Sometimes you have to just get off your ass and hit the road. There’s something about this quintessential experience of being on the road I take a liking too. Maybe it’s the feeling of accomplishment for having taken the slow way from getting from point A to point B, listening to jams as a constant bombardment of visuals pass by (even if it’s flat, stagnant Midwest landscapes), or the enticement of traveling to somewhere you’ve never been before. Most of the time though it’s with friends, which is great and all, but how many times has a something along the way caught your eye and you want to stop but can’t because, hell, you only have so many hours of day light left to get to your destination? Well, with a few days off work and no plans to do anything fun or productive I figured I’d answer this question by taking a solo road trip with no particular destination but to travel the Missouri bootheel. The plan was simple: Travel through southeast Missouri towns, making stops to go through two rolls of Kodak 100 Ektar film with my Minolta X-700 camera and 28mm lens. It had been a long time since I’ve done something spontaneous like this with no particular need to accomplish anything but have fun. A much needed experience for sure.
My adventure began in the parking lot of the Gerbes grocery store after picking up snacks for the road. I’ve always seen this guy downtown when I get coffee in the morning and had been meaning to approach him. To explain myself, I told him I was trying to get back into film photography and was planning on taking a trip south to accomplish this. Didn’t say much else and this is essentially what I told everyone who I photographed. I wanted to talk more about his bike but he was in a hurry so I only had a chance to snap this photo before he left. I have no idea what’s with the colors going on in the sky of the film but I worked it as much as a could (*Note, film was processed at Walgreens, hence the shit ton of scratches. Would like to go back and clean them up later, but for now I’ll let the grittiness slide).
Once I got on the highway I figured I wouldn’t make any stops until I went south on Interstate 55 where I could follow the river south making stops in towns close to the Mississippi.
For a nice, sunny spring day it was pretty quiet around this small town less than an hour outside of St. Louis, although it was a Sunday. I saw this girl talking with her parents and made a quick portrait.
This is John Brock, 18, of Arnold, Mo. I noticed him fishing with is buddies in a creek underneath this bridge near the Mississippi River as I was driving by. It was getting late in the day and I was still only less than an hour out of St. Louis leaving me wonder where I would end up for the night. However, I continued to remind myself I didn’t want to let time become a constraint on this trip, so ending up hanging out with this group for over an hour, snapping only a few frames. (It reminded me of the frame count limit you get at the Missouri Photo Workshop, although I only had 72 frames, not 100, so I was much more cautious and patient). It was fun just shooting the shit with these guys hearing what it’s like growing up in the area. With the daylight dwindling and only a couple small fish caught I parted ways and looked for a place to stay the night in Festus, Mo.
After making it to Festus I headed south on Highway 61, which runs parallel to Interstate 55. This smaller road slowed my progress a little bit but it made exploring smaller towns much easier as the highway ran straight through most on the way south. Growing up in the St. Louis suburbs houses like the one above are common but seeing these newly built homes in the sparse rural landscape with no neighbors near by kind of strikes me as a little unusual.
Now about an hour south of St. Louis I arrived in St. Genevieve. Incorporated in 1805, this town is home to old “French Creole colonial” style homes built during Spanish rule of the late 18th century. Really cool buildings and atmosphere downtown, but not too many people out and about so I explored a little more around the neighborhoods.
This is Mike Sizemore mowing his fiancée’s grass. He was one of the first people I talked to and he told me all I needed to know about the cultural and historical significance of the town.
But of course I have to stop for dogs..
…who then say hello to the postal worker. She was not intimidated. Next to her is Edward Wolk, who was watching over his dogs.
I originally approached Edward to ask him about the sweet dune buggy (scene above) in the street. It wasn’t his and he didn’t seem too interested in its appeal. We chatted for a while and he didn’t seem to ever mind my obtrusion nor question why presence. That was one surprise of this whole trip: most people didn’t mind a random stranger with a camera approach them just to get to know them. Yeah, of course starting the conversation is always a little awkward at first, but unlike on assignment for a newspaper I was in no rush. In most cases I talked with people for tens of minutes before even taking a picture. It was a relief actually to have this uninhibitedness and just let the interactions play out. The interesting thing was just that most people weren’t apprehensive in deciding to talk with me. All though, when you live and work in place over saturated with media such as Columbia you might assume this. But, as a stranger walking around these small towns I was surprised by the open candor of people I approached. After breaking the ice with Edward he opened up pretty quickly, going into detail of the struggles after injuring his back has caused him. I don’t know if it was just small town hospitality but I was appreciative of the positive interactions I had with people on this trip.
No flooding this time around.
After grabbing a boiling hot coffee for under a dollar from a cafe, I hit the road again. Not the prettiest of surroundings but the vast openness/dullness of rural Missouri will always have a place in my heart.
