1954: I am nine years old, it is late June or early July. I've never been west of Winnipeg or south of Chicago. I get off the Super Chief out of Chicago, to stretch, to breathe the outdoor air in Barstow. My hot/humid, cold/wet Chicago life does not prepare me for the 110 degree f. desert oven. The dry heat stuns me, as does a dream-picture of real life more strange than desert air. Parked next to the tracks is this man on a motorcycle with a woman behind him, the bike's engine growling a low-pitched hum. The man and the woman are clothed entirely in black leather. They sit on this motorcycle in the arid, empty space stretching to nowhere, twenty feet from the railroad tracks. It is the leather in the heat I cannot begin to make heads or tails of, make any sense of it at all.
This image is permanently registered in my head: today I can still see an afterimage of that scene, without the vapor trail of Hollywood or Frank's picture in Upstate New York made a few years later. Some years will pass before I can label the bike a Harley and make sense of those people. But this isn't about sense: it's about America as seen by that skinny Swiss Jewish guy with an accent and a Leica. The man and woman on the bike are now old or dead, but the mystery hovers, floats, does not go away. Marlon Brando does not and never did answer the question. Robert Frank's photographs obliquely suggest that my question may be a good one. They, too, are much more.
U.S. 90, en route to Del Rio Texas, photograph by Robert Frank, from the 50th Anniversary Edition of Robert Frank: The Americans, Published by Steidl, 2008