Continuing my explorations of the weekend of the 4th of July…
Friday night I got home about 12:30 AM after shooting the Treasure Valley panorama. By 8 AM I was up and getting ready to head over to Boise to pick up my friend and head for Wickahoney, Idaho.
I had come across WIckahoney while exploring Owyhee county online. I’d been looking at maps (I’m fascinated with them) and saw some ruins marked with linked pictures that looked awesome. One of the pictures was even a night shot with the interior of the ruins lit up. None, though, brought out the stars that had to be visible from that dark sky site. I immediately wanted to go do some astrophotogaphy there, but first and foremost, I had to figure out how to get there. None of the websites I looked at had any details on how to get there.
Happily, Wickahoney is still on the map and Google is your friend. Surprisingly, even though it’s way out there in the middle of nowhere, it’s actually also in the National Registry of Historical Places. Using several sources, and collaborating with my friend, we worked out the directions and distances for the drive out to Wickahoney and back. Then we made a plan and set a date for a run to the ruins. That date was Saturday, 5 July 2014.
Trust me when I say it’s out in the middle of nowhere. You need a vehicle with clearance to get to it. I’m not nervous or scared to be out there, but I am very respectful of the Qwyhees and try to always err on the side of caution. It’s a wild place, a lonely place, and it can be dangerous, even fatal. I’ve been out there many times now, and have explored only a very small part of the county. I know what I need to bring when I go so that if I am forced to stay out there overnight or a few days waiting for help, I have the necessary supplies to survive. I’m aware of the symptoms of hypothermia and heat stroke and watch for them, both in myself and anyone with me. I almost always take a friend with me so that if something happens to me (for example twisted ankle, heat stroke, snake bite) then I have someone there to provide aid and help get me out. I also leave information with someone about where I’m going, what route I’m taking, and when I expect to be back. Then I stick to that plan. I can’t plan for everything, but I can prepare the best I can, use common sense, and be careful. I don’t go out there for thrills, I go out there to explore and take pictures.
It took us an hour to get to the turn-off to the dirt road, and another hour and half to get to Wickahoney. It was hot all day, as well…99F to 110F, somewhere around there. Your vehicle had best be in good shape and you better know how to read a map.
Even with our directions worked out, we still had quesions identifying where we were in the field. Both of us were experienced with maps, so we never needed to break out the GPS and the topo maps on my laptop. Some of our measurements found online were wrong, but the visual image of the map tended to help us properly identify each turn we needed to make to ensure we were on the right track.
We saw no other traffic once we left the highway and there’s no cell service out there.
Finally, the ruins came into view. You could see them from a mile off. The pictures I saw online were nothing compared to the reality. I thought they looked cool when I saw the pictures, but when I actually saw the ruins of this old home, stage stop and post office it was just like seeing the ruins of old cathedrals or castles (sorta) you can find in England. I had expectations of what I would see, but the reality exceeded all such imaginings.
Plus there’s no shade at all at Wickahoney, other than that from your vehicle or the ruins.
That’s not quite right. There is a creek that runs nearby, and there are some low trees and the remains of an orchard near the creek, but in general you might not want to hang out there too much, given all the cowpies laying around.
