Documentary Photography

The Methow Valley, as white as the winter snow

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I became a passionate cross-country skier mostly because I had the good fortune of living in Anchorage from 2004 through 2010. There I was blessed with a fabulous and publicly-owned set of multi-use trails and trail systems in parks. I could ski sometimes nearly six months a year, depending on when the first snows came and when the last snows melted.

I mostly remember skiing being very accessible to nearly everyone because the trails were close to home and because gear was not too expensive for the basic set up of boots, poles, bindings, and skis. You could even get used equipment.

The local group promoting the sport and maintaining the trails, the non-profit Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, was committed to youth inclusion for all residents. That meant all young people, regardless of race.

When I lived there, Anchorage was more diverse than many outside of Alaska think, with about 65 percent of the residents who identified as white and 35 percent being non-whites, with the largest group being Alaska Natives. Some of that diversity could be seen in the faces of the young skiers competing for the high school teams and on the trails. But even then, in this very democratic and outdoor-oriented place, the faces I saw skiing were like me—white.

However, cross-country skiing in Anchorage is not like cross-country skiing in the rest of the United States. Today the almost entire lack of diversity of this sport nationally remains cross-country skiing’s great Achilles’ heel. That reality is not addressed with the type of debate that is needed.

In my view, everyone who does this sport, either Nordic or single-track style, knows this racial breakdown whenever they ski. If they do not, they are willfully fooling themselves from the facts before their eyes every time they clip into their skis and head out on trails in recreation areas that remain almost exclusively the domain of white Americans.  

Race and country-skiing are mostly taboo topics in the multimedia world dedicated to the sport and those who do it. However I found one recent article on the racial divide in this sport I still love on the FasterSkier website. Refreshingly, it confronted the basic facts about the folks who do the sport and the factors contributing to its glaring and overwhelming whiteness.

In the United States, cross-country skiing remains an outdoor activity mostly pursued by whites, including the many winter recreational visitors to the Methow Valley (like the author).

Skier and writer Ben Theyerl wrote in an article published in August 2020: “The demographics of where the places that harbor Nordic ski communities are on a map allows this statistic to go unchecked. The trail networks linked to small rural towns and resorts that are historically, and presently, white, shelter us from having to confront and come to terms with our sport’s lack of racial diversity. So do the images of our heritage as a Nordic community, and of what it looks like to be an elite Nordic athlete. … We can choose as a community to stay on this sheltered path, or we can take the road less travelled for the Nordic community to finally discuss the overwhelming whiteness of our sport and the places that we do it in.”

Cross-Country skiing in Washington and the Methow Valley

Downtown Winthrop has kept its old West look and feel, even as the surrounding area has become a magnet for wealthy residents of Washington state who have purchased their winter and summer recreation homes here.

As a former resident of Washington state in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then again through 2004, and finally 2010 to 2014, I have cross country skied there during the winters of my now former state. My adventures over these years took me at different times to the scenic Methow Valley, in Okanogan County, just south of the Canadian border and west of the Cascade Mountains.  

Once an area that had homesteads and ranches on former Native American lands, it is now dotted with second and third homes of the upper middle class, the wealthy, and also the extremely wealthy—many from the Seattle area.

Since my first visit in late 1987 to this past weekend, I have seen it transform into a year-round recreation area that promotes winter sports and cross-country skiing. The residents who live and have lived there famously developed a wonderful trail community during these decades. That is seen in the group called the Methow Valley Trail Association (MTVA), which is a non-profit organization that maintains the incredible network of classic and single-track trails, snowshoe trails, and now fat-tire bike trails.

According to the MTVA’s website, the volunteer-led group maintains “over 200 kilometers (that’s 120 miles) of cross-country ski trails in the winter months,” and that network “is recognized as one of the finest trail systems in North America for Nordic skiing, mountain biking, trail running and hiking.”

I would argue that the Methow Valley is, without question, one of the finest cross-country ski areas in North America thanks to its geography, plentiful and mostly predictable snowfall, and the good work of these volunteers and donors who support this form of recreation. The area, like so much of the United States, also has racial divisions that can be seen in where most of the county’s non-white residents call home.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau, Okanogan County had a population of 42,104 as of 2020. The sparsely populated and beautiful mountainous county includes the towns in the Methow Valley like Winthrop and Twisp and neighboring cities like Omak. The Census Bureau reported that the county is 64 percent white (non-Hispanic or non-Latino), followed next by Hispanic or Latino at 21 percent, and American Indian or Native Americans at 13 percent. The diversity from the two next largest groups can be found in communities closer to the Colville Reservation like Omak and towns like Pateros and Brewster, where agricultural work is plentiful and Latinos have long-settled because of farmwork-related employment opportunities like other communities in central Washington.

