Sandi Wheaton's photographic journey from Chicago to LA with a Jeep, an Aliner trailer and a bunch of cameras

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Ludlow is a mover and a shaker in southern California – but Ludlow is not a person.  Ludlow is a tiny town on Route 66.

the now-empty Ludlow Cafe (trucks on I-40 can be seen in the background)

the now-empty Ludlow Cafe (transport trucks on nearby I-40 can be seen in the background)

What do you do when the main street running through your town is diverted?  Well, you move your town!  That’s what Ludlow did, anyway.  Twice.

unmarked crosses at the Ludlow cemetery

unmarked crosses at the cemetery

Back in the 1880s, Ludlow was born as a water stop for the railroad.  Soon ore was discovered in the nearby hills, and Ludlow was established as a mining community.  Mining continued there until the 1940s, and ruins of the original town, as well as an old cemetery, can still be seen near the railroad tracks.

When Route 66 came through this area, it ran just north of the original mining town – so Ludlow moved a block north to meet it.  Route 66 brought new business, and the town became an important gas-food-lodging stop for tourists traveling through the hot, otherwise empty desert.  The now-abandoned Ludlow Café, adjacent gas station and old Ludlow Garage on the east of town stand as relics from Route 66’s heyday.

When the interstate bypassed Route 66, Ludlow wasn’t completely left behind like some of the other towns along this CA desert stretch.  Once again, the new road was built just north of the business area.  So, Ludlow effectively moved a block north, again.  Today, a couple of gas stations and a Dairy Queen at the I-40 Ludlow exit serve the tourists crossing the Mojave Desert – and there is actually an old motel and coffee shop still in business along the Route 66 stretch, just south of the interstate.

Ludlow Motel is the only lodging around for folks passing through this area, or for those wanting to explore this part of Route 66.  My friend Sherrie and I stayed there last January while on a long weekend Route 66 photo trip.  The place was a little worn around the edges and its quiet isolation at night a tad creepy, but like most old motels, the nostalgic quality was sort of charming.  The coffee shop next door looks like it hasn’t changed much since it was run as “Friend’s Coffee Shop” on Route 66, and is a great example of Googie architecture.  A vintage postcard from Ludlow back in the day can be seen here.

the only motel for miles, in these parts - check in at the Chevron across the street

We arrived in Ludlow well after dark around 8:30pm, hoping there was a room for us.  A sign informed us that motel check-in was done at the Chevron across the street.  The gas station attendant gave us the key, we paid our $55, and then tried to find food.   The coffee shop next door was closed, so we settled in for the night with Chevron snacks, cheap beer, and bad TV.

The next morning, I awoke to what sounded like thunder.  Odd, as it wasn’t supposed to rain…  I rolled over and tried to focus on the window.  Around the edges of the standard issue rubber-backed motel curtains, I was sure I could see the glow of a bright sunny morning.  Yet there was that rumbling again – and the windows shook.  I listened for rain; nothing.  More rumbling, more shaking.  I staggered over to the window and, peering around the curtains, my eyes were blasted with a typical desert morning: extreme, unrelenting sunshine, not a cloud in the sky.

Rumble.  Shake.

piles of rusted cans in Ludlow

piles of rusted cans in Ludlow

None of this made much sense to us, but the noise stopped and we soon forgot about it – until we were exploring the old cemetery a couple of hours later.

You always see old rusted cans and the like out in the desert – but I had never seen this before.  Piles of old rusted cans literally carpeted the desert floor, just west of the cemetery.  They all seemed to be of the same size, and not much other garbage was around; just, cans.  Why would someone dump loads of cans out here?  This also didn’t make much sense.

