Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.

Perfect gravel road

This country road may seem like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it is about 100 feet away from busy US 36, two miles west of Rockville, Indiana. As I took this photograph, the rumble of cars and trucks on the nearby highway blotted out nature’s sounds. Yet when I look at this photograph now, the scene seems so remote that I can imagine hearing the rustling wind and the chirping birds.

At one time, though, this road was the busy highway. This was an early alignment of the Pike’s Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, one of the “auto trails” that crisscrossed the nation in the early 20th century. Then in 1918, when Indiana created its first system of numbered state highways, this road became State Road 31. Next, in 1927 when the US numbered route system was formed, this road became US 36. It wasn’t uncommon for US routes to be gravel roads in the early days. It wasn’t until about the early 1930s that US 36’s current alignment was built nearby as a modern, paved highway. This has been a county road ever since.

Photography, Road Trips

Captured: Perfect gravel road

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Old US 36

I never expected to find that this old alignment of US 36 was a dirt road. But I go to find the unexpected.

Current US 36 lay 500 feet away, but here it was middle-of-nowhere quiet. I felt not just secluded, but exposed. I wondered how friendly the landowner was. I thought it might be entirely too easy to make a trespasser disappear.

But I lingered anyway, enjoying the tension. I took my time framing this photograph, which I’ve always loved. A copy hangs framed on the wall of my home office.

Old US 36 • Kodak EasyShare Z730 • May, 2007

Photography

Favorite Photos Week: Old US 36

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Photography

Photographic dissonance

I follow blogs of several other camera-collecting photographers and I get the sense that they all process their photographs in Photoshop or some other image-editing software.

I feel like I run a little against that grain because I use such software sparingly. I’m not opposed to processing; I can see how it is a tool for achieving an artistic vision.

But I shoot my old film cameras mostly for the experience of it. I just want to see what turns out, how the camera responds to the light and my composition. I realize that film, processing, and scanning play a large role in that, so last year I began trying to be consistent with these things. I stick to the same films, the same processing, and the same scanning so that the camera and lens are the variables. (Unfortunately, I have to choose a new processor as the one I was using got out of the business.) When I do use software to manipulate images from my film cameras, it’s mostly to crop or straighten them.

I’m more likely to manipulate the images that come from my digital cameras, adjusting color, brightness, contrast, and sharpness. I tweak subtly, enhancing it to match what I saw that made me want to shoot the scene. I barely know what I’m doing with these tools, not because I find software hard to use, but because I have much to learn about photography as art. Still, I recognize which tweaks please me and which don’t. I save the former and pitch the latter.

This is one of my favorite road-trip photos. Believe it or not, this is the original alignment of US 36 in Parke County, Indiana. When the US highway system was founded in 1927 it was largely routed along existing roads, paved or not. When the state got around to paving US 36, it straightened and moved the highway in this area, leaving this original alignment behind. I visited this spot in 2007 and shot this photo. This is exactly how it came out of my Kodak EasyShare Z730. (Click here to see it larger.)

Old US 36

I love this photograph. Some of my feelings for it come from the memory of that trip and my excitement over this discovery. But I also love this photo because the road, the light spot where the trees part, and the Bridge Out sign all guide the eye to the center of the image. And I can’t get over how deeply, vividly green the scene is, with that shock of tan dirt road, the battered red Stop sign, and the lurking red house. I love this photograph so much that I printed and framed it. It hangs prominently in my home.

The other day a copy of Photoshop Elements found its way into my hands, and I spent some time trying its tools on various photos. I had this photo open when I tried the Auto Smart Fix tool. I was astonished by how it affected the image. (Click here to see it larger. You can compare the two photos better at larger sizes.)

Old US 36

The processed photo immediately seemed more realistic to me than the original. The vivid but monolithic green gave way to varied shades, which created greater texture in the image and, I realized, reflects nature’s actual variety of color. I doubted the original photo’s accuracy. But then I wondered if I can even judge realism in this image. It’s been five years since that road trip. My memory of the scene’s actual color and texture at that moment would have faded anyway – but the original photograph had actually become my memory. (I distinctly remember nearly backing my car into the ditch as I turned it around on this narrow road, however.) I reeled in these realizations.

I had always thought that a photograph was a record, a factual statement. But no; a photograph is just a perspective. And clearly a photograph’s perspective can become my reality.

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History, Photography, Road Trips

Captured: Covered bridge on old US 36

Covered bridge on old US 36

I’m eager to get out on the road now that the weather’s nice. But this year no particular road seems to be calling me. In 2007, US 36 in western Indiana interested me. In 2008, I immersed myself in the Michigan Road. In 2009, I toured the National Road. I’ve had thoughts about doing the Indiana alignments of the Lincoln Highway this year, or maybe finally clinching the National Road by driving it across Ohio, or maybe trying to find all the old alignments of US 50 in Indiana.

Or maybe I’ll devote this road-trip season to finding old bridges. One of the best moments of any road trip is when I come across an old bridge. I especially enjoy steel truss bridges and wooden covered bridges, but stone arch, concrete arch, and suspension bridges are exciting too. There’s nothing like rounding a curve and having an old bridge come into view, a work of engineering and labor shouldering its burdens for many decades, even more than a century. Just like this covered bridge peeking out from behind the late-spring greenery on an old alignment of US 36 in Putnam County, Indiana. I didn’t know it was there, and I gasped as it revealed itself.

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Photography, Road Trips

Captured: Perfect gravel road

Perfect gravel road

This country road may seem like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it is about 100 feet away from busy US 36, two miles west of Rockville, Indiana. As I took this photograph, the rumble of cars and trucks on the nearby highway blotted out nature’s sounds. Yet when I look at this photograph now, the scene seems so remote that I can imagine hearing the rustling wind and the chirping birds.

At one time, though, this road was the busy highway. This was an early alignment of the Pike’s Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, one of the “auto trails” that crisscrossed the nation in the early 20th century. Then in 1918, when Indiana created its first system of numbered state highways, this road became State Road 31. Next, in 1927 when the US numbered route system was formed, this road became US 36. It wasn’t uncommon for US routes to be gravel roads in the early days. It wasn’t until about the early 1930s that US 36’s current alignment was built nearby as a modern, paved highway. This has been a county road ever since.

Read more about my trip down US 36 in western Indiana here and here.

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Road Trips

Old US 36 in western Indiana

Old US 36 in western Indiana is a pleasant enough road. It won’t knock your socks off like twisty State Road 62 in the hilly Ohio River valley, and it doesn’t carry the history of US 40 to the south. It’s just a minor US highway, two lanes most of the way, with some interesting scenery and occasionally some moderate hills and curves.

What makes US 36 interesting is its history, some of which is still evident in old alignments. I found several along the way, including two that contain covered bridges…

Covered bridge along old US 36 in Indiana

one that never got paved…

Dirt segment of US 36 in Indiana

and one that stops on one side of a lake and picks up on the other.

US 36 EB into Raccoon Lake in Indiana

There’s more to old US 36 than meets the eye in western Indiana. The whole story, with lots more pictures, is on my roads pages.

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