Critique Four: I-90

We arrived at the ranch just when the sun had begun to set; the wind was bitingly cold and the air was filled with a strong smell of earth and drying grass. It had started to snow— the first snowfall of the season. The sky looked like iron, and the blonde grass took on a ghostly hue; white flakes whirled everywhere, vanishing into the dark rocks.

We were supposed to spend the night in a Teepee but as soon as we settled into the tent, Maggie decided it was too cold and we upgraded to a private cabin that came with a Japanese hot tub, a sauna, and a fireplace. Like a good mule, I started transporting all our luggage up the hill, from the Teepee to the cabin. 

By the time I was getting the last load up, I was completely out of breath and decided to just drop everything and lie down, supine. The sky hung low; I gasped for breath. I could hear the wind play with the tall grass. Everything was so still; I was overcome with happiness. I felt like something just lying under the sky, like a rock or a leaf, and didn’t want to be anything more. Perhaps that’s what death feels like—to feel like a part of something grander than yourself. It was as natural as sleep.

But unfortunately, sleep did not come to me that night. I got so excited about the amenities the cabin offered that I spent the entire nights writing postcards in the Japanese hot tub, followed by a shower, and then a long, relaxing hour in the sauna. The storm and the wind bursting outside both excited and soothed me at the same time.

The next day, nothing went as planned. I barely slept and woke up with an intense headache pounding my brain dry. Sleep sliced my eyes, but dreams didn't follow. 

Maggie and I went to the host's house for a cowboy breakfast. Two of the friendliest dogs I had ever seen—Border collies that worked on the farm herding livestock—were resting on the chair, their fur damp and frizzledby the frosty cold. We took off our coats and shoes in the wooden vestibule, and proceeded towards the dining area. We poured ourselves coffee from the French press, and had a stimulating conversation with our host and another guest— a member of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources fisheries management. We discussed everything from the beauty of the United States to the historic and continued violence towards native Americans (it was during this conversation that I was surprised to learn about Abraham Lincoln's execution of Native Americans). 

After the meal, we played ball with the border collies for about an hour, and then started to get ready for our departure to Yellowstone National Park. I squeezed in an extra ten minutes in the sauna as I pretended to pack, much to Maggie's dismay. Within the hour, we were on the road again.

Border Collie, as seen through the vestibule window.

The way out was beautiful that morning. The long, straight road taking us Cody was covered in a sleepy mist that made everything look clean and calm.  Buggy was the only car on that road for miles. 
Traffic slowly started appearing the closer we got to Cody. Soon, we saw a matrix sign telling us that all roads to Yellowstone were closed. Disappointed but undeterred, we proceeded onwards through the Shoshone National Forest, idealistically hoping that the roads would clear by the time we reached the gate.

It was perhaps one of the most brilliantly beautiful drives of my life. Mountains in the distant. Mountains nearby. Mountains dissolving into infinity, bluish paintings smeared across a canvas sky. Snow-veined stone, appearing from nowhere at the turn of the road, relentlessly pierced the sky. Juniper and pines trees dabbed green onto an otherwise barren landscape. It was like driving through heaven stuck in purgatory. 

There was a long line of cars waiting at the gates of Yellowstone. A ranger, dressed in a cloud-grey uniform was handing out a pink piece of paper: the snow had caused an avalanche so the park was closed that day. We could possibly go another way but there was no guarantee that the gates on those routes would be open. 

Map of the Greater Yellowstone Area that the ranger handed out to us. 

We decided to save Yellowstone for another time, and told Google maps to direct us to our next stop in Helena Montana. I was feeling a little disappointed, as I really wanted to pay a visit to Old Faithful. 

But, as with most things in life, we compromised and ventured onwards. 

The fog, like a wet blanket, enveloped everything. It seemed to have swallowed the mountains whole; all we could see was the bright, luminescent centre line guiding us straight into the unknown. Our little bug rolled up the hill, then down soon after. Up and down and up and down. 

Things seemed to get worse every ten minutes. "It can't get any worse than this," I exclaimed to Maggie. Just then, a majestic bluebird was at the bend of the road and tried to fly away; but our car was too fast. We crushed the life in its brittle, airy body. It brought me to tears. I had just taken a life. 

Soon, we saw a sign that said "Pavement Ending."

"Well, it can't get any worse," I said again to Maggie and turned the car onto the roadless road. 

It just got worse. Our buggy’s low-profile was having trouble moving through the sludge-filled ground; the mud started filling up the tires. We could hear the sharp rocks clamour on the underside of the car, rattling its iron body to the core. The beetle's screeched and swerved, almost sheering off of the fog-chocked cliffs. 17 miles to go, Google told us.

We saw a house and thought about asking for help. It was abandoned; we ventured onwards. The road kept getting worse. "7 miles...6 miles...5 miles," Maggie kept counting, helping me soothe my nerves. 

"Turn left," said Google maps; the problem was, the road left was closed. And, at least on the maps, there was no road going forward. "Don't listen to her, just keep going straight," said Maggie.

And on we went, driving straight into the unknown. Slowly, the path turned into a road. We could also see large trucks pass us, possibly laughing at our misadventure. But it has never been more comforting seeing another human being. 

On and on we went...we kept moving forward...until we saw I-90 west. I have never been filled with so much happiness on seeing a road. And in true celebratory fashion, I said, "Maggie, take a picture of that beautiful highway,"


The car was trembling when we got out of the nightmare. Later on, we found out that this was because the cars wheel wells were drenched in mud. But I think it was because the car scared of what it had gone through. 

The lesson from the fiasco— it always gets worse. We finally found our way to Bozeman MN, where we stayed the night in a hotel called Quality Inn. Across the street was an Arby's. I had always thought of it as a rather nice restaurant, a little more upscale than your typical fast-food, but still easy on the pocket. As soon as I opened the door, I can always get worse. You just have to keep moving forward. 

Critique of the photographs:

One thing I learnt from these photos is that colour can be used very effectively to make things look as if they stem from the same tree. All three images posted today are black-and-white, and even though they are very different, they seem like they belong together.

None of these pictures were as planned as my photographs usually are; rather, they were taken by the impulse of a photographer, and for that reason, I like them all, whether they are technically good or not.

Interestingly, out of all the three photos, the image of the grass and the path was the only one that was a little more planned—I took it as I stared at the sky, filled with Happiness. I had more time to think about it and process it. But it is my least favourite photo. Perhaps I should be open to little more serendipity in my future images. Lack of control might actually be a good thing. 

My favourite photo of the three is the border collie through the window. I like that the dog is looking at me through the windows; he is aware of my presence, despite the voyeuristic nature of the photograph. The way he is curled up on the bench also gives a good hint of the atmosphere in the ranch. 

I also really like the photograph of I-90, most likely because I have such a rush of happiness associated with it. But from a technical standpoint, I really like that I can see the dashboard and the wiper marks on the windshield. Something about the careless nature of the photograph hints at its exigency.