I shrugged and started shooting a bunch of abandoned cars that were mysteriously arranged in a neat row nearby, while Sherrie kicked around the rubble.  A few moments later I heard Sherrie yell, “I get it!!”  She stood up, holding an empty cardboard box, showing illustrations of a man and woman in camouflage, eating happily.  “Military rations,” she explained.  “We used to eat these on training maneuvers when I was in the military.”  Aha!  The low rumbling, the shaking windows, the mounds of empty rations cans… I knew that the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center was nearby, but I didn’t realize just how close it was to Ludlow (map).  Confirmation came later from the local gas station employees: the noises that morning were from military training exercises, and were apparently pretty typical.

Seems more than just photographs were being shot in the desert that day.

someone lined these old cars up in the middle of nowhere; the Marines' training grounds are somewhere off to the right

someone lined these old cars up in the middle of nowhere; the Marines' training grounds are somewhere off to the right

writings in the dust of an old truck parked next to the Ludlow Motel

writings in the dust of an old truck parked next to the Ludlow Motel


Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

with some of the b&w infrared shots of Route 66

with some of my black and white Route 66 work (photo: Trevor Booth)

So what the heck have I been up to?  Good question.  Lots of exploration, mostly of the interior sort.  This entry will be more about what’s going on inside these days, and not about Route 66 itself.  If you’re interested in my process of finding my personal path, please feel free to read on.  If not, I totally respect that and don’t want to waste your time: please return for the next post.  I need to get this stuff out first, before I can write about Ludlow, which will be my next Route 66 topic.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I lost my corporate video job last year, and am looking to use this opportunity to forge a new path in my life – one that is more in line with my personal interests and values, one where being the most authentic version of myself actually makes the world a better place (double win!).

Years ago, I remember looking at a brochure advertising a museum exhibition about sharks.  I wanted to go, and expressed my keen interest in sharks to my boyfriend at the time.  He responded with “you’re interested in everything”.  I smiled and thought that was one of the nicest compliments I’d ever received – until I realized he meant it derisively!  He did have a good point, though.  I am a very interested person, and I think that curiosity and sense of wonder is what keeps me youthful, and fuels my passion for travel.  I’m also starting to think it’s “why I’m here”.  To me, the education and self-expansion that travel brings is priceless.  I’m forever touting the values of travel – especially to those who have the means to do it, but for whatever reason, choose to stay close to home.

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”  -St.Augustine

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” -Mark Twain

Over the years, photography has been my chosen vehicle for communicating my wonder about the planet with others, partly for the sake of self-expression, and partly to inspire others to travel more.  My photographic trip down Route 66 was originally just something I wanted to do out of my own curiosity – but through doing it, I discovered that there is indeed value for others, too, in such ventures.  Since I returned, I’ve been trying to figure out how to translate that into a living.

this is how I spent most of the last 10 years

this is how I spent most of the last 10 years (photo: Andrew Haggert)

My love of photography is large.  When I lost my job, I pretty much assumed that I should just parlay those already-honed skills into a job for myself.  How does one make a living as a photographer?  Weddings are good; people are always looking for a skilled wedding photographer.  Pet portraits are awesome in that I am a total dog-lover, and would enjoy being with my subject matter so much.  Of course there is event photography, head shots, commercial work, etc… so I’ve spent the last few months heading down that path.

But here’s the thing about taking your passion and making it a job: you’re taking a “want-to” and turning it into a “have-to”.  Here’s a good example.  When I did my Bachelor of Applied Arts at Ryerson University, my specialization was video.  I was all about video, and my 4th-year thesis project was a well-received video installation gallery piece (actually, it was more an experience than a piece).  Everyone, including myself, assumed I would pursue a video-art-making career.  But then I graduated and started working as a video editor.  After a full day of cutting ads and promo pieces, do you think I wanted to head back into the edit suite to make my own video art?  Nope.  Not one bit.  The fire I once had to create my own video projects was soon extinguished.

After years of making a living in the advertising and television industries and using photography as my primary creative outlet, do I really want to turn it, also, into a job?  I am so passionate about my personal photo projects, it would be a damn shame to do anything that might curb that enthusiasm.  It seems to me that a better idea is to find others ways to make a living, ways that will allow me the time and freedom to still pursue my personal photo projects.  Of course I am still totally open to accepting commercial photographic jobs – just, not exclusively.

