#1050. Auto-Glyphs

By Nancee Rostad | Art & Creativity

Oct 19

Even though I’ve traveled to nearly every part of Oregon over the years, I’d never ventured into the south-east corner of the state. A little research yielded scant information about the area, but two things did spark my interest: a dry lakebed and wild horses.

In mid-October 2018 I chose to spend several nights at the historic Frenchglen Hotel which housed the only lodgings and restaurant for many, many miles in any direction. My very basic room was located in the “modern” annex (circa 1950) behind the hotel, and my meals were served family-style at the restaurant located in the hotel. It was during dinner on the second night that I learned where to find the wild horses, which was a relief because I had spent the better part of the day searching up and down sketchy and rough dirt roads with no results.

Early the next morning (and the next several mornings) I traveled about ten miles south of the hotel, turned off the main highway and drove slowly for about 2 miles. After pulling to the side of the dirt road, I remained in my vehicle and waited. Within five minutes I spotted a herd of about 12 wild horses of all colors & sizes coming over the hill. Within minutes they had started grazing nearby; the stallion keeping constant watch for any dangers. Now, I have absolutely no interest in photographing these noble creatures, but I’m very happy to have them take up residence in my memory bank. Each morning that I visited this spot, an entirely different herd of wild horses appeared, which filled my heart with joy.

My other keen interest in this area was the dry lakebed, also known as the Alvord Desert, located just east of the mile-high Steen’s Mountain escarpment in south-eastern Oregon (about 60 miles from the Frenchglen Hotel). At 4,000 feet elevation, the 20 mile by 7 mile playa today is only a remnant of a huge lake that extended 100 miles from end to end with a depth of 200 feet. Since it rains here less than 5 inches annually, the alkaline lakebed is dry and drivable from July to November. However, heaven help you if a sudden rain storm hits while you’re either camping or driving on the lakebed since that cracked dry surface can transform into a sticky quagmire within minutes, making locomotion impossible.

There are several hot springs encircling the Alvord Desert, some are private, but you can often pay a small fee to use them. I’ve also heard that wild horses can be seen on the far eastern side of the desert, although it would be hard to approach without causing them to retreat immediately.

Fields, Oregon is the nearest town to the desert, but it only offers a place to fill-up, a no-frills motel, and a small restaurant known for its milk shakes & hamburgers. Your main concerns about exploring the area should be having a full gas tank and being aware that cell service is virtually non-existent in much of the desert. You may camp on the dry lakebed and, due to near zero light pollution, enjoy the clear star-filled nights as well as the occasional booming noises from the seismic activity beneath the desert.

It was while I was driving on the dry lakebed that I started noticing the swooping tire marks which criss-crossed the cracked & baked surface in every direction. Minutes later, camera in hand, I drove slowly over the lakebed, stopping from time to time to capture the unintentionally artistic evidence of spontaneous vehicular movement. I spent a brief 30 minutes recording the auto-glyphs for my own enjoyment, which is the main reason that I make any photograph. Ultimately, these tire tracks will be etched onto the surface of the lakebed until rain and wind gradually erase them. Until that time, they remain as firmly in place as the petroglyphs, some as old as 10,000 years, which can be found on boulders in the surrounding area.

After returning home, I started to notice tire skid marks everywhere on city streets. A trip to a favorite park disclosed an entire parking lot covered in tire tracks which appeared to be laid down playfully and quite enthusiastically. I’ve included them along with the images from the Alvord Desert to illustrate how humans seem drawn to leaving their mark on any surface and to contrast how ephemeral and temporary the marks in the desert were compared to the near permanent marks made on an asphalt surface. Interesting, but certainly not an earth-shaking conclusion.

In my humble opinion, the south-eastern corner of Oregon is certainly an undestination worthy of a few days exploration, especially if you enjoy quiet contemplation in a natural setting.

“We’re on a road to nowhere…..” – Talking Heads


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Keep an eye out for the tracks the kids leave with their “mountain bikes”. They’d fit the catalogue perfectly!

