Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Telford’s Road: A Ribbon of Healing

By Stephen Trimble

US 89 begins just as it should—at a seam, a boundary, a suture line. The highway enters Utah from Arizona by crossing the Colorado River at Glen Canyon Dam. Highways cleave the world, and as you pass the dam these two halves fall away behind you in the rear view mirror. For hundreds of miles upstream on the Colorado an intricate maze of drainages leads away from the mainstem of the river into the slots and alcoves and labyrinths of the Canyonlands, the redrock heart of the Colorado Plateau. Downstream from the dam, the rumble of the river quickly disappears into the Earth, headed for the depths of the Grand Canyon.
The highway passes between these two great divisions of the continent and then turns west, moving up the successive lines of cliffs stepping northward away from the Grand Canyon in what geologists call the Grand Staircase. Each formation lifts you higher, each named for its characteristic rock color. The Chocolate Cliffs. The Vermilion Cliffs. The White, Gray, and Pink Cliffs.

This stretch of road between the Arizona line and Kanab, Utah, passes through real wilderness. The ribbon of asphalt rolls across the high desert, crosses the Paria River and the upswept hogback of the Cockscomb. These are the Big Empties—the only stretch of US 89 in Utah within designated national preserves, in this case, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
John Telford shows us Milepost One east of Big Water, with the distant sandstone cliffs kissed by the fires of Colorado Plateau sunlight. He doesn’t show us much of that spectacular country out beyond the highway. He has photographed those scenes elsewhere, published his grand landscape photographs in other books.

Telford’s US 89 really begins at Kanab. Here, the road begins to find its way along the path of Mormon settlement, running dot-to-dot from one pioneering small town to the next. US 89 trends north, crossing divides from river valley to river valley, from the Virgin to the Sevier, between Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, threading the linear ranks and lava-capped ramparts of the High Plateaus.

US 89 traces an agricultural landscape all the way to the Sanpete Valley: Little Denmark. Still rural and remote, but now with more center-pivot sprinklers than freshly arrived immigrants. Water guides the pattern of settlement and the path of the road, from the golf course air-brushed by irrigation onto the slickrock borders of Kanab to the geometric fields and pastoral turkey farms of Ephraim and Mount Pleasant.

From the cab of your pickup, you look past the fields at the surrounding mountains and redrock cliffs, and you feel you are traveling through wildlands. From the air, you see otherwise—Highway 89 runs cocooned in an agricultural landscape hugging the path of the road for mile after mile. The ribbon of the highway forms a corridor of Mormon culture and farmland.
In this passage across Utah, Telford moves from conversation to conversation, looking for the faces and stories that give the highway its personality. His journey takes us on an amble between front porches. Down the road lies another pioneer farmhouse, another local business, another refugee from the city opening a gallery or a one-of-a-kind restaurant. Utah’s smallest post office. Utah’s oldest hotel.

Telford personalizes the hot spots of Western history along the road. At Circleville, famous as the childhood home of Robert Leroy Parker, the young man who became the famous outlaw, Butch Cassidy, Telford doesn’t just photograph the Parker family cabin. He finds Wallace Ott, an old friend of Butch’s, to tell him stories. At Big Rock Candy Mountain, legendary destination for hobos and dreamers of the mythic West, he photographs signboards at roadside cabins, not the fabled mountain or its Lemonade Springs. At the Manti Miracle Pageant, he photographs both the paid anti-Mormon protestor and the local kids protesting the outsider—always looking to demystify and humanize the stories of the road.

Like Highway 89, Telford takes us on a leisurely journey through central Utah. His panoramic compositions run lazily out to the perimeters of our vision, whether a roadside scene or the confined space in the workshop of an artisan. This is not the four-lane straightaway of Interstate 15 west of the mountains, laid out in implacable linearity by super-confident highway engineers across the big, booming valleys of the Great Basin. Here, Telford willingly slows down for each curve, looking for authenticity, happy to maroon us in conversations at Mom’s Café or The Hot Spot in Salina—verbal exchanges impossible in a fast food franchise or Interstate quick-stop.

