It started at a Los Angeles flea market. I was foraging casually through rows of card tables when I spied a book of old postcards: ALONG THE 'LINCOLN HIGHWAY.' The pictures showed scenic spots on a road that didn't look like a highway. It was more a two-lane blacktop, not even a line down the middle.
I was curious enough to pay $5 and take the postcards home, where a few minutes on the Internet revealed the significance of my find. I had stumbled upon a souvenir of the first road that went all the way across the United States—the granddaddy of the American highway system. The more I investigated, the more intrigued I became. Finally, I just had to drive it. At least, the rugged, westernmost thousand miles of it, in a trip that would turn out to be half wilderness adventure, half time travel. The road, which had been state-of-the-art 90 years earlier, would prove more primitive than I could have imagined—a blunt revelation about how much the nation and its transportation system had changed in a century. If the next 90 years bring anything like the same kind of transformation, the future will hardly be recognizable.
Our restless nation has grown ever more restless over the years, zooming from here to there at airplane velocity. Dirt roads gave way to gravel, gave way to blacktop, gave way to the interstate system, where everything is sacrificed in the name of speed. These days, you can cross entire states in the time it would have taken someone to drive just a few miles in the early 1900's. It's difficult to believe now, with the open highway such a defining facet of our American identity, but at the turn of the last century there were no paved roads outside cities and towns. Anyone going any distance at all went by train. Traveling across the United States by car made as much sense as going by pogo stick.
But by the teens, some forward-thinking minds were beginning to envision a bright future for the horseless carriage. (Some preferred the more sophisticated French term, automobile.) One of the biggest dreamers was Carl Fisher, who in 1909 had paved a racetrack with bricks in his hometown and called it the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He also owned the Prest-O-Lite headlight company, and he knew that Americans wouldn't embrace automobiles (or headlights) until they had somewhere to drive. What the country needed was a road, a road paved all the way across the continent, from Times Square to the Golden Gate. Sure, it was crazy, like saying you were going to put a man on the moon, but Fisher knew that only a grand scheme would capture the public imagination.
Underneath all the hype, however, Fisher was a realist—he knew that no one could actually build such a road. His plan was to mark a route across the country and cajole communities along the way to improve their sections. For the time being it would be what were called natural roads (really just unimproved dirt).
When the route was officially announced in September of 1913, the country lapped it up. In the days before extreme adventure vacations, the Lincoln Highway—less a "highway" than a cobbling together of farm roads and stagecoach trails—was a thrilling romantic challenge, a sort of automotive Mount Everest. Many songs, articles, and books were written about it, including a volume by Emily Post (who got as far as Cheyenne, Wyoming, before giving up and turning south).
Eventually, though, the Lincoln Highway fell victim to its own success. In the mid twenties, the federal government introduced interstate highways, and the Lincoln was split up among newly designated numbered roads. Today, most of the Lincoln Highway lies buried under, or decaying alongside, at least a dozen modern routes. But in the far West, much of the road between Utah and Nevada was bypassed by later development, and some 150 remote miles of it remain unpaved. I flew to Salt Lake City, ready for the worst the old relic could throw at me.
My timing was not great. It had been raining all week when I arrived in Salt Lake, and by all accounts the dirt road would be in bad shape. I waited for the rain to end and began my trek the next morning, keeping an eye out for the original roadway. Near the mining district of Flux, I caught my first glimpse of it: a narrow strip of crumbling pavement that ran alongside the newer asphalt state road for a mile or so. A few miles farther on, where the Lincoln Highway curved south into Skull Valley, I found a muddy, potholed track, barely wider than my rented Ford Explorer, running through the sagebrush. I veered off the modern road and plowed along it for a few miles, drenching the windshield with mud.
Such sections, I found, are never drivable for long. Unprotected for 80 years, the weathered road has suffered any number of indignities: being buried under newer roads, fenced off by private land, washed away, or simply grown over. Forty miles past Flux, I reached Orr's Ranch, once a major stopping point. Now, as it was then, it's a working farm, a motley collection of outbuildings and ramshackle fences that sprawl under the serene snowcaps of the Stansbury Mountains. A long section of the original highway is still in use as an access road, and you can see the log cabin where travelers were once fed and lodged.
After a pit stop, I was tearing across the basin, enjoying clear skies and open country. When they laid out the road across central Utah, the Lincoln Highway Association chose to follow the general route of the old Pony Express. Thanks to the enthusiasm of modern-day tourists, a broad, well-maintained gravel road now overlies both bygone routes. The old stage stations are still there, mostly reduced to crumbling cairns surrounded by chain-link fence: Simpson Springs, Boyd Station, Canyon Station. I stopped at each to stretch my legs and savor the lonesomeness that such a posting must have entailed. This is basin-and-range country, an endless alternation of upthrust ridges and flat seas of sagebrush. The air was so clear, the vista so wide, that it deceived the eye; a valley that looked a mile across turned out to be 10. I encountered only one other car, driven by a dusty-looking fellow who stopped to chat as we drew alongside each other; turns out he was a geode prospector, coming from his claim.