Stressful, but thrilling
...and all you need to know is truth and beauty
The Two-Day Romance
Mr. Huckabee’s Hands
His Pain Has Become My Beauty
Closer Than Most
Time Is Running Out
The Loneliest Road in America
If this is true, I’ll never have to leave home again
Select a week
Stressful, but thrilling
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – PAONIA
The first week has flown by. My trip began in Las Vegas, where a beautiful Harley Davidson Heritage awaited me. Still gleaming, this bike will carry me around for the next ten weeks. No route has been planned in advance. All I knew for certain was that I wanted to go north from Las Vegas. So I rode about 100 miles and found a little motel in the middle of nowhere: the Alamo Inn. The next day I left early – praise the jetlag – and continued my journey in the sun. Thinking it was about time to shoot my first portrait, I found Cecil, who couldn’t have been a better photo subject to start with. A sweet man, lonely too. He moved me.
After that I rode further north. Salt Lake City was my aim. Yet because of heavy rainfall I had to spend the night in Pioche, a small town far south of Salt Lake City. In Pioche nothing ever happens – to quote a regular at the bar – so a photographer passing through on a motorcycle soon became the talk of the town. I felt very much at home there and even toyed with the idea of staying in Pioche for two months to photograph all its residents. When morning came, though, I decided to make another attempt to get through the stormy weather. After about a half hour of heavy rain, with lightning striking all around me, I decided it might be smarter to go back to Pioche. There some people dried my clothes, and I was walking around the bar in my socks. As a consolation, they let me sleep in the ‘flower’ room.
“What are you doing for Mother’s Day?” I ask him. “Shooting,” he says.
The next day I really had to leave Pioche, since all the rooms were booked up. And that’s how, in an attempt to avoid the bad weather, I ended up heading eastward rather than northward the next morning. My illusion of a dry Nevada was long abandoned. In Utah it didn’t get much drier. Even in Colorado, little improvement. In fact: sometimes I was riding through the snow.
Had a nice encounter in Colorado: Spike. A Viking-like man, hair blowing in the wind, big hands. Those hands would later cover my ears when I fired my first gunshot at a place along the highway. He was having a day out with his mother, for Mother’s Day. “What are you doing for Mother’s Day?” I ask him. “Shooting,” he says. Then he shows me his guns and, before long, suggests I take a shot! So I did.
Meanwhile, I’ve arrived in Paonia. Today was my first day of being really on my own. Simone de Vries (the director) and Maarten van Rossem (cameraman) have been following me this past week. I couldn’t have wished for kinder people on my team. But now I’ve got to go it alone. I find that exciting. Very exciting.
...and all you need to know is truth and beauty
Madrid – Albuquerque – Socorro
The past week has felt like a year. So much happened every day that it was hard to keep track of where I was going and who I was meeting. With the map on my lap I’m retracing the route I rode.
My first week ended with my arrival in Paonia, Colorado. By that time the director and the cameraman had just arrived back in the Netherlands, and I was really left to my own devices.
In Paonia I met Melvin E. Miller – what an amazing name – and photographed him. A man with a face as distinct as his stories. He ended with ‘… and all you need to know is truth and beauty’, taken from the poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats.
From Paonia I rode southward and ended up in La Junta. While I had initially been riding through a very cold mountain pass covered with snow, now I was on a flat road where I occasionally met up with a cow. The sun was shining and it seemed like nothing much was happening. But this quickly changed when another storm came out of nowhere. I decided to stay a day longer in La Junta.
On the road it became painfully clear what ‘gusty winds’ are. Here I wheeled around and had soup at a bar called ‘The Railyard’. When the owner found out that a Dutch photographer was in his bar, he took it upon himself to keep me occupied. To this end he invited practically all of La Junta over for a photo moment. Lots of people showed up to meet me and to photograph me. I had become a kind of tourist attraction. For a while I was fascinated with the new situation, but after a few hours it was time to hit the road again. I wanted to ride eastward first, but at the advice of La Junta’s inhabitants I headed south, toward the Mexican border.
On the road it became (painfully) clear to me what ‘gusty winds’ are. Gusty winds basically aren’t all that bad. It feels a bit like somebody is grabbing you and shaking you really hard. But gusty winds combined with falling rocks and rain is a recipe for disaster. My dad says I’m like one of those tilting dolls on my Harley. That thought gave me comfort.
My next stop was Raton. While having breakfast I met a grandfather and a grandson, both in overalls. They drove a truck sporting the slogan ‘Little Stinker Septic Service, in the weekends we transport milk’.
