A Road Trip Across The Altered States Of America
We haven’t even passed the city limits of Austin, Texas, our home town, before our three-year-old daughter announces, “I’m done with this trip, I want out of the car!” Fifteen minutes down, 70 hours to go. This seems daunting.
It’s our first road trip with our two young children, and we’ve decided to go big, driving from Texas to Montana for two months in the middle of a global pandemic that has turned any type of travel into a risk. Our family and friends think it’s nutty. But since our kids were born, we’ve spent a chunk of each summer at a cabin in the mountains outside Missoula, Montana to escape city life and the oppressive Texas sun. Now it seems we are escaping the virus. And as a photographer, I’m ready to create a document of what is happening across America at this moment.
The first thing we see is that there are more RVs on the road than normal, but overall traffic is way down as we head across Texas. A rest stop outside Amarillo is eerily almost empty. We try to put some distance behind us, but even an 500-mile day doesn’t get us out of the state. We stop at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, a beautiful place that impresses as you suddenly find yourself standing along its rim after driving for hours across the flat plains. We’ve tried our hardest to plan out our nightly stops at someplace beautiful and interesting for the kids, who discover cacti and a snake that is a little too close for comfort.
After ten hours speeding across Texas, we finally reach the state line and enter New Mexico. This corner of the state is always quiet, but as we cross the state line, we can really feel a change taking place. In Texas, maybe half the people at a gas station might have masks on, but in New Mexico people are more cautious, with signs along the highway urging people to practice safety precautions. Then in Colorado, things are busier. There’s more traffic and things just generally look more alive and bustling. Licence plates from every state east and south of this famous mountain destination fill the gas stations and rest areas.
This morning we hear that Austin is undergoing further lockdown, with masks required everywhere in public, and groups limited to two people for susceptible populations, like my parents. We had expected the situation to get worse, just not nearly so quickly. We had done our best to think of all the possible scenarios and safety issues that travelling with our kids could bring about, but we feel lucky at this moment to be out of the city and in the self-contained world of our travel trailer. We’ve packed all our meals in the cooler ahead of time, so we don’t have to stop for food, and we have a bathroom in the trailer. We stop at empty parks so the kids can burn some energy, and never have any trouble finding spots to run around or eat lunch with no one else in sight. We do question whether we are being overly cautious, since we can clearly see that half the population doesn’t seem to be giving these things any consideration, but it also just doesn’t feel that difficult to take precautions and do our part to keep ourselves distanced from other people.
We feel lucky to be on the lonely roads, passing another car maybe only every 15 minutes. We camp at Lake DeSmet, where there are only seven other trailers around a giant lake. We finally give in to letting the kids have way more screen time than normal, so they don’t even notice when we park at the campsite.
We hear turkeys gobbling at sunrise. Back home, the headlines announce, “Texas Has Shifted to an ‘It’s Your Responsibility’ Pandemic Plan.” In Wyoming, one of the least populated states in the country, it seems like every person could easily keep a social distance of about a mile.
We hit the road knowing that we’d reach our destination before the end of the day, which is a really good feeling. Crossing into Montana, we pull over at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument to explore the famous story of General Custer and Crazy Horse, but the park is closed because of the virus. Across the highway, we pull into a fun-looking tourist trap called Custer Battlefield Trading Post and we soon meet the character running the place. His name is Putt Thompson and he couldn’t be friendlier. He opened the place in 1985 and says he’d never seen anything like this summer. Sales are down to a third of normal. He clearly recognises the dilemma of wanting tourist business when more visitors would bring nothing but trouble and sickness. Many of his employees are Native American, and most are scared to come to work since their communities have been hit so hard by the pandemic. As we say goodbye he removes his mask to reveal a warm smile, which I’m guessing is partially from the fact that my wife and kids just bought one of everything since they had been so excited to be in a store for the first time in months.
We reach the cabin late in the afternoon with the car so covered in empty wrappers, spilled cereal and strewn toys that you’d have a hard time spotting the seats that we know to still be buried under there.
We’ve been in Montana for two weeks now and it feels like we’ve finally settled into a relaxed routine. The kids spend their days playing and swimming in the small river that runs through the property, and I try to get away for quick fishing outings with my fly rod whenever I can. Most evenings we try to start a campfire, and we often spend the afternoons exploring a nearby lake or hiking trail. My wife and I are able to do a little work here and there when needed, and occasionally catch up on the news that’s going on in the rest of the world. Texas gets grimmer by the day. We now have friends and family who have tested positive, and have even had some friends lose family members. It’s a very odd feeling to hear people in Montana talk about the pandemic as if it might not really even exist.
The Annual Lincoln Open Rodeo, which takes place on the Fourth of July in Lincoln, Montana, is the highlight of the summer for this small mountain community, but it didn’t look like it would happen until the citizens pressured local health officials to allow it to move forward with certain safety precautions. It only takes a few seconds upon arrival to realise that even those guidelines were thrown out the window. There is virtually no distancing between people, and not a mask in sight, but people look so happy to be outside that I admit it feels nice to be part of something normal for a change.
