A Blog Along The Lincoln Highway

All of this is about a public TV project about one of America’s great roads, and we’re hoping you might enjoy reading about some of our behind-the-scenes work. I’m Rick Sebak, and I write most of the tales. Bob Lubomski is our cameraman. And Glenn Syska has been traveling with us recently. He made the video blog entries in 2008. Back in 2007, Jarrett Buba did all that. A RIDE ALONG THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY first aired on PBS on October 29, 2008 at 8 PM. Check with your local PBS station to find out about repeat broadcasts. Or go for the DVD at www.shopwqed.org.

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Is there an Echo?

August 28th, 2007 · No Comments

restored train stationWe stop briefly in Evanston to see the restored train station and a little Lincoln Highway marker memorial along the main drag through town. One of the information panels lets us know that the only original concrete Lincoln Highway marker in Wyoming is just east of Lyman, about 65 miles east of here. Yep.

Following some Butko directions, we get on a service road heading out of town, and the pavement ends. We keep driving, kicking up some dust. We can see the WELCOME TO UTAH sign along the interstate not far to our left.

To WahsatchThe terrain — the Wasatch Mountains — everything along both sides of the road — is Nature at her most stunning. Bob is still in the back seat but wants to get the camera rolling again, so we pull off into the town on Echo. The late afternoon light makes long shadows and pretty pictures.

The configuration of the roads is a bit confusing here, and the Lincoln Highway had lots of different marked routes in this area, and we get mixed up again, but eventually find ourselves heading south along the east bank of the Echo Canyon Reservoir. The world is beautiful out here.

About 7:30 I happen to read in Brian’s book that we’ll pass within 5 or 6 miles of Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Film Festival is held every winter. I visited Park City once a few years back, not for the festival, but in mid-summer, and I know it’s unusual and fun. It’s a cute, pricey ski-resort and a touristy town, but it might be a good break. “Wanna stop there for the night?” I ask.

“Yes!” says Jarrett.
“Good for me,” says Bob. “The vote is in.”

We find three deluxe rooms at the Marriott resort in the middle of town, and they’re only $10 more than the semi-raunchy rooms last night in Rawlins. It’s off-season here in Park City, but we all like it.

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A beautiful and seductive island

August 29th, 2007 · No Comments

Outside the hotel window in Park CityAt the start of Day 8, we’re in Park City Utah in the nicest rooms we’ve had so far on the trip. And I’m thinking about The Odyssey. Wasn’t there an island that seemed a paradise to Ulysses’ men? And they didn’t want to leave? Same thing here. Bob and Jarrett are totally taken with this hip, steep, cool little town, and they wouldn’t mind staying. I understand. We all dawdle. Park City is that kind of town.

After breakfast, Bob finds a place that will take him immediately for a neck and shoulder massage, and I say Go for it. He’s been holding the camera on his shoulder for long times in the car every day. And that has to hurt after a while. I’ve never met a cameraman who didn’t have back pains or spasms or aches or problems of some sort. It looks easy but it’s hard work. Jarrett and I use the hour to work on stuff for this blog, and we don’t get out on the road again till after noon.

We sail away on Interstate 80 heading west, sipping on small bottles of bubbly San Pellegrino water that they sold at the gas station on the way out of town. Park City is that kind of town.

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Dullsville and Magna

August 29th, 2007 · No Comments

DullsvilleWe wiggle into Salt Lake City following Butko’s directions on how to follow the old route. Salt Lake City from the old Lincoln Highway, or at least from the version we’re following, is not a very exciting or good looking city. Bob was expecting something more exotic, I think. He’s a fan of the HBO show called BIG LOVE and he’s read a lot about the Mormons in recent years, so he’s disappointed in the city as we see it. It’s flat, franchised, numbered, and dull in an Anywhere USA sort of way.

MagnaWe’re glad when we get west of town and into the town of Magna. We pull over on 2700 South Street and immediately are greeted with a smile and friendly curiosity from a young woman who appears to be going back to work at the TransWest Credit Union there in Magna. Her name is Katy Saques (pronounced sa-kez) and she’s the branch manager. She didn’t know her Garfield Branch office is right on the old Lincoln Highway, but she’s happy to hear it connects her to her hometown of San Francisco.

