Essay, Old Cars

The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems

Originally published 22 July 2016. When we look back at the past, all too often it’s through rose-colored glasses.

But who doesn’t like to indulge in nostalgia? I sure do. I especially enjoy photographing classic cars and reminiscing about times when they still roamed America’s roads. One of my favorites is the 1966 Ford, like this convertible I found at the Mecum auction in May. My dad owned one when I was small, a two-door hardtop. I spent many happy hours in its spacious back seat.

1966 Ford Galaxie 500XL

Check out that styling! This long, low car looks so purposeful, so strong. Aren’t those tail lights just the bomb? It’s so much better looking than the tall, blobby cars they make today. And they made these cars out of heavy steel. You could sit five people on the hood of this car! Man, didn’t things just make sense back then? Today’s cars are bodied in steel so thin that if you sink your bottom onto a hood, you will dent it.

1966 Ford Galaxie 500XL

But those wistful memories can’t mask the truth: you’re safer in any modern car than in this one. And it’s not just that this old Ford lacks airbags and has only lap belts. Fords of this vintage were famous for sloppy handling, making it hard to quickly steer to avoid a crash. And the brakes are drums all around, subject to fast fading during a hard stop. Oh, and see that steering wheel? It’s mounted to a rigid steering column. In a head-on crash, it becomes a missile that smashes into your face. In modern cars, that column collapses on impact. Also, in modern cars a safety cage frames the entire interior to resist crushing in a crash. That thin exterior sheet metal, along with everything else outside that safety cage, is designed to absorb impact and keep you alive and intact. If you had a serious accident in a ’66 Ford, the car would crush in, and you would absorb the impact. The safety advantages of modern cars are well documented; check out this head-on crash between a 1959 and a 2009 car to see it in action.

1966 Ford Galaxie 500XL

When we look back on the past, we often fall prey to nostalgic preferences and the fading affect bias. In other words, we tend to remember the past’s good parts and forget the bad. It’s human nature to forget that in a crash, an old car like a 1966 Ford would cheerfully maim or kill you, and that far fewer people die in crashes per mile traveled today than 50 years ago.

But this forgetting tends to make us think whatever bad things are happening now have sunk society to new lows. We live in a time of great national economic uncertainty, racial unrest, and global terrorism. The specter of authoritarianism and fascism has risen in this year’s Presidential election. We have a right to be worried, angry, and even afraid. But think back to any time in the past and consider national and world events then. Racial tension has always been with us and has led to violence at various times in our history. Terrorism has been going on for years, but until the last 15 years or so it was largely a problem only in the rest of the world. Our government, a magnet for narcissists, has always contained people who have committed crimes and immoral acts. And at various times in our collective memory, we’ve been at war, or in economic recession or depression.

Life is like riding a roller coaster. While you’re on it, it’s scary. You don’t know what is coming: tall loops, long drops, hard turns. Yet when it’s over, we look in a new light at the parts that scared us. Retroactively, we find them to be exhilarating — or, at least for those of us who don’t enjoy roller coasters, safely completed. What was unknown is now known and our minds reframe the experience accordingly.

We look upon past times like roller coasters we’ve ridden: reframed based on what we know now, viewed through nostalgic preferences and fading effect bias.

We face very real perils and need to address them squarely. But perils have always existed. Now is not necessarily worse than any time in history.

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Essay, Photography, Travel

How to deal with difficult feelings about a photographic subject

First published 3 June 2016. I suppose every American has some baggage around 9/11, even those of us hundreds or thousands of miles away.

While we were in New York I couldn’t figure out how I felt about visiting the new World Trade Center and the neighboring memorial. Ambivalence gave way to curiosity, which yielded to revulsion. Then ambivalence returned and stayed. But visiting the site was on the must-do list for Margaret’s teenagers, who accompanied us. So off we went.

World Trade Center

I took just a few photos, and only these two are worth a darn. Above is the new World Trade Center, and below is the waterfall in the north pool of the memorial site directly to the south.

9/11 memorial

These photos offer no connection to the place. This could be any tall building; this could be any man-made waterfall. I think it’s because I didn’t want to be connected to this place. And the memorial felt sterile to me.

We walked from there a couple blocks to St. Paul’s Chapel. Margaret knew only that it was a 1766 church among the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and that therefore she wanted to see it. We didn’t know its special, critical connection to the aftermath of 9/11.

St. Paul's Chapel

We learned that for eight months St. Paul’s Chapel was an aid and comfort station for everyone working the recovery. The building was open around the clock; volunteers fed and prayed with the workers and various doctors came to tend to their medical needs. Musicians even came to play for everyone.

Despite being so close to the collapsed towers, St. Paul’s survived without even a broken window.

St. Paul's Chapel

Even though this is still a functioning church with services every Sunday, memorial panels full of photographs line the north wall inside. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had hoped to get away from my feelings about 9/11 by just enjoying and photographing the architecture here. The only photos I took of the memorials are two photos of patches from police and fire forces around the world. They were sent here in a show of solidarity and mourning for their injured and dead comrades.

