From the Desk: Notes and thoughts on one year in West Virginia

From the Desk: Notes and thoughts on one year in West Virginia

It’s now been a year and two months since I moved to West Virginia.

When I accepted the job at the Gazette-Mail, I was almost a month into living in my best friend’s loft in DC after moving back from South Dakota; where I worked at the Rapid City Journal for four months before being suddenly laid off. Other than Harpers Ferry, I’d spent no time in West Virginia. “why are you here!?” was a common question. Admittedly, the first time I visited Charleston, I wasn’t impressed. From the height of its population of eighty thousand in the 60’s, the city count barely scratched fifty thousand now, and that number showed itself in the numerous closed storefronts and vacant lots that lined the streets. With the exception of Capitol street, every other one seemed like a random mishmash of drab office buildings and parking garages. I liked my apartment well enough, but I knew it’d take some time for me to warm up to this place.

In a city where the median age is 39, making friends in my age bracket hasn’t been easy. Thankfully, that has changed as of recently, and I’m the happiest I’ve been since I moved here. The scene continues to get brighter as new restaurants, cafes, bars and other businesses pop up around town. I’ve made some great friends, and only grown more comfortable here as time has gone on. Meanwhile, West Virginia itself is undeniably beautiful. I’ve swam in more creeks and rivers and done more hiking here then any other place I’ve lived. Nature surrounds you everywhere, and there are few places in the entire country more beautiful than West Virginia in the fall; when the entire state turns into a sea of gold and crimson.

All too often states like West Virginia are depicted in extremely simplistic stereotypes; coal, trump country, moonshine etc. A lot of people would probably be surprised to learn that the coal industry makes up less than 3% of the state workforce, whereas other sectors of the state economy such as healthcare and tourism combined make up over 26%. While it’s true that all 55 counties of West Virginia voted for Trump in the 2016 election, it’s also true that all 55 counties voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. More than that, Democrats dominated state politics for generations. It’s only been over the past 20 years or so that West Virginia’s legislature has flipped to a republican majority. Moonshining was popular in West Virginia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but moonshine has since been legalized and sold as a commercial product. Marijuana growing has long replaced moonshine as the illicit product of choice in West Virginia, with cash flows far more lucrative to its cultivators than moonshining ever brought to its distillers.

Despite a steady stream of stories that come out of here that focus on the things you’d expect to be covered here, the truth is West Virginia is not the backwards, poverty stricken hell hole it’s often made out to be. West Virginia is a complicated state, with a history that is complex and deeply misunderstood. This isn’t to say this state doesn’t have major problems; Near-colonial exploitation of the state’s natural resources for generations by out of state entities that cared little for what collateral damage they inflicted on the land and people, A drug epidemic fueled in part by pharmaceutical companies that flooded West Virginia with prescription drugs, a steady exodus of young people, lack of opportunities, poor education and infrastructure from lack of proper funding. longstanding political corruption that makes a lot of other state governments look saintly in comparison. The list could surely go on.

But I’ve also met a lot of amazing people here; people who love this state and do their best every day to make it better. For each person that may pine for the “good old days”, there’s another person eager to look to a future beyond the resource dependent, boom-bust cycle economy that the state has largely relied on for much its 155 years of existence. I’ve also seen some pretty amazing things. Thousands of teachers across all counties in the state converged for weeks at the capitol demanding higher wages and a stable state health insurance program; a victory that has turned into a movement across the country. 4th and 5th grade students giving presentations to their classmates about everything from ways of solving the opioid crisis to alternative energies, 3d printers and more. People who’ve started farmers markets and greenhouses to alleviate the food deserts that plague the state. People who left the state and came back to open businesses and help their communities grow. I’ve learned a lot living here, and I’m glad I made the decision to do so. I thought i’d end this post with a small gallery of photos in no particular order dedicated to the people who make up West Virginia and give it the spirit it has.

I hope the reader understands, even just a little, that there’s a lot more to West Virginia then what you’ve read or heard. Thanks for reading!

From the Desk: West Virginia

From the Desk: West Virginia

I’m afraid that iv’e been away from the desk for far too long! For those of you who don’t already know, I moved to West Virginia exactly one month ago to take a staff position at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the state’s largest newspaper. Since then I have largely set up my new apartment (I now own a washer and dryer, guess that means i’m an adult now?) and have gotten to know the city and the surrounding area.

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Ruth Andrien, a former dancer with Paul Taylor Dance Company, instructs Sheena Madden Jackson during a master class at the Charleston Ballet studio in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday, June 22, 2017.
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Jesus Flores of Selma, CA jumps in the air as he is announced the winner against a grimacing Patrick Cody of Spokane, WA at the 2017 USA Boxing Junior Olympic Championships at the Charleston Civic Center in Charleston. W.V., on Saturday, July 01, 2017.
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When you’re trying to shoot assignments in classrooms…

So for any of you who might be wondering, why West Virginia? There are a couple of reasons. I wanted wherever I was going to go to be a place where I could share impactful stories. To be sure, this is something that can be done anywhere, as there are always stories to be told no matter where you are.

However, West Virginia in particular is ground zero for some of the larger issues facing the country today; from the decline of once dominant industries that millions depended upon for their livelihoods to the effects of the opioid epidemic on addicts, their families and the communities that they live in. Those are issues that I want to cover. However, I also don’t have any desire to engage in making work that does nothing but reinforce simplistic (and to many of those who live here, blatantly offensive) stereotypes of the region. Iv’e only been here for a month, and I already know that there are so many good people here who love their state and are doing everything they can to make it better. Those are the people whose stories in particular that I want to tell.

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Andrea Morrison touches a memorial plaque embedded in the stones of a bridge built to commemorate those whose lives were lost in the flooding last year in White Sulphur Springs. People were allowed to cross after the bridge was commemorated on the anniversary of the flood on Friday, June 23, 2017. Morrison said that her son’s best friend was among those who died.
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West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks about the budget bill passed by lawmakers last week in the Capitol reception room in Charleston, WV on June 21, 2017.
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Vietnam veteran Ernest Willie speaks of his experience with Veterans Affairs at the new Vet Center in Charleston. W.V., on Thursday, July 06, 2017.
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Hannah Gates examines her costume before a rehearsal of King Lear at Concord University in Athens, W.V., on Tuesday, July 11, 2017.

I also like moving to places that have a certain mythos about them. Places that hold a certain image, no matter how true or false, in the American psyche. It’s one of the reasons that I moved to the Black Hills region of South Dakota, an area often associated with “The West” and all of the concepts that come with it. Like the West, Appalachia is more than just the name of a region based on the series of mountain ranges that form it.

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Raiders Outside Linebacker and former WVU star Bruce Irvin is swamped by camp attendees during the third annual Bruce Irvin Football Clinic on the turf field at Little Creek Park in South Charleston, W.V., on Saturday, June 24, 2017. The clinic was hosted by local sports organization CJKB Infinity Sports.
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Alexxis Tunstalle is held under a sprinkler by her cousin Ana Collins at the Magic Island splash pad in Charleston,W.V., on Wednesday, June 28, 2017.
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Najee Edwards, 12, eats his California roll during a workshop on sushi making inside the Kanawha County Public Library Central Library in Charleston. W.V., on Thursday, July 06, 2017. The workshop was taught by Megumi Homma.
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Hudson Swafford hides his face after missing a putt on the 12th green at the Greenbrier Classic in White Sulphur Springs. W.V., on Saturday, July 08, 2017.

Appalachia conjures up images and ideas of a culture, of a certain kind of lifestyle. To cite an example: Don’t act like you haven’t drunkenly belted out the chorus lines to John Denver’s “Take me Home, Country Roads” at least once at some bar or late in the night at your friend’s kegger. I want to experience for myself these kinds of places and see just how much of those ideas and assumptions are made up or hold water.

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Dancers are reflected in a mirror lining the wall inside the Charleston Ballet studio during a master class on modern ballet in Charleston, W.Va., on Thursday, June 22, 2017.
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A PGA Tour worker takes note of the outside weather advisory at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs. W.V., on Tuesday, July 04, 2017.

