Twisting and swirling, the red rock follows the random paths of a wild dream, then skirts a dome of white Navajo Sandstone cracked into nearly perfect polygonal plates, enchanting under a perfect sapphire sky. All of it originated 190 million years ago with a Jurassic sand dune that became saturated with groundwater, then experienced a sudden disruption–perhaps by an earthquake–that suddenly contorted the whole wet jumble while it had been hardening into sandstone. Incredible beauty resulted from this chaos.
Our time is short for exploring before the short period of golden light near sunset, so we walk around quickly to get a feeling for the whole area, which is about a square mile in size. An outfitter got us here and we have about 20 hours from mid-afternoon today to mid-morning the next day to explore and photograph before we have to leave. We are on our own, except that the outfitter provides dinner, a tent, and breakfast the next morning. The reason we came with a touring company is that we don’t have a rugged 4-WD vehicle to get us through the March mud quagmires and deep sand traps along the access roads. A tow out would cost $2,000 and is not covered by AAA. So here we are.
I once worked for the Bureau of Land Management on the Arizona Strip, a part of Arizona between the Grand Canyon and the Utah state line. This is an arid landscape that includes pockets of incredible beauty, such as Paria Canyon, The Wave, and White Pocket. When I was there with BLM in 1977, I was working as a writer and pen-and-ink illustrator for a book of wildflowers (still in print 43 years later!), but White Pocket was virtually unknown at the time, except for some ranchers and probably a handful of government employees. I certainly didn’t know about it and even if I did, my big Chrysler at the time couldn’t have dreamed of getting there. The name White Pocket originated from the desert term “pocket” which referred to a rock depression that can hold water–an important feature for cattle ranching and desert travelers. At that time the world hadn’t yet discovered much of the stunning beauty of red rock country. While at BLM, I heard the geologist for our district remark to my boss that he thought it was better in the desert when it was all considered a wasteland, and environmental regulations didn’t need to be followed. Fortunately, times have changed.
We spend the hours before dark exploring and photographing in great light, then walk back to camp for a meal of barbecued salmon or chicken or steak (another value in contracting with an outfitter!), then we venture back out into the contorted lands for hours of night photography. We return to camp sometime after midnight, then get up at 4 a.m. for dawn photography, so not much sleep. We stay until afternoon, delayed for a couple of hours by a vehicle problem, and we don’t mind the delay in the least, because it gives us more time to explore this place torn from time.
The photographs here give the visual story of White Pocket, which is the most stunning desert location we have visited.
Rather than give you directions and maps and more cautions, I will refer you to three good websites that cover all that information. Be advised that there have been discussions at the Bureau of Land Management about requiring a permit so the area does not become overused, so make sure you check with them about current rules and regulations (and road conditions) before you attempt traveling to White Pocket.
The first leg of the journey was the drive to Burgeo, a fishing village accessed by Route 480 from the Trans-Canada Highway near Stephenville. The wild and beautiful landscape was covered with deep snow, and the conifers were magically encrusted with a thick layer of hard snow so that, in places, they looked like snow elves. We kept our eyes alert for Woodland Caribou, but didn’t see any on the drive. When we reached Burgeo, we stayed at a small motel that would be convenient for catching a ferry the next morning.
We packed what we would need for the trip in two suitcases and left the rest in the car, since we couldn’t take a car on the Marine Voyager ferry. These communities have no roads and no cars, so all that is needed is a foot ferry, albeit one that can carry enough cargo to meet a small community’s daily needs. We walked up the ramp on the ice-covered boat, then descended into a room for the passengers. Comfortable seats, round portholes, and a soap opera on the television – what more could we hope for? We paid our fee of $6 per passenger, which was clearly subsidized by the government, and settled in for our sailing along the coast.
There were only a couple of other passengers, and they lived in the villages of Grey River and Francois (a French name Newfoundlandized to “Fran-Sway.”) We were invited up to the bridge for a front-row seat and visit with the captain, who was a lifelong resident of Francois. One of the other passengers, a younger man named Cody who owned a fishing boat, introduced himself to us as well. He was also a lifelong resident of Francois and he told us about the community and what he liked about living there.
