Category Archives: Projects

On the road again

Panhandle sunrise

Panhandle sunrise

As promised … photos and a full report from my adventures on the road. I shot the sunrise above from the Texas-history-themed rest area on I-40 near McLean, Texas. I tend to be a pretty nocturnal creature, so I seldom see a sunrise … unless I’ve pulled an all-nighter, as was the case Friday morning.

Vega project

My friend Tresa and I scraped paint at the historic Vega Motel on Route 66 in Vega, Texas. This work was the reason for my trip. Tresa and her husband, Harry, had to close the motel for about a year and a half because of a family emergency, and now they’re trying to get it ready to reopen.

San Jon sunset

It wouldn’t be a road trip if I didn’t bag a sunset for my friend Brad. Here y’go, mi’ijo — a wily southwestern sunset, stalked across the high desert and captured somewhere between San Jon and Tucumcari, N.M. Not as dazzling a specimen as that sunrise I caught in the Texas Panhandle, but nice enough to be blogworthy, I think. I like the way those big, golden rays are streaking through that cloud.

Apache Motel

This is the historic Apache Motel in Tucumcari, N.M., where I spent Friday night. Normally, I’d stay at the indescribably gorgeous Blue Swallow Motel, just a few blocks west of the Apache, but the Swallow is closed for the season, and the Apache is under new ownership and has been remodeled recently, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I was not disappointed. The rates are very reasonable, and my room was big, clean, and very comfortable. The new owner is very sweet, too. I’m going to build him a Web site so more people will find out about his place.

On the way back to Vega from Tucumcari, I stopped in Adrian, Texas, to have breakfast at the wonderful Midpoint Cafe, home of the best pie on Route 66.  The owner, Fran, was there, and we had a nice visit. I hadn’t seen her in a while, so it was good to catch up a little bit.


I don’t, as a rule, like to shoot self-portraits — they seldom turn out well enough to be worth the effort, and it seems a little arrogant to photograph myself — but in my room at the Bonanza Motel in Vega on Saturday night, the light from the bedside lamp was so lovely that I just had to take advantage of it. Since I was traveling solo,  I just pulled a Catra Corbett and burned a few ones and zeroes on myself. Self-portraits sometimes come out kind of edgy and distorted, but this bright, diffused light produced a more gentle image. I like that color, too — it looks sort of like a photo from the ’70s. Remember how the cyan would fade from those old prints first, leaving behind the red and yellow tones?

Arrow Motel

I wound up doing a U-turn and coming back to this old motel in Amarillo so I could record the sign for posterity. The place is abandoned and in disrepair, and a flurry of development in the area around it leads me to suspect that the building and sign may not be long for this world. I love that star on top of the sign. I imagine those were probably chasing lights on the star. It was probably quite lovely in its heyday. Now the ruins tell a story.

Texola angel

Tiny Texola, Okla., has just three or four light poles … but every one of them had a lighted tinsel angel on it. These angels remind me of the ones they used to put on the light poles in my hometown when I was a kid.

Motel Cabana

This old motel sign in Erick, Okla., has been dimmed for years, but somebody apparently thought enough of it to do just a wee bit of restoration work on it, replacing the lightbulbs in the crown and lighting them up. The sign originally said “Cabana Motel.” The motel is long gone, and a couple of new buildings have taken its place, but the sign remains. Notice the tinsel candle on the pole nearby. Roger Miller Boulevard and Sheb Wooley Boulevard were lined with these decorations. Erick is small, but its downtown is quite lovely, with lots of old brick storefronts. In addition to Roger Miller and Sheb Wooley, Erick is the home of Harley and Annabelle Russell, the “Mediocre Music Makers,” who perform for tourists all summer at the Sandhills Curiousity Shop a block off Route 66. If you haven’t seen the Russells in action, it’s definitely worth a trip out there. I wanted to stop and visit Sunday evening, but I had to get home so I could work today.

It was quite a weekend, anyhow. The weather was beautiful most of the time, although Friday morning was just chilly enough to necessitate a trip to Vega’s historic Roark Hardware (the oldest hardware store on the Mother Road) to pick up a warmer jacket. I found a nice Walls farm coat for $40, which I thought was a good buy. Definitely the most practical souvenir I’ve bought in a long time, as I needed a heavier jacket for this winter, and this one should hold up for a good long while.

New jacket, a gorgeous sunrise, an excuse to try two motels I hadn’t visited before, and a chance to spend an entire weekend hanging out with friends and investing a little elbow grease in a historic property I love dearly. What more could a girl want?

