Salem, Ore.

Earlier this month I headed west for a quick weekend to visit The City of Roses, more commonly knows as Portland, Ore.    The plan was to spend a couple of relaxing days visiting vineyards/wineries and exploring the natural beauty of the region.

Oregon grapes, the Columbia River Gorge and Multnomah Falls did not disappoint.  But unfortunately the welcome sign for Salem, the state’s capital, did.

My first stop after landing at Portland International Airport – even before wine tasting – was Salem.   With a metropolitan area home to nearly 400,000 people – ranking as the second-largest region in the state – Salem has served as Oregon’s capital city since 1851 when it was still the Oregon Territory.

Overcast skies clouded the day, but the biggest letdown came when I spotted the first sign.  After years of photographing welcome signs, I have developed uncanny instincts in terms of where they will be located, and the Salem sign was waiting for me immediately after I exited Interstate 84.  I pulled over in the parking lot of  a Jack in the Box restaurant (you may notice the sign in the background) and walked across the street to safely take the photo.

Portland Rd NE & Hyacinth St NE

I’m not sure I need to dwell too much on why this sign is such a disappointment, so I’ll make this brief.  First and foremost, it doesn’t say welcome.  A close second is the graffiti which makes it extremely difficult for me to imagine enjoying Salem.  Third, the sun is high above the city; this is simply wishful thinking given that Salem averages nearly 300 cloudy or partly cloudy days per year.  Overall, it’s a half-hearted attempt to represent the city’s “skyline”, the Willamette River and nearby national and state forests.  It’s simply a sad sign.

Since I’d traveled all that way, I decided to make my way the short distance into central Salem to take a look at the Oregon State Capitol, something that has become a part of my routine when I visit state capitals.   The building was constructed in the late 1930s as reflected in the Art Deco style.

The marble exterior is beautiful and the building itself exuded elegance that I did not experience in other parts of the city.  Atop the Capitol is the Oregon Pioneer.  Built by a sculptor in New Jersey, the Oregon Pioneer actually made his way to Salem via the Panama Canal, quite a different route than the earlier pioneers the sculpture represents.

In addition the building itself, I also liked the relief sculptures on either side of the main entrance (below).  The first photo  depicts Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea, and the second shows  pioneers and a covered wagon.

As I headed out of town via a different route, I kept my eyes peeled for another sign, perhaps one that had not been marred by graffiti.  My instinct paid off.

Oregon Route 221 South

Turns out, this was a completely different sign, which is quite unusual.  It’s common to have signs at multiple entrances to a location, but rarely are the signs different in shape, style and character.  One thing was consistent – the same Enjoy Salem wording.

Even though this sign doesn’t have graffiti, it’s not really any better than the first sign.  It’s bland, lifeless and downright… boring.  The cursive script is on the homepage of the City of Salem’s Web site, so it must be the city’s official font. What’s perhaps most disappointing is that in a city with two different “welcome” signs, neither one has any good qualities.

Up next… Olympia, Wash.  It couldn’t be any worse than Salem, right?

Breckenridge

I live in Colorado but I’m not a skier.

This takes some explaining when I first meet people.  I did not grow up in Colorado, and my family was not particularly athletic.  (Okay, my family was not the least bit athletic).  My first ski experience was as a teenage exchange student.  My host family took me skiing in France’s Massif Central range.  They stuck me on a pair of skis and let me loose on the bunny slope.  Honestly, it was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life.  I could not stay upright and spent most of the day on my derrière.  Not an unexpected result given that I had not taken a ski lesson.

Sadly, this experience has stayed with me over the past two decades and I had been reluctant to attempt downhill skiing again.  But in 2011 I resolved to be more adventurous, and when a group of colleagues invited me to take part in a ski weekend in what is essentially my backyard, I thought it would be a great time to write a new ski chapter.

Breckenridge is less than two hours from my home, an easy drive along U.S. Interstate 70.  When entering the town I was on high alert for the welcome sign, and I was not disappointed.

Northbound on Colorado 9

The sign is not unlike those in other mountain/rural/remote areas I have visited – wooden and rustic.  But the professional calligraphy gives it a refined and sophisticated feel.  Perhaps my only criticism of the sign is the fact that the elevation is not labeled – I know it’s 9,600 feet, but with so many international visitors the potential for confusion exists.

Just over 150 years old, Breckenridge was named after U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge.  Essentially it was a bribe – the goal of local leaders was to secure a post office, and it worked.  But the town’s pro-Union citizens soured two years later when Vice President Breckinridge sided with the Confederates and they changed the spelling – the first i was replaced with an e.

The town is home to less than 2,500 full-time year-round residents, but as one of the most popular ski resorts in the world, the population swells in the winter.  I was one of this year’s Spring Break skiers and the mountain was extremely busy when I visited in mid-March.  The weather was perfect – upper 30s (Farenheit) and sunny skies – and I was told the snow was perfect, too.