At the head of the Sanpete Valley, US 89 enters the mountains. In just a few miles the highway leaves the Colorado Plateau, transects the southernmost range of the Rocky Mountains, and rolls out into the Great Basin at Mapleton. This is the most abrupt transition of all—appropriately marked by the drama of the landslide and drowned town at Thistle.

After hundreds of miles in the clear light of the Colorado Plateau and warm embrace of pioneer nostalgia, suburbia takes us by surprise. From Spanish Fork to Brigham City, US 89 becomes an urban highway. More than 80 percent of Utah’s people live here along the Wasatch Front, in a dense concentration of cities and towns compressed between the mountains and the old Pleistocene lakes. Utah is one of the most urbanized states in the country.
US 89 runs smack through the middle of this urban complex, but keeps going, north and south, tying together the malls and suburbs and enclaves of sophistication with the tiny villages hundreds of miles away.

Telford finds stories even here, for Interstate 15 carries most of the traffic. Highway 89 follows the old Main Streets and State Streets of the downtown business loops. Telford finds Robbie Clayton stringing Christmas lights and kids riding carnival rides. Here the businesses are bigger, but still rooted in family. The Freeds of Lagoon, proprietors of the Disneyland of the Intermountain West. Gibbs Smith publishing a lifetime’s worth of books from a family farm in Layton. The contemporary representatives of generations of Pettingill fruit farmers in Willard and Cox beekeepers in Logan.

Small town characters carry us along to Salt Lake City, where the nationally prominent liberal Mayor Rocky Anderson works from his City Hall office right on US 89. Telford photographs Rocky passionately leading anti-George W. Bush rallies; he photographs the pro-Bush counter-protests, and then he moves on down the road out of the city, where the daily rhythms of small town life overwhelm such global concerns.

One current in western history is missing from Telford’s record, for traces of Indian Country are few and far between on Highway 89. Pioneer Anglo culture successfully displaced Navajo and Paiute, Ute and Shoshone from these springs and rivers that had been their homes. Native names remain: Kanab, Panguitch, Timpanogos. A cluster of Paiute tract homes huddles near the highway exit at Joseph. Far to the north, as Highway 89 runs into the mountains toward Logan and Cache Valley, it passes the abandoned intertribal Indian school at Brigham City, former home to hundreds of young Indian people from all over the west, an artifact from the Twentieth Century federal insistence on assimilation. And that’s about it.

That passage from Brigham City to Logan begins the leavetaking for US 89. The highway leaves the Wasatch Front. Cache Valley is the last Great Basin valley. When US 89 climbs the hill past Utah State University and enters the Bear River Range and Logan Canyon, wildlands once more take over from the colonized Utah of Mormon Country—for the first time, really, since Kanab. The road drops down to the family vacationland of azure Bear Lake and then heads north out of Utah, across the Idaho line.

On this road, each moment is a journey, an amalgam of motion and place and state of mind. You may be so distracted by your daydreams that you don’t see a thing, driving by instinct and peripheral vision. You may be transfixed by weather and scenery—the road receding into a barely noticed ribbon leading you through a three-dimensional landscape. You may focus on the road itself, on the drive, on the experience of speed and curve and acceleration.

You drive along from one point to another, from a beginning to a destination. John Telford reminds us that in between and along the way live the resident characters that give the road its vitality. He reminds us to stop and ask questions and begin conversations. Considerable common ground exists between these longtime locals in rural Utah and urban visitors from all over the world. The road is a bridge between cultures. The road is an archive of stories reeled out by generations of people living close to the land. If we can look at photographs from the road together and tell stories that grow from this land together—we will feel more comfortable in planning for a visionary future together. And so the highway helps to ease the tensions between these disparate elements of our society.

John Telford celebrates these connections. Highway 89 binds together communities. In these photographs, the road becomes a ribbon of healing.

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