Wednesday, June 24, 2009

American Strength

(or "What is it about Mexicans and Borders?")
American Strength

Here's another long tale of my trip...

Leaving the lovely and talented Katie West in Toronto around 8am, I headed off to Lansing, MI as fast as I could to meet up with a fun model named Leyna. While Neff was with me a few days previous, we had crossed the US/Canadian border in Maine/Nova Scotia with little to no hassle. Since we had gotten through even though Neff had forgotten his passport, I didn't expect much of a problem this time since I had all my important paperwork. To remain consistent with the previous twenty seven days I'd been traveling, I took photos of the "Welcome to Michigan" sign while driving across the bridge that eventually led to the official border guard post. After waiting in line for a while, when it was my turn the guard gave me a hand sign to stop where I was in line rather than advance like everyone else. After a few minutes of being confused, I was relieved when he finally waved me forward. I shouldn't have been.

When I pulled up, the officer looked far more stern and no-nonsense than the previous guards I had dealt with. The first things he asked were for my ID and if I had taken photos "coming in", to which I answered "no" because I thought he meant coming into the border post. He immediately put on that authoritative "gotcha" tone of voice, saying they had surveillance footage of me taking photos on the bridge and asked for my truck keys and for me to "stay put." While trying to remain calm and in good cheer, I complied without hesitation.

He walked behind my truck and got frustrated when he was unable to open the latches on my camper shell. I yelled out which key it was to unlock it, and after rummaging through my various suitcases and duffle bags, he came back to his kiosk, still with my passport and keys in hand, slammed the door closed and got on his walkie-talkie. I watched nervously as he mouthed heavily articulated words for several minutes before he wrote something down. He came out, handed me a slip of paper, along with my passport and keys, then directed me to pull off to the side for further inspection. My heart began pounding unsteadily.

My dad always says if you've got nothing to hide you should feel confident when questioned by the authorities. In this case that gave me very little comfort. I parked where directed, being greeted by three other agents, and was told to leave my phone and all my other belongings in the truck except for any identification papers. Inside I stood amongst several Canadians, East Indians and Germans talking in various languages, guessing that they were saying all the frustrating, nerve-racking things that were on my own mind. I finally looked down at the slip that had been handed to me. On it was written "Two points: Check out his story. Women's clothes in bags." Uh oh.

When called, I was greeted by a new investigating officer who looked younger than the last, about twenty five years old. His demeanor was slightly more relaxed and jovial than the previous agent's, the difference being the same between a glacier and an iceberg. He asked me several questions about where I had just come from, where I was going, where I had been, etc., often asking me the same questions over again in different order, obviously in hopes of tripping me up somehow. Unfortunately, it seems the more answers I gave, the more questions he had:

"Why are you driving across the country shooting models? Who are these women? Is this a hobby or a business? How could you take a month off of work? You work in a restaurant? I thought you just said you were a photographer? How can you afford this? How long were you in Canada? Why were you in Canada a few days ago and are now back? Why are you on the move every other day? Traveling alone? Who was with you?" And on and on. I remember jokingly telling him that even though my way of life might sound a bit weird to him, even some of my closest friends don't get it. No reaction. Uh oh again.

I was still fighting a cold that started last week, hadn't really slept well since then, and was feeling the strain of being gone so long from home these last few days. All of this only added to my confusion over exact dates and times on the road, which of course added to their disbelief of my story. I showed my business cards, offered to go grab my journal with polaroids from my fully documented trip and more. They reviewed my websites, then Neff's website, then our site, all in an attempt to catch me up on some lie. I was asked to sit down and then come back up to the counter to answer more questions about four times over the course of the hour, along with being asked to go out to my truck to retrieve my camera and any cash I had in the vehicle. When I went outside, supervised of course, I almost laughed at seeing the entire contents of the back of my truck being rifled through by two men wearing latex gloves. I can only image what they were thinking while sorting through the odd combination of clown noses, a straight jacket, various styles of panties and knee high socks, my dirty laundry and lighting equipment.

At some point I was informed that taking photos while on the bridge was illegal and that I had lied to the original border officer. By this time the original agent was inside helping process other "offenders", and when I tried to say I misunderstood what he had meant, things got even more tense. I said that I had assumed that I was being asked if I had taken photos of the border post itself, which immediately prompted the original guard two stalls down to lean back and say defiantly "NO! I SPECIFICALLY ASKED HIM if he had taken photos on the bridge, and HE SAID 'NO'!" Upon saying this he immediately returned to what he had been doing and didn't look back at me the rest of the morning. I started to feel a bead of sweat trickle down the back of my neck, which if seen by them would have confirmed any last doubt of my guilt.

