I guess it’s fitting I’ve chosen today, a holiday named for a martyr, to explain how our blog died. Or, more accurately, how I killed it.
It’s Valentine’s Day, 2011. Jill and I have been back at our home in Phoenix for a month. We traveled to 35 states (and one U.S. territory) during the past year, but our blogging stopped back in October, somewhere near the Texas-Louisiana border.
We never documented our travels across the Deep South, Atlantic Coast, New England, Great Lakes, Northern Rockies or Pacific Northwest. We failed to chronicle chance meetings with benevolent strangers and rewarding stays with old friends. Encounters with rattlesnakes, gray wolves and grizzly bears went uncatalogued. Ruminations about regional food, mountain trails and camping gear went unshared. The whole promise of the blog, inasmuch as there was one, went unfulfilled.
The fault for this rests with me.
Last January, a week before we set out on our journey, two of our closest Phoenix friends treated us to a sendoff dinner at Jill’s favorite restaurant of the moment. At meal’s end, after the plates were cleared but before the last sips were drained from our glasses, our friend Stephanie — who is notorious for posing big-picture, put-life-in-context questions — leaned across the table, locked her eyes to ours, and asked, “OK, what is the one thing you hope get out of this trip?”
Jill and I paused, considering the scope of the question. I answered first, saying that I looked forward to leaving behind workaday responsibilities for a life lived spontaneously. I said I hoped to attach personal memories to names on maps, to see at least one new place every day and to temporarily approach life with abandon. It was a stream-of-conscience ramble that could have been distilled to six words: I just want to have fun.
When Jill sensed that I was done, she waded into her own reply. She said she looked forward to practicing her art in concert with mine — that we had spent our respective professional lives taking photographs and writing words, but we had never worked on a project together. She said she hoped we could develop story ideas for magazines, which might — who knows? — lead us to new careers as freelance travel journalists.
“Wow,” said our friend Laura flatly. The perfect yang to Stephanie’s yin, Laura is notorious for making cold assessments and sharing them (among friends, at least) with minimal reheating. “You do realize you have completely different expectations, right?”
If we didn’t before, we did then. After we parted ways in the parking lot, I’m sure Laura must have turned to Stephanie and confided, “They’re doomed.”
We weren’t. But our blog was.
The best blogs are written by journalists and aspire to journalism; their intent is to enlighten and, sometimes, entertain. Other enjoyable blogs are written by regular folks and aspire to sincerity; these blogs bridge distance between family and friends in a more artful way than Facebook, with journal-like writing and digital snapshots.
Jill and I hoped our blog would fall somewhere in between. But I wasn’t sure we could pull it off. Correct that: I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Not every week. For a year.
It’s not like Jill and I didn’t discuss this. I told her that I worried our different styles of working — her: passionate, ambitious, headlong; me: reflective, meticulous, meandering — might clash out on the road. This worried her, too. At the least, we worried I would slow her down; at the worst, we worried I would drive her nuts.
I ended up doing both. As the country unfurled before us, day by day, I struggled to keep up with my end of the blog bargain. Worse, I lost the desire to try. This devastated Jill, who worked her ass off to build the blog and was proud of the posts we’d done so far. She felt a responsibility to our followers and regularly checked our blog stats, tracking how many hits we were getting each day. More than once I caught her doing this in the car, on her iPhone, as pastoral countryside passed by outside her window and the CD we were listening to began to repeat.
As the blog posts fell farther behind our travels (we blogged about California from Florida), Jill’s anxiety and my guilt swelled in direct proportions. However much fun we were having each day — and we were having lots — the subject of the blog seemed to worm its way into our conversation come nightfall. It had become a weight, a thing, a cumbersome monkey stretched across both our backs.
The blog needed to die, but I couldn’t kill it. Not alone. Like some sort of doomsday device, the blog’s detonation required two keys. I do not recall the precise moment Jill finally turned her key — maybe it wasn’t a moment at all, but an incremental process — but I’m thankful she did it. We traveled lighter thereafter. Had we not amputated our figurative 12 legs, I’m not sure our literal 12 legs could have keep moving.
When friends chided me about the dormancy of the blog, I used to joke that I was on the verge of emblazoning a T-shirt with the words “FUCK THE BLOG” and wearing it every day. When people ask me if I’m going to write a book about our yearlong honeymoon, I tell them that, if I do, it will be titled “How a Traveling Couple Learned to Stop Blogging and Start Living.” Jill realizes my jokes are a means of conversational deflection, but she does not think them funny. The blog is a more sensitive subject than either of us have ever let on. (Until now.)
