The Raven Feather Incident

“Archaic Caution” — Roadscapes SxSW

One photograph among many made within a session of shooting an old Works Progress Administration bridge located somewhere between Moab and Salt Lake City. It was on State Route 191, either just a few miles south of I-70, or either a few miles north of the interstate. These are the times I wish myself back within a span of time but with newer technology than a pen and paper. Now, we can pin a location to GPS. Life is good. And site locations are set in ether.

Location notes from memory: The bridge was situated over a dry wash. It was part concrete, part timbers, which were painted white, probably much as they were when just built during the Great Depression. It was a long way from anywhere, but on a well-traveled road, as State Road 191 is a main ribbon between the Four Corners area and Salt Lake City. It was painted by hand, the straight edges evidencing a steady hand, but not perfect. Only a machine is perfect, cold, and hard. We aren’t made for that distinction.

On returning home, I’ll be making a trip to Helper, Utah. On that drive, I’ll run that same route to see if I can locate that bridge again, assuming it’s not been decommissioned and “upgraded,” as has often occurred to many grand old architectural elements of America’s roads, but not nearly as often in the last two decades, as America’s infrastructure crumbles in neglect.

There’s always a reason for wanting to go back. Going back though never offers us what we once knew. Some of us learn this; others never do and spend much of their lives living in the past, rather than appreciating that it simply once happened in some barely recognizable version of what we now recall.

Why spend the time then trying to locate a relatively simple and insignificant bridge, small and hardly a blip in one’s travels on the great flats approaching Green River? Finding things small and insignificant in some way buoys my soul, for we can not do these things with people we once knew. They are not concrete and steel. Sometimes our own constitutions can be as allegory though, and to find this smaller bridge is actually an effort to retrace another road trip in 2000, which was mainly composed of skies filled with smoke and ash, creating surreal and otherworldly skies the color of coffee and cream mixed, and achieving a similar ability to conceal that which is within it’s visual jurisdiction.

There is a bridge in Idaho with my name on it. I only wish I had recorded it’s own name and that effort to reshoot it under an azure canopy, to see if it is still there. There are many reasons to consider it may not be. In 2000 that summer, everything seemed to be on fire. The Rocky Mountain spine was ablaze, the blue had been routed from the sky by flames which seemed to be pouring cloudy coffee upwards, where it spread with fiendish rapidity. This bridge I speak of may have taken serious damage in the fire that was up there that year, for it was coming in from the east, threatening the position I was shooting from. I had walked all around this one too, for it was over a deep gorge, but not the precipitous chasms you often cross up that way. I believe it was crossing the Snake River, or one of it’s tributaries. The greens in the surrounding forest were dampened by the dark kaolins and cappuccinos, atmospherics were at their zenith along the entire route, meandering the Rockies and watching for warning signs along the way.

It is (for I can’t yet accept that now it may be “was”) a bridge of grace and beauty. It had a slight curve to it, or at least it now does in my memory, and the location was in a region that should not have been touched by fire. If it’s there, I want to explore it all the more this time. Walk across it. Get underneath it and shoot the structure of it, which I did as an afterthought that day in 2000, before I realized how much its surviving presence would mean to me in 2019.

I want it to be there. At the same time, it was so cracked, broken, and spalled off in places that I considered in viewing it in that present, I may be one of the last photographers to record it before the inevitable changes would come, and a new, probably unappealing bridge will have taken its place. One that does not attract the eye from the center line; one that simply does its job and allows traffic to span a gulf of air with a ribbon of water hinted at below, if one stopped to look down.

I was not expecting the two-thousands to become the decade we ceased to consider highway infrastructure as warrantable a necessity as we once did. The good news is, that bridge may still be there for that very reason. And people may still be crossing it, marveling at its simple beauty of construction and view while never realizing the severe damage occurring to it underneath, where the trolls of entropy live, unnoticed by those who should be attending such things, but who do not.

So with my real reason and intent now established as to why the small and simple WPA bridge is soon to be the subject of a hunt for the irreplaceable and unalterable past, I’m going to whisk us all back to Utah, along State Road 191.

