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Alligators, Jimmy Carter and the Extraterrestrial Highway

Falling in love with America, again
Tue, 02/25/2014 - 5:30pm

In 2012, Bruce Barlow of Westport Island made a bucket list of sorts with three things he knew he wanted to do: 1. Build a “writer's cabin” on the coast of Maine; 2. Join the Peace Corps; 3. Travel solo across the United States.

The “cabin,” actually a 1,440 square foot timber frame house, is almost finished. It is being custom built on the shore on Westport Island by Shelter Institute.

He has changed his mind about the Peace Corps, and said that probably won't happen.

As for the trip, he can now cross it off the list.

On March 3, 2013, Barlow loaded up his 2012 Chevy Express van, built a platform with a mattress in the back, packed up a bare minimum of supplies, and took off.

He left Westport, drove up to Route 1 in Wiscasset, and took a left. Thus began a journey that would span seven and half months and cover 39,583 miles.

Barlow is a photographer. The only plan in mind was to see the country and take some pictures.

Barlow was fulfilling a dream that began taking shape in his mind in 1982 when he read a book by William Least Heat-Moon called “Blue Highways.” He said the book was “magical.”

Heat-Moon derived the phrase “blue highways” from the thin blue lines on the Rand McNally atlas that indicated small back roads connecting small, out-of-the-way towns all over America.

The book chronicles the story of Heat-Moon's extended road trip on the “blue highways,” around the U.S. “He did 15,000 miles,” Barlow said.

He sent an email to Heat-Moon asking for advice before he left. He said the response included these words of wisdom: “Proceed as the way opens,” an old Quaker phrase. Barlow said that turned out to be the perfect advice. He made a point to avoid planning ahead.

While on his road trip, Barlow connected spiritually with John Steinbeck, who wrote ‘Travels with Charley,’ another book that signaled Barter’s wanderlust, and attempted to catch up with Heat-Moon. “I saw Steinbeck's pickup truck in Salinas, Calif., and Heat Moon wasn't home when I knocked on his door in Columbia, Mo.,” he said.

By traveling the back roads, Barlow said he saw small town America.

The trip was a life changer. “I drove 39,583 miles, and you can not come away with anything but a really complex vision of what this country is all about. I fell in love with this country again.”

But some of what Barlow encountered was deeply disturbing to him.

“Vietnam veterans. We have a lost generation there,” he said. “In a town in Idaho I heard stories of some guys who people said weren't quite right. I said, 'What is it about them?' Well, they said, they're all Vietnam veterans.”

He wonders what will become of the veterans of this era. “That's the next lost generation.”

The trip left Barlow with a feeling of ambiguity. “On the one hand I love the country deeply, and I see such incredible potential,” he said. “But on the other hand there are so many things about it that are just so heartbreaking. The poverty that I saw is just amazing.”

Barlow took a lot of pictures of American flags and cemeteries. “I have a thing for American flags. If you are going to display a flag, have it mean something; don't just put up a flag. I also have a thing for graveyards.”

Two highlights of his trip were Death Valley, which he described as “incredibly beautiful” and Mount St. Helens. “Mount St. Helens was spectacular — hundreds of acres of downed white tree trunks all lined up like matchsticks — the explosion had blown them all over in the same direction,” he said.

Barlow ate at a lot of roadside joints. One of the more memorable ones was in Virginia. Scooby’s Hotdogs was just outside Richmond. It advertised Vienna hot dogs. “Vienna hot dogs are Chicago style hot dogs,” he said. “I'm from Chicago and I love Vienna hot dogs. I ate far more than I should have, and I don't care.”

He also frequented Walmart parking lots, where he saw lots of people coming out of the store heading to their vans and RVs loaded with packages. “Walmart is smart to let people park there,” he said. “They’re hospitable places to park overnight, with bathrooms, food and anything else one probably needs.”

One of Barlow's photographs is of a small, pink abandoned house with graffiti painted on the front. “I fell in love with America when I saw that place,” he said. “Who was that guy? Why was he a ‘helluva man’?” Barlow wondered who thought enough of him to write that on his house. And there are children's toys scattered around the yard. “There's a whole story in one photograph. I saw that picture and I started to cry. I said, 'God I love this country.'”

Somewhere near Plains, Ga., it occurred to him that Jimmy Carter lived nearby. He learned that Carter would be teaching a Sunday School class that Sunday morning, so Barlow went and sat in on it. Afterward a crowd was gathered outside and he had his picture taken with Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.

The trip also included a drive along the “Extraterrestrial Highway” in Nevada, a 98-mile stretch in south central Nevada. The name was derived from the many supposed UFOs and other unexplained sightings along this road.

He took a tour of the battleship North Carolina in Wilmington on Easter morning.

He went to the Everglades to see alligators and “was not disappointed.”

He photographed the wild ponies at Assateague State Park in Maryland.

He saw elephant seals in southern California.

He went to the geographical center of North America: Rugby, N.D.

He went to Arco, Idaho, “the first city in the world to be lit by atomic power.”

Barlow's next trip will be a little more relaxing. “I will, at some point, fly to Los Angeles, rent a Mustang convertible, and drive north to Astoria, Ore., taking at least a week.”

He would recommend a road trip to anyone. “But it doesn't need to be the scale or duration of what I did.” And he said it might take a certain type of person to do it solo. “I found that I enjoyed the solitude, but not everyone would .... whenever I might have felt a little blue, I sought out people, and that always did the trick.”

Barlow did what a lot of us will only dream of doing, and is glad he did. “This is an incredibly beautiful country, and I saw some of the most beautiful parts.”

Bruce Barlow will be giving a presentation on March 4 at the Congregational Church in Wiscasset.

Related: Bruce Barlow’s trip of a lifetime (photo album)