Somewhere along I-80 in Illinois, an extensive line of retired satellite dishes painted in whimsical colors and patterns marches along the roadside fence. They caught my eye as my daughter Michaela and I drove past on our way to Michigan in late September. Our ensuing discussion about their purpose (they’re just for fun, according to info we found on a local tourism website) stirred us out of the monotony of the highway and white lines.
Amarillo Ramp (snapshot)
On the mid-September road trip I took with my daughter, Michaela, we visited Robert Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp. Like many remote land art installations, seeing it in person presents a challenge. This one requires more determined planning than Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels that I visited a couple of years ago, because it is located on a private ranch. I had to submit a request to visit the site.
I’m glad I didn’t have to follow directions and drive to Amarillo Ramp, because from my perspective they would’ve been as follows: Drive 200 feet, turn left at the 5-foot mesquite; drive 77 feet, turn left at the 3-foot mesquite; drive 412 feet, turn left at the 6-foot mesquite and so on. I’m sure I would’ve gotten lost amongst all the mesquite! Instead, our guide Bradley drove us, twisting and turning down barely-there, bumpy dirt roads (tracks), the rusty-orange color of the Texas panhandle soil.
Bradley was very friendly and an excellent guide, relaying history and stories about the area and the people from around the world he has taken to Amarillo Ramp over 20-some years. He knows the route so well that nothing distracts him from the story he is telling, not even hopping out of the 4WD pickup to open gates.
It was easy to spot the site when we arrived at the natural overlook. Smithson originally staked it out in an irrigation water retention lake, but the water is long gone, as is the dry, cracked soil left in the absence of water. Now the site is located in a lake of prairie grasses, yucca, mesquite and cholla. Entropy has ensued, and time has eroded Amarillo Ramp, quite noticeably in comparison to photos from 1973, and the top is much narrower than when it was constructed. (There are varying views on whether or not Smithson intended for the site to erode back into the earth, but most scholars I’ve read indicate that was not his intent and that he would’ve wanted it to be restored regularly. A dedicated art professor from West Texas A&M tackles vegetation in an attempt to keep it from overtaking the ramp — thank you!)
As we made our way down the path from the overlook, Bradley motioned to our left and pointed out that we were just a few yards from where Smithson died in a plane crash while examining the staked-out site, along with the pilot and a photographer. (Nancy Holt directed the construction of her husband’s final piece, having worked through the design of it with him.) Being there gave me an eerie feeling, but also one of connection. I was reminded of my experiences with ancient petroglyphs — art connects human beings throughout time in a non-linear manner, no matter when in measured time the artist(s) and I existed.
We walked the length of the ramp and back, and while it brought back memories of walking Spiral Jetty, I pondered how different the two are. Amarillo Ramp didn’t evoke the same meditative experience, and I didn’t have to pay careful attention to where I placed each step on jagged rocks. I wondered what it would’ve been like had the lake retained water, and I thought of earthen boat ramps at lakes I experienced as a kid. (Did Smithson have those in mind when he designed the piece?) But instead of descending into the lake as a boat ramp would, the ramp ascends into the sky overlooking the vast landscape, more like a ramp from which to take flight. That makes me wonder if Smithson’s sci-fi interests and/or drawings for land art at an airport influenced this piece.
I don’t think for a moment I’ll ever find answers to some of my questions, even though I will continue to search. They probably went with Smithson when the plane crashed. And I don’t think that artists are obligated to provide answers to every question that viewers will have. Each one of us brings our own references and history to a piece, and therefore our own degree of interpretation. (In my own work, others see things I don’t and didn’t intend. I’m okay with that, unless my stated intentions and vision are ignored.)
I would like to return to Amarillo Ramp someday and spend a few hours there, listening to and feeling the winds, experiencing the changing light and sky, being a part of the site, transcending time.
On our road trip back from Toronto, Fred, Michaela and I stopped for a night in Chicago. WE SAW HAMILTON! We were so excited to see the musical that we could hardly wait for it. Though the theater was packed and we were in the balcony nosebleed section, we were thrilled to be in the room where it happened!
Yeah, that opening paragraph was cheesy (Hamilfans get it), but the musical is pure creative genius! The music, the lyrics, the dancing, the costumes, the staging, the brilliance of the actors, THE ENERGY – it all blew me away.