Hope your weekend was as good as mine.


Back home

Just got in from Vega a few minutes ago. My priorities this evening involve taking a shower to clean all the dust, paint chips, and Texas-Panhandle-wind-blown debris out of my hair; swilling down a bottle of Gatorade; and crashing for eight hours. If I hit the shower now, I’ll have time to do all that before I have to head to the office tomorrow morning.

I’ll try to post a full report, complete with photos, sometime tomorrow evening. In the meantime, I’ll just say that it was a good trip, I had a chance to help two historic motels in different ways, and I felt safe and protected on the road despite a couple of startling moments.

More later …


I TRIPLE dog dare ya!

Did you notice my new little tab that says “Triple Dog Dare”? Click it if you’ve got the gumption. On that page are the instructions that will carry you from couch potato to marathon finisher.

Make your 2007 New Year’s resolution now, before the gym gets crowded and annoying. Get started on it tomorrow, before breakfast or after church or whenever your schedule allows it.

Oh — and as soon as you can afford it, reward yourself for trying something new by going out and buying a decent pair of running shoes. If there’s a Fleet Feet in your area, pop in and let them videotape your stride to help you pick the pair of shoes that will best suit your feet and your movements. A good pair of running shoes will generally set you back about $80 to $100. That sounds like a lot, but they’ll last about six months on this program, and those longer runs will be a lot more fun if you’re wearing shoes that were designed to be comfortable over the long haul.

Also, if you’re a girl, buy yourself a good sports bra. I’ll spare the guys an explanation of why this is important; just trust the voice of experience on this. Target has good prices and good product. Everlast — which I think is available at Wal-Mart — used to make a good zip-front model that’s easy to get on and off and VERY comfortable on long runs.

Now … go take a peek at the workout I’ve got planned for you tomorrow. Even if you’re sitting there thinking, “I’m not a runner. I can’t run a block, let alone 26.2 miles.” ESPECIALLY if you’re thinking that. Just go look at the first week’s schedule.

Try it. And let me know how it went. I want to know how many people have the cojones to take me up on this challenge. I’m making it as easy for you as I know how. Go take a look at the schedule, and then give it a try. You can always quit if you don’t like it. But I think you’ll stick with me. And if you happen to be in Oklahoma, I’ll sweeten the deal a little bit in a few weeks.

Come run with me!


Ask the Hippie, Vol. 1, Issue 8

Q. How do I take sharp, clear photographs of neon signs at night?

A. This is what I refer to as an “impress your date” trick: It takes about five minutes to learn, but most people don’t know how to do it, so you come off looking brilliant if you can pull it off. I put it up there with making French silk pie or teaching the dog to “gimme four.”

Here is how you do it:

1. Set your ISO as high as it will possibly go.
2. Get as close to the sign as you possibly can.
3. Open up your aperture as far as it will go. The aperture is your f-stop. The f-stop is measured with numbers like 2.8, 4.0, 5.6, 8.0, etc. You want this number to be as low as you can get.
4. Do not go below 1/100th of a second on your shutter speed. You can probably get away with something much faster than that, but that’s about as slow as you can go before things start getting blurry.
5. DO NOT USE FLASH. It will only lighten the background, which is exactly what you don’t want.

The cool thing about shooting neon is that you are almost guaranteed to get some kind of image, because you are shooting light itself. Since a camera works by recording light, it is almost guaranteed to “see” a neon sign, even if the sky around the sign is pitch-black.

Lower shutter speeds will produce a halo effect around the sign. Medium shutter speeds will give you a modest halo but will allow you to pick up detail, such as the electrodes and even the sides of the tube (which will look like faint black lines on either side of the light). Higher shutter speeds will give you a simple outline of the sign’s shape.

Here are some examples:

This sign at the Wigwam Motel on Route 66 in San Bernardino, Calif., was shot at 1/250th of a second, aperture f5.6, and 1600 ISO. The sign itself is maybe eight or nine feet off the ground, so I was pretty close to it when I was shooting. In retrospect, I probably could have gotten a nicer shot if I’d dropped to 800 ISO or used a faster shutter speed — I think this image is a little too bright, making it a bit hard to read (especially on those vivid white letters).

