Highway Memories

Southbound hwy 99 somewhere north of Merced. Telephone poles along the highway.

Southbound hwy 99 somewhere north of Merced. Telephone poles along the highway.

As far back as when we lived in Fresno and regularly drove to the Bay Area for shows or to visit relatives, I was enamored of the scenery along Hwy 99. How far back is that? Well, it was before the housing boom and bust, before the first tech boom and bomb. Before graduate school in the Great Northwest gave me the opportunity to appreciate scenery vastly different and yet, at times, strangely familiar. What nature wrought was vastly different. What humanity wrought, strangely familiar.

Before Flickr, before I had ever heard of Stephen Shore, and before I realized the importance of acting on the impulse, I intended to do a photo essay of the road between Fresno and Oakland that would consist entirely of old, usually free-standing signs that no longer had buildings or businesses associated with them. I would call it “The Lexicon of Abandonment”. (I suppose I could now work on a series called “The Lexicon of Procrastination”; perhaps I’ll get to that soon.) Among the most memorable abandoned signs we would pass along the highway was a wonderful old sign at the entrance to a drive-in theater in Merced. I believe it was called “The Starlite Drive-In” and it was, of course, a fabulous mid-century specimen. But even 20 years ago, it stood in front of an otherwise empty field of weeds, tall and forlorn along the roadside.

My intention probably suffered a mortal blow during the recent development boom when many old, abandoned buildings, signs, or other things, were finally torn down to make way for the new and shiny. A new development right along old 99 finally brought down the Starlite. I never shot it. That’s not to say there aren’t still many abandoned old signs out there. But just as in the Little Prince, that Starlite was special because it chose me and I chose it.

There is something else along this strange stretch of road that greets me like a tired old friend each time I traverse it. Just north of Merced on the west side of the road and next to the railroad tracks, runs a series of telephone poles. For a long time, years, they seemed to be in use and maintained, if only barely. But now, many are leaning, missing cross pieces, or simply snapped off. Here and there, wood hangs limply from the sagging wires. Sometimes, it is all on the ground. To me, they look like lonely sentinels along a desolate road somewhere in the midwest. They wave to me when we go racing by on our frantic Fresno excursions to visit family. Now, I’m acting on the impulse and waving back, with my camera. Sitting shotgun, I aim through the glass and get what I get: portraits of my old friends looking just as I’ve always known them, flickering by 65 mph.