Posted by SCG on October 1st, 2013
Dateline: From the North Country to the Deep South
By “moto” photojournalist Douglas Graham
From where I live in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, it’s known as the Valley Pike. To most everyone else, it’s U.S. Route 11. It starts near Rouses Point, N.Y., on the edge of Lake Champlain at the Canadian border, below Montreal, Quebec. It wanders down, through the Shenandoah Valley, dropping into the South. And it flames out 1,677 miles from where it started, in formerly French Louisiana.
It is America’s French Connection.
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You might expect such a storied highway, crusty with age and tradition, to conclude triumphantly in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Instead, old Route 11 dead-ends quietly at an east-west highway just outside of the Big Easy. Instead of seeing the lights of Bourbon Street, you run head first into a nondescript parking lot at 11’s terminus.
Even-numbered national highways like the famed Route 66 ran east-west and back. Odd-numbered ones like Route 11 cut north and south. Numbers for modern, high-speed interstates, which sucked the traffic off the old roads, work the same way. You may have heard of or driven our most-acclaimed national road, historic U.S. Route 66.
It started in Chicago, crisscrossed southwestward to Oklahoma, then traversed the dusty, desert West before ending at the Santa Monica, California pier on the Pacific Ocean. Tall tales, evocative photographs and snappy songs like “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” still celebrate Route 66, whose devotees call it “The Mother Road.” Route 11 has much of the same offerings but none of the glamor or public relations of 66.
We’ve lost so much of early Americana, and Route 11 clings to that part of our culture like the stubborn stepchild she is. Like other parts of old, weird America, you do, however, need to look for it nowadays; it only pops up if you keep an eye peeled.
The sagging remnants of Route 11’s glory days are there, though. Rusted tourist court signs full of bullet holes, vine-covered barns, long-shuttered restaurants, busted-up gas stations, chunks of old drive-in theaters and faded historical markers.
On old 11, you’ll find obscure museums, with no lines to speak of, dedicated to hand weaving, American presidents and steam trains. Scranton, Pa., even has one dedicated to the legendary magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.
Many of these places first opened at a time when people loved the open road and took great pride when a national highway ran through their towns. When roads got U.S. highway numbers – such as when a stretch from Bristol to Knoxville in eastern Tennessee received the coveted U.S. 11 designation – it was a big deal. It literally put you on the map.
U.S. Route 11 was perfect for my photo assignments/motorcycle travels this summer. I’ve traveled parts of Route 11 over the years as far south as Louisiana and as far north as New York.
I have not traveled the entire road but would love to. It suits my slow moving, stop-a-lot brand of travel.
Sure, I’ve done the mega-mile days. But I don’t remember much about them, except for the opportunity to say, “yeah, I did 800 miles here, 1000 there.” It makes my butt hurt thinking about it, and I saw little more than the blur of the road and the bottom of many coffee cups.
My summer travels have carried me along U.S. Route 11 through Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The still-operating roadside attractions range from snake farms to the extremely rare drive-in movie theater still showing family movies to farm league baseball where you can eat like a king and drink ice cold beer and never get close to spending 50 bucks. Try and do that at a major league game!
There are dark and windowless strip clubs, pseudo-scientific fossil collections, spooky caverns. Sure, they’re tourist traps. That’s the whole point of traveling like this. All the better to lure folks off the interstate super-slabs.
When Interstate 81 was built in the 1960s, it pretty much killed the commerce on Route 11, driving coffin nails into a huge slice of Americana. Folks nowadays are pretty focused on travel that’s simply point A to point B. They see nothing in between, except the screens of their smart phones and GPS units.
I work with a guy who likes to travel to see things – not to get somewhere. He, like me, is a rare bird indeed. I once forced the entire photo staff to take the train from Washington, D.C. up to Boston to cover a big national event. All but one hated me and complained for days about how long it took.
Being typical of too many hurried people, they missed the point. For me, it’s trains, not planes. Motorcycles, not cars. Show me a back road with a monkey ranch and I’m on it, no questions asked. It’s how you find things and meet people. It’s what life is all about.
In its heyday, U.S. Route 11 guided drivers right through towns. Little motor courts, greasy spoon diners, souvenir stands and independent repair shops beckoned in every little place, complete with elaborate neon signs.
In the Golden Age of automobile travel in the United States, driving was carefree and scenic. Two-lane highways snaked across the countryside and right through the hearts of towns and cities. There were no slick bypasses in those days. Business leaders wouldn’t have dreamed of diverting traffic away from Main Street.
The whole point was to funnel travelers and their dollars to local businesses.
I love my brand of travel. I wear it like a badge of honor. I’m proud at the end of the day to have gotten there by motorcycle through rain, sleet, snow, heat, and, of course, the cool autumn days that we motorcyclists live for.
I do fear I’m a dying breed, just like old Route 11 and the communities along it that have gone to rack and ruin. Farms played out and technology passed them by. Once-viable businesses were abandoned to vandals and knuckleheads. Increasingly rusted and rotted, the slice of America along Route 11 has slid out of our daily lives.
“Disappearing America,” I call these places.
They’re blemishes and nuisances to many. But they are a feast to the eye for a photographer or historian. So if you find yourself in the Mid-Atlantic, hop on Route 11. Keep your eyes peeled. Life is playing out, way out there in old America.
Douglas Graham is a photojournalist in Washington, D.C. His career spans 35 years as a staff and freelance news photographer. He has been in the middle of some of the most important news stories of the past three decades. Graham has been chased by a crack-head trying to steal his cameras, shot at, slammed into by a bank robber during a high-speed chase, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, punched and beaten, spit on by protesters, arrested and he shook the hand of the President in the Oval Office after being recognized for his award winning work. Currently he is on staff for the Economist Group in Washington D.C. assigned to national politics, Capitol Hill and the White House.
Trail Dust is a publication of happy-trail.com