Which leads me back to travel, and sharing that with others.

training a facilitator, one of the more satisfying parts of my last job   (photo: Megan Robbins)

training a facilitator, one of the more satisfying parts of my last job (photo: Megan Robbins)

Why stay in one city and do commercial work 80% of the time, in order to make enough money to travel and take photos the other 20% of the time?  Why not travel as work?  That was what I always wanted to do anyway – get paid to travel.  (Or at the least, have a job I can take anywhere.)

Many photographers make a living out of a variety of photo-related ventures, one of which is leading workshops.  I already planned to lead photography tours of the areas I shoot so frequently (Salton Sea, Joshua Tree, Route 66, etc.), but I forgot that leading tours is actually a viable job in its own right.  It’s obvious that I want to share my love of travel with others (that’s what this whole blog was about), I like meeting people from all over the place, I speak three – OK, maybe two and a half – languages, and I am a good teacher.  Tour leading is totally a natural fit for me, so I’m investigating that.

Apart from sharing the joys of travel with others, I expect to call on my other various interests and skills (photo, writing, speaking, workshops, product offerings like the Route 66 DVD/book, etc.) to add to the income stream.  This whole patchwork formula, mind you, will require starting with very small margins.  And we know what that means: dump the real estate.  I’m still struggling with that one, but I will prevail.

happy in the cubicle on this particular day, because colleague Leonard made me a glorious birthday cake!

happy in the cubicle on this particular day, because colleague Leonard made me a great birthday cake!

Going from decades of having a job where someone else tells you what to do, to designing a whole new work/live lifestyle gets a bit overwhelming at times… but I’m pretty sure I’ll end up someplace that lights me up a lot more than a corporate cubicle ever did.

P.S. Here’s something fun.  A friend of mine called me up last week and said, “I think I just saw you on Fashion Television!”  Yep, she did.  (Which, if you know me, you’ll know how Fashion Television is the LEAST likely show for me to appear on.)  FT did a piece on the recent portfolio reviews I participated in, and I ended up in one of the shots.  For, like, a second.  How in the heck Tracy spotted me, I have no clue.   You can watch it here.

P.P.S. I hope none of this sounds like I think I had a crappy job.  On the contrary, I was actually very lucky to have a pretty darn good job, with some really awesome colleagues.  Working with these photos today had made me a bit misty, missing them… but this is about forging a self-designed path, not just getting a good job.  Either option is obviously totally fine – it’s just that I’ve already spent decades on one of these paths; now it’s time to try another.     (…that birthday cake, though, I would re-do anytime!)


Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

part of the "Here In My Car" exhibit at the AGW

my Route 66 print grid as part of the "Here In My Car" exhibit at the AGW

“The problem is in the editing.”  That’s what one of the portfolio reviewers said to me last week, anyway.  He wasn’t speaking about my Route 66 time lapse series at the time, but he sure could have been.

First, a plug, and an explanation of where I’ve been: Palm Springs Photo Festival.  It was was even more incredible than PSPF2009.  I spent every spare moment over the past few weeks prepping for it (poor neglected blog), but it was well worth the time and money investment.  I’ve come back all filled with inspiration and possibility.  And, I’m looking for an agent.  But that’s another story.

the time-lapse sequence presented in a DVD loop at Artcite's "Beyond Autopia and Autogeddon" exhibit

the time-lapse sequence presented in a DVD loop at Artcite's "Beyond Autopia and Autogeddon" exhibit

Although it’s still in its infancy, I showed the Route 66 time lapse DVD to many a reviewer last week, and some of the words used to describe it included “unique”, “fun”, “mesmerizing”, and (my favorite) “COOOOL!”.  For now it’s still a raw dump of all 60,000+ stills that I shot from the D-SLR mounted on my Jeep’s dashboard into a video sequence.  I’m sorting out just how to package it in a user-friendly format: music and narration?  Stopping at points of interest along the road and doing mini slide show stories?  Text with place name identification?  Mileage counter?  App?  Drug-enhancing ambient visual?  If any of you have suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