That’s about what I have for now. I’m going to make a point of writing more frequently on this blog now that I am shooting full time again. I want to write not only about the experiences I am having now but also what experiences i have had and the lessons learned from them that someone else looking to become a photojournalist themself might find useful. I also want to start sharing more of my travel guides again, as I have a lot to say about the places that iv’e been, including a comprehensive guide to Washington, D.C.

Talk again soon!

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Road Trip: Montana & Wyoming.

Quick Road Trip: Montana & Wyoming.

This was an unplanned trip, unplanned in that I only knew I wanted to see Glacier National Park and possibly the Tetons. I left Friday afternoon and came back early Tuesday morning, and in that time covered nearly 2000 miles. Supplementing my current writings are notes jotted down in my pocket journal while on the trip, which are in italics.

On route 212 to Crow Agency.
On route 212 to Crow Agency.

Starting out from Rapid City, the highway led along the northern border of the Black Hills to 212, a direct route through the Northeast corner of Wyoming into Montana. I had never been to Montana before and was looking forward to this trip.

Broadus, MT. 4:25 P.M: In Powder River country now. Montana is so far a continuation of Wyoming in terms of landscape, however taking into account its ridges and rocky outcroppings I think larger differences are to come.

While I had driven through Central and Northeast Wyoming; an impressively expansive land, Montana posessed a terrain I was not prepared for in scope and vastness. While ranch lands were aplenty, much of the landscape remained unrepresented by human intervention save for the nonnative grasses that permeated the land. The valleys, foothills and ridges stretched onward to the bighorn mountains; named so for the sheep that inhabit them.

Looking West from the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Looking West from the Little Bighorn Battlefield.

I had arrived too late to tour the little bighorn battlefield which closed about an hour earlier, but I could easily say that the land itself was among the most beautiful that I have ever seen of any battlefield. Hawks flew high above the prairie dog towns that dotted the landscape.

Continuing on after stopping briefly in Billings, It became dark as I was nearing Bozeman Pass. Stopping briefly to walk under the bright neon signs lining Livingston, I continued through the pass and down into Bozeman. Being home to Montana State University, Bozeman has a solid nightlife scene with a main street lined with bars, dance clubs, restaurants and cheap eats.

Neon lights in downtown Livingston, Montana.
Neon lights in downtown Livingston, Montana.

Bozeman, MT. 11:15 A.M. Trying to make time to Helena, but land is incredible. The foothills and ridges surrounding Little Bighorn are among the most beautiful i’ve ever seen, stretching all the way to the Bighorn Mountains. Bozeman a wonderful college town with quite the nightlife for its size.

Being that I came through Bozeman pass at night, It was the next morning that I saw the series of mountain ranges that surrounded Bozeman. From there I immediately got on the road, wanting to make it to the area surrounding Glacier National Park before nightfall.

Westbound on I-90 from Bozeman on the way to Helena.
Westbound on I-90 from Bozeman on the way to Helena.

Helena: 1:15 P.M. The only place i’ve been that I can compare West Montana to would be Alaska.

The route to the state capital Helena was 287, with tilled fields and railroad tracks on one side and the Missouri river on the other.

The Missouri river and Mountains from Highway 287 on the way up to Helena.
The Missouri river and Mountains from Highway 287 on the way up to Helena.

Kalispell: 10:00 P.M. I started the day by driving up from Bozeman, The drive up went well enough; though the distances are vast it certainly doesn’t feel that way with the terrain being as it is.

From Helena I took route 12 further West where the road abruptly rose into the hills, from which there were fantastic views of the surroundings valleys.

Looking East toward the Helena Valley from Highway 12 on the way to Kalispell
Looking East toward the Helena Valley from Highway 12 on the way to Kalispell

Descending from the ridge into another large valley, I suddenly turned onto a rural route that winded through ranch land that seemed to go on forever, only stopping at the foot of the nearest mountain ridge where a series of rainstorms were inundating the landscape.

Echo Mountain. One of the many mountain peaks that dominate Western Montana.
Echo Mountain. One of the many mountain peaks that dominate Western Montana.

