'Is that even possible?" asks the barmaid at Captain Mike's as she pours another round of drinks. "All 50 states in 30 days? Are you guys insane?"
Admittedly, it was starting to look that way. Day 19: Kenosha, Wisconsin. Our 22nd state, and we were seriously running out of time.
In retrospect, it was a relatively bonkers undertaking: covering the entire United States of America in just one month. This is a country so enormous that just one of its states – Texas – could swallow England whole. Three times over. And still have room for a nibble at France.
Texas isn't even the largest of the 50 states. That honour goes to wild, untamed Alaska. If not on a different planet, it certainly should be a different country, when judged by any sane geographical criterion. So too Hawaii with its sunkissed Polynesian waves and crumbling royal palace. Or Arizona and Nevada with their merciless, interminable deserts. Or Florida with its alligator-infested Everglades. And the list k goes on. Across a mind-boggling 3.8 million square miles. This incredible diversity within just one country was the point of our trip: to experience and document the many faces of modern-day America, and the environments they live in.
Photographer Mark Chilvers and I, who have worked together as a team since starting our careers at The Independent more than a decade ago, hit mainland US soil in Los Angeles, California, on day one. Exactly 29 days and 23 hours later, we arrived in Dallas, Texas: our 50th and final state.
"The concept with this series of portraits, The 50 Faces of America, was to photograph a unique representative of each and every state in front of the same portable backdrop," says Chilvers. "The device was designed to add a sense of visual continuity: isolating the subject while simultaneously showcasing their natural environment."
Not all of the case studies were easy to persuade. "The hardest place to find a willing subject was undoubtedly New York City," says Chilvers. "We had a run-in with some very officious security guards, and quite a few people wouldn't even stop to listen to what we were doing."
By contrast, the vast majority of subjects couldn't have been more accommodating. "Boot", a working cowboy in Arizona, cooked us beans for lunch after posing for Chilvers' camera. In Maryland, local jeweller and musician Wayne Werner loved the project so much that he came for dinner with us at a local crab shack after his photo, then joined us as we drove on to Delaware.
The majority of the images, to be displayed in an exhibition later this year, were shot outdoors.
"The changing weather conditions meant the fabric backdrop itself became a point of interest. From billowing in the wind or highlighting rain and snow, to getting dirty on the floor of a blacksmith's workshop in Tennessee," says Chilvers.
Driving through the night, running for more aeroplanes than we could count – usually with shoelaces untied to speed security – we surviving on snatched "sushi sleeps" k (small portions grabbed from the conveyor belt as often as we could manage). We used more than 30 different forms of transport to hopscotch across state lines and through timezones, from jetpacks (Hawaii) to an Amish buggy (Pennsylvania). Ultimately, we made it to our finishing line – the shining skyscrapers of Dallas – with an hour to spare.
Inevitably, disaster befell the backdrop – the only surprise being that it took until our 49th state, Louisiana, to happen. "I was lugging the portable stands and fabric everywhere as we raced around, and right at the end of the trip, I managed to leave it all on a plane. I had to have it FedExed to meet me in Dallas," says Chilvers. "And borrowed a hotel bedsheet to photograph a voodoo priestess in New Orleans."
Chilvers and Thompson completed their journey to all 50 US states in 30 days with American Airlines (AA.com) and Brand USA (discoveramerica.com). Read their blog at aa.com/UnitedStatesofAdventure for more