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In the Farmland Through One Lens

“Forever caught in desert lands, One has to learn to disbelieve the sea.”

- Genesis, excerpt from Mad Man Moon

I live in the southern part of California’s San Joaquin Valley. The Central Valley is well known for its rich agriculture, world-class oil fields and the Bakersfield country sound popularized by Merle Haggard and others. John Steinbeck made the area famous with his 1957 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, about the migration from the impoverished Oklahoma dust bowl to the promise land in the California farmlands. When the Joads finally arrived in the valley, after days of harsh, grueling travel, they saw the citrus orchards, their future and proclaimed, “it’s so beautiful.” My reaction when I arrived half a century later was not quite the same.

Almost fifty years after the Joad’s fictional migration to the San Joaquin Valley I transferred from the Gulf Coast to Bakersfield. I made the long, often boring drive from southern Louisiana to California in less than half the time it took the Oklahomans, with air conditioning to fight the intense August heat. I crossed the Mojave desert and started my drive through the southern part of the Sierra Nevadas and began my descent into the valley near Tehachapi. I thought the golden mountains were beautiful and the steep, curvy descent on Highway 58 was a blast to drive. I looked forward to living near mountains after spending my youth and early adulthood in the coastal plains of Texas and the swamps of Louisiana. When I reached the valley floor, crossed the city limits on the east side of town, my reaction was the opposite of Grandma Joad, especially when I looked in the rearview mirror and could hardly see the mountains through the dense haze of fine sand particles that tinted the sky an ugly shade of brown.

Before the Harvest

We have a joke about Bakersfield: “It’s only two hours from California.” I am close to great places and some of the west’s most beautiful scenery. The city is surrounded by mountains (though we can’t see them most of the time), is only two hours from the Pacific Ocean, two hours to Sequoia National Park and three to Yosemite National Park. The wineries in Paso Robles are less than two hours and glitz of the Las Vegas Strip is a four hour drive. Bakersfield is centrally located to these great places and others. Though I am close to some great destinations, I spend most of my time here, and I cannot describe the southern part of the valley as beautiful.

Clouds Over Farmland

The arid, sandy land is rich and productive. Irrigated with water from the California Aquaduct, Central Valley farms produce almonds, grapes, olives, oranges, cotton and even Asian vegetables. Underneath this land are some of the nation’s largest oil fields. The land is rich, but it is not known for its beauty.

Hanging On

My house is built on this farmland. One street north of my well-landscaped, well-maintained neighborhood is the dusty, sandy, fertile land that is covered with almond groves and various crops throughout the year. I have walked in this farmland for almost two decades. Since the photography bug struck me in 2006 or so, I have a camera in my hand on every walk. This land is a challenge for a photographer who wants to capture good landscape images.

Clouds Over Barren Land

The Hero’s Journey

My walks started as a convenient way to exercise, but they have turned out to be much more. For those of you unfamiliar with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, a hero exists in her ORDINARY WORLD. She receives A CALL TO ADVENTURE, but the Hero is reluctant to change and REFUSES THE CALL. The call is tenacious; it does not go away. The Hero is encouraged by a MENTOR to answer the call. Finally, the Hero is either persuaded to stop refusing or she is forced to answer by circumstances beyond her control. The Hero departs her ordinary world, CROSSES THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enters a special place. Here she encounters TESTS, meets new ALLIES and makes ENEMIES. She APPROACHES THE INMOST CAVE, crosses another threshold and endures the SUPREME ORDEAL. She takes possession of her REWARD and is pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World. Reluctantly, the Hero must eventually go back to her ordinary world. She crosses a third threshold, experiences a RESURRECTION, and is transformed by the experience. She RETURNS WITH HER REWARD, a tangible thing or knowledge from the experience that benefits the Ordinary World. The reward changes her ordinary world, and in so doing, she changes the society she lives in.

Wegis At Reina

You might think a Hero’s Journey is a big ordeal, a press-worthy event, history in the making. Some journeys are of such epic proportion. They look great on the screen and make good headlines but they are not the norm. There are many more small, but important, journeys too. The hero departs. The hero has an experience. The hero returns with something that changes the ordinary world. These journeys occur all the time. They shape our world whether we are conscious of them or not.