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
My young inquisitor, obviously a military man, began shuffling through the business cards I had provided him, and when he got to my "American Justice" image, he looked at me quite frustrated. "You think its okay to put American flag hoods over the heads of half-naked women?" he asked angrily. I hesitated for a moment debating the repercussions of my possible answers, then I finally just said "Um...yeah." His silence and look of disdain told me I was treading on thin ice. We reviewed together the ten or so images on my camera that were taken on the bridge, mainly various wide and narrow shots of the Michigan sign with the scaffolding behind it. I offered and he commanded me to delete those images, but I refused to delete the whole CF card like he originally suggested. He said "You've heard of September 11th, right?", which I all but ignored. When I brought up that there were no signs saying it was illegal to take photos on the bridge, he ignored me right back.

At this point I had been there about forty-five minutes and could feel myself getting much more frustrated and vocal with this guy. My patience was dancing on that fine line between defending my rights and not sounding like a confrontational ass. In a moment of clarity I smiled to myself, remembering the blog I'd written wondering what kinds of authority figures I would have to have patience for on this trip before I left.

Finally, after sitting back down for another few minutes, he called me back up to his counter, saying that I was in fact guilty of lying to a border officer, which is a federal crime. He was giving me the benefit of the doubt because the rest of my far-fetched story checked out, handing me back my edited camera and passport. Lastly, he got out a slip of paper and wrote three words I was very happy to see: "Free to go." I handed the slip to the officer guarding the door, got in my truck and left.

I realize it is better to have our border be too secure than not enough, so I'm trying not to hold a grudge, and I'm not. That said, not only did they cost me an hour of my drive, but later in the afternoon I found that they had cracked the rim of my ring flash, a $500 studio light. Again, the flash is still functional and fine, so not that big of a deal. At least it is a great story to tell and I'm sure I will retell it for years to come, but from now on I will definitely be far more cautious when entering or leaving a border. Sheesh.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tall Tales of West Virginia

Tom's Take Out Mark Velasquez Photography
"Talking With His Hands" 2009

There are just so many great experiences that I could relay about this trip so far, I almost don't know where to begin. One of the truly great and probably most unexpected to many people would be my stop in West Virginia. I spent over three days there last week and am still trying to take it all in.

Mike Adkins, a photographer born and raised in Huntington, contacted me last year some time, one of the first people asking to be a stop along my cross country trip. He was hoping I could give a talk about my photography to his local camera club, of which he is president, as well as visit some of his favorite spots of the state, all of which sounded great to me. Little did I know just how great it would really be.

When I finally arrived late in the afternoon, Mike immediately made me feel at home with his extreme hospitality, openness, and excitement to have me there. While giving me a tour of the enormous house he had personally built from the ground up, he continued to reinforce his love of my work, repeatedly asking question after question. It was equal parts embarrassing and amazingly flattering. He has lived enough life for three lifetimes, is an entrepreneur, family man, jack of all trades, Vietnam Vet, and seems to have the respect of everyone he knows.

There are simply too many highlights of the time spent with Mike Adkins and his friends, so I will just touch on a few. First off was our lunch at Hillbilly Hot Dogs, a favorite lunch spot that has been featured on the Food Network and has it's very humble origins starting in a local dilapidated bus off a back highway. They specialize in food challenges, like this monstrosity called "The Home Wrecker", which if eaten in under twelve minutes gets the unlucky connoisseur a free "I Eat Home Wrecker" t-shirt. The dare devil in this case was a twenty-nine year old named Clint, though I had to have him pronounce it at least twice to understand what he meant when saying "Cleent". Just FYI, he ended up taking home about a four inch portion that he couldn't get down. I encouraged his friends to tease him mercilessly about it, of which they very willingly indulged me.

Next was the dinner and photo talk for the camera club. Most of the members are nature photographers from the Huntington area, so I was unsure of how my work was thought of. Originally Mike had assured me that there were a lot of fans of my work, but as the start of the party neared I got a sense that it was going to be a much more "guilty until proven innocent" type of situation. Everyone was of course polite and welcoming, but I did feel a bit of pressure since all they knew about me was my work. The sense of hesitation from them was palpable, and instinctually I found myself stepping up my wit, charm, and self-deprecating jokes to diffuse the situation. I was pleased to find that all the men there, like me, are Eagle Scouts, which immediately gave me a bit more credibility in their eyes. Then, my mentioning and showing pictures of my nieces, along with my continued referencing of my close family ties, helped my standing with most of the ladies. By the time we were done eating I felt confident that my work was finally being understood in the vein of irony and thoughtfulness that I intend, instead of just as pseudo-pornography. Thankfully though, there was a range of opinions present, from one woman I clearly could not convince that I was not a horribly despicable person, to a nice guy who thought I was the coolest dude around. I enjoy both types of opinions for various reasons.

