Jan/Feb 2009 Spotlight

Every Picture Tells a Story

by Chris Epting

I couldn't quote you no Dickens, Shelley or Keats
'cause it's all been said before
Make the best out of the bad just laugh it off
You didn't have to come here anyway
So remember, every picture tells a story don't it?

—"Every Picture Tells a Story," Rod Stewart

Traveling around the United States in search of odd places and historic nooks where profound, tragic, inspirational, momentous events took place makes for good stories. It also makes for good pictures. Sometimes, if you stare at certain images long enough, words become almost irrelevant. The images tell you all you need to know, in fact, sometimes they might tell you too much. And that's a good thing.


Photography by Chris Epting

The intersection of Highways 41 and 46, Cholame, California

Fifty years to the day, in fact to the moment, before this photo was taken, the actor James Dean was killed at this spot, driving a Porsche Spyder just like this one. Because I'd written a book called James Dean Died Here, a National Public Radio program asked if we could drive the entire 200-or-so-mile route together that Dean took on September 30, 1955. Along the way I'd narrate the trip, pointing out various landmarks like where he picked up his car that last day, filled his gas tank, was stopped for speeding, and so on. So we meandered from Hollywood up to this speck on the map called Cholame. A bunch of Dean aficionados were waiting there to hold a ceremony, including a man who drove this car there. I took a bunch of photos at the site, but this one stood out for me because it seemed to capture the loneliness and desolation of the moment. Those hypnotic, rolling hills at the bottom of the Polonio Pass that would have sucked up the sound of the crash are still the color of yellow death. The stubborn, suffocating breeze still blows hot, and the fading autumn sun that kissed this curvy machine a blink before it was crushed by the big Ford is dipping fast into the hills. The landscape is virtually unchanged. Seeing this car at that site in the final moment on the clock compressed time for several seconds. You wanted to yell, "Jimmy, hit the brakes!" in the hope that he might hear you, downshift, and buy himself just a little more time. But then again, if he did, who knows if he ever would have become the magical creature we now know as "James Dean," who has the power to draw us out into the middle of nowhere, searching for ghosts in creeping, amber shadows.


Photography by Chris Epting

The Trona Pinnacles, Trona, California

Visiting otherworldly places is comforting, I find, because they seem to have no rules—or at least, rules that we understand. The deserts are full of these strange moonscapes, and one of my favorites is the Trona Pinnacles. Here, more than 500 tufa (calcium carbonate) pinnacles rise from the bed of the Searles Dry Lake basin. These rugged tufa spires, some 150 feet high, formed underwater about 100,000 years ago when Searles Lake was not dry but rather a deep lake. Prehistoric and mystical, the Trona Pinnacles feel like monuments crafted by some underwater artisans who were perhaps mimicking the Pillars of Hercules. The towers seem to watch you as you crunch through their post-apocalyptic shadows, Godlike. They also appear to have some sort of hypnotic power that pulls you closer to them, and I saw evidence of this one day as our daughter Claire broke from our small pack and made her way toward two of the more impressive spires. Little doll in hand, she set off against the dry breeze at a short trot, and then picked up the pace toward the towers. We all followed, and soon we were in the vast shadows. In this image, I saw the beauty of a rugged, mysterious planet coupled with the innocence of a wandering, curious spirit—a particularly young spirit who was lost in the moment, entranced by the glorious sense of place.


Photography by Chris Epting

Elmira Shelton house, Richmond, Virginia

She may have inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee." Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton was Poe's childhood sweetheart as a teenager in Richmond. Then she married a man who became a very wealthy transportation executive. He died after they had four children, and he left her a lot of money, but there was a stipulation that if she ever remarried, she'd lose most of the fortune. In 1848, Poe came back into her life, and they rekindled their teenage love affair. Though he wanted to marry, Sarah was reluctant. She did not want to upset her children. A year later, Edgar Allan Poe bid farewell to his beloved on this staircase in front of her home. He was on his way to Baltimore. Four days later, he would die there. Wandering the city of Richmond, you feel Poe's presence in many places. A house where he gave his final reading of "The Raven," the place where his mother acted, as well as where she is buried. Poe's cryptic visage is everywhere. The dark, brooding Prince of Goth with those dead black eyes—on pole banners, signs, brochures, flags, postcards t-shirts, coffee mugs and more. This is the Poe to whom most of the world relates: the marketed grim reaper poet with a blood-filled pen. Yet on this staircase a different Poe stood, and so a different story is told. Here, a quixotic Romeo, who wanted nothing more than to marry the woman he adored, pledged himself to her under the stars. Here, a man remained hopeful. Here, the great Edgar Allan Poe bid farewell to his darling, not knowing it would be forever.


