Some of the archaic structures throughout the Nebraska Sandhills are clearly abandoned, having been left to languish and decay, while others are preserved as witnesses and shrines to a bygone era. The horse stable (I’m guessing based on the large decorative horseshoe) below is apparently one of the latter. Just behind it lies miniature badlands canyons scattered with bare white bones and ancient broken-down cottonwood trees. Facing it is a collection of old homestead-type buildings that have been converted into a series of shops for tourists.
I don’t think our roadtrip through the Sandhills could have been complete without a stop at Carhenge, in Alliance, Nebraska. And as oddball as this roadside attraction is, I was surprised to learn that it was designed and built with painstaking accuracy to the layout of Stonehenge itself.
A lonely side-road in the Nebraska Sandhills.
For the next few days, I’ll be posting some of the rural photographs from our Toadstool trip—scenes that are very typical of the Nebraska Sandhills, of the abandoned and forgotten, the quirky Americana, and the landscape itself, which often contains some relic of a homestead or machinery from many generations past and that has been chipped away by the elements and reclaimed by the prairie brush and sand. Ancient gravel roads lead to nowhere, weeds thrive inside ramshackle homes, and rusty windmills resist the prairie gales with stubborn resolve. Ghosts are everywhere and manifest in all forms.
The trip that Daniel and I took to Toadstool Geologic Park was timed ideally for night photography, having been one day removed from the new moon. We really wanted to get some spectacular shots of the Milky Way, and Toadstool is situated far, far away from any urban light pollution. Although I did not end up with any cosmic masterpieces of light painting, it sure was fun fumbling around the toadstools in the pitch black with our flashlights, experimenting with different approaches. The sky was never fully clear at any point, although the brighter stars were visible at times through thin veils of clouds. My most successful photograph from the night is below.
If you are looking for night photography done right, I'll refer you to the work of my good friend Ben Coffman.
Here is one of the few Toadstool images that I kept in color. It was taken at sunrise at the boundary of Toadstool, near the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill trailhead.
Complementing the alien beauty and spectacle of Toadstool is a profound peace, a stillness that belies the forces that have shaped it and will continue to shape it for eons to come. It’s the faint hum of permanence, a mere lull in the ponderous cycle and toil of sand and water and wind--those indifferent forces that are steadfast in their resolve to grind and rebuild the earth. It is easy to lose yourself in the scale of space and time when our typical human environment changes so fast--buildings erected and demolished and replaced in a single lifetime. Even the “natural” beauty to be encountered in the form of parks is a curated illusion of wilderness.
A place like Toadstool, whose layers are proof of change on a scale with which we cannot relate, a protracted, geologic version of impermanence, is a reminder of how insignificant and temporary we all are. It’s a place where I could not help but marvel at my own futility and be humbled by the grandiosity of the world, not in terms of its current state, but its vast history and future, of which we are a mere flutter of an eyelash.
Just for full disclosure, I stole the title of this image from one of my favorite short stories, Moriya, by Dean Paschal. "Talis umbras mundum regnant" translates as "such shadows rule the world." I loved the interplay of light and shadows in the harsh midday sun at Toadstool, and I leveraged that interaction into many of my compositions. In particular, I had a great time experimenting with how the prominent shadows could add depth and balance.
The Toadstool train presses on with this sunrise photograph taken during our morning hike through the park. Eerily quiet, completely windless, a crisp forty degrees, scattered clouds like pulled cotton strung out across that big Nebraska sky. Since our time at Toadstool was so brief, we were lucky to have such a great morning for photography.
Here is another image that illustrates the variety of textures and bizarre structures that have emerged during the slow process of clay erosion in Toadstool Geologic Park. Can we all agree that the giant turtle shell is pretty awesome?
Toadstool is an immersive, overstimulating experience. Most of the designated hiking path carries you along the streambed, the waters of which have carved a narrow miniature canyon amid the clay and sandstone that compose the walls and sediment hills. At most points, it is a complete panorama of otherworldly geologic chaos. It is beautifully cluttered. To try and make any sense of this in the two-dimensional medium of the photograph is a challenge. Or at least it was for me. After most clicks of the shutter, a quick review of the LCD image confirmed exactly what I had feared—that the dynamic scene before me had been retold by my sensor as static, had lost depth and dimension, had failed to show scale. Simply put, I was not doing the place any justice with my photographs. So I decided to slow down and to look for simple scenes whose compositions were interesting to me.
The image below is one of the few that satisfied me from our first afternoon in Toadstool, not because of its representation of the place as a whole or because it overcame the problems discussed above (it does neither), but simply because of its balance, simplicity, and flow.
It’s amazing to think that the “toadstools” and other rock structures in Toadstool Geologic Park were once buried under the soil itself, probably in nearly the same shapes as they exist today, before the soft clay around them was gradually eroded away by water and wind, leaving just the harder sandstone to remain. It’s an ongoing process that is said to remove about an inch of clay from the streambed per year, making me wonder just how high “ground level” was in this place thirty million years ago, the estimated age of many of the prehistoric bone fossils and tracks that are found throughout the park. The photograph below is among a larger series of black and white photographs that I took while my friend Daniel Dunlap and I visited the park last week. It was taken on a sunny, windy late afternoon, the kind of conditions that are almost never ideal for landscape photography. But I’ll make a case for it in a place like Toadstool, since, at any given moment, the gradual movement of the overhead sun serves to reveal the textures and curves of the sandstone structures and hills through the interplay of light and shadows. I would imagine that the same composition captured at each hour on a clear day would show a vastly different scene in each resulting photograph, since even diminutive features cast shadows of varying size, becoming apparent in relief by varying degrees, before disappearing from notice altogether as the sunlight angle changes.
Please allow me to speak in hyperbole for a moment, knowing full well that the concept of “nowhere” is subjective and that there is always somewhere more remote than anywhere declared “in the middle of nowhere.” With that said, Toadstool Geologic Park is in the middle of nowhere. Actually, Crawford, Nebraska, is in the middle of nowhere, and the park itself is twenty miles farther into nowhere. Toadstool is the epicenter of nowhere (still speaking in hyperbole). So if you live in or around Nebraska and have never heard of the park, you are not alone. Toadstool doesn’t even have its own real Facebook Page (just an “Interest” page), which makes it practically irrelevant. The gravel road to Toadstool from Crawford courses along mini-mesas and sagebrush grassland and then along vast fields of pale-yellow scrub towards a ridge of bare cone-shaped hills. It resembles the Badlands of South Dakota, but on a smaller scale. At many points, the only sign of civilization was a train that occasionally raced through the valley without notice.
When Daniel and I arrived at the park, whose parking area doubles as a treeless campground, one other car was parked near the hiking entrance. A man and his son emerged from the hiking trail, talked to us for a minute, and drove off. They stopped for a few moments behind Daniel’s car, presumably to take down the license plate number, we theorized, and left. We saw nobody else in the park for the rest of our time there.
The wind was very strong for the entire drive from Council Bluffs, and it was no different when we reached our destination. This part of Nebraska is dry, and dust whipped relentlessly at us and our camera gear every time we stopped to take pictures. However, the wind gradually waned as we hiked toward the eroded sandstone hills and then disappeared altogether as we climbed through the carved-out crevices between and below them. In that eerie stillness and silence, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the paleontological displays in the National Museum of Natural History—a walk through a thirty-million-year-old eroding landscape.
The image below was taken in the early hours of our second day there.