One night in Raton was enough, so I rode on – despite the rain. But the rain changed to snow and hail, and again I ended up in a storm with gusts that almost blew me off my bike. The temperature dropped rather quickly, and because I couldn’t find the right gloves – they were at the very bottom of my saddlebag, under a big jumble of cords, cables and batteries – my hands got so cold that braking and accelerating became difficult. Because of the snow, I could hardly see where I was going and had to wait it out, until I was able to continue at a slower speed. Eventually, eight miles down the road, I found a restaurant run by a friendly Mexican family. There I could get dry next to the stove and have some pancakes. Once everything had dried, I moved on. My goal was to make it to Madrid – a ghost town just beyond Santa Fe. After about ten minutes of riding I almost got hit by a truck – I don’t know how I managed, but I went right past it – and from that moment on I had had it for the day. After ending up in yet another storm, I seriously started to believe that the weather was challenging me personally – the weather versus Robin – and it seemed like a good idea to find a motel and sleep. That helped.
The next day I felt better, and the sun was finally shining! And: according to the latest weather report, the sun would continue to shine for the time being. I visited Madrid, shot a few nice portraits there and then went on to Albuquerque. There I stayed at the home of a lady who liked to walk around naked. A full figure covered with freckles – in the morning she let me photograph her. The woman had a large pool in the backyard. Roses were growing against a high wooden fence meant to keep the neighbors from bothering her. For awhile it felt like I was on vacation and the snowstorms were far behind me.
At the start of this week I was convinced that everything was dangerous or unsafe. The country felt large and threatening, I felt vulnerable. Now it feels different. It feels like the country, the bike and the people are taking care of me. That’s a nice feeling. 1700 miles down, 4300 to go!
The Two-Day Romance
ROSWELL – HOBBS – BIG SPRING
Every week it seems to get harder to remember where I’ve been, what I’ve been doing and whom I’ve met. Today I was convinced it was Sunday, while it was actually Monday. Normally I link the days to deadlines. Without deadlines it suddenly becomes hard to remember which day it is – and that feels rather liberating.
Last week I ended up in Socorro, New Mexico. From there I continued on to Las Cruces. After having gone through the desert for a few hundred miles, it seemed as though the snowstorms never existed. Most cities in the southern part of New Mexico are a lot less cosy – most people would rather spend their days inside with their air conditioning on than go outside. I didn’t find Las Cruces to be a particularly interesting town, and after one night I moved on.
My route took me through White Sands – which is a must-see, but not on a motorcycle, since the roads are paved with white parakeet sand. In Alamogordo I met Joe. Joe was a rather small man, expressive face, ‘rollie’ smoker. Having trouble remembering things, he keeps a small book full of names. Dozens of pages with names of people he met and whom he feels should be remembered. When they die, they’ll be crossed out. My name is now in that small book – hopefully it will be a long time before it gets crossed out. Joe was surprised to learn that I had no pepper spray on me. And so Joe set out to provide me with pepper spray. Almost everyone I meet wants to take care of me. Not in a negative way, all of them want to teach me something. It feels very safe.
From Las Cruces and Alamogordo I rode on to Cloudcroft – a small village in the middle of the woods, only a few miles from the desert. I had a bite in a local bar, and while I was sitting there a man at the bar secretly observed me via the mirror. He caught my eye, winked at me and left. Later that evening, as I was walking to my hotel – the hotel was up on a hill – an unmanned skateboard rolled down. I stopped it. After a few seconds a boy followed. A stream of blood ran down from his temples to his chin. He was laughing. He drank and smoked weed, then fell down. He let me photograph him, but I actually didn’t have the right camera on me. I shot a few snaps and wrote down his number. Down the hill I’d meet him again.
We agreed that he wouldn’t wipe away the blood until I had taken the right shot. I ran to the hotel, grabbed my gear, jumped on the motorcycle and rode back.
Of course the boy was nowhere to be found. To comfort myself I went back to the bar. And I wasn’t let down, because the man who had winked at me earlier that evening walked in a half hour after I arrived. It took two hours, but we finally got to talking. The bar closed and I rode the motorcycle ‘home’. In his pickup truck we drove to the trailer where he lived with a friend. The trailer was situated on a rough piece of property where people had built houses of glass bottles, among other things. We drank beer and rode endless circles around his house on a small orange motorbike. It could have been a scene from a nice arthouse movie.
The next day I decided I didn’t want to leave Cloudcroft yet, so together we – the man with the small orange bike and I – rode to Ruidoso. Before I left my hotel the owner wanted to make sure I wasn’t by chance taking off with a serial killer. She walked with me to take a deep look into his eyes, then decided to give me her blessing. But she made me take along my pepper spray and made sure to explain how not to spray myself in the eyes. The road to Ruidoso was beautiful, with zigzagging bends. The clouds were so low that everything was cloaked in a soft white mist. He thought it was a beautiful tour, and so did I. When he remarked that it was a bit chilly, I called him a pussy.
That night he taught me how to play pool, we drank beer and made out in his pickup under a streetlight. He drew something for me, and I wrote something for him in Dutch. That’s where it ended. I could have stayed on the hill in Cloudcroft for a long time, but decided not to. It would have undone the two-day romance, and that would have been a pity.
