While recently rereading John Steinbeck’s dust bowl masterpiece, the “Grapes of Wrath” I came across his famous reference to Route 66. Actually, there is an entire chapter dedicated to the road and the path to California. Steinbeck called it “the mother road. The road of flight.” The “Mother Road” tag stuck and it is often referred to as such. The road also became known as the “Main Street of America.” This phrase, however did not originate with Steinbeck. This was originally used to describe the Lincoln Highway which was built two decades before ‘66’ in 1913.
The Lincoln Highway originates at Times Square, in New York City and ends at the San Francisco Bay Bridge. There are over 3,000 miles of road passing through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. This great road still exists and still winds its snaky two lanes across America. It’s not a straight line but a series of curves and turns that cut through the east, the heartland and the west. The English poet William Blake wrote, “Improvement makes straight roads; but crooked roads are genius.”
The Lincoln Highway began at a time before there were dedicated Federal highway funds and four decades before Eisenhower’s massive Interstate Building program of the 1950’s. It all started with an idea from Indiana businessman and founder of the Indianapolis Speedway, Carl Fisher. He pitched his idea of a “coast to coast rock highway” to other businessmen, particularly in the fledging automobile industry. His approach was simple: build it and they will come. And they will have to purchase an automobile to do that. One of his major supporters was Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Company. In fact it was his idea to name the road after President Lincoln. This was a decade before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC would be dedicated.
Not all of his colleagues were in favor and willing to contribute to its construction. Henry Ford was opposed to this idea. Although he certainly liked the idea of a coast to coast highway, he felt that if it were to be built with private funds the government would always expect the private sector to build and maintain roads. Despite his objections the Lincoln Highway did get built. It remained “The Lincoln” until the late 1920’s when the country converted to a number system for highway identification. Before that there was the Jackson Highway, Bankhead Highway, National Old Trails Road, the Dixie Highway and many more. The majority of the ‘Lincoln’ became I-30 with a few pieces merged into US 50 and US 1. Recently, thanks to the interest of the Lincoln Highway Preservation Society red white and blue signs and markers labeled with the original name appear across the long stretch of blacktop.
For many years the road enjoyed heavy traffic on its original two lanes. Along the way were countless diners, gas stations, and even an elephant museum and a restaurant shaped like a coffee pot. (Both of these are in Pennsylvania)
Today, Interstate 80, a modern four lane road runs parallel to it and seems to have replaced it as a main thoroughfare, particularly in the west. It is the same way I-40 runs next to old 66 for many miles from Texas to California. I have been on some long sections of this road and have never been disappointed with the sights, the small towns and the people. What seems surprising to a lot of people is that my favorite stretch is through Nebraska. Yes, Nebraska.
Now most people in the east think that everyone in the cornhusker state wears old overalls, a straw hat and is never too far from a pitchfork. Nebraska is really not like that. Although corn and wheat production are a major part of the state’s economy cities like Omaha and Lincoln are home to large financial service, banking, insurance and high tech industries. One mustn’t forget that this is the home state of Warren Buffett.
That said, it is truly part of what we call “the heartland.” And despite the diversity of business and the dynamic cities, it is this part that I find the most interesting and appealing. You can head east through Nebraska shortly after passing Cheyenne, Wyoming. Then it’s Sydney, and North Platte and Kearney with a long stretch to Omaha of almost 500 miles from Cheyenne. Through most of this I-80 is within view as the Lincoln appears to be in its shadow. As you roll along the line about every 15 or 20 miles you pass through a small town. All that remains are a few worn out buildings and the all important grain elevators. As they did in the early part of the 20th century farmers deliver their corn and wheat to be weighed and loaded on passing trains. The hopper cars move east to processing plants. And between these towns there is often nothing but endless rows of corn and wheat, squared off by giant trees planted to shield the wind in the 1930’s. In fact, if not for a few telephone poles and the giant sycamores, the landscape looks as it must have over 100 years ago. If you are inclined to be a traveler rather than a tourist (travelers are there for the journey, tourists are there for the destination) you can stop your car and get out. This is the heartland. You can see it, smell it and feel it. This is where immigrants from Europe were drawn based on advertisements describing warm weather year round and 12 month growing seasons. Here is where these rugged and brave people from Sweden and Norway came and dedicated themselves to carving a life. They worked hard in the short hot summers and endured the bitter winters. And somehow they managed to tame a wild country. No one in my family came from this area yet it feels as close to ‘home’ as anywhere else.
Then you can jump back on the Lincoln and take in more of the heartland. Actually, it’s the heart and soul land.
Until next time…..