Voyaging: Traveling on U.S. 131. Away from Home

The great American road trip. Epic excursions to places far-flung and unknown. Misty mountain peaks near spacious, swathes of majestic valleys. If money was no object, these would be spectacular places to travel and photograph. Money is most definitely an object though, and the places I find myself most often are close-flung. Here’s the secret: it’s not about traveling the farthest or to the most out-of-the-way locales. The secret is that the beauty is around you.

U.S. 131- Northern Michigan

Even around northern Michigan, the pull to travel to Lake Michigan or one of the many naturally-amazing areas is strong. Recently though, I found myself driving in the opposite direction of the pull. To travel on a stretch of highway I rarely do, through small towns and past corn fields, and to do it within the few hours an evening offers.

U.S. 131-Northern Michigan

This shift in thinking—moving away from traditional landscapes to non-traditional ones—is what the new topographic movement is about. There are numerous photographers out there today photographing in this wonderful style. An excellent article, over at Feature Shoot, referring to this can be found here. Armed with heaps of inspiration, I grabbed my camera bag and a couple rolls of film before heading along U.S. Highway 131.

U.S. 131-Northern Michigan

U.S. Highway 131 is a north-south highway traveling through many types of small towns that exude Americana. There are train tracks that run parallel to U.S. 131 which have a story to themselves. When Ernest Hemingway was young, he and his family would travel by train to their summer cottage on Walloon Lake in northern Michigan. To arrive there, the tracks along U.S. 131 are the ones they would’ve taken.

U.S. 131-Northern Michigan

As I motored out and about, the light was gorgeous. Natural light is often a game of dice rolling as it changes all the time, and fast too. On this particular evening though, it was shaping up to be diffused and warm, with patches of pastel pinks and oranges the lower the sun descended. My photo excursion wasn’t completely unplanned, there was an old yellow farmhouse I’d passed a while back and I knew it’d look great with some nice setting-sun light. If that house was the only photograph I captured, it would’ve made the trip worth it. “Everything else outside of that house would be bonus,” I told myself. My timing was perfect for capturing the once-a-home that stood, seemingly abandoned, near U.S. 131 in what I believe was Star Township. The camera for this trip was my Leica M6 35mm rangefinder. It could’ve been any camera but I wanted to make these images using the magic of film. There’s no need for digital vs. film or this camera vs. that camera here, they’re all good and most importantly, it’s a personal decision. For me personally, every now and then I need the process of photography to slow down and film photography does that for me.

U.S. 131-Northern Michigan

Technical talk aside, after photographing the house, I found the low sun illuminating some fantastic billboards north of Mancelona, MI. Northern Michigan is my home and despite all my traveling, I’ve never noticed these billboards. Last week, Meg and I were traveling past where the billboards were and one of them is gone! This is another important tip, photograph interesting things because they may not be there forever. Photography is so many things and it’s a powerful medium; artistic creation and documentation are the two that immediately come to mind.

U.S. 131-Northern Michigan

Overall, I considered this a productive and worthwhile trip. I suggest you take a different, unfamiliar route. Find beauty in places and things that you normally wouldn’t. It’s a fun exercise and can lead to some surprising and pleasing results with your photography.

“No place is boring, if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film.”

Robert Adams

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