When I walk in the farmland, especially when I first started going out there and was unfamiliar with farming, each walk is like a mini-journey. I leave my ordinary world, cross a threshold into someplace unfamiliar (it couldn’t be more different from my office job in corporate America). There have been tests and enemies (try walking in 100 degree weather or encountering rattlesnakes, coyotes and the bees that swarm and attack when the almonds blossom in February, or the occasional person who looks a little seedy). But most of the tests have been cerebral, those internal problems or issues I have dealt with as I walked the land. The walks often turn into deep thought, especially during a divorce, while wrestling with career issues, dealing with parents passing away and the trials and tribulations of being a single Dad raising three young daughters. Now I often use my walks to help transition from middle age to what comes next.

I bring back “rewards” from these journeys. I have brought much back to my ordinary world from these walks in the hot, arid, dusty farmland. I’ve taken thousands of images of the land, people who work it, clouds that coming during the rainy season and the various crops that are grown throughout the year. I have photographs of my daughters learning to ride bikes on the dirt paths, taking our dogs on walks, approaching a flock of sheep for the first time, and “glamour” shots around the farm equipment and bales of hay.

I have brought back decisions about my girls, job, relationships with family and friends, and the farmland has been a place to cope with some huge losses that enabled me to stay effective in my ordinary world and be a good father, employee, son and friend. And I have brainstormed stories, creative projects (including this work) and trips to take.

I return home I do bring back rewards: pictures, stories I create about the images I see, problems resolved during introspective walks and many times the simple feeling and pleasure from listening to a great album or book. These “rewards” have certainly influenced my ordinary world.

OK, I realize that’s getting a little mythic, maybe a little too new age for some, or cheesy as my youngest is likely to think. So here are some pictures from the farmland and stories I created for a few of the images I captured over the years.

Pictures

Men at Work

Thirteen Palms

Abandoned in the Farmland

Plum Tree Blossoms

Sunlight Pierces the Clouds

Wegis at Reina II

Clouds Over Thirty-Eight Palms

Wheat Field

Clouds and California Farmland

The Almonds in Bloom

Stories

Ballerina’s Shoes

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A hot August afternoon, the temperature in excess of 100 degrees as I slowly walk through the Central Valley farmland. I reached the halfway point, Pink Floyd singing about The Machine, and start my return home when I stumbled across something in the weeds. Two pink, sequined shoes rest on the side of a lightly traveled road, the left big toe worn, the word “Angel” in the heal of the right shoe. Ballet shoes that belong, or once belonged, to a little ballerina. I picture a small girl, her hands above her head, straining to stand on the tips of her toes, trying to make a turn. The shoes have been there awhile; the weeds were growing over the right shoe. “What does she look like in these shoes?" I paused the music and asked, "why in the hell are they here?”

I imagine scenarios. Worn out and time to be replaced, Mom is lazy and just tosses them out the window. That pisses me off - there is just too much trash along the side of our roads. Then a more likely scenario pops into my mind. “Recalling my own youth, I imagine a slightly older bother taking the shoes from her and teasing her by hanging them out the window. She watches nervously as they fall, whether accidentally or intentionally, and they slide to the side of the road. She cries, but Mom is so used to their arguing and fighting that she dismisses her crying and tells her to be quiet because she is on the phone.

Plausible. I take a few pictures and start walking. Pink Floyd sings about a shining diamond. The little ballerina’s shoes rest in weeds along a Central Valley farm road. How sad was she? Is she alright now? I imagine her next lesson. It's time to go, but the shoes are missing. Were they replaced? Does she still dance?

Never Forgotten

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I started taking pictures of these crosses one afternoon when the deceased’s family had decorated them with colorful artificial flowers to mark the location of their family member’s death. His name was Christopher Montoya. I searched the Internet to see who he was and how he died, but I have been unable to find any information. On October 3, 2010, the family marked the eleventh anniversary of his death by placing a large, white metal cross on a nearby telephone pole. His family wrote his name, birth date (August 24, 1974) and the day he died (October 3, 1999) on the horizontal bar and his family roles (brother and son, but he apparently had not married or become a father) on the vertical bar. The cross was decorated with colorful artificial flowers and a handwritten sign from his older sister that told us Christopher had died in an automobile accident at the age of 25. Her note declared their love for him and she wrote that he was not only her baby brother but also her knight in shining armor and her best friend.

