Moving to the country at age 23 drew me away from my roots and, simultaneously, deeper into them. My immediate family couldn't fathom why anyone would choose to live in an old "shack" on a narrow, twisty "highway" 15 minutes from town. But my first visual memory of rugged, verdant, Indiana topography is gazing upward from the back porch of one of my mother's relatives in the hills and hollers near Clinton. Her cousin was postmaster at Shepardsville for decades.
Besides, my grandma had lived in Brown County before moving to the country 10 miles east of Indianapolis, where she raised my mother and, along with my aunt and uncle, still lived in the fall of 1974. My fondest childhood memories are from the summers I spent there with my cousins picking jaw-stabbing sour apples off the trees (much to Grandma Scott's chagrin -- "Eat 'em off the ground!") and climbing trees and playing army along the trails in the one-acre patch of woods across the street.
My urban upbringing notwithstanding, I felt at home in that rickety little five-room house with a forest edge and trailhead just 30 feet from my kitchen door. When the trees were bare, motorists on State Road 446 caught their first view of Lake Monroe over my tin roof, the same one I saw out my kitchen window. They still do, though the house was replaced by a manufactured home post-Blizzard of '78, after we moved out.
That plot of ground was where I discovered Edward Weston. The Aperture Monograph Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition changed my life.
For more tales of Bloomington past
An old friend and business associate had found the 446 house after running an ad in area newspapers saying he would move into a country place in exchange for fixing it up and paying cheap rent. We were close, and I visited often. When he moved to Brown County in late summer 1974, I needed a place to live, and I moved in, along with my year-old Irish Setter Shannon. The driveway was about a minute past Lane's Grocery at the Pine Grove ramp turnoff. The rent was $75 a month.
S.R. 446 at that time was the other road to Lake Monroe. The distance from East Third Street/S.R. 46 to my yard was a 4.5-mile fly for a crow, but by motor vehicle it snaked 6.2 miles along a two-lane road, with multiple 90-degree turns. During the week, it was a quiet country lane. On weekends, it was madness. Drawn by the Pine Grove and Cutright launch ramps, the Paynetown State Recreation Area and the Hoosier National Forest, tourists driving and pulling cars, trucks, campers, boats, motorcycles and RVs inched along, bumper-to-grille, from Friday evenings to Sunday afternoons.
The house was reasonably livable, at least for the first three years I lived there. The heat source was a waist-high, 4-foot-wide, oil-burning space heater in the center room, which connected via doorway to two other rooms and the bath. That the place had any insulation at all was doubtful. Outside walls were always cold to the touch in the winter.
The kitchen was separated from the heater by a room-and-a-half and two doorways. It did have a flue, and we installed the cheapest, galvanized tin wood stove we could find. But cooking in down jackets was common. Ice cubes dropped on the floor were known to last days, months toward the end of our time there. Electric space heaters offered little relief. We spent much of the winter in one room, usually leaning against the stove.
The rest of the seasons, however, were magical.
The sprawling kitchen had a spectacular, picture-window view of the lake and its forested watershed. Meals were always a treat, just walking out the back door an adventure. The three-quarter-mile trail descended a steep hill to a small, grassy field, the other side of which was bordered by a seasonal creek that was filled with geodes and fed a shallow bay on the North Fork. In dry seasons, the shore provided primitive camping and exquisite sunrises over the lake.
By the time I moved in, I knew the trail from hiking with my buddy who had lived there. Once, when he wasn't home, I tried it solo, took a wrong turn in the field and ended up coming out near the boat ramp. That was the first time I ever got lost and bewildered in the woods. I can still see the mistake I made. I went up the field instead of cattycorner across.
Shannon couldn't spend enough time in the woods, and I foolishly let her run. She ran off once, and I found her at a house on a dead-end road on a nearby ridge top. The weathered old place was classic Hoosier settler, as was the elderly woman who greeted us at the door. "We figgered someone would be along after her," she told me. "She looks like she's from perty good stock." Shannon was pure-bred.
I had two sets of friends who lived between me and S.R. 46. One house full of old college buddies lived directly across from a Monroe County deputy sheriff, who told them when they moved in that he didn't care if they smoked pot and partied. His only admonition: "Don't do acid and throw rocks at cars."
Down the road at Paynetown, one of my best friends rented boats to tourists and, when business was slow and the owners gone, loaned them to pals. An Eagle Scout by nature and accomplishment, I think, he knew the lake intimately and sometimes served as a guide for tourists and friends.
Life on 446 was more like comfortable camping.