Hesitantly we asked the captain if he thought the ferry would be running two days later when we wanted to make our return trip, which would give us enough time to drive back to St. John’s and catch our flight back to the USA. He said this was the first time the boat had sailed for a week because of storms but that the weather looked good for our return trip. We had two nights at Francois and could enjoy ourselves. We had been watching the marine forecast every day for the past two weeks of our trip, trying to find a three-day window of weather when the ferry would be running; there were high winds and high seas every day and then finally the forecast looked good.
The south coast of Newfoundland has a series of fjords, which provide sheltered locations and harbors for fishing communities. The village of Grey River was the first village we came to, and was located partway up a fjord. We motored through pancake ice and past colorful houses to the dock, where about ten people were waiting for the boat. All these people helped unload bread and beer and Amazon boxes full of the stuff a small community needs. Snowmobiles and ATVs were the transportation in town.
We soon set sail again, with no new passengers – after all, who would go from Grey River to Francois in the middle of winter? The sea was rough and it started to snow, and was just about dark when we carefully navigated the narrow fjord that ends at Francois. By this time the wind was howling and the driven snow stung our exposed faces. We didn’t know where our rental place was, but the captain and another man showed us the way and took our bags for us on a snowmobile. We settled into our place for two nights, and ventured outside briefly to get a feeling for the town.
We spent the next day wandering the village along its boardwalks and pathways – remember, there are no roads needed in a town with no cars or trucks. All the houses are connected by these paths. The town is small, but has Sharon’s Place, a grocery and liquor store that is open morning, afternoon, and evening, with breaks for lunch and supper. There is a church that sits above the rest of town, and a large school that currently has six students and one-and-a-half teachers. This must be one of the smallest schools in the world in terms of the number of students! But education also arrives by computer, with courses available to older students online. There is a medical clinic, but no permanent doctor in town. There is a helipad used during emergencies.
Colorful houses are a feature of the town, with red and purple and turquoise tones mixed together in a delightful jumble. In winter some are occupied and some are not, with some people leaving for part of the year for jobs. There are stages along the waterfront: small buildings on stilts where fishermen stored gear and later processed the catch. These are a distinctive and wonderful feature of all the Newfoundland coastal towns.
We walked past one house just as a lady in perhaps her late 70s was leaving the house on this snowy morning to meet for morning coffee with two other ladies who were 84 and 85 years old. We spoke with her briefly, and she told us she had lived her entire life in Francois. There were 89 people living in this little town in 2016, and we met perhaps eight of them – all of whom had lived here nearly their entire lives, except for time spent in the military or going to school. This lady was really concerned about the dwindling population of Francois.
As the snow continued to fall, we met up again with Cody from yesterday’s boat ride when he drove up on his Ski-Doo (the Newfoundland name for all snow machines) and chatted with him about the town. After graduating from the town’s school, the St. Simon & St. Jude Academy, he went to work on his father’s fishing boat. Later, he bought his own boat and now fishes for crabs, lobster, scallops, and sea cucumbers with his wife and up to five crew members.
Cody’s diverse fishing activity is a big change from the past, when the fishery was based upon the seemingly never-ending cod supplies. Alas, every time people think that a natural resource is unlimited, they use it up, and Newfoundland’s fishery was no exception. It was devastated by overfishing of the once common cod, a harvest made possible by technological advances utilized by both Canadian and foreign companies. In July 1992, with cod stocks down to less than 1% of historic levels, the Canadian government abruptly shut down the 500-year old cod fishery in order to try and save the fish. This instantly put 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of work and devastated local communities. In the years since some, like Cody, were able to diversify and found a path to the future. Others found a future in tourism, which is starting to take off in Newfoundland. The cod has since rebounded but the fishery is extremely small and limited compared to the good old days. Just try to get fresh cod in Newfoundland most of the year!
A bit later we ran into another man on the boardwalk who was driving his Ski-Doo. He stopped to talk and told us that he was also a lifelong resident, but he didn’t make his living on the open ocean. He was a helicopter pilot who had worked for the Canadian Coast Guard, but now owns his own company and ferries a lot of people on remote hunting trips, mostly for Moose.
