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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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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.

Why did he persist with this private photographic expedition? Why did he go into hock and risk his neck over and over to photograph alluvial fans in the Sacramento Delta and a junkyard near Russell, Kansas? “I’ve been trying to figure that out myself,” says Price. “It’s obviously a question that I ought to have an answer for. I think it’s something like, I’m in love with America. I know that sounds kind of crazy ’cause I’m very critical of what the U.S. is doing these days, but get away from the cities and the political centers, then you can see the land and what kind of impact we’ve had on everything. It’s a very strong thing. I found myself thinking of two songs. The first is ‘America, the Beautiful,’ which is not a political song, and then comes Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ ”

From the redwood forest to Pennsville, New Jersey, at 2,000 feet and 115 miles per hour, this land was made for you and me and Bill Price.

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