Steve Anchell -- Photographing the Mother Road

Emerald Art Center, March 2-29, 2010

Route 66

Steinbeck called U.S. Highway 66 "The Mother Road." Route 66, as it was popularly known, was not just a way to get from here to there, it was a destination itself. Its mystique and allure beckoned to Americans from all over--and from all walks of life. It carried the Dustbowlers to California and put the Beats "on the road." It has appeared in books, short stories, ballads, and television shows. It was America's Main Street and embodied much of what it meant to be an American.

In the collective unconsciousness of a more innocent time, Route 66 represented freedom. Freedom to search for an identity or to leave one behind. It was a place to learn about life and a place to live. Small towns and businesses grew up along it, thrived on it, serviced it. 66 did not so much connect the states like the Interstates we use today--it connected people and their communities.

It begins at Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, serves as a main thoroughfare through Cicero and continues southwest connecting the windy-city to Joliet and Bloomington. From Springfield you can follow the old highway through St. Louis and across the border into Missouri. In Missouri the road is alive and well, thank you, used mainly as a freeway alternate. Out of Joplin a short cut through the southeast corner of Kansas brings the highway into Oklahoma, past towns with names like Quapaw, Vinita, and Catoosa. Through backwoods it wends its way to Oklahoma City then breaks loose across wild, wind-swept prairie through Yukon, Hydro, Clinton, Elk City and the fifth great state to mark its passage, Texas.

Across the panhandle and Amarillo the highway never stops, never slows until it reaches the border with New Mexico. Though New Mexico has tried to forget its debt to Route 66 there are still vestiges of the old highway. After Tucumcari and Santa Rosa it runs in fits and starts, bits and pieces, either northwest to Santa Fe along the old alignment, or straight ahead through Clines Corners and Albuquerque.

Leaving Albuquerque it is still possible to follow the highway past Laguna Pueblo and one stop towns with names such as Cubero, San Fidel, Bluewater and Thoreau. It serves as the main street for Grants and Gallup before heading into Arizona, where attractions such as the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, Meteor Crater, and the Wigwam motel are still there for the road-weary traveler. Williams is the gateway to the Grand Canyon for those who aren't in a hurry to reach the California border and the long hot drive through the vast Mojave, a drive best taken at night after a days respite in Kingman.

Crossing the Colorado River the highway stretches across the desert from Needles to Barstow through a desert dotted with scant oasis, Essex, Amboy, Ludlow, Newberry Springs. From Barstow the highway takes a sudden plunge south. On a map it looks like it is falling off the end of the world as it makes its way to the ultimate goal: Los Angeles, City of Angels, and its final destination, the Santa Monica Palisades overlooking the Pacific.

The people and places that gave Route 66 its character and personality are disappearing. Many have deserted the highway, others have simply passed away. Some still hang on, hoping for a resurgence that will never come. Never, because families no longer pack everything in a station wagon, pickup, or trailer searching for a fresh start, a new life. Youngsters, out of school for the summer, no longer speed down the highway looking for "kicks."

Once there was a sign outside Peti's restaurant in Grants, New Mexico, "Eat here or we both starve." In Amboy, Buster Burris waited as long as he could for the rebirth that never happened.

We have discarded Route 66, as we discard anything no longer of practical value in our society. Pisgah is no more. All that remains of Bagdad is a slab of concrete in the desert.

For a moment in time Route 66 was a ribbon that connected us with the land, its people, and our dreams. It was the highway that brought us from the past to our future.

These photographs of Highway 66 represent Freedom and Loss. They span more than the experience of one generation and represent what was, what will always be, but can never be just as it was before. These images are about dreams, the dreams of those who remain, those that have left, and those still to come.

Steve Anchell
January 21, 2010

Photographing the Mother Road

I began photographing Route 66 in 1981 the way in which I begin all of my projects, it seemed like a good idea. Though my final images were made in 1994 or thereabouts, the project really ended, for me, in 1990, my last trip with the intent to document the highway.

The majority of the images were made with large format cameras, including an Agfa-Ansco 8x10 with a 5x7 reducing back to a Toyo 45A field camera. Some were made with an RZ67 and a few with a Leica M3 35mm rangefinder, but not many.

Film and developer varied depending on what I happened to be using at the time.

The prints for this show were made on Ilford MGIV FB paper developed in Photographers' Formulary BW65.

Steve Anchell

Steve Anchell website