In Search of America

When I first thought about the idea of driving all the way to California alone, I quickly recoiled at the thought. No way, I said. I’m past all that and I immediately recognized the vulnerability of my years and my gender. I Googled “driving across the country” and as I read the typical stories of young people finding themselves I thought, “no, this is crazy!”

I mentioned the idea to my son, who was getting married at the Reagan Ranch, known as the Western White House during the 40th president’s tenure. “No way, Mom!” he said. “I would worry about you the entire time. What if something happens to you?” Funny how we switch roles when our children grow up. I shelved the idea for a while but I kept going back to the computer and searching routes and thinking of the unimaginable beauty and what it would be like to capture some of it and that the opportunity may never happen again. Now I had an excuse and I was getting more motivated as I looked into the real possibility of how to make it happen. I had always wanted to go back to the southwest. At 20, I had flown into Albuquerque and drove to Los Angeles from there with a friend and fell in love with the stark landscapes and deeply saturated color that made me feel like a character in a Dali painting. I remembered shadows that stretched into infinity and skies that churned like a kaleidoscope of dark and light then cleared into the bluest blues and reddest reds I could imagine. Now I was a photographer and I wanted to experience it again through the lens of my camera.

I secretly mapped it out and planned the route. I would drive the southern route to Interstate 40 west to Albuquerque, NM, up to the grand Canyon and down Interstate 15 to LA and on to Santa Barbara, CA. My husband was leery of my plan and concerned for my safety but he was supportive, knowing it was something I had always wanted to do. I had wanted to do it with him but his response of “send me the video” let me know that my dream was not his. I think now it was just my fear of being alone and only secondarily desiring to share it with him. “Why not?” I finally thought. I wanted to stop when I felt tired and stop when I saw a picture and I knew that would drive him crazy. I had raised two children, been a wife, worked as a fashion photographer for many years and always put my family, career and friends first. I had to fight the guilt of feeling self-indulgent, irresponsible and foolish, as most mothers do when doing things for themselves. I persisted and finally I knew it would be a gift I would give myself that would yield much more that it would take. I searched for two weeks for just the right GPS with weather updates to avoid tornados in the plains and to keep me on track. I ordered audio books of my favorite authors, cultural and philosophic commentaries that I never had time to read, recordings of all my favorite Leonard Cohen music and a little poetry. I could refresh my imagination with concepts usually out of reach with my busy schedule as my eyes watched the reality and beauty of our country stream from my windows like a magnificent movie.

I left on April 10 this year. I was thoroughly familiar with the beauty of Virginia and though I loved every inch of it I was looking forward to the West because it was a landscape I had not experienced firsthand since that brief experience at 20. I drove about 500 miles the first day and the second. One day I drove 700 miles. I stayed in local motels and avoided chains. When I entered Texas I was incredibly inspired, knowing there were so many miles of unfamiliar territory for me to see and absorb. I had taken the interstates up to that point but now I wanted to see every mile of it up close that would reveal another side of the heart and soul of this myriad nation, its people and the landscapes that captured the imaginations of so many artists that had gone before me. I wanted to be steeped in the authenticity of an identity defined by the values of the people who lived there. I stopped at remote diners and listened to the locals talk about fences that needed repair, sheriffs that arrested the teenagers who drank too much or drove too fast, hippie artists that made jewelry and the battle over the mining rights where they found their turquoise and silver. I talked to waitresses who loved their remote lives and listened to their stories, looked at the snapshots of their children tacked to the walls and studied the faces of men who sat in rusty chairs with lined faces and wistful glances. One woman in the hills of New Mexico told me that she woke up one day to the sound of rattlers and saw a very large and deadly Mojave rattlesnake curled up next to her bed and watched it crawl away.

I thought of the images of travelers going west during the Great Depression. I wondered what held these people here and imagined what it would be like to be one of them. As the miles passed I couldn’t resist the temptation of stopping every few miles and snapping a few pictures. I only wished I could be there for a longer time, knowing that there were many more beauties to behold if the light were right and I could wait for just the right time. I had to press on so all the pictures were taken from the window of my car or just a few steps away from it. I jealously thought about Ansel Adams and the many years he had trekked up mountaintops and waited for the perfect season, time and light to capture the most profound and enduring images to be had of his experience with light and landscapes.

What struck me was the endless variation of mountains and their shapes and textures. Of course I love the golden hour of light in the evening before the sun sinks out of sight and the first light of morning, but I never expected things to be so excited all day long. I actually had to pull over a few times, almost breathless at what I was seeing, and almost hit a tree when I drove into Grand Canyon National Park and suddenly drank in my first glance at the canyon. I had seen pictures, but the reality was so arresting, I almost couldn’t take my eyes back to the road. I simply had to stop and there on the rock where so many others had the same experience it was written in small letters: “Only God.”

Finally there was the desert. I had packed gallons of water, oil, food and various other survival-type gear, remembering the many miles where there was nothing. I had chosen an even more remote route. I loved the old junkyards where all the cars of the ’50s and ’60s still remained and looked like an old Bogart/Bacall movie set. There were trains and old motels from the ’50s with their original signs brightly colored and prevailing in the desert where the weather is dry and things don’t deteriorate as they do in the East. I couldn’t believe how many structures still stood intact and were simply abandoned. My daughter Noelle had joined me for the last part of the trip out and she was as adventurous as I was, so we took a few risks, like driving through some of the reservations some locals thought were ill advised. We stopped and spoke to the Native Americans and though they seemed genuinely surprised to see two women alone in a sky blue Jaguar, they were incredibly gracious and accommodating. Some of the most memorable landscapes were of a sandstorm swirling around the setting sun behind the volcanoes of northern Arizona. It reminded me of an old black and white movie of a spaceship landing. I was certain we were about to be stolen by aliens.

We stopped for the night in the next town and would arrive in LA the next afternoon. I had done it! Santa Barbara! Of course, the wedding is another story in itself, much too exciting to talk about in a few lines, but soon it was over and I dropped off my husband and daughter for their journey home and set out again on Route 15 to Las Vegas and on to Interstate 70 east through Nevada, Utah and on into Colorado. I got stopped by a ranger in a park in Utah who wondered if I had been drinking because I kept stopping in the middle of the road to take a picture and there was no shoulder to pull off the road. I thought I was the only one there but he let me go after a stern warning about stopping on curves and using the scenic pull-offs designed for observing the vistas. Did he not get it? I had to get that shot of light and shapes and that didn’t necessarily happen where the designers of this road had deemed appropriate. I tried to obey him, but I confess I did steal a few more frames of those forbidden places.

The trip back was no less adventurous or delightful. I saw wild burros that blocked the road and were utterly unconcerned about this person and their car and took their time moving out of the way as I snapped on. I passed through ghost towns where cactus flowers bloomed and valleys surrounded by random sculptural shapes looked like crowds of people laughing and I felt like I was taking an ink blot exam that I could interpret according to the preferences of my imagination. As the roads swirled horizontally and suddenly climbed vertically seasons of winter and summer changed with the elevation. It was winter in Vail, CO, but the landscape emptied into spring and summer by the time I reached the plains. I wished it would never end. When I entered Missouri, I stopped in St. Louis to see old friends and headed home on Interstate 64, where I had driven many times before. Washington, 36 miles! I had done it! I felt empowered, charged and as I downloaded all the photos and saw them I could relive it. What’s next? I want to go back and do it all again — only this time with grant money and a book in mind. What is the prevailing thought? We can, in most cases, do things we think we can’t and becoming one with ourselves makes us more capable of giving, receiving and experiencing life and joy.

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