You never know who you'll meet on your journey. All photos by Jennifer Emerling.
The open roads in the U.S. West can be beautiful, but also a little weird. And nobody captures America's quirky side better than Jennifer Emerling, one of Popupla's 24 Best Travel Photographers. In her ongoing project, See America First!, Jennifer juxtaposes America's natural beauty against kitschy, artificial roadside attractions — and the people who are attracted to both. She shares with us some of her favorite shots from the series.
USA – When World War I shut down overseas travel in the early 20th century, the railways and national parks teamed up to inspire Americans to plan their next vacation closer to home. Ads were launched combating the idea that only beautiful places existed in foreign countries. This campaign, See America First!, created a national tourism identity and defined the culture of traveling in the American West.
Over two summers, with the spirit of the original campaign at the forefront of my mind, I photographed travelers and people working in the tourism industry throughout the West. What was once pieced together by today's version of the railway system — our scenic highways and byways.
I discovered what used to be our frontier is now a frequently-traveled, highly-saturated landscape sprinkled with folklore and cartoonish roadside attractions. This strange harmony of artificial and natural attractions is unmistakably West: it is a wholly American experience I want to share with those who have yet to feel this rich and undulating tapestry, and those so familiar with it that they can conjure those images in dreams.
The Gorge, New Mexico
I met Mary and Les on a bridge that looks out over The Gorge, just outside of Taos, New Mexico. While The Gorge is not technically a part of our National Parks system, it's still a worthy stop as it gives you a great, scenic view of the majestic Rio Grande — you can meet lots of fellow travelers while crossing the bridge. I was drawn to them because of Les's adorable bolo tie and Mary's smile.
North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona
The morning I took this photo, I woke up at 3 a.m. and drove down a dark, windy road to the furthest part of the North Rim for optimal sunrise viewing. There I met a family of five from Sweden. It was so important to the parents that their kids wake up early to see the sun rise over the Grand Canyon; they knew their kids would look back on this moment as a cherished family memory. As the kids huddled under blankets, pushing through their exhaustion and braving the cold, the glowing sun magically transformed the canyon from pitch black to purple to pink to orange to blue right before their eyes.
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
There are two things I love about this photo: the subtle gradient colors in the sky above White Sands — which can often be seen just after sunset — and the classic, mid-century look of these picnic shelters that appear to have stood the test of time to shelter many a traveler from the elements of the Southwest.
Bedrock City Cafe, Arizona
Bedrock City harkens back to the golden era of Route 66, when small, family-owned theme parks were still plentiful and thriving. This particular park and camping site was inspired by the 1960s cartoon, The Flintstones. Today, Bedrock City can still be visited and experienced with exactly the same amount of charm that it's had since opening in 1972, even though the business is actually hanging on by a thread. I met Rick Hoovem while he was waiting for lunch. Now a former employee due to poor financial state of the park, he still likes to come by and visit his work family and hopes the park continues to stay open for future generations to enjoy.
Gifts and Supplies at a Truck Stop in Arizona
As a visual storyteller, layering is key to making a good photo. This scene from a truck stop in Arizona is packed with visual clues of random, funny, and sometimes necessary things you might find in any given truck stop, while also hinting at the cultural elements of the Southwest.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
When I'm working on the road, I'm usually up before sunrise chasing that beautiful golden light. This picture was taken about an hour after dawn in Petrified Forest National Park, just east of Holbrook, Arizona. In this particular case I got there well before the park opened, but by the time it did, I was the first visitor to drive through — which was so incredible. The colors and shapes of the painted rocks, paired with the big open sky, illustrate the beckoning of the open road in the America West.
Highway 89, Arizona
Driving the scenic route along State Route 89 from the South Rim to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon will take you through Navajo Nation. Because most of this land is part of the Indian Reservation, you won't see a lot of chain businesses. Instead, I encountered several street art murals on some abandoned buildings that are a part of The Painted Desert Project by Chip Thomas. I really liked this symbolism of folklore in this mural the represents, to me, High Noon in the Old West.
I was on a two-lane highway on my way to Prescott, Arizona, when I drove past this gas station and saw a family of four roller skating out of the stop-n-go. I immediately recognized this unique picture opportunity (I mean, who roller skates anymore?), and made a quick U-turn so I could meet them. The family was friendly and also amused that I wanted to photograph them rollerskating. This kind of quirky roadside discovery gets me way stoked about traveling.
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
Mount Rushmore is a standard stop on an American road trip, especially if you're traveling through the stunning Black Hills region of South Dakota. I knew I wanted to make a nice portrait here, but I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of people. I almost gave up when my intuition kicked in and told me to stay. Then I spotted Miyako and Bernie — their adorable matching outfits stood out in the crowd. When Bernie finished telling me all about his past travels and how he met Miyako in Japan, he asked me to take a photo of them, and I snapped this portrait on my camera at the same time.
Farmington, New Mexico
Typography on a gas station awning in Farmington, New Mexico. To me, it sums up a collective identity we all share.
Geographic Center of the U.S. Near Belle Fourche, South Dakota
The true geographic center of all 50 United States is not in Kansas (as some people might think), but actually 20 miles north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota. If you want to REALLY get to the geographic center, you have to go on a little adventure down an unpaved, unmarked road that is very easy to miss if you don't pay attention to your odometer. I was the only person on this country road for more than two hours. I had little hope any other travelers would show up to frame in the photo. Thankfully, two travelers arrived to take a picture of their own right as I was about to leave, and I snapped this photo through my passenger window.
Wall Drug, South Dakota
When driving through South Dakota, it's impossible not to see a plethora of signs promoting Wall Drug: a kitschy tourist stop bursting with floor-to-ceiling gifts, food, and entertainment. This popular roadside attraction is not shy with self-promotion, as the endless sea of billboards have clearly paid off with a strong tourist draw. My favorite part is their giant Jackalope that nearly everyone wants to get a picture with.
Kite Festival in Long Beach, Washington
When I arrived at my hotel on the Washington coast one evening, the manager informed me that if I walk along the beach boardwalk at night, I would stumble upon some glow-in-the-dark kites flying on the beach as part of the annual Long Beach Kite Festival. I had never heard of this festival, and to my complete wonderment I was happily entranced by all the colors and friendly kite-fliers I met there. It was such a special festival to document and one of my most fun travel memories of all time.
White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
I had long wanted to visit the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, and it definitely did not disappoint. I had intended to make a memorable photo, and I found it when I came across two kids dressed up in cowboy hats, running around a giant paper mache koi fish peculiarly placed in the white sand. The koi represented the actual fish found in the lobby of the hotel managed by the kids' mother in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I love the dreamlike way these two scenes collide and the unique happenstance of it all.
Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park
Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone is one of the biggest tourist draws to the national park. The super-saturated rainbow colors radiating from the hot spring are a treat for the eye and unlike anything else in the U.S. You will rarely get a moment alone hasa, as the tourist traffic is heavy (especially in the summer), but the view is worth it and makes for one great photo.
These selections were excerpted from Jennifer Emerling's website and are republished with permission.