What’s a gray road?

Yellowstone Country is the first in a series of books of photographs taken all over the United States. They are not meant to be an exhaustive collection of photographs from each region. They are more a collection of places and things I see as I drive along. I travel 50,000 miles or so every year along the back roads of the United States. Cities and freeways hold little interest for me. I call this getting lost on gray roads.

When I talk about getting lost on gray roads, most people smile and move their head politely in a congratulatory sort of nod. In a few moments the smile will fade a little, and their brows will furrow just a bit, and inevitably the question: “what exactly does that mean”?

Being lost is not about losing one’s way, but rather the utter pleasure of being nowhere specific. There is something about not being in somewhere that is intensely freeing.

On the maps you can get at your local AAA office, gray is the color of the smaller, two-lane winding roads. You know, the ones for which you get a map precisely because you want to avoid them. Gray roads are definitely not the fastest route from one point to the other: they are the exact opposite. They ramble across the landscape, meandering like they have only a vague idea where they are going, hunting for clues of cardinality along the way in small towns and railroad crossings.

My choice of gray roads is really my love of that adventure and the freedom that comes with it. The freedom to try new things, freedom to experience life through the eyes of those you meet, the freedom of time, of choosing to slow down so travel becomes multi-directional rather than a straight arrow (My trusty Ford pickup is named Bob for exactly this reason: the name is the same whether it’s coming or going).

It is the custom on back roads and in the countryside to wave at passing vehicles and to return the gesture. I call it the four finger salute. You just lift your fingers off the top of the steering wheel, nod your head slightly and you’ve made contact with a passing car or guy on a porch or woman on a lawnmower. It’s nice. It’s friendly. It doesn’t work on the Los Angeles freeways.

A similar and related phenomenon is that passing cars sometimes stop to ask if I need help when I’m pulled off the road to take a photo. It is easy to understand as often there is no real shoulder and my truck is knee deep in weeds or cantered into a ditch at a 45degree angle. I sort of look like I might be in trouble.

When I point out the scene I’m photographing their concern sometimes changes to a kind of awe as they see property and farms they have passed all of their lives in a new way. They say things like “Wow, I never noticed how pretty that is” or “It is a beautiful day isn’t it!” or “Where did all those freaking clouds come from?” For me, that is like winning a little lottery. The art of photography is all about seeing things differently and sharing that view is always terrific.

Being lost is, in part, the art of finding beauty without a dotted line or a series of trail markers pointing the way. It’s a love of not knowing what’s around the next bend: A quintessential hay bale, a speeding train or a chicken stand direct from Tyson’s farms. Being lost is the ultimate treasure hunt, unbounded by federal protection acts and rangers, unaided by the infinite technological wonders of GPS and Google, and spared from legions of sightseers and tourists. It’s a love of being alone and yet a desire to share what I’ve discovered.

As I crisscross the back roads of what some people call “the flyover states”, I find little gems and prizes everywhere. If you are looking for your favorite spot or road, I may not have found it yet. I’ll keep looking and you are, of course, welcome to contact me and make suggestions. I’d love to hear from you. Many of my favorite places were found when I asked someone at a gas station or restaurant, “What’s good to see around here?”

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