A few shots here, a few there and I had all I was going to take. Then, I saw the two brand-spanking new chrome yellow and black metal signs, with tiny embedded circles which when hit by headlights cast back a beacon of warning to most all drivers. It was garish, It was overkill. They were nothing of the era of that bridge. And they were glossy in their undated newness, still unaware of what was about to happen to its surfaces as the desert winds and sun begin to etch its vibrancy away. Not to mention the buckshot that would surely soon pierce it’s placid flatness by locally bored drivers.

They were so new that I wondered, had I just missed the installation crew. I looked down at the ground around this bit of UDoT high tech safety signage and sure enough, footprints, recent tamping, some nylon binders, and a few sheared rivets were all scattered around that immediate place where road signs become baptized by being driven into the earth. At this precise moment, a large black wing feather wafted down in an erratic ballet of arcs, wresting my eyes attention from the small debris field in time to allow that something had just fallen from the sky and landed at my feet, and I am not Forrest Gump. Hell, I’m not even Ray Kinsella. But I am me.

Large wingfeather, check. Very black, check. No scallop, so probably not a vulture. Whew, bad omen, that. That left just one final option for a wing feather this size. A Raven. Now when events like this happen, they occur in very thin slivers of folded moments in which we notice, see, wonder, think, query and go “Huh?” All with a few seconds. I looked up and the sun was glaring down, blocking out a third of the sky and threatening to ruin my vision. I shaded my eyes, yanked on my sunglasses and peered again. No wings in sight. Not silhouette of the trickster who’d dropped one of its lofting agents in my general direction.

I sat down and turned this feather over and over in my hands, smiling at the sleekness of it, and how it came to be that I was so gifted by one of my favorite birds of all time. Ravens are to American literature what Henry Ford was to automobiles, but far more fun, more talkative, and decidedly more iconic than Henry or his famous first car although it too was black. I’m sure the raven would have appreciated that distinction.

It had fallen at my feet.

From a great big blue sun-scoured sky.

How far had it drifted and traveled, laterally from the moment of release from that soaring bird’s wing? Had velocity, torque, or shenanigans in flight with another bird caused the feather to part company with its host raven? Had it’s recent owner been drafting the steep cliffs just to the West? Did the raven notice it missing? Was the raven’s cavorting cut short due to the loss? Or was it just a process of molting?

In time we realize that the questions of youth, while never really adequately answered, do nothing to curb the joy of asking all the same in later years.

No matter, for it was decided within minutes that this feather was mine. All mine. It was meant for me, and in that moment it had to leave the field with me.

It went into position of all the finds along all the roads for many road trip veterans back to the first car, and I would guess before that in the first Conestogas. The quill end, that end which meant business before the pen was imputed into being, was inserted into the grate of my dashboard heat and air vents. I have seen things in dashboard vents through ages of years, across many terrains, amid many varied friends’ hallowed automobiles. I have heard entire stories unwind from a single intriguing item in a friend’s vents. But then, I am no Roy Baty.


“Into the Mystic —Digital Composite Image

When I bought my Jeep, this raven’s feather was brought aboard the good chariot Epona. By then its blackness had changed to a dark walnut brown. The vanes changed first, for the winds and sun weakened the planes. In time, the barbs too became unkempt, surly things, aged and soft, beaten by wind, the same wind which lifted the previous owner aloft all those years ago. But it was a good luck item; it was an icon. It had split along the vertical shaft over time, so I wrapped it tightly in a gesso soaked Viva paper towel and applied thicker gesso to it as the wrapping wound about, much as casts for broken limbs were made years ago.

Art is all about us; it surrounds us at all times. It coalesces and protects; it heals and inspires. And usually, it comes in fleeting glimpses or whispers carried as fleetly upon winds of perception. This is what Art is. This is what Art does. Sometimes, we become the healer and Art, in its natural form, becomes the patient. But not often, and thankfully not. For Art finds us in order to share, to teach us to share, and resolve that which is inside of us, to offer new views, to heal old wounds, and current doubts. In this I know I have seen things, experienced things that Art offers. And these matter, for I am me, and I know these things to be true.

Tom

Almost born on the hospital steps of Camden in a rush to be on time...