Somewhere north of Many Farms, AZ in the Navajo Nation, the earth began to lay out flat in front of the car as if it would never end. Used to DC traffic, it was oddly peaceful to be moving at 75 miles an hour with no one in front or behind me and only an occasional oncoming car. I wondered if I was back in the country where people waved to each other on the highway as they passed, what I had become used to when I lived in Kansas and traveled the back roads there. Blue highways William Least Heat Moon called them although the blue here in Arizona was the broad and nearly overwhelming swath of sky.
Sure enough, the driver of a primer-mottled Ford F-150 pickup raised a hand behind his windshield as he passed; a recognition, it seemed, of how we need to stick together against the desolation of it all. I had to remind myself that although I saw emptiness here that this was home to a people, the Navajo, filled with history and deep spiritual roots. At the gas station in Chinle, the pump, that would have played a video of clip of ads and news headlines back home, gave me a Navajo chant instead. I asked the kid at the cash register what it meant.
"Don't know," he said. "Never listened to it."
It was November and the wind was cold despite the sun as I got in my car and back on the road.
"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.”
I had read the poet Charles Olson's words - the opening lines of "Call Me Ishmael," Olson's meditation on Melville and the American character - years ago and they had seemed true to me then. But driving northwest across the Navajo reservation that afternoon, I truly felt Olson’s SPACE, and its profound indifference. There is so much space here in the American West, land and sky large almost beyond imagining. The narrow lines of crisscrossing asphalt highways attempt to make it all seem safe and familiar and manageable. It doesn't work. And as Americans, I don't think we want land that is manageable. We want land that holds promise, making us feel heroic in its face. But with that promise comes evidence of our fragility against an unending horizon.
Olson, again. "Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive."
It's tempting to think of Western highways as a location - the long straight roads in Kansas, for instance, where I used to bicycle on still summer mornings, trying to get my miles in before the heat built, almost drunk with the physical joy of moving across the prairie in a tall gear. But Western highways aren't tied to geography. They take us back into the past as much as they take us from place to place. It's why we try to re-trace the old routes and restore the original gas stations, hiding digital displays in antique pumps. Western highways also partake of America's restlessness. We find solace in being on the go. Pack the car, head for the highway, and suddenly we are lifted out of daily life, into a bardo-like state. A little bit of rebirth accompanies setting forth and a little bit of death greets us when we arrive. In between, something - caught off-guard I might call it my soul - opens.
I don't know what, exactly, motivates photographers to take to the roads in search of photographs but there is an allure to riding on that space. Maybe it is the soul-opening of being in transit. While it's hard to see past the shadow of Robert Frank's The Americans, many other photographers have undertaken journeys to produce bodies of work. Edward Weston's trip throughout the West in 1937, for instance; the first photographic project to be awarded a Guggenheim grant. The photographs made for the Farm Security Administration also came from the travels of those photographers albeit with a different mission than a fine art photographer taking to the road to find whatever presents itself. Sally Mann drove the back roads of the deep South to make a series of haunting collodion pictures while Alec Soth traveled the Mississippi river, creating images of what he called "a worn and faded place."
On the road, we make art as passersby. In our cultural myths, the solitary traveler is gifted with insight that is denied the rest of us. According to John Berger, photographers don't interpret the world, rather we quote from it. Each image contains a moment in the passing ribbon of time and place, a quote taken from something larger and ongoing. Through choosing the most salient quotes - or assembling a series of quotes like an author assembles a story - we draw the viewer into a narrative, a shared construction. The better the image, the more what we leave unshown demands to be imagined. Perhaps it is easier to see salient quotes on the road, awash in the heightened insight of the traveler, when we do not have the deep knowing, or the drowsy familiarity, of home. I was talking, not long ago, with a friend who was on the way to spend two months in a European city in which he had lived years ago.
"It seems like I always find more things to photograph when I am away from home,” he told me.
"Me, too," I said. "And I feel a little like a fraud." My friend nodded agreement. "There should be good pictures everywhere."
There are good pictures close to home, of course, but on the road and lifted out of our everyday lives, we seem to bring fresh vision to the world. Alec Soth, speaking about his project Sleeping by the Mississippi, said it is important to get away from daily distractions but not too far away. You need to have some feeling for the place in which you are working. Maybe that's why Western highways draw me. I have a feeling for that place - the immense land, the echoes of the past, the transformed consciousness of being on the road.
But it's never that simple.
At a crossroads outside a little town whose name I can no longer remember, I came across a windmill and stock tank. I suspect it served as a communal well where locals could fill tanks to water their livestock. I drove past quickly but caught it in the corner of my eye and swung the car around on the deserted road to come back, moved to make a photo. I grew up visiting rural relatives and often awoke to the rhythmic clank of a windmill pumping water for cattle. It was comforting to see something familiar and human-sized when the road I was traveling stretched out into a kind of time that felt far larger than human. I got out for a better view and took a couple of frames. I knew the deep blue sky would go dark in post-processing and that the clouds on the horizon would make the background more interesting. The air was still for a moment, and the windmill wasn't turning. I wanted very much for this photo, for this place, to be an echo of the past, a reminder of my own history and a larger history that seemed simpler and more at ease. But spray painted on the cement wall of the water tank was this: "Make America Native Again." I felt the ghostly touch of the past give way to the hard hand of the present.
I finished shooting and stood outside the car, reluctant to leave. A little breeze came up and the rotor of the windmill creaked a bit and turned, breaking the deep silence of this place. Western highways don't take as far away as we think. It can seem so as they lead us through layers of time and meaning - echoes of days past and stark reminders of the present. Photography on the road, when done well, partakes of all of these layers. Everything else is postcards.
This essay first appeared in Shadow and Light Magazine, September/October 2017 issue. It is reprinted with permission of Shadow and Light. You can purchase the entire issue in which this piece appeared here and can subscribe to Shadow and Light here.