It’s Sunday evening, almost quarter to seven, and we’re sailing across Nebraska. Or driving in the high 70s as another beautiful summer day starts to think about the impending setting of the sun.
Nebraska is flat, the road is straight, and the trains of the Union Pacific RR keep running along our left side. There is a bit more traffic today. Local tourists? Other highway history buffs? Folks heading to Grandma’s for dinner? Or heading home after a big midday meal.
The landscape is starting to change. Grassy hills to the right of us, a long long coal train to the right. As usual there’s a town up ahead with a water tower and a grain silo that you can see for miles.
Jarrett is driving. Moving along at a brisk clip. We can’t see another car right now. Bob says, “We own this road!” We’re passing quickly through Maxwell, NE, just trying to rack up some miles. The sun will set later tonight because we’re farther west.
Bob is in the passenger seat, starting to get excited about the light that grows more rich and golden as the day ends. Jarrett is eating a pretzel rod. I’m suiting in the back seat pecking away at the tiny touch-screen keyboard on my iPhone. This postcard comes immediately from the road.
About two hours ago we stopped just east of Kearny at the very first Cabela’s store. A rugged, manly place to buy hunting and fishing gear, this Kearny store was far less spacious and less Disney-esque than the store I’ve been to near Wheeling, WV.
We’re in North Platte now, crossing a viaduct over the train tracks, and I want to stop typing and look out he window.
Now we’re pulling over to the side of the road to get some beauty shots of the setting sun and the wildflowers at the side of the road and the rolling hills just to the north. Bob is always looking for “frames,” and Jarrett got his little mini-DV camera out too. There are few other cars on the highway and I tell Jarrett now’s a good time to get the middle-of-the-road shot if he wants to set the camera on the yellow line. Up close and on the ground with the Lincoln Highway.
We own this road again. And it goes on and on. We would like to get to Wyoming before stopping for the night but realize that’s impossible.
Yes, we got as far as Ogallala at about 8:25 last evening, and the towns are getting farther and farther apart, so we decided to find a motel here. We started to see some interesting looking mom-and-pop motels along Route 30 as we came into town, but all of them had their neon NO VACANCY signs lit up.
“This is a bad sign,” said Bob.
Every motel was full or at least claimed to be.
“Maybe out at the interstate?” I said.
I-80 has been running parallel just south of Route 30 for many miles now. We can often see big trucks moving along it in the distance. And there were several motels out at the Ogallala interchange. We got rooms at this Holiday Inn Express, but finding a restaurant at 9 pm proved a bit more difficult. The young guy at the front desk suggested the Spur, a place just down the access road next to the Best Western, but it was closed because of oven problems or something or other. And we ended up at a restaurant called Valentino’s that we saw as we headed back toward 30. It was a pizza-pasta-salad-bar place, and it was food.
Yesterday, our best luck was in Grand Island, Nebraska. In the process of doing research for this program, somehow I got a copy of a children’s book titled LINK ACROSS AMERICA by Mary Elizabeth Anderson, and much of it took place in a school in Grand Island named the Seedling Mile School, a school named for one of the early paved stretches of the Lincoln Highway just on the outskirts of town.
Using Butko’s descriptions of the original route of the road, we turned left off 30 onto Shady Bend Road, went a half mile and turned right on Seedling Mile Road. We saw Seedling Mile Court. And then the handsome brick school called Seedling Mile School.
I tried to see if I could find Mary Elizabeth Anderson’s phone number because her bio at the back of the book said she lived there in Grand Island, but I couldn’t find it through information. I looked up the address of the local Waldenbooks, thinking we might stop there and ask if they knew her as a local writer.
But first we drove down the mile, but the original path of the seedling section is interrupted now by the “improved” Route 30, so you have to take Seedling Mile Access Road to get back out there.
