramps, or about how that little bit of trash "won't be noticed".   It may also provide a bit of inspiration for us - we tend to consciously avoid taking pictures of "people" in our travels, if they aren't part of our group - but maybe that is exactly what I need to do this season, take photos of the "surrounds", and document the places that are busy, and the places that aren't. 

All of this, and I haven't even touched on the Supreme-Court-Case-Waiting-To-Happen that is "who owns the creek in West Virginia". 

Stay safe and be respectful out there. 

Am I trespassing here?  What is navigable?

Am I trespassing here?  What is navigable?

The Sweet Spot: Hiking Seneca Creek by sam taylor

Seneca Creek Trail

Seneca Creek Trail

In our time exploring and adventuring around West Virginia, we occasionally come across a trip that, for whatever reason, escapes us.  A trip that we talk about, plan for, and just can't... quite... get done.  This is a story about us finally experiencing Seneca Creek, a trip that we had talked about for more than 4-years.  Seneca Creek is nearly 20-miles long, and rises on the flanks of Spruce Knob, deep in the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area.  It flows through the Seneca Creek Backcountry, a roughly 24,000 acre roadless area bounded by Gandy Creek to the west and FR112 to the south and east.  You read that right - roadless.  To experience and explore the trip described here, you can't get there by car.  Perfect for us.

Campsite along Gandy Creek

Campsite along Gandy Creek

Getting Close

As mentioned, we had talked about this trail for years - so what was the holdup?  For starters, the top of Spruce Knob is close to... nothing.  It's a full 3 hours from our home base in Morgantown, which meant that we had to find a full day to accomplish this trip - no driving down the morning of, and knocking it out.  Secondly, our main destination on this trip was the Upper Falls of Seneca Creek - more than 5-miles, one way, from the trailhead, with multiple creek crossings along the way.  This meant that we were looking for a rare combination of conditions - plenty of time, good weather, and enough water in the creek to show off the waterfall, without having so much water as to make the crossings dangerous.  We got our perfect conditions at the tail end of an oddly-delayed spring in April 2018 - a warm day, with good flow, and a completely open weekend - a sweet spot for an adventure that we had waited a long time to attempt. 

We headed down on a Friday evening, and found camping along the Gandy Creek - still 30 minutes from the trailhead, but close enough to make our single-day hike possible.  The sites along Gandy Creek are beautiful, and we enjoyed our first night of camping in months out under a starry sky, talking over the campfire and listening to the creek rushing beside our campsite.  The white noise from the water lulled us to sleep, leaving us rested up for the next days hike. 

Railroad Grades, Springs, and History

Getting up the next morning, our drive to the trailhead took us past Spruce Knob Lake, which was very busy with fishermen.  Arriving at the trailhead, the parking area was full - a surprise to us, but we decided that we were going to go for it regardless.  The Seneca Creek Trail is the main artery through the backcounty, the primary trail that follows the creek for nearly 12 miles, which helps explain its popularity.   We decided to "lightweight" our packs - committing to getting in and out in one day, but did take plenty of water and a camp stove and meal to tide us over at the halfway point.  Additionally, we made sure to take our water shoes, and one of us (Carmen) remembered to take their trekking poles.  We set off in mid-morning sun, excited for our day. 

The upper part of the trail is one of the most beautiful, and un-characteristic hikes in all of West Virginia.  The trail follows a turn of the century railroad grade, and was pleasant walking in good conditions for the first few miles.  It winds slowly through hemlock and pine tunnels - a rarity in our fairly temperate state - and the smell and sound of wind through the trees had us refreshed and invigorated as we started down the trail.  At about the second mile, we encountered our first "real" creek crossing, and swapped our footwear.  We swapped back to boots on the other side, and headed for the first major landmark on the trail, Judy Springs.  

Judy Springs

Judy Springs


Judy Springs Campground

At roughly mile 3 from the car, you enter the field at the Judy Springs Campground.  From what I gather, this campground was a logging camp, long long ago, and was converted to a forest service campground, accessible by car up until the 1970s.  These days, it's a lovely, wideopen area, and a common overnight spot for hikers looking to take a couple of days in Seneca Creek.  When we arrived, there were several tents and people scattered around the clearing - these were the first campers that we encountered, but they would be a steady presence from Judy Springs on down.  

Judy Springs Campground is named for Judy Springs, which rise just above the campground and flow into Seneca Creek at the campground.  These springs are a significant tributary in these upper reaches of the creek.  It's a surprising scene, to see a stream rise, fully formed, from under the mountain.    