The day after the party Mike took me up to the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains where he and his brother share a cabin with a few friends. Over the next two days we toured various natural wonders, from Black Water Falls, pictured above, to Seneca Rocks. At Dolly Sods, a lovely outcropping of rocks overlooking the entire Canaan Valley, we had quite the adventure fishing his GPS unit from out of a deep crevice as we balanced ourselves on the tenuous, jagged position. It sounds weird but the teamwork and ingenuity required in that hour or so was a whole lot of fun to me.

Lastly, what probably was the most fun of the entire time in West Virginia was also the simplest. After eating dinner in town, we drove back up to the cabin to hang out with his older brother. Roger is a fun loving, deep thinking, passionate and sincere guy, the kind that seem to be in increasingly short supply these days. He is pure West Virginia, likes to drink, smoke, and tell stories. When we showed up the cabin was pitch black due to a freak power-outage. Although I was really looking forward to a shower after the intense day we had survived, the electric pump from their well was obviously out of order as well and thus thwarted my desires. So, instead we opted for sitting out on the front deck. Mike and Roger made a fire, we drank whiskey and homemade cherry schnapps from a neighbor, ate junk food, and just shared hilarious, personal, and unbelievable stories from each of our lives. We talked politics, religion, sex, and food. I had mentioned several times that day just how exhausted I was from not only my two constant weeks of traveling but from all the exercise I'd gotten recently, and yet I didn't want the night to end. Finally, around 2AM or so as the fire died down, I excused myself and for the sixteenth night in a row fell asleep in a bed that was not my own. In the morning I felt refreshed, renewed for my next big adventure.

All of my friends and family have made jokes about West Virginia whenever I have mentioned it, the same "white trash/inbred/redneck" jokes that I'm sure everyone tells. Only when you go somewhere and truly experience the place and it's people, deciphering what is stereotype and what is not, can you really talk about it. I can honestly say that I will defend West Virginia and my new friends there from now on, knowing both it's limitations and it's grandeur. Thanks Mike.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Rude Traveler

"She drank WHAT?", DENVER, CO
I pulled into Salina, KS late this afternoon excited to finally be back in a city that I remembered so fondly from years ago. I stopped at the first affordable looking hotel I could find, not realizing it was the exact same one I had stayed at years ago until I drove around it later. As I walked into the lobby, I was immediately confronted by a wall of loud, vitriolic attitude.

A mother of three tween-agers, who looked about seventeen herself, was using the desk clerk's phone to scream at some faceless booking agent. She was making quite an embarrassing spectacle of herself, causing an awful scene in an otherwise empty hotel lobby. I felt bad for the two poor attendants behind the counter who tried desperately to appease her while trying not to roll their eyes in disgust.

Apparently, from what I gathered by the woman's blaring public declarations, she had booked a room at the hotel through some faceless agent only to discover upon her arrival that the pool was out of service. This was completely unacceptable to her, a total deal breaker, making her insist that she be comped a room, get a full refund from the agent, etc. Interestingly, her children stood quietly, conveying much more tact and patience than their mother could seem to muster.

Listening to all of this while getting my own room, I couldn't help but joke with the clerks, rolling my eyes and sharing knowing smiles with them. All the while, the woman was insisting on blowing things out of proportion, exaggerating how upset her kids were and how this one incident was ruining their entire vacation. I was reminded of just how many Americans act like this when traveling abroad, which just adds to the list of things that cause us to have a bad reputation in the world. Maybe I'm too easy-going, but Jesus Christ, a lack of a pool is not the end of the world. I'd hate to see how this woman handles a real crisis.

I finally got my key and was about to head up to my room when I turned around quickly in the doorway, making sure the upset woman could see me. Sounding completely sincere, I innocently turned to the clerk and asked loudly, "Is your pool open today? Y'know...never mind." As I walked out I heard the clerks begin to laugh out loud, the tension finally being broken.

The Endless Drive.

Inevitably there comes that wonderful time in a long, all night drive when I have to sleep, whether by reaching my destination or knowing I am too fatigued. The level of adrenaline that has allowed me to get to this point is usually too much to overcome so I will continuously roll over in a vain attempt to get comfortable. This can last a while.

At some point, whether in my own bed or reclining in the driver's seat of my little truck, I will always begin to laugh uncontrollably, hysterically. Maybe I am amused at the absurdity with which I have just pushed myself that day, driving for a dozen hours or more through the night. Perhaps its the silliness of why I am making the trip in the first place. Almost without exception though, this laughter ends as abruptly as it began, with the idea of my dad's voice saying "You did a good job, you've done enough."

It is at this point that I am consumed with the need to cry, illustrating the range of emotions that exhaustion can elicit. The desire for tears probably stems from what such a statement means to me in my relationship with my dad or perhaps some other deep seeded psychological reason. Either way, in that instance I've still as yet never shed a tear.

Oddly, it is at that unlikely moment that I finally, thankfully dose off, knowing I will awaken feeling more worn out than ever. I foresee this happening a lot on this month long trip.