“One’s period is when one is very young,” Diana Vreeland wrote in her memoirs, D.V., and in this way we can consider the way in which strong sensory experiences influence and shape our developing brains. For Eric Johnson, the combination of the car and the open road has been a motif that he has explored throughout his life in the form of the photograph.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Eric spent his formative years on the road, traveling up and down the eastern seaboard to and from his ancestral home in Charlotte County, Virginia. The distance between the two lands is more than a matter of miles logged; it is a passage from North to South, from the post-industrial city to the agrarian town, from twentieth to nineteenth century American ideals. “The road must eventually lead to the whole world,” Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road, inadvertently reminding us that our path to freedom begins with an intuitive desire to travel. Beyond the familiar lies the foreign, and it is the paths we take that connect us to one another.
Cars make this possible as nothing else ever could, a symbol of freedom and self-determination that is American at its roots. Cars allow us to come and go as we choose, becoming an extension of the self in the larger world. They are beautifully crafted machines of modern life, an object of art with practical use. Johnson and his mother Shirley share a love of cars. Back in the days she drove a 1969 Ford Torino. Her husband, Eric’s stepfather, had the same make and model. Color, too. Unbeknownst to each other, they had both ordered the same car when they first began dating. Shirley’s car came first, one week before her then-boyfriend’s car arrived. Eric remembers the identical cars were parked in the driveway for a long time.
Then the new cars came. For Shirley it was the 1974 Dodge Charger in metallic deep Sherwood green, a hardcore muscle car with a black vinyl top, while Eric’s stepfather purchased a 1974 Ford Thunderbird in metallic blue with a white top and white interior, with all the flashy luxuriousness of a boat cruising across land. Shirley, who was possessed by a desire to race cars, later got a 1983 Dodge Shelby Mustang in silver with a blue racing stripe. The car was designed by racing legend Carroll Shelby, and Shirley’s love for the sport was lived out as she drove up and down the interstate, to and from Newark and Charlotte County.
Back and forth, forth and back again, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters and cousins would travel across the Eastern seaboard before heading west, heading along the backroads of Virginia, so many of which have not been paved or lit. Eric remembers the kids piling into the back, the music cranked, eight tracks on cassette, leaving in the early hours of the morning, well before dawn, and driving along dark roads with only the headlights to guide through the dark, and along these roads they would go as the sun would rise. They spent long hours on the road, listening to soul music, keeping up with what’s going on, then stopping at rest spots for a bite to eat, maybe a pulled pork sandwich and a hot dog at the local spot outside Lynchburg, then head back in the car, and keep on riding until they’d arrive, some time after noon. The day was still young and the night held promise, and the cars and the roads become the means by which Eric lived.
In his junior year of high school, Eric got a 1966 Mustang convertible in ember glow and parchment, which he kept for a couple of decades before selling it. He reflects on this, knowing that it was time to let go, with the fantasyof having a new car again, a classic car like the ones he knows best. The cars that cruise the roads, on birthdays, holidays, summer vacations. The roads that remind us it is both the journey and the destination. It is life, as it is meant to be lived, and the journey of a thousand miles begins with a playlist.
We are pleased to present On the Road, the photographs of Eric Johnson, along with a playlist he mixed exclusively for The Click. Press PLAY.