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Take BART to rural California

Keith and Ileah Roquemore, with daughters Raci and Riata and horse D.H., at the Mendocino County Fair Rodeo. Photo courtesy of Lisa Hamilton.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Hamilton.
Keith and Ileah Roquemore, with daughters Raci and Riata and horse D.H., at the Mendocino County Fair Rodeo. Photo courtesy of Lisa Hamilton.

If you’ve ridden on BART lately, you might have seen a photograph of a blue and white beach umbrella standing at the edge of a green farmer’s field. The caption reads, “Those are potatoes.” Or one with a girl in a cowboy hat standing upright in her horse’s saddle, swinging a lasso over her head. The caption: “She’s Also Pretty Good At Volleyball.” Or one with a boy wearing a green 4H tie, proudly holding a goat to his side. “Jesús and Lightning,”

The photos are visions of rural California, pasted on the walls one of the state’s most iconic urban structures.

They represent how photographer and writer Lisa Hamilton sees her state. She traveled 10,000 miles over the past year, taking pictures and recording interviews. The result is the photo series “Real Rural.” 

The website for the series opens with the message, “Welcome to the rest of California.”

“There's this great divide between rural California and urban California,” said Hamilton. “It sometimes feels like we have two completely different states within California.”

A lot of people talk about two Californias. The state is so big, it could be a country. And, like a country, it encompasses multiple cultures. There’s NorCal and SoCal, free love and freeways.  Then, there’s another axis: one that separates the urban Bay Area and sprawling Los Angeles from the rural rest of the state.

“I was surprised to find how little people here know about the rest of the state,” said Hamilton, who lives in San Francisco. “By in large, it seems that most people had experienced rural California only on I-5 between L.A. and S.F., and possibly on 80 on the way to Sacramento.”

Hamilton decided to get off the beaten track and explore the state on roads like the Petroleum Highway, the Carissa Highway and highways  99,  395, 36, and 3.  She traveled all over the state exploring places like Surprise Valley, Lost Hills, and Mecca.

As she traveled, she met all kinds of people, took their photographs and recorded their stories. People like Andrea Torres, the 18-year-old president of the Big Valley Future Farmers of America (FFA) who lives right on Oregon border in Modoc county. Torres raises and shows pigs for the FFA. She told Hamilton about some of the tricks of training a pig.

“As soon as we get our pigs in February or March, we are out there every day,” Torres told Hamilton. “We use candy hearts because it's usually around Valentine's Day. So we tame them down to us with candy hearts, and we walk them every day for about a couple months before the show. And then we try to walk them every single day down the street. Because we live in the middle of town, we walk them down Main Street in our town and then walk them back home.”

Hamilton also spoke with dairy farmer Dennis Leonardi from Ferndale.

“We had a fellow who had kind of a dairy tragedy,” said Leonardi. “His cows got into something that they shouldn't have and lost a bunch of cows,” Leonardi explained. Then one afternoon, said Leonardi, the farmer took the afternoon off after working tirelessly for weeks. “Mysteriously,” Leonardi said, “a whole bunch of cows from the neighbors showed up. Those are the little things that you never see – the little things that make a difference. The little things that make a community special and makes what I do special, because you have the chance to do some stuff like that that you may not other places.”

Hamilton’s photographs show people in their environments – a bull rider in Cottonwood leans up against a horse trailer, wearing dusty boots and an ornate belt buckle. A young boy named Sebastian stands next to a weathered wall in the tiny town of Thermal, boxing gloves on his hands, ready to fight. Looking at these pictures, it might be easy to think that rural California and urban California are completely unconnected universes. But, of course, they’re not. Hamilton said the most rewarding part of the project for her were the connections she made with the people she met.

“When I told Sebastian’s father that he was going to be in a poster on a BART train,” said Hamilton, “I was told that Sebastian was standing next to him as his dad talked on the phone just jumping up and down, just elated that he was going to be on the subway in San Francisco.”

Hamilton says that putting the images up on BART trains was a deliberate choice.

“You're sitting on the train, you're looking across from you and you're seeing the landscape of Fremont or South San Francisco go by, and riding the train with you is this bull rider from Cottonwood, California, or this 11-year-old boxer. Having them right there, next to you, or across from you,” she explains, “allows you to feel that human connection with people who otherwise would feel really far away.”

But Hamilton also says she was wary of painting a sentimental, idealized portrait of rural life. During her 10,000-mile drive, she heard a lot of country songs all about the virtues of country living. She remembers especially the John Denver song, ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy' that was a huge hit the year she was born.

Song lyrics like, “I never was one of them money hungry fools/I’d rather have my fiddle and my farming tools,” aren’t exactly true to life. For one thing, John Denver didn’t actually grow up on a farm.  But, for Hamilton, the problem goes deeper than that.

“Rural California is not just disempowered farm workers and big mean agribusiness titans,” said Hamilton. “It was important to me to find people who told stories that are different than what we assume.”

Still, in her conversations with her subjects, she says she was careful to steer clear of politics.

“So much of this conflict between the two different parts of our state is because we often have only one language – only one way of talking to each other – which is through politics and issues. And there's very little agreement about those things. But art, stories, offers this different language, this different opportunity for a conversation where, in fact, those other pieces almost become irrelevant because we're talking about something completely different which is our lives as humans.”

Rural people see the urban experience reflected around them all the time – in ads, on TV, in the movies – but, it never seems to go the other way.

“There's this overwhelming sense of being dismissed or being ignored or misunderstood by the urban public, meaning the majority who makes all the decisions in the state,” said Hamilton. “So people were really excited to be able to tell their stories – and they're even more excited because you actually care about them. And I really do.”

Hamilton’s photographs can be seen on BART trains until March. They’ll be on billboards in Sacramento and Los Angeles later this year, and in an exhibit at the California Historical Society in the fall.

The project was funded by the Creative Work Fund, and is a collaboration between Roots of Change, The Bill Lane Center for the American West, and the California Historical Society. For more information about Real Rural, visit its website.