2017 Year in Review Video

Happy New Year, friends!

I just published my annual video highlighting my favorite photos along with commentary.  It’s on YouTube and the link is below.

2017’s video clocked in at just under an hour this year; don’t feel like you have to watch it all at once.  Here’s to another year on the road!

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Groceries on the K-Line

On Christmas morning, Samantha and I were awoken at sunrise.  Not by a child jumping on the bed or excited shouts coming from downstairs (the only other person in the house being Samantha’s visiting mother down the hall) but by Sam’s iPhone.  When she answered it, the darkened bedroom was greeted with a bright Merry Christmas and the aforementioned excited shouting children 1,300 miles away.

I made coffee while Sam and her Mom sat on the couch, enjoying Christmas with their family back in New York with the help of FaceTime.  It was a somewhat surreal but altogether lovely way to bring everyone together.  Our local Christmas celebration wouldn’t take place until evening, as my brother Tyler had to work.  My mom arrived at noon and we watched old family movies together.  By the time my brother arrived at 5:00 PM, we were all chomping at the bit to eat and exchange presents.

Xmas House

Our celebration was wonderful.  Though it lacked the kinetic energy we’d witnessed on the east coast, it was full of thoughtfulness and kindness.  I’m not writing here to talk about any new gifts, though, but to talk about an old gift that was had been unopened for nearly three decades.

Dad Train

In 1990, Tyler and I received a train set for Christmas.  It had been given to Dad by Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods company.  That year they’d offered the set as a premium for buying their various products for grocery stores, which is exactly what Dad did as the head buyer for local chain Price Mart.  In fact, here’s a little bit about the specific limited edition train set we set up that morning twenty-seven years ago:

“In September of 1989…Procter & Gamble (P&G), one of the biggest and most successful consumer goods companies in the world, opened a new era of business for K-Line. […] P&G approached K-Line with the idea for an innovative, premium incentive to reward grocery stores who purchased a certain amount of P&G products. P&G commissioned K-Line to produce a train set decorated with the names and logos of certain P&G products. In order to produce all the K-2090 sets, the K-line facility at Chapel Hill operated 3-shifts per day, six days a week and rented even more production space in nearby warehouses.”

(Source)

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Dad was actually given TWO sets that year; one we set up immediately (Dad seemed to enjoy it more than we did) and the other we Put Up For Good.  The set we played with diminished over the years for all the reasons you’d expect with two young boys & so many life changes.  The only evidence I’ve had that it ever existed in the first place is an old home movie and a Jif Peanut Butter car that sits in my bookshelf, a discovery from Dad’s apartment after he died in 2011.

I certainly thought the second, whole set was long gone.  That is, until last week.  I learned that Tyler still had the second train set, still unopened.  He’d carted from place to place for years and was considering selling it.  With great care, I urged him to do no such thing…in fact, he could bring it over on Christmas and we could set it up together.  Which is exactly what we did.

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After dinner and gifts, Tyler and I sat on the floor in my den and assembled the track.  I wired the transformer while he carefully took the cars out of their boxes.  Sam, our mothers, Tyler, and I all held our breath when I finally flipped the switch.  After 27 years of troubled storage, the O-Gauge train set came to life.  I couldn’t have stopped smiling if I’d tried.

The train consists of seven cars: the locomotive branded for Associated Wholesale Grocers, a boxcar branded for Duncan Hines Cake Mix, a Sunny Delight tanker, two hopper cars (branded for Folgers Coffee & Jif Peanut Butter), a flat car for hauling a trailer, and a Crisco Shortening caboose.

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The Puritan Oil trailer, which sat on the flat car, was damaged.  The metal roof was oddly warped and the bit that fastens to the flat car was broken.  I’m going to have to find a local hobby shop and see if anything can be done to save it.  For now, though, this irreplaceable piece of family history is in safe hands.  It will be part of a new Martin tradition: next year, I hope to have a few buildings to go along with it.

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Of Christmas Past

The town of Pawhuska was founded in 1872 on the banks of Bird Creek, within the Osage Nation in Indian Territory.  It was named in honor of a tribal chief, Paw-Hiu-Skah (meaning White Hair).  A post office opened in 1876 and by Oklahoma statehood in 1907 there was a newspaper, railway station, and almost 2,500 residents.  It’s where the first Boy Scout Troop was organized in America (pre-dating the actual Boy Scouts of America) and home of the Cavalcade, the world’s largest amateur rodeo.  It was also the centerpiece for the terrible Osage Indian Murders; if you haven’t read Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s a tremendous (devastating) read.