New flowers were placed at the cross on later anniversaries of his death, but over time the writing on the cross has faded in the severe Bakersfield sunlight and heat. At some point the flowers fell off the cross and there have been no new ones added for a few years (though someone, presumably the people who work the land, have “planted’ the artificial flowers in the ground below the cross). I assume the family has moved away. Though passerbys can no longer read who he was and the circumstances of his death, Christopher may be gone but he has never been forgotten.

Wegis at Reina

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I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico in August 2007 with a good friend, our second trip in consecutive years that has now become an annual tradition. At the recommendation of a friend, we visited a lounge in the La Fonda Hotel for a couple of excellent margaritas. Afterwards, we visited Photogenesis, a gallery that specializes in black and white photography. I was immediately taken by the work of Nicholas Trofimuk. There was a picture of him with his large view camera, standing with the New Mexico landscape in the background. We began our return to the ordinary world two days later, traveling south along The Turquoise Trail, driving the long way to the Albuquerque airport. About seventeen miles from Madrid I spotted this image; Highway 14 snaking across the desert and disappearing into the distant mountains with intense afternoon clouds in the deep blue sky. We stopped the car, and trying to mimic a Trofimuk picture, I pulled out my little Panasonic LX-3 and snapped a few shots while Steve watched for traffic. That moment was a turning point in my photography, the birth of my passion for black and white images and a fondness for road pictures.

When I got back to Bakersfield I realized I didn’t have to be in an “exotic” southwest location to capture a good black and white road picture. I started to take pictures of the worn-out roads in and around the farmland, especially when clouds were in the sky.

Farmland Road gallery

The Road and The Sky

Thirty-Eight Palms

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The thirty-eight palms lining the almond grove along Renfro Road near Reina Way have attracted me since my earliest walks in the farmland. At first the palms were my turn-around point. Later they became a key milestone in my youngest daughters early biking riding abilities.

I have taken hundreds, if not thousands of pictures of these unkept palms. The attraction was simply that palms represent a certain lifestyle and geography I enjoy - a tropical, somewhat carefree lifestyle. After years of walking by and photographing them, I realized they represented more than just geography and lifestyle.

When I was young my cousins lived in the rural, farming area of the Rio Grande Valley. My family made annual trips to Harlingen, my Mother and Father’s hometown, to see my grandparents and cousins. My aunt, uncle and cousins lived outside Harlingen on land surrounded by farmland. I slept on the seven hour drive to the valley and wake up as we drove into the land surrounding their home. Along one of the roads to their house was a line of palms (evidently palm trees lining farmland is somewhat universal).The palms represented our arrival and once there we had days of freedom, leaving early in the morning and coming back late in the afternoon after hours of exploring the surrounding land and arroyos with my cousins. Perhaps I subconsciously feel that freedom every time I walk by these thirty-eight palms.

Note: It is April 2020. I was walking in the farmland during the coronavirus shelter-in-place orders. The weather was Spring-like and it felt good to be out of the house. As I approached these palms I noticed crews on the side of the road, a tree service, trimming the dead fronds that had accumulated for at least two decades. I thought it was very strange to groom the trees - who cares what they look like out here? They looked very good a few days later when the crew finished. A week later another crew moved in. Someone must have purchased the palms. One by one they were removed, loaded on tractor trailer tucks and hauled away. I looked across the farmland on my walk yesterday and the land looked very empty where the thirty-eight palms once stood.

Palm Gallery

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Clouds Over Tumbleweeds

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Lunch time. First big clouds of the season rolling into the valley. I haven't seen clouds of any significance since May. Their presence transforms the scenery. I grabbed my 20D and headed to the farmland to take a few shots before I had to go back to my cube. I was there for only a few minutes, pressing the shutter at least thirty or forty times before it was time to go back. Whether it was the clouds or the act of capturing them, my afternoon was much more upbeat.