Guy on the roof in MagnaBob and Jarrett set up the tripod and camera across the street. You can see a huge copper smelter on the side of the mountain in the distance, and we thought it might make an unusual downtown shot. A quick stop, but on the way back to the van with the equipment, Bob starts talking to the man who’s on the roof of a small brick building across the street. A Mexican, the guy is converting the place into a bar and nightclub apparently, and I think he thinks we could give him some publicity. We shout back and forth for a while. Bob has the camera on his shoulder so we do an impromptu interview about the Lincoln Highway. Who knows how we’ll use this?

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Saltair on the Great Salt Lake

August 29th, 2007 · No Comments

SaltairAfter Magna, we have several options, and I think we should check out Saltair. It’s a fabled old resort on the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake, and Butko mentions it in the book as a popular stop for many early travelers along the Lincoln Highway, although it’s about a mile off the actual highway. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was called the “Coney Island of the West,” complete with roller coaster, amusement park, a giant exotic structure and a train that came right out to it.

Saltair in the glory daysNow there’s still a big building there with towers and onion domes, but it’s just an approximation, a reminder of the glory that once was Saltair. We might just get a shot or two and keep moving. While Bob and Jarrett set up the tripod for a wide exterior shot from the parking lot, I go in to see if anyone is inside who might object to our taking pictures.

Conor MurphyThe building inside is mostly empty. Cavernous. A big barn of a place. But there are fences up that direct you toward the gift shop on the right, and there are several customers in there, and soon a young man asks if I have any questions. And he gives me a bit of the basics, and I explain our quest, and he’s understandably skeptical until I explain that we are funded by PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and he says, “Fine. We’d be happy to do anything to help PBS.”

His name is Conor Murphy and he’s got good energy, so we decide to do a quick interview. He seems to know the history and tells it with a sense of humor. The first and second buildings at this site both were destroyed by huge fires. Conor explains that the place is now used primarily as a venue for rock and heavy metal concerts, some country and western, and recently some latin and mariachi dances and events. Saltair is owned by a group of investors, and he works for them.

Saltair parking lotYou can’t walk through the building to the lake, but you can go around the outside, and some people park in the big Saltair lot, walk around and go for a swim. We’re talking about all of this, when this customer in the gift shop asks me, “Are you guys from Pittsburgh?”
“I thought so. I’m from New Stanton. I drive a truck, and I saw your van outside, And I thought that WQED was just in Pittsburgh, so I went on the internet and looked up WQED, and it was all Pittsburgh, and I thought it was unusual that you were here.” His name is Tom Skelly, and he’s really from Ruffsdale, PA, and he says he’s been out here to Saltair several times before and he likes swimming in the unusual lake. I ask if he’d go for a swim now so we could get shots of somebody in the water, and he says OK.

Tom SkellyWhen I get around the Saltair building, I’m amazed at how far out you have to walk to get to the water. Maybe a third of a mile or so. I feel bad and tell Tom he doesn’t have to go all that way out just for us. At this point in the day, it would be too far to lug all our gear out there. He says he’s suited up, so he’s going in anyway. We say goodbye but watch him walk. Bob uses the camera’s extender to zoom in as far as he can, but Tom ends up being just a dot in the distance as he reaches the water’s edge.

We have to get back on the road. It’s after 4, and we haven’t had lunch yet.

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The Idol of Tooele (pronounced too-illa), Utah

August 29th, 2007 · No Comments

Highway and Salt LakeSo, with salt air in our lungs, we turn west again.

Actually, the road from here gets really interesting. Travelers along the Lincoln Highway have some choices to make at this point. Take the straight and easy course on I-80 across the Great Salt Lake Desert to Wendover, or follow the original route to the south past Orr’s Ranch and through Fish Springs to Ibapah, Utah. The southern route is mostly on unpaved roads and is one of the grand adventures of the cross country trip. But we’re behind on time.