Photography by Chris Epting

Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles (former site)

I was in second grade when Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy. The memory of the event is vivid to me because when my teacher talked about it in class, she broke down crying. She had been volunteering for the campaign, and her emotions were so out of character for a schoolteacher that to this day and I can hear her sobs as she excused herself from the room. When I started writing books about exact sites where things happened, the site where RFK was shot was first on my list. My teacher's reaction had made such an impact on me that I always had it in me to try to resolve that childhood memory. But the site had become impenetrable. After the grand Ambassador Hotel closed down in 1989, the kitchen area where the event took place was all but sealed off—a taboo region. For years the hotel sat wasting away, like some bygone, silent era actress, forgotten by the talkies. Early one Sunday morning, in about 2001, my son and I visited the hotel. Fenced off like a prison, the best I could do was shoot exterior shots from Wilshire Boulevard. But then I noticed a side street driveway, and so I drove up to the hotel entrance to get some better photographs. A security guard appeared to make us aware that we were trespassing, which I knew, so I apologized and we got ready to leave. Maybe I looked pathetic enough, because moments later, after I explained what drew me there, the three of us were inside the abandoned hotel. Soon, we'd be in the ballroom where Kennedy last spoke. Then we followed his path into the kitchen pantry area. The large structure at left is where Sirhan hid, waiting for Kennedy. The door to the right is where he approached and shot him. The space was haunting and thick with the memory of chaos, confusion, and tragedy. But we were there. Somehow, we had made it. The Ambassador is gone now, razed in the last year. I drove by it recently and looked at the dirt field where the kitchen had been. And I thought about my second-grade teacher.


Photography by Chris Epting

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Gettysburg has no shortage of spots to stop, reflect, and let your mind wander across the fields, thinking about the brutal, bloody intensity that took place in these now peaceful meadows. Pickett's Charge of course was the infamous infantry assault ordered by Robert E. Lee against the Union on July 3, 1863, the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The path you see here is the exact one the Confederate soldiers carved as they charged up toward Cemetery Ridge. I believe I took this photo on July 4th, just a day after the anniversary of the event. Visiting historic sites on or near the same day is important for me because it provides the best chance of replicating what the weather, tone, and mood may have been like on the actual day. Pickett's Charge was a bloodbath, an avoidable failure that resulted in thousands of casualties. But you would never know that from where I am standing. Like so many other battlefields around the world, it's the silence that becomes deafening. The winds that today whistle through high, dry grasses would have been drowned out by the endless cracks of gunfire and screams in 1863. Today however, they are the sound that dominates, providing some peace and calm across grounds that are still healing.


Photography by Chris Epting

Overton Shell, Memphis, Tennessee

This is one of those ground zero spots for American pop culture. Today, it's an old band shell in a quiet Memphis park. The benches have been removed, and while there is talk of refurbishment, on this cold, drizzly morning, it seems just forlorn and forgotten. How different it must have been on a muggy summer night, July 20, 1954, when Elvis made his debut on this stage as a member of the Blue Moon Boys. The local paper called him "Ellis" Presley, and the Blue Moon Boys were the warm-up band for yodeling country star Slim Whitman. No matter though. With a shake of his leg and a thrust of his hips, Elvis stole the show at this, his very first paid performance. Elvis still owns the heart and soul of Memphis in many ways, from Sun Studio and Graceland to the big statue of him on Beale Street. But this is where Elvis the performer was born, on this very stage, on a magical night under a big Memphis moon. In the car I sat and listened to some early Elvis after shooting this. Then I went back and stood up on the stage. I looked out where Elvis looked. I wonder if he had any idea that night what he had done? All that heat and electricity he generated: it still sort of seemed to be there on this morning, in the sweet, charged air. Hey, maybe he still is alive.