On its own, though, I think it’s pretty sweet: where else can you travel the length of Route 66 in just over half an hour, without leaving your hometown?  The thing moves very, very fast, as you can imagine… but that’s part of the fun, quickly seeing how the landscape changes as you drive across the country.  I know that Tattoo Man (Ron Jones) in Oklahoma wanted to be first in line for one of these, and Ron, I haven’t forgotten that.  It’s not really sellable yet but once it is, you will be one of the first to know!

blur from photo taken while rounding a corner at night in LA

blur from photo taken while rounding a corner at night in LA

Artcite in Windsor had the video looping in their gallery window during their recent “Beyond Autopia and Autogeddon” exhibition, and the Art Gallery of Windsor displayed a collection of 37 8×10 prints from the time lapse series on the wall as part of their “Here in My Car” exhibit.  For that, I originally planned to just grab some random shots from the many, many folders of pictures… but as I started looking at the photos, it became clear that there were some pretty interesting ones in there!  Even though they were snapped automatically every 3-5 seconds as I drove along Route 66, some of the images turned out really great – in fact, it’s their random nature that makes some so weirdly interesting.  (Sort of along the digital-snapping philosophy of shooting whereby: if you take enough pictures, one of them is bound to turn out!)  I decided to dive in and wade through them all, to select what I felt was a good cross-section of images that depicted what you’d see if you drove all of Route 66.

How does one edit over 60,000 images, anyway?

selection of time-lapse images

selection of time-lapse images

It was a tremendous task that took ages.  Initially I pulled out about 500 shots that were in some way intriguing, or simply showed a good idea of the look of the land as I drove.  Then I grouped those into categories (generic road shots, bridges, underpasses, motion blur, weather, neat details, Route 66 icons, road shields, Americana, construction work, night, big city, old buildings, weird effects, etc.).  From each grouping, I then selected a few to represent each category, and even then I had way too many.  Eventually I printed up 4×6 prints of about 60 select pictures, then sorted through those and eliminated enough to get down to my chosen number of 37 prints.  (By the way, 37 was just the practical number I came up with, given the dimensions, design and budget I had to work with.  I could EASILY have done a much larger grid… and I think I may next time – perhaps hundreds of small 4×6 prints, instead of tens of 8×10 prints).

I then laid all 37 out on my kitchen table and left them there for days, moving them around, trying to get the best sequence that was visually interesting, without having any two images that were too similar too close together, or in the same row or column (not to mention avoiding putting two photos taken in the same state next to each other).  I felt like I was doing some weird art Sudoku.  Once I settled on a final arrangement, I printed the enlargements and with the help of the wonderful AGW staff, got them all nicely aligned and pinned to the wall.  The curator wanted an “uneven” grid pattern for the photos, which gives the sense of a snippet of time, implying that the project isn’t complete – which it isn’t.  This is still a work in progress, like the video.

AGW's Chief Curator James Patten speaks about the shots from the time lapse series on opening night

AGW's Chief Curator James Patten speaks about the shots from the time lapse series on opening night

I still need to delete some overlap and extra bits in the video sequence.  The “click…click…click” of the camera’s shutter was my constant soundtrack, and although I worried that it might drive me crazy (à la water torture), I got used to it surprisingly quickly – so much so in fact, I sometimes forgot to shut it off when I stopped or took a wrong turn.  On the flipside, I once forgot to turn it back on after stopping, and had to retrace several miles of the trip to be sure it was recorded.  And then there were the road closures and detours.  Fun stuff.

bug removal: photo #31 in the grid

bug removal: photo #31 in the grid

As I drove, I tried to be mindful of the windshield’s cleanliness for the sake of the time lapse pictures, but sometimes bug splats went unnoticed until miles later.  I figure, though, that seeing yellow smears hover in the visual field for awhile just lends authenticity to the viewing experience.  Once while I was stopped on the side of the road to clean the windshield, I did leave the camera clicking.  In that same spirit of verisimilitude, I decided to include one of those stills in the AGW piece.  The shot of my Windex-wiping hand is image #31 in the grid.

