Editor’s Note:These photographs may look old-fashioned now, but when we first started posting photos most images were scanned in from film negatives, which has a very different color gamut than digital, and the resolution on the internet was very poor. Images needed to be only a few kilobytes so that you could download them with a phone modem; now they are hundreds of times bigger. Learn more about our original film photographs.
What had begun as a one-week family mission to drive Grandma across Texas to see a doctor, turned into a five-week road adventure across the American West and Deep South. When I arrived home in San Francisco 34, no less than 8,000 miles had been tacked on the ’92 Toyota pickup’s odometer. Fifteen states had been driven through, reaching New Orleans in the South, and Montana in the North. After visiting a friend in Los Angeles, a last-minute decision to travel north through the Mojave desert on Highway 177 foreshadowed the dominating theme of the trip: taking the road less traveled, or having the thinnest trace in the State Farm Road Atlas. The must-see tourist sites like the Grand Canyon were not missed, for sure, but it was the “off-the-beaten-path” finds that provided the true reward of discovery of the western U.S.
On Highway 177, a stretch of California desert road disappearing into seemingly nowhere into heat vapors, I discovered something that brought my car to a quick stop. A standalone tree, surrounded by miles of nothing, covered in… shoes! To continue the tradition, I found an old pair behind the seat of my truck, tied them together, and hurled them onto the tree. Further up the road was another eye-catcher: a wooden sign with colored arrows pointing every direction. The mileage for every town within about 200 miles was included on the signs, looking as though they were straight out of a Roadrunner cartoon. Wacky surprises like these inspired an eye for anything quirky or nostalgic along the highway.
Treasures of pop art, like a row of 10 Cadillacs perched hood-first in the ground outside of Amarillo, Texas, or the frame of truck perched 50 feet in the air on stilts outside Yucca, Arizona, provided quirky roadside amusement. Driving over rolling hills on a stretch of Route 66, a depression-era gas station in Hackberry, Arizona was so well preserved I thought the Grapes of Wrath’s Joad family would be pulling in any minute. In need of a fill-up and putting the nozzle in my tank, the smirking shop owner explained that not a drop had come from those pumps in over 30 years. The shop was filled with Route 66 artifacts such as old road signs, but the shop owner informed me that in order to fill the gas tank I would need to continue east. Further up the “Mother Road” were boarded-up gas stations and coffee shops with dusty Formica counters, skeletons of once-bustling towns withering away since Highway 40 opened in 1968. Many of them barely registering in the Atlas. Rustic towns like Heatonville, Missouri (pop. 146) and Cuervo, New Mexico (a near ghost town) gave a real sense of forlorn American nostalgia.
The incredibly diverse scenery of the West deserved more than 500 pictures, and flipping through my photo album after I returned highlighted how fast it changed. Naively thinking every state would blend together as a seamless whole, I was quickly proved wrong! Day one gave an early indication of this, going from the beaches of Los Angeles, through the barren Mojave Desert, and on to the dramatic geography of Grand Canyon. Day 18 was spent traveling from New Orleans’ French Quarter through the lush vine greenery of the Natchez Trace, the rural Mississippi of Highway 61, and on to the rolling forest hills of the Missouri Ozarks. Highway 70 leaving Colorado sends you though the Rocky Mountains, the moon-like rock formations of central Utah, and along the southern border of Salt Lake. The final picture of the day was a pink sunset on the bright white salt of the Great Salt Lake Desert. But the most unexpected stretch of scenery had to be northern Wyoming’s 11,000-foot Beartooth Pass. Once above the tree line, rolling grass plains with blue and red wildflowers were set against a backdrop of steep rock canyons and jagged mountain peaks. With blue lakes tucked about rolling grasslands and dirt trails disappearing into green valleys, there was the feeling of being a prop for a toy train-set.
In search of the elusive perfect sunset, never knowing where I was going to be at sundown, made the last hour of the day intense. Sometimes being caught behind a string of oil derricks or scattered trailer houses (cluttering an otherwise perfect sunset), the gas pedal was gunned in search of a windmill or a mountain range before the sun disappeared. North of Midland, Texas, and in the flatlands of western Kansas, the clouds seemed to have a life all their own, forming huge billows, long strings of cirrus, and often a hole for the sun’s laser-like beams to penetrate the ground. Some of the best pictures were actually an hour before sundown, with the sun’s rays spraying in every direction from the edge of a cloud’s glistening outline.
Tuning into radio stations was an experience all its own. Garth Brooks and country music dominated the airwaves in about every state but California. Baptist preaching was heard through Mississippi, Louisiana and the Ozarks (“Don’t ever, ever mention the word divorce, ’cause once it is brought out in the open, what happens?? It becomes… a possibility. So DON’T DO IT. Just DON’T DO IT”!!), and billboards read slogans like “Jesus Saves” and “Choose Life” rather than dot.com advertisements. Huey Lewis and the News was a staple on the classic rock n’ roll stations, along with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. One rock son seemed to stand out across all borders, though, with Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” being heard in about eight different states. Pulling south out of Grand Canyon on Highway 89, a Native American station came through, complete with the steady thump of a drum, tribal chants, and a deep voice deriding “cars, computers and all things material.” Many Native American stations were also heard in Wyoming, with a mix of chants, new-age keyboards and nature sounds like high winds and running streams.
Like being in a giant amusement park, alternating between ever-changing geography and roadside curios, each highway number seemed to represent a different ride. Tourist sites like Grand Canyon and Yellowstone’s Old Faithful were no disappointment. But Winslow, Arizona at sunset (…standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona…from the Eagles “Take it Easy” …or a string of wind-sign caricatures (mocking pop icons like Monica Lewinsky and Tanya Harding against a Kansas wheat field, with a tornado-warning siren blaring in the wind from the nearby town of Mullinville… these are what provided the true reward of discovery.