A Digital Journal

Photography by Tony Triolo

Almost Forgotten

Last week, I found myself driving around northwest Alabama. It was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm for early March. My destination was Rock Bridge Canyon near Hodges. I had not been there in many years, but I remember what a neat place it was. It reminded me of the Dismals Canyon nearby in the town of Phil Campbell. I also remembered the pretty little waterfall that was at Rock Bridge, and I figured, that with all the rainfall that we have been experiencing, the falls would be flowing well. Unfortunately, when I got to the canyon, I discovered that it had been closed to the public. It was now in private hands and the new owners have decided not to permit public access. That’s a real shame because it was such a beautiful area. Users of the nearby equestrian center would ride their horses throughout the park and nature lovers would hike, picnic and enjoy the beauty of this sublimb oasis.

Factory Cemetery, Marion County, Alabama

So, what to do now I wondered. I could drive over to the Dismals which was closeby, but I have been there so often, that I really wanted to see and photograph something new. I thought I would head toward Bankhead National Park and the Sipsey Wilderness and check out Caney Creek Falls. So, I headed back north and decided to keep my eyes open for any potential photo opps along the way. I shot a few interesting barns and a display of American flags along the road. Then, in Marion County near the town of Bear Creek, I came upon Factory Cemetery.

Grave markers dot the cemetery

I have seen many Confederate cemeteries in my day and this one looked older, more primitive than most. The headstones were very spread out, but that might just indicate that many had not survived the years since the Civil War. I didn’t know anything about the cemetery or the area I was in. I did find out later that the area was initially called Allen’s Factory due to the cotton processing factory that was once here. It was burned in the latter years of the Civil War.

Gravestone of 2nd Lieut. David W. Alexander

Those interred at Factory Cemetery were part of the 16th Alabama Infantry. The men were assembled from a number of Alabama counties. They fought in battles in Tennessee and Kentucky. They fought at Shiloh and Perryville and eventually joined up with the Army of Tennessee in campaigns from Murfreesboro to Atlanta. Of the 867 soldiers comprising the regiment, many were lost at battles in Murfreesboro, Chickamauga and Jonesboro. Those who survived were disabled at Franklin and Nashville and eventually surrendered to Union forces.

I noticed a few of the headstones that were legible were the resting place of people other than Confederate soldiers. One such headstone commemorated the children of John T (no last name). Another stone read simply “Aunt Mary” who was born about 1800. The exact date is unknown and the year is even in question. It’s also interesting that her race was not in question. The word “colored” is inscribed in the marker.

A Confederate flag marks one prominent gravestove

I never made it to the Bankhead National Park or the Sipsey Wilderness that day, Actually, I did make it to the Caney Creek Falls, but found that parking was no longer permitted at the trailhead location and hikers risked being towed away. So, my little photo outing was pretty much a bust. It was getting too late to find an alternate route to the Caney, so I just decided to head home. I could take some satisfaction in finding this little and almost forgotten cemetery along Highway 172 in Marion County. Some days are just like that I guess.

March 9, 2022 Posted by | Caney Creek, Historic Alabama, Marion County, Phil Campbell, Photography, Sipsey Wilderness | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Falls Mill Fall

I have visited Falls Mill many times. Located in Belvidere, Tennessee, it is one of the few mills of its era which is still in operation, powering a host of machinery located on three floors. Built in 1873, it started out as a cotton and woolen factory, then became a cotton gin and later a woodworking shop. It is a beautiful building and I have photographed it many times, but on my visit this time, I decided to focus my attention on things other than the mill itself. There are several other buildings on the property, many of which I have never photographed before, including a blacksmith shop and a cabin which you can rent out for the weekend. There is also the Stagecoach Inn, which was moved to Falls Mill from its original site at Elora, Tennessee. I believe it is used as a residence for the mill owners/operators.

Although the waterfalls right at the mill itself are well worth photographing, I decided to spend my limited time at the dam and upper falls, which I think are more impressive and more photogenic. I was hoping that there would be more fall color, but it was just okay. I did get a bit of extra color, however, from some green ivy and pretty pink flowers in the foreground. A fallen log on the left added a bit of interest to the composition.

