A Flight Along America's Highway
One man’s mid-century portrait of the United States—from 1,500 feet.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2000
(Page 3 of 4)
Jane Hogg agrees. She flew much the same route with Bill Price a year later to fill in areas of the country that Price felt he hadn’t adequately captured. “People were amazingly generous,” she says. “You’d fly into an airport and someone would say, ‘Do you need a lift into town? I’m going that way and I’ll take you.’ Maybe it was the pilots’ fraternity, but people had a different attitude towards small planes then. I still remember circling Zanesville, [Ohio], in the dark, trying to figure out where the airport could be. We circled the field a couple of times until I realized that there were a lot of cars driving toward the airport. They knew the sound of a plane in trouble. People circled the field with their lights on.”
Even if they hadn’t, Price probably wouldn’t have broken a sweat. Nothing seemed to bother him in the air. There was the time, Hogg says, when Price flew them along the front edge of an electrical storm. “I remember asking him what would happen if the plane was struck by lightning,” she says. “And he said, ‘Don’t worry. The plane’s insured.’ That was not the response I wanted.” Price grins.
Once he and Bedell had to make a forced landing. Flying over WaKeeney, Kansas, their engine overheated. “We had the tech manual; it was the size of the Manhattan phone book,” says Bedell. “I looked it up and said, ‘Bill, the head temperature is going up. We’ve got to land right away.’ And Bill said, ‘Those instruments are never right.’ So I handed him the manual and he handed it right back and said, ‘Oh, you’re serious.’ So he put it down. The landing we made was exactly 37 feet. We measured it. It was 37 feet from touchdown to stop.” Price climbed out to photograph the silver L-13 in a stubbled field. Bedell duly noted in the photograph log that he was keeping the arrival of Officer George Valentine of the WaKeeney Police Department, who summoned a mechanic.
Their airplane repaired, they headed west toward the Colorado Rockies, following U.S. 40 across the high country to Vernal, Utah, then along the Salt Lake and on to Elko, then Reno, Nevada. Now the land opened up as wide as a K-20 camera could see. Price snapped dry rivers that looked like roads and shiny roads that looked like rivers. They went over Donner Pass with 3,000 feet to spare and swooped down the Pacific slope to Sacramento. At 4:45 p.m. on September 10, the synoptic eye circled the Golden Gate Bridge, firing the K-20s. With weather layovers, emergency landings, and detours, it had taken 24 days and 938 exposures to run Bill Price’s traverse.
At that point the synoptic eye lost some of its focus. Bedell stayed in California to visit family. Price flew the L-13 to Phoenix, Arizona, where he sold it for $10,000 and took a commercial flight back to New York. But even with the profit from the sale of his airplane, Price was struggling to complete his project. He was finding the late 1950s a time of increasing hostility toward his brand of progressive politics. His cousin, CBS news correspondent George Polk, had been killed under suspicious circumstances while reporting on Greece’s civil war in 1948, and Price became active in a newsmen’s commission to investigate the extent of CIA involvement in Polk’s murder. That and Congressional investigators convinced the Daily News to drop him. Price moved into a second career as a purely political journalist, community organizer, and chronicler of housing wars in New York City.
He bought one more surplus airplane, another Stinson L-5. That’s the craft he convinced 19-year-old Jane Hogg to climb aboard in 1955 to serve as his note taker on the fill-in trip. They set out west on September 22, 1955. The weather was beastly. It took three days to fly from Moorestown, New Jersey, to Newark, Ohio. “We could have driven it faster,” laments Hogg. The pace picked up after that, but the return journey was more of the same. “On the way home, I couldn’t take the length of the trip,” says Hogg. “Finally we’d put down again in somebody’s back yard somewhere between Philadelphia and New York and I said, ‘That’s it. I’m just going home by bus.’ ” It took Price another two days to get the L-5 back to New Jersey.
The 1955 expedition lasted 18 days, including weather layovers, and went no farther west than Kansas. Still, Price filled in his portrait of U.S. 40 from Atlantic City to Baltimore and missing links in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri.
Later that fall, Price realized he could no longer afford to keep his own airplane. Tie-down fees, repairs, and maintenance made it too expensive a luxury, forcing him to sell the L-5. He never piloted an airplane after that. He did, however, keep the L-5’s old prop, which has served as part of his home decor ever since. He never could find a publisher interested in the monumental volume that would be required to do the synoptic eye justice. For decades, the only people who explored his albums of prints were family and friends. In 1994, his apartment was heavily damaged by water in the aftermath of a fire. Virtually all of his meticulously catalogued negatives were destroyed. The contact sheet albums and several boxes of prints are all that’s left of his transits of America. That and the stories.