Christmas 1981

For me, though, Pawhuska has been the city of my father’s family.  My grandfather, Hardy Martin, ran Redbud Grocery for many years before “retiring” to the country with a meat processing shop.  Uncle Jody bought Hometown Appliance in the 1990s (which he runs to this day) and the rest of the Martin family has contributed to the community in a variety of ways.  My earliest Christmas memories come from a small converted schoolhouse north of town, where my grandpa Hardy would hand out presents dressed as Santa Claus.  We drove up there every holiday season.

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As I grew older, I saw a town in decline.  By the time I could drive myself to the Osage Capital, the population was roughly half of what it had been during the Oil Boom days.  The charming downtown was mostly empty; the Wal-Mart on the edge of town had driven many of the small businesses out.  By the time Dad moved back there to care for grandma, even the Waltons had waved goodbye.  The town held on, but it seemed to be on an inevitable downward path.

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Christmas 2010 was a personally somber affair, as Grandma Gail had recently passed and my first marriage had just ended.  Christmas 2011 was the first one without Dad.  The emptiness of Pawhuska mirrored the emptiness of my heart.  I saw my reflection not only in the vacant store windows, but also between the crumbling bricks and within the demolished houses.  A mongrel of emotion roamed the streets, curled in my cousin’s driveway or waiting for me in the alley near the courthouse steps.

Christmas 2014

Then, in October 2016, a miracle.  Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman cook and author, opened The Mercantile on the corner of Main St and Kihekah Ave.  The dilapidated storefront had been renovated and re-opened as the mecca for all things Pioneer Woman, providing a retail anchor and dining hot spot in the heart of town.  Ree’s following was international: the guestbook had signatures from all over the globe, much like the Route 66 attractions I knew so well.  Over the last year, that jolt of energy has translated into dozens of new and revitalized businesses.

Christmas 2016

When I drove into Pawhuska this year for the annual Martin get-together, my heart swelled with happiness.  The streets were lined with cars sporting varied license plates.  A bright neon sign buzzed next to the under-renovation Triangle Building, long my favorite structure in town.  A B&B was open across the street from my uncle’s store.  Everywhere I looked, the trajectory had reversed.  The town had survived loss and was enjoying renewed life; much like I have since Samantha came along.  Someone that believes in you is the best gift you can ever receive.

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The Value of Expression

My friend Bruce shared an image on Instagram recently that sent me deep in thought.  On the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, a stairwell pillar was covered with the following message:

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However, when you shift to look at the OTHER side of the column, the message changes:

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This settled deep in my soul and sent my mind back a decade.  In 2007, I was married to my first wife, working for AT&T, living in a new-construction house in the suburbs, and deeply unhappy.  I couldn’t figure out what was really wrong…I just felt empty and unfulfilled.  We both did.  So a big change was made:  we sold everything at an estate sale and made plans to travel the world.

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2009 – testing out the travel backpack

I took the old blog that I’d created as an alternative to MySpace and started writing about travel preparations.  I bought a little Panasonic point-and-shoot camera and got familiar with it.  In April of 2009, we waved goodbye to friends/family and headed for California.  Over the next ten months, I gained and lost.  I gained an appreciation for new foods and lost 40 pounds.  I gained insight into the human experience and lost my prejudices.  I gained a creative outlet and lost the hopeless voice.  After returning home in February 2009, an intense period of loss further propelled my creative journey but that’s an entire story unto itself.  The biggest gain from my time abroad was the camera that had become an extension of my body.

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2011 – Picher OK

A few months into the international trip, I upgraded my camera.  I started taking photos I was really happy with; photos I could see up on not just my wall, but maybe even public walls.  When I got home, though, my international experience didn’t translate to Oklahoma easily.  I had to find my creative voice within the familiar…and that took time.  I started wandering around Tulsa with purpose.  In 2011, my friend Darci encouraged me to explore the ghost town of Picher with her.  In 2012, I started getting comfortable taking photos at DragonCon & I didn’t deliberately set foot on Route 66 until the summer of 2013, which is also when I explored parts of the American West for the first time.  When I met Samantha in October 2013, I was just beginning to understand how my international traveling experience would evolve into how I travel the Midwest today and capture the journey.