However, that diversity is not visible in the Methow Valley. During my recent three-day visit, I saw some visitors who I would identify as having Asian ancestry, but no one on any trail who was African American. Most of the skiers I saw on the gloriously groomed trails were white like me. It is a fact that one cannot ignore when enjoying the beauty of this great sport. This fact has not changed in the last 12 years since I began skiing there after returning to the Lower 48 from Alaska (as Alaskans refer to the lower states).

The Future in Washington’s wealthy, winter Shangri-La

As the ski community grew in the Methow Valley in the last two decades, so did the country’s income inequality gap. That gap has accelerated the concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever smaller number of richer Americans since the Great Recession, and more recently the pandemic.

That wealth concentration can be seen in patterns of land use in the Methow that are visible to any visitor who travels there. Those who can afford to purchase retirement homes and summer and winter second and third homes—mostly white and wealthy affluent out of towners—have chosen to settle in this area, with its spectacular vistas and abundant forms of recreation that cater almost entirely to white Americans.

Winthrop resident Solveig Torvik described this in her column from Aug. 4, 2021. “The Methow many of us so smugly assume is a model of a caring community with widespread civic engagement … reads instead much like a cautionary tale of a failed society,” she wrote. Torvik pointed to a study of the valley by a Washington State University sociology professor, Jennifer Sherman, who described the obvious divisions: “The Methow Valley is a deeply divided community where wealthy urbanites ‘blind’ to their privilege ‘hoard’ their social capital while impoverished, excluded, resentful rural old-timers struggle to survive.”

The valleys surrounding Winthrop are now dotted with high-priced, new homes that cater to wealthy residents, who are not afraid to flaunt their wealth, and the affluent who are choosing to live in what the local media The Methow Valley News calls a new Zoom town during the so-called “COVID land rush.”

According to an Oct. 7, 2020 story in the local newspaper called The Methow Valley News, a virtual “COVID land rush” is underway, fueled also by the pandemic: “One thing it means is a dramatic increase in median home prices in the Methow Valley. The median home price in September this year was $440,000, compared to $329,000 in September last year and $312,000 in 2018, based on statistics [broker Anne] Eckmann compiled from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. In mid-September, there were 34 homes available for sale in the Methow Valley — 10 of them priced under $350,000 and eight priced over $1 million, Eckmann said.”

This is not that different than other winter resort areas in the country in Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. What’s different now is how visibly those new, rich residents have settled in the last 15 years in the Methow Valley, particularly around the town of Winthrop. I have seen that change since I first Nordic skied here in 2010 when I moved back to Seattle, and then visited a friend who lives near Winthrop. It had been eight years since I was last there in February 2014.

Battles over future comprehensive planning in the county and water rights remain active, with many newcomers seeking access to the limited water resources and groups seeking to manage and plan for future growth. Growing threats from climate change and wildfire also have further exacerbated debates over growth tied to the desires of the wealthy to live in the fire-prone wildland urban interface, in places like the Methow Valley. The battles will likely continue there, similar to conflicts in communities in the West that have confronted the old maxim that “water flowing uphill to money.”

I do not know when I will travel to the Methow Valley again. It is a 400-mile journey by car from my home in Portland.

I took this trip to take a needed break from my work on Oregon’s pandemic response. I needed a recharge, and Nordic skiing is one way I can do that. It worked, too.

I enjoyed my stay with a longtime friend who moved there years earlier, who shared with me the struggles she is seeing as a resident over development there. In the end, I am left with almost magical memories of groomed trails, snow-covered mountain peaks, and the ongoing awareness that this sport that I once did daily on a community trail in urban Anchorage is still not widely shared by many.  

Sites and impressions from the Oregon road

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Oregon, geographically and geologically, is an assemblage of parts that don’t truly make for a whole. Like its northern neighbor, Washington state, it is divided by ecosystems that also provide a rough border of the political divisions that have never seemed deeper, particularly following the dangerous four years of twice impeached former President Donald Trump.

West of the Cascade Mountain ranges are the state’s most densely populated areas, and they are more to the left in the northwest corner of the state. The lands east of the Cascades are sparsely filled. They include the northern farming counties of Gilliam, Morrow, Sherman, Wasco, Union, and Umatilla.