Despite the blog’s premature death, it was responsible for some of the most memorable days of our trip. Once, just to catch up on a few posts, we decided to stop in Natchez, Miss., and spend several days working on the blog in a motel. Only we didn’t stay in a motel; we stayed at the Mark Twain Guest House, on the shores of the Mississippi River. Our room sat atop the Under-the-Hill Saloon and had once been part of a brothel. It was furnished with a four-post bed and an antique card table. Each morning, Jill sat in the former and I sat at the latter, blogging away. The room’s big windows and french doors afforded views of the river, and we opened both to let in the breeze. Around sunset we would walk the dogs along the Big Muddy, and we whiled away the nights listening to the stories of the saloon regulars.
We had similar stop-to-blog experiences at a roadside hunting lodge in Mobridge, S.D., and a lakeside motor lodge in Detroit Lakes, Minn. At the latter, I never even cracked open my computer. I chose to read a book by the lakeshore instead.
Just because we didn’t blog about every place we traveled to doesn’t mean I’ll forget them. I won’t. And just because the blog didn’t turn out the way we thought it would doesn’t mean this past year wasn’t the best year of my life. It was.
I’d like to say I have no regrets about our decision to abandon the blog, but that would be a lie. I regret not compiling a full record of our time on the road. I regret not finishing what we started. And, most of all, I regret letting Jill down. Jill loved reading my blog posts. I should have kept writing for her, if for no one else. I guess that’s what I’m doing at the moment, because I don’t know that anybody really cares about one more dying star out here in the infinite blogosphere. But Jill does, and I think she could use a little closure. It’s the lamest Valentine’s Day gift I’ve ever given her. (Which is saying something when you consider the list includes a used tire and a plush hedgehog.)
The one silver lining in all this (for me, anyway) is that while I stopped immortalizing our adventure in words, Jill never stopped documenting it in photos. She has thousands of them. Maybe tens of thousands. It will take her months to sort through every one. If you’re wondering whether she will post the best of those images here, the answer is no. She has a new blog, one that I can’t bog down with my sludgy prose. You can find it at jillrichardsphotography.blogspot.com.
As for this blog, maybe I’ll finish it one day, for the sake of posterity or future progeny. But I’m not making any promises. If there’s one thing I learned from this once-in-a-lifetime journey, it’s that I really suck at this whole enterprise.
On the flip side, I’m damn good at honeymooning.
I’ve taken a lot of pictures during this trip. In fact, Scott and I are swimming in pictures — some good, some bad and some we won’t show. I take them with my fancy digital camera, my not-so-fancy Holga, my underwater point-and-shoot and, of course, my iPhone.
A camera is an essential for any traveler. But I have to admit that the versatility of my iPhone sometimes makes carrying three cameras seem, well, excessive. The iPhone is pretty amazing. Its camera rivals point-and-shoot cameras I’ve shot with, and it allows us to share pictures with friends and family with ridiculous ease and immediacy. As if it couldn’t get any better, the iPhone offers dozens of cool photography applications that turn mediocre pictures into something more.
Take for example, one of my favorite photo apps — the Hipstamatic.
This popular app adds vignettes, discoloration and rough edges to your digital image. The artful distortion varies depending on the lens and “film” style you choose. The basic Hipstamatic download, which costs $1.99, features three lenses (John S., Jimmy and Kaimal), three film options (Blanko, Ina’s 1969 and Kodot Verichrome), and two vintage flashes (Standard and Dreampop). Additional lenses and film are available via 99 cent bundled downloads.
As with other iPhone apps, a swipe of the fingertip lets you change settings on the Hipstamatic, and artificial sounds — a clacking shutter, a gently buzzing flash — heighten the sense of reality and nostalgia.
The Hipstamatic is effortless and groovy, and you don’t have to be a pro to make interesting pictures with it. This messes with my instincts and work ethic as a photographer. For me, making a good photo has always been hard; it’s about quality of light, quality of subject and the quality of my eye. The Hipstamatic is a cheat. In mere seconds it makes images that would take hours to create in Photoshop.
Still, after learning more about the Hipstamatic, I feel less like a schmuck for falling in love with it. The makers of the app are paying homage to the original Hipstamatic, which was an actual film camera. The back of the camera’s body as it appears on the iPhone’s screen looks just like the back of the original plastic camera, which sold for $8 in the early ’80s.
The Hipstamatic was born out of a passion for photography and conceptualized by two art students in a Wisconsin cabin. Brothers Bruce and Winston Dorbowski loved the Kodak Instamatic and set out to build a camera “even a child could afford on a small allowance.” They designed and built such a camera, and sold it through a local electronic store.
