The Dunes: Homebound

IMG_1787We left San Luis Valley as the sunrise splashed the mountains with orange heading for the plains, but before all of that, we stopped at the Raton-Clayton volcanic field in the northeast corner of New Mexico. Lava flows, lava domes like the one above and extinct volcanoes cover about 8,000 square miles there, according to the National Park Service’s helpful pamphlet. Capulin Volcano, a nicely symmetrical cinder cone that’s designated a national monument, is just a couple miles off the highway. Capulin last erupted about 60,000 years ago, or around the time humans first ventured past the edge of Africa, for anyone keeping track. We walked down into its crater.


IMG_1784The rest of the field started forming 9 million years ago, or several million years before mammoths and saber-tooth tigers first appeared. I keep coming back to the ages of these places because they’re astounding. That volcano is about five times as old as human agriculture but could be just one-seventh as old as the Great Sand Dunes. The dunes, meanwhile, could be several times the age of the human species yet are essentially the age of kindergartners when compared to this lava field, which is itself an afterthought in the entire Rocky Mountain range.

Anyway, much was the same in Oklahoma’s flatness: the oddly abandoned towns, the enormous piles of hay, the bridges over creeks running dry. But unlike the first drive, we passed about a dozen stationary trains alongside the road; early in them orning I’d heard something about a train-truck collision along U.S. 25 on the radio and figured that was the reason, but it must have been a minor accident, because I can’t find a single news story on it.


IMG_1790Later, a massive cloud of smoke appeared like a haze along the horizon, coming from near Woodward, Oklahoma. Here it is from the west, looming over some wind turbines for scale:

IMG_1798And from the other side:

IMG_1805I could still see the smoke 100 miles east of the grass fire responsible, blasted northeast by Oklahoma wind. The fire had burned about 35 square miles by Thursday, and the cause was still unclear. No one was hurt, though.

The last landmark we passed in sunlight was Tulsa. We were back in northwest Arkansas around 9 p.m.


IMG_1811Being back home felt strange; driving across the panhandle, I had to make sure I had enough gas between towns, especially since some were empty, while in the dunes, I had to make sure I had enough food and water in case of delays and that I stayed hydrated. I realized in Fayetteville I didn’t have to do either anymore.

As a side-note, if you have a tight budget and don’t mind a long drive, road trips to national parks or anywhere else can be worth it. Hotel, food and gas for this trip cost about the same as one plane ticket. And just think of everything I would have missed if I had flown. It was all worth it.

Thanks for looking and reading, everybody.


Fire Pt. 2

_C1_8823My project on rural and volunteer fire departments, which I first mentioned here, came to an end this weekend after three and a half months of work. It’s behind a paywall, but you can read the finished story here, if you like.

I focused more on reporting than photography during the second half of the project, but I still have a few to share. The first few are from an August fire south of Fayetteville; five departments squeezed their tanker trucks down a narrow country lane to fight it, but one man, Dale Cheatham, died inside, likely before crews arrived.



_C1_8972It was so hot around the house the fighters took 15-minute shifts before retreating to this area, where medics checked their vitals and passed out bottles of water.

_C1_8279This photo is from a training meeting up in Goshen. Going through a half-built home is a good way to see and discuss how a home is built, how to approach fires in different parts of the structure, where there’s lots of air to feed a fire, how the floors are constructed. Firefighters, even volunteers, have to keep probably three dozen things in mind as they fight.

Finally, just a few images from a fundraising breakfast for the Northeast Benton County, or NEBCO, department. Many departments are struggling with recruitment and resources, but hundreds of people turned out to support them earlier this month.



_C1_0841As with many long projects, I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad I’m done. I owe so much to all the volunteers, chiefs and supporters who talked with me and let me intrude into their lives for a little while. It’s an amazingly tight-knit and friendly group.

Thanks for looking,


Water and Fire

_C1_8106I dropped the ball last weekend, so you get twice the photos today.

First, some friends of mine guided me to an exceptionally beautiful spot in the Ozark National Forest, almost exactly between Fayetteville and Clarksville. Clear water tumbles down dozens of natural stone steps before falling down a medium-sized waterfall. The falls open to a roughly circular opening in the canopy, where the water turns a cloudy green.

A few other groups came and went while we were there. I didn’t jump in. Some of the others did.











_C1_8153Second, I’ve been working on a bit of a summer project for the Times about the volunteer and rural fire departments in the area. I’ll be writing a story, and they’re also letting me take the photos. It’s sure been a while since I’ve had that chance, so I’m excited.


There’s an overall pattern of connection: Within departments, almost everyone is related to, or long-time friends, with everyone else. Several siblings work in adjoining departments. Many volunteers have uncles or dads or moms who fought fire — some families have been in it for five generations. A bunch of them also work in the professional departments throughout northwest Arkansas. They say they do it for pride, to give back and to have fun.

But some departments are also struggling. Breakfasts or potlucks that used to bring a hundred people are cancelled because no one shows up. Departments that used to have more than 50 members now have a dozen. The same thing’s reported nationwide, and chiefs aren’t sure if the pattern will ever reverse.

So far, I’ve mainly gone to training and other meetings, so I have plenty of work left to do. I absolutely need to get out there when they’re responding to a fire, for example. We’ll see how the story shapes up. It should be running in September, if you’re interested. Now, more photos.










_C1_7121Thanks for looking! I always hope to make this blog worth your time.



Back in the Day

_C1_4250The breeze was warm and the gold of sunset glowed through swirls of gossamer cloud in the west when the first cars arrived. Soon the drive-in theater’s driveway  was strung with a half-mile of vehicles. Pink tinged the deepening blue in the east as tires quietly crunched gravel.

Nearby, headlights beamed in every direction as their cars criss-crossed the parking lot. Kids darted and laughed between them. Older couples stayed in their cars, and a man with a security vest patrolled wordlessly. Sunset deepened to dusk. Cars’ insides swelled with the sounds of fighters struggling and helicarriers exploding. Outside the windows it was quiet.

The sky was black when the credits ended. A cheery ’50s-style jitterbug played from speakers as the headlight beams returned. The manager reminded everyone to buy candy at the concession stand, and slanted spikes in the ground reminded everyone re-entry was not permitted.

* * *

_C1_4371Water tumbled over the dam, a 30-foot staircase of boulders. Twin wafers of vibrant gold — the wings of a tiger swallowtail butterfly — fluttered down alongside it. At the bottom of the wall two girls tiptoed through underwater moss. One wore red, the other, pink. Two sets of parents stood near them ready to grab a wayward arm.

A boy clambered down from the side and spotted his target: the butterfly, blinking in the sun with each flap. He gave chase in three-second bursts, hands outstretched. The insect ducked and bobbed between his arms but never went far, as if it were joining the boy’s game. After one or two minutes the boy gave up the chase,  lobbing rocks at the butterfly instead.

He missed. The butterfly stayed,  flashing yellow among flecks of silver water.