On this trip I passed through Gilliam County, which features stunningly scenic rolling hills and an endless supply of wind that led to the siting of extensive wind farms. Outside of the federally recognized tribal holdings and communities, the areas is overwhelmingly white, but is now seeing an influx of some Latino residents, who do much of the agricultural work in this part of the state. Politically, this is as red as red gets anywhere in the United States.

I drove south from the Columbia River Gorge on Highway 206 through Condon, then took a right going south on Highway 19 through the abandoned intersection community of Mayfield to Fossil. Here is where landscape turned from rolling hills to deep canyons, revealing millions of years of geological history. Farms that draw from the John Day River line the roads that wind through a “scenic byway.” Some of these stunning geological formations are partially protected in a federal land management area called the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area has some of the richest collections of fossils spanning a 40 million year period, showing the evolution of species, plants, and ecosystems that existed long before homo erectus walked out of the plains of Africa to populate the planet.

After a brief stop at the monument’s fabulous visitor’s center, I took a right and headed west on Highway 26 that took me through more stunning canyons, multimillion dollar ranch holdings of land barons, and to the turnoff for the Painted Hills Overlook, which are some of the most photographed hills in the annals of photography. I first came here in 2003 and had forgotten how stunning the scenery was.

After taking a great walk and taking my obligatory tourist photos, I jumped back on Highway 26 (the Ochoco Highway), which climbed through the scenic Ochoco National Forest, where sites of recent forest fires were visible. Along the way I observed how severe the drought conditions were, with the Ochoco Reservoir down at least 20 feet. I passed through Prineville, which once identified itself as a town tied its ranching and agricultural past, celebrated in its public art. In reality, it has become a bedroom community for nearby and fast-growing Bend, about 25 miles to the southwest. The community is now home to larger data servers that tap into cut-rate cheap federal power provided by the nearby Bonneville Power Administration dams on the Columbia River.

Facebook recently announced it was building two more buildings here on top of nine existing structures, with operations the size of 80 football fields. The new investments will cost $2 billion. Apple also operates large data farms here as well. These investments make the bucking bronco and cowboy sculpture feel as old an a Roman antiquity sculpture.

Rudy at Paulina Lake

Rudy Owens at Paulina Lake, smiling because it snowed the night before in early June 2021.

I ended my drive in Newberry Crater, another national monument about 45 minutes southeast of Bend. This is one of my favorite places in Oregon. It similar geologically to the much more famous Crater Lake National Park, but more developed for campers and fishermen. The day I arrived it was nearly 32 F, and it snowed during the night. I had almost an entire campground to myself. I woke up with white stuff on my tent, and it was still the second week of June. I loved that, actually! From my campground, I did a long overdue nearly 8 mile run around Paulina Lake, which is one of the finest running loops I have done anywhere. That was worth the trip alone.

And so a year passes

A year has passed since my mom died from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an illness that will crush and humble most mere mortals, and even the brave and the strong.

I had been awaiting for this day, contemplating its meaning as it got closer and then arrived.

The markers of time the past year have been unlike anything I can remember.

Collectively we have lived through a global pandemic, which was just taking off right after I flew home. The United States’ imperfect democracy nearly collapsed under the continued assault by Donald Trump and his fascist enablers. Wildfires engulfed my state, and I worked through that for weeks as part of the state’s response. Now I find myself working on the state’s pandemic response, never slowing down.

I am relieved my mother is no longer suffering, nor her husband (my stepfather).

I feel like I have changed too. Luckily my solace has been the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

At the ceremony of life for my late mom, on Feb. 11, 2020, the church choir and musicians performed Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (from Cantata 147).

It was if Bach was speaking to my heart across time and space and said: Peace had come. Her journey had ended. All would be fine. I listened again to this piece over the weekend, and it brought great comfort. Bach’s music has let me say farewell.

Eleven Months in and 2 Million Lives Lost

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This week, the world reached a grim milestone since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wuhan China in early 2020. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center reported the global death count from the pandemic had topped 2 million, and was growing daily.

Some days I feel like I have awoken in an alternate reality, seeing mothers walking by, wearing face masks and pushing baby strollers, like I did this morning. It was jarring. I never thought I would experience this, though I always deeply sensed something like this might happen.

I felt that uneasy feeling of disconnect just after the start of the new year in Portland’s Lloyd Center district. I had come there to visit a dentist around noon.

