|Cattle grazing at sunset after a clearing thunderstorm. Wells had time for only a single three-second exposure with his panorama camera while the sun briefly illuminated the windblown prairie in Haynes, North Dakota.|
Imagine stepping into the footprints of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century as you embark on your own road trip across America. I read the words as though they were written just for me: “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike… We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” John Steinbeck was introducing his classic travelogue Travels with Charley: In Search of America, published in 1962. And here I was, beginning my own cross-country journey, camping under the same towering canopy of redwoods that Steinbeck had visited decades earlier.
In 1960, at age 58, Steinbeck began his great American road trip accompanied by his French poodle Charley. He drove a camper truck from Long Island, N.Y., to Seattle, Wash., then south to Monterey, Calif., and back to his Sag Harbor, N.Y., home via Texas and Louisiana—all in the space of less than three months. Eager to discover my own America, I began to retrace Steinbeck’s route and experience the landscapes and people who had inspired the Nobel Laureate.
It wasn’t long before I realized that his epic journey would celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2010, and that Travels with Charley would have its semi-centennial celebration in 2012. So I began the process of gathering the images I’d need to complement the famous American author’s impressions and give his book a new life. Environmentally aware before it was politically correct, Steinbeck immersed himself in the beauty of the land and observed that its resources were rapidly disappearing. I believed that Travels with Charley was prophetic of the challenges we still face today and that its popularity confirmed the universal themes it personified: the hero’s journey and the adventures of an individual in search of self.
Handmade shirts on display at a Fourth of July rodeo in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
With my newfound purpose firmly in hand, I adjusted my route to more closely approximate Steinbeck’s. I loaded my van with the cameras and items I’d require for an extended fall adventure and thrust forward into the great unknown. Mountains, prairies and cities stretched out before me, beckoning to be tested. In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck had written: “Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” I was reminded of this simple truth several times over the coming months.
Life on the road taught me that planning for a photographic trip is a compromise. Take too much gear, and you’ll be weighed down, constantly trying to choose just the right lens or accessory. Take too little, and you feel like you’re always missing something. As outdoor photographers, we convince ourselves that we must always be ready for whatever a location may throw at us. But working with the minimum amount of equipment can pay off in the long run, especially when conserving energy and concentrating on capturing storytelling moments that avoid the cliché are your goals.
“John Steinbeck described these mightiest of old-growth coastal trees in detail,” notes Wells about this image, taken in Redwood National Park, California. “Some have lived over 2,000 years and are the tallest trees in the world.”
Seasonal weather is another important factor. Will it be raining at that festival in New Orleans? If so, how might it add to the photographs, and how will you best record them in those conditions? Gaining access to events may require more planning and communication with organizers. Budgeting time and maintaining momentum when weather and other factors work against you can be a constant challenge. Then there are the logistics of securing lodging and food—the necessary foundations for the energy required when shooting early and late in the day.
Once research for a road trip is completed and the necessary transportation accomplished, the photographer must not only execute the planned photographs, but also remain available to chance encounters. For it’s in the moments in between where we most often make our best photographs. Being there is all-important, but being relaxed and open to serendipity can be just as crucial. In my case, I needed to become intimately familiar with Steinbeck’s book and his trail across America, and I needed to plan a way to capture his ideas in photographs that rang true with his words. Allowing enough time in the field to let the experience unfold naturally was vital to me. And at the last instant, something special or unexpected needed to transform the moment and make the photograph truly memorable. Too many times this last element was missing. Sometimes the answer was simply more.
While grazing at a mountainside pool in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, a female moose raised her head at the sound of Wells’ camera, creating a momentary ripple in the water and a lasting impression on the photographer’s soul.
Inspired by Steinbeck’s narrative, I drove to his starting point. I left on a small ferry from Long Island and journeyed to Connecticut. From there, I traveled north to the Berkshires of Massachusetts and the small islands of Maine. Continuing to follow Steinbeck’s route, I drove to Niagara Falls, Chicago and then farther west to the Badlands, and eventually my home state of Washington. The landscapes and people I found were as varied as the light that swept before my lens. I forced myself to slow down or risk personifying Steinbeck’s cautionary tale from Travels: “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”
It was in the primordial oasis of Grand Teton National Park where I experienced one of the more compelling moments of my journey. I had awoken very early one chilly fall morning from the comfort of my camper to capture first light on the Teton Range. At a popular boat landing along the Snake River, a perennial beaver pond formed a silent pool, which provided a picture-perfect reflection for the jagged monuments that rose abruptly from a valley floor uninterrupted for hundreds of miles to the east. The parking lot was empty when I arrived in the dark after traveling along a bumpy washboard road. I fixed a medium-focal-length zoom lens to my Canon camera and fastened it to my sturdy Gitzo tripod. I checked the battery, grabbed my bag and slowly made my way to the viewpoint I had visited several times before. I heard a gentle tinkling behind me. As the mist slowly parted on the brightening, rose-tinted river, I spotted a female moose upwind munching contentedly on the tall grass that fringed the ancient, bending stream. A quiet inner voice assured me that if I were to continue to my chosen viewpoint, the moose would eventually follow and provide a counterpoint to the majestic setting.
A small pastoral community on Penobscot Bay in Glen Cove, Maine, is quintessential Americana, complete with a church steeple, brightly colored buildings and fall leaves.
Slowly, I made my way to the sublime pool. As I sat there preparing for the 1/60 sec. exposure I had in my mind’s eye, my breath formed frost on my icy tripod. The great beast appeared as if on cue, just as the sun rose over the vacant eastern sky. I stood in astonishment as she dipped her head and splashed noisily about, creating an ever-expanding ripple on that liquid mirror. As my third eye fired incessantly, she moved her head back and forth as if mocking a runway model. My willing subject then turned and trotted off into the trees that had formed my background.
As I sometimes do when such moments occur, I looked skyward and verbalized a reverent “thank you” before preparing to pack my things. Suddenly out of nowhere, a hummingbird’s rapidly beating wings were flapping next to my left ear and just as quickly gone. I was dumbfounded at what had just happened until I remembered that a hummingbird’s appearance means “you’re welcome” to Native Americans. Relishing my good fortune to have witnessed such an event, I looked up and saw the moose make a final glance my way. I walked back to my vehicle in hushed silence, knowing I would never forget this moment.
A wheat farmer inspects the crop for harvest in late-afternoon light in Palouse, Washington.
After a long rest at home in Seattle, I turned south to warmer weather, traveling through Oregon, California, Arizona and New Mexico. I had planned my trip not only to follow Steinbeck’s journey, but to coincide with festivals across America, including several colorful Navajo festivals along the way. Heading east, Texas seemed to stretch on forever. Eventually, I landed in Louisiana for Mardi Gras, where morning rain threatened to ruin my shoot but only caused the colors to deepen in hue and the companionship to richen in flavor. After a return to New York, I made my way back home again where I recharged my batteries—camera, vehicle and personal.
After 150,000 miles and a dozen years, the results of my efforts have been a one-man show of prints and a documentary film at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., and my agent is currently marketing my book project, which celebrates the publication of Travels with Charley 50 years later.
John Steinbeck, with his faithful companion, returned home in the winter of 1960—satiated, wiser and intent on telling a very personal story, one that would prove prophetic and become rapidly absorbed into the collective memory of American literature. Every day I traveled, I was reminded of his words, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” I think we both came to realize that only when we give up control of our search for America does it find us. I hope my story may inspire you to take a similar journey—as Steinbeck’s had inspired me—to discover your own America.