Natural beauty, tough times, and seeing rural perspectives

Bradly Cook

So far, Chronicle photographer Bradley Cook has visited Big Sur, McVay Falls, Santa Cruz beach, and two electric-vehicle charging stations. He’s photographed Buddy Guy’s concerts in Oxnard, Calif., and at Beverly Hills’ famed Saban Theater. He’s visited a succulent garden center, bought giant pistachios at a legendary fruit and nut stand, and also endured a flat tire repair on the Tesla. SO, how’s it going at this juncture?

“Yeah, I am getting sleep … feeling good. I know how to pace myself on this thing,” Brad says casually, assuredly. 

Well, what could go wrong? 

March 14

“And so I see this one field with Joshua trees far and wide. I thought ‘Oh, this is gonna be cool with the wide-angle lens on a tripod, real low.’ And so I get out at this beautiful Joshua tree right next to where I want to take this perspective, and it has this little bit of a low branch, but that’s okay; I’m getting down low to do this shoot. And I’m just getting into it and getting some really cool-looking stuff, and I stand up and bash my scalp against that low branch. God, the spines of this Joshua tree are like steel. They don’t give at all. And suddenly, I was like, ‘Oh man, damn, that really hurt’ and I packed up my tripod. And suddenly I feel something coming down my face. And I thought ‘Oh, sweat because it’s warm out there.’ And I wipe my face and it’s blood. Then I feel a drip coming from the other side of my head, then suddenly drops of blood are coming off my head. I feel up top of my head and there are no thorns at all that I could feel. But then I pull my hand back down and there’s blood all over my hand.

“I open up the trunk to see what shirt I’ll have to sacrifice. Then I remembered I had some rags in the “frunk” (which is in the front of the Tesla), and I have these blue rags that I carry for when I’m charging the Tesla. You’re sitting around for 30 minutes; I carry a cleaning kit and clean the car inside and out. So I pull out some of those rags and start sopping up blood on my head. I get it dry or stop bleeding and everything and then down the road I go taking more pictures.

“I drove up to the top of the pass, about the middle of Joshua Tree National Park, looked down at the sand that was way more desert-y than rocks and other interesting features. I had heard that the best photos were from the summit, to the north, so I turned around and went back the way I came.

Man, there were a lot of aggressive drivers; I remember a lot of front grills of Ford pickup trucks and Chevy trucks. I look in my rearview mirror and they’re just tailgating, aggressively.

I got back to my motel for the night and asked the guy at the front desk, ‘Where’s the place to eat?’ And he said that one block away was a country-and-western place. And he said they actually serve pretty good barbecue. And got there and there’s a little bit of a line; it had dirt floors, picnic tables outside. They probably don’t get much rain down there. It was a really good barbecue. I went back to my room, had a power nap, and went back out to Joshua Tree about 11 at night.

It was interesting walking around out there at night. And it was nearly a full moon. So things are illuminated and you start thinking about rattlesnakes, stuff like that. Actually, I never ran across any kind of wildlife like that out there. Never even saw a lizard or anything. The Dipper was out, and I was able to line up the Big Dipper and start doing some composites of the sky with the landscape. And the Joshua trees … They were one of the highlights. It was a Top Five on this trip, for sure. I was out there for about two hours and then got back to the room and worked on the pictures a little bit because I was so excited about what I was getting. 

“I eat breakfast each morning once I’ve hit the road. That morning there was this great little Mexican restaurant with a buffet. You could see that everybody was ordering the buffet so I went ahead and did the same. It was pretty good, but I probably should have gone the breakfast burrito route because the Hispanic locals were coming in and that’s what they were getting. They weren’t doing the buffet. So they know better, right? Yeah. It was very nice. Family owned.

March 15

I’m packed up, and as usual, I diligently check the hotel room to make sure I haven’t forgotten battery chargers; I’m plugging in all these different camera batteries and computer equipment. I charged up the car – had to drive about 15 miles east to find a charging station – and went back to Joshua Tree one more time. I shot a few more things that I might have missed. And then once I got to the summit I went back down the south side where it’s so completely different; different cacti, and was quite fascinating. I punch through that other side and back on the road, east on Highway 10 toward Phoenix. I’m planning to meet with my cousin, John Coe, who has the “Lincoln bugle” in his possession. I found out the night before that it was on “temporary loan” to some museum in Illinois. It’s loaned out probably half the year for various Lincoln exhibits.

