Friday, November 12, 2010

The Midwest.

See the picture of the truck from my last post? I named him Mater, after the beat-down pickup truck character in the Pixar movie Cars. He's parked right on the edge of a farm up on Salisbury Street, a road that extends north out of West Lafayette into stretches of corn fields and windmill farms. A "$1200 obo" sign is taped to his window. I often ride my bike up Salisbury for the scenery, and am just fixated with Mater every time.

When I finally took my camera out to take photos of the truck, the farmer came out and asked me if I wanted to buy him. I had to explain that I have a fascination with old things, antique machinery, used pieces, to which the farmer invited me to the plowing of his field the next day. There'd be thirty tractors doing the plow, he said, a lot of them antique. There'd be a potluck for lunch, and oh, my name is Tim, nice to meet you. How could I refuse?

The next day, my friend and I arrived and immediately were shepherded to Tim's brother's garage, full of a dozen old mid-century vehicles. I was smitten. This green one dates back to the 1920's and used to be a school bus, can you imagine? The seats inside were wooden, and the inside wasn't tall enough for me to stand up straight.

In Indiana, corn is king, and I figured that these farmers could tell me everything I wanted to know about how it's grown, where it goes, how much they produce, what the profits are like, what subsidies they get, where it's stored. The whole time they were telling me these things, I kept thinking back to Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, a book I read a few years back that sealed my fascination with agriculture and the food system.

It is so easy on principle to put down corn farmers for producing way too much of this one thing at a detriment to the health of the country's people and the environment. But actually interacting with these farmers made me realize, crucially, that like any other people working to produce, the short-term economics will prevail over the philosophy and the long-term consequences. The seed these farmers used are Monsanto-patented, and the reason they do this is solely because it is profitable. To change the flow of this system, it is not enough to indoctrinate people on what is sustainable or healthy. All big changes start with economic incentives, not moral ones.

I should stop myself before digressing further. This is a long, long, long discussion for another day.

They told me I could wallow in this huge repository of corn, but I politely refused, as good of a photo-op as that would have been.

Afterwards, we were graciously invited to their pot-luck lunch, and despite fearing that I was overstaying my welcome, they insisted, and I helped myself to delicious chili and cobbler. The plowing was a community event; all the neighbors were there, and most of Tim's extended family.

One unintended result of moving to Indiana is that I can stop just reading about agriculture. Here, I have people to talk to. As I start to think about these things more and more, I'm sure I'll come up with plenty of questions to ask.

Adventures with a new camera.

After months of pining for a dSLR to call my own, I'm now the proud owner of a Canon EOS 10D. It's an older, discontinued model, so purchased used, the camera body cost me less than a point-and-shoot, and serves as a great introductory instrument for me to teach myself photography.

There's no better way to learn than to shoot lots of pictures. Last weekend, I went out with a friend on a field trip around town for the express purpose of fiddling with my new toy.

There are certain things that I find inexplicably beautiful. I like rough slabs of painted wood with the color chipping off.

And man-made structures gone feral, taken over by shrubs or weeds, inhabited by small living things.

I'm enamoured with old industrial things - structures made of steel or metal, or parts of machines - that are rusted over or crumbling apart, retired from its original purpose and now sitting in a state of neglect.

These textures and visuals speak to me in ways that I can't explain but always make me look twice.

Photography and music are one and the same. You have an artistic idea in your head, you know how it sounds, looks, feels, but it requires technical proficiency to demonstrate the idea to someone else. The goal is to externalize what I perceive internally, and bridging that gap will take a lot of practice. I can take any old snapshot and make it look halfway decent, but to elevate it to a photograph that's really worth looking at requires navigating through a whole host of practical challenges that I'm only beginning to understand.

Right now, when I take a picture that I'm happy with, it's probably just because I got lucky. It will take a lot more trial-and-error and thousands and thousands more pictures before I understand how to control the output in a way that brings out what I see in my head.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mt Harvard.

One defining aspect of living in Lafayette: restlessness.

After barely a month of living here, I found a group of similar-minded people and booked it out of the state for the long weekend, driving 20 hours westward to the mountains of Colorado.

Six of us shared a car on the way there, trading shifts and driving through the night. The best shift of all was mine: sunrise, just as we were entering Colorado, as the terrain began to change and mountains began to rise up out of the plains of Kentucky.

Getting close to Pike's Peak in Colorado Springs.

I couldn't have hand-picked a better road trip group than this one. Hardly five minutes passed when we weren't talking or bantering; the conversations were so entertaining that I'm surprised any of us got any sleep at all.

Pit stop to take in the view.

Mt Harvard is what they call a '14er', a peak of over 14,000 feet, of which there are 54 in Colorado alone. Harvard is the 3rd highest in the state, and rises out of the small town of Buena Vista. There we met up with 9 others, and made camp near the trailhead. In a feeble attempt to acclimatize to the elevation, we slept at around 10,000 feet.

Talk about an early start; our alarms went off at 2:30am. After breakfast by headlamp in the chilly night air, packed with several liters of water and thousands of calories of trail food, we started the tramp in one big group.