Driving past a series of lakes and mountain peaks, I eventually reached route 83, which hugged the Swan range for hundreds of miles to reach the Kalispell valley.

 The road up was through a wide valley with mountains towering on each adjacent side, passing through little towns such as Swan Lake while rolling the windows up and down sporadically with each passing microclimate.

 

Looking West toward the Swan Range along route 83 toward Kalispell.
Looking West toward the Swan Range along route 83 toward Kalispell.
Isolated cell over Route 141. On the way to Route 83, a straight shot up to Kalispell and Glacier National Park.
Isolated cell over Route 200. On the way to Route 83, a straight shot up to Kalispell and Glacier National Park.
Looking North on Swan Lake from route 83 on the way to Kalispell and Glacier National Park.
Looking North on Swan Lake from route 83 on the way to Kalispell and Glacier National Park.

I saw two bald eagles feeding off of a carcass on the side of the road here. Also saw what I thought to be a black bear sneaking off of the road as i passed it before the lake itself.

A bald eagle takes flight on the side of the road. Highway 83, Montana.
A bald eagle takes flight on the side of the road. Highway 83, Montana.

I eventually arrived just outside of Glacier in the late afternoon as a series of rainstorms were passing over the range and surrounding area. 

Passing storm over farmlands Southeast of Columbia Falls, MT.
Passing storm over farmlands Southeast of Columbia Falls, MT.

Passing through these farmlands, I turned Northeast onto a road that hugged the North Fork of the Flathead River, whose waters originate in the Canadian Rockies.

I drove up adjacent to the north fork of the flathead river; a sizeable river with a beautiful turquoise hue that very much reminded me of the waters in Alaska.

On the North Fork road leading into Glacier National Park.
On the North Fork road leading into Glacier National Park.

The road zig-zagged through the immense gorge following the river until coming to a bridge over it which was gated off; closed for the season.

The road was closed over the bridge of the fork leading further into Glacier National Park, but I managed to get some decent pictures over the river before giving into the temptation of driving up the nearby trail creek road that ascended over the valley.

Sunset at the North fork of the Flathead River. Glacier National Park.
Sunset at the North fork of the Flathead River. Glacier National Park.
Looking toward Glacier National Park from the North Fork road leading to Trail Creek.
Looking toward Glacier National Park from the North Fork road leading to Trail Creek.

I tried to find a clearing in those bastard juvenile pine trees but gave up after becoming exhausted trudging through knee-deep snow and failing to find any clearing significant enough for a clean shot of the best part of the sunset over the mountain peaks. 

Looking toward Glacier National Park from the North Fork road leading to Trail Creek.
Looking toward Glacier National Park from the North Fork road leading to Trail Creek.

However I was able to see with my own eyes the violet and before that golden light surrounding the towering peaks as the sun went down, and that has been good enough for me.

Detail of mountains surrounding the flathead river gorge at dusk.
Detail of mountains surrounding the flathead river gorge at dusk.
Venus shines over the forest-lined gorge of the North Fork of the Flathead River in Glacier National Park.
Venus shines over the forest-lined gorge of the North Fork of the Flathead River in Glacier National Park.

That night I decided to head for Missoula, in order to put myself in a better position for the drive to the Tetons the next day. Even without the moon I could still make out the massive body of water that was flathead lake. Continuing on through small towns and rural areas, I was trailed by no less than four separate police vehicles; the officers most likely being bored out of their minds in rural Montana at 2 am.

I spent a little time walking around Missoula before heading South on I-15 to Northern Idaho.

Lima, Montana. Lima Peaks can be seen in the distance.
Lima, Montana. Lima Peaks can be seen in the distance. Just before crossing the border into Idaho
The railroad tracks along Lima, MT. Just North of the Idaho border.
The railroad tracks along Lima, MT. Just North of the Idaho border.

Tetons. 3:45 PM. Drove down from Missoula through mountain passes into Northern Idaho. I have never seen a valley so vast as that of which interstate 15 passes through. Coupled with one of the most visually fascinating concentrated rainstorms I have ever seen over an almost desert like terrain, it was quite a sight.