There’s no telling how big the Hipstamatic could have been. The Dorbowski brothers produced only 157 before they died in a car accident in 1984. The were killed by a drunk driver. Three years ago, however, their older brother Richard created a simple blog about the creation of the Hipstamatic. The website is a celebration of his two brothers, who were dubbed by neighbors as the “crazy hippies on the lake.” On a post dated July, 29, 2009, Richard wrote, “Today I met with two young gentleman that want to bring back the Hipstamatic … well, sort of.”
Those gentleman were software designers, of course, and their visit with Richard Dorbowski lead to the creation of an iPhone app that has been downloaded more than a million times.
I doubt the Dorbowski brothers could have imagined the Hipstamatic’s phenomenal success, let alone its reincarnation as an app for the iPhone, but I’m sure they would be thrilled that so many people — even kids with small allowances — have access to it. “It doesn’t matter if the photos aren’t prefect,” Bruce Dorbowski once said. “As long as people are capturing memories, I will be happy.”
One App Store reviewer thanked the makers of the Hipstamatic app for creating a “program for the ‘photo-stupid’ among us.” Professional photographers aren’t always so complimentary. Many see it as one more gimmick that cheapens their art form. As one photographer I greatly admire put it: “The proliferation of imagery lately is slowly sucking the creativity out of photography.”
Maybe. I admit that I sometimes feel a little dirty when I take pictures with my Hipstamatic app instead of my fancy Canon. But other times, when I’m in harsh midday light and feeling like a tourist, I just want to make a picture instead of a fuss with my gear. That’s when the Hipstamatic is my best friend. It lets me enjoy the moment, be silly, feel like a kid. I think the Dorbowski brothers would dig that.
“Turn off your headlamp,” I told Jill, switching off my own. Her head swiveled toward me, and I was blinded by the blue-white glare of her cycloptic beam.
“Are you crazy? We won’t know where they are.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said, shielding my eyes. “Let’s do the dark for a while.”
We were sitting on a small dock behind our campsite at Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, near St. Martinsville, La. Before us the swampy waters of the Borrow Pit Canal lie still and black, like a forgotten cup of tea. The dogs slept behind us. A flask of bourbon passed between us. The night was warm and clear and breezeless, and for the first time during our trip, I felt enfolded by the arms of the South.
We were watching gators.
If this country has spawned a weirder animal than the alligator, I cannot name it. Alligators always look as though they just crawled out of a primordial sludge, and for good reason: They’ve been around for 200 million years. They are, in essence, living fossils. If you hang around Cajuns in south Louisiana long enough, you will learn gators can live 60 years, grow to 14 feet long and go through 3,000 teeth in a lifetime. They can crack a turtle’s shell, capsize a johnboat and drown a black bear. Some even keep rocks in their stomachs to help with digestion.
Fascinating facts, all, but do you want to know the coolest thing about alligators? Their eyes shine bright amber — like E.T.’s heart — when illuminated by the LED beam of a headlamp. It’s eerie.
“C’mon. Turn off your light. Just for a minute.”
Jill reluctantly clicked off her headlamp, and the glowing-amber alligator eyes we had been tracking for the past half hour faded to black. The water was smoky glass. The moon hid behind the trees. We looked up — the sky was heavy with stars.
The swamp was quiet save for our words and the periodic call of a barred owl, whose distinctive voice is the wah-wah pedal of the avian music scene. Barred owls are easily the most talkative of the Bayou’s nocturnal creatures, but on this night Jill and I left our tree-perched neighbor in the conversational dust. Still water inspires reflection, I guess, and we talked a lot about how we’d gotten to this point, both figuratively and literally.
Literally, we had wobbled into Lake Fausse Pointe on three wheels. One of the CRV’s rear tires blew out on the levee road that leads to the park, and I spent our first half hour in this former home of the Chitimacha Indians putting on the spare. But, figuratively, it felt like we had begun to fall into a traveling rhythm. Pitching camp and cooking dinner had become second nature, and the dogs had become slobbering paragons of happiness and adaptability. Earlier in the day we had taken them on a hike through the swamp, where they chased each other through the black mud and tannin-stained water, joyfully oblivious to the fact they might be snatched by an alligator at any moment.
Watching the dogs gallop through gator habitat made Jill and me at once nervous and happy — not unlike this trip does when the good times roll in but the paychecks don’t. But sitting on the little dock, sipping whiskey and weaving words into the night air, we felt more peace with our decision than ever. I have no idea what the Chitimacha word for “good place” is, but we were in one.
