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Out West

The Western part of the Lincoln Highway passes through the plains, Rockies, deserts, and eventually, the California coast and San Francisco

Photos and Story by STUART PALLEY

ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

The Lincoln highway seems wilder in the West, following stagecoach routes and the trails of boom-bust mining towns through the desert, and winding through steep mountain grades and switchbacks. The bucolic and rolling cornfields of Illinois yield to the flatness of the Midwest in Nebraska, before the Rockies begin to rise up in eastern Wyoming.

Wyoming revels in its open spaces and solitude, preparing the traveler for the open vistas from the Wasatch range heading into Utah and Salt Lake City. Desert begins in Western Utah, and Nevada envelops drivers in the same open emptiness that Wyoming brought, but with the tan hues of desert.

After moving through numerous valleys, the Sierras rise up in California and Lake Tahoe signals the now-weary driver that California and San Francisco are close. The endpoint of the Lincoln Highway in San Francisco is an ignominious concrete marker between a golf course and a bus stop, where time and circumstance seem to have passed by a road that helped make the city’s development possible.

My drive on the western portion of the Lincoln Highway began in Omaha as I prepared to move back to California after finishing school in Missouri. Like the drives on Route 66 I had taken in years past, the annual migration West was both a logistically necessary (albeit roundabout) and nostalgic trip for me. It was a time to reflect on the past trips, the past year, and what these highways mean in the grand scheme of America’s finite place in time and space.

The American west is where a nascent world power and growing nation in 1913 needed a good highway the most, where roads, if they existed at all, were primitive dirt tracks based off stage coach routes, and before that, footpaths. The notion of a highway connecting cities instead of a railroad was novel. The original Lincoln Highway route in the West still runs through rugged and remote terra firma, as if the highway gods had ordained that new alignments would leave the original, 100 year-old sections untouched a century later, conveniently preserved so that camera laden journalists could tramp through in 4-wheel drive SUVs and snap photos.

In 1913 generations were still alive that could probably remember when the railroad was built west, and when prairie schooners were the mode of transportation prior to the 1860s. For those now elderly Americans in 1913, an automobile making the crossing in days instead of months must have seemed like magic.

Like the Eastern portion, each stop could be a trip on its own, and it’s a trip I’d love to make again.

IOWA

Clinton

Odometer: 1,100 miles

Look for: If you drive through during the summer, catch a Clinton Lumberkings game at sunset. The Lumberkings are a Class A MLB affiliate for the Seattle Mariners and play on Ashford field right next to the Mississippi River. It’s a great way to enjoy professional baseball in a relaxed and low key setting. Have a hot dog, burger, or fried chicken tenders at the snack stand, which is conveniently less than 50 feet from the field. You wont miss a play if you grab a beer or dinner.

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Notes from the road: Here the Lincoln Highway crosses the Mississippi river, and then transition from east to west begins. Both sides of the river look similar, but by the time I cross the state to the Nebraska state line Clinton Iowa seems a world away. Clinton is a quaint town with churches, brick buildings, and an all-American appeal. I crossed the river and watched the Lumberkings game at sunset on a warm summer evening, taking in the expanse of the journey traveled and what was left to come.

Cedar Rapids

Odometer: 1,185 miles

Look for: Cedar Rapid’s city hall is located on an island of the Cedar River in the middle of downtown. It’s a cool stop to check out the bridges connecting city hall to the rest of town. Down the street don’t forget to check out the Maid-Ride, “Home of the Loose Meat Sandwich” restaurant painted in its red and white vertical stripes on 1st Street.

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Notes from the road: Preferring to spend time in smaller towns along the Midwestern portion of the highway, I used Cedar Rapids mostly as an overnight spot in Iowa. It certainly warranted further exploration, as the compact, clean downtown showed history and character. To that end, there are plenty of budget chain accommodations close to US Route 30 in the area that will provide much-needed rest to the weary driver.

Tama

Odometer: 1,250 Miles

Look for: An original “Lincoln Highway” bridge dating from 1914 with the side railings spelling out the highway’s name near the center of town. This is one of the few such marked bridges on the Lincoln Highway, and a photogenic one at that. Trees surround the bridge, and a quaint house in the background provide for a nice view and place to stop. 