I’m happy to report that my second ski experience was a resounding success.  I learned to stand, stop and turn.  By the end of my full-day lesson, I could ski down a green run without a problem (although I still need to work on getting off the ski lift).  It has almost erased the memories of my first ski trip and I am confident that I will not wait another 20 years before taking to the slopes again!

Wilmington, N.C.

A new acquaintance: “So, where are you from?”

Me: “Well, I was born in Wilmington, N.C., but I’ve never actually lived there.”

A new acquaintance: Quizzical look.

To make a long story short, my family has lived in southeastern North Carolina for centuries (literally) and my mother wanted me, her first child, to be born in the south.  (History and family are very important to her.)  So, I was born at the New Hanover Regional Medical Center on a Christmas Day in the late 20th century.  A short two weeks later, I took my first airplane ride back to Washington, D.C., where my parents were living at the time.  And from that point forward, my time in Wilmington has almost always started with an arrival at the airport.  I haven’t ever lived in what I consider to be my hometown.

I was visiting my parents earlier this month and finally took the time to take a photo of the Welcome to Wilmington sign.  My dad was driving and my mom was in the back seat, navigating.

Me: “Do we have time to stop at the Welcome to Wilmington sign so I can take a picture?”

My mom (with a southern accent): “You mean that ugly sculpture-like thing?”

Me: “Yeah.”  Sigh.  “That’s the one.”



Admittedly, it’s not an attractive sign.  Wilmington has so many unique features that could welcome visitors: the beautiful azalea trees, the battleship USS North Carolina, a historic downtown reminiscent of Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., but on a smaller scale.  Perhaps the designer of the sign was going for a modern feel, but to me it’s not contemporary… just sterile.

The text/font and the flowing blue line are prominent on the homepage of the City of Wilmington’s Web site – likely it is the official logo/brand of the city.  It evokes the two major geographical features of the region: the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean.  The large vertical piece is seemingly a ship’s mast.  But without a sail, there’s no sense of movement.  What may have been first envisioned as dynamic seems, well, simply stuck in a blanket of pine needles covering the ground.

You can take my word for the fact that there is more to Wilmington than this sign leads you to believe.  Much, much more.

Pellston

Weather forecast for Feb. 1-2, 2011: Nighttime lows of 15 to 19 degrees below zero; wind chill readings 25 to 35 below zero.

I live in Colorado. Winter is one of the state’s biggest assets, and I enjoy all the season has to offer. But arctic blasts of this extreme nature are rare. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Denver was -29 degrees on January 9, 1875, and Denver has only hit similar temperatures 29 times over the past 125 years.
Naturally my thoughts turned to other cold places, and I immediately remembered Pellston, Mich.  I passed through Pellston on a driving tour of Michigan in late 2007.
welcome to pellston

U.S. Highway 31

A village with a population of less than a thousand people, Pellston is situated near the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. In 1933, Pellston residents endured a temperature of 53 degrees below zero; to this date, it remains the coldest temperature ever recorded in Michigan.

Due to its geographic location in a basin of sand situated between two semi-circular hill ranges, Pellston often records some of the lowest temperatures in the U.S. As a result, village leaders adopted the motto “ICEBOX”, and at some point the welcome signs came to reflect this claim to fame.  (I especially like the icicles incorporated in the text!)

But the story doesn’t end here. In fact, International falls, Minn., holds the federal trademark for the slogan “Icebox of the Nation”. This victory came after a decades-long battle with another cold spot – Fraser, Colo. – that was finally resolved in 2008 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

On the village’s Web site, Pellston officials recognize the fact that International Falls holds the legal right to use this slogan.  But they claim that Pellston is “unofficially” known as the ICEBOX, which I guess is enough to prevent a lawsuit from International Falls.

I’m not so sure that I would be fighting over being known as an ice box… is it really attractive to people?

On second thought, it certainly attracted me.  So there are bound to be others!

p.s. Sorry for the lack of posts recently. I have been hard at work on my book State Lines which I plan to publish in the coming months!

North Pole

You knew this was coming, right?

While planning for my trip to Alaska this past August, I noticed that the city of North Pole was a suburb of Fairbanks, one of the stops on my driving tour of the 49th state.  Needless to say, I set aside plenty of time to scour North Pole; I was determined not to leave without finding the welcome sign.

As it turns out, it was a surprisingly difficult sign to find.  After navigating Snowman Lane, Kris Kringle Drive and Santa Claus Lane, I finally located the sign on St. Nicholas Drive.  It was strategically placed in a gravel parking lot in front of a church, across the street from an uninviting Asian restaurant.

The sign seems like it was a reject from Santa’s workshop.  The text is strangely uneven and, with the odd capitalization, somewhat difficult to read.  The construction is probably the best feature of the sign – it seems that Santa’s elves are more adept at woodworking than calligraphy.  I do like the candy-cane striping around the sign – a subtle, tasteful incorporation of the holiday theme.  Interestingly, this is the first sign that I have encountered that includes a ZIP code.

