The Lincoln Highway. America’s first transcontinental highway, opened in October 1913. Three thousand, three hundred and eighty-nine miles!
If you’re traveling east to west, it begins in Times Square in New York and, originally crossing twelve states, ends at Lincoln Park in San Francisco on the west coast in California. Originally there was a ‘Colorado Loop’, removed in 1915, and in 1928, the route was realigned to take in northern West Virginia.
Over the years, however, the Lincoln Highway was subsumed into the US numbered highway system, with much of the section between Pennsylvania and Wyoming becoming part of US 30. Nowadays, I-80 west of Chicago follows much the same route as far as I can determine, although in places to the south of US 30.
So what’s this interest in the Lincoln Highway, and US 30?
Well, I’ve just finished reading The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, published in 2021. It’s an unusual tale of three teenagers and an eight year old boy who travel from Nebraska to New York. However, from the outset, the intention was for Emmett Watson and younger brother Billy (the main characters), to take the Lincoln Highway westwards to California in search of their mother who had abandoned the family some years earlier. And the only idea of where she might be is a series of postcards sent over nine days after she departed, from locations along the Lincoln Highway.
But instead of trying to explain the rationale of the book, let author Amor Towles tell you himself.
Towles’ previous books, Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow were published in 2011 and 2016, respectively, to considerable acclaim. I found The Lincoln Highway somewhat of a strange read, even though several reviewers gave it high praise. I decided to take it up after a friend posted a comment on Twitter about her enjoyment of this book.
I’m not so sure. About one third of the way through, I had to put it to one side for a while. I found the pace, and the literary tangents, not to my liking. Although, on reflection, it’s precisely those tangential narratives that are the mainstay of the novel. I guess I’d been expecting to read a more traditional travelogue about the Lincoln Highway. In many respects it is, but not the one I ‘hoped’ for. And since the narrative commences in Nebraska, about half way along the Highway, it emphasizes the in medias res approach of the author (and his characters), where the narrative skips forwards and back.
At the end of the novel we finally see Emmett and Billy heading to Times Square to commence that long journey westwards: the whole route, not just the western half that was promised at the beginning.
I try not to read too much into any novel that I take up. I had enough of literary analysis when I studied English Literature in high school for my pre-university exams. I like a narrative to take me along, and I particularly like to see how an author uses language to paint literary images. Amos Towle has a most acceptable writing style.
However, there’s another aspect of the Lincoln Highway that grabbed my attention. Being of a geographic bent, I went online to discover more about this particular transcontinental artery.
Since 2011, Steph and I have made some special road trips across America, and in the last one, in 2019, before the Covid pandemic prevented our return to the USA, we traveled from Massachusetts, through New England, around New York, down through New Jersey, across Pennsylvania, and south through Maryland and Virginia, before flying on to Minneapolis-St Paul from Baltimore.
Much of our route through Pennsylvania was on US 30, and indeed during earlier road trips we had crossed or traveled short distances along the same route in Ohio (at Canton), in Indiana, and Iowa. Now, we didn’t make our road trips in a vintage Studebaker like Emmett and Billy (and their ‘companions’ Duchess and Woolly). But, when I saw the cover of The Lincoln Highway, it took me back to the road trip Steph and I made to the American Southwest in 2011, when we checked out that other iconic highway, Route 66, near Holbrook and the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.
Perhaps it’s just the call of wide open spaces, but American road trip narratives have almost become a genre of their own, and one that I would like to contribute to more myself, given half the chance.
You can check out some more of our road trips under ‘USA’ on this page.