And following one of Butko’s tips, we pulled into Kensinger’s Service Station, a small but striking little building with three pumps out front and a great sign that juts into the sky saying simply GAS. We pulled in beside the station and the owner, Dick Grudzinski, was over right away to see what we were doing. We explained our mission, and he chuckled and reluctantly agreed to help. He said there was “some guy from California here last week who stayed for two days taking pictures of the station and the old road.”
Just behind the little station there’s a chunk of the old seedling mile, and Butko says it may be the only remaining stretch of original seedling mile concrete in the country. It’s cracked and overgrown with weeds. It belongs to the grasshoppers. But we took pictures (and video) too, and then we got back to the station as Dick was closing the door. He closes at 1 pm on Sundays.
We convinced him to stay open for a quick 5 minute interview, then a few extra shots of him in the station, and he was great. He has a white cat named Cat who lives in the office, and Bob loved her, and we came to understand better how unusual it is for an independent full service gas station to still be around, especially when the state government has blocked a lot of his business by “improving” Route 30, making it difficult (impossible?) for eastbound traffic to turn into his station. We sympathized and wished him luck. He wished us luck too.
I gave up my quest to find Mary Elizabeth Anderson’s phone number. Dick was our story here, and he talked a bit about the old school too.
And he recommended Lee’s Cafe for lunch. Just off 30 on the other side of Grand Island, it’s an old family-run place that obviously used to have curb service out back under the awning, but now just serves inside. It was a homespun place where the hostess let us know that the cucumbers on the salad bar were from her garden. “The watermelon’s from my brother-in-law’s.”
For dessert, Bob had the triple chocolate cake (homemade, of course) and I passed on my old favorite, coconut cream, to try the unusual one on the pie list, sour cream raisin.
“Sour cream raisin,” I said, “I’ve never heard of that.”
“You’ve never heard of it?!” the young waiter said incredulously. “It’s good.”
We went to breakfast this morning at Kathy’s Kafe at the Ogallala Livestock Auction just west of town on the Lincoln Highway. The guy at the motel had touted it as “maybe the best breakfast in town.” Big and hearty. Lots of coffee. Jarrett was trying to finish editing the video postcard we made yesterday behind Kensinger’s Service Station. And I noticed the clock behind the register and it seemed wrong. Bob asked the waitress, “Can you tell us what time it is?” And she said, “8:30.” We three raised our eyebrows. And she said, “Yes, we’re on Mountain.” We gained an hour last night several miles back, and we never noticed it. It’s a joy of traveling westward.
After breakfast, Bob suggested grabbing a few shots of the building and the cattle pens next to the “Kafe.” Jarrett had some more editing to do, so he sat in the van with his iBook, and I carried the tripod for Bob, first onto the wooden walkways above the cattle pens (mostly empty) until we saw a longhorn bull in one of the pens, and Bob could get a “frame” with both the beast and the highway. Sweet. Slightly stinky but sweet.
Then a family pulled in with a horse trailer behind their big pickup, and they got ready to load some colts out of one of the pens. We talked to them for a while, found out they were starting back to Atlanta, Missouri, and expected to take 30 much of the way. Then we had to do an interview. And we watched them pull out of the lot.
Then Bob noticed another couple of bikers coming out of the cafe, a couple from Ohio named Kat and Duck, and they ride the Lincoln Highway every summer on a four-week ride on their vintage Harleys. We had to talk to them too. Another interview. More great comments about the joys of staying off the interstates, talking to people and patronizing small businesses in small towns along the way. They said they never worry a out how far or how many miles they will go in a day. But Kat said it felt good to be leaving the West, heading east they were just starting to feel like they were getting back into the midwest. “It’s just beginning to feel like we’re heading for home.
Meanwhile we are exhilarated to be feeling the West all around us as we get nearer to Wyoming. We have the road mostly to ourselves again. We’re making some time through this part of the state of Nebraska. We slowing down to get some gas in the town of Dix.The day is hot, clear, sunny and bright. The open road ahead makes the possibilities seem limitless.