    Definitely ahead of the crowd, Nancee – and B&W, too! – I often think people who weren’t raised on B&W have rather “flat” images – just relying on colour to produce “contrast” doesn’t really cut it, for me – but a lot of them have no comprehension of tonality, because they’ve never shot B&W

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Jean-Pierre. Some images cry out to be B&W, for sure. All the images in the post were shot in color and converted in post. They needed contrast, and trying to add contrast to color photos only results in over saturation, even though the color palette was quite neutral in both cases. I’ve only been a photographer for 12 years, so I don’t think that’s being raised on B&W; however, I’ve always been an artist in other mediums, so maybe that has helped me with tonality, etc.

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Whilst petroglyphs are prehistoric and auto-glyphs are a modern phenomenon I am now left pondering the second law of thermodynamics. Are the auto-glyphs on the dry lake bed reversible , in which case its total entropy is constant, or will it follow the natural tendency of any system to degenerate into a more disordered state i.e. will the auto-glyphs continually change becoming more random. Why this association springs to mind is a mystery to me – perhaps my mind obeys the second law and is degenerating into a more disordered state.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      To answer your question: the auto-glyphs on the dry lakebed will either gradually disappear due to wind or the small amount of rain the area receives. It was surprising how little of the lakebed surface actually had tire tracks – so the tracks must be obliterated by weather over time. I revisited the parking lot in Seattle where I’d photographed the tire marks less than a year ago and was surprised to see how much they had faded from view. Originally I’d considered them to be nearly permanent until the area was refurbished.

  • Claude Hurlbert says:

    Again, Nancee, you see design in the (for many of us) unexpected. If I had visited that dry lakebed I probably would have silently cursed the drivers or overlanders who “defiled” nature’s beautiful design as I looked for a composition–(photography can tempt one to selfish thoughts sometimes–or maybe I am alone in this foible). You turn their markings into something intriguing. I like, too, how you connected the tracks in the desert to the tracks in the street. So, again your photography opens eyes to the idea that design is everywhere if we but open our eyes. These black and white images are both technically and aesthetically effective, not to mention philosophically instructive. Well done–again.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Claude. I’m sure that you could immediately find a worthy subject to photograph in the desert. The Alvord Desert is surrounded by looming and photogenic mountains, which I generally ignore as photographic subjects no matter where I am. Nine times out of ten I prefer and am drawn to the more intimate landscape. No two people will photograph the same area the same way….thankfully!

  • Lani says:

    I find it remarkable that the images from the dry lakebed appear less gritty than the ones from the city streets, even though my left-brain tells me the sand is….well….sandy.

    Nancee, you have a cunning eye and really see what is around you instead of merely casting your eyes in a direction. You manage to capture intimate scenes with a boatload of sympathy.

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Lani. That dry lakebed is remarkably clear of city-style grit – most detritus would surely blow away. The lakebed is an interesting mixture of sand and alkali materials.
      I was hoping to find something to photograph while I was there, but didn’t suspect that my chosen subject would be imprinted all over the desert! It pays to keep looking.

  • Dennis L Manning says:

    Nancee, I always like your abstracts but wanted to toast your adventurism behind this post. Middle of Nowhere… beyond “undestination”!
    I grew up in Nampa and attended the U of Idaho so have been to many of you NW USA sites. Really liked the Pullman pea and wheat field photos. Drove a pea swather for a summer. You weren’t on your way home from Burning Man were you? Anyway I really appreciate your posts, keep it up!

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Dennis. That area is definitely beyond an undestination – but it’s worth exploring. The Palouse area is one of my all-time favorites – I keep wanting to return, but feel like it’s over-photographed at this point.
      I wasn’t coming back from Burning Man, but was on my way to Boulder, Utah. Not my usual route, but it took me through some interesting new territory.

      • Dennis L Manning says:

        I’ve left quite a few two wheeled “tracks” through Boulder. Route 12 being a mega motorcycle and photographic destination. Great food at the Hell’s Backbone! Next time you’re near Ogden give me a shout: 2dlmann@gmail.com.

  • Sean says:

    Woah! I really like your NAG series, very creative and artistic; and as Jean Pierre says “… Definitely ahead of the crowd, Nancee – and B&W, too!…”. Well done!
    [NAG = Nancee Auto-Glyphs]

    • Nancee Rostad says:

      Thanks, Sean! It’s always nice to receive positive feedback when you try something different.

  • philberphoto says:

    Nancee, you are such a wonderful preacher/educater/inspirer of “less is more”. Your images really cut to the quick of things. Big time kudos!

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