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One of the first photos I took of Sam – Blackburn OK 2013

All of that to say this:  it takes time to find yourself.  It can be painful, disappointing, and frustrating at times.  I still struggle with feeling inadequate and unsuccessful, but, that usually comes when I’ve compared my work to someone else’s when I don’t fully understand their journey.  Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Look at yourself TODAY versus where you started from; THAT’S where the true measurement lies.  When you turn around and look behind you, that is the only comparison you should make.  It’s tough, but it’s the only fair lens. My journey is different than anyone else’s & it informs my work on a daily basis.

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Find the outlet that allows you to express yourself.  Don’t let anybody tell you it’s worthless.  If you’re not able to support yourself on your art alone, that’s fine.  I sure don’t…but that’s not why I do it.  Don’t ignore the little voice begging for expression.  Give it time, energy, and patience.  One day you’ll look back at your path and be amazed.

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Crafts & Crossings

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving!  I had one of the best in recent memory, as my Mom and brother came over to our house for the holiday.  Samantha and Mom cooked together, Tyler and I played video games, and we all enjoyed a fabulous meal.  The family even made it to a movie afterwards.  Aside from wishing Dad were still around, I don’t know what would’ve made the day better.  The weekend after was also pretty great, thanks to:  ROAD TRIP!

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Samantha wanted to attend the Little Craft Show in Fayetteville, Arkansas on Saturday, so we loaded up the car after work on Friday and headed east.  Though I’d been to Fayetteville a handful of times, I’d never really spent much time there.  It was Sam’s first visit.  We stayed at a cozy little bed-and-breakfast a block away from the town square (Stay-Inn-Style) and had a wonderful time.  Our first evening was spent walking the square and admiring the Christmas decorations.  Lights were strung everywhere!  The warmer weather had brought out scores of families to enjoy the holiday festivities:  horse-drawn carriages, pony rides, visiting with Santa, and more.  We had dinner at Hugo’s among a packed house of college football fans from the University of Arkansas and Mizzou.  In fact, another couple staying at the B&B had come down from Columbia, MO and we bonded over the delicious eats at Booches.

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The craft show itself was great!  Arkansas really promotes their handmade craft scene; they even put out a magazine featuring makers from across the state.  The show floor featured jewelry makers, woodworkers, fabric artists, and more.  My favorite artist was a guy that bought old art prints from flea markets and embellished them in various ways, such as adding a robot to a quiet country scene.  You can check out some of his stuff at artistjasonjones.com.  Super nice guy, too!

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For lunch, we headed north to Springdale for Neal’s Cafe.  We discovered this place last year when we came to town for a craft show where Samantha featured her jewelry.  We try to stop in whenever we’re in the area.  I love the old-school charm of the place, which includes a sandstone fireplace and vintage tabletops.  The racks of rifles that adorn the walls go well with the mounted animal heads, too.  The food is traditional southern cooking; they still fry their chicken in an iron skillet, as they have since opening in 1944.

West Fork White River, Greenland AR (1)

We had a lot of daylight left, so we went for a little drive.  First stop:  Greenland.  No, not that one.  Greenland, Arkansas is home to less than 1,000 people but features an active airport and an old truss bridge, the latter of which I was interested in photographing.  The Baptist Ford Bridge is a three-span pony truss over the West Fork White River.  It was built in 1930 and has been bypassed, but thankfully not demolished.  The grey-arched lane doesn’t get much traffic these days, so I was able to walk the bridge at my leisure. Listening to the water flow by beneath me boosted by already-good spirits.  I’ll bet the area looks wonderful in spring/summer…I’ll have to return.

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We continued around NW Arkansas, taking scenic Hwy 74 east to Huntsville.  I had a neon sign marked there, but there was also a modest town square that we took some time to explore.  I was surprised to find a historic marker for the Huntsville Massacre, a Civil War event I’d never heard of.  The town that day was pretty quiet; the only sound coming from the occasional pickup truck and a young man belting out gospel music in front of the H&R Block.

Mayfield AR

On the way back to Fayetteville, we took a different scenic route and enjoyed the Ozark Mountain countryside.  I even found an old general store to photograph!  Our evening was relaxed:  pizza and reading in bed.  I stayed up late to finish Lincoln in the Bardo, which I purchased on opening day at Magic City Books.  If you’re in Tulsa, check out our newest independent bookstore; it’s fantastic!

