Jul 1, 2008

Transcontinental Merlin

Merlin meets King KongBreakfast is another fresh self-made waffle. We GOT to get one of these machines when we get home. Merlin was hoping for a triple King Kong burger but they weren’t open for breakfast. Feeling the miles ahead smirking at our languid progress, we zip onto the highway.

Traveling Interstate 80 one merges with the deep current of American driving freedom. Much of I-80 is the original Lincoln Highway, the first automobile road across America. Planned in 1913 to link Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park, it traveled through 13 states, 10 of which Merlin and I will touch on our road trip. The highway onramp sports proud blue signs proclaiming the Eisenhower Interstate System. Young Eisenhower had driven the Lincoln Highway across America in 1919 with the U.S. Army’s first Transcontinental Motor Convoy. Crawling from Washington DC towards San Francisco, they fixed cracked bridges and pulled their trucks out of mud and sand for two months. Eisenhower titled the trip, Through Darkest America With Truck and Tank. He later discovered the German autobahn network and when he became President, launched the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, the largest American public works project. We thank Ike as we glide along the smooth ribbon of road, saluting his 5-Star signs as we pass.

Ike SignHaving driven arrow straight Roman Roads all over Europe, it’s hard to imagine America a hundred years ago with barely a dirt track through the wilderness between towns. Interstate transport was all trains. The American Automobile Association was founded in 1902 calling for a great system of public highways. People were skeptical, since few could afford to spend weeks riding around in expensive horseless carriages. Undaunted, the AAA began publishing road maps in 1905. We’re carrying a handy box of modern AAA maps and tour books for the navigator.

The first successful transcontinental automobile trip was in 1903 by two men and their dog, Bud. Riding on an bet sparked in their San Francisco men’s club, Horatio Nelson Jackson and Sewall Crocker drove east in a Winton touring car, dubbed Vermont. Sixty-three days and $8,000 later, including the Winton purchase, they reached New York. Bud made the cover of The Auto Era, wearing his dust encrusted goggles. Their road trip inspired America to get out and get going. In 1909, the first woman, Alice Huyler Ramsey, drove a Maxwell touring car from New York to San Francisco in 59 days. In 1916, suffragists Nell Richardson and Alice Burke, and their cat Saxon, drove across and around America for five months and 10,000 miles advocating voting rights for women. Their yellow Saxon auto, known as the Golden Flier, became a powerful symbol and mobile podium for women’s rights. In 1928, Boy Scouts placed thousands of markers along the route dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. In 1931, Amelia Earhart flew the Lincoln Highway for her Beech-Nut Transcontinental Autogiro Tour, taking 10 days from Newark, New Jersey to Oakland, California, and 16 days back to Newark.

The Lincoln Highway Association was formed in 1912 by automobile entrepreneur Carl Fisher. He rallied his industry friends to build a coast to coast rock highway to be completed in time for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Headquartered in Detroit, their Trail Blazer Tour set out in 1913 to scout the best route from New York City to San Francisco. Fueled by contributions from former President Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Edison, both friends of Henry Ford (who refused to support non-government funded road projects), President Woodrow Wilson joined the project. Wilson was the first U.S. President to make frequent use of an automobile and his $5 pledge earned him Lincoln Highway Certificate #1. All along the route, people began to wake up to the possibilities of automotive progress and pleaded to be included on the new highway route. After a month of mud, sand, floods, overheated radiators, and cracked axles, the Trail Blazer Tour’s 17 cars and two trucks paraded down San Francisco’s Market Street for applauding crowds. The Lincoln Highway Trail Blazers returned to Indianapolis by train.

The announced road included eastern Turnpikes, British military trails, ancient Indian footpaths, pioneer and stagecoach routes, and the Pony Express trail. We’re driving through history and back in time!

The 1916 Lincoln Highway Association Official Road Guide cheerfully described a transcontinental road trip as something of a sporting proposition. It optimistically allowed 30 days of daylight required driving, averaging 18 miles an hour for 6 hours per day. Estimated budget was $5 a day per person for food, gas, oil, and hotel meals. Car repairs were too unpredictable to be included. Motorists were urged to top off their gasoline tanks at every opportunity since gas stations were rare, wade ahead in water before risking the car, and carry a block and tackle, chains, shovel, axe, jacks, tire casings and inner tubes, and a pair of pennants. The guide advised against wearing new shoes. Firearms were probably not required, but full camping gear was west of Omaha. Sagebrush signal fires would alert nearby ranches to bring horses for a tow.

We were an hour west of Omaha and refreshed from camping in a dog friendly plushy motel. Fueled on waffles with our tanks topped off, we set out to look for pennants along the way.

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