Ames

Odometer: 1,300 Miles

Look for: Main Street in downtown Ames, one block north of the Lincoln Highway through downtown. Brick buildings and an all-American classic main street warrant further inspection and appreciation of a main street that still commercially appears to be doing well. My guess is it’s a popular nightlife spot for the town, especially since Iowa State University is close by.

Eat or Sleep: Main Street in Ames also has various shops and eateries provide a good stopping point when passing through Iowa. I stopped at Whiskey River for lunch and it seemed like a popular place with the ISU college crowd. The food was nothing to write home about, but the service was quick and the prices reasonable.

Notes from the road: Iowa State University, with a sprawling campus right on the highway in Ames was gearing up for the 2013 fall semester. Driving through in early August students were beginning to trickle back to campus, and I wondered if they realized their college experience was on the wayside of a piece of American history. Couches and coeds in the backs of pickup trucks blasted pop music with the windows down, and time went on.

Belle Plaine

Odometer: 1,380 Miles

Look for: Preston’s Station, an original gas station in the middle of town that will be on your right-hand side heading West. The colorful signs and advertisements are definitely worth a stop to look at and to appreciate the detail. Two old pumps out front also add to the authenticity. On the way into town look for a grain silo with a colorful Bell Plaine mural on it as well.

Westward on the road towards Council Bluffs keep an eye out for two stone busts of Lincoln in a field north of the town of Scranton. You’ll have to take the original alignment of the highway and some backroads, so refer to the Lincoln Highway Companion, by Brian Butko. The book proved an invaluable guide in locating the busts and many other interesting spots along the Lincoln Highway. These busts in the field were one of the most surreal spots for me, since the road was so quiet and the spot so remote.

Notes from the road: Like dozens of town east and west, Belle Plaine is a small town that keeps some of its Lincoln Highway history alive. Preston’s Station attests to that history and sometimes its easy to be overwhelmed by town after town that looks like it was plucked from the movie Pleasantville. I certainly felt that way in Belle Plaine, after starting out way on back in Times Square in New York. While Preston’s was cool, and I of course photographed it, I felt the need to move onward to a different setting.

Perhaps it was the surreal beauty of these rural Iowa towns on the Lincoln highway, their bucolic but monotonous and continuous scenery revealing that these are, in fact, simply towns where people live and go about their lives like anyone else; - they do not wake up each morning waxing poetic about nostalgia and highways.

Council Bluffs

Odometer: 1,445 Miles

Look for: Moving into the Missouri River Valley enjoy the presence of rolling hills again and beautiful vistas as the highway begins to turn and meander once more, a departure from the straight roads of central Iowa. On your right-hand side heading west to Council Bluffs, near the town of Missouri Valley is the Iowa Welcome Center and Historical Village, with interpretive boards about the Lincoln Highway. The light here in the afternoon can be beautiful as the sun once again begins its dance below the clouds and horizon of rolling hills to the west.

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Notes from the road: The segment between Scranton and Council Bluffs is a gorgeous drive of twists and turns through familiar rural farm country. Here there are dirt segments of the highway that are well marked and can be driven with a two-wheel drive vehicle. It will take more time getting into Council Bluffs, but the extra time will reward the driver taking extra time to savor the views. In July the cornfields were almost ripe for harvest, and the roofs of barns in the distance poked out against a foreground of tall ears of corn.

NEBRASKA

Omaha

Odometer: 1,450 miles

Look for: In the western part of Omaha near Boystown is an original section of paved brick road from the Lincoln Highway, a quiet reminder of road building methods long past. The original brick section meanders along the backside of a quiet residential neighborhood, the sun beginning to set in the west as kids play in their yards.

Eat or Sleep: The Old Market District in downtown Omaha near the Missouri River waterfront has seen a renaissance and is a crowded place to eat and drink. Having started and ended my journey on each segment in Omaha, I celebrated at Upstream Brewing Co., a brew-pub featuring the usual assortment of craft beers and gourmet burgers, etc. After 15 days nonstop on the road and mostly solo traveling, I couldn’t tell you which beer I got, but it was good. I can honestly recommend anything on their extensive house beer list to try. The burgers weren’t bad either.