Butko has sent me an email: “You’ll be tempted by I-80 into NV but don’t do it! Not only are that and the road back to the LH known as the most boring roads anywhere, but you’ll miss one of the LH’s most popular parts, around the SL Desert.”

We need lunch. It’s 4:30 and we head slightly south for Tooele. Conor at Saltair had taught us that the town name is pronounced “too-illa.” We pull into a slick looking local place called Tracks. I take the maps and Butko’s book with me into the restaurant. I’m thinking we keep going toward the wild road south. Bob (who is no wimp and maybe the best driver I know) is adamant that it’s too risky to head for the unpaved route so late in the day.

And we want to be in San Francisco by Friday. Bob is serious.

I see a man sitting alone at a counter nearby, and I say, “Excuse me. Do you know the roads around here?”
And he says, “Yes.”
And so I explain the situation. Should we go back to I-80 across the desert? Or can we continue south through Fish Springs on the unpaved roads?
“Do you have plans to stay somewhere down there?” the guy asks?
“No, we’d like to be in Ely by tonight.”
“You’ll never make it,” he says. “Those unpaved roads can be treacherous and confusing. And you really should never drive over 30 miles per hour on any unpaved road. I’d recommend the interstate.”
So, he sides with Bob. And I think Jarrett agrees with Bob too.
I say, OK, we’ll head back for I-80.

We eat our late lunch quietly. I’m disappointed, but I accept the decision. We’ll come back some other time for the other route. Butko had told me he’d like to be interviewed out here. Maybe we can make that happen.

After we finish, I say “Thanks” to the guy who’s still sitting at the counter with his chicken fried steak. “You are the man who changed our course.”
I explain what we’re doing, give him one of the explanatory flyers that we hand out, and learn that his name is Neal Hayes. I ask, “Would you mind if I took your picture?”
“No problem”
He then gets warm handshakes and thanks from Bob and Jarrett.
Then he says, “Now I’m gonna tell you who you’ve been talking to.”
Idol of Tooele I immediately imagine he’s the President of the Nevada Lincoln Highway Association, or maybe Director of Nevada Highways or the local highway commissioner or something like that. Maybe he’s the mayor here.
He says, “I’m the Idol of Tooele.”
“Excuse me?” I say.
“I’m the Idol of Tooele. I won the local American-Idol-style singing competition.”
“You’re kidding?” I say. “When did you win?”
“Earlier this year.”
“What did you sing?”
“Fly Me To The Moon,” he says. “Tony-Bennett-style.”
“Excellent,” I say. “And you know the local roads.”
“Yes. And we have karaoke here tonight. That’s why I’m here.”

We head several miles north to meet I-80, and turn directly west to cross the desert, our path changed by the Idol of Tooele, the Utah King of Karaoke. Let us play among the stars.

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Old Salts

August 29th, 2007 · No Comments

Flat HighwaySo, west of the Great Salt Lake, west of Saltair and Tooele, there is the Great Salt Lake Desert. Much of it was the bottom of a gigantic prehistoric lake that stretched over some 20,000 square miles about 18,000 years ago. We now call that dried up old body of water Lake Bonneville. Or the Great Salt Lake Desert around here.

It’s about 4000 square miles of unusual flat terrain, much of it startlingly white, and parts of that desert are used by the US Military for various purposes. And the original Lincoln Highway went to the south of the desert, but one of the later official Lincoln routes followed what was called the Victory Highway directly west across the salt.

Yes, it’s got a layer of salt on top of its huge flatness that makes it look as though it’s snow or ice. But it’s too hot for that.

Interstate 80 now follows the route straight across the desert. More than 50 miles of absolute straightness. There’s even a median of salt between the two eastbound and the two westbound lanes, all of which are slightly raised above the desert level, so the roads appear to be extremely long parallel causeways.

We loved this. It is an astonishing drive. It looks like nowhere else we had ever seen. I guess if you get accustomed to it, it might be tedious and dull, but we were amazed.

Shooting in the saltThere are signs that warn:
so we didn’t go far before Bob wanted to pull over to get a few frames. The sun was getting low, and this was so unusual. We started on the berm near the van, but Jarrett soon realized he still had cell phone service out here, and he wandered off toward the salt to call home.