Ordinarily, the business and retail area on the city’s east side would be filled with people, particularly on their lunch hour. Instead it was eerily silent and devoid almost entirely of the site and sound of humans.

I stopped to spin around in a circle, and realized I was alone. We had already retreated, globally, to the safety of closed spaces, eschewing contact, to avoid catching the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

I took a few shots of empty urban spaces of my cellphone, to capture that moment. Looking at the photos now, they look and feel disquieting, just like the scene outside my window of the mother and children, masked out of fear and caution.

Swimming Is Silenced

 

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I live about a half mile from the Sellwood Outdoor Pool. It’s a public swimming pool located in Portland, Oregon’s Sellwood Park that is loved almost to death by its patrons.

During a normal summer, it would be filled to capacity with screaming kids and their parents, many who are lower income, as public pools remain one of the most affordable ways to entertain kids and keep them healthy in Portland and most U.S. cities.

On a typical summer night, I used to pass by the pool and hear the kids’ yells, screams, shouts, and general pool noises kids make when they were being themselves in water. But not this summer.

The City of Portland, like nearly all major cities in the country, shuttered its public pools in the spring to prevent congregant spreading of COVID-19. This decision makes public health and human health sense. From the perspective of physical, social, and mental health, it represents a cruel outcome of the mismanaged national response that leads all the way to the situation room with President Donald Trump as the one who helped make our country’s pandemic the most lethal and worst managed in the world.

We are heading into Labor Day Weekend now. In normal times, the pool would still be open in the evenings and all weekend, particularly with temperatures predicted to be hotter than 90 Fahrenheit through Labor Day. The kids will have to find something else to do this year, and they will lose the chance to be kids and learn how to swim.

Closed pools and closed schools are taking on an air of dystopian reality, which we have seen created in unnerving films like Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 thriller Children of Men, where a strange disease had rendered humanity sterile, leading to all schools being shuttered because they no longer served any purpose. Oddly that film’s tension, pitting radical leftists fighting a right wing autocracy, seem to have predicted the spectacle in Portland. The people in the film even resemble the protesters here and the police forces that have engaged them in Portland for more than three months.

I am not fully confident we will be out of this pandemic by next summer. Even with the optimistic timelines given by the United States’ more credible infectious disease experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, returning to normal is no guarantee by next summer. Right now I do not believe the pool will open next summer.

For me, the posted sign by Portland Parks and Recreation is another naïve promise that we will get back to normal, when everything going on now is entirely abnormal. The professed optimism almost seems insulting with the silence.

A poem and photo about marriage and Alzheimer’s disease

This week marks the six-month anniversary of my mother’s death from Alzheimer’s disease.

I can hardly believe how quickly time has passed, amid the blur of a global pandemic and President Donald Trump’s ongoing catastrophic administration that seems to poison everything around it.

Still, our own lives go on, and each of us marks the passage of time in our own way.

My stepfather shared a poem he had written this week, marking another marker of time. On the occasion of the 38th anniversary of his marriage to my mom, back in August 1983, in University City, Missouri, he sent out his poem to some family members and others about his life as my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease caregiver.

I felt a huge lump in my throat reading this. Those seven years when my mom progressed from mild to severe conditions were unbelievably hard. He did everything in his power to ensure my mom stayed home and was loved. I have no words to describe my gratitude, even when some days it felt strained. He did all of the hard work. I can never repay him.

He gave me permission to share the poem online. I’m doing that today. I guess my mom is still on my mind. I am still missing her. This will take more time.

She Never Complains    

Years go by, years, not months.
It’s true that she becomes a child,
A little one, unable to care

For herself. If you love her,
Care for her, she will love you
In return, hold to you as her

Only one. You are. She knows
Her friends no longer call
Or visit. She will do anything,

Say anything she thinks will
Keep you from deserting her,
Though she knows a day is coming

When you must, can no longer
Care for her, and there is
Absolutely nothing you can do.

Years pass. Years. You become
Accustomed to her gradual
Decline, forget there is an end,

One day notice she no longer
Watches television, wants her
Daily walks, would rather sleep.

One day you realize she is blind,
Almost deaf, and your life
Together has neared its end.

You know. She knows, never
Complains. Soon you must live
Alone. She understands.

Group portraits in black and white

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

It has been years since I have been in a black and white darkroom, using chemistry to develop film and prints. I miss the intensity and joy of that process and the work that is needed to take lasting black and white photo portraits.