Photography by Chris Epting

Rickwood Field, Birmingham, Alabama

Baseball + travel + history—one of my favorite formulas. This is the oldest surviving professional baseball stadium in the United States, a gorgeous relic that was built for the Birmingham Barons back in 1910 by industrialist and team-owner Rick Woodward. For years it served as the home park for the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, and it was here that some of the game's most mythical stars played. Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, even Babe Ruth all spent time at Rickwood. As I looked toward home plate in taking this shot, I tried to picture some of these players, as they would have been waiting for the pitch. But you know, the history here transcends baseball. After all, this is where teams played who were not allowed to play in the Majors. Being here, I thought more of what it must have been like for young men who were kept out of the Majors because of their skin color. Was there joy playing here? Or resentment? Negro League baseball has always fascinated me. The folklore of many of the players rivals any of the Major League history, and the camaraderie these men created together is the stuff of legend. But they had no choice—it's how they survived. And this temple is where they fought for their pride, for their manhood—for their lives.


Photography by Chris Epting

Malibu Creek State Park

It looks like the scene of a war of some sort, and I guess it kind of was. After all, this is where the TV show MASH was filmed, in the mountains above the Pacific Ocean near Malibu, California. They shot here from 1972 until 1983, when the final episode aired. That grand finale is still the most watched TV show in history. That fact, for me, makes this site particularly interesting. When you make the several mile hike and arrive here, you realize you're standing in a place that was viewed by more eyes than possibly any other site on the planet. Does that make it sacred somehow? Or does the filming here upset the balance of sacred Chumash spirits that may cavort through woods? After, they occupied this terrain for many moons, and I've read that certain tribes today feel that if a sacred site is filmed, it actually corrupts the natural integrity of the area. I don't know about that, but so many people were electronically joined together by what took place here, this might just be the quintessential pop culture shrine. Or perhaps it's best to just consider it a pretty place in the hills where salty breezes caress random, rusted vehicles scattered throughout the fragrant sage. Whatever your pleasure.


Photography by Chris Epting

Enchanted Forest, Ellicott City, Maryland

Once upon a time, there was a charming little storybook park in Ellicott City called The Enchanted Forest. It was opened in 1955, and for more than 30 years it delighted generations of families with its maze of gingerbread houses, castles, bridges, and a babbling brook. Today it's abandoned and sealed off from public view, but my wife, kids, and I jumped at the chance to tour the forgotten grounds. I had a postcard from the Goldilocks and the Three Bears house that I held up to shoot in this comparison image. It's always sort of sad to see once-grand places left to decay, but a haven for children seems even more tragic when left to die. Pushing through the overgrowth, revealing bits of candy-colored rooftops, bridges to nowhere and more, we were all given to a collective pause. The lake that once supported paddle boats is now laden with muck. The laughter is replaced wih the occasional shriek of a crow, and the path to Hansel and Gretel's house now seems as foreboding as it did in the original fairy tale. It's a soggy paradise lost, preserved in a murky tangle of vines and memories that decays a little more each day.


Photography by Chris Epting

Travels with Charlie, Bagdad Café, Newberry Springs, California

John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley is one of my favorite travelogues. The road trip that Steinbeck took with his dog, Charley, was a pointed look at America that for me remains required reading on any extended road trip. My amazing wife Jean, myself, and the kids have logged many memorable miles together. But separately, my son Charlie and I have also had the benefit of many wonderful treks, just the two of us. My own personal "Travels With Charlie" have shaped the way I look at the world, through the eyes of this inquisitive young man who teaches me more through his observations than I could ever hope to learn through books. In this auto-snapped photo, we are at the old Bagdad Café restaurant (remember the movie?) in Newberry Springs, California. Situated on an original fragment of Route 66, it's a stopping point for people from all over the world. I think we were the only patrons here this evening as we were heading off to the Utah desert on a fossil dig (Charlie is a budding paleontologist). We look happy because we are happy. We've just finished some of the best hamburgers we'd ever had, blessed with sweet, grilled onions, and the road beckons outside. Soon, we'll be out there in the middle of nowhere, talking into the night about everything from dinosaurs to rock and roll to politics. I wouldn't trade one mile of my "Travels with Charlie" for anything.


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