A Picher Perfect Day, May 2022

A Memorial Day 2022 Trip to Northwest Oklahoma with Fellow Photographers Robert Stinson and Scott AndersEn

The nearly colorless rusted handle on a sliding door at a warehouse in Picher, Oklahoma is contrasted against a bright red heart graffito tag.
The nearly colorless rusted handle on a sliding door at a warehouse in Picher, Oklahoma is contrasted against a bright red heart graffito tag.

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.

Robert, Scott and I have been taking pictures together off and on for nearly 40 years.
Robert, Scott and I have been taking pictures together off and on for nearly 40 years.

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.

Scott and Robert pose atop the storied Winganon Cement Mixer/Space Capsure.
Scott and Robert pose atop the storied Winganon Cement Mixer/Space Capsure.
Scott shot this super-wide-angle image of me posing on the Winganon cement mixer/space capsule, showing a sense of setting for this oddity.
Scott shot this super-wide-angle image of me posing on the Winganon cement mixer/space capsule, showing a sense of setting for this oddity.

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?

Robert poses with a vacuum hose, part of his "technician" costume. (Photo by Scott AndersEn)
Robert poses with a vacuum hose, part of his “technician” costume. (Photo by Scott AndersEn)

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.

Robert and I poke around the various props we brought. We didn't end up using my crime scene tape. (Photo by Scott AndersEn)
Robert and I poke around the various props we brought. We didn’t end up using my crime scene tape. (Photo by Scott AndersEn)

We made some video, and, of course, tons of stills, mostly of each other being complete doofs around the capsule.

Robert holds a Scotch bottle I found near the cement mixer (it's amazing and discouraging how many such items you can find), so one of the first plot twists we tried was that the alien pilots crashed because they had been drinking.
Robert holds a Scotch bottle I found near the cement mixer (it’s amazing and discouraging how many such items you can find), so one of the first plot twists we tried was that the alien pilots crashed because they had been drinking.
In this cell phone selfie by Scott, I am wearing an "alien" mask, which is actually a child's backpack.
In this cell phone selfie by Scott, I am wearing an “alien” mask, which is actually a child’s backpack.
Robert holds a piece of dryer exhaust hose like a piece of alien technology. The end of it is frumpled because I had just accidentally stepped on it.
Robert holds a piece of dryer exhaust hose like a piece of alien technology. The end of it is frumpled because I had just accidentally stepped on it.
In this scene, Robert the alien technician removes a piece of equipment from the space capsule.
In this scene, Robert the alien technician removes a piece of equipment from the space capsule.
Scott uses his phone to record Robert holding up a wrench.
Scott uses his phone to record Robert holding up a wrench.
Scott attempts to join Robert atop the Winganon cement mixer.
Scott attempts to join Robert atop the Winganon cement mixer.
Robert made this panoramic image of Scott and me, but we moved during the exposure, causing the odd distortions. I told people online it was caused by radiation from the space capsule.
Robert made this panoramic image of Scott and me, but we moved during the exposure, causing the odd distortions. I told people online it was caused by radiation from the space capsule.
Robert and I pose atop the cement mixer.
Robert and I pose atop the cement mixer.
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.
Set against the cloudy sky in the midst of light rain, this fireworks sign would likely look very different lit up at night.
Set against the cloudy sky in the midst of light rain, this fireworks sign would likely look very different lit up at night.
There are several of these signs around Jake's Fireworks in Miami, Oklahoma, but I couldn't tell if the business would be open this year in advance of the July 4 holiday.
There are several of these signs around Jake’s Fireworks in Miami, Oklahoma, but I couldn’t tell if the business would be open this year in advance of the July 4 holiday.

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.

Scott photographs one of the abandoned buildings in Picher.
Scott photographs one of the abandoned buildings in Picher.
It is somewhat encouraging that a graffiti artist has marked out an obscene word and painted a heart over it.
It is somewhat encouraging that a graffiti artist has marked out an obscene word and painted a heart over it.