I said goodbye to Cloudcroft – after all, if I can’t be stopped by snow or heat, why should handsome men on orange motorcycles bring me to a halt? From Cloudcroft I went on to Artesia. There I failed to find anything particularly interesting. It could have had to do with the fact that I was still comparing everything to Cloudcroft at that moment. From Artesia I headed toward Roswell – the city where people say a UFO crashed in 1947. I was hoping to spot some interesting faces there, but that proved to be more difficult than I expected. In Hobbs I found an amazing man in the Walmart supermarket. At first he wanted to participate, but after having spoken with the store manager – what this person had to do with my portrait never quite became clear to me – the man sadly decided against it. Too bad.
After a week of New Mexico it was time for Texas, where I arrived today. I’m currently in Big Spring, an oil city. Every day I feel more free. Everything in the Netherlands is – literally and figuratively – miles away from me. The bike and I are a team. The sun is shining. All is well.
Mr. Huckabee’s Hands
This is my first week in Texas. I’ve been covering fewer miles than in previous weeks, because I’m constantly ending up in fun little towns that make me want to stay an extra day. In New Mexico it was easier to travel long distances simply because there was less distraction.
While staying in Big Spring I met Mr. Huckabee. The most impressive thing about Huckabee: his hands – large, rough and old. Throughout his entire life Huckabee had worked on hot rods. His shed reminded me of my father’s. I photographed him and didn’t want to leave anymore. We drank lukewarm beer in his shed. Later he took me to his favorite hangout. The lesson in life that I was given there had to do with spiders and snakes. I learned to fear the brown recluse spider, since its bite can give you very nasty wounds as their venom can cause skin necrosis. But the spider I should fear most of all is the spider that’s as big as a large man’s hand and that bites only foreign girls.
From Big Spring I moved on to Abilene. In Abilene I found a beautiful boy at a gas station. I photographed him and, as I was finishing, my flash head and my umbrella were blown over by the wind. The umbrella broke the fall, so my flash head wasn’t damaged. But the umbrella was.
The most impressive thing about Huckabee: his hands – large, rough and old. Finding a photography store in Abilene is impossible – I know that now. So I decided to fix my umbrella myself. In order to fix it I needed pliers and managed to find some that belonged to one of the fieldworkers outside. Instead of lending me the pliers, he wanted to repair the umbrella himself. About an hour later he did fix the umbrella using metal wire, tape and other stuff. But the longer he worked on it, the more desperate he was to get my attention, having been single for a very long time. From that moment on I decided to wear a wedding ring and occasionally invent a make-believe husband. Not that this made any difference to the men, but it was fun pretending.
In Brady I got caught up in a big storm. This time, though, I wasn’t witnessing it from my motorcycle but from my hotel room – storms are very beautiful when seen through a window. The next day it was dry and I rode to Mason, where my next portrait was waiting for me. On the way I encountered several tortoises that I almost hit but managed to avoid every time. Not deer, mind you, but tortoises were now crossing the road. Both are difficult to spot.
Mason turned out to be another one of those small towns that made me want to extend my stay. I spent the night at the mayor’s B&B and drank wine in a wine bar – Texas has very nice wines – and this time learned all about floods. After that I continued eastward, where the lesson on floods wasn’t wasted.
Yesterday I rode to Austin via Fredericksburg and Luckenbach. The latter is a small town that you should definitely visit if you happen to be in the neighborhood. A lot of happy people and music. Also plenty of bikers. My motorcycle was parked among zillions of other bikes on a lot. I pushed it back carefully – it could easily have toppled over, since the luggage on the back feels like a person without legs – and then maneuvered through the other bikes, again without a fall. Men watched as I did this, then winked and gave the thumbs up once I rode away. As soon as I was out of sight, I screamed ‘yahooo!’ Because, despite keeping my cool, there was sweat on my forehead and my cheeks were flushed. Later that day I arrived in Austin – and that’s where I am today.
I don’t want to go back – no more launch parties or openings, just let me wear the same pair of jeans every day, feel the sun on my skin and decide each day whether I’ll stay or go. What I also love is that all my belongings here fit into two saddle bags and a backpack.
His Pain Has Become My Beauty
My fifth week started in Austin and ended in New Orleans. Austin was particularly nice. On the first night I was walking down 6th Street, and my eyes were drawn to somebody’s bare back – it was beautiful. The back had so much beauty because of its shape and skin, yet at the same time held so much pain. I wanted to photograph it, but the person whom the back belonged to was sound asleep. I tried to wake him but didn’t succeed. Quickly I took a snapshot so that I wouldn’t forget the beautiful back.
Quickly I took a snapshot so that I wouldn’t forget the beautiful back. The next morning, unable to forget the back, I decided to set off in search of it. And I found it. The back belonged to John, a thirty-four-year-old man who has been living on the street for nineteen years. John was suffering from a severe form of scoliosis – hence the pronounced curve. I photographed him again, better this time. I stayed in Austin for a few days and would visit John several times a day. He became my homeless homie.
