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Driving To Battle Creek nov27/09

I was out and about with my camera, looking for things to photograph in a month of the year that doesn’t much stimulate my imagination, when my appetite began tapping on my shoulder, requesting to be fed. Smoked ribs came to mind, along with memories of a tiny mom-and-pop joint in Battle Creek that makes the best barbecue I’ve ever tasted. A couple years prior, I had gotten a take-out at O.T.’s Up-N-Smoke B.B.Q. along M-66, and I never forgot how good the food was. So, at the behest of my appetite, I decided to head for Battle Creek.

The hour of sundown had arrived on the backroads east of Hastings, where I was following my nose, with no particular goal in mind other than to get a few photos. Even on this beautiful, blue-sky evening,  brown November was offering little to grab my attention. Yet high, thin clouds patterned the heavens, and the very starkness of the landscape served to call out its rare points of interest.

There are still apples on some of the trees. Along the roadside, an old relic of some bygone orchard raised leafless branches laden with golden orbs. A couple months ago, I’d have driven past without ever noticing. Now, transfigured by sheer lack of competition, the apples commanded the spotlight, were the spotlight, the only bright color in that otherwise somber scenery.

I think it was in the act of photographing those apples that the notion of heading to Battle Creek made sense to me. It’s a pretty drive along much of M-66, with the road winding through the hills past lakes and wetlands. Surely I would find a few photo ops along the way. So off I sped in the waning light, led by curiosity, impulse, and a hankering for barbecue.

Have you ever considered how greatly leaves define the outdoor ambience of Michigan? In the spring, a hike in the woods is like stepping into an Impressionistic painting, with the trees gently unfurling their buds in a wash of color and light. The fully clad maples, beeches, and oaks of summer cloak the land in opulent green. Autumn’s blaze of color need only be mentioned in order for its images to flare up in the imagination more vividly than any words can express.

But in November and the months that follow, leaves set the tone of the outdoors by their absence. We’re left with bare branches—attractive in their own right to an extent, but there are so darn many of them! And there are five months of them. That’s a long time to be shooting tree silhouettes in a largely black-and-white world.

I made it to Battle Creek, and the ribs were superb. Afterward, I set my tripod on a bridge in the downtown linear park, straddling the stream for which the city is named. Night had fallen on a town lit by its holiday Festival of Lights, and the park was bejeweled with gleaming pinpoints. People strolled the walkway along the creek by Clara’s, an elegant old railroad station converted into a wonderful restaurant. Reflections of sidewalk lamps gleamed in the waters of Battle Creek. The sight was altogether magical, and a worthy subject for my first-ever attempt at night-time photography in an urban setting.

If you’ve never visited Battle Creek during its Festival of Lights, now is your chance. With its live Nativity and its 12 Days of Christmas display, it’s a charming holiday experience. And if a taste of barbecue sounds good, remember: O.T.’s Up-N-Smoke B.B.Q. Just go there, that’s all. You can thank me later for sending you.





Written by Dave.