A few days later I sat down at my computer and began processing the images. On a whim, perhaps with New Mexico and monochrome images fresh in my mind, I converted several pictures to black and white and sent them to a friend. The subject line in the email was a sarcastic "Beautiful Bakersfield," or something to that affect. Her reply startled me – "that's a really attractive image."

Since that moment I have favored monochrome images; much of my early work was converted to black and white. That moment was also turning point with regard to my farmland photography. Up to that time I had taken my camera out to the farmland to capture special moments with my daughters or to simply enjoy the process of composing an image and pressing the shutter. From that point forward I realized I might capture some interesting images even though the land does not have classic beauty.

clouds over farmland

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I grew up in Houston, Texas where the cloudy skies are normal. Clouds were part of the background of my life. Clear skies were less common. Clouds were often an ominous sign, a strong hint of the rain that was sure to come, driving us back inside the house, often with booming thunder that shook the house and lightening that shattered the sky. I’m sure it is not true, but it seemed that the clear, blue skies, those that were friendly to baseball and wandering around the neighborhood on my Schwinn banana seat bike, were more common on the weekdays while we were at school and the rain clouds came on the weekends. As I grew up I realized that the clouds formed throughout the day, saturate around 4:30 and pour rain on the afternoon commute on Houston’s packed freeways. As a child, and later as a young adult, clouds were not my favorite part of nature.

My job took me out to Bakersfield for a three-year assignment in 1985; I have been here ever since. After twenty-five years in the hot, humid, rainy Houston climate and a three-year stint in the even more humid New Orleans area, the desert climate in Bakersfield felt like a Godsend. It is hot, but it is a “dry heat.” The average annual rainfall is approximately six inches and most of that comes during the “rainy” season as the winter storms roll off the Pacific Ocean from November through April.

For six months a year the sky is effectively cloudless and rainfall is insignificant. The weather remained a Godsend for the first few years, but after some time the cloudless sky became monotonous, compounded by months of very hot weather. The world seems different when the clouds start to show up in Fall. Once I renewed my interest in photography the aesthetic quality of an image with white, puffy clouds or a powerful winter storm far exceeded the blue, featureless skies for much of the year.

Cloud gallery

Click on a photo to enlarge it and swipe through the Gallery

Clouds Over Farmland Gallery

dumped in the farmland

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He was almost asleep when his father came into the bedroom. It was a school night, a little past bed time and it was rare for his Dad to wake him. He was quite surprised when his father called out to him.

“Son, get up. I need your help,” his father said.

“What do you need, PaPa?”

“Just get your clothes on and meet me by the back gate.”

It was very dark outside. The full moon had occurred two weeks earlier, and with light cloud cover, there was no light in the sky. His father had been waiting for this darkness.

“Help me get this stuff into the trailer,” he said. There was a stack of junk in the back yard. Actually there was junk all over the back yard, but his father had moved some of it to the fence. The trailer was backed up to the gate.

“Let’s start with MeMaw’s mattress. Be very careful. There are bedbugs.”

They lifted the mattress. It was old, flimsy, awkward to handle and difficult to maneuver. After almost tripping and briefly falling against the mattress, they lifted it onto the trailer. Then they started moving the rest of the junk. There was an old desk, cheap, made of fiberboard, the sides coming off where the screws had been stripped out of the fake wood. There was a lamp, a tall one that had once been by the living room couch, the brass plating peeling off and the lamp shade long gone. There were black trash bags filled with old clothes and shoes. Next to the bags were stacks of lumber of various sizes. They lifted a cardboard box and its bottom was wet, dripping liquid onto their hands, a foul smell was coming out of the top. The son imagined that whatever was in the box had once been in the refrigerator and had spoiled.

“Hey, go get those old wooden chairs on the other side of the house,” his father said.

He carried the chairs one by one, four of them in various states of decay, each one painted a different color, the paint chipping away after years of wear.

They stacked the junk as high as they could until it reached the top of the two by sixteens his father had used to extend the trailer wall higher.

“I think there is room for one more thing at the end,” his father said.

He turned the flashlight on the junk pile, moved it around until he found the last piece of junk he wanted to dispose.

