Route 66, the mother road, runs alongside Highway 40 as it crosses the country east to west. In the sixties, 66 was the road I traveled on back and forth between Chicago and LA, making my way by car, bus, and thumb. It was two lanes of asphalt, making its way through miles of farmland interrupted by the occasional sleepy town, then endless hours droning across the desert spaces with an occasional glimpse of old west culture. Finally, it crawled up the mountains to Oatman before coasting down to the Colorado River and the palm tree’d wonder of California.
The first time I made the journey I was eighteen, traveling with two other guys in a beat-up old car filled with all our things. The trip was sweaty hot, shivering cold, scary new and totally amazing. I can still conjure up the feeling of that ride, driving on forever, seeing it all afresh through rolled-down windows. Four days and nights of slow progress, two thousand miles of road, a journey of sights and sounds, adventures and discovery.
Recently, I drove from LA to Santa Fe with longtime pal Bob Harvey. We traveled on US 40 but got off often to see the bones of old 66. We stopped where we liked and enjoyed our time on the road, listening to old music and eating the great bad road food of small-town cafes. I made pictures to help me understand what I was seeing.
Here are pictures then, and a few tiny stories, of things we saw along the beloved highway. Moments we glimpsed in Barstow and Needles, Williams and Holbrook, snapshots of life along the road that connects them all together, The Mother Road.
There is nothing more pedestrian than a Motel 6 sign unless it’s the hotel behind it. There are 1200 Motel 6s’ across North America, mainly strung out along the roads that lead you through the drive-thru towns. With a hundred thousand rooms to sleep in and god knows how many nights worth of humanity’s adventures and travails to note there are probably a million stories to tell but we don’t hear any of them today. Instead, there is just this picture to say “Here’s what it looked like in this light, in this place, on this day”.
We stopped here for our first lunch on the road. We ate giant plates of Pork Egg Foo Young covered in thick brown gravy, food that reminded us of our boyhoods in fifties Chicago. It was the perfect meal for the moment.
I waited to make this picture. I’d already shot a version without the people when I saw these guys coming my way. I stood there in the street, patient. When they entered the frame I raised my camera and started shooting, click, click, click, one … two … three frames, the shutter noise loud enough in the quiet afternoon. They heard it and then one of the guys started running like an animal that’s been spooked. He never looked, never acknowledged my presence, just trotted away till he was out of sight.
A little further down the road, we came to Needles, pulled in by the railroad tracks, and came to rest at the Fred Harvey station, a traveler’s destination for a hundred years. In the hot Needles afternoon, the weight of the sun rested on my body like the lead blanket in a radiologists suite, heavy and calming.
We walked towards the entrance of the station looking for some connection to the bygone times. Instead, as we came from the bright heat of the parking lot into the shadow of the station, we heard a voice, and as we turned the corner, we came upon a woman surrounded by furniture, everything arranged as if inside an apartment. She sat in her chair, chatting on her cell phone, oblivious to us in her made-up living room, only ghosts from some other reality passing through her real world.
Continuing along the path we came to the grand portal of the station, the great doors that lead to other places. Drawing near we came upon another woman, this one middle-aged and thick, one of her legs bandaged. She was lying on a low concrete plinth in front of the entrance; her body raised up from the sidewalk like a sacrifice. She stretched out on her narrow bed, resting in the afternoon heat. Over to one side was a large backpack with things she had pulled free from it scattered on the ground, next to them was her crutch.
I tried the door, but it was locked, pulled on it again till the woman called out to me “it doesn’t open until 11 PM”. Then the sign I’d already seen registered, and I knew she was right, that the station was only open from 11 PM till 2 AM, the middle of the night. After another minute she said, “I’m waiting for the train”… a 10-hour wait laying on the cement in the Needles afternoon. We talked for a couple of minutes about other ways she could get to LA, and similar impossibilities of her life, and then it was time for us to go, so we said goodbye, and got back in our car and hit the road.
The Chamber of Commerce building has seen better times. It could use some stucco, and a coat of paint and god knows what else but I didn’t find out because it was closed. I don’t blame them, the chamber people. Needles is empty in the hot afternoon. People hide in their darkened houses, reading or watching TV till the sun goes down. There’s no reason to sit here in this office waiting while nothing happens.
The desert sun cuts sharp shadows, reveals the geometry of the architecture. The murals on the brick surfaces remind me of Egyptian pyramids, the old sign of the long-closed store reveals the time gone by, it all adds up.