St. Paul's Chapel

The rest of my photographs were typical-of-me architecture shots, trying to record a solid sense of this building. Back in Indiana there are no buildings from 1766. It was a great joy to experience this one.

St. Paul's Chapel

It is a lovely church, perfectly maintained in every detail.

St. Paul's Chapel

We stepped out back and found a graveyard. In New York as in Indiana, churches used to bury┬átheir dead out back. It was surreal to see these very old gravestones amid the towering buildings all around. It was even more surreal to learn that in 1766, St. Paul’s Chapel was the tallest building in the city. I loved imagining a time when that would have been true. Apparently, the church was surrounded by orchards!

St. Paul's Chapel

St. Paul’s Chapel is a stunning building. But I recognized that because I couldn’t escape 9/11 here, I wasn’t connecting to it in the ways I normally would. And then I came upon the bell.

St. Paul's Chapel

It was a gift from the city of London to the city of New York after the attack, a symbol of friendship and solidarity across the oceans. This is where it all connected for me: this tragedy had worldwide reach, and it affected everyone who heard of it. There’s no shame that my feelings about 9/11 remain unsettled, uncertain. I cried here for a minute, quietly.

I shot my Canon S95 raw, which meant a lot of post-processing in Photoshop when I got home. It takes a little time to tweak each photograph for its best look. It gave me time to process not only my feelings about our visit to these sites but also more of my feelings about 9/11 itself. While processing photos, I slowly reviewed the day and thought about each scene, including those I didn’t photograph. That time and space to think, alone in my quiet home office, let me find a little more peace.

One photograph I didn’t take was of one of the pews. A few years ago St. Paul’s removed most of its pews, replacing them with individual chairs arranged in a U. But a couple pews remained in the back. In this church so perfectly maintained, the pews were gashed and gouged and chewed up — by the heavy shoes and gear of the recovery workers who rested on them. These pews remain as a memorial.

It was emotionally difficult to follow the news stories of the recovery work in the months following the attack. I dealt with it by dissociating from it. But seeing those gouged pews made those people and their experiences real. And so I don’t need a photograph of those pews; I’ll never forget them.

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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Road Trips

US 36 and the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway in western Indiana

In the 1910s and 1920s, before the creation of the US highway system, an unofficial network of roads called Auto Trails crisscrossed the nation. The Lincoln Highway is perhaps the best known of them. Other well-known trails include the Dixie Highway, the Yellowstone Trail, the National Old Trails Road, the Jefferson Highway, and the Old Spanish Trail. These were major trails that spanned coasts or connected the far north to the deep south. Many smaller trails, some entirely within certain states, also existed.

Auto trails were mostly cobbled together out of existing roads, except out West, where roads sometimes had to be built for these trails. Each trail was managed by an Association, such as the Lincoln Highway Association, which determined it route and promoted it. Each Auto Trail had its mission, such as the Lincoln Highway’s to provide a well-marked transcontinental route. But how any city or town made it onto an auto trail was often a matter of politics and favors. Cities and towns very much wanted to be on these auto trails for the traffic, and therefore commerce, they would bring.

One lesser known — I’d argue little known — transcontinental auto trail was the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway (PP-OO). It was formed in 1914 to connect New York City to San Francisco through Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California.

For reasons lost to time, the road frequently avoided major cities, which hurt its commercial viability and may be why it’s not better known today. Also, I know of no other Auto Trail that changed its route as often as the PP-OO. For a time, it even had two western ends: San Francisco and Los Angeles!

Courtesy the Federal Highway Administration

In Indiana, it appears that at first the PP-OO followed the National Road to Indianapolis and then the Rockville State Road to Rockville in western Indiana, and thence to Illinois. This road would become US 36 in 1926.

But in the years that followed, this Auto Trail was heavily realigned. In the end, the PP-OO entered Indiana at Union City and then followed roughly what is now State Road 32 through Winchester, Muncie, and Anderson. Then it connected to what is now US 136 and ran through Crawfordsville and Covington on its way to Danville, Illinois. This new leg in western Indiana was also the Dixie Highway. I explored this section of US 136 in 2012; see those posts here.

Anyone trying to follow the PP-OO at any time really needed an up-to-date trail map!

In 2007 I grew curious about US 36 in western Indiana. It was one of the original US highways in 1926, and in those days its eastern end was in Indianapolis. Tracing US 36 on the map I found a number of possible old alignments, and I wanted to explore them all. This is also when I learned about the PP-OO and its original western-Indiana alignment along the US 36 corridor. I explored US 36 and the PP-OO on two separate trips, May 28 and August 17, 2007. I wrote about it then on my old Roads site, which I’m deprecating. In the weeks to come, I’ll share those stories and photographs here.

Old US 36

Further reading about the PP-OO:

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Road Trips

US 40 and the National Road in western Indiana, 2006

I’m going to start sharing my very first road trip, on July 15, 2006, down US 40 and the National Road from Indianapolis to the Illinois state line. I’m bringing this content over from my Roads pages on my old HTML site, which I will eventually shut down.