Flint Creek Bridge, Delaware County (1)

We left early on Sunday to head back to Tulsa.  On the way, though, we made one more stop just west of the Oklahoma border.  Another three-span pony truss was on my list, this one over Flint Creek.  It featured a more traditional brown-and-rust color palette and was tucked down a quiet rural lane.  As I walked the bridge, a pair of dogs approached from the east side, barking up a storm.  Once they felt they had sufficiently conveyed their message, one quietly returned to a nearby farm and the other approached me happily.  I guess once he had fulfilled his duty, he felt we could be friends.  I scratched his head and he trotted around with me for a few minutes; he event went to inspect the car.  He seemed super sad that I was leaving so soon after I had taken my photos.

All-in-all, we had a great trip to Arkansas.  When I plan out solo trips, I tend to run myself ragged trying to see as much as possible from sunrise to sunset.  When Sam’s with me, I slow down…and I enjoy myself much more.  That’s something I’ll need to remember when planning my next trip.  And, since I just heard that the old Highway 11 Bridge near Sperry has come down, I need to prioritize some of the state’s endangered bridges that have been on my list for a while.  Before it’s too late.

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Pretty Pony Time

In the book “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” Stephen King divides time into several classifications.  One of them is called “Pretty Pony Time” and describes the good times, the times that will flee from you when you aren’t paying attention.  It’s a good reminder to savor your enjoyment of those times, and it also carries additional meaning for me.  Most of my road trips are spent in a “Pony Car”, the 2005 Mustang I inherited from my father after he died suddenly in 2011.  Sitting behind the wheel of that car connects me to him and it’s one of my favorite places to be.  I had one more full day of driving ahead of me as I headed out of the Land of Enchantment and back home.

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As is tradition, I awoke early Sunday morning.  Daylight Savings Time had ended overnight and by the time I checked out of the El Pueblo Lodge in Taos, the sky was already transitioning from black to deep blue.  I poured myself a cup of coffee in the lobby, thanked the staff for their hospitality, and headed east on Highway 64.

The previous night at dinner, I struck up a conversation with a lovely couple that had recommended a drive along the Enchanted Circle, a scenic byway that originates in Taos and encircles Wheeler Peak.  Although I didn’t have the time to take the entire circle, my journey east would allow me to enjoy the southern half through several canyons and the Carson National Forest.  Although I’m about to describe my journey, please understand my words pale in comparison to actually experiencing this amazing landscape.

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The two-lane highway weaves through canyons and alongside the Rio Fernando de Taos.  Several campgrounds and small communities emerged from the forest as I rounded corners, though it was still too early for much activity.  As the sun continued to rise, the clouds swirling around the peaks turned bright orange; it looked like the treeline had caught fire.  The paved switchbacks were much easier to handle than the previous day’s gravel lanes along the Rio Grande.  By the time I emerged into the Moreno Valley, the sun was barely peeking over the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east.  The town of Angel Fire was still shrouded in shadow.

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My first stop of the day was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park.  It opened in 1971 and was the first major Vietnam memorial in the US.  It features a UH-1D Huey helicopter that saw service in Vietnam, a chapel, visitor’s center, a statue of a soldier writing a letter home, and a scale model of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in DC.  It was also COLD!  The temperature was around 40 F and the wind was gusting at 45 mph.  I explored quickly before dashing to the car to thaw my hands on the cup that held the last remnants of my morning coffee.

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The last leg of the Enchanted Circle took me to Eagle Nest and the lake it sat beside.  There, I branched off east, drove around Green Mountain, and snaked through the Cimarron Canyon.  It was another beautiful drive, this time alongside the Cimarron River on the old Santa Fe Trail.  I can’t fathom the difficulty of getting through that terrain in a covered wagon.  When I arrived in the town of Cimarron on the east side of the canyon, there were numerous historic markers dedicated to frontier days.  I didn’t stay long, but I vowed to return and explore the area fully with Samantha.

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The terrain morphed from the green forest and rocky slopes of the canyons to the golden plains of Colfax County as I motored towards my last major stop on the trip, Raton.  The town had quite a collection of vintage neon signs and a great historic downtown district.  I felt great remorse for packing SO MUCH into my weekend trip; I didn’t get nearly the time I wanted to explore.  I did, however, take the time to grab a quick breakfast (and more coffee!) before continuing east towards Oklahoma.