Continuing past Judy Springs, the trail became more challenging and rugged - a short distance from the campground, we encountered our second ford of the day, and switched to water shoes for the next several miles.  The creek and the setting are incredibly beautiful in this section - cascading over rock ledges, reflecting the rhododendron, and teeming with trout that are visible from the trail.  There are distributed campsites all along this portion of the trail, all of them in beautiful positions near the creek - and every one of them seemed to be occupied as we walked down on a Saturday morning.  After a bit of a rock scramble, we encountered our third creek crossing, and then a fourth.  As we reached this lower end of our hike, we met several hikers headed back up the trail, and finally reached our destination - the Upper Falls of Seneca Creek. 


Upper Falls of Seneca Creek

Upper Falls of Seneca Creek



Waterfalls with Friends

As we crossed the creek for the last time on our descent, we really caught view of the trail's railroad history - the trail parallels a trestle base at the top of the waterfall.  As we crossed the creek, we realized that a whole church youth group was swimming at the base of the falls, truly impressive to me, as my feet were tingling from the cold water on our crossings to this point.  We set up the camp stove, and boiled water for a warm lunch, while watching the kids play at the waterfall.  We took note of some long sections of railroad rail in the creekbed, and I wondered how long they had been there, and if they were washed there from a long-ago flood, or were just tossed there when the trail was constructed. 

I didn't have too much time to further think on this point, as the food was ready, and the kids were starting to pack up, and we ate a well earned - and as it would turn out, well needed - meal, and set up to photograph the waterfall. 



6 miles and 1,000 feet

One of Eight Creek Crossings

One of Eight Creek Crossings

With a reasonably full belly, we started the trip back to the top.  We did this hike as an "out and back", so we retraced our steps, photographing things along the way to help slow the climb.  I had estimated the journey at 10 miles round trip, but my hiking GPS put us at 6 miles to our turnaround point at the waterfall - meaning we were going to have a pretty big day.  We left the waterfall, and met more hikers headed in for their dose of wilderness.  As we hiked along, we talked with folks camping along the creek, including a large group that had set up a solid looking base camp, ready to spend a week by the looks of things.  After a couple of miles, and repeating the lower creek crossings, we returned to Judy Springs, and did this short side-hike up to the spring itself.  Feeling adventurous, we drank straight from the spring (repeat at your own risk!), and Carmen added to her experience - having a little slip, where she did her best to fall headfirst into the spring.  Uninjured, we picked up and continued, chewing through the 6 miles, and 1,000 feet of elevation gain from the falls.

By the upper reaches of the trail, we were definitely starting to fade - and started to understand why most folks break up this hike into a couple of days, versus the single day push we were working on.  Even with our fatigue, the trail never lost its beauty, and stayed inspiring and beautiful all the way back to the car.  


Bringing It Home

Reaching the parking lot, we were hungry, weary, and happy.  The GPS said we had covered 12.2 miles and roughly 1,500 feet of elevation gain, with a total of 8 creek crossings - not a bad days work, and more than I would have guessed in walking an old rail grade.  Overall, the hike was a gem, through beautiful country, even if it was a bit more crowded than I had hoped or expected.  In honesty, it's easy to see why this is popular trail, right in the sweet spot of pleasant hiking, beautiful campsites and beautiful scenery, while still letting you feel like you've "earned it" when you reach your destination.  I hope that we don't wait another 4 years to return. 

Route Map - 12.2 miles measured out and back

Route Map - 12.2 miles measured out and back

Upper Trail Evergreen Tunnel

Upper Trail Evergreen Tunnel

Unnamed Tributary of Seneca Creek

Unnamed Tributary of Seneca Creek

THE DIE-BACK by sam taylor


Text By:  Carmen Bowes

Photos By:  Samuel Taylor or as noted in text.  Stock and historic images from US Library of Congress, Wikimedia, WVEXP and Austin Reid. 

A part of me wants to say something cliché. “I’ve traveled far and wide and seen nothing.” Well, the remnants of something. A lot of empty places. I’d thought it was a West Virginia/rest-of-the-country problem. It isn’t. It is a rural/urban problem or a trendy/tired problem. It doesn’t seem to matter what state, what region, what big town is THE big town near you; past the burbs, the devastation is vast and real. A forgotten and forlorn America hiding in the recesses of the economy. Those people, the ones hiding, could give 2 shits about social issues. They are 1 of 50 people in a 100-square-mile space. My guess is, they can get along with those 49 people. The people hiding want to be hidden. They want to be left alone to farm or ranch or hunt or shoot assault rifles into the wide-open spaces or whatever thing it is that brings them joy in a poor, mundane world.