This week I was digging through my boxes of old prints and found a couple that I gave to a friend, who is featured in one of these two group shots. One is of his extended family who I have known for decades now. The second is of my friend in Vietnam, with his public health colleagues in Hanoi.

The warmth I find in a black and white group portrait, taken on film, can’t be replaced by digital. Digital may provide a level of sharpness and clarity, and simplicity. It still lacks the feeling I always experienced seeing my prints slowly emerge in the developer bath under the safe light of a darkroom, reeking of chemicals.. More than 15 years after I took these shots, I still feel that emotion.

Take a good look and describe what you see

Faces are amazing tapestries on which we paint our reality for the world to see.

Yes, many wear masks. Some are so clever, they can deceive others and eventually themselves, and their faces become a testament to their character of falsehoods and lies.

Fortunately for most of us, we show a lot about our life, our struggles, our joys, and our character in the tableaux we show to others.

I have been taking portraits for decades, always looking at the face as my window to the soul of others.

On occasion I take selfies to look at myself and my world at the moment I click the shutter.

I took these shots over a three-week period. During that time, I visited my mom, who was ending her seven-year journey battling Alzheimer’s.

I came to be with her and say goodbye to her in late January 2020. That visit was impossibly hard, and my look captured my sentiments being with her at her extended care facility, when I knew the end was not far away. That is shot No. 1.

The second picture is a selfie I took at the St. Louis Art Museum, a place we came for decades, even as she was slowly succumbing to this horrible disease. We still could find joy and beauty in this great palace of art. Picture No. 2 is from a place we stood many times together the same day of my mom’s funeral in mid-February 2020.

The last picture, three days after the funeral shows me after my trip to St. Louis was ending. I was sitting in a daze on the Portland MAX train, completing a ritual I had done for seven years, going to visit my sick mom and then coming back, not knowing how many more trips I would have to take. This time felt totally different. I felt the weight of my mom’s passing and a sense of both relief and sadness realizing this long chapter had come to an end with the only way that it could.

Leucadia Memories

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In September 2014, and quite by accident, I found myself in the mostly high-end Encinitas, California neighborhood of Leucadia during an eventful visit to San Diego. The trip was pivotal in my lifelong quest to know my biological kin and then write a book about the decades-long journey.

Leucadia played a small part in that adventure.

The community lies in north San Diego County, along the Pacific Ocean and in the hill just above the waterfront. An Amtrak rail line runs through the community, connecting San Diego with Los Angeles.

I found the people to be friendly and the surf shops, coffee shops, and eateries very laid back. People looked prettier than average, but in San Diego, I discovered that was common too.

One website called it: “Eclectic. Funky. Hip. Happening.” The same article went on to describe houses selling for north of $1 million. To me, that’s far from funky. But the community is unquestionably cool.

I came here looking for a hotel that was close to the ocean, yet far from the city. This was the perfect spot. I immediately fell in love with its mellow vibe. It was a perfect place to launch my beach runs and hang out in the local cafes.

I came back again in 2016, this time to try surfing, take a quick holiday from Portland, and work on my then draft memoir. The place felt mostly the same, except a restaurant had closed and a new brewpub had opened.

In another life, one where I had great financial success, I could see myself here, for at least a couple of years. In my case, I had to settle for two short stays that are now fading away.

Here are a few shots from those fun visits.

Happy Canada Day!

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I spent eight and a half years of my professional life working for the Government of Canada, for its Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now called Global Affairs Canada). I did that as a U.S. citizen, working for the Consulate General of Canada in Seattle and then for the Consulate of Canada, Anchorage. I enjoyed every minute of that experience, serving the Canadian people and helping build better relations between the peoples separated by the world’s longest and most peaceful border.

Tomorrow, on July 1, Canadians the world over and through that “blessed land” celebrate the confederation in 1867, known today as Canada Day. It’s a joyful time, and Canadians I know celebrate it traveling, with friends and family, and often in Canada’s beautiful outdoors.

To all of the Canadians I know and never met, thanks for providing me the wonderful opportunity to have visited your country, work for your country, and celebrate its values and traditions that remain a pillar of openness, democracy, and freedom the world over.

I took this photo during one of my many trips to Ottawa, when I worked for Canada. I positioned myself on Wellington Street, looking northwest on Parliament Hill to the Eternal Flame and the Parliament Building, the seat of Canada’s national government. If you ever get a chance to visit Ontario, add Ottawa it to your list. It is a beautiful city, and this building is among the finest I have ever toured.