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The town of Ladora was dark
A long, hot day of driving and shooting had me just about worn out, but instead of relaxing at the motel in Cedar Rapids, I made myself drive down to Ladora. I had never seen the town before and I had to be there after dark - all because of a poem I read in 9th grade literature, about 37 years ago in Dallas.
Poem to be read at 3 a.m.
Excepting the diner
On the outskirts
The town of Ladora
At 3 a.m.
Was dark but
For my headlights
And up in
One second-story room
A single light
Was sick or
As I drove past
Is for whoever
Had the light on.
All these years later, I found no lit diner on the outskirts. It was not 3 am, and none of my shots of lighted second story windows pleased me. But on the east edge of town, an ancient neon sign casting it's red glow on an old roadside garage, and a lone car heading in, its headlights shimmering on the pavement of US 6 - this turned out to be the scene I came to shoot.
My parents were so closely tied to their families and their hometown in southeast Iowa, that for all the nine years we lived in St. Louis, we made the journey back nearly every weekend. Those childhood trips, often made late at night, filled me with the love of the road. I grew up knowing the joy of traveling in a little arc of light that we pushed down the dark highway ahead. The peaceful whine of tires on pavement was sweet nightime music.
Deserted streets of little sleeping towns fascinated me - everything closed and silent. Looking through plate glass windows down the dimly lit aisles of an empty grocery store, staring up at an illuminated church steeple, watching the glowing face of a clock in the courthouse tower or the backlit brightness of a pop machine at a tiny gas station - I soaked it all in and remembered it.
Yet it was the lonely lighted rooms that interested me the most. A solitary bulb hanging from the ceiling in a little apartment over a business on the square. A lamp behind lace curtains in a room beyond a dark front porch. I felt such a strange, strong kinship with those people who were also up in the night. Even then, I was making up stories to go with those lights, imagining other lives that we passed by so quickly. What was it like to live in those rooms . . . and did those people ever look down on the street and see our headlights and wonder about our journey, too?
I remember the exact moment when I first read this poem. I remember going home and looking through the listings of towns in every state in the back of our Rand McNally road atlas. The only Ladora I found was in Iowa. IOWA !!. Later, I discovered that Donald Justice taught at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop for many years, so it was indeed Ladora, Iowa that he wrote about - just down the road from Iowa City on US 6.
I knew that I'd drive down the dark highway through Ladora some night. It has taken me awhile, but now I have done it. So this shot is for Donald Justice, and that moment when a poet's words lit up an old longing inside me and assured me that I am not alone in what I feel and what I know to be true . . . that my lost and lonely thoughts and my frail, tiny light on this long, dark road will certainly go up and out and somehow connect with all those little lights I pass along the way. And to all you kindred spirits up late into the night, wherever you may be, know this: you are not alone, my light is also on.
August 27, 2008
I woke up this morning and packed up the car, saying my goodbyes to everyone before stopping downtown to pick up my bike from the repair shop. I was just trying the door when the owner pulled up in his truck. He eventually introduced himself as Benji and we talked a good five minutes before he said a few things that basically hinted what he was thinking.
"Who are you, and what are you doing in my store?"
I don't generally assume much about myself, so it was jarring to realize that I failed to mention I was there to pick up my bike and had somehow expected him to remember me from two days ago.
Benji retrieved the bike only to learn that no one had worked on it, so I walked around downtown for a few minutes snapping pictures in order to give him time to change a flat tire. I returned and we letft the broken shifters as-is so I could get on my way.
I made short work of the drive to Dallas, stopping at a Jack in the Box for lunch. My dining options are slowly narrowing, I've noticed: McDonald's, Sonic and Dairy Queen.
Maybe it's a testament to the lean image of the Texan Cowboy, cooking hearty chili on the open range for lack of better options.
I had planned on staying the night in Odessa, but failed to remember my ordeals in this stretch of the country. West Texas is not the kind of place you want to be when you're expecting a decent hotel. The twin cities of Midland and Odessa lack any sort of coherent advertising for roadside services, possibly because the roadside is littered with run down factories and belching refineries. There is tons of work to be had here, as the hotels in the next town were full, their parking lots brimming with the sorts of trucks that belong to contractors and pipe fitters.
I ended up having to drive to Pecos, where, my judgment compromised by my desire to sleep and my aversion to Dairy Queen, I settled on a less than stellar hotel, where hopefully I will sleep.
It's cold in here, so cold that I would have kept the heater on, had I not set off the fire alarm the first time I tried it.
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