I hesitate to show much of the time lapse online, since it pales in comparison to the clarity at full resolution… but for those interested, I just posted a few segments on my YouTube channel.

YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image

Route 66 News emailed me today, asking how the time lapse was coming along.  Thanks for your interest, Ron – I can’t wait to see the final product, either!


Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Special delivery: yesterday I realized that a package I picked up 2400 miles back still had another 175 miles to go before its destination.  This is a fun story about chance meetings on the road.  It’s also one that might make my mother squirm.

irrigation canal under Imperial Valley sunset

irrigation canal under gorgeous Imperial Valley sunset

On the way back to Canada after the Route 66 trip, I took a more southerly route to avoid winter conditions since the triangle doesn’t have brakes.  After exchanging farewells with Container Charlie and Technomadia at Slab City, I headed southeast across California’s Imperial County.  The drive that  evening was a mixed blessing: I encountered one of the foulest stenches I have ever had to endure (massive cattle farm), followed by a most jaw-droppingly beautiful sunset.

NASA image of the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley (All-American Canal runs lalong bottom-right of image)

NASA image of the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley

The agricultural fields here are divided by a network of roads and irrigation canals that divert precious water from the Colorado River to the desert-locked growing areas.  This grid of smaller aqueducts branches off the 82-mile All-American Canal running near the Mexican border, the largest irrigation canal in the world.  Moving over 26,000 cubic feet of water per second from the Colorado River into California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys, the All-American Canal irrigates over 500,000 acres of farmland.  Personally, I find this amazing.  Looking at a satellite image of the area, you instantly notice how the agricultural patchwork north and south of the Salton Sea is surrounded by a whole lotta empty, dry desert.  Water is a huge issue in these parts.

Below the mesh of crisscrossing canals, geothermal activity bubbles up the occasional hot springs.  I tried to hit the springs near Holtville, but naturally, they were closed for maintenance of some kind.  (I say “naturally” because this tends to be my luck.  It began back in the 80s, when I visited New York on a high school art class trip: the Statue of Liberty was covered in scaffolding.  A year later, my first trip to London saw Big Ben also laced over with girders, and the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus had been sent away to Scotland for cleaning.  England also had the biggest snowstorm in over 40 years during my stay.  My friend and host Gavin found this all quite amusing, but we were sure my unlucky streak would end at Stonehenge.  The massive stones don’t need cleaning or maintenance, and they certainly aren’t going anywhere… what could possibly disrupt a visit?  Gavin almost split a gut when we read the sign at the entrance gate: they were sorry for the inconvenience, but a TV commercial was being shot there that day.)

"Do you like my jugs?!?!"

"Do you like my jugs?!?!"

Anyway, after cursing my “when-I’m-there-it’s-closed” pattern, I found a spot to camp for free on nearby BLM land.  The following morning I was parked next to the East Highline Canal checking maps, when I looked up with a start to see a man on a bike stopped outside my Jeep window.  “Ontario!  Hallo!!” he gleefully chimed (he had noticed my plates).  “What part of Ontario are you from?”  He was from Kitchener, about three hours from my home in Windsor.  Many campers in the area get water from the nearby hot springs, which explained why he had two 1-gallon water bottles hanging around his neck.  “Do you like my jugs?!?” he quipped in his heavy Austrian accent while gesturing at his chest.  This dude was hilarious – the most seriously jolly fellow I had perhaps ever met.

I told him about my project and what I was up to.  When he saw my cameras, he told me that he had recently picked up a good tripod at a flea market for his son.  He asked if I would bring it back to Ontario with me, to save him shipping it.  “But I’m in Windsor, and he’s in Kitchener…” I hesitated.  “Oh, he needs a good road trip!  I’ll tell him to come and get it from you!  Come on!”  And with that, he hopped on his bike and I followed him back to his campsite.

