‘We have a viewing platform, it’s 10ft tall. 10ft is ALL you need.’
When you drive along a straight road of a hundred miles or so with nothing to look at except the (admittedly beautiful) horizon for hour after hour and you’re made of road movie culture, then you see a hand painted sign on a telegraph pole saying ‘UFO Watch Tower – next left’ you turn left don’t you? This was something new after the already something new to me of Tuscon Arizona the week before. But that came after New Mexico. And New Mexico stayed with me even more than the aliens.
What precursored our own little area 51 were the kind of great conversations you really ought to take notes from. One I did and one day Corey and I will organise the antidote to the burgeoning and arguably unsustainable career choice I found myself in. Coined shortly after Tuscon The ‘Arizona Shootout’ was aimed to be the game show by elimination process of a league of photographers given a location, pro rider and kit support then tasked with outdoing each other for the money shot every round like the FA Cup of photography. The decisive moment would matter more than ever and the generally competitive and often egotistical snapper would have one fraction of a second chance to survive to the next round and aim for a final crown and presumably calendar to sell afterwards. It had monthly magazine feature and kit sponsorship written all over it to us but crucially it also had what was increasingly rare in editorial photography and sport, adventure and a sense of the unknown. As if to aide memory and therefore legitimise this brainstorm the van was soundtracked by a surprisingly good, apt radio playlist for hours like rarely happens on motorways during this conversation. It was as if it was a sign. It was meant to be because Lynard Skinard had come on a radio station’s shuffle.
I had always wanted to cross America by car, but somehow was less drawn by east to west than north and south. I think there was a time before Britain was Americanized and all western cities were harmogenized versions on an American theme when American-ness really felt different. Special even. I am from a childhood spent watching the Fall Guy and The A Team and I remember distinctly when a friend returning to London from LA paraded M&Ms and Cherry Coke around the rest of the second year much to everyone’s awe. It always felt to me like we were the distant relative that caught up with the speed of the change of popular culture in of our part of the 20th Century through films and television and imported Star Wars figures when someone had visited the new world.
Add to this a creative discovery in youth of road movie visual language and I was hooked. Apt then that I had been offered a lift to the Rocky Mountains on the north edge of the country from a quite different Arizona and I wasn’t turning that down. My stateside experience thus far had been visiting a wife to be in Boston where she worked in the tail end of a mini adventure that started with a Camp America summer and continued wherever the new group of friends took her. I had only visited NYC once for a weekender and never visited the west coast despite my mother having lived in both Manhattan and San Fransisco. This trip was to stop in Colorado and head to California before flying home to London a week later. Everyone had spoken of California with such outward allure. True enough it was beautiful but Corey’s road trip up through New Mexico was the real America I had come to see. The long trains with that filmic bell sound, the cowboy towns with visual reminders still intact despite the conglomorates moving in. It was the America of films I yearned like a tourist. It was the America of my photographic heroes like Eggleston, Misrach, Meyerowitz and Shore I actually walked around and photographed in the footsteps of. New Mexico felt real. As a timepiece preserved but not for the exploitation of heritage but with a real honesty of living. I loved it. So much about that stateside visit was the stuff of beautiful memories, new friendships and future dreams but New Mexico really awoke my visual sense too. It had me at Silver City. A prior breakfast in a Santa Fe diner and a morning walk around the playground of artists was truly atmospheric and probably the set of countless film scenes, cafes complete with drying chilis above the tables and paintings everywhere was so different to home, but Silver City felt somehow less gentrified and more honest later on. I will admit to gentrification sometimes being somewhat of a comfort zone in the bleakness of a city’s dark heart, and yet it does also streak with being sold a stage set life pasted over it’s natural heartbeat. Silver City’s backdrop would have been comfortable with horses instead of cars so intact was it’s soul. I loved it. I loved the thrift store I could have emptied had I not been on a plane in the near future. I loved the coffee shop up a side street that was like the antithesis of the how to run a coffee shop for the busy professional the usual high street manual dictates. It was like someone had opened their living room for the day and let anyone in and made them a drink and given them five minutes. It was among the least pretentious and most heartwarming and welcoming places I have spent time in looking for escape and paradoxically it was like something from a movie. The kind of place I imagine a film director would model a scene on so down to earth and relatable, it would be if the world hadn’t been occupied by chain cafes from the house of clones.