Downtown Richmond, Indiana

Downtown Richmond, Indiana

An odd girl is walking down the sidewalk in front of us. She is plump and, while adult-sized, is dressed like a child. She moves with insanity, sporadic and without purpose. We are wasting time wandering around a town called Richmond, Indiana while our pizza order bakes. The pizza shop had a former life as a bowling alley. The door still hosts a pin-shaped window. We walk. The girl stops outside of a chain-link fence, inside a cat rubs against wildly-unkempt shrubs. We cross the street like a couple of wimps.

Richmond is charming to me in the way that most sweet, old towns are. There are grand homes that are still lived in but could use some love. There are cobblestone streets and a couple restaurants still hanging on. There are old men mowing their lawns and bored young people looking for trouble. All the things my little town had.

We pick up the pizza and head to our campsite at a Kampground Of America (KOA) right off the interstate. This spot was chosen because it was convenient. In the future, fuck the amenities, serenity.  The pizza is good and salty. Instead of triangular, pie-shaped slices, it is cut in a grid pattern. The bits around the edge take on an abstract, half-curved, and half-angular form. Mosquitoes come on heavy and the sound of trucks from I-70 blow past us through the thin tree line.

Old Reid Hospital - Photo Courtesy of Austin Reid,

Old Reid Hospital - Photo Courtesy of Austin Reid,

Sitting in the dark, Sam’s face shines bright from the blue light of his phone. He is reading me an article he found about an abandoned hospital in Richmond, lovingly called “Old Reid.” It caught our attention on the way in and out of town, standing there massive and peculiar. Its tale is one of expansion and annihilation.

Its conception was the result of a large donation of $130,000 by John F. Miller. Construction began in 1905. Many additions took place over the years, the last in the 1980s. The need for more space was insatiable. Looking at the structure now, you can see all its appendages. The original building cut of stone, looming, and the most recent addition, a dark glass sheet of windows divided by gray concrete. Modern. 

Old Reid grew beyond its own reach somewhere in the late 1990s and by the 2000s, it was clear that the hospital would have to move to a new facility. Cynthia Rauch was able to take a look around the space just before they chose to move and said this, “The building showed the history of medicine and not the future of healthcare.” From 2004 to 2008, the branches slowly moved out and finally Old Reid sat empty for the first time in nearly 100 years.

Old Reid Hospital.  Photo from Library of Congress

Old Reid Hospital.  Photo from Library of Congress

Shortly after its closing, an investor bought the property just in time for the financial bubble to burst in 2008. Multiple attempts over the years to develop the property were shut down. Tax issues and funding mostly. In 2015, back taxes had risen over $500,000 and the structure sat wasted.

Old Reid’s story makes us sad and curious about Richmond. The town sits right near Route 40, the National Road, and now I-70. It was historically a major stop for travelers. But now, it feels small and lonely. We search, and immediately we learn of a humungous natural gas explosion on April 6, 1968. One third of Richmond’s downtown burned. 41 people were killed and 150 were injured. The fire hit Richmond’s economy hard. In an attempt by the town to bring business, they built a promenade in 1972. This model was unsuccessful and in 1997 was returned to car traffic. The same year, Route 40 was re-routed to bypass the downtown and like most other small towns that are bypassed, the people stopped coming.

That night it is hot, and we sleep in the back of the Jeep with the hatch open. Trucks barrel past every so often, on the way to some place with people. Lots of people who needs lots of things.

We wake up the next day, bug-bitten and happy, now we are traveling. I cook us oatmeal and coffee on the camp stove as Sam packs up. Rolling out of the campground, we aim dead-west on I-70, still so much of the U.S. to cross before sleep.


Sunflowers, Nebraska

Sunflowers, Nebraska

Lincoln Highway, Nebraska

Lincoln Highway, Nebraska

Davenport, Urbandale, Anita, Lexington; we drive through town after town. We take the Lincoln Highway through most of Nebraska, first automobile road across the U.S. It connected parts of the Mormon and Cherokee Trails, the Pony Express, and the infamous Donner pass. It was so early that when looking it up, I found an old highway guide for the road. It said of the highway, “The recommended equipment [for traveling this road] includes chains, shovel, axe, jacks, tire casings, and inner tubes.” This is the gear we take when we are off-roading now.