“My great-great grandfather was Abraham Lincoln’s official bugler. He played whenever Lincoln spoke in public, and was there on the train procession and funeral after the assasination. It has been passed down in our family, and me and my cousin John are among three family members who share ownership. John keeps official possession when the bugle isn’t loaned out. 

“I was eager to see him; it would be the first time in about 20 years. I thought I would be catching up and staying the night, but he had just relocated and downsized. It’s a one-bedroom and he just didn’t have room. I just said it’s no big deal, John, I can easily get a hotel room. I’ve already budgeted that, so don’t worry about it. It was good catching up with him. He seems pretty happy in life, and that’s the important thing. He just turned 80.

“I got a room and slept in because I knew now I’m doing a lot of driving ahead. I’m about to really do some driving. Next up was the caverns. That’s a chunk of a drive from Phoenix to Carlsbad, N.M. 

I’d never seen country like from El Paso to the Pecos (PEE-cos). A buddy of mine told me that pronunciation. He was a radio DJ there for a few years and he read off the weather on his first day there. A listener got in their car and went down to the radio station. ‘I want to speak to the new guy behind the microphone.’ He just wanted to let the new guy know, ‘Boy, around here we call it Pee-cos.’ You never forgot after that.

The landscape was just so desolate. And suddenly, I start getting to this part of the country in West Texas where there’s a lot of oil wells and reach Pecos, which has a charging station there. And then head to Carsbad. There aren’t many hotel rooms there, not many places to eat in Carlsbad. Things are pretty limited. I turned in for the night and made reservations for the next morning at 8:30 to be the second group down into the cave at Carlsbad Caverns. 

March 16

“I wake up and the only real breakfast option is an IHOP across the street. So I go over there, and I’m the first one in at six o’clock, and there’s a guy working the floor and some gal working in the kitchen. After he seated me, I asked if he’d mind if we talked about this part of the country. I explain I’m doing a blog article for The Chronicle. He was like ‘Sure.’ And I said well, okay, first question. Why aren’t you in the oil fields? And he said, ‘Have been there, done that.’ We got to talking about how hard that work is and such. I asked, ‘Why do you live out here? What is there out here?’ He says, ‘You know, you just don’t understand. We’re not interested in your technology race, or competing with all these people around the world. We just want to do our thing.’ And I’ve never heard that angle. A lot of these folks just want to be left alone … of course, until fire burns the town down. They want the advantages of modern technology yet they just want to be left alone. They don’t want to truly get into this big technology race. It was really sobering to kind of hear that. 

“When I was driving out there, I remember thinking it was just like how it was here in Oregon 100 years ago, where you had logging camps and all these little matchbox houses, close to the mill, one right next to the other. There might be a dozen or two or three dozen units. And all those people that lived in those little houses worked at the mill. Same thing down there, except it’s RVs and fifth wheels, and they’ve got these aluminum covers over the roof of it that comes down the sides a little bit. And there’s one right next to the other and next to the other, just like matches in a matchbox and there’s hundreds of them out there. And there’s a commissary and a laundromat and a gas station. Because I mean where else you’re gonna get stuff? And it kind of reminds you of that old song, ‘Sixteen Tons’ with the line ‘I owe my soul to the company store.’

So yeah, the air when you’re driving from Pecos to Carlsbad, smells like a Jiffy Lube. It just smells like old oily rags … that’s what the air smells like; you can’t escape it. There are no trees anywhere. If you’re a worker out there the posts on the derrick or something that would cast a shadow is your only reprieve from the sun. And it’s 100 degrees half the year. 

It kind of just shakes me that people do that. And the poverty out there … There’s no money there. I mean, all the money is under the ground. It comes out of the ground, and it goes straight to a bank account in Dallas, or Houston. All those workers there, whatever money they have left over, they’re sending it back home. They all have nice pickup trucks but they smell of oil. I’m sure the inside of their truck smells of oil. And when they go back to their RV or whatever it smells like oil. And you can only imagine what those washers and dryers smell like at the commissary. It all smells like oil.

I keep reliving it all the time. Like, how can you possibly do that kind of work? It’s brutal, and then the mindset of the people, for the most part, is just kind of this edgier attitude that, from my experiences, was prevalent across rural America today. A lot different than when I drove from Florida to Oregon 35 years ago. Especially this kind of anger.”



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