As I was driving south on 61 I thought this scene warranted a stop. I don’t know how I managed to just be able to waltz on this lumber yard but random dude working there had no problems. Would of been nice to get him in a frame though because those logs in the background stand over our heads.
Another road side attraction. Saw this blue water-filled quarry out of the corner of my eye. Had to crawl through some dense vegetation to see this view but it was worth it.
While the intention of this trip was to have no particular destination, I did have one place in mind on may my way south: Cairo, Illinois (pronounced “KEH-ro”)
Why would I want to visit the southernmost city in Illinois you may ask? Well, I first learned about Cairo when I was part of the photo staff at the Columbia Missourian. The spring of 2011 brought an onslaught of heavy rains in May overwhelming rivers and straining levees, including the one protecting Cairo, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The entire town of over 2,000 residents were evacuated after waters rose above 1937 levels. To alleviate the threat of water breaching into the town, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers exploded a levee just south of town. The move, however, unleashed the waters into empty farm fields and around evacuated homes on the Missouri side. The decision ultimately though came down to either losing property and livelihood in a floodway or an area not designed to flood. In the end, a town where 30% of its population live in poverty was sparred.
On the left of this photo is the main road that runs through the long, skinny peninsula of land Cairo is located. On right is an old relic of a once bustling town who’s peak of population was near 15,000.
After driving through the town I settled on a high school baseball game about to start. Again I was surprised no one really was discouraged of my presence, though I do recall getting asked if I was with the newspaper. So of course posed pictures were asked of me. Not being able to see the photo on the back of my camera was a disappointment, however, for some of the players.
Took this photo after buying bubble gum from these two girls at their snack stand. 25-cents for gum ain’t bad.
Eventually the novelty of my presence wore off and I was able to get some candid moments of the players before the game started.
Once the game started I mostly hung out in the stands watching the game and chatting with this guy named Glenn Box. Nice, genuine guy, he was glad to tell me anything I could want to know about the town. He’s lived there most of his life and while he sees the town a little less positively today then when he was growing up he doesn’t plan on giving up on being a mentor and positive role model to the children of Cairo.
While the Cairo team wasn’t very good at winning games they did bring tenacity and energy to the game, executing plays that would make the crowd erupt.
At this desolate intersection you can see the flood wall to the Ohio River in the background of the vacant buildings. It makes me wonder what this town used to be like in its heyday.
Despite it’s size and location, the town was riddled with fine mansions built in the 19th and early 20th century. However, they have not stood the test of time well as seen with this ivy-covered home.
The street signs have fared no better.
I don’t know if growing up in a river city has anything to do with it, but there’s something about towns and cities situated on water I like. Maybe the sight of a body of water next to an urban center intrigues me or perhaps it’s just the flow of running water. Either way, I thought seeing the sun set on the horizon of the Ohio River was a perfect ending to my day in Cairo.
After exploring Cairo Monday, I stayed the night in a motel in Cape Girardeau. Tuesday was my last day on my trip so I explored the historic downtown before driving south a little bit more before heading back to Columbia.
While I was hoping to make it to the Arkansas border on this trip, I only made it as far south as New Madrid, Mo., which is a little less than an hour north of the border. For those not from Missouri, the town was made famous after a string of earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, reaching up to or near magnitude 8 multiple times over this period. While there have been way bigger earthquakes on the west coast, the kind of rocks in the ground in the Midwest made the damage caused by the earthquake much worse. Supposedly the earthquakes could be felt as far away as New York and Boston where church bells rang. For $5 I visited the historical museum where myself with two older-aged couples as we were given a tour of the museum. Other than the museum and an historic marker near the Mississippi River, the town didn’t have much appeal for earthquake related stuff so I left shortly after.
By the time I started heading back north I still had some frames left to make of my two rolls I brought with me. So as I drove back to Columbia I stopped to grab any sort of road side attractions I could, such as this weird, random sign covered in bushes next to an old abandoned bar-looking place called Ko Ko Jo’s.
America is weird, right? I mean cars jacked up in a parking lot of place called Pit Stop Pizza is something you might only see if you go on road trips. Not pictured around the corner of this establishment are a carpet store called Karpet Korner, The Lone Star Dance Hall & Saloon and a strip club called The Pony.
After three days and two nights on the road it was back to the familiar for me.
Still a few frames left..
And I’m back home. Wish I could have gone longer with this trip but it was good to get away for a little while and get back into film. Would of loved to have gone to some of these places with friends but by going solo I could let the experience unfold in front of me, making for a fairly stress-free adventure. Still most surprised by how welcoming most people were to me. Good to know for the next time I try something like this. Thanks for looking and reading!