The museum was closed, and that’s too bad because I always find things that delight me when I visit places like this. There is history everywhere, the small history of everyday people. We have plenty of stories and memorabilia about the famous and the big events that shape our lives. But maybe we could use a few more stories about the rest of us.
We pull into a gas station to fill up and there in front of us is a guy fueling a Delorean. I get out to make a picture and meet the owner, Ron Ferguson. He’s a Rocket Scientist and an eight-time Fireball Run participant. Ron is friendly and enthusiastic, happy to share his joy in his car. We take pictures with him and trade names and pleasantries, then get back on the road cause we still have to find dinner and a place to stop for the night.
The Meteor City trading post sits just off of the highway, abandoned and alone. It takes an act of will to pull off the road here, get out of the car, and wander around. At first, it feels like maybe you’re in a movie where unexpected and unpleasant things are going to happen. Then, after a while, when no one comes around the corner with a gun and a crazy smile its forlorn and empty nature takes over, and it’s okay just to be here. I take pictures and wonder who wrote the words on the walls, and I imagine there are local kids who gather here sometimes on Friday nights to drink beer and hang out.
The residue we leave behind fascinates me — our incessant, overwhelming need to make marks on things.
Who lived out here miles from anything else? Whoever they were, I count three satellite dishes perched amongst their wreckage, evidence of their desire to remain connected to the world outside.
At one time the people here had plenty of connection. There were travelers on the road that passed just outside their door, and the travelers stopped here to buy or browse or pee.
But then Route 66 was supplanted by limited access 40, and the travelers drove by just a hundred feet away, but now imprisoned by the fences of the interstate.
Even now, if you look towards the road, you can see them sailing by at eighty miles an hour, faces fixed for their destinations. They’re hypnotized by the new road, and there’s no way they’re ever going to stop here.
It must have been tough to close this place up though; I’m sure there were lots of memories they had to leave behind. I wonder who the last one was, the one who turned off the lights and locked the door.
The car is filled with random stuff, suitcases, plastic bags, a styrofoam cooler, scraps of paper. The accumulation rises well above the window line. The driver is reduced, he sits alone in his tiny cockpit absorbed in his conversation and the road ahead. I wonder if he’s headed towards home or away, happy to be returning to a life he loves or desolate and empty as he drives someplace new to start again.
Just outside of Holbrook, we came to this rest stop and shopping opportunity. I buy two pairs of Hawk, Night & Day Sunglasses for $11.99, and three bags of Planters Heated Peanuts for 99 cents.
The laws of supply and demand are always working which leads me to suspect there’s a lot of Peanuts and sunglasses around Holbrook.
I’m always aware of how much space things can casually take up out here in the west. For instance, here’s a two-bay muffler shop with parking for at least fifty cars. What were they thinking when they laid this place out? “Hell George, just put her back from the road aways. No point leaving all that space out behind.” I love this building; it’s got its own shape, it’s own style, it’s own “I just felt like it” way of sitting on the road. If I lived in Holbrook, it’s the place where I’d put my studio and gallery. It’d be just right.
Here’s what appears to be a traveler at a galactic Trailways terminal. It looks like he’s checking the schedule, waiting for his ride to appear in the distance. I wonder what that ride would look like. If I climbed the rise and looked beyond it would there be a saucer somewhere in the distance?
Here are two travelers walking on the surface of the moon. They have appeared out of nowhere, the only things moving in this vast, still place. The air carries the scent of rocks and dust, and we are reduced to our real size, our tiny selves in the middle of this gigantic landscape and the instant of endless time we are living in.
Here’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about as we drive. The parts of the landscape we leave out. What it really looks like when you get out of the car.
Sometimes you come to the place where civilization runs out, and you can see the edge of it. I’m fascinated by these borders between the natural world and what we do in it and to it. In the city what we do seems like the proper order of things, but out here our difficult relationship with nature is etched as clearly as the edges of the parking lot.
Our last roadside lunch stop, sitting in the Chieftain dark and cool. It’s exactly where we want to be on this hot, bright afternoon. We sit in the shade, eating our burgers and watching the trucks roll by. From here the road is a glorious thing.
Journey’s end, far as we got, Santa Fe and the opening of Mark Berndt’s show at Edition One Gallery. Plenty of roads left for next time.
That’s me, Andy Romanoff. I love the road and all the places it leads to.
And this is Bob Harvey, longtime friend, fellow conspirator from the Panavision days and traveling companion on this trip. From Mexico to China to Santa Fe we’ve shared adventures, survived roadside meals and had a lot of laughs, more to come.
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