Anderson Branch, Marshall

I'm anxious as I start out - a low level dis-ease that's been with me for weeks as I think about this trip. I've traveled a lot in my life so I didn't think the travel itself was causing my discomfort. And god knows, I needed to get away. Rather, I think it had to do with what I would find along the way - about myself, the place where I've lived and worked for forty-two years, and how to move forward in life. 


I stop to see Jemima at the Laurel River Store on my way to Newport and I-40. Coffee, a short visit. She's sold a book and gives me some money. I've known Jemima since she was born and it's my familiarity and ease with her, and with so many other people in Madison County, that has made my life as rich as it is. I know this. 

But I also know I've grown tired of the repetition of the place, tired of the necessary work just to maintain it, tired of the drama of small town life, tired of what I do, and who I am. Where I once felt secure and curious in the embrace of the mountains, I now feel hemmed in, constrained, wondering if there is anything here for me now. 


Jemima Cook at the Laurel River Store


Mt. Vernon, Illinois


I meet the Bardens the next morning as I'm leaving. They met each other late in life and are heading home to Champaign, Illinois. We speak of faith and belief and Mr. Barden gives me a cross he carved, says he's given away over 11,000 of them. They leave me with a "God Bless," and the admonition to "Be careful on the road. There's a lot of crazies out there." First day and I'm already being anointed as if embarking on a pilgrimage from which many people don't return.  It serves to heighten my anxiety.

Mr. and Mrs. Barden, Mt. Vernon, Illinois



I cross the Mississippi River at St. Louis, Gateway to the West, thinking of Danny Lyon as I make this photograph. Already it feels different, the sky bigger and more open, the land leveled and the farms more spread out, the light. Away from the city the traffic eases, and my head lightens, as if the river has not only altered the topography, but also the workings of my mind. I get to Hannibal for lunch. Catfish, of course.


Mark Twain in front of his boyhood home during his last visit to Hannibal in 1902.       Photo copyright the Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau


Mark Twain is not my favorite writer, but there is no denying his brilliance or his place in American literature. I love his irreverence and his strongly-held opinions on the most divisive issues of his time. He told truth to power and I would really love to hear his take on today's politics and social issues. Hannibal, Missouri, is fortunate to have Samuel Clemons as a native son and the old downtown is made over in his likeness. It's touristy as I expected, but the Mark Twain House and Museum were fun and informative and worth the stop.


Mark Twain House and Museum, Hannibal, Missouri



I head west on Highway 36 across Missouri toward St. Joseph. It is the first of what turns out to be many isolated, two-lane roads for me on this trip. A series of small towns I've never heard of and will likely never think about again - Monroe, Macon, Brookfield, Chillicothe, Cameron. The road and shoulder are littered with dead raccoons, easily one or two every couple of miles along the entire 200 mile route. Farmland, wooded, swampy, truck traffic at night - the raccoons wouldn't stand a chance, I thought. And neither would my little car if I hit one. 


A short break to stretch my legs in St. Joseph, Missouri. It's the birthplace of the Pony Express, the iconic overland mail delivery service that traveled 1,900 miles from St. Joseph to Sacramento, California. It has played an oversized role in western folklore and I was surprised to find out it was only in existence for eighteen months, from April 1860 to October 1861, when it was supplanted by the trans-continental telegraph. With its dependence on young, strong riders, it became symbolic for the rugged individualism that Americans is in our DNA. One advertisement for riders allegedly read, "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." 


St. Joseph, Missouri


Later in the day, as I cross the state line into South Dakota, I see a homemade sign in a field that speaks to the present-day version of that rugged individualism. "Eat steak. Wear fur. Keep your guns. The American Way."


Cedric Chatterley at Home, Sioux Falls, South Dakota


Cedric was at home when I got there. We've been hanging out for the last fifteen years and I'm convinced he is one of the most important artists working today. His photographs are deep and luscious and humbling. I have many hanging in my home and studio. For a number of years now, he has been building large format cameras, often collaborating with other artists in their construction and use. The cameras are truly amazing. We don't see each other often, mostly on his trips east to Durham, we are his first stop in North Carolina. But we have one of those relationships where ideas flow and I'm excited to talk about my book project and his plans for a new camera based on his relationship with our place and family. While I've long known of his obsession with Tom Waits, I wasn't aware of his disregard of Sir Paul McCartney. 


Sioux Falls, South Dakota


I leave out the next morning in no big hurry. "My word on this trip is slow," I say. "My word is surrender," he replies.