I’ve not been able to get the songs from Hamilton out of my head for the past two months since we attended the evening performance. As I’ve thought about them, and about the show as a whole, I’ve realized another musical had a significant influence on my life.
When I was growing up, any time South Pacific (the original film) was aired on TV, my family watched. We listened to the soundtrack on our stereo over and over. We drew pictures of islands with palm trees and dreamed of sandy beaches and Bali Ha’i calling. I washed men out of my hair and learned that just like Nellie Forbush, by nature I am a cockeyed optimist.
But it took becoming an adult for me to thoroughly understand the meaning of you’ve got to be carefully taught to hate all the people your relatives hate, before you are 6, or 7, or 8. (My ears perked up when I caught the reference as Hamilton, Lafayette, Laurens, Mulligan, and Burr sang My Shot.) South Pacific unabashedly addressed racial and xenophobic issues.
I find the arts to be very powerful. They have the power to teach us about our history, consider our present, and learn about ourselves. They have the power to change our lives.
Since Hamilton made me want to dig deeper, I’m now reading the biography by Ron Chernow that inspired the musical. The book is opening my eyes to the early years of our country and is revealing that I have a lot to learn. Because I’ve got a lot to learn, I know my life will be changed, and I won’t throw away my shot to grow.
View from Canada (snapshot)
Our red 2007 Subaru Forester safely carried us on another long road trip this summer! Fred and I traveled east to Toronto, Ontario, to pick up Michaela and her belongings. She was moving out of her apartment since she’s spending next year in DC at the Smithsonian American Art Museum as a predoctoral fellow. (More on this in a future post!)
After leaving the metropolis (amid much honking and aggressive behavior by Ontario drivers), we took a short side trip to Niagara Falls on the Canadian side to see the natural wonder. Along the way we stopped at a Tim Horton’s fast food place for lunch and were waiting to order. A family came in behind us and looked around, seemingly confused. The woman wondered aloud why people were not approaching the counter to order, but were hovering back by the door, and she asked me, “Isn’t there a queue?” Noting that she spoke with a distinct British accent, I replied that we were Americans and weren’t sure how the line was forming either. She chuckled and said “We’re all foreigners!”
When we finally arrived at the falls after winding through the cluster of shops, casinos and hotels, I pondered the experience while looking through the mist over to the United States and seeing our flag waving. Observing your own country from another offers perspective and a fresh viewpoint, whether it be physical or philosophical. People on the US side were gazing over the falls toward us, and we were gazing toward them.
Gathered at the edge of the roaring water with hundreds of others, many probably foreigners like us, reminded me that people are people. As humans, we have much in common! I heard so many different languages being spoken that I lost count, but I observed people taking photos, pointing and using similar body language, no matter what verbal language they spoke, to communicate about the view. We were all taking selfies and ussies with the falls as a backdrop so that someday we can look back and say, “We were there!”
We’re on this spinning planet together — the falling water at Niagara didn’t notice us or our differences. We are bound together by our humanity, our place in the universe, our desire to record that we existed and saw a place, and our confusion as to how to properly form a line at a fast food place in a country we don’t call home.
Bonneville Salt Flats (snapshot)
Hot, scorching sun baked the flats the day we went. I anticipated this stop more than any others Fred and I planned on our road trip. The feel of the place was as I hoped it would be, and I had some installations to create on the bottom of ancient Lake Bonneville.
There is a road a ways out onto the flats that vehicles are to stay on. Driving on the wet salt in the winter and spring damages the fragile surface. I was irritated by the amount of deep ruts I had to walk through, left behind by people who care only to do what they want with no consideration for the land, as I walked north toward the mountain range.
While on the recent road trip, I was fortunate to spend a day and a half at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art while Fred was at a conference. The first day, my cousin Jeff (a popular Bay-area musician) met me there, along with his friend Leah (a teacher) and her daughter Ruby (a kindergartener). It was so much fun! I enjoy experiencing art with people engaged in endeavors other than visual art—they give me fresh perspectives and interesting viewpoints. And there’s nothing like enjoying art with a 5-year-old! I’ll never forget how we all blew on the Calder mobiles to force their movement in a gallery lacking air flow.
