U.S. 80: Exotic Country

 
Foreword to U.S.80: Exotic Country (Stucco Press) by Jon Snow, published on the occasion of William Eckersley & Alexander Shields: U.S.80: Exotic Country, 2010
 

You only begin to understand America when you reach the South. U.S. Route 80, or the Dixie Overland Highway as it is otherwise known, streams like a frayed ribbon across this region. It was the first coast-to-coast highway in America, pre-dating even the fabled Route 66, and runs from Savannah, Georgia to San Diego, California. Spanning nearly 3,000 miles, it covers eight states and an enormous diversity of landscape and culture. It sees the rural southlands, scarred by civil war and civil rights; boom towns of Texas enriched with oil surplus; creeping scarcity as scrubland gives way to the western deserts; and a conclusion in the promised land of the Golden State.

Historically the road’s most significant travellers have been the countless Americans from the east seeking a better life in the west. Inaugurated in 1926, the road’s importance as a cross-country thoroughfare was quickly cemented by the dustbowl migration of the 1930s, which saw thousands displaced from the Great Plains, nearly all heading to California. However, this westward movement is as old as the continent itself, and has continued from the depression up to the present day. It is an integral part of American mythology, within which U.S.80 deserves iconic status.

In more recent times, the old highway has been superseded by interstates, and large parts have fallen by the wayside of an improved network. For half its length, the Mexican border is a parallel running mate, with the road a first stop for new immigrants. Increased focus on immigration as well as a drug war of unprecedented scale has now drawn attention to forgotten towns that line the border. With drugs smuggled north and guns back south, once again cruel economic realities have breathed life into arteries sprawling the great American continent.

Not that U.S.80 is unfamiliar with crime. Tales of lawlessness pervade the area’s collective psyche – from the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral to Bonnie and Clyde’s death at Gibsland, Louisiana. Even more notoriously, the road’s business spur in Dallas will forever be enshrined in memory as the site of JFK’s assassination. Of course, such events merely echo the often turbulent and violent history of America herself, and should be put in context with the heroes, invention and culture that have found root in these lush pastures. Richness can not only be tasted in the variety of cuisine, be it Cajun, Tex-Mex or BBQ, but also heard in the blues and soul music on local radio stations. These surroundings set the stage for the quintessential road movies Easy Rider and Paris Texas as well as the backdrop for a huge wealth of inspiring literature, from Mark Twain to Cormac McCarthy.

My first foray to the South was as a reporter travelling in the 1980s to Selma, Alabama. Selma had been the cradle of the Civil Rights movement, whose bridge stands as a memorial to so much struggle, so many sighs, tears and one critical moment of bloodshed. It was across Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge that in 1965 one of the totemic and defining moments in American history unfolded. It was here that Martin Luther King led the black protest march demanding an end to racial segregation, when they were attacked by state troopers. The bloodshed, bruising, and above all, the televised images of the clash triggered the Voting Rights Reforms that finally delivered the end of segregation in the South.

This, along with the Civil War, provides the most arresting prism through which to see this fertile landscape. Both struggles were born of racial inequality, and although now consigned to the records of history, inequality is still displayed vigorously in the divide between rich and poor. Whilst the South delivers agricultural abundance – corn, cotton, maize and more – there are many areas of abject, grinding poverty. Tellingly, in the “post-racial” age of the first African-American President, poverty is perhaps the new divide, afflicting black and white alike. Stop at so many points along U.S.80 and the weather beaten faces of older Americans sit stoically in the lee of similarly weather-beaten shacks. It is as if for them, American time has stood still.

But whilst those crinkled faces speak of hardship, the wealth can be as palpable as the poverty. Following the thread of white clapboard shacks beyond the highway will often lead to old plantation homes and the brash homesteads of today’s oil drillers and bankers. The southern United States certainly sports its fair share of America’s wealth – this is an area of the country that is influenced and informed by the riches beneath. California and especially Texas were built around and defined by the consequences of oil.

My most significant journey to the South took me to the region through the oil riches of Houston, summoned by Hurricane Katrina just twenty-four hours after she struck New Orleans. We headed straight to Walmart and stocked up with waders, generators, food rations, fuel and water before pressing on to the disaster. En route we had secured a boat to be brought through from the Florida Everglades to meet us in New Orleans. In some senses we were heading in so soon after the hurricane had struck that the queues were only of those fleeing – our side of the freeway was all but clear. A few rescue vehicles were moving along the road, but not many.

When we arrived and met our boat, we were one of the only teams who could move about on water. Instead of reporting, we found ourselves rescuing. We journeyed to and from the beleaguered rooftops in District 9, pulling people out of upstairs rooms, balconies and roofs. We would then ferry them to the elevated freeways and waiting helicopters. The football stadium became a vast sprawling rescue camp. My lasting impression was as if the disaster had struck a third world nation rather than the great United States herself. Needless to say, the poorest were the hardest hit, and the tragedy of Katrina exposed this poverty in the harshest light.

U.S.80 spans a land of contrasts, that over the course of three visits between 2008 and 2009, Shields and Eckersley have traversed it numerous times. Drawing inspiration from the wealth of photography, film and literature that comprises the American travelogue genre, they have meticulously documented the highway and it’s environs. The following collection of photographs is a distillation of thousands of medium and large format images, that merely hint at what has been before and what is still unresolved – poverty, race, wealth, production, emptiness, hope and despair.

It is the light that somehow defines the South. It is immediate, uninterrupted and full of purple shadow at either end of the day. Illuminating the extraordinary landscape of this region, it is captured with poignancy in these photographs.

 
Jon Snow – June, 2010