Intersection of St. Nicholas Drive & Fifth Avenue

Looking at the sign now, just a few days shy of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, I realize that the photo would make a greater impact if it had been taken in the winter, with snow on the ground and skeleton-like tree limbs in the background.  Unfortunately, the lush green foliage doesn’t create the sense of place that one imagines when conjuring up images of the North Pole.  I’ll try to make my next visit in season!

Washington, D.C.

Last week I took a short trip to our nation’s capital to attend a conference for work.  I was not able to build any personal time into this trip for photography, but luckily I captured the Washington, D.C., welcome sign on a trip in the spring of 2008.

Bladensburg Road (westbound on Maryland Route 450)

I like this sign.  The brick foundation is solid, and the adornments at the top of the sign reflect the character of American colonial architecture.  Below the welcome message are the symbols that make up Washington, D.C.’s flag: the three red stars above two red horizontal bars are taken from the coat of arms of George Washington.

My trip to Washington last week was short and sweet – not unlike this post!  Stay tuned for some special holiday-themed welcome signs throughout the second half of December.

Jackson

First, I would like to apologize for the two-and-a-half weeks that have passed since my last post.  My day job has kept me quite busy, and time has gotten away from me.

However, the timing seems appropriate for this posting.  Not only does Jackson mark the final chapter of my trip through Louisiana and Mississippi last month, but it is my family name.  And Thanksgiving is a time to spend with family and reflect on heritage and history.  I can think of no better way to celebrate this uniquely American holiday than with a welcome sign.

Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, was named for General Andrew Jackson who later became President of the United States.  Home to over 600,000 people, the Jackson-Yazoo City combined statistical area is the largest in Mississippi.  Jackson is the only state capital to sit atop a volcano; Jackson Volcano is believed to have been extinct for at least 65 million years.

Capturing Jackson’s welcome sign was quite a challenge.  On my only day in Jackson, I awoke to stormy weather across the Mississippi Valley, rain falling in thick vertical sheets that made safe driving almost impossible.  My time was limited, and despite the difficult conditions, I was determined to find the welcome sign.  My first stop in a city is usually the airport, hoping that there is a sign that greets visitors as they exit the airport in a vehicle.  The sign at the exit of Jackson-Evers International Airport was disappointing, to say the least.

In my expert opinion, this is not a welcome sign.  It’s a directional sign that includes a welcome as an afterthought.  But I stopped during a break in the rain (check out those dark skies!) to snap a photo in case this was the only sign I was able to find.

If I come up empty at an airport, my next strategy is to take a route into town that does not involve an Interstate or major highway.  From experience I know that city welcome signs are rarely displayed along the busiest routes.  I had about 30 minutes left to find the Jackson sign, so I headed into town.  My windshield wipers were on maximum speed as I tried to focus simultaneously on driving through an unfamiliar city and looking for the welcome sign.  When I did see it, my heart sank.

As the photo shows, the sign is situated on a bridge spanning the Pearl River.  River signs are the MOST DIFFICULT to photograph as there is generally not a safe place to pull over.   In order to capture this sign, I had to park a quarter of a mile away in a suspect gravel pull-off.  I walked along the narrow sidewalk spanning the bridge with an umbrella in one hand, my other hand tightly gripping my camera, hidden under my jacket for protection.  Cars and trucks sped by me along U.S. 80, splashing up mist and water and causing the bridge to sway and shake.

While I was photographing the sign, I kept an eye on my car as best I could.  At one point, I noticed two Mississippi Department of Transportation trucks pull into the same gravel area where my rented Jeep Patriot was parked, its hazard lights flashing.  A sense of panic washed over me; they probably thought the vehicle needed assistance!  The trucks were situated one on each side of the car, and the strip of lights on top of each truck was flashing a blurry yellow pattern through the rain.  I started to run back toward my car, balancing my camera and umbrella while waving my arm to indicate the car was mine.  As I got closer, I realized the employees weren’t the least bit interested in my car.  In fact, they were slowly exiting their vehicles to inspect something along the bridge and didn’t even look up at me when I finally made it back to the car, wet from both the rain and my panicked sweat.

As I sat in my car trying to regroup, I reflected on the sign.  The vibrant blue color matches that of the Welcome to Mississippi sign.  The small magnolia is the state flower and adds some visual interest to the sign.  Overall it’s a simple sign that was not simple to photograph.

With the few extra minutes I had, I continued along the route to downtown Jackson and stopped in front of the Mississippi state capitol building.  The structure is similar to many other domed capitol buildings in the U.S.  But what made this site unique were the beautiful trees in the park gracefully surrounding the seat of state government.  Even the gloomy weather could not dampen the southern hospitality that I felt when photographing the capitol.