The sun was slinking toward the mountains as I arrived at Fish Springs, once a ranch owned by a legendary codger, John Thomas. A sign out on the salt flats read, IF IN NEED OF TOW, LIGHT FIRE. Back in the day, folks would bog down, put a match to a pile of brush, and out Thomas would come with his draft horses. He'd size them up, quote a price—a dollar a foot was the norm—and if they didn't like his rate, he'd keep raising it until they agreed. Today Fish Springs is a National Wildlife Refuge, overseen by ranger Jay Banta, the Utah director of the current Lincoln Highway Association. Jay took me to a pristine section of the 1913 road. "The Pony Express is so romanticized, but all it proved was that mail couldn't profitably be moved overland," he said. "The Lincoln Highway kicked off the whole concept of automobile touring."
The next day, I passed through the remote community of Callao, Utah, where Kearney's Ranch hotel still sits by the side of the road like an empty ghost. I then crossed over Schellbourne Pass to the Steptoe Valley, hitting asphalt again on U.S. 93 in Nevada. Forty miles south, in Ely, I picked up Highway 50, which roadside signage touts as THE LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA. Every few minutes another car or truck passed. After the solitude of the Pony Express Trail, it felt like Mardi Gras. From time to time I thought I could spy traces of the old highway: a dirt track winding through the hills around me.
Small towns along the way testified to the cyclical nature of Nevada's mineral wealth. In Eureka, I knocked on the door of the Jackson House Hotel, an 1880 brick edifice that stands alongside the grand Eureka Opera House. Too late: it had closed two weeks before. "Not enough business," said the proprietor of the restaurant across the street, "since the mines laid off a thousand people last December." (It turns out the hotel closes during the winter, but opens again come spring.) In the threadbare mountain town of Austin, 70 miles up the road, I peeked into the splendidly creaky International Café, a former hotel shipped in its entirety from Virginia City, Nevada, in 1863. Two of the three mirrors over the ornate bar are original; the third was shattered long ago by a bullet that had passed through the skull of a patron.
If jobs were scarce, enthusiasm for the Lincoln Highway was not. At the hamlet of Middlegate I chatted with Russ and Fredda Stevenson, owners of the Middlegate Station honky-tonk, who invited me to drive the mile-long stretch of original Lincoln Highway on their property. As I crossed the California border and passed through the mountain town of Truckee, I remembered something that Jay Banta had told me: "Someday I'm going to drive the whole highway in a Model A," he said, "meeting nuts like me along the way."
After three days in the desert, I thought the forests of the Sierra Nevada were paradise. The first drivers must have felt the same. When they crossed into California, the hard part of their journey was behind them. It was just a couple of hundred miles to the highway's end in San Francisco, all of it well paved. One traveler who rode the Lincoln Highway in 1919 noted appreciatively, "Entire route down grade over bitumen surfaced concrete roads lined with palm trees, through peach, orange, and olive ranches and vineyards." (Californians have always loved their asphalt.) The old road is not just remembered here, it's celebrated—you can still find streets called Lincoln Way or Lincoln Highway. In Auburn, a historic mining city in the Sierra foothills, Lincoln Highway markers are posted along the route at almost every intersection.
Descending into the Central Valley, I was sucked into the maw of the California superhighway system and propelled southward like a jet. Blinkered by concrete walls on either side, I was making good time but had no idea where I was or whether I was passing through farmland or desert. Then I hit bumper-to-bumper traffic and within an hour, I was fighting my way over the Bay Bridge at rush hour. By the time I reached a friend's house downtown, I was exhausted.
The next morning I drove from the Castro to Lincoln Park,near the Golden Gate Bridge. The official end point lay near the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, a fine-arts museum. A marker once stood in front of the museum, near where a blue-tiled fountain sputters today. I assumed that it had long since vanished, but then I saw it off to the side, near a bus stop overlooking a golf course: WESTERN TERMINUS, LINCOLN HIGHWAY.
What I felt must have been a hundredth of the bittersweet emotions those words no doubt brought to adventurers who endured mud, rain, breakdowns, and weeks on the road to read them (my journey took only four days). Looking around at the people strolling about, I couldn't imagine that many ever noticed the tiny obelisk, let alone understood its significance. And if they did, I doubted they knew the vastness it demarcated, the toil and patience it implied. I stayed for a few minutes, gazing out over the golf course. Then I got back in the car and drove away.
JEFF WISE is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.