Why Am I Driving the Lincoln Highway? An Intro to My Cross-Country Trip

A mural of Abraham Lincoln near 8th and Ranstead streets in Philadelphia.

A mural of Abraham Lincoln looming over a parking lot near 8th and Ranstead streets in Philadelphia. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

WASHINGTON — When you reach the age of 33, your brain apparently stops being creative … or at least stops being creative in the ways it once was. Your intellectual curiosity with the world begins to get stale. You don’t seek out things like new music. You begin to get set in your ways. It’s the brain’s gateway to middle-age malaise, supposedly.

I don’t exactly remember where I heard this but I think it was on National Public Radio, although I could likely be very wrong in the details of my recollection. But when I heard this around age 30, I remember shrugging my shoulders and exhaling in a gruff, defeated way. Age 33 was looming around the corner.

Like many Americans, I’ve been worn down by the stresses of the modern workplace, ground down even more by the grueling 24/7 world of the media and journalism marketplace that’s been going through severe industry convulsions, cutbacks, and consolidation the past decade.

So here I am, nearly 34, past the threshold when my brain is supposed to begin its trip into perpetual boredom. When I turned 33, I needed something to rejuvenate my creative and intellectual vitality and escape the daily routine of moving 1s and 0s across the digital ethos, something that I’ve been doing for more than a decade. Like many Americans, I hadn’t had a real vacation in years and years. I decided to go traveling.

Thus far, 2013 has brought me to Barbados, Hawaii, Thailand, Malaysia, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and Portland, Maine. My adventures have been fantastic and they aren’t over yet.

This week, I’m setting out to drive the Lincoln Highway all the way to San Francisco, a city I’ve visited just once. The coast-to-coast highway that honors the 16th president’s name, which is celebrating its centennial in 2013, predates the national memorial in the nation’s capital by nine years. The Lincoln Highway has a fascinating history and came about just as Americans a century ago became obsessed with the automobile and motoring culture.

So why am driving this road that most people have never heard of?

Pardon the pun, but I’m using the Lincoln Highway as a vehicle to rev up my creative engines. The road provides a path for me to explore and create. I plan to write along the way, in real time or near real time, depending on access to wifi or the reliability of my aircard.

I hope to live and breathe the open road, which is something that is quintessentially American like apple pie.

In the opening pages of “Travels With Charley,” John Steinbeck noted that for 25 years his exposure to America was mainly limited to New York, Chicago and San Francisco:

I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the county for 25 years. In short, I was writing something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal. My memories were distorted by twenty-five intervening years.

It seems that I’ve gotten around to more places around the country than Steinbeck did prior to “Travels With Charley,” but as someone who is based in Washington, D.C., and whose travels generally are limited to weekend trips to New York, his yearning to explore the rest of the country resonates.

Steinbeck again:

When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going.

And I think I have sufficient reason for going.

Although I do not own a car — I prefer public transit for getting around town for my day-to-day travels — I love roadtrips. I absolutely love roadtrips. I also love the history of American roads. I also love American history. And the Lincoln Highway weaves all those loves together.

While the route of the highway runs through Gettysburg, Pa., where Lincoln, of course, delivered the Gettysburg Address, the Lincoln Highway doesn’t really tell much about Lincoln’s own story. It steers clear of his boyhood homes in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. It also skips Springfield, Ill., and the territory in central Illinois where Lincoln cut his teeth as a lawyer before his rise to the national stage. I’ll be sure to highlight those locations where the Lincoln Highway or my travels off the main route do intersect Lincoln’s story.

The Lincoln Highway is much bigger than Lincoln himself as it runs its way through different eras of the American story, from the pre-1776 colonial years to the birth of the Interstate Highway System. It is a great American road, one that is sometimes forgotten and worthy of rediscovery.


So where does the Lincoln Highway go? And where will I be going?

Technically, the highway starts in New York City at Times Square and ends at Lincoln Park in San Francisco and runs through Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, Cedar Rapids, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City and Sacramento. But the route was realigned and improved over time. Some sections were bypassed. And there are some auxiliary routes as well, linking the main section of the highway with Washington, D.C., Chicago and Denver. (To explore the route, the Lincoln Highway Association has a detailed official map.)

For much of its route, the Lincoln Highway is bypassed by modern-day Interstate highways, which means that most people traveling east to west, or vice versa, today miss the bulk of the route. Between Philadelphia and western Wyoming, U.S. 30 roughly follows the route of the original highway. Further west, Interstate 80 and U.S. 50 piggybacks on portions of the original highway route.

As for my journey, I’ll be driving the majority of the highway with some diversions. In fact, a few weeks ago, I drove a portion of the route in Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and York and I’ll be detailing some of what I came across when I rejoin the highway up in Gettysburg.

While my overall mission is to document Lincoln Highway, I’ll be highlighting a variety of places along the way, including those spots with ties to Abraham Lincoln himself and those who intersect with the life and times of the 16th president. But there are plenty of other non-Lincoln locales worth featuring, from the prison where “Shawshank Redemption” to the old Pony Express trail.

So, join me for the trip! It should be fun and interesting.

2 thoughts on “Why Am I Driving the Lincoln Highway? An Intro to My Cross-Country Trip

Leave a Reply