August 27th, 2007 · 1 Comment
So, not long after we filled our tank at that small independent gas station in Dix, Nebraska, we drove under Interstate 80 and were now zipping along on the old Route 30 as it traveled just south of the big highway. 30 had been quietly transformed into a sort of a high quality access road, but we had it all to ourselves again. And Bob said, “Pull over, Jarrett, this is great!” Because the highways were so close together, it made for an interesting shot. “This is a frame I was hoping for.”
We pulled off the road, and when I got out and looked behind us, there was a highway sign for Pine Bluffs, Exit 1 Mile, heading back east.
“We’re in Wyoming,” I said.
Bob and Jarrett were skeptical. We hadn’t seen a WELCOME TO WYOMING sign.
“Well, Pine Bluffs is behind us, and Pine Bluffs is the first town in Wyoming. We were out of Nebraska, standing still beside the road. We got some shots of the contrasting side-by-side highways and were soon talking about eating lunch in Cheyenne.
In GREETINGS FROM THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY, Butko quotes from many of the people who traveled the road in the early years, including Emily Post, and there are some cool old pictures, including ones where the travelers were preserved in photographs beside their vehicles. I decided we should do the same. So, before we got back on the road, there, beside 30 just one mile west of Pine Bluffs, I used the timer on my camera to take our picture with the gaudily decorated Dodge Caravan that we’ve called home for almost a week. It’s covered with logo stickers, like a race car, but those stickers identify us as being from WQED’s classical music radio station in Johnston, PA. So we’re a bit incognito, and I think people see the van and say, Where’s Johnstown? So it’s a trusty vehicle in a gaudy dress, and it doesn’t say exactly what we’re doing. Unfortunately, even though form still follows function in most circles, there’s a big Q decal blocking the left side window, so we stack equipment there. The right side window is free of branding clutter, so whoever is sitting in the back seat can look out that side. We’ve traveled a lot with no air-conditioning, just the windows open, and, a note to Dodge Motors: we all wish that rear side window opened too.
We traveled 30 the access road from Pine Bluffs into Cheyenne, arriving a little after 3 pm. It was gray and drizzly. All the restaurants seem to stop serving lunch at 2. The woman at the desk in the Plains Hotel suggested we try the Shadows Brew Pub in the old train station. We weren’t impressed. In fact, Bob hated the pulled pork barbecue, but I thought it was just ho-hum. Jarrett always eats healthiest, and he had salmon.
We allowed ourselves a half hour to check out some of the shops downtown. There’s a big Western wear store called The Wrangler, and I picked up a cowboy shirt made of the American flag. Bob said he would have been happy to talk me out of it. We were all looking for souvenirs and presents for folks back home.
After Cheyenne, even Butko says it might be smart to get on the interstate for a while, make some miles, and we did. I-80 basically follows the old Lincoln route with a few possible detours into towns for those who want to be fantatic about following the original route (and we wish we had time to be such fanatics.)
There’s a big statue of Lincoln right beside 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie, and we exited the interstate to check it out. It used to be beside 30 when it ran along the top of a nearby hill. This is the highest point on Interstate 80, and the original location of the statue was at the highest point on the Lincoln Highway. It’s not a young and happy Lincoln. He’s old and wrinkled and looks slightly troubled. Perhaps he’s troubled because the statue is so weird. It is his head and shoulders sticking out of a column of stone slabs that look like really stale ladyfingers. It’s a statue of Lincoln as a weakened super hero who was encased in some weird trap.
There’s a good Lincoln quote on the brass memorial plaque near the bottom of the stone pastry: “We must think anew and act anew.” Lincoln’s words and deeds and political wisdom in trying times earned him all these memorials and the enduring love of so many Americans. His name effectively brands this highway as an important and wonderful thing.
If this troubled Lincoln looked straight down and to the right, he’d see a really beautiful stone memorial to Henry Bourne Joy, the first president of the Lincoln Highway Association and one of the men who made sure this First Improved Coast To Coast Highway became a reality. It’s a good monument with a good bas relief of various modes of travel and a big stone Lincoln Highway L in the middle. The monument is surrounded by a fence with four concrete Lincoln Highway markers at the corners. There’s a Joyful quote carved in the top of the stone: “THAT THERE SHOULD BE A LINCOLN HIGHWAY ACROSS THE COUNTRY IS THE IMPORTANT THING.” Amen. We left a Lincoln penny at the base of the Henry B. Joy monument, as obviously many other travelers had done before us.
