Route 66 Revisited — Part 4

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.

Shooting pictures of the sunset has an obvious downside you don’t always think about: it’s dark once you stop shooting and start traveling again. I was about 120 miles east of Flagstaff, my best — and possibly only — choice for finding a motel with vacancy. Camping was of course an option, except despite my stop at the visitor’s center, I still wasn’t sure where any campgrounds were located, and I wasn’t likely to suddenly find one in the dark.

That last leg of driving to Flagstaff proved somewhat surreal. When I stopped to get dinner, the exit was under construction, and instead of orange barrels, Arizona uses those folding barricades, each topped with a blinking yellow light and spaced unnecessarily close to the next. When I started down the ramp, all I could see was thousands of these barriers strewn across what looked like perfectly good road; it was a disorienting sea of twinkling yellow dots.

Later, after returning to the interstate, the scene seemed so odd that I wondered if perhaps my mind had exaggerated it, but that was cut short by the realization that the highway was surrounded by towering pine trees; after 1,000 miles of plains and desert, I was suddenly in the middle of an evergreen forest. If it weren’t for the “Coconino National Forest,” I probably would have thought I was imagining the trees to cope with some sort of foliage withdrawal.

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This exit must be where Arizona stores its surplus road signs. There are two options here: get back on I-40 or enter the Petrified Forest National Park. That’s it. There’s no place else to go, yet these dozen or so signs are only a sample of the road-sign forest sprouting around the exit.

In Flagstaff, I checked into a motel and glanced out the window in my room, but saw that it was pitch black behind the building. The next day I glanced out again to see a few shades of red and realized the motel was built into a rock cut; the wall of red sandstone was less than two feet from the windows of nearly every room. It made for a disappointing view, to say the least.

I sat in the parking lot for a bit, using the wireless internet that was free with the stay but whose signal didn’t actually reach my room, and considered a detour to the Grand Canyon. I decided against delaying my arrival in California by another day just so I could jostle with thousands of other tourists, though; as it was, I had about 500 miles left to drive. I would easily be in Ventura that night.

There was no sign of the pine forest as I left Flagstaff, but after getting a solid night of sleep, I was at least confident I hadn’t imagined the trees. Once I crossed into California — where I assured the gentleman at inspection that I wasn’t bringing any seeds, plants, fruits, or animals into the great state of California — and realized I was in the Mojave Desert, I accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to see any forest for a while. Really, the only color besides brown was at the border, where the Colorado River was such an intense, beautiful blue that I had to force myself to watch the road instead of just gawking at the river valley.

The Mojave Desert itself was basically the same landscape I’d been driving through for days, yet just different enough to be absolutely fascinating. Or at least it was for about an hour; after that it all seems to be repeating, as if the scene playing out through the car windows is actually the background from an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

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This gentleman has the right idea: California’s roads aren’t quite fit for automobiles, but they’re probably pretty nice for horses.

I left the interstate around Barstow, California, and started on a series of lesser highways toward Ojai, which astute readers and geography buffs will note isn’t exactly where I was supposed to be going. It was a prime example of my navigation style throughout the trip: I hadn’t even called the other guys to see which city we were staying in. I knew Dave was in Ojai and that it was somewhat near Ventura, so I figured I’d point myself toward Ojai and call once I was in the right county.

It wasn’t the best approach; Brad had no idea where I was when I called for directions to the house but made some good guesses and got me on to the highway, then off of it at the right exit. It was about 9 p.m. here when I parked my car on Pomo Street and stepped out for a much-needed stretch. I’d certainly done the same thing every other time I stopped, stretching my back, arms and legs, trying to renew the blood flow after hours of immobility, but it seemed so much more effective now that the trip and the countless hours sitting in the car were over. I’d reached what would be my home for the summer, and I was joining my friends in it.

Dave was the first to greet me outside, as he and his family were leaving to go back to Ojai, and Brad was close behind him. I followed him inside, leaving the car still packed for another night, and met our host for the summer, Martha Jansz. As I talked and shared stories with her and the other guys that first night, I quickly realized how hospitable and generous Martha would prove to be. She’s probably too kind for four bum college students like ourselves, but we’re certainly not going to complain — especially not while we’re eating her amazing chili spaghetti or sitting around watching nature shows, the guys all on laptops and Martha knitting.

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This particular picture is taken from the wharf in Santa Barbara, but it’s really no different than a picture I might take on a lake in Kentucky. Maybe that means a lot of things are the same no matter how far you travel, or maybe it means I only know how to take one type of picture. Either way, I had my camera ready for when the fisherman fell out while casting, but it just never happened.

 

Speeding through the West didn’t bring me enlightenment; it didn’t give me a new outlook on life or convince me of my future like the road trips in the last 50 years of film and literature. Sometimes, a road trip just gets you from one place to another. But it at least represented a summer without deadlines, without rushing from one assignment to another, trying to produce front-page quality pictures on short notice.

I’ve always enjoyed the pace that daily newspapers set, but I’ve got the rest of my life to work like that. This summer is about exploring and learning, trying to pick up as much as possible about photography from my teacher in a part of America I’ve never seen before. It’s certainly different from taking on an internship, but that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

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