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Highway 84 took me through Capulin, Des Moines, and Grenville.   These communities all had a population of less than 150 and were barely hanging on to incorporation.  I stopped for gas in Des Moines and had a chat with the woman running the lone convenience store: they saw mostly long-haul truckers, utility traffic, tourists coming to the Capulin National Monument, and Santa Fe Trail buffs.  The landscape was pretty desolate until I reached Clayton, which quickly returned to isolated countryside through the Oklahoma Panhandle.

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Most people find that kind of drive boring.  I can understand that, but it also provides a view into a way of life that is completely foreign to me.  Cattle ranches, large farming operations, and rural living on a scale that I can’t quite comprehend.  Life moves slowly in these parts, and I would probably learn a lot if I slowed down to observe more carefully.  Like the rest of the weekend, though, I couldn’t dally.  I had a long way to go yet.

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I had left Taos at 6:30 AM and didn’t arrive in Tulsa until 6:45 PM.  The odometer on the Mustang had surpassed 165k miles, with nearly 1,300 added over the previous three days.  A long weekend of driving, sure, but there were so many moments of awe that I barely noticed the aches that came with that much time in the driver’s seat.  I must budget more time and take Samantha to Los Luceros, the Cimarron Canyon, and the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.  These places must be savored, and I hope those of you reading get the chance to do just that…and that it is your own Pretty Pony Time.

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Capturing Time (part two)

This is part two of my day spent traveling to Española and Taos.  For part one, click here.

The eventful morning had me in an excellent mood.  My window was down and my radio was cranked high as I entered a valley.  Small artistic communities dotted the shoulder as the two-lane road snaked around mountains and the Rio Grande river.  The sudden appearance of an old Frontier Gas sign told me I’d arrived at my next stop: The Classical Gas Museum.

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The collection of roadway relics in Embudo, NM is the work of Johnnie Meier.  The man has spent decades collecting a great variety of rusted and restored roadside paraphernalia.  Signs, license plates, gas pumps, even a partially-restored Valentine Diner.  Johnnie is also active in the New Mexico Route 66 Association, having lead it on several occasions.  He has restored over a dozen neon signs over the years, including a full replication of the lost signage at Albuquerque’s KiMo Theatre.  To say we had a lot to talk about would be an understatement.  I had a blast getting to know him a little bit and shared a bit of my passions in return.  I had to tear myself away eventually, but I promised I’d keep in touch.

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A few miles down the road, I branched off the main highway onto a smaller two-lane that ran right alongside the Rio Grande.  It was a beautiful drive; the sound of the river and the steep rock slopes on either side gave my journey a magical feeling.  At Taos Junction, a small truss bridge crossed the river.  Once again, I was out-and-about taking photos with the energy of a kid.  No doubt the people fly-fishing in the river were curious about my excitement, but it was a silent curiosity.

My excitement was tempered somewhat when I got back in the Mustang and realized I would have to take a crazy switchback drive up the side of the valley to get out.  I had flashbacks to the Moki Dugway as I navigated the gravel path; thankfully, I didn’t encounter any significant opposing traffic.  When I reached the top, I took a triumphant break and marveled at the mountain range in the distance.  What beautiful country!

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Next on my list was another bridge, though this one was quite a bit bigger.  The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is 1,280 feet long and sits 565 feet above the river!  It’s an engineering marvel.  Although I was happy to take photos from the nearby scenic outlook, I dared not join the dozen-or-so other tourists that had walked out on it.  I had enough trouble with the height from the parking lot.  I drove over it just fine, anyway.

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My final sight-seeing stop of the day, was a third bridge.  The John Dunn Bridge also spans the Rio Grande, a bit farther north.  I was greeted with yet another steep, rocky road on my approach.  It was so bad I almost turned around…but, thankfully, I didn’t.  The bridge itself sits beautifully in another valley.  As stressful as those drives were, the views were worth it.  I’m just happy the car didn’t rattle to bits.

I pulled in to my motel in Taos close to sunset.  I took a stroll down to the town square, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and retired.  It had been a long and productive day on the road…with one more long day of driving to get home.  But, if you know me, you know it wouldn’t be a straight shot.

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