There is another reason I wanted to bypass photographing the mill itself on this visit. Basically, the mill is just downright difficult to photograph. It sits in dense foliage at the base of Factory Creek, and a portion of the building is usually in heavy shade while the upper section above the wheel is often in bright sunlight. The range of exposure is off the charts. You have a fighting chance to get things balanced out on an overcast day, but even then it’s a challenge. Additionally, the roof of the mill adds its own shadow and the only way to get things close is during post processing.

The way I usually approach things is to concentrate on only portions of the mill which are in relatively similar light levels. I could resort to using high dynamic range techniques or blend several images together in post, but I resist resorting to those methods. It also forces me to look for other compositions which I might not have seen otherwise.

As photographers, we sometimes put all our focus on the main attraction and miss equally, or even better opportunities for making good images. We often spend so much time shooting the object of our destination, that we miss a bunch of other images lurking in the shadows. We sometimes spend so much times photographing the main event, that we run out of time, good light or both. So, I would advise you to always be on the lookout for those hidden gems that may not be so obvious on first glance.

Above are examples of some of the older abandoned structures on the mill property. They could have been an old equipment shed and possibly a barn of some sort. Although I have been to Falls Mill many times throughout the years, I have never seen these buildings although they are in close proximity to the mill itself. Just one example of being so fixated on the main subject that you may miss things that are in plain sight.

November 15, 2021 Posted by | Photography | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Green Mountain Autumn

Here are a few images from a recent outing to the Madison County Nature Trail in Huntsville, Alabama. The preserve is located atop Green Mountain. The 72-acre park is a popular place for visitors from throughout the state and beyond. A 1.5 mile trail surrounds Sky Lake and is very popular with nature loves and anyone just needing a bit of get-out-of-the-house time during this pandemic we find ourselves in. The most popular structure on the trail is the Cambron Bridge, a beautiful covered bridge and very often photographed. There is also a pavilion, a rustic chapel, amphitheater and picnic area on the site. Admittance is free, but donations are encouraged.

I have photographed the park many times and each time it offers something different. It is most spectacular in the fall but each season has its own unique look. The drive up to the top of Green Mountain is a beautiful drive in itself, but it can be challenging in winter, as it does ice up in places, so take it slow if you plan a visit.

Fishing dock and the Cambron Covered Bridge
Possibly a native pointing tree
A peaceful afternoon on Sky Lake
Abstract autumn
Fishing at the Cambron Covered Bridge

November 28, 2020 Posted by | Photography | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Westward Ho

Nobody can deny that 2020 has been a crazy year. The worldwide pandemic, social and racial division plus the most contentious presidential election in modern history has all our nerves a bit frayed, to say the least. The thing is, none of these issues seem anywhere near a resolution. COVID-19 is still spreading globally and it seems to be getting worse instead of better. Hopefully, recent news of a promising vaccine will prove effective and we can rid the world of this scourge. The election seems far from over as President Trump claims the results fraudulent and he plans to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, even though his opponent, Joe Biden and his transition team offer assurances that the election was on the up and up. Time will tell.

Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock near Bayard, Nebraska

It is for these reasons that my wife and I decided, several weeks ago, that this might be the right time to take a little trip, as a way to regroup and recharge our batteries. On top of everything else going on, we are also currently in the process of building a house on the lake. Add that stress to everything else and you can see that a little respite was definitely called for. The next order of business was to decide where to go. Initially, my wife wanted to head north to New England. She thought it would be nice to see the fall colors and it would give her a good excuse to visit her brothers and other relatives along the way. The idea sounded reasonable, but when we checked the COVID restrictions states like Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia had imposed for high-risk states such as Alabama, we quickly realized that a drive north was not going to be feasible during this latest wave of the disease.

So, where to go? If New England wouldn’t take us in, maybe the mid-west and some western states would welcome us with open arms. We checked their COVID restrictions and found virtually none. That settled it. As Horace Greeley once proclaimed, “Go west young man.” Well, I’m far from a young man, but I was more than eager to take that advice, so west we went.