This neon swallow is mounted above a garage at the Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66 in Tucumcari, N.M. It’s probably 10 feet off the ground, or thereabouts. The lighting is a bit strange, because the entire property is illuminated with architectural neon. I shot it at 1/125, f5.6, and 1600 ISO. Notice how the camera picked up the edges of the glass tube and the details around the electrodes. Running the shutter faster or slower would have lost that detail — a faster shutter would have faded the lowlights into the background, and a slower shutter would have given a blown-out halo effect, like this:

This sign is also at the Blue Swallow, but it is inside a garage, just at eye level. I shot it at 1/250, f4, 1600. Notice the difference a few feet (and a slightly more open aperture) will make: Even with the shutter speed twice as fast, I wound up with a much brighter image, because I was closer to the sign and thus picking up more of the light. See how the details of the neon tubes disappear? If I’d dropped to 800 ISO or upped the shutter speed to 1/500 or so, I probably would have picked up more detail.

The famous rotosphere outside El Comedor de Anayas (an excellent Mexican restaurant with absolutely killer posole) on Route 66 in Moriarty, N.M. Shot at 1/200, f5.6, 1600. This thing is at least 15 or 20 feet in the air, but it’s so big and so bright that you don’t have to get carried away with the shutter speed to pick it up.

Here are three views of the Oasis Motel on Route 66 here in Tulsa. Notice the difference in the brightness of each one, and the variations in the amount of detail you see on the sign itself (not just the neon) as the shutter speed and ISO change:

1/160, f5, 1600 ISO. Notice how fuzzy the light looks — the shutter is slow, the ISO is high, and the camera picked up a lot of glare around the letters. This is fine if that’s the effect you want, but I usually don’t.

1/160, f5, 800 ISO. Notice how slowing down the ISO reduced the amount of glare around the letters and made the edges look a little more crisp without losing the intensity of the light.

1/200, f5, 800 ISO. Just a tiny bit more speed on the shutter, and the yellow moon (or whatever that thing is) loses a lot of intensity. When you’re dealing with yellow, purple, soft violet-blue, and sometimes green, you have to be careful not to speed up the shutter or slow down the ISO too much, because the tubes that produce these colors are coated with a powdered chemical inside that can mute the color and make it less vivid.

The sign at Fenders’ River Road Resort on Route 66 in Needles, Calif., is about 12 to 15 feet off the ground, as I recall. It’s close enough that I could zoom in a little bit and get a very intense image at 1/320, f5, and 1600. I like how the “NO” part of “NO VACANCY” — which isn’t lit up — is visible, but the tradeoff is that the vacancy sign itself is way too bright for my taste.

Green is produced by using argon gas and a tiny bit of mercury inside a phosphor tube. Depending on the shade, you can end up with an extremely bright light, because the mercury intensifies the color. (It’s really cool to watch this process when a sign is being made. You put the finished tube on a transformer to age, but you leave the mercury at one end. After the argon has settled down and quit arcing inside the tube, you roll this little ball of mercury through it. If you leave it plugged into the transformer while you’re dropping the mercury, you can literally watch the tube change color as the mercury rolls through it. But I digress.) This is important to you as a photographer because, with a sign like this, which has both neon (red) and argon tubes, you have to make some decisions about how to shoot it, since one color is much brighter than the other.

This shot of the Blue Spruce Lodge on Route 66 in Gallup, N.M., is one of my favorites. I just love the way the sign glows in that dry western New Mexico air. The sign is very close to the ground (I seem to recall the bottom being about seven or eight feet up, if that), so you can get away with a very high shutter speed: 1/500 at f5 and 1600 ISO.

Below is another example of that decisionmaking I was talking about when you’ve got a sign with several colors and intensities. This sign hangs in a garage at the Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66 in Tucumcari, N.M. I am sorry to report that this room rate no longer applies. 😉

1/1600, f5, and 1600 ISO. I could get away with a shutter speed this fast because the sign is at eye level and very bright. The “$3” part looks about right, “UP” looks a little too intense, and “VACANCY” looks a little dim.

At 1/640, f5, and 1600, the “VACANCY” part looks better, but everything else gets a little too intense.

Hope this helps. I know it was a little long, but it’s hard to explain photography without going into a little detail and giving visual examples.


Stove report

1. Baking on the woodstove in a Dutch oven did not work, but I think I’ve got it figured out. I put a boxelder log in there because most of our good stuff was too big to fit in that little firebox. (Ron is going to remedy this problem on his day off.) Boxelder doesn’t burn as hot as hardwood, so the temperature dropped significantly while the muffins were baking. Next time around, I’ll keep the fire a little hotter. On the up side, I had a primo excuse to eat warm, half-baked blueberry muffin batter out of the little cups with a spoon….