We follow old wagon ruts across the plains and come through countless little municipalities. All of them have a water tower, a grain silo or two, a solitary stoplight, a glib post office, and of course, a sign containing the town’s name and population. Some of them only in the double digits. After going the two or three blocks that town lasts, there is a matching sign that says, “Thanks for Visiting Scenic fill-in-the-blank.”

CORN. SOY. GRAIN. 3 hours feels like a short jump up the road to me now. CORN. SOY. Sunflowers. Wait. Sunflowers. “Stop the car!” We stop and I crouch down among them. Their sweet faces. So many of them, they roll off with the horizon. Little yellow heads stick up proud out of all the green. Lovelies.

Each intersection is a four-way and grid-like. The roads lay flat, two crossed boards in the grass.

Torrington, Sheridan, Greybull, Cody. All small towns in Wyoming. The signs at the edge of town now include elevation. Yellowstone—people, Jackson—money, Pinedale—tourists. We put the miles down. Pace—nonstop.

Flaming Gorge Lake, Wyoming

Flaming Gorge Lake, Wyoming


Finally, it slows. We turn our Jeep down a backroad towards a dune field way out on some BLM land. Killpecker Dunes. What a name. The road is wash-boarded, we bounce around in our seats. There are old rail-grades shooting out into the desert. Sam drives through a lot of soft sand. Panic nearly sets in until he digs into the throttle and pulls us out the other side.

Dunes. Beautiful and speckled with wild flowers. There is a watering hole deep in a bowl of sand. Critters gather around it. Pronghorns stand on the smooth peaks. We are alone with the animals except for a set of tracks from some piece of large equipment leading further into the dunes. This isn’t a park. It just sits out here, mostly unknown. Trains used to push through the valley near them, shaking each grain. Not now, now it is just the locals and a few travelers, curious and brave enough to journey out into the wild west. Just us and these dunes.

We head southeast toward Flaming Gorge, following more ruts from some old trail. Turning towards the park, our road is paved and fast. We drive into an incredible canyon, the layers of stone exposed on spires above us. The road winds and we see a deep dry wash forming beside us. Storm clouds roll around on the horizon. We talk about water, the catastrophic force. It can rage. I have watched the Weather Channel’s radical and incendiary accounts of the flash floods. I know they are serious, but I also know that most of the people caught in the rushing water did not heed the warnings.

I drive fast on the paved road. We reach the lake that fills Flaming Gorge. It is stunning. Our road turns to follow the shoreline and immediately the pavement ends, and the bentonite begins. To backtrack would be a very long way. Even with the rain coming, we press on. Nerves make my shoulders stiff as I steer us up a drainage away from the gorge. A wash parallels the road and dark clouds hang on my rearview mirror.

Coming into a big flat, Sam asks me to stop the Jeep. “Do you see those buildings out there?” I use my camera to zoom in and see old ranch sheds and barns, their roofs folding in on themselves. The wash is deep here, 15-foot walls on either side. It sits between us and the structures. Knowing the stories, Sam and I get back in the Jeep and we drive away from that place. We leave those buildings there, just like their owners and the park service and all the other folks that stayed on this side of the wash.

We make camp in Flaming Gorge on the edge of a cliff face. There are big, wild walls of orange rock, momma and baby moose, and then, there is the once forgotten Swett Ranch. We hear stories about the former owners, Oscar and Emma. They sound flawless. We sneak away from their increbible homestead and into Dinosaur National Monument where we learn about another pioneer. Miss Josie Bassett was her name and her perfect cottage in the desert is the stuff dreams are made of, abandoned as well.




Abandoned Ranch.  Flaming Gorge NRA

Abandoned Ranch.  Flaming Gorge NRA


Cliff Palace - Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff Palace - Mesa Verde National Park

Pictographs, Canyon Pintado

Pictographs, Canyon Pintado

We drive southeast and stop in at a little visitor’s center just across the Colorado border. Some sweet older ladies are working and suggest that we run south through Canyon Pintado, or painted canyon. This canyon is famous for having an impressive number of petroglyphs and pictographs left here by the Fremont peoples.

