Monday, September 8, 2014

September 1989

My mom's been on one of her purging kicks lately. One of the things she no longer wants is a small binder of old negatives she made long ago while taking a black and white photo class. She asked if I wanted them and I said sure. I'm on the opposite of a purge kick. Always have been, especially when photos are involved.

Like most people taking an intro class she was just putting her foot in the water, so there are only a handful of rolls to deal with. They begin in September 1989 and go through the fall. If my math is right that's exactly a quarter century ago. 

I was spending some time at home then, so I became an unwitting model in many of her photos. I had no interest in photography and no awareness of her shooting me, so it was a bit jarring to have this time capsule pop into my lap recently. I had forgotten some of this period, and these pictures filled in missing memories. I wouldn't remember any of these scenes without the photos

Here's me at the family table reading a magazine in September 1989. I was twenty. 

Sigh...another goddamn longhaired hippie kid. Just what the world needs. 

The truth is I should've been in college but I was taking a year off to "explore my options." That was code speak for "I don't know yet what to do with my life so I think I'll drop out of school for a while until I sort it out," which was code for "Stop bugging me, this magazine is important." 

The college dropout above had just returned from Alaska where he'd spent the summer working in a park near Fairbanks, digging trails by day, playing guitar by dusk, and looking for beauty and meaning, man, if only the fucking mosquitoes would lay off. Now I was back home for a few weeks plotting my next move, which turned out to be pretty predictable: I needed a VW camper van, preferably the kind with fridge and spinning front seat and Jerry's voice annoying the neighboring lanes. A chick magnet? Not exactly. But I could sleep anywhere in the country for free, which seemed more important than just about anything.

The plan was to live in a van for a few months while I explored the United States with the two guys in the photo below. That's Jason on the right and Andrew in the middle. And a fixer stain center-right.

You may be wondering if that's a washing machine in the rear by the refrigerator. Why yes. Yes, it is. And a stove nearby too. The rest of the kitchen is out of frame to the left. This is the corner of our one-room home that had running water, so all of our appliances were bundled together. The woodstove to the extreme right provided all heat for the room and was sometimes the warmest place in the house by 20 degrees. No utilities or sewage. Walker Evans would've hit paydirt here for sure, but my mom beat him to it. 

My dad is also in this photo (background in white T-shirt) but he wasn't coming cross country. He'd already driven coast to coast several times in his own VW van decades earlier. Now it was our turn. Andrew I were battle tested. We had just driven 2,000 miles down the lonely Al-Can from Fairbanks. So we felt ready, just as soon as we could find time to take a shower. And, um, a van. 

In late September the three of us made a weekend trip to the Bay Area where we stayed with Andrew's aunt while we hunted down various van leads in the newspaper. There were only a few Westfalias but they were spread around the city so it took most of a day to see all of them all. The one we came back with is in the photo below: a 1983 Westfalia with watercooled engine and 50,000 miles on the odometer. That became my home away from home for the next 4 years until I moved to Portland.

In the photo above we hadn't yet gotten around to that shower. If we look haggard, it was a calculated expression. The truth is we were psyched! We felt like big game hunters in this photo returning from the kill with the van slung over our shoulders. It had electricity! And running water! And a mini-fridge. We were ready to take on the country. 

But first, a day trip to the Sinkyone Wilderness to test out the van and enjoy time with friends. I think I would've forgotten this trip if my mom hadn't taken these pictures. It turned into a good photo op for her class. 

This photo shows a bunch of us hanging out in a meadow which is about 200 feet directly above the Pacific Ocean. To this day I still think it's the most beautiful spot in the world. I've had some good times there.

Here's another photo from the meadow showing Andrew on the left, me in the center, and Lynn sitting down who is now my neighbor in Eugene. Small world. The guy on the right is my high school buddy Bret. 

I hadn't seen Bret in a while, and in the midst of catching up I mentioned we were about to drive around in a van for the next few months to see what was out there. Bret was enrolled at UC Santa Cruz that fall but was thinking about "exploring his options" too. He asked if there might be room in the van. We said sure. So he dropped out of school and we recruited him. Then where were four of us. 

