By Joann M. Ringelstetter
I’ve always been drawn to bluegrass music. Maybe it’s because I love the pure and simple sound of acoustic instruments. Maybe, though, it’s because bluegrass has its roots in the rural areas of our country, which is where my heart leads me when I go out to photograph.
In 1949, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, and the Foggy Mountain Boys recorded a bluegrass instrumental called Foggy Mountain Breakdown, which became a bluegrass standard that has been used as background music for rural car chase scenes in movies such as Bonnie and Clyde.
I don’t know where the Foggy Mountain Boys got their name, but I like the thought of a foggy mountain. Years ago, on a chilly October morning, Ruth and I went up on Wildcat Mountain in Vernon County, Wisconsin (yes, Wisconsin has its own brand of mountains) and we waited for first light. As the darkness gave way to the dawn, we were treated to a spectacular sight – fog in the Kickapoo Valley, engulfing the fall colors and the winding Kickapoo River.
Beyond the river, was an opening in the trees (and in the fog) where a recently harvested alfalfa field lay sprinkled with bales of hay. Since converting to digital photography in 2006, we have tried to recapture some of what we captured over the years on film. But, try as we might, we were never privileged enough to experience similar morning conditions on Wildcat Mountain.
In early October of this year, we decided to give it one more try, so we both set our alarms for o’dark thirty. Ruth, of course, has to set her alarm even earlier than mine because she has the additional drive time from her house to mine.
We left my house at 4:00 am and traveled the two-hour drive to Wildcat Mountain State Park, near Ontario, Wisconsin. As you turn off the highway to enter the park, the road immediately becomes extremely steep as you head to the top of the “mountain.” It was still quite dark when we arrived at the park, and we felt guilty as we drove past campers and tents in that pre-dawn hour.
Beyond the camping area is a small black-topped trail to the lookout point where we had taken our foggy morning photos years ago. I got out a flashlight and gathered my camera equipment and tripod. Carefully, we walked in the dark to the lookout point and I tried to size up the silhouette possibilities. A faint trace of light then began to appear, helped by the brightness of the fog in the valley below.
It was a very cold morning and I shivered as I set up my tripod and camera, while Ruth stood at the end of the trail aiming the flashlight beyond the trail so I didn’t fall on the steep, rough terrain. As the light came up and we could see down into the valley below, we realized that we were blessed with both frost and fog.
I struggled to get myself to the highest point so that I could capture both the tree silhouettes and some of the fog below. I was working as fast as I could because there isn’t much time before it gets too light to capture a good silhouette. Meanwhile, Ruth was standing down by the railing at the edge of the cliff watching the beautiful fog as it drifted from the right to the left.
As she watched, the fog began to move very quickly. “You’d better get down here and capture this before it’s too late!” she said as she leaned over the railing. So I headed down by her and shot very quickly into the valley below. It was amazing to watch how quickly the scene changed as the fog drifted over the trees and the river. Also to our amazement was the fact that the alfalfa field was still there and it was once again dotted with bales of hay. This time, though, it was also frosted over.
Finally, I had taken all the different shots I could think to take and the fog was beginning to lift. As we headed back to the car, we passed two men who were heading out to the lookout point. They asked me if I had gotten some good shots and I told them that it was breathtaking.
As I was putting my camera equipment back into the car, I realized that one of them had come back. He introduced himself and asked if I was a professional photographer. He then explained that he and his friend had gone canoeing on the Kickapoo River the day before and they had accidentally tipped their canoe over. One of the things they lost in the mishap was their camera, so he was wondering if he could see what I had captured.
I gave him our business card and, as I explained to him that we travel the backroads in search of rural and historical scenes, he suggested I read the book, “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon. It’s a book of one man’s 13,000-mile journey along the back roads of rural America. The funny thing was that I had just put that book by my bedside a couple days before. A friend had given it to me years ago and I never got it read. I vowed that I would read it this winter…and I will!