Our ultimate destination was North Dakota for the simple reason that we have never been there before, and we felt that we could manage that long of a drive in the fifteen days we had allotted for our trip. Did I mention that our daughter decided to join us on this excursion and she brought along her dog “Chunky”. We welcomed her company and her dog travels very well so it was all good. The only problem was that some some hotels and most restaurants do not allow dogs, but fortunately, Chunky is a certified therapy dog so many places made an exception.

Our daughter Jennifer with her BFF “Chunky”

We set out from Alabama and worked our way up through Tennessee, Kentucky and into Illinois. We stopped in Springfield, the state capitol, for a couple of days for two reasons. The first was that my wife wanted to see the home of Abraham Lincoln there. It is the home he lived in while practicing law between 1844 and 1861 and just prior to him winning the presidency. His house is located in an historic district which is beautifully maintained as it would have appeared during Lincoln’s day. There is also a fantastic museum in Springfield dedicated to the 16th president.

The second reason for stopping off in Springfield was to visit the Dana-Thomas house, one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s premier designs. Visiting the house has been on my bucket list for some time now. The house represents a good example of Wright’s Prairie School style, demonstrating the principles of organic architecture which he embraced. Built for socialite Susan Lawrence Dana in 1902, it was one of the few projects Wright took on that had an unlimited budget. The house, which incorporates the existing original family home, contains over 12,000 square feet of livable space. Almost everything inside the building, including furniture, windows, lamps, etc. were designed by Wright himself.

South facade of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House

From Springfield, we headed west through Iowa, Nebraska and into South Dakota. The cornfields of Iowa and Nebraska appeared endless. It seemed like we could feed the entire world with just what we saw. Wind turbines were everywhere generating electricity from the seemingly ever-blowing prairie winds. We checked out one of the Pony Express way stations in the town of Gothenburg, Nebraska and saw some beautiful natural rock formations near Bayard, like Chimney Rock, Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock. In Scottsbluff, we drove to the top of the butte there. It was so windy in places, I thought the lens on my camera might blow off.

Chimney Rock near Bayard, Nebraska
Atop Scotts Bluff near Scottsbluff, Nebraska
Scotts Bluff Monument

Next, we headed north and up into South Dakota. No visit to the Black Hills would be complete without a stop at Mount Rushmore to see those magnificent carved faces of four of our greatest U.S. presidents. My wife and I had been there several years ago, so this visit was mainly for our daughter’s benefit, but seeing that incredible sculpture again was no less special the second time.

Mount Rushmore

Custer State Park is a short drive from Mount Rushmore. Located within the Black Hills, it may have been the highlight of the trip for me. Encompassing 71,000 acres, it is a wildlife reserve and home to herds of bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, mountain goats and even a band of burros. Prairie dogs continuously pop up and down from their burrowed homes making photographing them a real challenge. The most magnificent creatures in the park were undoubtedly the bison. Close to two thousand bison graze the grasslands giving visitors somewhat of an idea what things must have looked like, not long ago, when millions of bison roamed the western prairies.

Bison, pronghorn deer and prairie dogs at
Custer State Park in South Dakota

Driving further on from Rapid City where we spent a few days, we reached the Badlands National Park. Just prior to that, however, we made a quick stop in the town of Wall, South Dakota to visit the famous drug store there. Wall Drugs started out at a small establishment that soon staked out its identity by promising westward travelers (along what is now U.S. 90) “free ice water.” Weary travelers could take a break from their exhausting and dusty trip, and enjoy a refreshing cup of ice water, something in short supply along the road. Today, some two million travelers make a stop at Wall’s, not just for the promise of cold water, but for anything else they can think of. The roadside attraction has grown into a huge retail space covering 76,000 square feet. To be truthful, we thought it was basically a tourist trap and we didn’t stay long.

The Badlands National Park is a special place. The landscape resembles something you might envision on another planet. The topography is comprised of layered rocks, steep canyons and majestic spires. The layers are colored brown, yellow, rust and even red which seem to change hues depending on the time of day. As in the Black Hills, wildlife thrives here with bighorn sheep, bison, mule deer and badger taking center stage. We didn’t see any bighorn sheep at Badlands, but we did at Custer State Park. I’ll admit that it was a long way off and I had to use the longest lens in my bag to get a halfway decent photo of him, but it was great to be able to add another animal to the growing list that we spotted along our way.

