Friday, August 21, 2015

Digital cameras, sacred places & Robert Taylor

There's been a subtle shift here toward autumn, more than the fact school resumes next week and the Iowa State Fair is under way. It's cooler, the quality of the light is changing, roadsides increasingly are tinged with gold and even carefully tended gardens look shaggy.

So I got to thinking while mowing the lawn yesterday about this place, in another life a favorite September or early October destination. 

Then I got involved in trying to get the colors of it to look decent --- working with what used to be standard-sized prints, a scanner and photo editing programs. Although taken with a decent old basic Nikon, nothing quite worked and the results are exaggerated enough to look more like printed calendar shots from the 1970s than representations of reality.

Say what you will about the good old days, you can have all the guns you want but will have to pry digital cameras out of my cold dead hands.


These are the foothills of the Big Horn mountains as seen across a pond on high ground east of the building site on my uncle's ranch just off French Creek Road northwest of Buffalo, Wyoming.

It was my practice then to hike before breakfast up to the pond, turn around and just look west, enchanted by the reflections of the mountains in still water as the sun rose, turning everything in sight that wasn't blue to gold.

I'd call this a sacred place, meaning only that it was possible here without effort to lose self and feel absorbed into the whole, monkey mind stilled by the moment and the view rather than by any feeble attempt at meditation.

I still carry this place around in my head and have no real need for snapshots, but an actual visit would be impossible now.

Although the foothills still look the same, the ranch was sold for its view when my uncle grew very old, the buildings bulldozed, a new house built and when I checked Google maps yesterday the pond --- built for cattle --- was a mudflat. So in this instance, you really can't go home again.


Poking around, I came upon some old photographs, dating from 1961 and taken by a Life magazine photographer, that record this neck of the woods' brief brush with Hollywood celebrity.

During the late 1950s and very early 1960s, if you followed French Creek Road due west from the ranch, then turned on to a private road, you'd come up against the base of the foothills and the cabin and related buildings that served as a get-away for actor Robert Taylor (1911-1969), his second wife, Ursula Thiess, and their two children. Taylor had been married previously to the legendary Barbara Stanwyck. My uncle and his family were the nearest neighbors.

The property was leased from Indiana trucking mogul turned Colorado and Wyoming rancher Clarence Tarbet, who also owned the UM Ranch, a sizable cattle operation just up the road.

Tarbet died unexpectedly in 1962, however, and his heirs sold the cabin property to the state of Wyoming and it was incorporated into what now is the Bud Love Wildlife Habitat Management Area.

After that, we'd drive back in to look and poke around --- and by that time there was no Holywood glamour left. The cabin was derelict and the pond dam had been breached. So this is another of those places that you can't return to because it's gone although black and white photos remain to give some idea of what it once was.


Some years later, I distinctly remember walking out along a fence line during the evening as storm clouds rolled in for a final look at the foothills --- we planned to drive on before dawn the next day and there always was a sense now that this visit might be the last.

And it was, as circumstances changed rapidly after that. But it all lives on in my head and a few snapshots, surprising me that a place can make such a lasting impression.

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