This may be my favorite rest area of all time. Of all highways. I talked briefly with a couple who were obviously sort of baffled by the Joy monument. They said they were truck drivers and they’d passed this point hundreds of times but this was the first time they’d stopped. It’s worth the pause.
But we have to keep moving. And still we turned off 80 in Laramie (a handsome looking town that we all wished we could stop in for a while, but we didn’t) in order to get back on the old route of Lincoln Highway that takes a northern arc through this part of Wyoming. We again had the two-lanes to ourselves. The day had been overcast, but the sun starting coming below the clouds about 7 o’clock. Bob said this could be a great sunset.
It was. We pulled off the road at the start of some rancher’s long driveway, and Bob shot Hi-Def video with the big camera, Jarrett shot with his mini-DV video camera and I shot stills. It was a stunning sunset that made us feel even more like we were far from home in the exotic American West. It was so quiet too. Nearby cattle occasionally mooed, and once in while a lone pick-up truck or other car would whoosh by, but the world here was amazingly silent. Jarrett said it was so quiet his ears hurt.
We took too many pictures, stayed too long, got back on the old road to Medicine Bow.
In Medicine Bow we checked out the legendary Wild West rooms in the Virginian Hotel (Owen Wister wrote the Virginian while living there in Medicine Bow) but Bob was too tall for the beds and the beds were way too soft for Bob (who tried 4), and Jarrett and I knew we wouldn’t get any wireless web access, so we decided to drive on in the dark toward Rawlins.
We broke the speed limit getting to Rawlins, and we were turned away from the Best Western. “Completely sold out,” the hard edged blonde behind the counter told me. “Check the Super 8 just up the road.” We did and there were rooms here.
The night was fast. But the morning looks clear and bright and the road continues.
From our motel in Rawlins, the morning is bright and clear. Day 8. It’s all new landscape. It’s a giant blue sky, treeless hills, wild Wyoming. We decide to walk next door to Cappy’s for breakfast and Bob is in love with the morning light. “This is so beautiful,” he says. “I’m gonna get a few frames before we leave.”
Even a train in the far distance looks special and toylike. Bob’s enthusiasm is contagious.
Cappy’s isn’t open for breakfast, but the too full Best Western a few doors down has a restaurant and we grab some grub there.
Then we’re back on the road. Interstate highway again. It seems wise to make some miles, and there aren’t a lot of towns. And the terrain becomes the superstar.
I wish we had thought to bring a geologist or a geographer with us, someone to give us all the right terms for the rock formations and different sorts of hills and mountains. Which is a butte? and is that a mesa? and why are these rocks so red and sort of bubbly? What makes these stacks and formations like fingers that point skyward? How did these rocks that look like curtains along the top get that way?
Western Wyoming is stark and deserted. The Red Desert. There’s even an exit for Red Desert that Brian Butko suggested we stop at to see an abandoned cafe. As we approached we saw the ADULT store on the south side of 80, and a pile of rubble that must have once been the abandoned cafe on the north side of the road. The rubble had a big NO TRESPASSING sign in front of it. We didn’t stop.
Bob had been to Rock Springs once before on another shoot, although he really can’t remember what the story was that brought him here back when he was doing lighting and grip work, maybe audio. It was more than 10 years ago he figures, and he has no memory of the arch that has become a landmark for the town. We leave the interstate to get a shot or two. See if a story happens.
It’s a quick stop, and then we’re on toward Green River. We get discombobulated coming into town, making a wrong turn sending us southbound on the other side of the railroad tracks. We see a state information center, and Jarrett says, “Should we stop and ask?” and I say “Yes.” The Info Center is Closed for Lunch however. But there’s a map of the area on display outside the door, and I figure out where we should be, meaning that we have to backtrack just a bit. But it’s lunchtime, and we’re in a town, so we decide to find a place.