Leaving Austin was going to be hard. Leaving would mean that I had to disconnect the person from the photograph. The image of his back will start to lead a life of its own, a life where time stands still and the back doesn’t get better or worse. The back may or may not move people. The fact that I can’t share this with John is hard – after all, he’s the one who provided me with this image. At the same time I’m aware that this is a one-sided idea – in Austin, life will go on for John. Yet his pain has become my beauty, which feels like a contradiction.
In addition to John’s back, I photographed Donald. He also lives on the street and has written what he refers to as books. He writes on packaging. I found a story on an empty carton of cigarettes and asked him what it was about – he didn’t know. When I asked him what the title was, he replied: ‘Southern Vagina’. Then I asked him to write down his name for me, and once I gave him the pen and paper he wouldn’t stop writing. He wrote everything down, including his log-on details and password for gmail. As he wrote and wrote and wrote, I witnessed illegible stories coming into existence.
Before I left Austin I wanted to visit the Hippie Hollow Park. The route leading up to it was a sight for sore eyes. If you ever get anywhere near Austin – by car or motorcycle – go to Hippie Hollow Park, where you’re free to walk around naked. This seemed like the perfect place to take photographs. On arriving there I managed to keep my jeans on for quite a while, but soon it started to feel a bit strange to remain clothed among all the naked people there, so I took my clothes off too. I asked a man to hold my flash set and the umbrella, then made another man pose for a photograph. A third man photographed the entire scene because it looked so funny. It was very amusing to me, and certainly to the men as well.
After four days I decided, finally, to leave Austin. Precisely because leaving this place was hard for me, I rode as far as possible for the first few days – the farther I am from a place where I wanted to stay, the less chance there is of my returning to it. I took a beautiful route that went past little villages such as Round Top and eventually stopped in Conroe, a small city north of Houston. The landscape changed from wide-open plains to a forested area. The water was very high everywhere – in some places just a few treetops stuck up out of the water. Obviously, a lot of rain had fallen. It’s too bad that I can’t really take photographs from my bike, since it’s quite fascinating to see the landscape change.
Since I still hadn’t managed to extricate myself from Austin, I decided to move on to Louisiana after Conroe; it was time for a new state. In Louisiana it’s all about the ‘gators – a nice change from cowboys and cows. My first stop in Louisiana was the town Jennings, where I photographed Glenn and Brodie who are both members of the Blood gang. They taught me all about gangs, about the bandana color corresponding to a specific gang, and about Blood-gang killers: members of another gang posing as Bloods, so that they can to get close to you. As soon as you’re within shooting distance, they attack.
From Jennings I rode to New Orleans, where I ‘ve been for the past two days. Austin was really nice, but there’s something very special about New Orleans too. The food is delicious – Cajun and Creole (think alligator) – and then there’s the music, the people, the surroundings and horses with blue-glitter hooves. Another place that I actually don’t feel like leaving. This is going to be a problem once I have to resume ‘normal’ life back in the Netherlands.
Time seems to be slipping through my fingers. Normally this isn’t a big deal, but right now I don’t want any of this to end. Every day I head off to another town with the sun on my face, feeling completely at ease not knowing what will come. My Harley and I have become such buddies, and the thought of having to return it in about a month makes me a little sad. But this isn’t over yet, so I can keep on going – that’s a nice thought!
Week six already. Time frightens me – I’ve completed more than half of my journey, but I feel like I’m not done at all. Not ready to go home (yet) – that much is clear. This week has been different from previous weeks. I’m not sure why exactly – perhaps the notion of having to go back home again is bothering me. Aside from that, there are moments when I have huge doubts about what I’m photographing, in terms of quality as well as quantity. This uncertainty can be helpful at times, in order to remain sharp, but at the same time it can get in the way.
I tend to be loner – I like being alone. This conflicts with what I’m seeking and what I want to create in my photographs, where I pursue an openness and where I need ‘mankind’ in order to create. At the same time, it’s still hard to find the right balance between photography and riding. I want to cover a certain distance every day, but at the same time I need time to find the right faces for my portraits. Once I get on my bike it’s hard to pull over. Riding a motorcycle has an almost meditative effect.
Anyway – last week ended in New Orleans.
I had a few beers, a whiskey and danced with my eyes closed. It was a nice city, but somehow I couldn’t quite fit in there. The first night I ended up in a bar with wonderful blues. I had a few beers, a whiskey and danced with my eyes closed. There was a guard who kept watch over me. “I’ve got your back, babe.” The next day I had a bit of a hangover – so that night I went to bed early. On the third night I ate alligator meat, but something must have been wrong with it, because I got sick. I decided I’d had enough of New Orleans and continued eastward. A few days later the director and cameraman would join me in Atlanta to follow me for ten more days.