Maybe 20 minutes had passed since we switched off our headlamps, and in that time the moon had risen to the treetops and our owl friend had ceased his caterwauling. The swamp’s silence seemed to possess weight; I could almost feel it against my temples and the tops of my shoulders. I listened for a gentle ripple or quivering leaf. I heard nothing.
“OK,” I whispered to Jill, “on the count of three, turn on your light. One … two … three …”
Our twin beams lit the surface of the canal and revealed three more alligator eyes — two of them staring directly at us no more than 10 feet from the dock’s edge. Jill let forth a muted squeal. I laughed the laugh of a man who uses chuckles to mask uneasiness.
“Are you serious? Are you serious?” Jill raised both hands to her mouth. She spoke through her fingers. “He’s totally stalking us.”
“Actually,” I said, “I think we’re the only thing keeping him from Jack and Isabel.”
It’s likely the gator had spotted the rising and falling bellies of our sleeping dogs, and was now contemplating whether they might make a good evening snack. During hungrier moments on the trip, I’ve wondered the same.
“Go get more whiskey,” I told Jill. “This is awesome.”
The dogs had become gator bait, and it might be argued I was using them to extend our evening of heightened sensory pleasure. I should probably be ashamed of this. Jill, for her part, expressed serious concern, but I tried to assuage it. Judging by the space between our stalker’s glowing eyes, I estimated he was no more than six or seven feet in length, and gators of that size typically feed on frogs and turtles and other critters much smaller than humans and big dogs. I assured Jill we were OK, that observing alligators from atop the dock was akin to watching sharks from the safety of a boat deck.
“But they can just crawl up on shore anytime they want,” she countered.
Technically, this was true. The dock rose above the water only a couple of feet, and the shoreline on either side of it sloped gently into the water. Still, there was vegetation aplenty in the form of trees and high grass.
“If one crawled out of the water, we would hear it,” I reasoned aloud. “So would the dogs. We’re fine. I promise.”
Just the same, when Jill went to fill the flask, I stepped off the dock to examine the shoreline. I walked the canal’s edge on both sides of the dock, scanning the waterline with the high beam from my headlamp. The left side was clear; but on the right, shining through a tangle of low branches, was another set of glowing amber eyes.
We were darn near surrounded. In my year of Peter Pan adventure, I was beginning to feel like Captain Hook.
When Jill returned, I apprised her of the situation. We stood in the center of the dock, and I illuminated the canal with a methodical sweep of my light, pointing out the position of each gator. We counted five. This included the sly sucker right in front of us, who seemed to have inched closer to the dock. His burning-ember gaze did not waver. At the other end of it, behind the legs of our camp chairs, Isabel stretched and sighed and settled back into a state of slothful inertia. The great Killer of Cats had no idea 600 pounds of scaly karma lurked just below her sight line.
Jill and I sat down and clicked off our headlamps. The moon was high enough now that we could see the shadowy forehead of the closest gator. I reached for Jill’s hand and planted a kiss on her forearm. She smiled and passed the whiskey.
Back in Phoenix, one of our favorite evening pastimes is sitting on our back patio watching the sprinklers. This is where, many a night, we talked for hours about the trip ahead, conjuring possibilities and particulars, assessing rewards and risks. We knew life on the road would be good, that there were bound to be pleasant surprises, but even in the dreamiest of our sprinkler dialogues, we never imagined this.
Freeport, Texas was merely a pit stop on our path eastward. Neither of us had seen the Texas coastline, and we were due for a night of camping — both for our souls and our budget. As always, we seemed to be the last guests to arrive at the campground — this one Quintana Beach County Park — but at least, for once, we were able to pitch our tent and cook dinner before dark. We also were happy to see a flat expanse of grass, which is a luxury for tent campers accustomed to sleeping atop dirt and rock and roots. The dogs chased seagulls across the open field, and later zigzagged through the sand in pursuit of crabs during a late-night walk on the beach. It was a perfect pit stop, and it set us back only 17 bucks.
Our bellies full of brisket, Scott and I made our way toward the Texas coast. We cruised through rural roads, past cattle ranches and pastures filled with horses, goats and yellow wildflowers. The scenery was breathtaking. I’ve never known this Texas. My previous trips followed Interstate 40. I remember eating country-fried steak at a Grandy’s in Amarillo, and I once interviewed for a job in Houston — in August. Had I known Texas was so splendid in spring, I would have bypassed I-40 and opted for a 600-mile detour through the belly of the Lone Star State when the bluebonnets were blooming. I now have a better idea why Texans don’t want their state messed with.