2. The soup was good. Here’s the recipe:

1 bag frozen mixed vegetables
2 cans diced tomatoes
1 can dark red kidney beans
1 single-serving bottle of V-8 juice
Fresh garlic, minced (I used elephant garlic from our garden)
1/2 large or 1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 tbsp. beef bouillon (optional)
olive oil
Dried oregano
Handful of macaroni

Saute the onion in olive oil until it’s clear. Add the garlic and cook briefly. Dump vegetables, tomatoes, beans, juice, bouillon, oregano, and onion-garlic mixture into a small stock pot, stir, and leave on the stove until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally. Add macaroni and cook until it’s al dente (done but not mushy).

NOTE: If you are not feeding an army, consider making the macaroni separately and adding it to each bowl of soup as you serve it. I made the mistake of cooking the macaroni in the soup, and of course by the time the leftovers sat in the refrigerator all night, the macaroni had soaked up extra liquid and turned to mush. Bleah. 😛

Other than that, the soup was really good….

My little sister posted two other soup recipes — including one for something her husband calls “Snot Soup” — in the comments section of the previous post.

I let the fire burn almost completely out because the house was getting too hot last night, but then the temperature dropped outside, and I stirred things back up again and added another chunk of hardwood before Ron got home. He was pretty happy with the stove’s performance and decided to toss another log on the fire and close up the dampers before we went to bed so the house would stay warm all night. It was a little bit cooler than I like when I got out of bed this morning, but I resisted the temptation to kick on the furnace. I really want to rely on the stove as much as possible this winter.

It was really nice to nap on the couch in front of the stove while I was waiting for Ron to come home last night.

I want to get a nice kettle that I can keep on top of the stove so I’ve always got hot water for tea. Twinings makes a wonderful decaf Irish breakfast, and of course I can never have too many cups of Red Zinger….


It worked!

Ron showed me how to build a fire and tend the stove this afternoon. It’s 55 degrees outside right now and 79 in the house — too warm, but it’s supposed to drop into the 30s in a few hours, and we wanted to build our first fire on a night when it was warm enough that we could open the windows if the stove started smoking or the paint wasn’t cured well enough or something.

I sauteed onions and garlic in a little cast-iron skillet on the lower (hotter) level of the stove and added them to a pot of vegetable soup that is now simmering away on the upper level. The onions cooked so well in the skillet that I decided to try making a quick supper: scrambled eggs.

If I’d added more butter instead of trying to cook them in the residual oil left after I sauteed the onions, they probably would have tasted better, but even if they weren’t the best scrambled eggs I ever made, they were certainly the most fun to cook.

The soup smells good. I think it’s going to turn out pretty well. If it does, I’ll post the recipe later.


This mockingbird was hanging out on top of the chimney when we went out to make sure the smoke was coming out like it’s supposed to. (It was, as you can see in the background.) Our chimney sweep bird-proofed the flue, so hopefully we won’t have any feathered intruders this winter.

Hope you’re having a nice, cozy Sunday evening wherever you are.


UPDATE: The soup is done, and it’s really quite good. Recipe forthcoming in the next post.

Learning something new

I’ve got a busy day ahead of me. It’s my turn to work in the nursery at church. When I get home, we’re heading out on Route 66 to have lunch and then talk to somebody for a Route 66 Pulse story.

Assuming the interview doesn’t take the entire afternoon, Ron is going to show me how to build a fire in our woodstove when we get home. I am very excited about this, because it means I finally get to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: Learn to cook on a woodstove.

My first project is going to be something very simple: Vegetable soup. L-A-Z-Y vegetable soup: A jar of canned tomatoes, half a bag of frozen vegetables, and some garlic from our garden. The goal for today is simply to warm up the soup without burning it.

Our stove is just designed for heating — it’s not one of those fancy-schmancy Irish cookstoves you get for a zillion dollars from the Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog. It’s a compact little woodstove my parents gave us in exchange for our freezer, which we weren’t really using any more. But my mom used to make soup for us all the time on our old Earth Stove, so I know I can feed us this winter, even if most of our meals just involve some kind of soup.

I have a LOT of soup recipes, so we’ll be in good shape. 🙂

I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, here are some links I found that have information about cooking with wood:
Sunset article
Mother Earth News article
Impractical but nostalgic article about somebody’s grandma
Bit of navel-gazing from Gardenweb, with practical tips sprinkled in

We’ll see whether any of this does me any good when the temperature drops down to 35 tonight. If this project goes well, I’m installing more shelves in my living-room-closet-turned-pantry and doing more gardening and canning next summer. The idea of living closer to the land right here in Red Fork makes me happy. I just hope I haven’t gotten so attached to my modern conveniences that I can’t bring myself to do it.