Walking through the town feeling like Yul Brynner in Westworld we headed back to the van for a short drive to the first stop on Corey’s work schedule, the local bike shop that was traditionally a part of the tour of Jila. Jila Hike and Bike. A bike shop with history, connection and very good T shirts.
We unpacked the van and kitted up from the bike shop as you do on any given Sunday. Then headed out to the wilds north of the town riding through what was presumably once a cowboy town proper. In that way that little is kept intact as it was, either ending up demolished, replaced or renovated with an entry charge for cashing in on heritage purposes, the town of Pinos Altos seemed just left alone to slowly fade back into the background like it’s past. Interesting for many locals I’m sure, other worldly for this foreigner schooled in westerns. The coldest ride I can remember back to coffee followed but all the way I was so conscious of how special an experience this was to have been exposed to. One I doubted I’d ever forget but hadn’t realised yet would be so influencial visually.
Crossing into Colorado there had been little manmade visual interruption for hours on this road. A long balanced straight punctuated with the occasional billboard advertising the strange and out of place here. Gator park to alien watchtower, nothing seemed to fit or at least normal was on the next map page or perhaps the one after that.
As I walked up the drive there in this middle of nowhere where most neighbours weren’t even within sight, the proprietor came out and before I could even say hello relayed the 10ft quote to me. As she got in her car to drive off explaining she’d be back in an hour to show me round if I was still here I thought to myself she must’ve had prior experience of UFO watch tower experts to automatically defend the height of her observation platform as a first word to an outsider. We had seen homesteads I imagined you’d end up in a pie in if visited after dark but this felt on the map for the Colorado/ New Mexico border. Borderline official, it’s alien obsession and space artefacts dotted around the garden seemed preferable on the fear spectrum to the confederate flagged Ford truck collection parked outside at the neighbour’s down the road with the remnants of a distilled evening (or morning) littering the front wings of a couple of the extras from a road movie.
Uncharacteristically I ventured into the garden a little with a camera and a two minute warning ringing counting down in my head while Corey sat with the engine running in the layby outside.
It was incredible. The kind of place a child of the 70s and 80s has seen in films but daren’t imagine actually really exists. There was a mixture of actual space module tin relics and hand made alien cut out heads dotted around and at the back of this garden not disimilar to Derick Jarman’s in a ‘washed up treasure/ outsider art kind of a way was a geodesic dome structure of some sort along with flat platform for gazing up at about the least light polluted sky I could imagine this side of a desert. I’d imagine here you could think you were the only beings on this planet, presumably not a common thought in this garden.
Aware we ought not become a road movie statistic for real I headed back to the modern day civilisation a long wheelbased Mercedes Sprinter offered, to be greeted by a look of ‘you actually got out and went in’ from my pilot and carer Corey.
I am fortunate enough to have seen new and interesting places thanks to the invention of both the bicycle and the camera. There have been many a memorable road trip to beautiful mountain wildernesses and famous small town cobbled streets alike, but this trek across America in a van full of bikes with good music and the discovery of great friendship on a route like a tarmac sash border to border across a map retains something more in me. Not so much a visual awakening as a re-awakening, igniting overlooked simple vistas that once underwrote the make up of my ways of seeing. This was the home of the language I understood from my visual schooling that had always been the one I wanted to speak. Not gone, not forgotten, but overlooked too easily. Here a folded page corner of a visual history had been rediscovered by chance and through kind hospitality. Eyes opened. Good fortune recorded. Lifelong friendships made.