Mi Casita is on the left at 36 East Flaming Gorge Way, and we think it looks promising. It’s been several days since we’ve had Mexican, and this turns out to be a wise choice. There’s a big table with Mexican construction workers having their midday break (a good sign), and we get a booth. Chicken enchiladas for Bob, tamales for Jarrett, and chili colorado for me. Good food. The salsa is thin, watery, but delicious, with lots of cilantro. We are happy.
Just out of Green River, heading west, I have to do a U-turn (we make a lot of U-turns) to get on the old Lincoln Highway rather than Interstate 80. It’s not marked as Route 30 here. The sign says SERVICE ROAD and JAMESTOWN. We turn on there, and pull over to the right almost immediately. It’s a stunning piece of highway — or “service road” rather — that goes alongside the rock formation called the Pallisades, and it’s beautiful. Butko took a picture here and put it on the cover of his book.
We stop to get lots of pictures. Jarrett and I try to make a simple one-shot video postcard of the Green River and the view. And I get a call from Ken Dykes at PBS to say that folks at PBS Online are reading this blog too. Good. PBS and CPB made this all possible by funding the project, and we owe them everything. That obviously means Viewers and Blog-Readers Like You too. Thank You!
I didn’t sleep a lot in Rawlins, so I’m happy that Jarrett is willing to drive a lot today.
The view out the right side of the van is amazing.
The view out the left side is blocked by the big Q decal. Stupid branding. It could be on the rear side window and no one would care.
August 28th, 2007 · 1 Comment
We love the service road but eventually get on the interstate again.
We figure Lyman might be worth a visit because there’s a picture in Butko’s book of an old concrete Lincoln marker in a field outside of town, and Bob says “I’d love to shoot that.” He’s sitting in the back seat now, reading the Butko book,. and he says, “This little bar in Lyman sounds interesting too.” It’s a local bar that used to be a Lincoln Highway garage among other things.
We get off the interstate and turn right into town. We see John’s Bar with its vintage neon sign on the right. Its windows are in the shape of diamonds and clubs. I offer to buy a beer if we want to check the place out, and the guys agree. This is unusual. We’ve never stopped for a drink at 4 in the afternoon before. There’s no one in the place but the owner, and we order beers and chat with the owner.
“Are you John?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “I’m Ted. John was my grandfather who started this place in the early 1950s. He named it John’s Diamond Club. We used to have gambling here.”
I explain what we’re doing (although all the equipment is still in the van) and we find that he knows quite a bit about the old Lincoln Highway, and since there’s no one else in the place, I ask if he’d mind if we did an interview for our show.
He’s a bit nervous (which is totally understandable — we must be unusual customers to say the least) but he makes several nice points about the old road, and he tells us how to find the concrete marker out in the field east of town.
“I used to think that was a tombstone,” he said. “It’s just beyond the high school where the road makes a turn.”
Jarrett agrees to be a customer in a shot so we’re not shooting an empty bar.
We thank Ted (whose real name we find out is Raymond but everybody’s called him “Ted” since an aunt gave him that name as a baby) and he says we’ve made it a memorable afternoon for him.
East of town, just beyond the high school, we find the marker just as he said. And Bob is thrilled by the backlit horses who are mulling around nearby. We take pictures.
Spotting Lincoln Highway markers is part of the game of riding along the old highway. There aren’t many left, and some places I’ve read that there are only twelve remaining in the whole country, but I think we’ve seen many more than that. These concrrete markers were put up in 1928 by Boy Scouts across the country working with the Lincoln Highway Association. It was a final marking of the Lincoln Highgway route because it was obvious then that the numbered routes were going to be standard. Named-highways became old fashioned and oudated. Outnumbered. And now they’re charming and fascinating in ways that bland old superhighways can never be.
But bless those interstates for taking all the traffic.