The group broke apart before long. Five of the stronger guys booked it up the mountain, reaching the peak well over an hour before I did. Another 14er, Mt Columbia, is attached to Harvard via a 3-mile ridge, which is exposed, steep, very strenuous, and takes a conservative 3 hours to complete. The group of five who first reached Harvard crossed over to Columbia and thus managed to summit two 14ers in the same day, an awesome accomplishment.

Me, I was happy to take my time. The hiking was fairly straightforward up until we hit treeline at about 12,500 feet. From there, the nasty talus (boulder field) began. Since we were approaching the summit from the west face of the mountain, we couldn't see the actual sunrise, but the peaks behind us turned pink with daylight as we began the final ascent.

Snacks and a nap break at 13,000.
Piles of rock pointing out the trail.

The final kilometer took 2 hours to complete and was quite tiring. Not only was the terrain very steep, but the gusts of 40mph winds kept knocking me around, and the altitude had its effects as well.

My walking buddy behind me, looking very small.
Our walking trail can be seen faintly down the middle. Bear Lake to the right.

It was a tremendous feeling to finally make the summit at 14,420 feet. The top was very exposed, with little flat space to rest and a sheer drop on the other side. Still, I couldn't help dawdling. I found a small space to dodge the high winds, and sat there contentedly for the next hour. The weather could not have been more perfect. Blue skies, white clouds, visibility for hundreds of miles.

Panorama video from the top.

The descent was quick. My walking partners and I kept up a driving pace down the talus, back down to treeline, all the way to the trailhead.

After everyone else had arrived back at camp, we promptly packed up and headed home, but not before a much-needed meal of Mexican in Colorado Springs. Another 20 hours later, exhausted but happy (especially, these boys, who climbed both Harvard and Columbia), we arrived back in Lafayette.

I'm already looking forward to the next trip, and am glad to realize that my exploration kick from the past year has not quite ended (and indeed, may never need to).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Indiana State Fair.

Last weekend, my friend Alex drove down here to my new abode in Lafayette, Indiana. Since I'm still relatively new to the Midwest (going to school in Chicagoland does not count, in my opinion), we decided to get a feel for its culture by going to the Indiana State Fair down in Indianapolis, about an hour drive from where I live.

Deep-fried foods being a quintessential element of all state fairs, it was a gluttonous day. We started out with a "pepsi burst", which Alex is seen munching on here. Fried dough balls, coated with cinnamon sugar and doused in a pepsi-based syrup. I was hoping more for a fried ball with carbonated pepsi inside which would gush out when chewed. Oh well.

It is difficult to resist the sight and smell of gigantic turkey legs being roasted on a grill. Despite the legs being as big as my face, it was not difficult for us to finish one off, doused in black pepper and hot sauce.

The culinary highlight of the day was the infamous donut burger, which is exactly what it sounds like. A grilled beef patty, with melted cheese, onions and pickles, between two Krispy Kremes. The prospect of clogging my arteries with the thing terrified me until I ate it. It was an interesting blend of sweet and savory, and tasted oddly like a Big Mac. Not something that I'd do every day, but I certainly enjoyed the novelty of it.

And then there was the hot beef sundae, which I had been meaning to try since seeing it at the Tennessee State Fair a few years ago. It was delicious, but not quite as cool as it sounds, being a normal concoction of mashed potatoes over chunks of beef, topped with corn and gravy.

The most hilarious moment of the fair was when we discovered a machine called VibraBody Slim, meant to shake your fat off with varying speeds of vibrations. When you turn it on, the platform on which you stand begins to shake back and forth, and your entire body begins to jiggle - a sight that had me doubled over in laughter for a good ten minutes. Speeds increase all the way up to level 30, at which point my vision blurred and I became quite nauseous, and could feel my brain vibrating within my skull. We revisited the machines at the end of the day, and discovered that 3 out of their 5 display models had been sold. Oh, oh, Indiana.

The rest of the time, we just strolled around, enjoying the sight of carnival rides, tractors as big as houses, smaller farm vehicles from the '60s and '70s, hogs, goats, draft horses, blacksmith demonstrations, smoke-emitting wood-chopping machines, and many other things that I find charming about rural America.

This thing cost as much as my parents' house!

A word about these pictures: I no longer own a digital camera, having ruined my previous one with an unfortunate water spill. However, my dad gave me his old Canon EOS Elan II, a 35mm SLR camera made in the late '90s. Having never used a film camera before, it was a challenge to fiddle with settings without being able to immediately see the results, and to be limited to just 36 pictures for the entire day. However, I'm largely happy with how they turned out, and I think the grainy quality almost highlights the rustic feel of the all-American Midwest.

There are some instances when I feel that advanced digital cameras are almost too perfect in how they capture reality, whereas slight imperfections can give an image a quality of dreaminess, which I'm drawn to. I'd really like to use this Canon as a base for learning more about film photography.

End tangent. The weekend was a good one. I'm settling into Indiana just fine.