We decide to extend our stay in Montana. We had planned to be back home by the end of July, but with cases exploding in Austin, we choose to stay put. People in Montana ask us if we’ll ever go back. But even here the virus has become a more visceral issue, with the governor instituting a mandatory mask-wearing rule in public indoor spaces.
My wife and I have wanted to see Glacier National Park for years, and we are able to make a last-minute campground reservation, which normally isn’t very easy. Only one entrance to the park is open since the Blackfeet Nation Indian territory decided to close all of those that cut through their land, so even though the number of visitors was down, everyone was funnelling into the same area. This is the first time we encounter tourists from other countries, and they seem to be less worried about social distancing than even the locals.
After much debate we decide to finally set off on our return trip to Texas. It isn’t an easy call, but work projects I can’t do remotely have begun to call us home. It doesn’t take long to notice there are more trailers and campers than we’ve ever seen anywhere before. People are obviously trying to figure out how to get outside. We make the cardinal sin of road trips by driving past gas stations with less than half a tank while heading into the unknown. As the range estimator on the dashboard ticks down from 100, to 50, to 25 miles without any towns on the horizon, we grow worried. With only 14 miles of fuel left, we come to the town of Dell, Montana. I’d never heard of it, and probably wouldn’t have normally paid it much attention, but after seeing that the only thing there was a gas station and a few homes, I’ll never forget the place. Two old men sit on their porch watching the station. I imagine them taking bets on how many people will walk into town carrying a gas can to fill before walking back up the highway.
We’re now in Idaho, and after all these weeks, it’s a little shocking to go into a store and see no masks either on the people working there or the customers. There’s no state mandate here. It’s a real reminder of how powerful government enforcement of mask laws can be.
Utah is beautiful and as you approach Zion National Park, the red cliffs rising out of the desert hint at what’s to come. As the sun sets, everyone seems to be enjoying their private little oases with campfires burning, the smell of food grilling and laughter drifting from site to site. It’s wonderful to even have this small connection with other people.
We plan to leave Zion out of its east entrance through the 1.1-mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The tunnel, which was the longest in the US when it was completed in 1930, cuts through the mountain in pitch blackness and is probably one of our kids’ favourite moments of the whole trip.
It seems only states that have experienced large numbers of cases are taking the virus seriously. In Page, Arizona, signs announce, “Do your part and wear a mask.” We try going to a McDonald’s, but can’t get food because it only offers kerbside pickup and we can’t get internet access to download the appropriate app. We see an employee arrive for her shift and have her temperature taken before being let inside the door. It looks like a high-security medical facility and feels very apocalyptic.
Almost all of our drive through Arizona is in the Navajo Nation. I feel very drawn to the people there with their beautiful style that shows obvious pride in their heritage. I want to talk with them and make portraits, but it’s very obvious that they are wary of all the people travelling through their land. There is so much history in the fear I can see in their eyes. I understand, and feel it is appropriate to just smile behind my mask and leave people here alone. As we near the edge of Navajo territory we see the only piece of art on our whole trip that references the pandemic. A beautiful and powerful image on the side of an abandoned building out in the middle of nowhere depicts a young Navajo girl wearing a face mask while holding a bunny, her eyes staring back at the viewer.
In New Mexico we start seeing billboards for a roadside attraction called Bluewater Village. After what seems like 100 billboards over 100 miles, we can’t drive past without a look. My favourite billboard just says, “Snake Stuff!” with a picture of a rattlesnake tail.
The car is trashed. No matter how often we look, it always seems to be still eight hours to our next stop. And the kids have discovered knock-knock jokes, telling absolutely horrible and repetitive ones for the past 45 minutes.
We make a detour in Fort Sumner, New Mexico and drive down a small country road to an unassuming little cemetery that holds the grave of famous American outlaw Billy the Kid. The gravestone has a colourful history of being stolen twice and tracked down years later across the country. It’s now covered in gun ammo and liquor bottles and encased in a steel cage. We meet a family driving from Los Angeles to Kansas City that came an hour out of their way to see it, and it’s clear how excited their kids are.
I see somebody come out of the small Chamber of Commerce building next door and I run over to talk with him. The man says it’s the busiest attraction in town, with about 15-20 visitors a day normally, but it’s down to only about five now. I figure if the busiest attraction in town only gets five visitors a day, it’s still probably a decent place to hide out if you’re running from the law.
The mood changes as darkness sets in and the kids fall quiet with exhaustion. The peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower is tonight, and driving through the empty plains of west Texas, where the only light comes from the blinkers on the giant wind turbines that spread in every direction, we see shooting stars and the Milky Way. It’s a beautiful and eerie sight. We arrive at Amarillo State Park a few minutes past midnight.
The kids are acting up. At every stop, the car fills with flies that torment and annoy us for 100 miles afterwards, and the exhaustion of being in the car day after day is catching up to all of us. We can tell we are back in Texas when the kids have a scare with a snake, our daughter is stung on the hand by a wasp and I step on a scorpion that stings the bottom of my foot. But then the kids ask when we get to take the trailer on our next trip. And even though it sounds a bit crazy at this moment, we all start talking about another adventure.
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- Photography Matthew Johnson