“There. That.” The flashlight shone on an old television, one of the last generation TVs before they became flat and thin, before they became HDTVs and started getting larger and larger. It was black. His father bent over to pick it up, but it was too heavy for him to lift by himself.

“Help me pick it up,” he said.

They lifted it into the trailer and placed it on the very end. His father pushed it down a couple of times to wedge it into the other junk. After a few pushes and a couple of checks he declared it good to go.

“Get in. Let’s go.”

He pulled the small pickup out of the driveway and creeped out of the neighborhood with the headlights off. He pulled onto the worn road, picked up speed and the tires and wheels on the old trailer made a loud whining noise.

“Where are we taking this?” the son asked. “To the dump?”

“No,” said the father. “The dump isn’t open now. Besides, do you know how much gas it would take to drive all the way out there? And they charge a fee by the pound to get rid of this stuff. The county will pick it up.”

They drove in the dark night, heading toward the edge of town where the sprawling neighborhoods gave way to farmland and orchards. At the intersection of Noriega and Renfro he turned the little pickup truck right between the new Lennar development and a neighborhood of semi-custom homes. The trailer shifted as he turned and they heard something falling out. A second later glass shattered as the television smashed the ground, broke into pieces and slid across the asphalt.

“PaPa, I think the TV just fell out!”

“That’s ok,” he said. “Our job just got a little easier.”

They traveled another half mile, past the housing developments until they reached Rudd. Dogs barked as they pulled up to the Stop sign. A flood light from the caretaker’s property turned on, triggered by motion as the dogs furiously patrolled their yard. Almost as quickly as the lights came on they turned off as the little pickup truck turned right onto Rudd. A few hundred yards further he turned off the headlights as he approached a line of very tall palm trees, and turned left onto a dirt road separating two large almond orchards. He drove slowly to an opening in the trees where an aging oil well sat idle. He backed the trailer next to the well and killed the engine.

“OK, let’s unload. Be very quiet.”

They were quiet and what little noise they did make would never reach the small houses on the other side of the almonds. Unloading took much less time than loading, and after a few minutes they were back in the truck ready to go. The son looked back to the pile of junk, but in the darkness he could hardly see what they had left behind.

“Let’s get you back in bed. You have school tomorrow.”

A couple of days later the father was in the back yard. He was just about finished moving the next pile of junk to the gate. He thought, “after the next full moon, this yard is going to be clean.”

A Sheriff car pulled up to their modest little house, turned the engine off and two doors opened then closed with a deep thud. In the house the son watched two officers put their hats on as they walked to the door. The doorbell rang and he heard the officers ask his mother if Mr. Thompson was home. She said yes.

“Go get PaPa,” she said.

“PaPa,” the son said. “Two Sheriffs are here. They want to talk to you.”

He watched his father go outside to meet them, then listened at the front door.

“Bill Thompson?” one of the officers asked.

“Yes. What is this about?”

“This letter and other mail with your name and address were found in an almond orchard off Rudd. The mail was buried in a pile of junk.”

“There must be a mistake officer.”

“Mr. Thompson, you are under arrest for trespassing and illegal dumping. You need to come with us.”

“Now?” he asked.

He watched his father walk across the yard, his hands cuffed behind his back. They stopped at the car, and the shorter officer opened the back door. The other officer moved his father toward the door, then helped him get in by gently pushing his head down so it would not hit the car. Moments later they drove away.

“This is going to cost a lot more than some gasoline,” the son thought.

Note: This is a piece of fiction, one that comes to mind when I walk the farmland and constantly find couches, Christmas trees, televisions and piles of miscellaneous junk dumped by the road by people to lazy to properly dispose of it. This may be fiction, but I wish this was the fate for those that dump their trash on the side of the road.

MEN AT WORK

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7: 00 AM. Shower, shave, dress for work. Check my calendar for today’s meetings. At 8:00 I will be in a staff meeting. We’ll go through the standard agenda, starting with a fifteen minute safety topic and finish an hour later with general information that may or may not be of interest to the managers in the meeting. I will spend the next nine hours attending meetings in windowless conference rooms or working at my cube creating Powerpoint presentations or scheduling new meetings. Having helped fuel America, at 6:00 PM I will log off, stop by the grocery store, cook dinner, clean something, watch TV and go to bed. The next day I will get up and do it again.