Badlands National Park

It was about at this point that we decided to make a major change to our travel plans. Our daughter kept hearing from friends and coworkers, via texts and emails, to make sure to add Glacier National Park to our itinerary. They said it was beautiful and not to be missed, especially since we were so close anyway. Well, close is a relative term. Yes, we were basically only one state away, but Montana is one hell of a big state. Not only that, but we’d have to cut through a corner of Wyoming to get there. We tried to think of what we’d miss if we didn’t stick to our original route and destination (North Dakota) and soon realized that the answer to that question was – nothing! We were hard pressed to come up with a reason to see that state other than the fact that it is one of only a handful of states we have not yet visited. When we checked Wikipedia to see what North Dakota is famous for, we found out that the state is the nation’s number one producer of honey and dry edible peas. Guess we’re off to Glacier National Park!

Along the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park

As I mentioned, we had to cut through the northeast corner of Wyoming, so a stop at Devil’s Tower was a no-brainer. If you are a fan of the 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, you will immediately identify this unique natural formation formed from volcanic activity eons ago. The tower is the country’s first national monument and it soars almost 1300 feet above the Belle Fourche River Valley. We hiked the trail around the base of the tower and spotted several native prayer flags, feathers and other items placed high in the branches of trees. Several Indian tribes consider the tower to be sacred ground. As we approached the south side of Devil’s Tower, we could see climbers attempting an assent, although conditions, to us, didn’t seem ideal as it was an extremely windy day.

Devil’s Tower

By the time we got to the town of Whitefish, Montana, the weather had deteriorated. Whitefish lies just outside of Glacier National Park and it was our plan to spend a couple of days here exploring the park as well as this pretty little ski town. Unfortunately, Glacier lies so far north that by October part of the main road through the park is already closed for winter. We did drive the portion that remained open, but the day was rainy and the temperature was dropping. Snow and ice were predicted for the next day, so we began to get concerned. Would we get snowed in for a time and have to delay our return home? That was our fear, so we did the prudent thing and left Whitefish for warmer weather further south. We headed to Yellowstone National Park back in Wyoming.

Visitors brave the chilly conditions at the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone

Yellowstone Park turned out to be a bit dryer, but possibly even colder than it was back in Montana. The temperatures didn’t deter visitors to the park however, and it was quite crowded. Although the park’s most identifiable geothermal features like its numerous hot springs and geysers produce heat, we shivered as we waited for Old Faithful to erupt. Once it finally did blow, its usually towering spray seemed somewhat diminished, as if to tell all us tourists, that was the best it could do in those frigid conditions. Old Faithful seemed to be telling us to come back in the spring .

The Grand Prismatic Spring

Well, if Wyoming couldn’t welcome us with warmer temperatures, perhaps we should drive even further south, we thought. Our daughter heard that Colorado was pretty and especially at this time of year. Maybe we’d catch the Aspen trees before they lost all their golden autumn leaves. So, we made a beeline south down past the magnificent Teton mountain range and into Jackson Hole where we stopped for dinner. Every hotel within our budget was booked, so we were forced to continue on. I don’t even remember where we did stop that night, but I do remember it was very late.

Cottonwood trees turn golden in the Fall in Colorado

Our ultimate goal was Colorado Springs, which we arrived at the next day. Mercifully, the weather improved and the temperatures warmed up considerably. We toured around, my wife acting as travel guide. We drove to the town of Cripple Creek, an old mining town. The mines have long since played out, but the town has found new life as a gambling center. Dozens of casinos line the main street accompanied by gift shops, cafes and bars. As remote as the town is, we all had to wonder just how successful this newest endeavor could possibly be.