Bob sees that Jarrett is OK out on the salt, so he wants to get the camera and tripod out there too. We all walk out. We find that the salt is a relatively thin layer on top of a gray clay-y layer that could be slippery. We get some shots.

Call from the salt flatsThen Bob and I try our phones too. We all call home to say that we’re out in the middle of the salt flats. Just because we can. You don’t expect such service out in the desert.

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Don’t drink the alkali water.

August 29th, 2007 · No Comments

When you arrive at the western end of the Great Salt Lake, you’re in Wendover, Utah, and then almost immediately, you’re in West Wendover, Nevada, and it’s an hour earlier. Yes, the time change! Such a sweet sensation for us travelers heading westward.

All these travel days are so full of new sights with sounds and smells, gas stations and weird rock formations, mountains in the distance, atmospheric shenanigans, salty deserts and roadside art — not to mention the regular searching for food and lodging — that one can get exhausted, primed for insanity. Your mind spins from the sensory overload, but still it’s gratifying to have another hour of time to gather and process more of what’s all around you. These days should last forever.

At West Wendover, we ignore all the casinos, just looking for the signs to Alt Route 93 that will take us south to Ely, Nevada, where we’ll re-connect with the path of the original Lincoln Highway.

When we turn onto Alt 93, a comfy two-lane, there’s an 18-wheeler in front of us. We’re used to having the road to ourselves. I’m driving, and I have to wait for the right moment to pass him, but finally the other lane is empty for a long and straight section, and we zoom around the truck, regaining total control and unblocked vision once again on a beautiful and stark section of later-era Lincoln.

Actually the Nevada Commission on Tourism and the City of West Wendover financed a brochure touting this section of 93 as NEVADA’S FINAL ROUTE: LINCOLN HIGHWAY THE FINAL SECTION because it was the last piece necessary to complete the roadway coast to coast. (“Final Route” sounds a bit bleak and Chandleresque however.)

Route 93 wasn’t finished from West Wendover to Ely until 1930, by which time the original Lincoln Highway Association had disbanded. Now you can get the snazzy brochure in most tourist info centers and motel lobbies in Nevada. It includes some vintage advice about early automobile travel around here: “Always have plenty of food and water. If you break down, it can be a while before help comes. Five gallon cream cans tied to the running boards are recommended for both drinking and radiator water. Don’t drink the alkali water as it will create cramps. Don’t drive across any water without first walking across it. Carrying extra gas is not recommended because of the danger, but topping off the gas tank every chance is.”

As always, today we have Bob’s green-top Coleman cooler between the front two seats, full of bottled water, oranges, and usually a couple of those little Starbucks bottled Double Espresso’s that Jarrett likes.

Rout 93 to ElyAnd as we continue south on 93, Bob in the passenger seat asks me, “How about some music?” (We always give the driver first right of refusal on music, but we haven’t played much if any since the first day back in Ohio.) “Sure,” I say, “your choice.” And Bob opens the Clarke’s shoe box full of CDs that’s usually in front of the cooler between the seats, and he pulls out Gnarls Barkely’s “St. Elsewhere” album and slides it into the player.

Loud and unexpected, the music is magic. It’s an inspired choice. The beats. The vocals. The rhythmic wildness. The familiar “Crazy” and the lesser known album tracks, all seem custom-made for driving Route 93 to Ely. And it makes me think of the late great Hunter S. Thompson and how he might embellish our sunset ride across the Nevada nothingness.

Oh, and did I mention that the sky has darkened overhead? That there is still a slim rim of clearness near the horizon to the south and west, but the edges of the sky have caught fire? There are these bizarre wispy clouds like fiery red demon hair hanging down, as if she-devils were cavorting and collapsing in some celestial styling salon, and their ultra-fine orange tresses had fallen over the edges of the cloud floor, the hairs reaching down almost to the earth.

