ON A RECENT early fall day, I once again scrambled after a hero. From La Push to the Columbia River, from Mount Rainier to the Denny Regrade, renowned photographer Asahel (pronounced “EH-shell”) Curtis (1874-1941) has led me on a decades-long, merry chase.
With boundless energy and ambition, Asahel explored every corner of our fair state with a visual imagination that, to my mind, surpasses the artfully composed photos of his more-famous brother Edward (noted for his 20-volume masterwork, “The North American Indian”).
In contrast, Asahel hauled his battered camera through every environ and season to snare serendipitous scenes that crossed his lens. Eschewing fussy studio portraits, his “slice-of-life” photos document the quotidian, from Makah whalers to wheat farmers, loggers to factory workers. A founder of the Mountaineers Club, he also captured breathtaking vistas of our highest peaks.
This week’s “Then” photo, taken by Asahel in 1932 at the south end of the Yakima River Canyon, is a picturesque joy. The ribbon of highway — with its single lonely car headed north, the empty railroad alongside the river, cradled by basalt hills — offers a haunting portrait of a singular landscape.
Gazing into the fertile Yakima Valley, Asahel would have conjured a lost paradise. In 1907, he had purchased a 9-acre orchard near Grandview as a family retreat from the hurly-burly of Seattle city life. After the 1929 stock-market crash, Curtis forfeited his farm and deeply regretted it.
Inarguably, the 25-mile canyon is a photographer’s dream. Light plays over tawny hills around whose roots the Yakima River winds like a verdant green fuse. Driving the canyon road 20 years ago, I assumed wrongly that the water had eroded a path through the basalt.
Counterintuitively, the river came first, says Central Washington University geologist Nick Zentner, perfectly exemplifying an “entrenched meander canyon.” Twelve million years ago, the river twisted and curved across a flat plain, he says, while the basalt hills heaved into place 7 million years later, the result of tectonic pressures originating in what is now central California.
Today, tamed by road and rails — and the diversionary Roza Dam (erected in 1939) — the canyon drive supplies a series of spectacles that shapeshift dramatically with each season.
Asahel died in 1941 at age 66. Not until 1964 were his ashes interred at a Snoqualmie summit wayside memorial. Soon after its dedication, daughter Polly recalled in a 1988 Seattle Times interview, a lightning bolt destroyed the urn, scattering Asahel’s ashes to the winds. Her roving father would have keenly appreciated this fate.