In 2000 I drove across the US for the 27th time. On that trip I was following as closely as I could the route that George Stewart had documented in his strange 1952 book, US 40: Cross Section of the United States of America. At the time I was leaving California for a different life in the East, and feeling--disoriented. I needed coordinates for the next chapter of my life. Maybe a road map. Well, there wasn't one, so I improvised--and used Stewart as my guide. I didn't want to get stuck in regret about the past. or anxiety about the future. I needed to be in the American present for a while. So I gave myself a mission: I'd try to find every location where Stewart had taken a photograph, and see if I could replicate the frame of his shot. I figured the exercise would take me to some out of the way places and make me pay attention to the landscape and the American phenomena of changes--and it did.
I took a bunch of pictures and wrote an essay, which was published, though I can't remember where. Below is the intro to that 2000 essay, and a paragraph describing the images above, which were taken in Ellicott City, Maryland. I plan to post more photographs from that US 40 trip--I only wish mine were as good as Stewart's.
“A landscape is a space deliberately created to speed up or slow down the process of nature… it represents man taking upon himself the role of time.” John B. Jackson.
“People like to drive because driving is actually and symbolically an almost perfect mechanism for escape…there is probably no human being who does not have troubles, real or imagined, from which he at times feels the need to flee.” George R. Stewart.
I like to drive, and maps and highways have always thrilled me. The fact that I can get into a car and, merely by making the correct sequence of turns, end up anyplace else in North America, seems magical to me.
On my first transcontinental drives I was looking for spectacular wilderness. Over the last few years I have become very interested in man-made landscapes--towns, malls, neighborhoods, interchanges, farms, highways—and what they suggest about our culture’s habits and desires.
I was introduced to George R. Stewart in a collection of essays on “the vernacular landscape”(geographers’ jargon for the everyday world we inhabit and barely notice). One of the essayists referred to Stewart’s book U.S. 40: Cross Section of the United States, published in 1952 and long out-of-print, and mentioned that Stewart was very good at “reading” ordinary landscape. I went online and found a copy at Alibris, which was Fed Ex’d to my front door the next day.
Unlike most narratives in search of America, Stewart’s book is not a tiresome collection of encounters with colorful citizens. Instead of interviewing people, George Stewart interviewed the space they occupied. His method was to obtain a “cross-section” of the United States at mid-century by following unremarkable and un-storied U.S. 40 (not the same road as the Interstate I-40) from Atlantic City to San Francisco, taking photographs of the landscape then analyzing the contents of his photographs in pungent essays.
I was so taken with his ninety-two photographs of “vernacular” America, c. 1950, that I bought a camera, jumped in my car, and drove U.S. 40 myself last summer to see what had changed in half a century.
Ellicott City, Maryland
Ellicott City is not far from Baltimore. The scene Stewart photographed in 1950 is still a busy and appealing one, though it retains the clutter of poles and wires of which he disapproved.
Ellicott City was laid out in a narrow ravine, alongside a river that powered a grist mill. Buildable land was always scarce, which explains why the buildings are curiously tall for a small town.
Projecting steps are a local vernacular style, typical of Baltimore. Shop windows are set forward from building fronts, as on the High Streets of old English towns. The trolley car tracks have disappeared.
Ellicott City has made itself over into a tourist destination, drawing people from Washington DC and Baltimore eager to experience the flavor of a bustling small town main street. Millions of people visit Disneyworld or Universal Studio’s CityWalk to enjoy a similar experience, though genuine small towns like Marshall, Illinois and Hays, Kansas clearly don’t have the same drawing power. Yet. It seems clear that many middle-class North Americans yearn for a more urbanized life, a main street life. Small-town downtowns, like Marshall’s, may revive and prosper; perhaps Grabenheim’s will be reborn. The highwater mark of North American mall culture is past, though what will replace it as it recedes remains unclear.
Parking is limited in downtown Ellicott City, and shop rents are high, which means ordinary retail business happens elsewhere. Downtown has ice cream parlours, cafes, and shops catering to tourists. On a warm summer day it is lively and pretty. Right now, college towns and tourist towns, plus a handful of big cities, are about the only North American communities that still have functioning downtowns.
Retracing George R. Stewart’s footsteps across the country, I began to get a feel for his sensibility. After a while, arriving at a site, I could instantly pick out the spot where he would have stood to take his photograph. Usually, I had to just look up. Stewart liked heights. To match his frame I usually had to climb something. Berthoud Pass in the Rockies. A fire escape in Vandalia, Illinois. A jagged little outcrop above Idaho Springs, Colorado.
To match his Ellicott City photograph, I followed railways tracks for a quarter mile, sneaked over a chain-link fence, then walked back along the tracks, listening for oncoming trains, and climbed out on a railroad bridge that crossed over the street.
By the time I was set up, it was six o’clock in the evening. I was shooting west, directly into the sun, but I had to get my shot. I was afraid that a train would come, or that a cop or a railroad security guard would see me, and order me off the bridge. And wherever I was along U.S. 40 I could never really afford to wait for the best light. Not for long anyhow, because there was so much country to cover...