6:30 AM. He climbs into the cab of his tractor. I imagine him turning a key and the engine comes to life. He turns the music on and adjusts the temperature in the glass enclosed cabin. For the next eight hours he tills the land and prepares it for the crop that will be planted in the next few days. At 6:00 PM he will park the tractor, turn off the key, climb down and drive home, knowing that today he helped feed America. He will eat, talk to his wife and kids, watch TV, shower and go to bed. THe next day he will get up and do it again.

We look so different. He is Spanish, I am caucasion. His skin and body show the effects of working in the outdoors for many years, dark and tanned, the skiing somewhat leathery. My body shows the effects of sitting at a desk all day, a little hunched over from sitting at a desk, less flexible. We are of similar age. I drive to an office building dressed in corporate attire while he drives to the farmland dressed in jeans and a T-shirt (I am jealous). I work in a cube, he is in an air conditioned cabin high on the tractor or working on the land. The context for our work seems so different. Yet in many of the important ways, maybe our lives are not that different at all.

A Special Place

“YOU MUST HAVE A ROOM, OR A CERTAIN HOUR OR SO A DAY, WHERE YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT WAS IN THE NEWSPAPERS THAT MORNING, YOU DON’T KNOW WHO YOUR FRIENDS ARE, YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU OWE ANYBODY, YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT ANYBODY OWES YOU. THIS IS A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN SIMPLY EXPERIENCE AND BRING FORTH WHAT YOU ARE AND WHAT YOU MIGHT BE. THIS IS THE PLACE OF CREATIVE INCUBATION. AT FIRST YOU MAY FIND THAT NOTHING HAPPENS THERE. BUT IF YOU HAVE A SACRED PLACE AND USE IT, SOMETHING EVENTUALLY WILL HAPPEN.”

- Joseph Campbell

Can a hot place as arid, dusty, flat, and aesthetically challenged as the Central Valley farmland be a special place?

Can the farmland be a place “where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be?”

Can it be a “place of creative incubation?”

Yes, even a place as hot, arid, dusty, flat, and aesthetically challenged as the Central Valley farmland be a special place. Any place can be special if you can leave the ordinary world behind, for even a short time, to enjoy some good music or an audiobook, to be in that moment or to contemplate complex situations or decisions that need to be made. I prefer for my walks to be along the beach with the sound of the waves or in the mountains with pine trees and the sound of birds, but the Central Valley farmland has proven to be a place where creative incubation takes place.

I have a friend who lives in a Danish city, its history dating back to approximately 1000 AD. He said there are some very old buildings that appear to his guests as splendid historical beauty, but to him it is just the background where he lives. Bakersfield is a really interesting place to him. He sees the city as an open culture, home to some really sweet, hospitable and thoughtful people, a curious blend of really neat older houses and huge new mansions, while also being a mass consuming, gas-guzzling, power-expending, water-wasting disaster. He sees the good and bad here, but this example of the American way of life makes him feel alive. To me he lives in the extraordinary, but to him I do.

The extraordinary is right where we are, we just have to learn how to see it. The challenge is to see the special in the world we live in, to be alive in ordinary circumstances, not just when we escape our ordinary worlds.

Does what I bring back change the society I live in? Does what I bring back have the ability to create change in the magnitude of Ghandi; Mandela; the PC revolution fueled by Gates and Jobs; the Beatles; and countless others? No, I don’t think so. Any change I have made is not of that magnitude. But will it change the society I live in? Yes, it already has. What affect might the images in this book have on those that view them? If nature includes the inner pictures of the soul, who knows what impact it will have on those that view these pictures. At the very least the images might provide the opportunity to be in the moment for a little while longer than we normally would in our busy lives.

I think about all the decision I made while I walked on that land. I made choices that affect the lives of my children, and they will affect all those that they touch. I have made career choices that affect me at work and those I worked with. I have consoled and coached people on my walks, and hopefully made a positive impact on their lives. In a way we are all heroes and the decisions and choices we make touch all those around us, and those they touch, and so on and so

Where is your special place?

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