I took the frugal route and Pricelined the Holiday Inn two miles across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs at a casino. While less convenient than a typical motel, the low price and new, clean, accommodation provided for a good nights sleep. I also was lucky to get a great view of the Missouri River and downtown Omaha at night.

Notes from the road: Omaha is the last vestige of  densely urbanized civilization until you reach Salt Lake City, so if you fancy luxuries such as Trader Joes, stock up here.  I recommend the beef jerky or the trail mix. Call me an elitist but I’ve taken my chances on the truck stop variety beef jerky and almost broken my front teeth, so this is one comfort Ill take the detour for.

Grand Island/Kearney

Odometer: 1,650 Miles

Look for: Kracl & Son Garage in Rogers, on the route between Grand Island and Omaha. While the historic garage is on private property, you can take a photo from the right of way on the shoulder, and admire the classic tow truck parked out front. Be careful when making U-turns or left turns, as the traffic is heavy and moving at 60mph-plus.

In Kearney, the traditional midpoint of the Lincoln Highway, visit the Platte River Road Archway, where you will be bombarded by some cheesiness, kitsch, and whitewashed history in one convenient dose for $12, but also be rewarded by excellent dioramas, rich information, and informative audio tour about the regional history. Of note for Lincoln Highway travelers is the Lincoln Highway section of the museum.

Eat or Sleep: I Pricelined a hotel in central Grand Island, and it wasn’t the best deal I ever had, but it was a reasonable price for crashing for the night, and a place to recharge batteries, mental, physical, and literal.

Notes from the road: Heading west out of Omaha the drive to Grand Island arches through the western part of Nebraska, and the metro area of Omaha gives way back to farmland and small towns along the road. Keep an eye out for abandoned drive in theatres and big pickup trucks. Kearney is also a great base to check out the Sand Hill Crane migration in the spring, if bird watching interests you.

North Platte

Odometer: 1,750 miles

Look for:  On the way to North Platte keep an eye out for an original Lincoln Highway bridge and concrete highway marker at the town of Overton. Once in North Platte visit Bailey Yard, the largest railroad classification yard in the world. Close to the Lincoln Highway, It’s worth stopping to see the myriad of freight trains being sorted. There is a tower overlooking the area that can be visited for a nominal fee for a better view.

WYOMING

Pine Bluffs

Odometer: 1,930 miles

Look for: The old abandoned State Line Truck stop, with NEB-WYO painted onto the old cashier building, which allegedly sits right on the Nebraska Wyoming state line. A haunting and beautiful place all at once, and worth checking out. Be careful and explore at your own risk.

Notes from the road: After some hilly road and cheating on this long stretch of road by taking Interstate 80 part of the way, the Rockies begin to rise up after hundreds of miles of plains, and it brings drivers into new scenery. The air gets thinner and crisper, the altitude reminding me of my progress west.

Cheyenne

Odometer: 1,975 miles

Look for: The Lincoln Theatre in downtown Cheyenne, well preserved and still showing current movies today, it is a must-see on the Lincoln Highway if you are in the area. Also check out The Wrangler, a place for western wear in the heart of downtown. You cant miss it. Drive around downtown Cheyenne as well and see the capitol building, an impressive structure for such a lightly populated state.

Eat or Sleep: I’m sure there are good food options in Cheyenne, but I cheated and had a Jimmy Johns sandwich to make it to Rawlins by sundown. I also lucked out and had a floor to sleep on at a boarding house in Rawlins, but there seemed to be a good selection of lodging around Cheyenne. Between Omaha and Salt Lake, Cheyenne is a good overnight spot.

Notes from the road: The sense of the west is strong in Cheyenne, the vistas are clear, and it’s a beautiful place to stop and breath the air for a bit. Get some coffee and stock up on food and fuel, because its pretty remote all the way through to Salt Lake.

