When you are trying to understand our country, it helps to drive across it. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to comprehend the USA. Most of the photo projects that I have done over the years have been in service to that end. It helps to get outside of our bubble to get a better idea of how this country ticks. After six days upon the road, we are still impressed by our nation’s inspiring vastness and the grandeur of its’ land and the fundamental decency of its’ people. Of course, parts of it are frustrating, tragic, and incomprehensible. But the big take away from our big drive is hopeful. Especially if Trump serves jail time.
“Save a Cow, Eat a Chicken” was a sign in a beastly hot, down-on-its-luck, small community in rural Utah. I’m not quite sure what it meant, but it brought a smile to our road weary faces. The small towns in the American West are often harsh and filled with endless chain stores. But it is the monumental expanse and big skies of the West that are truly exhilarating. Wallace Stegner and others have written eloquently about the sense of space in the American West. It is difficult to describe and hard to photograph but it is something to experience.
The big stretch of Highway 70 through central Colorado is one of the most spectacular highways in the world. It is insane that they built an interstate through Glenwood Canyon with its twists and turns, elevated freeways, rivers and avalanches, and narrow lanes filled with summer traffic. Both of my hands were firmly gripping the steering wheel as I tried soak up the scenery while also trying to stay on road. After we passed the ski town of Vail, we headed up to the 11,990-foot Loveland Pass, the highest mountain pass in Colorado that regularly stays open during the snowy winters. As we approached the pass, dusk turned to dark, it started to rain, the highway lights ceased to exist, and any highway painted lane markers disappeared. As the road began to disintegrate into big potholes, what I could see of the road dissolved into various shades of black. The only thing white at that moment were my knuckles in a death grip with the steering wheel. When we finally reached the Eisenhower Tunnel at the top, we let out a big sigh of relief from what moments before seemed like a suicide mission.
We eventually landed in the old mining town of Georgetown, CO and collapsed into our motel beds in utter exhaustion. The next morning, we explored the quaint 19th century town that retained its small-town charm without being overly gentrified. It contained sites that had been photographed by the famous photographer William Henry Jackson over 100 years ago and a delightful park where we had breakfast. We even discovered this small town’s wonderful public library.
We quickly descended from the Rocky Mountains into the Great Plains of the West and Midwest stretching from here to the Mississippi River and all the way up to the Boreal Plaines of Northern Canada. This flatland is covered with tallgrass prairie, steppe, and grassland. The entire region is known for supporting extensive cattle-ranching and dryland farming and its grasslands are among the least protected biomes in the world. As our elevation went down, the temperature soared reaching 104 degrees by the time we got to Denver. Urban sprawl has reached this part of the world big time. It took us a long time to drive beyond the last edges of Denver and enter the true farmlands of eastern Colorado and Nebraska.
Many hours of roads and podcasts passed until we reached the delightful college town of Lincoln, Nebraska. This enlightened community is a sanctuary city for refugees from all over the world. The diversity here was astonishing and city seemed to be doing pretty well despite the crippling drought hammering the surrounding farm economy. We met our friends Wesaam al-Badry and Maliha Zuberi al-Badry for coffee in a hipster cafe. She grew up in LA with her Iraqi parents. He was a young child when his mother escaped with all her children by walking out of Iraq. They eventually moved to Lincoln, NB where Wesaam grew up. He later studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and later still at UC Berkeley’s Journalism School where he met our son Walker. He is now a well-known documentary photographer and artist, and they have a wonderful three-year old daughter Naia who will one day become President of the United States.
Driving across Iowa was a treat. We were riveted the whole time to the podcast “Will Be Wild “which was about January 6th. Listening to it led us to realize how close our country came to being taken over by a Trumpian coup. It also made the wheatfields and cornfields go by very quickly. One of the things that most impressed me about Iowa was when we shut off the terrifying podcast and stopped at a rest stop. It turned out to be a literary themed rest stop set up by the state of Iowa. How enlightened is that? Throughout the small park next to the rest stop were quotes by famous authors, a statue of a fountain pen and a sculpture of an eraser. Why can’t other states do this? We ended the day by driving across a red, white, and blue themed bridge in the city of Davenport, IA and having dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant run by a refugee family that came here in 1985. The next morning started by having an amazing cortado at one of the best hipster coffee shops anywhere on the trip. Iowa is amazing!
The Pullman National Monument outside of Chicago is also an amazing place. Here, a visionary and paternalistic community was built for the workers who built the luxury Pullman railroad cars in the late 19th century. When the economy crashed, so did the community as workers could not afford to continue to live there. A brutal strike put down by Federal troops goes down as one of the darker chapters of US labor history. But for ex-slaves after the Civil War, being a Pullman Porter offered way into a newly emerging Black middle class. Although demeaning in some ways, these jobs became very desirable for many African American men with few other options. Michelle Obama’s grandfather helped his family by being a Pullman Porter for many years.
Two of our all-time favorite people are Terry and Sam Evans who we stayed with in Chicago. Terry is a well-known, brilliant landscape photographer who was an original member of our Water in the West project in the 1990s. Sam was the head of the International YMCA and has traveled all over the world for his work including over 40 trips to the Middle East. They both have deep roots in Kansas, and we spent a fascinating evening talking about many things including the recent, unexpected vote in Kansas on abortion. There needs to be more people in the world like Sam and Terry!
As we left Chicago, we quickly entered Indiana. The main memory I have from there is the maddening frequency of the toll booths that required everyone to stop and fork over lots of money to a toll taker in the booth. Automatic toll booths or license scanners was not an option here. I suspect that because of the conservative politics here the state went for low taxes for its citizens and soaking the helpless people driving through the state to pay for the crumbling infrastructure. Take that, Mike Pence!
On these long, cross-country drives it is interesting to see how parts of the drive are defined by the podcast we happen to be listening to at the time. On our drive through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and later upstate New York we were absorbed by a series called “The Apology Line”. This is a true story about Mr. Apology narrated by his wife Marissa Bridge. He put up flyers around New York City in the 1980s inviting people to anonymously leave a recorded phone message with an apology for anything they had done. What started out as a quirky art project soon took on a life of its own consuming even Mr. Apology. It was creepy and fascinating. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about the states we drove through while listening to this riveting story.
On our way to Vermont, we made a quick stop at the Saratoga National Historical Park in upstate New York. Here, in 1777, during the American War for Independence, American troops battled and beat a British invasion force, marking the first time in world history that a British Army ever surrendered. This crucial victory secured essential foreign recognition and support, instigated world-wide wars, affirmed United States independence, and changed the face of the world. Not bad for a bunch of New England farmers!
Finally, after 3,486 miles we arrived at our place in Vermont! It was so nice to not be in motion for a while. Sitting still and just watching the birds flitter and the grass grow sounds just about perfect right now. I will post the next blog in a few weeks.