The alluring emptiness of the open road
Traveling the historic Santa Fe Trail, a Kansas photographer finds less is more
In the early 1800s, the Santa Fe Trail, which stretched 1,200 miles from Franklin, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, was a novelty. A vibrant commercial route, it connected Mexican and American traders, carried thousands of gold-seekers west, and opened the Southwest Territory up to the rest of the country.
Then, in 1880, the railroad reached Santa Fe and the trail all but faded into obscurity.
Keep Slim, Garden City, Kansas | (Max Mikulecky)
Today, the old trade route, commemorated by the National Park Service, is known as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. The two-lane highway roughly follows the path's original route across Kansas, through Colorado, and into northern New Mexico.
Photographer Max Mikulecky learned of the route from his grandparents, who drive it every year during their trip south to Santa Fe. "At one point or another they've stopped and read just about every historical marker," Mikulecky said in an interview.
Inspired by these historic trips, Mikulecky, who was born and raised in Kansas, embarked on his own. Focusing on the 400 or so miles that cut across the state from Kansas City to Coolidge, the photographer stopped in small towns along the way to capture what was there (and, more often than not, what wasn't).
The Patch, Overbrook, Kansas | (Max Mikulecky)
Schoolhouse, Burlingame, Kansas | (Max Mikulecky)
Cutouts, Garden City, Kansas | (Max Mikulecky)
More than a century ago, it would take pioneers in stagecoaches weeks to travel the dangerous trail. Today, Mikulecky can cross the state in a day, zipping across burial sites and farmland at 70 miles an hour in his air-conditioned car.
None of this is lost on the photographer. And his resulting project, Along the Santa Fe, acts as a fascinating visual exploration of both the loneliness of the open road and the mundane beauty of everyday, rural life. The most successful of Mikulecky's simple snapshots reveal more in the absence of things — the unmade bed in an empty hotel room, the signpost surrounded by an endless, overgrown landscape — and so follow in the footsteps of such great American photographers as Stephen Shore and William Eggleston.
Thunderbird Motel, Dodge City, Kansas | (Max Mikulecky)
"Originally, the project was meant to focus on these towns and the people who occupied them," he said. "But through a combination of my shyness and traveling through while most people were working, I didn't come away with many portraits... but now I feel the emptiness is more appropriate."
Apartment Gym, Burlingame, Kansas | (Max Mikulecky)
Council Grove High, Council Grove, Kansas | (Max Mikulecky)