I traveled US 40 from Indianapolis to Terre Haute for the first time in 1984. I was a senior in high school, and my parents were taking me to visit Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. I didn’t know the road’s important history then and I hadn’t even begun to become a roadfan. I remember only two things about the road, and both of them were near Terre Haute. First, as you crested the last hill before Rose-Hulman, a red, round 84 Lumber sign seemed to rise out of the hill like the morning sun. It was kind of disorienting, really. Second, the clock on the bright yellow Clabber Girl Baking Powder billboard had stopped.

The 84 Lumber sign peeking through the trees; the Clabber Girl billboard beyond it

I ended up attending Rose-Hulman and became friends with a fellow who liked to take me on late-night drives on obscure highways and country roads to see where they led. I began to wonder why roads turned out as they did. For example, why did State Road 42 have two ninety-degree turns at the Vigo-Clay county line? Since every journey out of Rose-Hulman started with US 40, I became interested in it, too. I asked a classmate from nearby Brazil why US 40 through his hometown was called National Ave.; he said that was the road’s “old name.” I learned that locals considered the intersection of 7th Street and Wabash Avenue, where US 41 used to intersect with US 40, to be not only the crossroads of America, but the crossroads Eric Clapton sang of with Cream. And then somebody told me that State Road 340 between Brazil and the Vigo County line was an old alignment of US 40. I started to become fascinated.

Clabber Girl
The Clabber Girl billboard, the clock working this time

2006 was the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson authorizing a National Road. It would be 30 years before it reached Indiana, and another 90 years before it became part of the US numbered highway system. The original road through Indiana was a narrow path made largely of dirt and sometimes chipped stone or macadam. It is now a paved highway, four lanes through most of the state.

My friend Dawn and I discovered our mutual interest in roads and US 40 in particular, and after learning that we were in that anniversary year we both started talking about traveling the road in western Indiana and looking for old alignments. Dawn has lived her whole life near US 40 between Plainfield and Brazil, and I spent nine years living in Terre Haute where I traveled the road between Brazil and Illinois. Between us, we thought we knew the road. As we researched, we discovered many old alignments of  US 40 and the National Road, always under our noses but beyond our detection. We decided we had to make the trip and explore these alignments.

At the Clay-Vigo Line
You’ll see these signs pointing the way all across Indiana’s National Road

On July 15, 2006, we drove west from the intersection of Washington and Meridian Streets in Indianapolis and, several hours later, crossed the Illinois border. Along the way, we saw many old alignments of US 40 and the National Road ranging from unusable to maintained state highway. We followed any road marked with a Historic National Road marker, any road marked National Avenue or National Road, and roads the Indiana National Road Association identified on (a now long-ago version of) their Web site as being old National Road segments.

I took photos as we went, which I will share and describe in a number of posts to come.

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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National Road and US 40 bridges at Blaine, OH

Two bridges at Blaine
Canon PowerShot S95

One bridge was built in 1826, the other in 1932. One guess which is which!

Both bridges carry the National Road/US 40 over Wheeling Creek near Blaine in Belmont County, Ohio. It’s just five miles from the Ohio River, the border with West Virginia.

The lower bridge came first. It’s the oldest standing bridge in Ohio, and is the longest of the few remaining S bridges in the state. Notice its “S” curvature? This was done in the name of economy: it’s less expensive to build and maintain a bridge that’s perpendicular to the creek it crosses. They merely curved the approaches to meet the road.

This was just fine in the days of horses and buggies with their slow speeds. As automobiles took over, it became a hazard. Drivers had to slow way down to negotiate the S. Some didn’t slow down in time.

Moreover, west of this bridge lay a very steep hill. It was challenging for cars of the day to climb. I’m sure pedestrians and horses didn’t much enjoy the climb either!

The upper bridge made travel easier on three counts: it eliminated the S, it offered a wider deck (38.1 feet vs. 26.9 feet), and it created a gentler rise to the top of the hill.

I know of four other S bridges on the National Road: one in Pennsylvania (here) and three in Ohio (two here, the third here). That last one was still open to traffic when I visited it in 2011, and I drove over it. By 2013 it, too, was closed (here).

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Photography, Preservation, Road Trips

single frame: Two bridges at Blaine

Two bridges on the National Road/US 40 in Blaine, Ohio.


As the last of the Shakers left their central-Kentucky village — or died — in the early 1900s, their village fell into private hands and became known as Shakertown. Some buildings were given new uses, others were left to rot.

The same kind of determination and hard work the Shakers put into building their village went into restoring it. Some buildings were beyond saving, and some were already gone, but those that remain are a living look back into this religious sect and its way of life. Read a little bit about their history here.

Stone house
Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill
Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill
Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill

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The simple architecture of Shaker Village

A photo tour of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in central Kentucky, focusing on the many buildings that still stand there.