Coast to Coast

The US Capitol Building, Washington DC


This year marks the 25th anniversary of my longest road trip.

In June 1997 I flew into Newark airport, just outside of New York, with my friend Spencer. We picked up a car and drove across the country to Los Angeles. Our route took us south, through Washington DC, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, out to Charleston and then back through the Smoky Mountains. From there we headed west via Chattanooga to Memphis and then a long haul across Arkansas, Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle to Santa Fe.

From Santa Fe we headed north to the Rocky Mountains, and then down through the national parks of Utah and Arizona, taking in a stop in Las Vegas, before heading into California for a couple of days at the coast. In all, we drove 6600 miles over the course of five weeks.

Such a trip would be hard to do now. We had no fixed itinerary, not even a place to stay for the first night, and from what I understand that wouldn’t go down too well with US immigration these days. The lack of planning had some downsides, as it meant that we spent a fair amount of time each day looking for accommodation, and we almost came unstuck a few times. It gave us a tremendous amount of freedom, though, and after the first week it began to feel less like a holiday and more a way of life. We’d get up, have some breakfast at the motel, and hit the road. By late afternoon we’d be looking for somewhere to stay, before checking in and then hitting the town for some dinner.

It did get quite tiring, and that led to some friction. It’s hard to spend five weeks with someone, pretty much every waking hour, much of it in the car, without tensions building up. We survived them, though, and remain friends to this day. Although that said, he did emigrate to the other side of the world!

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be telling the story of the trip, but, since this is a photography blog, it’ll be about the photos as much as the journey. I’m no Bill Bryson, whose book The Lost Continent initially inspired the trip. I’m not going to pretend to be a travel writer.

1997 was long before the advent of mainstream digital photography, and I was shooting slide film on the trip. I had a Ricoh KR10X camera with a 28-70mm zoom lens. Photography was not the prime purpose of the trip, and I needed to travel light. The scans were made on a Canon FS4000 slide scanner, and really show up the challenges of slide film. Print film would probably have been a better choice, as it’s slightly more forgiving. Spencer was shooting on print, and his results capture more shadow detail and suffer less from blown highlights. If the quality of his shots doesn’t look great, it’s because I was scanning from prints rather than negatives, and the sharpness suffered as a result.

The dynamic range of slide film is extremely limited and, as well as blown highlights and blocked shadows, the scans have copious amounts of film grain and some dust marks. With so many photos to work on, I had to limit myself to quick edits.

I can’t help thinking how much better the photos would have been with a modern digital camera. Something like a bridge camera, or small body with a superzoom, would be ideal for this kind of trip. Still, I had to work with what I had, and the image quality isn’t my biggest photographic regret of the trip.

The obvious tourist shot, Grand Canyon, Arizona

The thing I actually regret most is my choice of shots. I concentrated far too much on landscapes and tourist attractions and not enough on the little details. I regret not having more shots of the motels that we stayed in and general street scenes. There are a few, but some of my favourite shots from the trip were actually taken by Spencer, from the passenger seat of the car. I was doing all of the driving, so he needed something to help pass the time, and those shots really capture the essence of the trip. With his permission, I’ve included some of them.

Spencer moved to New Zealand, and is now an accomplished landscape photographer. He has both the desire to get into the wilderness and the patience to wait for good light that I lack. Check out his website for some amazing images from New Zealand and Scotland.

Next: “Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey”