“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.”

– John Steinbeck, “Travels with Charlie” 1960

Whenever I go on the road, I keep this thought in mind. For me, to travel the back roads of America is the entree to a world of small towns, farms and vistas that you won’t see from the Interstate Highways. It’s worth the extra time and distance to find the real America along the old highways which have been replaced, starting in 1956, by the Interstate Highway System.

When attending the Leica Historical Society of America (LHSA) Spring Photo Shoot or Annual Members meeting, usually a four-day event in various cities around America, I take the week before and the week after to drive the back roads. When you’re not in a hurry, you have a chance to find all kinds of wonderful subject matter around every turn.

Several years ago, the Spring Shoot was in Asheville, North Carolina. Driving there introduced me to the Blue Ridge Parkway, an exceptional, out-of-the-way, 35 mile per hour road that runs from Front Royal, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina. It covers over 400 miles through the Shennandoah National Park and along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with scenic overlooks every mile or two. I could have taken I-85 and been there in half the time, but I discovered a treasure that I’ve revisited several times since. Even on the smaller back roads, I find myself stopping a lot whenever something catches my eye, something you can’t do on the Interstate.

This year’s Spring Shoot was in Dayton, Ohio and the trip on the secondary roads of Pennsylvania and Ohio was full of opportunities to capture small town Americana. My drive there roughly paralleled I-80 and I took  a more southerly route coming home, roughly along I-76. The 600 mile trip each way could be done in one long day, but I traveled four days each way and added on many extra miles meandering the two-lane blacktops.

Sometimes the meetings are just too far to drive to, but I always allow extra time to rent a car and explore the area, as I did when we met in San Francisco, Seattle or Santa Fe. I drove 2200 miles around the Four Corners region before and after the 2007 Santa Fe meeting, taking in the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and other tourist spots. I also stopped at a lot of great sights off the beaten path, like the Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah, probably the most beautiful place you’ve never heard of, and the White House Ruins at Canyon de Chelley, Arizona which was photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan (1873), Edward S. Curtis (1904), and Ansel Adams (1949). I was standing in the footsteps of giants.

If you’re ever driving on the Interstate, take the next exit and you just might find America.

All images captured with digital Leica M8.2 and M9.

-Carl Merkin

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