From New Orleans I rode to Atmore and then to Tuskegee, where I met Murt. As far as I understood – he had the tendency to mumble – he used to own a grocery store which was emptied out by bailiffs. Nowadays he repairs cars, outdoors, next to the building which should have been the grocery store. Murt was very impressed by me photographing him. Often people are very grateful that I gave them this ‘photo-moment’, while in fact they’re giving me so much – it’s fascinating that they don’t realize this when they’re posing for me. After I had finally arrived in Tuskegee, I met a man whom I didn’t photograph but who told me interesting stories about the history of Tuskegee. One in particular astounded me: the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. This study covered a period of forty years – from 1932 to 1972 – and 600 men participated. The 600 men thought they had joined a study on ‘bad blood’ in exchange for free meals and free medical care – there was a lot of poverty, so it seemed like a good deal at the time. 399 of the men had syphilis – unknowingly – and the remaining 201 were healthy. All of the men were African-American. They received a placebo, so that the government could study the effects of syphilis on a black body. For forty years these men were never told that they had syphilis. Not even when penicillin came on the market. Tumors, insanity, blindness, heart conditions and death were the results, but nothing was being done. On top of that, nineteen infected children were born. In 1972 the true reason behind the study leaked, and this led to a lot of commotion, understandably. The study was terminated. A compensation of ten million dollars was awarded to the survivors and their next of kin. To think that a study like this could continue for forty years still baffles me. I wanted to do something with this story but didn’t know what. Everyone who participated has died; the researchers and the doctors, but also the patients and their next of kin.
While in Tuskegee I photographed a young but very gabby girl. She was keen to help me, and every time I asked her something she replied: “Okay, partner!” I wished I could have taken her with me. I ran into this child in a Walmart, with her mother – Walmart tends to be an interesting place. A few days later, while in Canton – at this point joined by the director and the cameraman – I found another two photo subjects at a Walmart. Let’s hear it for Walmart!
By now I’ve made it to the Smokey Mountains, in North Carolina – a wonderful place to ride a motorcycle. Beautifully curved roads in fantastic landscapes. Heavily forested, it all smells lovely. It’s very hot, sometimes up to forty degrees Celsius, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.
Closer Than Most
Salem – Colombia – Kansas City – St. Joseph
So much has happened over these past few weeks that my thoughts are all tangled up. I’ve been staring at my screen for over an hour, trying to reflect on what I’ve been doing this past week. But even remembering the small cities I’ve visited is proving to be difficult.
Last week director Simone de Vries and cameraman Maarten van Rossem were following me in my tracks again. I’ve said it before, but for the sake of emphasis: I couldn’t have wished for two kinder people. As I rode my miles on the bike, they drove behind me. It’s nice to know that a car is following you, especially when you know that two really nice people are in that car. So much has happened in the past week that it’s impossible to share everything.
Last week ended in the Smokey Mountains – very much worth the trip, especially on a motorbike. Ride the tail of the dragon!
After that it was time to ride westward, otherwise I’d never make it back to Vegas in time. We stopped at a small city called Loudon and spent the night at a motel that was next to a trailer park. It didn’t take long for curious locals to come over and check us out. The swimming pool was the local hangout, and therefore a perfect place to meet new people to photograph. I met Jonah and Grant, father and son. At age nine Jonah had come across a joint in the living room; he smoked it and has been a fan ever since. He says he smokes only when he can afford it.
I also met Joyce, who lived in a tiny trailer that made photographing her a challenge. She was curled up on her bed with her dog – a nice picture. While I photographed her, I stood there with one foot in the dog’s water bowl, but it didn’t matter.
In the evening the trailer park seemed like the set of some cult movie. As I sat outside my motel room, all sorts of characters passed by. The receptionist, for example, who lived in the motel. His room was on the second floor and had red light. In his room was a bike – he liked to cycle. When his shift was over he was supposed to close the pool, but instead he got his bike (which had bluetooth) so he could play music by the pool.
He tried to play it really cool as he walked by with his bike.Then he switched on all the lights on the bike – I think there were about ten different flashing lights – which reminded me of a police car. He tried to play it really cool as he walked by with his bike, but ‘cool’ wasn’t exactly how you’d describe him. That’s exactly why it was so endearing. Later he headed off to cycle around for a bit. The way he got on the bike and tried to ride off gave away that it was more about showing off the bike than actually riding it.
There was no shortage of alcohol here, and at some point the loudest bigmouth had gotten so drunk that he fell over. Nobody helped him up. He was just lying there, screaming for ice in his drink. ‘ICEEEE, ICEEEE, ICEEEE’. After about ten minutes some guy threw a bucket of ice cubes into his face, but the drunkard didn’t budge. He just kept on whining as if nothing had happened. There was also a bald, fat guy in an electric wheelchair who kept going in circles around the pool while spitting phlegm onto the concrete every now and then. He was babysitting his grandchild and kept shouting for him to come over. Ignoring him, the kid just kept hopping around the pool, knowing that his oversized grandfather would never catch him. Observing all these characters was enough to keep me entertained for the evening.