Of course, we go. We follow our brochure guide and stop at one of the listed sites. Up a small trail and not more than 100 feet off the highway, there they are.  Shapes of corn and strange men look at us from the orange stone. We take pictures. I wonder how many people drive by these and never stop, never have any idea of what they are passing.

We climb back in the Jeep and go a few more miles to the next stop on the guide. This stop is called “Waving Hands,” and when we walk up to the wall we know why. There are two brilliant white hands planted firmly on the rock. I don’t know why someone left them here. Maybe it was a symbol of something else. Maybe something like our “Don’t Walk” signs. But standing here looking at them, I am overcome by a feeling of connectedness. Like that person, over 800 years ago, traced their own hands onto that rock knowing that someone, me or anyone else, would look at it and know they were saying hello.

Around the corner from the hands is a large man painted on the wall. Our brochure calls him “The Guardian.” All ideas of what significance this little guy might have feel like pure speculation.

We go to Moab and Arches and Dead Horse Point. Then we turn toward Mesa Verde National Park, the place with the cliff dwellings. We arrive late at night. The parking lot of the camping services station is empty, the gates into the park have no attendants, the street lights around the lot are not on, and the fluorescents from the laundry mat shine in bright blue beams across the asphalt. The place looks tired.

Doors, Mesa Verde

Doors, Mesa Verde


We drive to our campground and it is completely empty. We make the whole loop. There is no one, not a single person, not a campfire light shining through the trees. No signs of life. I am creeped out and ask Sam to walk me to the bathroom. There are signs on the building warning about bear and mountain lions. Thick grass surrounds each site and shrubby trees make me claustrophobic. I feel like there are mountain lions all around us. We don’t eat and I ratchet-strap our cooler to the picnic table, hopeful that will ward off the critters.

We wake up and drive to the visitor’s center to get tickets. I choose the Balcony House tour. It is the most challenging offered; ladders and cliff faces and tunnels. We learn all about the Ancestral Puebloans and their motivations for choosing these places. A 23-year drought meant trying to find water any and everywhere possible. Each of the cliff houses has a spring that trickles from the stone in the back of the alcove.

After our tour guide tells us a bit about the place, we descend off the top of the mesa down a steep set of stairs and wrap around to a 32-foot ladder. I climb up and over the stone wall. I look out across the valley. Sunshine bathes the trees below us. I go through a tunnel and into the main living area, the people in the tour wander around. I imagine getting to live here. Flowers and herbs would hang from the yellow-orange sandstone stacked walls. Woven rugs would warm up the living areas. Perfect.

We finish the tour and go looking for more. The top of the mesa is covered with old, excavated pueblos. We walk through them, they are people-shaped. I feel like I could move in right now; put up some billowy white curtains and call it home.

The Guardian

The Guardian

Sam picks us out a twilight photography tour of Cliff Palace. It is the darling of the park, the must-see. We meet at 6:45, the sun is floating around on the horizon. There are only 15 people allowed on this tour. We follow our guide through some deep slots and come around the corner to a huge space, ruins running the full length of the alcove. I look into the deep shadows and see structures as far back as the light allows. The guide tells us we can wander freely. “If you have any questions I am excited to help answer them, but this is your time, spend it how you wish.” With an odd trepidation we all tiptoe into the palace.

This place is unbelievably massive. I picture my entire small town back in West Virginia living here. It feels empty with only 15 people filling its expanse. Lonely. I walk up to a tower and peak inside its door. I turn my head to look up, light comes in windows from high above. The beams that used to support floors are still suspended by the stone. Sturdy and ancient.

Why the people left this place is a deep mystery but most of the evidence points to a slew of instigators. The Great Drought was the first. 23 years without rain. Think about that. Not a drop fell for over 2 decades. The second is that of impending violence. The Apache, Navajo, and Anasazi were all migrating in the late 1200s. The larger and less easily defined theory is that of an ideological shift that caused the flight. William D. Lipe, an archeologist from Washington State University says that it “was a time of substantial social, political and religious ferment and experimentation.”  

We leave Mesa Verde filled with a mild brand of dissatisfaction. It is an unbelievable place and spending some time there, we understand quickly that whatever the reason, it had to be immense to feel that the only option was to leave.




House, Colorado

House, Colorado

Colorado is beautiful. I am certain anyone who has ever been will not argue. Even in August, snow-covered peaks stand high above the grassy valleys. Great Sand Dunes National Park is our next stop. We cross the San Juan Mountains, our Jeep moseys up the paved switchbacks, 40 miles per hour and heater cranked to keep the engine cool.