Photography had been a passion since I bought a Russian-made, 35 mm Kalimar SLR my junior year in college. It was completely manual, and I recall the "Eureka" moment in an East University Street apartment when I finally understood exactly what happened when I aligned the circle and line on the light meter. That was the instant at which I started to understand the most basic photographic concept: exposure. I'd never possessed artistic ability but had always yearned for a creative outlet. When I figured out that light meter, I found it.
I quickly progressed to Pentax and then Nikon camera systems and developed film and prints everywhere I lived. But the process had always entailed setting up and breaking down the darkroom so my roommates and I could also brush our teeth. The bathroom on 446 was huge and right next to the heater, and for the first time I had room to seriously explore photography. I set up my Omega B-66 enlarger and trays on a table across from the sink and spent much of my time developing photos of the woods, the lake, my dogs and friends.
To learn the fundamentals of photography, I enrolled in a correspondence course with the School of Modern Photography. I sent them some money, and they sent me a red, three-ring binder of instructional materials. From there, I dropped the course and taught myself.
To learn about the art of photography, I bought a copy of Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition. The book's masterful reproductions of Weston's abstract, black-and-white imagery were inspirational enough. He was the greatest photographer of his era; arguably of all time. But equally transformative for me were the excerpts from his "Daybooks & Letters," his hand-written diary and correspondence with friends and lovers that accompanied the photographs.
"I am the adventurer on a voyage of discovery," he wrote in 1932, "ready to receive fresh impressions, eager for fresh horizons, not in the spirit of a militant conqueror to impose myself or my ideas, but to identify myself in, and unify with, whatever I am able to recognize as significantly part of me; the 'me' of universal rhythms."
Edward Weston's life and work profoundly affected mine. I've read four books about him and viewed his work in museums and art shows. In the early 2000s, I made a pilgrimage to California's Carmel by the Sea, where I stood in his studio (a gift shop with no Weston photos or books) and met his granddaughter at the Weston Gallery. Some guy who knew nothing about her grandpa was hitting on her, and I barely got the chance to speak. Dammit.
I found that living alone in a friend's duplex apartment the summer before I moved to the country suited my style. There were downsides, the occasional loneliness, for example. But at 23, the freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted and with whom I wanted, with no responsibility to anyone, was alluring. Moving to 446 actually marked the end of life with roommates.
The solitary life, however, lasted only a few months. One afternoon in the summer of 1975 I ran into one of the most personable and beautiful women I'd ever known while walking through Dunkirk Square. Judy had hung out at my various houses a lot, and we always had a special bond, but she had been in a relationship since we met in 1973. She came home with me that afternoon, and we stayed together for the next 15 years.
We spent a blissful year and a half, traveling for the Colombian importing business, hiking and camping in the woods, and drinking and listening to music at the Bluebird and other downtown clubs. Judy was an artist who also taught me how to see, how to create photographs rather than take pictures.
But life took some dramatic turns in 1978, starting with the infamous blizzard in January. The importing business was winding down, and times were already financially rough. It wasn't uncommon in those days for us to buy heating oil 10 gallons at a time from Lane's Grocery, which at that time was run by Hershel's daughter Judy Sharp, now Monroe County assessor, who was married to Bloomington Police patrolman and eventual Bloomington Police Chief and Monroe County Sheriff Steve Sharp.
Fortunately, when the blizzard hit we were in a little better shape, at least heat-wise, as we couldn't leave the house for five days. Ice sheets cascaded from the roof to the ground. We spent the week living in the space-heater room. Before we were able to finally reach Lane's, we had nearly run out of food. The last two days, we ate oatmeal, with no milk, butter or honey.
I don't recall how we got out of our driveway, as it dipped down from the roadway and was tough to negotiate in routine bad weather. But I clearly remember driving to Lane's the first time, and it was nothing short of surreal, like something out of an Ice Age movie -- one lane, with snow piled 10 feet or higher on each side. Every hundred yards or so, the plows had carved cutouts on both sides so cars could pull off and pass when they met.
We survived the blizzard, but the house didn't. The wind and weight from the snow and ice rendered it uninhabitable, though we stayed there through the summer. The kitchen wall separated from the foundation and doorframe.
The kitchen became so fly-infested that I got to try out a trick I learned from Kurt Vonnegut's
God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. When hanging upside down on a ceiling, flies will drop a few inches before they fly away. So, when cupped from below by a glass with water and some soap suds at the top, they invariably drop into the suds and slowly spiral to the bottom of the glass, just as they did in Eliott Rosewater's room.
We moved in August, deeper into the woods.
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.