Views from the Road
I left California, the great dream
of the American Road Trip before me. Destination: Charleston, SC. My vague plan to take the Northern route: Head up the Pacific Coast to stop in with family in Portland and Seattle, before crossing the Northern Sierras and plunging out of the high desert into the unfamiliar undulating grainlands of Idaho, crooked peaks of Wyoming, and the toasted hills of South Dakota. Everything east of Milwaukee was somewhat familiar to me, but I was committed to finding the unexplored natural beauty in every state I traversed.
An emboldened 24-year-old with an itchy shutter-finger embarking on a solo road trip, I was ready for my own shot at Adams’ sprawling American landscapes. The day before I left Santa Cruz, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to upgrade my Rebel t3 to a 40D courtesy of Facebook Marketplace, with a couple of cheap plastic Chinese lenses thrown in for an extra $50. My new gear was eager to be put through its paces — luckily it doesn’t take long driving north out of the Bay Area before you’re surrounded by images destined for desktop backgrounds. Eventually, pulling over every mile to take a photograph began to hinder my trip. I began shooting over my dashboard or out of my side window as I drove, only pulling over for the most irresistible of vistas.
By the first sunset of my journey, I had already
accumulated 201 photographs of the rolling California hills. The pattern of pulling over to take photos of America continued for the duration of the road trip, but around day three, I noticed that my focus was beginning to shift. I was still taking far too many landscape photos, but at the end of the day, even my selects weren’t speaking to me in the grandiose manner that I’d hoped for. Sure, my composition was good, I was getting the shots I was aiming for, but they weren’t speaking to me as I had expected. The shots that stood out were those of the road trip experience itself — shots of the places I stopped not for the sake of a photograph, but where I stopped for food, for gas, to stretch my legs, to take a leak.
As I tempered my urge to pull over around every bend in the winding mountain passes of the Pacific Northwest,
the frequency of irresistible photo stops and non-negotiable utility stops began to even out. Photos of rushing streams edged by pine trees were matched by photos of quaint small-town signage, crumbling vacant lots, and roadside bathrooms. Oddly enough, it was the latter of these my eye seemed to latch onto the most. Perhaps this was related to the frequency with which I needed to seek out these havens — my days as a camp counselor etched the obsessive need to hydrate into my head. Regardless, there was something about the surreal bleakness of these spaces that piqued my interest.
Roadside bathrooms are universal spaces, both in our shared experience in using them and in their shared attributes. I don’t need to describe to you what these spaces look like. Though our road trips may take us on different highways, to any number of National Parks and casinos, everyone has used the bathroom in a highway rest stop in the dead of night, faded fluorescent bulbs casting a ghastly light that seems to absorb color. Everyone has had to ask a gas station attendant if there’s a restroom they can use, to then be told that it’s the first door around the back of the building, and yes, that’s the key there, attached by 5 inches of metal twine and grimy duct tape to the end of what may have been the handle of a plunger. We’ve all looked up from washing our hands to see a bathroom cleaning schedule behind plexiglass, meticulously signed every hour by the same set of initials, only to then look around and wonder what the hell KSG actually did in here because it looks like the trashcan exploded.
Why do these spaces always fall to shit (pun intended)? Somewhere out there, there is a parallel universe in
which roadside bathrooms are associated with convenience, cleanliness, and courtesy for others — a parallel universe in which we as a society collectively understand that we all need to use these places, so if everyone just puts in a little effort to keep it tidy, we will all be better off. Alas, we live in our universe in which that is not the case. They are awful places, neglected and abused, to be feared and dreaded. “Live and let die,” reads the graffiti on the wall. “Fuck You,” says the ankle-deep sea of damp paper towels on the floor.
Why is this the case? A modern tragedy of the commons? Human nature showing its selfish side? When a friend says, “Ugh, I had to use a public bathroom,” we groan in sympathy, but how often do we pick up a stray paper towel, or even alert the staff that the bathroom needs attending? No, we just do our best to hold our breath and hover above the seat, trying to find the balance between washing our hands long enough to feel remotely clean again and not spending one second more than needed in such a god-forsaken room.
So I brought my camera into every restroom I visited. And when I wanted to burst out of the door and back into the cleansing UV light of the sun, I stayed an extra minute or two and examined the otherworldly color temperature of the light; how it mutated and shifted across the machine-pressed geometry of particle board dividers and molded plastic tissue dispensers. So often I found myself thinking, What the hell is this place? Who designed this room? Who was the architect who decided the ceiling would be this height, the toilet would go here and the sink there? Whose decision was it to use that color of paint and to install that kind of bulb? Who decided to hire KSG and thought he’d actually clean the place?
My motivation to keep shooting restrooms was not solely fueled by my frustration with this failure of society to do its chores. I found real beauty in the images I was creating too. Sure, the Tetons are unfathomably beautiful, but at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Idaho, there is a composting toilet in a little shack with a high window made of dimpled privacy glass that lets in the most pleasant and soothing diffusion of the sky outside. Granted, the toilet itself had turned into a landfill and there was a wasp’s nest on the ceiling, but I still found frames that made me smile. When shooting a muddy bootprint next to a urinal drain, I smiled in anticipation of the reaction I might get when I showed this body of work to my family and peers, tipping my hat and winking roguishly to Duchamp. But other times, that smile came from the simple satisfaction of snapping a frame you know is beautiful before you even review it.
And there was catharsis too — the relief of finally having acknowledged the elephant in the room. We try to forget that roadside restrooms exist the second we leave them, all too happy to pretend the filth inside never existed and we certainly didn’t contribute to it. But as I made these photographs, I was excited to shove them in front of someone and say, “Look, dammit! The mess didn’t disappear just because you left! Yes, your paper towel actually made it in the trash can this time, but that doesn’t mean you are guiltless to just leave ten thousand others on the floor behind you!” The parallels between the way we treat roadside bathrooms and the way we handle other shared spaces and issues began to blossom, a carrion flower perhaps, but a bloom nonetheless.
So many of the challenges that we face as a society, as a country, as a species, fall to the fate of the roadside bathroom. Yes, social security will be broke in a generation, but my checks keep coming. Sure, the oceans will be skin-meltingly acidic in 20 years, but my cruise is scheduled for this summer and I don’t want to lose my deposit. I know that most elections are pay-to-win, but isn’t that the way it’s always been? And anyway, my guy is in office this term, so let’s just see how things play out. And most recently — of course everyone needs some toilet paper, but I need to look out for my own, so yes, I’m going to buy 7,000 rolls. The list goes on.
All these issues I care about, but how to speak to each one? How can one person, one photographer make a dent in the relentless slog of dystopian headlines and shiny distractions? I remove the wadded paper towels blocking the sink drain. I wipe the seat even if the mess was from a previous tenant. And I photograph a rusted-out bombshell of a bathroom and make you think about it.