We had big plans. We walked into a Goldblatt’s department store on the west side of Joliet, Illinois. It was a beautiful Saturday morning in mid May, 1968. My mission was to buy my first 35mm camera, my new eye on the world. I had owned a few cheap box cameras, but this day I was prepared to spend serious money for a good camera.
Five years into my first marriage, my wife Bettye and I were preparing to take our first trip “Out West” to explore new sights. This was the year before our first child Joy was born, in Joliet. I had just finished my first year as a high school teacher in nearby New Lenox, on my contract for $6,600 that year, flush with money that supplemented my wife’s salary.
I purchased a Canon FT QL single-lens-reflex camera, a telephoto lens, a tripod, several rolls of film, and my first camera bag. (The “QL” stood for quick load.) All this new gear had me giddy with excitement. Over a period of years I had lost interest in hunting animals with guns and was now ready to start shooting animals with my new camera—“Out West!”
When I got home with my new purchases, I loaded my first roll of film in the camera. It seemed so easy.
The next day we decided to drive to northwest Indiana to take my first pictures with the new camera. Driving into a picturesque little town, whose name I have since forgotten, somewhere along Lake Michigan, I took a whole roll of pictures of beautiful old brick homes surrounded by manicured lawns and other shots along the lakeshore.
After school the next day I drove into Joliet and dropped off my film for processing. When I picked up the pictures later in the week I was shocked to learn there were no pictures. The entire roll was blank. I took nothing. I had failed to load the film properly, even though I had loaded it quickly, just as the owner’s manual said I could do.
Not giving up, I soon shot a second roll and the pictures came out perfectly, insofar as workings of the camera went. I was almost ready for our trip out West.
Soon after school was out, we rented a 14-foot Winnebago camper trailer, hitched it behind our red Plymouth Valiant, and headed west across Illinois, across Iowa, and into Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We drove through the Rosebud Indian Reservation, seeing a kind of poverty that was not too different from parts of Appalachia that I had visited a few years earlier.
When we arrived in the Badlands of South Dakota, I went ape with my new camera. I had never seen anything like the vast areas that had severely eroded over millions of years in the western plains, leaving striated layers of color that in places plunged for hundreds of feet—as far as the eye could see. All this made the gullies on our Tennessee farm look insignificant. Over a two-day period, I took at least two rolls of pictures of the Badlands. Click. Click. Click.
Badlands National Park (Photo credit)
On we went to Mt. Rushmore, to the vast rangelands of Wyoming, and the majestic Rockies of Colorado. My shutter-button finger was beginning to get sore; there was so much to see that was completely new to us. Click. Click. Click.
We wound our way down to New Mexico, a state where the light is just different from anywhere we had been. There was a pink glow to the sky, a different hue to the spectacular mountain and desert landscapes. The sunsets took our breath away. Click. Click. Click.
Too soon it was time to head back across the southern plains of the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma, and then northeast across Missouri into St. Louis. We would cross Illinois the next day on our way back home.
We decided to stay in a Holiday Inn on our last night out, treating ourselves to a level of luxury that was well above a Winnebago camper trailer. Late in the day we pulled up under the wide green canopy over the entrance to the Holiday Inn.
Suddenly our car seemed to lurch forward and then backward. I got a glimmer of some kind of commotion in my rearview mirror. The green Holiday Inn canopy had fallen down over the Winnebago camper trailer after being struck by the camper’s front-top-left corner.
Sensing a disaster, I jumped out of the car to see a hole torn in the top of the camper, just below the collapsed canopy. Immediately, a Holiday Inn employee, a little person, came running out and was aghast at what he saw high above.
Not thinking at that moment about the employee’s diminutive size, I stupidly said, “I can’t believe I hit that canopy. It’s barely more than head high, easy to see.”
If I had been talking to myself, that would have been fine. But I wasn’t. The small person’s attention shifted from the collapsed canopy to me, completely baffled that I would say such a dumb thing in his presence. I was as baffled as he was. I apologized profusely and generically, to include knocking down the canopy and putting my foot in my mouth.
The final picture I took from the trip was of the torn, gaping hole in the Winnebago camper trailer. The rental agency needed the picture to file an insurance claim. Click.
Travel, even to amazing places, doesn’t always go as planned. It never does.
I have to find those old pictures, taken through my new eye on the world. Aye!