Good Juju (or "How to Set Goals But Settle Instead for Dumb Luck")

In a little town in Arkansas there is a Days Inn on a rise overlooking McDonald's. And it's run by a rude man who charges you for ice, and it's frequented by construction workers who slather tar on the twisty Ozark highways all day and dangle their booted feet off the ends of their truck beds in the motel parking lot in the evening. At least that's how it was the night I stayed there, which I admit is a fairly small sample size, statistically speaking. But let's not speak statistically, because if we do people will think we are esoteric dweebs and no one will like us and we'll never marry and we'll spend our golden years playing bridge.

But this is not a story about bridge, although I should really put together a story sometime about when I was an 11-year-old pinochle shark. Man, those were the days. The Soviet Union was crumbling and I was spending my evenings after school playing pinochle with the retirees up the street instead of lighting kittens on fire like the other boys my age.

No, this is a story about luck and beauty. About searching across the piney spine of the Ozarks for magnificence but finding it under a bridge in a flea of a town with a Main Street and blank billboards that no one seems to want to rent.

I awake just before sunrise and the cracks in the blinds of my single room at Days Inn are turning navy. I am theoretically driving across America to start a new job on the East Coast, but I'm taking the small roads and my camera is riding shotgun so I can attempt to capture America through snapshots, despite the fact that I'm only vaguely proficient with photography. And only vaguely proficient with America, for that matter. I read somewhere that if you want good pictures you need to get up early, so that's why I'm up with the construction workers. Their diesel trucks are growling in the parking lot and they are swinging their lunch pails like big, muscular kids who curse a lot.

Good juju. July 2012. Arkansas.
Yesterday I rolled through Tulsa, Springdale, Harrison, Yellville, Mountain Home, Henderson, Salem, the cities petering into towns and villages. I saw a lot of pretty things and I snapped a lot of photos but none of them turned out how my brain had sketched them. So at dinner time I sulked in the shade outside a Sonic Drive-Thru and had a shake while a guy in an idling old Taurus ate his hamburger and listened to Journey's Greatest Hits on cassette.

Now, as I pull away from Days Inn in the predawn, I think how there's nothing in this town that the soft light of sunrise will turn beautiful, not the McDonald's or the church or the park with a rusted see-saw, so I grab my complimentary continental breakfast -- which consists only of bananas -- and ease out of the parking lot. But on a whim I turn west instead of east, back the way I came yesterday, just to see if I missed anything on my way into town.

There's a bridge spanning a river a hundred yards down the street where last night I stood and photographed some guys in a canoe drifting by below, and they waved in the fading sunlight. But my shutter speed was too slow and it turned them into ugly blurs, and by the time I'd fixed my settings they were gone, and so was the sun. This morning I cross the river, see nothing, and pull onto a side street to turn around. It loops back beneath the bridge, and I indulge another odd whim, parking on the shoulder and stepping out to see the fun graffiti sprayed all over the bridge supports.

And in this unassuming moment in which I am perusing spray painted declarations of teen love under a bridge in the silence of a small town predawn, the sun breaches the horizon and its fingers flare, wrapping themselves around the world and coloring the placid river and the summer-greened trees. I watch it all dumbly, admiring the way the burnt yellow sunlight is slowly pushing skyward through the heavy, wet air, the way the water is suddenly a deep blue mirror for a deep blue sky. And suddenly I notice my camera and tripod are dangling from my shoulders. Right place, right time. Dumb luck.

Sometimes photography is like that -- you study the path of the sun, you scout your angle days or weeks beforehand, but then it rains when you're all set up to take your shot, or it's windy or cloudy, or the picture just doesn't end up looking like it did in your mind. And other times you point and you shoot and you're not thinking, and it's a thing of beauty.

And sometimes life is like that. You plan the day and you plan the week and you set your goals, because you want to make good things happen. And sometimes they do, but sometimes they don't. I don't know why that is. I suppose we should plan things out, that we should try to create good juju. But I don't think there's anything wrong with just appreciating good juju when it materializes without your careful preparation, when it falls with the rain or flashes on the face of a stranger, or when it rises in an ugly little town and finds you beneath an ugly little bridge. Good juju makes beauty out of ugly things.