Somewhere in Middle America
My enduring fascination with the empty lands of the new world
I got married in England in 2011. As a belated honeymoon, we travelled together across the United States in 2012. We ended up divorcing in 2015. All of these events are interconnected.
The photo above was taken from the middle bit; the middle bit of my marriage, the middle bit of the honeymoon, the middle bit of America.
A heatwave had followed us from the moment we arrived at Boston shores, and it moved slowly west across the continent, as we did. By the time we visited friends in St Louis, Missouri, it was record-level heat, bouncing around 105 degrees (40+ Celcius) for 10 days straight.
I recall walking across a car lot in town, the heat exacerbated by tall buildings, the tarmac hot and soft, the air feeling like a blast of heat one normally receives from an oven when checking if the chicken is ready.
I had loved America as a child, fascinated by its size and culture, it had long been my obsession to visit. I would binge on 80's American films at night on my tiny box television, in my tiny box bedroom, flickering images illuminating surrounding walls, the volume down to a whisper so not to disturb my parents.
America had captured my imagination wholesale, though not New York or LA but instead the wonder of the expansive, sprawling landscapes. I was a Londoner after all, I knew bustling cities and I endured busy crowds, what I did not know, however, was vast, ceaseless roads that snaked around distant hilltops, glowing in the Americana sun.
This photo encapsulates a vision, my childhood dream realised. I had stepped into my bedroom TV like a wish come true. As we travelled east to west, I felt overwhelmed by the vistas, it was as if I was in a film. I felt the same headspin of reality when standing outside the Cheers bar in Boston, a place I had seen every Friday at 9pm throughout my adolescent years.
When I returned home to the bosom of bad customer service and grey, rainy skies, I was asked about the American cities, their monuments, the nightlife, but never once about the magic of the giant land itself, and the sleek, black carriageways that stretched across it.
It was not the Cheers bar, the Empire State building or any other sightseeing mecca that I wanted from America, I came only for the wonder of the open road.
The photo was taken at a gas station, though I'm not sure where. It could have been taken on any road, in any midwestern state; all arid, all expansive, all beautiful.
It's my favourite shot from the holiday, a time otherwise marred by arguments, boredom, endless heat and the creeping realisation we shouldn't be married to each other. The more I grew enamoured by the empty lands, the more I grew disillusioned with my empty marriage.
As we drove into California, an argument erupted out of nowhere, as they often did. I pulled into a side road and lept out the car. I feel ashamed to admit that in my anger, I spat on the windshield and I stormed off. I made my way to a ridge and stood there, fury pumping through my veins. Yet even at the pinnacle of my righteous anger, I remember thinking "what beautiful country."
We had parked up nowhere of note; a backwater of a backwater, a side road off a side road, but there I stood, in the sun-bleached grass of a Californian outpost, as if in a scene from a Jack Kerouac novel written only for me.
It is funny how memory works. When I look at the photo, I recall taking it on my DSLR, the Canon 1000D I owned back then, yet that is a false memory. It was taken on a substandard point and shoot I had brought on our travels because I didn't want to lug my lens kit across the continent.
When I took the photo, I was standing on the roadside, camera in hand as a jeep slowly pulled up to turn at the junction, you can see its indicator light on in the final image. I took it, one photo, and moved on.
One photo. I like that idea. It reminds me of a photographer from the 1950s who travelled across America too, but only had enough film for a single shot each day. I can’t recall his name, but that concept always stuck with me, there’s something romantic about it.
Perhaps for this reason, I have fallen in love with this photo; it’s anonymity, its generic nature, a lone photo of a moment so perfect and yet so ordinary that it appears unreal, like an Edward Hopper painting or an image pulled from my 12 year old head; though I'm in no doubt the allure of this photo stems from the generosity of the American landscape, not my photography skills.
I did not enjoy that holiday; we both grew tired of travelling and each other.
Yet from it, I realised my American dream, embedded in the lands that spread out before me, silent in their enormity, potent in their embrace, the orange and green earth, the endless, straight roads and the unreachable distant hills that met the sky in all directions, landscapes that unravelled in front of me along with my marriage, as we drove, and drove some more, on roads we both knew had to end sometime.