I arrived when the museum opened on the second day, and much to my delight I was alone in many galleries. It was just me and the art, including this huge (153 in. x 488 3/8 in. x 782 3/16 in.) steel sculpture, Sequence, by Richard Serra. The sculpture is in a well-lit interior space that has a large terraced seating area for viewing the piece, and I also walked inside of it. I could’ve spent hours with this one art work, but there were so many other pieces I wanted to see.
Spiral Jetty (snapshot)
After visiting Sun Tunnels (see previous post), Fred and I headed east in northern Utah for a stop at Spiral Jetty, the iconic land art created by Nancy Holt’s husband, Robert Smithson. We’d been there before, and were hoping we might see differences in the piece after six years.
In 2010, the dirt road was deeply rutted and advertised as only being passable in an all-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive vehicle. There were very few people at the site, and all seemed to experience it in hushed whispers. Walking on the rough, rocky jetty required concentration and was similar to walking a labyrinth. There was no sound—the air was still and time stood still. It was a transformative experience I’ll never forget.
There were differences at the site this year, but not as we expected. (I thought the water level might be higher.) The dirt road was no longer deeply rutted and challenging to pass. It had been nicely groomed and was now a fairly easy drive for passenger vehicles. This seemed too easy for a site that British artist Tacita Dean searched for and was unable to locate in the ’90s when the land art was submerged.
When we arrived at the location, our car was one of many. A woman approached us and requested that we not park where we had planned because people in her party were on the hill overlooking the site trying to capture the perfect photo. We parked elsewhere.
We hiked part way up the hill, not recalling the groomed trail that now exists, and found a monument with a descriptive plaque for the site. An Eagle Scout had made this his project in 2014. I was impressed that a young man would want to take care of an art site and make it more accessible.
But then I didn’t like it. There were so many people! There were families yelling at each other across the jetty, and children were screaming and playing. My cherished memories of our first trip to the site were being assaulted by the cacophony. If one car load of people left, another arrived shortly thereafter.
What was once a site accessed only by souls on a mission, had become a tourist destination on this Sunday afternoon. I’m glad that more people are seeing the art. I’m sad that more people are seeing the art.
I didn’t walk on the jetty as I had on our first trip. The reflective emotions I experienced on that initial visit would have been stripped away by the noise and activity. Instead, I walked south, past all the miniature Spiral Jetty replicas people had made, to a place of solitude.
Sun Tunnels (snapshot)
Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels rest on the land in a remote part of northwest Utah. You have to want to get there—the land art is not a roadside attraction that you stumble upon while driving across the state.
It was a hot day in July when Fred and I made our pilgrimage to the site. The thermometer was pushing 100, there were few clouds in the sky and no trees to provide shade or help mark the passage of time. Mirages of water appeared all around us. We arrived when the sun was high in the sky and found ourselves alone with the land art.
I feel that my soul is bare and exposed when experiencing land art in open spaces, and the sites become sacred. Sun Tunnels was no exception. With no sound other than our quiet footsteps, the world transformed to one that was visually transcendent.
After walking around and through the four tunnels, absorbing the tactile quality of the concrete through my fingers, I sat down in one, cradled by the curve and cool surface of the interior. I let myself simply BE.
Our lands pt. 2 (snapshots)
I made it to a redwood forest! (This snapshot is a panorama—the only way I could capture an image of the bases and tops with my phone, hence the warped trunks.) I’ve always wanted to walk among the majestic trees, probably because of the lyrics of This Land is Your Land ringing through my mind since I was young. I’ve now seen all the geographic features Woody Guthrie wrote about.
On our recent road trip, Fred and I drove through the Navarro River Redwoods State Park north of San Francisco. We’ve driven along many a tree-lined highway over the years, but never one with such towering giants!
We stopped in the midst of the forest for me to create some installations. I’m not sure how the photos of them will come out—the majesty of the trees made anything I did seem trite at the time. I often experience a feeling of incompetence and inferiority when working in landscapes characterized as grand and beautiful. These spaces engulf my senses and often paralyze my creative vision.
I am so thankful to be able to visit many parts of this land we Americans live on, and am thankful that we have lands that are open for all of us. Experiencing the grandeur of nature helps me keep perspective and remember that I am but a microscopic blip in the universe. It’s not all about me.