And then lightning bolts start jumping from the clouds to the ground all along the horizon. Bob and Jarrett have their cameras out and rolling. “I got lightning!” says Bob. Jarrett checks his safety belt and shoots gonzo-style out the big open window. We’re surrounded by the weird and the amazing. The sky is now our nightly show. We applaud Mother Nature and her wacky showbiz excesses.

Driving into the SunsetDarkness falls fast. At a bleak desert pull-over-and-rest stop, Jarrett jumps in the driver’s seat, and we fly on toward Ely. Its lights are drawing us.

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Good clean rooms in Ely.

August 29th, 2007 · No Comments

We see a billboard for a Ramada Inn in Ely, and since it is dark already, I call ahead on my cell phone and try to get rooms. The woman at the Ramada says she has rooms available, but they are on the second floor of the “annex” and we’ll have to carry our bags across the street from the parking lot. And there’s no elevator.

Well, we travel heavy, and bring most of the equipment into our rooms every night: the camera, tripod, batteries (heavy), monitor, the sound gear. And we all have our personal suitcases, so there are lots of bags. We need an elevator if we’re not on the first floor.

Jailhouse Hotel and Casino“Well,” I say to Ms. Ramada, “if we don’t stay at your place. where else should we stay?”
“The jailhouse,” she says.
“That’s funny,” I say.
“No,” she laughs. “It’s a motel and casino. If I weren’t staying here, I’d go there. They have good clean rooms.” She gave me the number.

The Jailhouse turns out to be ideal. It’s a one-story drive-up-to-the-door sort of motel, the most convenient kind for us, and we get our gear in quickly. It’s already almost nine o’clock, and the general consensus seems to be: no formal dinner tonight. If you want to eat, you’re on your own. I might turn in early. Bob and Jarrett go to their rooms.

When I get my computer out in the room, plug in my camera, my cell phone and think about writing this blog, I decide this is foolish. Get out and see some of Ely! Hell, the Hotel Nevada, an old casino and hotel, is right across the street from the Jailhouse, and the folks at the Jailhouse desk said the hotel restaurant stays open all night. I find a Lincoln Highway book that I haven’t cracked yet (I bought several back at the second National Headquarters back in Illinois) and I head over there.

The streets of the town are deserted. There’s one place called Mr.G’s with someone inside singing. And the big Hotel Nevada cowboy and adjacent neon signs are keeping things bright.

Pat Nixon Walk of Fame at the Hotel NevadaThe Hotel Nevada is a place with very interesting energy. It’s got a little history. Built in 1929, it was then the tallest building in Nevada at 6 stories. It was the place where the young Wayne Newton got his start, and it’s got a goofy little walk of fame out front honoring people like Ingrid Bergman, LBJ, Pat Nixon (!), poker prince Benny Binion, and Stephen King, among others, all of whom have stayed at this hotel at one time or another. It’s got a comfortably cluttered look, lots of animals preserved through taxidermy, hunting prizes, historic souvenirs (even an old metal Lincoln Highway sign with bullet holes through it) and, of course, scads of slot machines. It’s a relief. It doesn’t feel like Vegas at all in spite of the flashing lights and dinging machines. It’s not slick. It’s sort of homespun. It feels like a small town version of a gambling den.

I get a good hamburger in the casino restaurant. I read my book and chat with the waitress. It’s really relaxing.

As I start back toward the Jailhouse, I’m not tempted by the slot machines. I’ve never understood their allure. Computer games can captivate and charm me, but silly slots (so many with child-like themes) don’t call to me at all. I notice some free brochures in a rack on one wall, and I’m checking them out when I hear a voice beside me. “Hey, Big Guy. What’re you looking for?’

It’s Bob the jokester. He says he watched some of our tapes and then decided to walk over here.
“I like this place,” I say.
“Aw, it’s all machines,” says Bob. “I like card games.”

“Oh, I saw a sign,” I say. “It said Poker & Card Games in basement.” We look around, can’t find a down staircase, but Bob discovers the elevator and we ride down. There is a table with about 8 older guys sitting around playing poker. A few look up as we walk in. Bob says, “Hey, here’s a blackjack table. $2 minimum. That’s perfect.”