Coming down the other side we pass sleepy ranch entrance gates, one after the next. We fall into a massive valley, 50 miles across. I look out and in the hazy distance, I see a small dune field. The wind at our back, we drive for a long time; the dunes our guide star. We come to an intersection and a tiny town called Mosca. About 5 dainty houses and a firehall sit perched. We turn right, away from them. A white house sits like an empty bullet casing. It is missing its windows and its trim, the parts that make it sweet and enchanting. It hauntingly resides over the sand dunes.

We drive another 20 minutes. We see the dunes, they are bigger than I could ever imagine. A thunder storm rolls in and we eat dinner in the Jeep. We run into some friends from back home and sit around a fire for the first time on our trip. Community.

The next day there is a lot of driving. We pass through Raton, New Mexico, a little town old as sin.  We eat the best Mexican food of our lives and go to ANOTHER visitor’s center. I find pamphlets for the Santa Fe and Spanish Trails. We try to follow them. More wagon ruts appear along the road. Small towns forever. Maxwell, Springer, Mills. We drive into the Kiowa National Grasslands looking for a ghost town Sam read about, Mills Canyon. Once again, weather is looming, and we turn back.

Out-driving the weather, we stop and look out across the big, horizontal place; darks clouds way in the distance. Flatness a West Virginian can never quite get used to.

We drive through Roy, New Mexico. It is small and feels very old. Or like it is trying to feel very old. We go through Solano, Mosquero, Logan, and Porter before we finally drive across the Texas border. 70 miles to Amarillo, our stop for the night. We hit I-40 and cruise on a 4-lane for the first time in what feels like a month. The miles tick down. We start seeing Old Route 66 signage. It is dark when we roll into town. It looks just like a lot of other medium-sized towns in the country. A few more cowboy boots is the biggest difference I see.

At a restaurant in Amarillo, we learn of Hurricane Harvey. We were supposed to go right through its path. Nope. We change course and follow Old 66 through Oklahoma and then head east across Missouri. Small towns. We stop in the Mark Twain National Forest to camp. It is desolate. We find a place that we think is distributed camping and drink until we can sleep, music blaring.

Mills Canyon, New Mexico

Mills Canyon, New Mexico


Confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio River (Ohio River left, Mississippi River right)

Confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio River (Ohio River left, Mississippi River right)

Over a Mcdonald’s breakfast the next morning we discuss our route for the day. Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky or camping somewhere in the eastern part of the state? Camping. Looking at the map we ponder where we should cross the Big Muddy; I google Mississippi River towns. Cairo, Illinois pops up on Atlas Obscura. Pronounced ­care-oh. The headline reads, “Abandoned Town of Cairo, Illinois. A once-booming Mississippi River port town has transformed into an eerie, mostly abandoned ghost town.” Cairo is at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Map of Cairo, Illinois, CA 1885.  Library of Congress

Map of Cairo, Illinois, CA 1885.  Library of Congress

Sam reads to me as I drive. “The town has mostly been abandoned because of its economic desperation, though its history of racial tension certainly didn’t help.” He looks for other sources and reads accounts of packs of wild dogs running the streets, police murders of young black men, and the downtown looking like a scene out of The Walking Dead. Our curiosity is insatiable, we have to see this place for ourselves.

We drive pot-hole ridden two-lane roads and just before town we stop at a little park where the big rivers meet, Fort Defiance State Park.  Sweeping, pretty trees mark the way and we start to see water peeking through on either side of us. The land comes to a point and there is a tall observation deck roosted on the grass above the water. We climb it and look out at the expanse. Everything in the park is a little run-down but otherwise it is a pleasant spot. We eat lunch. The barges going by make the water rise and fall near our feet.

Sam packs the camp kitchen back into the hatch while I grab the axe off the side of the Jeep and put it within reach. Packs of wild dogs are nothing to be messed with. The final push into Cairo reminds me of riding my bike down the rail-trail along the Monongahela in Morgantown. Fields. Trees. Floodplains. Evidence of high water.

Cairo, Illinois.  Jonathunder, GDFL/1.2,

Cairo, Illinois.  Jonathunder, GDFL/1.2,

Coming into town, there are people walking down the sidewalks, a lot of empty storefronts, people relaxing on their porches and in their yards, and a couple of open restaurants. My first impression of Cairo is that it looks a lot like every small town in West Virginia, only bigger. It might have boomed and is now declining but there are still people living here. There are still businesses running. This is not apocalyptic, this is what rural America looks like.

