A Memorial Day 2022 Trip to Northeast Oklahoma with Fellow Photographers Robert Stinson and Scott AndersEn
For some years I’ve had my eye on a trip to northeast Oklahoma, mainly because I had heard and read some very interesting articles about Picher, the once-thriving town that was major national center of lead and zinc mining for more than 100 years in the heart of the Tri-State Mining District, only to vanish under the weight of toxic contamination as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Tar Creek Superfund clean-up project.
I was tempted Memorial Day weekend 2022 to make it happen, as one of my photographer buddies, Robert Stinson, lives in that part of the state, and one of our hiking/photography/outdoor buddies, Scott AndersEn, would be in the state on a business trip.
Some valiant Oklahoma tourists might be familiar with the Winganon Cement Mixer/Space Capsule, the site of a long-ago cement mixer crash that, like Pontotoc County’s own rock painted to look like a frog, was at some point painted to resemble a NASA space capsule.
One of the ideas we had before traveling to Winganon was that we didn’t want to just make the same photo as hundreds or thousands of others might have, so what could we do to make it unique?
Scott came up with the idea to build some fun fiction around it, including the idea that it had just fallen from the sky from a planet called Cementia-5309. He asked Robert to dress up like a technician who had arrived to salvage the spacecraft.
We made some video, and, of course, tons of stills, mostly of each other being complete doofs around the capsule.
We had a very nice breakfast lunch at a Zack’s Café in Miami, Oklahoma. We made an abrupt u-turn on the way out of town to photograph the neon “exploding fireworks” signs at Jake’s Fireworks, thought I expect I might want to shoot these at night (if they are open and light them up) during fireworks season.
A more serious stop on this trip was the Oklahoma ghost town Picher near the Kansas border in the far northeastern part of the state. I decided that there would literally never be a time when I was just “passing through” Picher to photograph it, so that meant planning a trip and making it happen.
I invited a friend from Ada to tag along, but she said Picher sounded too “spooky,” which was a good word for it. I had kind of imagined we might be set upon by federal agents in blacked-out SUVs, but all we saw were a few Quapaw tribal vehicles who showed no interest in us at all.
All three of us noted that Picher smelled contaminated.
We got rained on in several spots, though light and short-lived, and we fought off several large, aggressive ticks.
Although the light and the rain blunted our efforts to photograph many of the huge chat dumps – piles of lead mining waste that are a big source of the contamination in the area – we did stop to make a frame or two. When I was about five, my grandfather Richard Batten, an accountant for Saint Joseph Lead Company, took me to an identical chat dump in his home town of Flat River, Missouri, and encouraged me to play on it as he had done as a child, obviously not aware of, or at least not as concerned with, the material’s toxicity.
I don’t think I shot and explored Picher the way I would have liked, and I might return alone on another occasion, maybe in the fall and winter, with clearer weather.
Once we were done with this grim echo of a town, we headed back in the direction of Tulsa. In a moment of inspiration, we decided to catch another famous Oklahoma oddity, The Blue Whale of Catoosa.
According to the web, “Hugh Davis built the Blue Whale in the early 1970s as a surprise anniversary gift to his wife Zelta, who collected whale figurines.”
Of course, when it comes to climbing on or in stuff, I’m as much of a kids as I was when I was seven.
Swimming was banned some years ago due to the presence of watersnakes.
Finally, I made my way to Pop’s in Arcadia, Oklahoma to make pictures of this famous attraction. It was totally dark by the time I was there, so I feel like I want to return at sunset and through dusk.
It was great connecting with Robert and Scott, and great to make some images of these locations.