Travel tip # 73…get off the freeway

Slow down. Stop. Get out of the car.

Two decades as a travel photographer and I still have the same knot in my stomach every time I approach a new location. “Crap,” says the voice in my head. “I don’t see anything here. How’s this gonna work?”

At 70 mph, it’s hard to see the beauty.

Sure, mountain ranges look good from a distance and skylines are pretty cool as you approach, but most places need a little digging to unearth their splendor.

I drove through endless strip malls on the Gulf coast of Florida, despondent at the sameness of it all. I had only 5 hours to shoot a story on Tarpon Springs and from the Hwy 19 corridor I couldn’t imagine there was anything interesting waiting for me. But just a few blocks off the highway, the architecture started to change. A little further and I found the docks. Tarpon Springs has a huge Greek community and they settled there to harvest sponges from the ocean floor. They still do, and when I pulled up to the docks at sunrise, boats were unloading their catch. I’d never seen anything like it.

There’s a book from the 80s called Blue Highways, written by William Least Heat-Moon about his ramblings across our country. When his own life fell apart, he climbed into his beat up van and started crossing the country using only the back roads…the ones that were blue on his map…looking for a new sort of life. In the process, he slowed down enough to discover a beauty he had never taken the time to see before. It was a beauty in the land…in the people…and in himself that he had hurried past looking for something better.

Not long ago my son was with me on a job in North Dakota. We weren’t in the pretty part out west with bison and rugged landscapes, but the flat part along the Minnesota border where you have to worry about a pumpkin-sized sugar beet falling off a passing truck and smashing through your windshield.

Jordan likes the mountains and the sea…the epic landscapes of the southwest…and I could tell that he was unimpressed with this pancake territory. Some people find a beauty in that eastern North Dakota landscape. Jordan wasn’t one of them.

We were heading south on I-29 near the end of the day. The sun was getting low and there was a texture on that subtle landscape I knew would draw out a little beauty.

“Come on…let’s get off the freeway,” I said.

“Meh,” was his reply.

I didn’t have a map, but in that sort of uninterrupted landscape, you can be certain of the grid that early engineers imposed on it. I took the next exit, drove exactly one mile due west, took a gravel road ½ mile due south, and stopped. We could be back on the freeway in less than 5 minutes, but right now we were a world away.

“Come on. Get out”

The radio was silent. The wind carried the grit of soil and the smell of corn. We stood under the open sky and felt small.

I grabbed my camera and a light and we started making Facebook profile pictures for Jordan (ok….and for me too) in that sparse bit of farmland. When the sun touched the horizon we stopped and watched it disappear.

When we got back in the car, we left the radio off. We rolled the windows down and listened to the gravel crunch under our tires. We tasted the dust that came in.

We got back on the highway, but the place felt different. We slowed down.

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