Rainstorm over Interstate 15. Idaho.
Rainstorm over Interstate 15. Idaho.
Inside the Snake River Plain. Idaho.
Inside the Snake River Plain. Idaho.

Upon getting out of the rainstorm and driving through gentle rises the land changed again to tilled fields that stretched for miles.

Lined crops stretch for miles during the evening hours alongside highway 33 in Eastern Idaho, just West of the Teton Range.

I photographed what I could of the tetons from the Idaho side before entering the teton pass…

The Tetons as seen from Highway 33. Idaho.
The Tetons as seen from Highway 33. Idaho.

was a bit riveting as it was dark and the highbeams of my car lit every piece of snowfall. It was a bit like being in the millennium falcon at lightspeed, stupid as that sounds. Found a good room and was given two slices of free pizza from a guy at Pinky G’s before having a beer at Snake River brewing.

Cowboy Bar in the town square of Jackson Hole, WY.
Cowboy Bar in the town square of Jackson Hole, WY.

Jackson hole itself is beautiful, with the town square and look of the town was everything I hoped it would be.

The antler arches at the town square of Jackson Hole.
The antler arches at the town square of Jackson Hole.

I have now been spending the day checking out areas per the suggestions of Lyford and the bartender at Dornan’s. People here are the nicest I think I’ve ever experienced in any particular place. I have seen quite a few moose around the park as I wait for fog to life which continues to inundate the Tetons. I hope that it will clear if only briefly for me to capture or at least see it before I turn east back to South Dakota.

A female moose is seen resting amidst the foliage in Grand Teton National Park.
A female moose is seen resting amidst the foliage in Grand Teton National Park.
The Grand Teton is partially shrouded by passing fog. Grand Teton National Park.
The Grand Teton is partially shrouded by passing fog. Grand Teton National Park.
Grand Teton pokes through the winter fog clinging to the mountain range. Grand Teton National Park.
Grand Teton pokes through the winter fog clinging to the mountain range. Grand Teton National Park.
At the Snake River overlook from which Ansel Adams took his famous photograph of the Tetons and Snake River.
At the Snake River overlook from which Ansel Adams took his famous photograph of the Tetons and Snake River.
One of the famous barns in the Jackson Hole Valley.
One of the famous barns in the Jackson Hole Valley.

 

Unfortunately it was soon after I wrote this that a snowstorm from the West moved in and completely inundated the mountains as well as the valley in quick succession. I decided to leave then, taking the road from Jackson Lake to Highway 26 which passed through the continental divide. The area itself was filled with buttes and peaks whose color and formations astounded me.

Pinnacle Buttes, Shoshone Wilderness. Wyoming.
Pinnacle Buttes, Shoshone Wilderness. Wyoming.

Eventually, 26 would lead into the fronier-styled town of Dubois and the desertlike terrain of the Wind River Reservation. I’d be hard pressed to think of another place where the difference in terrain from one side of the road to the other is so stark as it is here.

The wind river itself snaked under the road many times, adding an additional touch of beauty to a landscape that had suddenly turned into one that looked like Arizona more than anything else.

The Wind River. Just outside of Dubois, Wyoming.
The Wind River. Just outside of Dubois, Wyoming.

It wasn’t long before the sun began to set, and I pulled over from route 26 onto a crest overlooking a reservoir. I took a couple frames as dusk was settling in.

Dusk over Pilot Butte Reservoir. Wyoming.
Dusk over Pilot Butte Reservoir. Wyoming.
On the side of a road in Wyoming. Cows.
On the side of a road in Wyoming. Cows.

There are roads across central Wyoming that stretch 100 miles at a time in total darkness with not a light to be seen except those of oncoming cars and 18-wheelers. With both of us moving at over 80 miles an hour, the semi’s shake my car to an uncomfortable degree as they go by. In such conditions one cannot tell if a car is one mile away or ten, as there is nothing with which to associate the distance. It was a bit of a surreal experience really.

On the way to Casper from Shoshoni, Wyoming.
On the way to Casper from Shoshoni, Wyoming.

After what felt like a lot longer than 10 hours, I made it home early Tuesday morning. So i’m going to wrap this up. Thanks for checking out this post!