I get the itch to travel a lot. It’s part of my creative process. I want to hit the road, choose only the backroads, and stop when I see something I want to stop for. Often that involves my camera, but I never pass by a historical marker without braking. That often leads to a further deviation from route (not that there really is one) to track down what I’ve learned from the driver’s seat, window rolled down. And that’s when it gets rich.
It’s best if I’m in the driver’s seat on these forays. Companions are rarely tolerant of being told to stop just after they whizzed past a site of minor historical interest. Those, by the way, are often the best discoveries. Yes, the tolerance level of those in the car can be tested by seemingly-insignificant detours, but they hold the potential for the most memorable surprises.
Recently the surprise meant connecting with a self-described Washington County, Texas “local historian” who led an impromptu private tour of Burton’s (closed-for-Easter) but still operable 1914 cotton gin, while preparations for next week’s annual Cotton Gin Festival‘s bubble gum blowing contest, and tractor pull, were underway nearby. I’ve always been a fan of tractor pulls, especially while chewing bubble gum.
And I learned more than a thing or two about settling a town that’s several days away from Austin (by stagecoach), making a fortune with cotton and railroads, surviving fires that destroyed villages, and using cisterns to combat drought in Burton and nearby Brenham; and finally, the perils of assigning millions of acres of Texian land grants to eager Austin colonists in 1824, while founding a state capital in the tiny village of San Felipe de Austin. Many photographs ensued.
When a road trip isn’t in the cards, there’s always my untended library of photographs from past trips to mine for ideas and inspiration. Working my way back through trips that involved thousands of images each (really, sometimes to the dismay of my traveling companions), I see sights in Mexico, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, West Texas, New Mexico, upstate New York, Maine and elsewhere that inspire stories to tell, photographs to edit and publish.
When you’re in a creative drought, just hit the road.
One of my current long-term projects involves scanning nearly 300 Kodachrome slides from a cross-country trip I made in the summer of 1980. It’s ongoing because I’m slowly working my way through the towns I photographed, researching what was once there and what’s there now, and imagining the novels I could write about small-town life—if only I can live long enough.
Perhaps my all-time favorite photograph was made on that 1980 road trip, on a warm summer day that pre-dated digital cameras and Nintendo, in a remote town where you’d find three tow-headed bored boys kicking cans around the hot, still streets. Six eyes lit up at the prospect of having an SX-70 photograph made of their trio.
Their genuine delight at the results is a memory I’ve kept for more than three decades. Those boys are grown men, 34 years later, probably in their mid-forties now. Did their hair stay blond? Do they still live in Rico, Colorado? Do they have kids of their own? Did the twins have their own twins? Are they all still friends? Do they remember the day when the sun’s glare was bright and harsh, and camera-toting strangers enlivened the quiet monotony, taking pictures of rusting, faded signs and rundown buildings? Do they ever think about that Polaroid, a relic that once was the only means of instant photographic gratification?
On a road trip, you can juice your creative flow and find new ways of looking at old things.
Road-tripping can also involve vicarious surfing, too, right from my iPad. I can follow the Mother Road on that famous route that struggled to survive in the post-interstate era, and plot a bike trip along it; I can follow Airstreamers who are living their dream; I can follow road foodies who eat their way across the country at diners and cafes. It’s only as satisfyingas dreams can take you, so inevitably, that leads to planning the next road trip. Which leads to more ideas, more inspiration and more art. ♣