Sunset somewhere near Lebanon, Mo., March 18, 2007
About seven years ago, on a dead-end alignment of Route 66 eight miles west of Rolla, I saw something that would permanently alter the course of my life, although I didn’t know it at the time.
View through a screen door, John’s Modern Cabins, Newburg, Mo.
Tucked under the trees next to the old road was a row of tiny, crumbling buildings under a long-dimmed Art Deco-style neon sign that read: JOHN’S MODERN CABINS.
Guest cabin, John’s Modern Cabins, Newburg, Mo.
I gasped. Ron slammed on the brakes. And in that instant, my life changed.
If I’d had a wide-angle lens, I could have captured — in one shot — the entire history of Route 66: what died, what’s dying, and what killed it. To my right was a long-dead business. Under my wheels was a dying highway. And roaring past less than 100 yards to my left was the interstate that killed it.
View from behind the cabins
The instant I saw John’s Modern Cabins was the instant I fell in love with Route 66.
I-44 was rerouted a couple of years ago to try to reduce the number of traffic accidents just west of the cabins, where the interstate came around a steep curve just as it began the descent to the Little Piney Creek. With the realignment of I-44, the chance to shoot the entire history of the Mother Road in one frame was lost. But the cabins remain, at least for the moment.
They look a little more forlorn each year. One of them completely collapsed this winter; a branch lying on top of a wall suggests the building may have been a casualty of the devastating ice storms that hit the Ozarks a couple of months ago.
One cabin down; another unsteady
We stopped at John’s Modern Cabins on the way back from my in-laws’ house last Sunday. Ron left me alone with my thoughts as I wandered around the property, documenting the weird beauty of the decaying structures as I have so many times in the past.
Nails protrude from a rotted-out board on the roof of one of the cabins
When I got back into the car just shy of 100 frames later, Ron looked at me. “You OK?” he asked.
View through the front door of one of the guest cabins
I think we were both a little surprised when I said yes, because if there ever seemed to be a moment for tears, it was this moment, as we found ourselves face-to-face with the stark realization that one day — probably one day not so very many years into the future — our beloved cabins will be gone.
Make no mistake: The thought of losing this old tourist court breaks my heart.
But in their decline, they tell a story — a poignant story of progress come full circle. The road that supplied the cabins’ business was bypassed in the late 1960s. The road that replaced it roared past for the better end of 40 years; now it’s moved, and the roaring traffic with it, and the forest that supplied the lumber to build the log structures’ walls is quietly taking them back, dust to dust in the inevitable cycle of material existence.
View of the sign through the window and partially collapsed wall of one of the guest cabins
And as the cabins fade, I am learning, ever so slowly, that matter … doesn’t.
Like the road itself, the cabins represent something far more important than matter.
They represent the grit and determination of people up and down 66 who saw their livelihoods ripped away from them by the demand for bigger, faster roads to accommodate bigger, faster lifestyles.
They represent the human dramas that played out under their asphalt-shingled roofs before weather, neglect, and wood-boring insects ravaged their once-solid walls.
They represent the dreams of a couple who cleared away a few trees, built a business, and defied the Great Depression to take it away from them … and the dreams of another couple who left behind their life in Chicago to take over a declining business on a rural stretch of a road that had reached its peak and was already cruising inexorably toward oblivion by the time they moved in, although they couldn’t have known that at the time.
But most of all, they represent the moment seven years ago when a 24-year-old photographer in Doc Martens went tromping through the weeds to document the last vestiges of a time long past, never suspecting that the steps she was taking across that tick-infested property were the first steps on a journey that would send her down an old highway full of preservation projects, propane torches, and high desert sunsets … an old highway that would eventually lead her 500 miles from home to find the faith she’d misplaced somewhere 20 years earlier, a faith that would light her path out of darkness and depression, heal a chronic illness she’d battled for the better end of 15 years, and lift her thoughts out of the limitations of matter and into the limitless joy of Love.
Sunsets are often tinged with sadness. But that sadness is frequently tempered with striking beauty.
John’s Modern Cabins: An hour before sunset
One day, in the not-too-distant future, the sun will set on John’s Modern Cabins for the last time. But their legacy will remain … and that legacy will outlive even the ancient forest that reclaims a little more of the property each spring.