A friend overseas asked what I feel in places like this. Obviously I feel the heat but interestingly enough the 100 degree heat out there is more tolerable than the 100 degree heat in Nampa or Boise. It’s a different type of heat. The ruins impressed me both visually and emotionally. It was simply awesome to see them, standing out there alone in the middle of the high desert. There’s a loneliness to the ruins, but it also gives me a lot of respect for the people with the courage to settle there. I’ve read about the life of people in places like this and I like to try to imagine what the building was like and the fun the kids had growing up and the tough, but in its own way good, life the family had. I see the fruit orchard they planted and think of the work watering it from the nearby creek, picking the fruit, making pies and jams, and enjoying them. I think about the work rounding up their cattle for branding, slaughtering one or two for food, driving the rest a hundred or more miles to sell them. I admire the way they tried to care for each other and strangers passing through. For example, one of the sons that inherited the place from his father eventually built a 6 foot tall cairn on top of a ridge some 1,000 yards away from the house just so people on the other side that might be lost or trying to find Wickahoney would see it, recognize it’s not natural, and hopefully know that it’s a cairn with perhaps food and water that they might desperately need. From the cairn a person could see Wickahoney and find their way to safety. The idea that people then would do something like that just because it might maybe help someone…I admire that since it would be a lot of work and they had a lot to do just to keep that place going. I also wonder if perhaps he was creating a landmark in a place of no landmarks for his own family so they could more easily find their way, too. I try to imagine Indians, cowboys, city slickers passing through and how eager the people living there might be for news. I imagine them coming out to greet the stagecoach or approaching riders. I think about how the people died of things that could so easily be treated now and try to imagine what it must have been like for the mother there when she lost her son to a bleeding ulcer on a cattle drive to Elko and then a few months later the husband hung himself because he couldn’t get a loan to buy hay for his cattle at the start of a hard winter, and how that drove her to take rat poison herself because she had nothing else to live for. I think about the agony of losing a baby during childbirth there because the nearest doctor was 100 miles away and the nearest other mother easily 15 or more miles away. I think about the family sitting around in the evening laughing, talking, relaxing from a hard day’s work. I wonder what the Indians thought when they saw the family building the house there. I wonder what it was like before anyone came through there to settle…did the Indians camp by the stream as they passed through? Did they continue to do so after the Dunning family settled there and began raising cattle?
There’s a lot of history and a lot of unknowns. And a lot of respect from me for everyone that lived out there, whether Indian or white man.
One of the neat photography things about places like this is that you learn where the best photo shots can be found. Looking at my pictures of Wickahoney, it dawned on me that the best images of the ruins I had were all off-center, almost but not quite directly off the corner. It may be me, but I think those images reveal more of the personality of the old building than the pictures that are taken 90 degrees to a wall. Every time I go on one of these adventures, I learn something new.
While we were there, we found the skeleton of a cow. Picked clean and sun-bleached, it was scattered over an area some 20 feet by 50 feet or so. Finds like that are fascinating to me, not so much for what they represent (a dead cow) as the beauty of the bones themselves, the brilliant white against the brown ground, the symmetry of the bones on the ground, the complexity of the spine and ribs…the visual beauty. The pictures I take of such finds are as they are when I find them. I amuse myself trying to find the best image of the bones to present their artistic properties, but I also do not re-arrange them. That makes it fun as well as teaching me to try and see things from various angles. I also enjoy, sometimes, playing forensic detective and trying to determine how the bones got to where they are. I’ll never truly know, of course, but it’s fun trying to imagine what happened. I do understand not eveyone sees bones in the wild that way, and I respect their various perspectives.
We were sitting there thinking of getting ready to head back when we noticed a herd of wild horses making their way down the steep hillside behind the trees. There were several colts from this year and a surprising number of white horses. Naturally we both grabbed our cameras and started taking pictures.
Eventually they disappeared behind the trees and we wondered if they were going to make their way down the creek near us. They didn’t. Instead, after a whle they made their way back into view heading up to where they came from. Later on, re-examining the maps and online images I discovered that behind the trees where the herd had gone is a small reservoir, so they had no need to come to the creek proper, just to the spring. The next time I go out there I’m going to have to check that out.
By then it was getting on towards late afternoon so we packed up and headed back.
Already, I have images in mind that I want to create, some landscape astrophotography using the ruins as the foreground object. Due to the location, this won’t be an instance where I head out in the late afternoon and back in the early morning hours. The road is easy enough to travel, and you do have to be careful in some spots, but the long 2.5 hour drive isn’t one I want to make while short on sleep. Any kind of accident or poor driving, for example, could be not only dangerous but also lethal. This will be an overnighter, going out one arfternoon and coming back the next day. It is also a chance to automate the entire night, a chance to try for my first Milky Way time lapse, a chance to experiment with astrophotography landscapes, and above all, a chance to learn.
And a chance to live high on my friend’s Dutch Oven cooking.