I'm not sure why my mom took the photo above. She was still wrestling with concepts like focus and exposure but despite that the photo really pops. It's got great form. I like to imagine it shows Bret in the very act of deciding to come with us. Or maybe dropping a deuce. One or the other. Photos can be ambiguous at times. In the photo below, for example, Andrew has just had a heart attack. Or maybe he hasn't.

The first week of October we left on our trip. We drove north through Oregon, then east, then hit 47 out of 50 states. We had many many many many misadventures and discoveries along the way. I was on a stupid health kick. I'd stopped drinking but was open to hallucinogens and backroads. We broke down in Ithaca. We slept in a sorority house. We cleaned up after Hurricane Hugo. We backpacked naked. We had fun.  

I wish I could show you pictures but there aren't any! None of us were photographers nor even casual snap-shooters. And this was before cellphones, Instagram, Facebook, or any easy recording options. We had no camera. So we spent 3 months driving around enjoying life, buzzing with youthful exuberance, leaving no record and documenting nothing. It was definitely the best road trip of my life.

I take that back. I did have one method of documentation and that was audio. My dad had given me a tape recorder at the beginning of the trip, and I used it over the next few months to record snippets of conversation, found sounds, and whatever audio events struck my interest. Looking back, maybe that was the beginning of my life as a photographer. It's not much different than what I do now visually. But this was with sound. 

At the end of the trip I had two full 90-minute cassettes of weird noises. I listened to them a few times and they were very entertaining. They made no sense. They were just pure surrealist collage. There were normal conversations mixed with unintelligible absurd stuff. But having been on the trip I could remember certain sounds and where they were recorded, and it was sort of like reading an old journal. I stored them with some other cassettes in a rental house before senior year of college (I wound up returning eventually) and my roommate wound up tossing the whole lot in the trash by mistake. What a bummer! Nothing lasts.

So we drove around 3 months photographing nothing, and when we returned my mom was just finishing up her photo class. She used as subjects. Here's Jason, me, and Bret a few days after returning to California.

Do we look wiser? Or more world weary? Along the way we'd left Andrew in Providence, where he'd stayed to resume school. Somewhere in a remote campground in the Blue Ridge mountains I'd asked Jason to shave my head, and Bret had found a beret in New Orleans, and there we were.

I'm still in touch with all 3 these guys. Sort of. Well, not really actually. We're in that weird limbo with intermittent email contact but I haven't actually visited with any of them in over a year. Andrew lives in Portland. Jason and Bret are in California. It's amazing you can live 4 feet away from someone for 3 months until you know them better than your favorite T-shirt. You can't imagine it'll ever change. How can it be different in 25 years? But it always is. At least I've got these photos. At least they haven't yet been thrown out.


Art Bueno said...

crazy shit.... these photos are pretty damn honest

Hernan Zenteno said...

Some posts ago you published some rules from some photographer or editor I couldn't remember. One of the rules was never show personal photos. I am glad you didn't pay attention to this rules or whatever rule. Personal photos shows the core of what we are made. And in some part is impossible to not find similitudes with each to other lives. I mean, I didn't a travel that way, but the relationships that ended vanishing with times for the new responsibilities, the memories of been young and less fat, and the chat we had with our friends in the past are deeply moving in spite I have not idea what all that persons are. This photos provoke that to me. Many thanks for share. Best

Marilyn Andrews said...

Great chapter in your life! love, Mom

Jin said...

I assume you didn't hit Alaska or Hawaii but what was that third state you didn't get to? Yes, this is the question I ask after all that...

But seriously, I wish people would more posts like these on the net these days. Make it personal, dredge up the past...

Blake Andrews said...

Jin, if you want more posts like this on the net, you should write them. You are a great writer. Commence dredging...

I didn't count Alaska or Hawaii in the mix. The states we missed where Iowa, Arkansas, and Florida.