It’s about us. We the people, in all of our differences, inhabit our land. What I think is best for me, may not be best for others. I witnessed a variety of plant species thriving in the redwood forest we visited, existing together in community, giving and taking for all to live well.
We the people would be wise to heed lessons from the land.
Our lands (snapshot)
Ahhh, road trips. My family went on them every summer when I was growing up. My dad, an immigrant, wanted to see all of his adopted country. We had a flat-front Dodge van with no AC. I remember sitting in the backseat as a 6-year-old, driving across Arizona in the heat of the summer, windows wide open and my hair blowing around my face. Oh it felt good! Along these road trips we stopped at every National Park and/or Monument we came across.
The four of us sang lots of songs on these trips. My favorite was “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie, written in the mid-20th century. This verse rings through my mind:
As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.
I value our public lands, available to you and me. Most of us will never personally own more than a lot in a city or town, if even that. Public lands allow us to experience and connect with nature and science. Any trip to Yellowstone National Park is a fascinating educational experience covering geology, biology, botany, meteorology, vulcanology, and more, that around 4 million people visit every year. When visiting the Park last year, I heard 6 different languages being spoken at Grand Prismatic Spring. Imagine if our jewel of a National Park weren’t open to Americans and guests in our country. I don’t want to even consider that.
As an adult, I’ve been coast-to-coast-to-coast and visited many public lands. In 1988, while living along the Gulf Coast in Corpus Christi, TX, Fred and I bought our first family station wagon, a red Subaru (with AC), and frequently went to the beach on Padre Island. We moved to North Carolina in that wagon and often visited the Atlantic Coast. We drove our first Suby Ruby (our cars are named) for 21 years until the AC no longer worked (the whole thing was falling apart), and in 2007, we bought a new Suby Ruby. It’s been across Wyoming, Utah and Idaho on the way to Oregon a few times while Michaela was in college at the U of O in Eugene; each time making a side-trip to the Pacific Coast. We couldn’t have visited the coasts if public lands and access didn’t exist.
Access is important for so many reasons, too many to go into detail here, but people fish, hunt, hike, camp, bird, and most importantly LEARN on public lands.
A line of “This Land is Your Land” I don’t remember singing, is still relevant in the 21st century:
Is this land made for you and me?
Bone Wars (snapshot)
Our last stop of the Grand Wyo Tour: Como Bluff. There are a couple of run-down buildings there – the one in this photo built of fossilized dinosaur bones. That many bones (and more) were found at the site! The dinosaur graveyard is on private land so we couldn’t explore, but specimens from Como Bluff are located in museums all over the world. The site was a hotbed during the Bone Wars in the late 1800s – scientists’ teams actually fought and threw stones at their rivals.
I love this land of wonders! Time to plan another road trip…
On the border (snapshot)
On the last leg of our road trip, Michaela and I stopped in Medicine Bow at the museum. Small museums tend to be fairly informal and have a lot of objects, like this collection of cameras, that tell the story of the community.
We ended up at the museum because what we were looking for in the small town wasn’t where it was supposed to be. We were on the hunt for one of the Delimitations project obelisks along the 1821 border of Mexico and the U.S. It ran up through Colorado (where I grew up was part of Mexico in 1821), across Wyoming and all the way to the Pacific coast through Oregon.
We drove up and down Maple Street, where the obelisk was supposed to be located in a front yard, but couldn’t find it. We drove around a few blocks (which means most of Medicine Bow), but never saw it. So we thought perhaps the obelisk had been relocated to the museum and headed there.
The obelisk wasn’t outside, where we thought it might be, so we went in. The attendant was quite friendly and we asked her if she knew about it. When we described it to her and where it was supposed to be, her face lit up with recognition. She knew the woman who owned the rental house, so the attendant called her friend. By only hearing one side of the conversation, we could tell her friend was a bit agitated. Her daughter had given the obelisk to a woman in town who had a reputation for hoarding (she was also currently married to the attendant’s ex-husband, but a good stepmother to the children) and the property owner was none too happy about it!
The hunt for an object meant to silently communicate about history led us to hear an unforgettable story of small-town drama – perfect for the final chapter of the Grand Wyoming Tour.
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