The Lincoln Highway

Marker on the Lincoln Highway, outside Princeton

We like to go. In America, the road always points towards a blue horizon. Even when there’s no road. Even when there’s no horizon. Even when we have to roll up our sleeves and build it – the road, the horizon, the blue – ourselves. Because we like to go. Because we come from people who liked to go. From people who needed to go. From people who stepped off the edge of the world, off the edge of everything they had ever known, and went. Not because they knew what was here, not because they dreamed of a better life, but because they wanted to go.

We like to go. We like to sing songs to empty roads. We wind ribbons of steel across the prairies even before we have them named because we like to go. We hear a train whistle in the distance and some Elysian breath fills our lungs and we are gone. Elsewhere, a train whistle is just a distraction. But here, here it’s a sort of invitation. Wistful and mournful and yet filled with promise. Where is that train going? Who would I be if I jumped on it as it headed west? Who would I be when I got there? Would I even recognize myself? Come find out. Come see. Come along. That’s what we hear in a train whistle.

We like to go. We like to pick up stakes, to feel the morning sun on our backs, to load up the car and feel the gears throb in the loins of our vehicles. We like to see what is around the bend, over those mountains that unfold in our northern counties, see what is across that George Washington river. What is out there? What is it like? What are we like? We need to find out. We like to go.

First by foot and then by horse and then by that steam rail. And then someone showed us a car and it was all over. We could go whenever we wanted to. And we could go far. As far as we could imagine – which in this land, with our DNA, was a long way indeed.

So we paved over this little state. We depleted the forests and put the farms on the run. And in the interim, we have become known for our highways and for our barriers and for our cars and for our gas tanks and for the ersatz culture that is born by their intersection in song and story and myth.

We like to go. But we needed something more. We needed something like a launching pad. And in 1913, we got one. The Lincoln Highway.

Carl Fisher wasn’t born in New Jersey, but somehow, he developed a love for the car and the open road that would have made Bruce Springsteen blush. He had the first automobile dealership in America. He was one of the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and was the reason it’s called “the brickyard.” And he had an idea about a road, a road that would stretch from coast to coast. That would start at Times Square and end at the Pacific Ocean. That would feed our need for go like mainlining asphalt directly into our eyeballs. Just under 3400 miles of highway that would pass through California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, but that would really start in New Jersey.

Because you know how roads are: you need to get past the things you know for them to open up to you. Get out of New York City, get across that great Dutch river. Feel the adventure of America, feel the dreams of vistas and plains and mountains begin to come to life. The road may start in New York, but it comes to life in New Jersey.

Lincoln Statue on the Lincoln Highway, Jersey City

Cross at Weehawken like they did before there was a tunnel or a bridge. Wind your way through Newark, past the statue of the highway’s namesake by the man who later made Rushmore. Follow the Indian trails through the Indian cities like Rahway and Metuchen. And as you go, embrace the fact that it’s not like other roads. That it not only leads you south and west, but also leads you back in time. To a slower, more contemplative, treelined era. Follow it as it becomes the main streets of small towns, as it passes by cows and the front yards of beautiful homes. Look, there’s where the governor lives. Look, there’s where Madison went to college. Look there are kids playing ball in a field.

And as you drift into the past remember too that it’s a road that no one remembers now. That few even know existed at all. It’s not the Turnpike. It’s not Route 66. No buses roll down it like they do down highway 41. And yet, it still calls to us. As it called to a soldier on a troop truck during World War I, who forty years later would create an interstate highway system based on it when he became president. As it called to Sal Paradise, sitting in his grandmother’s A-frame in Paterson, dreaming of Dean Moriarty.

Close your eyes and listen for it because it speaks to us still. Because we still like to go. We still like to go.


~ by martinbihl on December 2, 2010.

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