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A Flight Along America's Highway

One man’s mid-century portrait of the United States—from 1,500 feet.

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The three friends are gathered at Price’s apartment to make sense of the yellowing notes and curling contact prints from all those years ago and to hear Price explain his Carlinville caper of spotting the Times reader from 1,500 feet. “I was always trying to find the clues you could see from the air,” he says. “Here this is the county courthouse so this is obviously the town center. Now on this side are the well-to-do. These are pretty big houses, substantial homes, but this one is different. It’s in a New England style and it’s the only one with a fence around it. It has the only fence in the whole picture so I thought this would indicate someone who read the New York Times in the middle of nowhere.”

That was the theory—that an aerial viewpoint inspires speculations about life on the ground. The means for testing it was Price’s second war-surplus airplane, a Consolidated Vultee L-13. He bid on it through the mail, and the government said it was his for $2,000. In June 1954, he dragged Bedell, who was not a pilot, down to Panama City, Florida, where they took delivery. The L-13 came in bare metal, a tail-dragger with a Franklin 245-horsepower engine and a two-seat, side-by-side, glass-covered cockpit. Its big fold-down side windows made it perfect for flying a camera. The L-13 also had radios, though it wasn’t supposed to. “Whoop-dee-doo,” said Price when he spotted them.

Price and Bedell took off on August 18, 1954, from Pennsville, a tiny airfield in southern New Jersey, crossed the Delaware River, and turned west to follow U.S. 40 as far as daylight and weather allowed each day. The synoptic eye was airborne.

Looking back at those pictures now, one sees the country alternate between an old-fashioned appearance and an extremely modern one within the space of a few frames. Price photographed a new housing tract just west of Elkton, Maryland, part of the post-war era of sprawling suburbs that still swallow up farmland at an alarming rate. An hour’s flight west and he was over untrammeled farm country, photographing a landscape of fields to the horizon, all contour plowed and planted.

The highways and streets in 1954 still belonged to big American cars, with not an SUV, mini-van, or VW bug in sight. Though U.S. 40 was two lanes of serviceable concrete, the interstate highway system was already under construction. Within a decade, interstates would consume long segments of U.S. 40, and the route would be incorporated into I-70 or I-80. Elsewhere, the interstates would simply bypass U.S. 40, leaving the towns that lived off its passing traffic to wither.

On their journey, the fliers found a more trusting hospitality than they probably would encounter today. From Indianapolis they flew west to Alton, Illinois, then north to Carlinville to interview the woman who lived in the Cape Cod house. There was no airport so they had to set down on a farmer’s private strip. Bedell remembers: “This guy comes out in his truck and says, ‘What’s up, boys?’ So we explain about what we were up to and he says—and this was a Saturday night—he says, ‘Just make sure you have the truck back on Monday morning because I’ll need it.’ It was incredible.”

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.

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