Raimund Artl and his wife Eva spend their summers back in Ontario and their winters down here, camped out in the Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA).  Incredibly, you can purchase a yearly permit for only $180 that allows you to park here in the desert from September 15 to April 15.  Of course there are no facilities and you must provide your own water and power – but that’s what hot springs and solar panels are for.  The nearby town of Holtville also has dump stations and water facilities, so everything you need is close by.  It’s bloody brilliant.

the outdoor shower setup

the makeshift outdoor shower area

They proudly toured me through their temporary compound, showing me their charging solar panels, the outdoor “living room” space, how they shower outdoors, and their cute birdfeeder on a tripod.  They seemed so joyful and relaxed, living under the sun in the desert for next to nothing… it looked like a great plan to me.  Sure there were a few flies in the ointment to disrupt the idyllic peace and quiet – the recreational ATVs buzzing around on the sandy trails, the constant hum of the nearby geothermal power plant, and the alarming sound of military helicopters chopping by overhead on their way to the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma (three flew over as we chatted) – but that seemed a small price to pay.

Raimund and Eva Artl's winter camp in the desert

Raimund and Eva Artl's winter camp in the desert

Raimund dug up the heavy-duty used tripod he got for a steal (a Manfrotto, I was envious!), and Eva gave me her son’s business card, with phone numbers and email addresses.  They also gave me a small package of calendars to deliver to their son along with the tripod.  I threw it all in the Jeep, we said our goodbyes, and I got back on the highway.

“What if they gave you drugs??!”  I can hear the motherly protests now.  I know, I thought the same thing.  But all I can say is, “it’s different when you’re on the road”.  From the point of view of sitting safely in our homes, jobs and daily routines, this sort of random encounter does NOT compute as being safe.  The message we constantly get, whether explicit or just a subtle undercurrent, is the same: the world is dangerous, everyone is out to get you, and you must use vigilance at all times.  Just watch a newscast!  “Coming up at six, we’ll tell you how to keep your family safe from <insert exaggerated fear-inducing news item that your local TV station can spectacularize for effect, thus generating higher ratings and subsequent ad sales>.”

East Highline Canal, with I-8 overpass

East Highline Canal, with I-8 overpass

Wasn’t it possible they could be using me as a drug mule?  What if I was being made an unknowing smuggler?  It’s highly unlikely.  I’m not saying that these sorts of things don’t happen in the world – of course they do.  I’m just saying that they’re the exception to the rule, not the norm.  Yet sometimes fear makes us treat it like the norm.  And think about it: I was the one who stopped briefly next to the canal while Raimund just happened to be cycling by on his morning water run.  It wasn’t like I was being watched and targeted and they descended to plant their illicit substances on me… it was just a fun, random meeting of two Ontarians on the road.  I was heading to home turf.  They had gifts to send back.  It just made sense to do the favor.

So yesterday I unearthed the package and tripod, dug around to find the son’s phone number, and called him.  He knew who I was right away.  He worked for a food company that had a store near my house, so he could arrange to have it all shipped to his office.  I drove to the store, dropped off the items, and the field consultant would deliver it on the next run between Windsor and Kitchener.  Done.  Easy.

And really, Raimund and Eva were the ones taking the chance with giving me their stuff (I would have liked that tripod, you know!).  But they trusted me and I trusted them.  Why wouldn’t we?  Time and again on this trip I was reminded that people are generally good.  Really, they are.  Get out on the road and see for yourself.

happy campers Raimund and Eva Artl

happy campers Raimund and Eva Artl

(To read more on my experiences and thoughts about life on the road, be sure to check out the awesome article recently published on’s newsletter.  There was also a recent story on, and I was tickled to be featured on this past week, too!  Thanks so much to Jane Kastner, Ron Stang and Louise Brown for the interest and support.  I’m feeling the love this Valentine’s Day!)