Rawlins

Odometer: 2,145 miles

Look for:  Before you get to Rawlins there’s a lot to see between Cheyenne

your destination.  First visit Tree Rock at Sheridan Hill, in between Cheyenne and Rawlins. A tree grows out of rock, located on the median of Interstate 80. Its neat to stop and observe this tree silently and resolutely growing amongst the hustle of traffic. Just past Tree Rock is the Summit Rest Area, where a wacky bronze statue of Lincoln stands sentinel to the highest point on the Lincoln Highway, about 8,600 feet above sea level.

Take the long way into Rawlins via Wyoming Highway 287, the original Lincoln Highway alignment through the area. You’ll pass through the town of Medicine Bow and might not see a car for miles. 38 miles to be exact. This is a record for not seeing another vehicle on the road, and this includes US Route 50 in Nevada, the allegedly loneliest highway in America. Id say 287 in Wyoming is a close second.

Once you get into Rawlins, the old Wyoming State Penitentiary just north of the town center. Worth driving by and checking out how prisons used to look.

Eat or Sleep: A friend works for the local newspaper, and I was able to couch surf for the evening. Food options were limited and overpriced, due to the high wages the nearby Sinclair oil refinery pays. Part of the problem was my late-evening arrival. I suspect earlier arrivals in the day would afford more options. There are, however, plenty of watering hole options.

Notes from the road: The stretch between Cheyenne and Rawlins is another sublime piece of slower-paced travel on the Lincoln Highway. I cannot stress how beautiful and solitary the drive was on Highway 287. Its well worth the detour off of I-80 onto the original Lincoln Highway alignment. To be on a two lane paved road for 38 miles and be the only car is exhilarating. The mountains, the dusk of the mountain air in the summer, and the ghosts of travelers past kept me company.

Wamsutter

Odometer: 2,185 miles

Look for: Hand-painted Lincoln Highway murals in the men’s restroom at what was probably the Philips Route 66 gas station in town.

Eat or Sleep: The Wamsutter Café serves up traditional diner fare and makes for a great breakfast stop. Its been around for decades and the prices are fair and service quick and friendly. The omelet is also delicious.

Notes from the road: A quirky little town with a quirky little name. Not much to see but a good place to eat and get gas before heading to Salt Lake City. The drive west takes you out of the Red Desert and the gas drilling area to the Utah border, where the drive continues to be beautiful.

Rock Springs/Green River

Odometer: 2,255 miles

UTAH

Salt Lake City

Odometer: 2,435 miles

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Wendover

Odometer: 2,555 miles

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Drive down from Wyoming into east side of Wasatch Range

Drive down to Salt Lake over the Wasatch Range, the view of the west unbounded leaping forth from the Rockies, the twists and turns of the mountain road breathing freely in the wide expanse of the fiery sunset over salt lake city

Salt Lake city, out of mountains, straight shot of road into the west

Art museum

Downtown

Hiking trail in residential area above the capitol, great view of salt lake and downtown

Great Salt Lake

Wendover, Utah, late night drive, listening to coast to coast AM with art bell doing 80 in the warm summer night, windows down, under the milky way under the sun roof

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NEVADA

Ely

Odometer: 2,715 miles

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Nevada

Old 95 down to Ibapah

Whiskey Road on reservation, make sure to take the modern signed route, the original alignment is now on private property. Bring food water gas

Dirt back road NV 895? To Ely, through ranches, make sure you have a good map

Mirages rise in the distance of the Goshute Tribe Reservation, desiccated cows on the horizon that didn’t make it through the winter.

Dead cows and parched sun, out of a western. A truly wild place.

Ely, NV, old style town, small kind of place, look for lhw marker

Ruth mine tailings

Hotel Nevada gambling hall

Start the most desolate stretch, cosigned with US Route 50

Through Austin,

Met Vic at International Café, conversation, the old 150 year old bar

Frenchman, etc, to Carson City,

Clearing storm on the roadway, old parts of the road, vestiges of old and new

end of desert and rain shadow

Carson City  - Brewery, small state Capitol a long way from Ely and Las Vegas

Reno overnight

CALIFORNIA

San Francisco

Odometer: 3,350 miles


(c) 2013 Stuart Palley