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.

Robert pokes around on what looks like a warehouse loading ramp.
Robert pokes around on what looks like a warehouse loading ramp.
Broken glass sits in a windowsill in an abandoned structure. There is very little intact glass in Picher.
Broken glass sits in a windowsill in an abandoned structure. There is very little intact glass in Picher.

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.

I pose for Scott's camera on U.S. 69 in Picher.
I pose for Scott’s camera on U.S. 69 in Picher.
A parking lot, I guess maybe for an athletic complex, is shown completely overgrown.
A parking lot, I guess maybe for an athletic complex, is shown completely overgrown.
A smashed toilet sits in an abandoned parking lot. If there was something that could be smashed or broken in Picher, it was smashed or broken.
A smashed toilet sits in an abandoned parking lot. If there was something that could be smashed or broken in Picher, it was smashed or broken.
The insides of the buildings are in no better shape than the outsides.
The insides of the buildings are in no better shape than the outsides.
Scott peers through a doorway of an abandoned building.
Scott peers through a doorway of an abandoned building.
Scott scopes out another photo opportunity in Picher as light rain and ticks harass us.
Scott scopes out another photo opportunity in Picher as light rain and ticks harass us.
A vandalized restroom will continue to deteriorate for decades or even centuries as Picher's toxicity is unlikely to resolve.
A vandalized restroom will continue to deteriorate for decades or even centuries as Picher’s toxicity is unlikely to resolve.
Downed electrical wires sit on a sidewalk. It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to salvage material like this because it would have to be decontaminated.
Downed electrical wires sit on a sidewalk. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to salvage material like this because it would have to be decontaminated.
This is a gate to nowhere. Some of the overgrowth is poison ivy.
This is a gate to nowhere. Some of the overgrowth is poison ivy.
We found this odd piece of color in an otherwise mostly colorless town.
We found this odd piece of color in an otherwise mostly colorless town.
We photographed this burned and collapsed building on U.S. 69 in the center of Picher.
We photographed this burned and collapsed building on U.S. 69 in the center of Picher.

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.

Just south of Picher is Cardin, which is also contaminated and abandoned. There are hundreds of these huge chat dumps throughout the area in every direction.
Just south of Picher is Cardin, which is also contaminated and abandoned. There are hundreds of these huge chat dumps throughout the area in every direction.

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.

The Blue Whale of Catoosa is a fun and funny attraction that I had never visited before.
The Blue Whale of Catoosa is a fun and funny attraction that I had never visited before.

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.”

Robert pointed out that many photographs fail to show the Blue Whale of Catoosa wearing his signature baseball cap.
Robert pointed out that many photographs fail to show the Blue Whale of Catoosa wearing his signature baseball cap.

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.

This is the view from the tip of the Blue Whale's tail fin, at the top of a slightly sketchy ladder.
This is the view from the tip of the Blue Whale’s tail fin, at the top of a slightly sketchy ladder.
This is the view standing in the Blue Whale's mouth looking toward the tail.
This is the view standing in the Blue Whale’s mouth looking toward the tail.
There is a kid-sized upper deck in the Blue Whale, so I was essentially on my hands and knees the whole time I was up there.
There is a kid-sized upper deck in the Blue Whale, so I was essentially on my hands and knees the whole time I was up there.
Naturally, I had to poke my head through one of the Blue Whale's holes to have Robert make a picture of me.
Naturally, I had to poke my head through one of the Blue Whale’s holes to have Robert make a picture of me.

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.

Pops 66 Soda Ranch is a long-time Oklahoma Route 66 photo attraction.
Pops 66 Soda Ranch is a long-time Oklahoma Route 66 photo attraction.
The lighted rings that form the three-story-tall soda bottle at Pops are multi-colored, and change colors continuously.
The lighted rings that form the three-story-tall soda bottle at Pops are multi-colored, and change colors continuously.

It was great connecting with Robert and Scott, and great to make some images of these locations.