The next day we continued westward and ended up in a big traffic jam. Since we were stuck in it, I began looking for good photo-subjects in the traffic jam. I set up my little studio by the side of the road and took some nice shots. Just as the traffic started to move again, I saw a beautiful red-haired girl. Quickly I shot a few pictures of her but didn’t find them good enough. She wrote down my number and luckily contacted me that evening. We decided to meet up in Peducah, since we were heading there the next day. Unfortunately we ended up in the middle of a downpour, so when I arrived I was totally soaked. To make matters worse, I was only allowed to photograph her for five minutes at the location. But the girl was still as pretty as she’d been the day before, and having found her again made everything okay.
Another interesting place we visited was Salem: not especially because of the city itself, but due to the situation that we encountered there. We stayed at a very nice hotel. There was a power outage in Salem, so finding a place to eat was difficult. Eventually, on the outskirts of town, we found a small bar where they did have power. They cooked us some wonderful food and put on a display of fireworks – another movie-like moment that made us feel euphoric. In Salem I realized that I had left my passport at the previous hotel – a bit of a problem, since I didn’t feel like riding all the way back there. My laptop had also crashed. I needed it to upload my photographs and share my stories with you. The crazy thing is: normally this would have really upset me, but everything – especially anything connected to the Netherlands – has felt so remote that I didn’t really care that much. But the fact remained that I needed both my passport and a laptop, so the next day I had to travel 250 miles to even get to the nearest Apple store.
On the way to Kansas City the skies changed rapidly, and again I was hit by a huge downpour. It got so dark that the streetlights turned on automatically. Shelter was nowhere in sight, and my waterproof trousers weren’t up to the challenge. Despite that, it was fascinating to see how quickly the weather can change here. We’re right in the middle of tornado season. Yesterday I spoke with a local man, who told me that locals can always sense when a tornado is coming. Secretly I’d find it a cool thing to experience, but at the same time it frightens me as well. It only takes twenty minutes for a tornado to take shape. Shelter has to be found in a basement, or a bathroom if there is no basement. I know it sounds ridiculous – after all, sometimes it sounds like I’m talking about a living object – but I’d really hate to think of the motorcycle staying outside and being crushed by a tornado. The motorcycle takes care of me, I take care of the motorcycle. So I hope I can avoid those tornadoes – that seems like the wisest option to me. The motorcycle and I would like to arrive in Las Vegas in one piece.
Meanwhile, I’ve fixed the laptop and retrieved my passport. The documentary maker and the cameraman have also returned to the Netherlands, which takes some getting used to. Being alone is nice, but when they’re filming they get very close – closer than most – which is intense, but beautiful at the same time. I can’t express in words what’s happening during this journey. Of course I’m doing this trip to shoot material for my exhibition, but so much more is going on. To me personally, this trip has immense value; and at this point the idea of having to go back to the Netherlands soon is inconceivable. Right now I’ve got to move on again, alone – for three more weeks. Well, alone… I do have the motorcycle. We’re buddies.
Time Is Running Out
Chugwater – Wheatland
Time is running out. Having miscalculated, I just realized that, as of today, only eleven days remain. So far I’ve gone 6545 miles – so I’ve passed the 6000 miles/10,000 km mark. For the past few days I’ve been riding through Nebraska. Since so much rain has fallen here in recent weeks, the surroundings look beautiful. I was going down a road parallel to the I80 – a busy interstate – in the southern part of Nebraska. A long and straight but beautiful road that runs between green fields. The fields are so many different shades of green that you could call them painterly. Next to this road, running from east to west, was a track for freight trains. So I was riding alongside large freight trains for miles, and there was hardly any traffic. Sometimes I rode through small towns with names like Funk and Pine Bluffs, whose populations vary from 60 to 2000. The small towns are very attractive, but often I don’t see anyone except for an occasional person mowing the lawn.
In Lincoln, a slightly bigger city, I photographed Suzy. I saw her walking down the street and approached her. As soon as I told her I was from Amsterdam, she begged me to take her back with me – she was dead serious. Not wanting to disappoint her, I didn’t answer. On her door there was a note. The note said Jeff had to leave, because the cops knew. When I asked her what the note was about, she said that Jeff – I’m still not sure who that is, her brother I suspect – had issues with her. Jeff wanted to cut her up into pieces. What he’d do with the pieces changed by the minute. At first she said he wanted to send the pieces to her lawyer, the next moment he’d send the pieces to her family in heaven. Despite Jeff wanting to cut her up, she spoke about him with sympathy. After all, he was divorced and addicted to meth.
Suzy was somebody who moved me – although I can’t explain why. I don’t know if it’s because she really wanted to show me the kittens, or because she had always dreamed of being a model, or because she walked around her block in red pajamas without giving a damn, or because Jeff wanted to cut her up, or because she slept alone – because sometimes it’s better not to sleep in the same bed with your husband. I’m not sure why she fascinated me so much. In the past few months I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m drawn to some people so intensely. I still don’t know why I choose certain people. It’s something that happens instinctively. A good portrait can be forced, but not moving portrait. I could walk out the door, place any person in front of my camera and shoot a portrait which is good in terms of quality. But that’s not what I’m looking for. I want more.
