One frosty morning, without planning aforethought or consultation of a map, I turned off Highway 9 onto County Line Road and headed north.
Not that it was much of a road. For the first mile or so it was wide enough for one-and-a-quarter mid-sized cars to pass without too much maneuvering. The surface was fairly smooth though pitted with tire tracks that meandered, skittered, jitterbugged and otherwise charted anything but a straight trajectory. A fair weather road best avoided after rain. Plowed fields and scattered wild plum thickets closed in on the sides but never obstructed the view of an undulant land sculpted by glaciers of ages past. Dust plumed behind the truck.
My destination was the city of Washington, about 25 miles away. Normally my Monday commute lasts about 30 minutes unless I take backroads in which case the trip could exceed several hours’ duration. Driving backroads isn’t just for fun but part of my job, documenting abandonment and the remains of a former civilization, most of which had migrated to the city or given up altogether. While any photographer’s dream job, it has certain inherent risks, some of which I’ve yet to encounter or identify.
One of my biggest worries is breaking down in the middle of nowhere. If I owned a new truck this would be less of a concern but our ’96 Dodge has issues with dependability. Lori keeps hammering me to buy a cell phone and I always balk at the cost. Plus, few backroads are identified by signs so I rarely know where I’m at. She also thinks the phone would come in handy if a floor collapsed beneath me and I ended up in a basement. The real question is whether I’d be in any shape to make a call, or if I’d get any reception. So far I’m maintaining my opposition but fear I’m losing ground.
Another risk is nosing around places where my presence might raise alarms. Tripping across a meth lab is always a possibility, but there are more likely scenarios.
At an intersection bisecting the first mile marker stood a modern house and, behind it near a shady grove, the dilapidated remains of a limestone barn. Its roof was staved in and one wall crumbled to a pile of disjointed rubble. The early morning sun bathed the stones in a warm rich glow that contrasted nicely against a blue cloudless sky. I pulled onto the shoulder and parked and watched the house for signs of life.
This is the tricky part, I thought. An inherent distrust of strangers isn’t limited to urban residents but translates equally well into rural parlance. Nor do I blame them. One can never be too cautious these days, and having strangers scoping out your house could precipitate a violent reaction. Seeing no vehicles in the driveway nor curtains parting, I opened the door to step out and photograph the barn when a black dog rocketed around the house and set to barking its lungs out.
The most complex situation can be simplified by a clamorous pooch. I opted for shooting out the window and continued on my northerly jaunt.
Driving aimlessly is an art most people have never mastered. We’re rational and methodical, and when behind the wheel of a vehicle determined to reach our destination at the earliest convenience. Driving backroads, however, is just the opposite. It’s anti-destination, driving for the sheer pleasure of discovery, taking it slow (often to ensure the muffler and oil pan securely remains mounted to the undercarriage), uncaring of time or distance or even direction. The land unfolds at its own pace. Roads branch off into the unknown, each an adventure-in-waiting. A sense of expectation heightens awareness. Our senses are fully tuned to the moment. There is no ambiguity.
The road bore on and suddenly plunged toward the distant Little Blue River. I braked to study the road’s condition as it constricted between a pair of truck-eating ditches, its surface deeply rutted and bouldery. Heraclitus said we can never step into the same river twice, and here on the edge of the descent I fully understood his meaning. At the base of the ridge where the road leveled out I could see an ancient limestone house, hollowed-eyed, roofless, tucked into gray December woods. My pulse quickened. I slowly released the clutch and rolled forward until gravity and the road took me.