Hotel NevadaI’ve never played blackjack before, but I’ve heard some of Bob’s stories over the years, and I have a vague notion that the cards have to add up to 21, but that’s about it. Bob was in the service and knows how to do all these things. There are two dealers just hanging out at the table, no other players, so we sit down.

We each get $20 in chips, and the woman dealing quickly sees what a dufus I am, but she’s got a sense of humor too, and my mother has always said that I have the luck of the Irish, so I don’t go down in flames simply because I get good cards. We work our way through the six-deck stack of cards. I don’t know what the dealer means when she asks, “Insurance?” And sometimes Bob doubles his bet. I’m not getting the basics yet.

Soon, another dealer comes to relieve our lady with all the cards. This new guy is more gregarious and willing to teach me stuff. Bob’s and my fortunes rise and fall. He loses his $20 first, but I’m pretty flush at that point, and I pass him two $5 chips, and he eventually builds an empire of chips with that. We laugh a lot. Win and lose.

The woman dealer comes back from her break. By 11:30 Bob and I are both fading fast, and we both starting betting the farm. When I lose my last chips, Bob hands two $5 chips back to me. He’s been betting well, counts his chips, finds enough to cover his initial investment plus $10, and plays the rest on what looks like a good hand. Pow, it’s gone. He dives the lady dealer a $5 tip and he leaves $5 richer than he came in. I’m down $20, but it’s been a totally fun hour or two. (I actually have no idea how long we were there.) Gambling at this level could interest me. Silly and more social than anything else. A great time. Bob says it was one of the best times he’s ever had gambling too. Absolutely no pressure. Lots of table talk.

On our way back to the Jailhouse, Bob says, “You know, they never once offered us a drink. That’s odd. Usually they do.” But Bob admits gambling is different and in some ways better here. We wonder if this is what Vegas might have been like in the 1940s.

Ely is a surprisingly fine small town.

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Only The Lonely

August 30th, 2007 · No Comments

Route 50The next morning, we all meet in the Jailhouse hallway and walk over to the Hotel Nevada for breakfast. The special steak and eggs for me. Cheap. Blueberry pancakes for Bob. Jarrett gets his usual: raisin bran.
“Actually I’ll have two orders of raisin bran,” says Jarrett.
“You want four little boxes?” says the spry waitress. “One order gets you two.”
“Two is enough,” says Jarrett.

We don’t get back on the road immediately because Bob is trying to get his doctor to fax a prescription to the pharmacy here in Ely (“The first licensed pharmacy in Nevada”) because he’s taken all his migraine pills, and he doesn’t want to be without them. This seems an easy and logical place to take care of such a bit of practical business but of course there are a million complications.

Restless Bob has however already found a few “frames” he wants to grab while the pharmacy works, before we hit the road. One involves an old concrete Lincoln Highway marker that’s in the sidewalk outside the local White Pine County Chamber of Commerce. I stop in there and talk with C of C Director Evie Pinneo and I tell her how much I enjoyed my short visit to Ely.

When I complain that my only gripe was there was no free wireless internet at the Jailhouse, she offers to share hers, so Jarrrett and I both bring our computers in to take advantage momentarily of her kindness.

After Bob gets his prescription and I call home to check with our trusty WQED webmaster Joan Guerin (who adds the photos to this blog after I get the text up,) we finally head out of town on Nevada Route 50.

Loneliest Road in AmericaNevada Route 50 is most of the path of the Lincoln Highway from Ely to Reno, and 287 of those miles, from Ely to Fernley, the road has become known as the “Loneliest Road in America.” Someone writing for LIFE magazine in July 1986 called it that, remarking on lack of services, attractions and points of interest, but some smart PR person there in Nevada decided to turn the sad name into a positive, a point of distinction, and the state has apparently had great success having some fun playing with the “loneliest” idea. They pass out little Official Survival Guides, and there are points in each of the towns along the way where you can get your Survival Guide stamped, and if you get a stamp in all five towns along the route, you get some sort of prize or certificate.

We knew we’d find lots of places to stop. Jarrett was driving as we left Ely. Nice morning light.

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