Anyway. I couldn’t take Suzy back with me, at least not physically. But I did shoot a very nice portrait of her. Then it was time to move on, since I did need to get back to Vegas.
Today I was in Chugwater, Wyoming. I had googled Chugwater and found a group photo that included a girl I badly wanted to photograph. The small town had a cafe/grocery/fastfood/liquor/pharmacy/you-name-it store called Soda Fountain, where I had something to drink. I asked the owner if she knew the girl – of course she did, as the town had a population of 214 – and she told me that the girl was the mayor’s granddaughter.
I couldn’t take Suzy back with me, at least not physically. She pointed me in the direction of the mayor’s house, where I indeed found the girl. Her grandmother was Chugwater’s mayor. Her husband thought I came to ask for gas – the gas station had ceased to exist in Chugwater after a man had driven into it last year, triggering an explosion. So if you ever need gas in Chugwater, go see the mayor. If you’re hungry, visit Soda Fountain and try their Chugwater Chili.
Nebaska and Wyoming are two states where I feel at home. Here I pass small towns and big pickup trucks. My first car was a red Chevy pickup that my dad gave me after my mom made him give up one of their cars. He was happy that I had just turned eighteen and had managed to get my driver’s license quickly enough for him to give me the car. When it snowed my dad taught me how to spin around lantern poles; when it rained he taught me to take turns while skidding. And when the sun was shining we did this too. Once I moved to Amsterdam I couldn’t drive around in my dad’s big car anymore, since Amsterdam is no place for big cars. Actually it’s not a great place for small cars and/or (motor)bikes either. Now that I’m here in these small towns, I can picture myself at home. I’m singing away, even dancing, as I ride my bike, but not that fast.
Lots of things here are vast, and when it comes to landscapes that’s nice.
While the bike drones on in the background, J.J. Cale sings gently into my ears. Eleven days to go.
The Loneliest Road in America
Payson – Ely
As soon as the squashed bugs on my windscreen start to cast small shadows on my faded jeans, I know it’s time to find a hotel. Sometimes the closest hotel is still 100 miles away. Wide-open landscapes alternate with grotesque mountains – sometimes the sights are (literally) breathtaking. The scenery makes me feel small and big at the same time. It can be frightening to crisscross these landscapes alone (and without phone access), yet it feels much more comfortable and familiar than it did two and a half months ago. Realizing this makes me feel melancholy at times.
So much has happened in the past few months that I can’t quite place it yet. It’s hard to believe that I’ll be flying back to the Netherlands in a week. The loneliness wasn’t hard to bear – I often felt less lonely here than I did back in Amsterdam – but missing physical contact has been the hardest part. A kiss on the forehead to take your worries away, a hug for comfort, or to share a euphoric feeling. A few days ago I saw part of the documentary on Nina Simone. She was asked what freedom meant to her. Freedom is to feel no fear, she answered. During this trip there were a few moments when I felt fearless – and that awareness means a lot to me.
“I walked onto the premises and entered a world of meth addicts, alcoholics, peeing dogs and dirty babies.”
It’s unfortunate to have to miss the northern states, but even two and a half months hasn’t been enough to see everything. A year would probably not even be sufficient for me. Last week I rode through Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. I stopped at Evanston, worn out from the ride, and pulled over at the first available hotel. Despite its high rates the hotel had no laundry room – a blessing, I realized later on – so I continued in search of a place to wash my only pair of jeans. Spotting a motel sign that said ‘laundromat’, I walked onto the premises and entered a world of meth addicts, alcoholics, peeing dogs and dirty babies. I forgot about my laundry pretty quickly. Among the characters I met was William, who referred to himself as an alien. As I photographed him in his tiny room I tried to focus on his story but the peeing dog next to him kept distracting me. The smell of ammonia was bearable as long as I was focusing on the portrait. By the time I was finally outside and back on my motorbike, just the thought of the smell was enough to cause extreme nausea. At the same time I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world – after all, you don’t meet an alien every day.
By now I’m heading southward. A few hundred miles more, and I’ll be back in Vegas. The air here is so dry it’s giving me cracked lips and nosebleeds. Intense heat causes my helmet to make creaky noises. The sweat underneath my glasses sometimes makes my eyes sting. After long rides the hot asphalt is enough to comfort my back. Other bikers yell out ‘I feel you!’ and I laugh. Because it’s the physically hard part of the journey which gives me satisfaction. After 7200 miles it seems that my body has gotten used to the gusty winds and extreme aridness, or at least I know how to cope with this so that it doesn’t bother me as much. At the start of my trip I wanted to ride to Salt Lake City (Utah) via Pioche (Nevada). The road north of Pioche is called ‘The Loneliest Road in America’. At the time I didn’t succeed due to the thunderstorms – having tried three times. On the map I had indicated the short detour northward that I then took – there it was, like a lost little line. Now I’ve returned to that exact spot; it’s as if the start of my journey was already determining the end. So here I was, finally riding down The Loneliest Road in America. Lonely I was indeed, but things weren’t all that bad. On the contrary. I booked another night in Pioche: at that hotel where I walked around the bar in my socks, where people dried my clothes and where I spent the evening drinking gin & tonics and Budweisers on the soft carpet.