A disconnect: how is it this place has such a bad rap? How is it that so many people came here and had the same reaction?  

Then we realize. Cairo isn’t scary or strange to us. The economic damage and the rundown buildings are our norm. Main streets with only 1 or 2 restaurants feel like enough. There is nothing Walking Dead about this place to us. We are from this town, maybe not this exact town but a town that feels and looks just like this one.  

Then we understand. The economic gap and the perception of poverty are much wider than we each thought. The people online, the people who call this place abandoned. They don’t know the towns we know. Here is the moral of the story: they don’t know the poverty we know. Poverty isn’t scary when you know what it looks like. The desperate people, we know them. They are our families, our friends. We have been desperate, and it lit a fire inside of us. Desperation is scary because desperate people will do whatever it takes and sometimes, whatever it takes is unspeakable. The hustle.

We leave Cairo and drive most of the way across Kentucky in a daze. White rail fences run along the road for miles. Green pastures stare at us from the other side and Harvey’s impending weather makes for never-ending overcast. Dreary.


Billion Dollar Coalfield, Williamson, West Virginia

Billion Dollar Coalfield, Williamson, West Virginia

After a heavy day, we camp in Eastern Kentucky at a spot called Twin Knobs Campground. We sit at the picnic table and talk about home and traveling and how we could both just keep going. Sleep grips us and we wake up the next morning groggy, the romance of our trip already beginning to fade. We head east toward the wild and wonderful.

Mingo County, West Virginia. Home.

Hatfield Street, Matewan, West Virginia

Hatfield Street, Matewan, West Virginia

We cross the border hungry and aim for a little hotdog shop in Williamson called Tunnel Drive-In. This place is over 30 years old. The food is alright but the vibe is good. Kitschy and American.

This is my first time in Mingo County but the things I’ve heard don’t paint a pretty picture. Drugs, filth, and lack of education. I’ve read entire books about how the man in these parts has gone to great lengths to keep the poor people poor. Murder and corruption.

Now, it is quiet and pretty in this place. There are small neighborhoods, a big ole railyard, and a newly-built, consolidated school for the county. It is a lot like my home county; trains rumbling through, old buildings, and perpetually sleepy. It feels like many of the places we saw stippled across the U.S.

We dig into our West Virginia Atlas and find some gravel roads to run. We go to Matewan, the scene for the 1920 shootout between the coal miners and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Town is deserted.  The streets lack any signs of life. No vehicles, no people, no food-smells, nothing. We find a sign to tell us about the massacre. Bullet holes still speckle some of the buildings.  There is a museum but it is locked up tight. We amble down the street.

Matewan N&W Station,,_West_Virginia

Matewan N&W Station,,_West_Virginia

At the end of town we find the UMWA(United Mine Workers of America) union hall. One lonely truck sits in the gravel lot. A man comes out of the building, he waves and asks, “What’er yall doin in these parts?” We get this question a lot and today we are the only people in town to ask. Just us and this retired miner and Vietnam vet. Sam says, “We are from the central part of the state. Just exploring and have always wanted to get down here.” The man hears Sam’s accent and seems appeased.   “Not much ‘ere,” the man says. We hear that a lot too.

We chat with the man for a while and he heads out of town. I follow Sam along the railroad tracks back to the Jeep. I see that the buildings were designed for their storefronts to cater to the people getting off the train way-back-when. They don’t stop here anymore. Boards cover some of the windows, others boast a thick layer of dust. The ornate facades hang onto the stone and brick above us. We hear a whistle blow a-little-ways in the distance and the ground growls under our feet. The buildings vibrate. I feel a deep desire to buy these creaky old souls, save the structures before they can’t be brought back.

There are banks and businesses that look like they just closed yesterday. Modern and ordinary except that they are empty. People-shaped. Right next to them are spots that look long-forgotten; floors caving in and tin ceiling tiles hanging by a thread. It feels like people have been leaving this place as long as they’ve been coming. The die-back.



This blog is dedicated to the following:

The people, the educated, the blue-collar, the fed-up, the fierce, the discouraged, the majority, the bold, the underestimated, the laid-off, the salt-of-the-earth, the hungry, the wise, the down-home, the back-40 livin’, the final few, the south-bound, the west-bound, the north-bound, and the east-bound. The ones doing whatever it takes.