Exploring the American West
A Road Adventure
Text and Photos by Mark Loftin
It began as a one-week family mission to drive Grandma across Texas to see a doctor. It turned into a five-week back-road adventure across the American West and Deep South.
When I arrived home in San Francisco thirty four days later, I had tacked on no less than eight thousand miles on the '92 Toyota pickup's odometer. I had driven through fifteen states, 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, the highway defined by the thinnest trace in the State Farm Road Atlas. I would not miss the must-see tourist sites like the Grand Canyon, but I discovered that it was the "off-the-beaten-path" finds that provided the true reward of discovering western America.
On Highway 177, a stretch of California desert road which seemed to disappear into heat vapors, I discovered something that brought my car to quick stop: a stand-alone tree, surrounded by miles of nothing and covered in...old shoes! Apparently, a trend had been started by someone who hung an old pair of shoes on one of its limbs. I found a pair of my old shoes behind the seat of my truck and extended the tradition.
Further up the road, I discovered another eye-catcher: a wooden sign with colored arrows pointing every direction. The mileage for every town within about two hundred miles was included on the arrows. Straight out of a Roadrunner cartoon! Wacky surprises like these schooled the eye for anything quirky or nostalgic along the highway.
Treasures of pop art like a row of ten Cadillacs perched hoods-down in the earth outside of Amarillo, Texas, or the frame of truck perched fifty feet on stilts outside Yucca, Arizona more than satisfied the purpose of providing roadside amusement.
Driving over rolling hills on a stretch of Route 66, a depression-era gas station in Hackberry, Arizona, appeared. It was so well preserved that I half expected the Grapes of Wrath's Joad family to pull in at any minute. In need of a fill-up, I pulled in and put the nozzle in my tank. The smirking shop owner appeared and explained that not a drop of gasoline had flowed from those pumps in over thirty years.
Further up the "Mother Road" were boarded-up gas stations and coffee shops with dusty Formica counters, remnants of once-bustling towns which had withered away since Highway 40 opened in 1968. Many of them barely registered in the Atlas. Rustic towns like Heatonville, Missouri (pop. 146), and Cuervo, New Mexico (a near ghost town), gave a real sense of American nostalgia.
The incredibly diverse scenery of the west inspired over five hundred photographs. Flipping though them highlighted how dramatically 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 onto the dramatic geography of the Grand Canyon. Day eighteen took me from New Orleans' French Quarter through the lush vine greenery of the Natchez Trace and the rural Mississippi of Highway 61, and on into the rolling forest hills of the Missouri Ozarks.
Highway 70 leads you though the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the moon-like rock formations of central Utah, and along the southern border of Salt Lake. The final picture of that day was a pink sunset on the bright white of the Great Salt Lake Desert. But the most unexpected stretch of scenery had to be northern Wyoming's eleven thousand-foot Beartooth Pass. 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, you had the feeling you were in a prop for a toy train set.
Searching for the elusive perfect sunset and never knowing where I was going to be at sundown made the last hour of the day intense. Sometimes being caught with a city or scattered trailer houses cluttering an otherwise perfect sunset, I gunned the gas pedal in search of a windmill or a mountain range before the sun disappeared. In the flat arid land north of Midland, Texas, and in the plains of western Kansas, the clouds seem to have a life of their own, forming huge billows, long strings of Cirrus, and often a hole for the sun's laser-like beams to penetrate to the ground. Some of the best pictures came 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. I heard Baptist preaching 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!!"). Billboard slogans posted 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 song seemed to stand out across all borders, though. I heard Styx's "Mr. Roboto" in about eight different states.
Pulling south out of the Grand Canyon on Highway 89 a native Indian station came through, complete with the steady thump of a drum, tribal chants and a deep voice deriding "cars, computers and all things material." I heard many Indian stations in Wyoming, with a mix of chants, new-age keyboards and nature sounds like high winds and running streams. If the latest town did not provide anything for the eyes, chances are it would for the ears.
I felt as if I were in a giant amusement park, alternating between ever changing geography and roadside curios, each highway number representing a different experience. Tourist sites like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone's Old Faithful were no disappointment. But Winslow, Arizona, at sunset, a string of wind-sign caricatures (mocking pop icons like Monica Lewinsky and Tanya Harding) against a Kansas wheat field, or tornado-warning siren blaring in the wind from the town of Mullinville are what provided the true reward of discovery.
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