As I mentioned, the houses are scattered all around town seemingly randomly, with no clear lot boundaries. We asked one man about this, and he said that all the houses are built on Crown land, which is government land. People own their houses, but not the land under them.
We met another man driving his Ski-Doo who we had seen shoveling snow off a boat, which turned out to be his uncle’s boat. He works fishing for herring, crabs, lobster, and sea cucumbers. He was also a lifelong resident … are we beginning to see a pattern here? People are born here and live their whole lives here, though with a strong tether by ferry and by the internet and television to the larger world. When we asked Cody about his fellow citizens, he said that most everyone gets along well in town, but over time some people are moving away and the population is getting smaller.
The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has had a decades-long effort to move people away from the outports, which require huge government subsidies for ferry and helicopter transportation and education and medical care. By now, most Newfoundland outports have been abandoned, with the people voting to disband their towns and move elsewhere, but Grey River and Francois have been exceptions. In Francois, the question has come up for a vote twice over the years, but both times it was defeated (the latest in 2013) and the people remained. I understood that if the people voted to move out, the government would pay each homeowner $250,000 to compensate for the abandoned homes. It still could happen, but it is wonderful to see a few of the outports still hanging on against the tide of modernization.
I continued to photograph the buildings and waterfront and falling snow to my heart’s content on this wonderful day, when we talked to more strangers than we usually talk to in a week. Newfoundlanders are like that … they go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome, and we did.
There is even a good story that might be mostly true or wholly true about a German submarine that entered the fjord containing Francois during World War II. It came to quietly get fresh water for its tanks at a waterfall entering the sea. It was on a Saturday night and there was a dance at the community center in town; some handsome but unknown young men showed up who knew little English and who danced the night away with the local girls. The young women apparently thought that these might be Basque fishermen who often fished nearby, and didn’t realize that the men were German sailors.
The next morning we prepared to leave Francois for the voyage back, and the ferry Captain came to retrieve us. The morning showed a bit of sun and good weather for an ocean trip, so we went down to the dock and prepared to leave. The trip back was stunningly beautiful, with morning sun kissing the snow-covered headlands. And we got back in time to make the long drive to St. John’s to catch our flight.
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After miles of drizzle and fog on an early December night, I needed to stop for a break. A blue rest area sign caught my headlights, and I decided to pull over two miles ahead. Rolling to a stop in front of the restroom building with only one other car visible, I scanned the grounds for potential trouble, then got out of the car, carefully locked it, and went inside. All was quiet, and nothing untoward happened.
I took the photographs in this weblog post in three different rest areas during the winter of 2014/2015.
For me, visits to highway rest areas are often like that: a little spooky and unsettlling, especially late at night. When I leave the comfort zone of my vehicle I make myself more vulnerable, but usually the short stop is uneventful and barely registers in my memories. It is worth remembering, however, that danger can sometimes lurk in quiet and remote places.
Shortly after I drove through Minnesota on my way to Michigan, I read a news story about a young man from Washington State who had been murdered execution-style around midnight by another man from the same state–in Minnesota’s Elm Creek Safety Rest Area. Someone reported the murder, and a red SUV speeding away from the rest area. That led to a 115 mph chase in which the suspect was shot and killed by police after crashing his vehicle in the median and emerging with a gun. Since both men were dead, the circumstances and motives were unknown. Apparently my apprehension about stopping at night is justified …
While lying in bed this morning and thinking about writing this weblog post, I remembered a story from long ago. It seems that two guys I knew in grade school and junior high had moved to the Boston area and were working in a camera store. According to the news accounts, they forced a coworker to accompany them to a rest area, where they robbed him and stabbed him to death. I had repressed this memory for decades until I started writing this story, then it popped into my mind like a nightmare. The thing was, I could understand how one of the boys could end up as a killer, because he had always been a mean little snot, but the other kid was just a sweet, normal boy who apparently followed the other into a life of horror.
Those stories and others like them feed the fear factor in my brain, but they also gave me some of the inspiration for this series of photographs. These pictures can be seen as beautiful in their own right, but they also have an edge of spookiness that is appropriate for the subject.
And if you see a photographer late at night in a rest area, please let him quietly go about his work. He really doesn’t want to talk to strangers at midnight.
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