From Cripple Creek we drove on to Bishop’s Castle which seemed a fitting end to our trip. We began this vacation by touring one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces, the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois and we ended it by exploring another example of classic American architecture. Bishop’s Castle is an elaborate and intricate “one man” project started in 1969 and is still ongoing. For the last forty years, Jim Bishop has been constructing his “castle” from native rocks quarried from his property that he purchased when he was just fourteen years old. Begun as a vacation home for his family, it has evolved into quite the structure complete with turrets, towers, stained glass, spiral staircases and even a functioning fire-breathing dragon.

On our final day before heading home we decided to get in some horseback riding. Our daughter had never ridden a horse before, which for a former veterinarian technician, we found somewhat surprising. I went with her mainly because the trail would take us through the Garden of the Gods, a national natural landmark comprised of magnificent sandstone rock formations in the shadow of some of Colorado’s most majestic mountains including Pike’s Peak, the tallest summit of the southern range of the Rocky Mountains.

The Balancing Rock at Garden of the Gods

We drove home almost straight through back to Alabama. All three of us shared driving duties and we made it back in two days. Needless to say, we were all exhausted once we arrived, but we were happy for the experience, grateful that we arrived home safely and content knowing that we had a wealth of stories to tell our family and friends and more than a few photos to post to social media.

When we arrived home, the world-wide pandemic was still raging, social unrest was still rampant and the presidential race was getting even nastier, but somehow we all had a renewed sense that we would survive whatever came our way, but still looking forward to the end of 2020.

November 17, 2020 Posted by | Photography | 2 Comments

The Dismals

Recently, I took my grandson on a visit to the Dismals Canyon in northwest Alabama. I have been there many times, going back at least thirty years, but this was my grandson’s first visit. I’ve never really known why the place was given such an unlikely name as it is anything but a “dismal” place. In fact, it is one of my favorite places to visit in the entire state and I feel fortunate that I live only ninety minutes away. Located in Franklin County, near the town of Phil Campbell, the Dismals is a limestone gorge which exhibits a topography quite unlike any other place in north Alabama. There are towering rock cliffs, caves, grottos, a meandering stream and a stunning waterfall which empties into a shallow pool, perfect for cooling hot summer feet. The canyon is also the home to the insects known as “dismalites”. The larval forms of these flies emit a bright blue-green light to attract food and mates. They cover the canyon walls and are quite a sight to see on a warm summer evening. The bugs have been the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary as they are quite rare and can be found in only a couple of places. Nightly torchlight tours are conducted in order to view the dismalites up close and personal.

Dismal Canyon was declared a National Natural Landmark in May 1974. The history of the canyon is quite interesting. Over 10,000 years ago cavemen inhabited a bluff shelter on the canyon floor. Several Indian tribes like the Chickasaw and Cherokee followed making the Dismals home, but in 1832 they were forced from these ancestral lands as part of the Trail of Tears migration westward.

Unfortunately, the Dismals has become a very popular place to visit, especially during this time of COVID-19 and our need to social distance. Getting out in nature is one activity most people seem to think comes with minimal risk. The day I took my grandson there, it was very busy, and although the property comprises over 85 acres, it still seemed crowded. It was a far cry from visits years ago, when often I would be the only person in the park. Nevertheless, my grandson and I had a good time just exploring and taking photos. Following the map that we received when we arrived, my grandson blazed the trail, although I could probably have hiked the 1.5-mile trail blindfolded. He got into the history of the place, which was recounted in great detail on the opposite side of the map. He enjoyed learning about the few bandits and desperados who used the canyon as their hideout after a bank robbery or worse. I’m not sure how many of those stories are based in fact or are just the fanciful dreams of some tourism promoter.

If you plan a visit to the Dismal Canyon, please be aware that it is located on private property and there is an entrance fee. There is a gift shop, soda fountain (closed during COVID-19), rental cabins and rest rooms on site.

Here are a few images from my most recent visit to the Dismals Canyon.


Rainbow Falls at the Dismals


Entrance to Pulpit Rock


Indian Head Rock


Dismals Branch


Rainbow Falls Bathers


The “Impossible Tree”


Rainbow Falls and Swinging Bridge

August 16, 2020 Posted by | Alabama, Franklin County, Historic Alabama, Landscape, Nature, Phil Campbell, Photography, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment