Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Al Urness Revisited

Urness, Kayak In New Orleans
Day 2 (4/29/14)
Over a year ago I had started blogging about Al Urness, an artist, adventurer and world traveler that I had happened upon by accident. Since we shared a last name and a love of art and kayaking I had decided to spend a little time in the winter looking into his life and adventures. I had gotten three installation in to it when I started to bog down and run out of information. I sent out emails to all the historical societies and museums along his route in hopes of perhaps finding some images of his art work or even more information on his trips. If the emails were answered at all they had little or no information. In some cases they had other avenues I could try but these too usually were dead ends. To my surprise since that time I have actually been contacted by three people who had encountered Al in his journeys that come across my blog. For this reason I am going to try a couple more installments. For anybody who did not read the earlier blogs, in 1952 Al Urness started on a journey, in a homemade kayak, up the Yellowstone River from Billings, Montana to the Missouri River and then down to the Mississippi and eventually to New Orleans. His original plan was to then install a sail and continue on to Florida. If you are interested you can go back to my January 8, 2013 “In Search of Al Urness” and the next two blogs for more information. In these blogs I got as far as his journey to Cairo, Illinois on the Mississippi where he stopped for the winter in 1954. On Feb 14th 1955 Urness takes off from Cairo and gets as far as Memphis, Tennessee before heavy flooding makes him hold up for a while to do some repairs and some paintings. It seems that he did this quite a bit and at one point painted a mural for the museum in St Josephs, Mo. I have tried unsuccessfully to get information from the museum on any mural he might have done. From this point my information gets even sketchier. I do know that in 1956 Al joins up with Captain Henry C Muirhead on a 46 foot sternwheeler “Gay Rosie Jane” designed and built by Muirhead to cruise the inland waters of the Gulf Coast. On this side trip he gets as far as Brownsville, Texas before resuming his journey. The next and last article I find on him from the, “Billings Gazette” Sept 2 1956, does confirm that he indeed does make it to New Orleans almost four years later.
Urness estimates he has covered 4,000 miles along the Yellowstone, Missouri and Mississippi rivers, although he by-passed some of the Yellowstone after initial troubles Included 21 spills. Outriggers, new paddle design and other innovations helped lessen the dunking’s. He has passed 95 cities in 112 days of actual travel. Most of his summers have been devoted to sketching marine, wildlife and other scenes, although he frequently paints a mural or portrait to finance expenses. He hopes to have a one-man show eventually of more than 300 oils of the trip.

I have never been able to find any information on whether Urness went on to Miami or not. From one of the people that I corresponded with I was led to believe that he didn't. I have still only found one of his paintings and I will have more on that in my next blog. As I said, I have heard from some people who have seen my blog that knew Al and I am waiting for some images and more information that they said they would be sending.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

30 Years of Yuma

Three Amigos
Day 1 (3/31-4/5/14)

For almost 30 years we have been taking trips to Yuma, Arizona about every five years. It started when my college friend Steve took a teaching job down there in the mid eighties. I will never forget his first impressions of Yuma which were something like, “as I stood on the old bridge across the Colorado River, bused there on a school bus without air conditioning, and looked out over the barren wasteland I asked myself what I had ever done to deserve ending up here.” Thirty years and a career later Steve is finally packing it up and moving back north. He invited us down for one last visit before he sells his condo and moves north. Most people move to Yuma when they retire so there is a bit of irony in his retiring to Wisconsin. In those thirty years there has been a lot of change in Yuma but also much has remained the same. We have watched as the downtown (old town) area was revitalized and then died again. When we first went to Lute’s Casino it was a rundown seedy dive that sold great hamburgers. Today it is still a rundown seedy dive that sells great hamburgers. I almost wondered if the same crowd wasn't there from our very first visit. Another favorite establishment is the garden café, a mostly outdoor café surrounded by an aviary which gives it an ambiance that you are not going to find in the north. Now days there seems to be more sparrows and doves then the parrots of the early days but the food is still good and service friendly. We were glad we had made reservations for a Tuesday lunch which bodes well for its future. Perhaps the most positive change that has occurred has been the changes in the Colorado River. The first time that we stood on the bridge overlooking what was left of the Colorado it was a dirty little river that was filled with shopping carts and other debris. The floodplain was riddled with pathways leading off to areas staked out by vagrants. In the last thirty years the entire flood plain in and around Yuma has been rejuvenated and in areas made into parks for public recreation. While we were visiting this last time they were in the process of purging the river estuaries with pulses of high volume water to reestablish the natural habitats that once existed. I am not sure what happened to all the vagrants but only one exists, that we saw, and he has a more or less permanent residence and has even been the subject of articles in the local newspaper. The first time we visited the Yuma Territorial Prison it was little more than a derelict foundation. On this last visit it has been totally restored and is a museum. As you look up across the Colorado River the old bridge and Indian Mission Church are still there although many of the trees are gone. I have been intrigued with the desert since reading Edward Abby’s Desert Solitaire in the early 80s. That being said I have never had to live there in the summer. Who knows if we will ever get back there but I will always have fond memories of the time I have spent there.
Lute's Casino back entrance

Lute's Casino

Yuma Territorial Prison

Six to a Cell

Indian Mission 30 years ago

Indian Mission today

Grotto 30 years ago

Grotto Today

Colorado River 30 years ago

Colorado Today

Eileen 30 years ago

Eileen today

Some things never change 30 years of Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds today
Me thirty years ago