Route 66 Revisited — Part 3

By Keith Smiley
We’re on our way to Yosemite for a few days, so to keep the blog fresh, I’ve split my post about driving out to California into four parts. One part will go up each day between Monday and Thursday.

The light was already harsh by the time I packed up my tent and started driving out of Palo Duro, and my few stops to photograph resulted in mediocre pictures at best. Once I left the park, there wasn’t much point in stopping; the landscape quickly relapsed into monotony.

On my way out of Amarillo, I shot past Cadillac Ranch, a sort-of art installation off the interstate that features several Cadillacs stuck nose-first into the ground. I’d heard of the “ranch” before, but didn’t realize it was in Amarillo until after I’d passed through last summer. When I missed it again this time, I was momentarily disappointed and ready to U-turn my way back to the nearest exit when I considered what I could see from the road and realized that was it: there were a few old cars stuck in the ground, nothing else. I had already seen it; the fact that it was viewed at 70 mph was just a matter of convenience. So I stayed westbound until I hit New Mexico and decided it was safe to pick up a little more speed

That’s really all I did in New Mexico: speed through it. I entered Albuquerque and spent a half-hour debating whether I should exit but couldn’t think of any specific reason to do so. With no justification for stopping, I certainly had no reason to turn around, so once I was on the west side of Albuquerque I just kept going. I stopped once to get gas — a task so mundane I wouldn’t normally mention it, except this particular stop reminded me of the importance of documentary photography and writing.

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Chalk this picture up to luck or to pure power of will. I shot a few frames of the sign with other traffic, but told myself I really needed a semi with a white trailer and a red cab to make it worth anything. Thirty seconds later, I saw these two trucks coming from either direction. I’m saying it’s luck, but feel free to believe I have the power to summon brightly-colored shipping vehicles.

 

The whole idea of the place made me uneasy as I read the animated sign for exit 140’s main destination: the Route 66 Casino and truck stop. There’s nowhere else to go from that ramp; the old Route 66 parallels the interstate starting at the exit, but dead ends after a mile, making for a futile detour. On the other side of the interstate is the casino, a “travel center” complete with a sort of casino-lite for gambling on the go, and a hotel under construction but nearly complete. The buildings are supposed to look retro but are far too slick and too new — the establishment is less than five years old — to accomplish the deception; the casino and hotel are massive but their scale is diminished by the vastness of the surrounding desert.

It’s disappointing: a symbol of the American spirit and a defining element of Americana reduced to fodder for a themed casino. My concern, I think, is people’s perception of American history might be shaped by superficial representations like the Route 66 Casino and Travel Center, and those perceptions will surely be terribly warped.

It’s literature, photography and film that should be the record of our history, not a room full of slot machines. By photographing everything we can now, we’re contributing to a record of the world as we know it. Our contributions might be widespread, viewed in newspaper archives and republished 50 years from now, or they might remain personal yet significant, studied only by our children and friends. Our photojournalism, our landscape photos, and even our snappers of each other record a part of life, and I think that’s what we feel obligated to do as photojournalists. The present will only be portrayed accurately in the future if it is properly documented as it happens now.

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I spent entirely too much time shooting birds landing in this tree in Petrified Forest National Park, and all I got was a lame silhouette or two. Most of the pictures were ruined by poor timing, meaning the wings or head weren’t positioned right and the bird looked more like a plastic bag flapping around in the wind.

Just across the Arizona border I stopped at a visitor’s center complete with fake tepees where I tried — and failed — to determine in advance what my options were in terms of lodging and camping. I also needed to apply some medication to my skinned knees, which had realized they were injured and started to whine about it by throbbing occasionally. A Native American woman approached me with handmade dolls while I was searching through my trunk but stopped midway through her sales pitch to say, “Oh, you hurt your knee.” I acknowledged that yes, it was a bit crimson, but that I was doing fine, and no but thank you, I don’t actually need any dolls.

My next stop was made on a whim forty miles down the road, when the interstate ran through Petrified Forest National Park — a place I’d heard of but wouldn’t exactly make a special trip to. It was certainly convenient now, though, as it involved no detours and was free with the year-long National Park pass I bought last summer. The whim paid off: I took more photos that I can stand to look at during this one stop than I did the rest of the road trip.

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Sometimes, you can’t see the forest for all the trees. Other times, you can’t see the forest because there just aren’t any trees. Take, for example, this spattering of flora that makes up Petrified Forest National Park in eastern Arizona. I never actually saw any petrified wood during my short visit because I was more interested in the light and shadows and such.

On a map, the park is narrow but tall — the road through it runs 28 miles from north to south — and closes entirely too early. You’re supposed to be on your way out of the park by 7 p.m., and the best I could tell it was 6:45 when I drove in. Luckily, I’m timezone ignorant and Arizona doesn’t bother with daylight savings time, so I had about an hour and a half to photograph.

The sun was just low enough in the sky to give definition to the canyons, hills and occasional plant when I pulled off the road for the first time in the park. But the beautiful light wasn’t until after 7, when I was racing back the way I came, jumping out of my car to shoot pictures of dry river beds, crows gathering in trees, or the shadows falling across the canyon. There was a park ranger about a mile behind me, making his way up the road to tell visitors it was time to leave. I had a half-dozen places I intended to stop at and re-photograph under better light, and I wasn’t going to be told to leave before I’d hit them all.

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It must be tough to be a small national park in a state that loves another park so much it uses it in the state nickname. Petrified Forest National Park is located in Arizona — that is, The Grand Canyon State — and its status as a lesser-known park has a big benefit: you can stop your car in the middle of the road to take pictures and it’s unlikely anyone will be along to notice, let alone care.

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