U.S. 89 is a relatively narrow thread of pavement that wends its way 1,600 miles from Glacier National Park in northern Montana to Tumacacori National Historical Park in southern Arizona. Along the way, it passes through five states, past seven units of the National Park System, and through thousands of years of human experience. Ann Torrence captures this sliver of history in words and photographs in a story that is decidedly off the racetrack known as the interstate highway system.
"When my husband and I moved to Utah in 1993, we started exploring the ten national parks within a day's drive of our home. At some point, I realized that this single ribbon of highway connected all of my favorite parks, and I began wondering 'where else does that highway go?' Ms. Torrence explained when asked what motivated her to spend a considerable part of her recent life on the road taking notes and photographs for U.S. Highway 89, The Scenic Route to Seven Western National Parks. "The road became the transect, a necessary limit to an already overly ambitious project on the character of the American West."
The "character" she found was wide-ranging, from Salt Lake City's revelry after winning the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and a then-remote hot springs in Montana that eased miners' aches -- 75 cents a dip -- in the 1870s that is better known today as White Sulphur Springs, to 1691 when Father Eusebio Kino proselytized in a place called Tumacacori found today in southern Arizona and to a place farther north in Arizona where a volcanic eruption nearly 1,000 years ago created a crater now protected as Sunset Crater National Monument.
U.S. 89 is a joy to drive ... if you're not in a hurry. Unlike the much straighter interstate system that hurries to get from Point A to Point B, U.S. 89 is a throwback to when mountains weren't moved to make way for automobiles. Today the road still meanders, sometimes passing through large cities, such as Salt Lake, but more often taking you to places you'd never notice from an interstate, places such as Piegan, Montana, Big Rock Candy Mountain in central Utah, and Yarnell, Arizona. You pass both hayfields and sagebrush, rushing rivers and thick forests, sheep herds and wide spots in the road that are gone in an eye-blink or two.
And, as the book's title notes, you find your way to seven units of the National Park System.
The fact that Highway 89 linked seven national parks is a happy accident of geography. When the federal highway map was proposed, Yellowstone National Park was more than 50 years old, but Glacier had only celebrated its 15-year anniversary. Zion and Grand Canyon had just come into the National Park Service. Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton and Saguaro national parks did not exist. BPR (Bureau of Public Roads) planners designed a network of highways, and the parks simply aligned on the same north-south corridor. The highway curves around natural obstacles, like the Great Salt Lake, crosses some challenging terrain, like the Continental Divide and the Colorado River, but for the past part, U.S. 89 was one strand of a system that wove rural America into a nationwide grid.
Ms. Torrence drops essays describing stretches of the highway and the landscapes it traverses throughout the book, but her photographs capture the landscape and its human culture. There are, as one might expect, colorful scenics, such as a vivid contrast of blues and oranges at sunset on Swiftcurrent Creek in Glacier, and row after row of Creamsicle-hued towers that rise below Sunrise Point in Bryce Canyon National Park.
But the human imprint on the landscape is captured as well. Here's a guide from the Navajo Tribe playing a native flute deep in a slot of Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona. There's a classic 1950s roadside motel's neon sign outside of Phoenix, Arizona, depicting bathing beauties diving into the cool waters of the motel's pool. This page holds an image of two Blackfeet sentries sculptor Jay Laber made from scrap metal from cars that were destroyed in a 1964 flood that killed 30 on the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana.
Too often, it seems, we rush from place to place throughout our lives, never truly slowing down to take note of what it is we're passing. Ann Torrence shows us what we're missing along one slender tendril of highway, and invites us to dally for just a little while. And, she adds, don't wait too long, for the landscape is ever-changing.
"I don't really have a favorite image, because almost every one has a behind-the-scenes story that is a happy memory. But a few of the images are reminders of how important it was to get the photos when I had the chance, because they can't be made today," she says. "The Capitol Motel neon sign blew down in a windstorm and was replaced with an awful plastic sign; the shadows on the dome of San Xavier del Bac were cast by scaffolding from a once-in-a-century restoration, and the foreman who built the traditional haystacks in Jackson no longer works for that ranch, and they are using the big rectangular balers now. Every time I drive the highway, I notice how quickly the Intermountain West is changing."
For more peeks inside the book, and to order one, check out Ann's website, www.us89.com