Just a few more days. I’m not slowing down but going faster. Not done just yet. Actually not at all. First Pioche and Vegas.
If this is true, I’ll never have to leave home again
When I left the Netherlands two and a half months ago, I realized how much trouble I had – and still have – with leaving. Being away from home isn’t what frightens me; it’s leaving it that does. Over the past ten weeks I’ve hardly slept in the same bed twice; every morning I’ve had to say goodbye to a place or a person. Sometimes that was easy, sometimes not at all. I haven’t returned to a single person or place, except for Pioche. From there I rode 200 miles, back to Vegas – the same route on which I started my journey.
When I arrived in Pioche and took in the scent of ‘my’ bar, I didn’t want to leave. Again. I was given the nicest room, and they had a surprise for me. The next day they handed me a cowboy hat and took me to the shooting range. In Nevada, a shooting range is pretty much like an empty field in the middle of nowhere, with a view of the mountains. A former shooting instructor (Dan) and John (the plumber, no joke) showed me the ropes. They taught me about different bullets, different guns and how to use them. The love, the care and enthusiasm with which they shared their knowledge affected me. I started small, with a .22, and ended with an Uzi. Learning how to stand firmly; to focus, concentrate and control a weapon was a special experience. In a certain way it was comparable to riding a motorcycle – most motorcyclists will recognize the euphoric feeling of taking a very sharp turn (successfully) with your knee almost touching the ground. This also requires focus, concentration and is about engaging with something that is bigger and/or stronger than yourself.
After two days it was time to leave Pioche. Las Vegas was the final destination. On the way I rode past Caliente. Suddenly I remembered my first ‘photo-subject’ lived there. Recognizing the RV park, I rode up to his trailer and knocked on the door. There he was: the man who had been walking to the post office several times in the last few weeks to check if I had already sent him a letter. Now I was at his front door, almost 8000 miles and two and a half months later. He threw his arms up and gave me the sweetest hug. I had to cry when I saw him.
The man is lonely, but not bitter. The man moves me so much I can’t express it in words. I could listen to him for hours. He talks about responsibilities, desires, connections. I’m struggling with a lot of ‘why’ questions, and without realizing it he gives me the answers. He speaks in my words, as though he can create order in the chaos in my mind. The man is lonely, but not bitter. The man tells things without preaching and, above all, he’s kind. His eyes tell a thousand tales, and I want to hear all of them. His words when I arrived: ‘It’s good to have you home! I missed you, honey.’ That’s how it felt. Like home. Maybe that feeling, to me, lies with being in transit. If this is true, I’ll never have to leave home again.
Once I got back to Vegas, I felt drained – exhausted from all the emotions, encounters and impressions. Yet I had failed to find peace. I still wasn’t finished. Mike, the man whom I had met in the first week – who called me ‘li’l gal’ and let me use his gun to shoot along the highway – put me in touch with a beautiful voluptuous lady who worked in a thrift shop. Nice title for a photo: ‘naked lady in thrift store’. I shot an image that reminded me of ‘Woman Sleeping’ by Lucian Freud.
Next morning, another goodbye: my metal buddy had to go back to the dealer. The inanimate object had long since become much more than that to me. It had taken me to all sorts of places, with me jabbering/singing/crying/cursing away on its back. The longer I rode, the calmer I became. A worn-out tire betrayed the distance we had covered. At a gentle speed I rode to the dealer, parked the Harley at the door and got a bit queasy when someone came for the key. The thought of someone else riding ‘my’ Harley hurt a little. I asked how much it would cost to ship it to Amsterdam. They gave me a price for the same model. But I didn’t want the same model, I wanted this one. That was virtually impossible. And so the motorcycle, my buddy, would stay there and end up carrying someone else. I was a bit jealous, even though I had no idea who would ride it. My sentiment embarrassed me.
Once I arrived at the airport, I finally realized that I had done it: I had done almost 8000 miles. (I had initially set out to hit 6000!) Birds, butterflies and dragonflies that dodged my bike at the very last moment, the cold air current when rain was coming, the white mist of an approaching hailstorm, sun creating dark spots on the top of my hands, rocks hitting my skin when a big truck passed me with ease, the mascara in my eyes after a sudden downpour, the smell of yellow flowers alternating with the smell of roadkill – I’ll miss EVERYTHING.
The end. Or the beginning. (It depends on how you look at it.)
If this is true…
I’LL NEVER HAVE TO LEAVE
8,000 Miles on a Motorcycle in the USA.