Jul 25, 2008

Jesse James Picnic

Merlin's Jesse James Picnic
Ah, this is the life: wide open road, level horizon, stop whenever, sleep, drive again, just me and Merlin. Ah, endless road trip.

We cross the Missouri River into Iowa, and promptly stop at a shiny new Iowa Welcome Center. It’s like walking into the future- climate controlled glass, chrome, etched rock walls, original fine art, and motion detecting everything, including the chilled drinking fountains. Illuminated vending machines calmly hum. There’s wireless internet. A covered walkway leads to the information center where square birch islands of cheerful brochures pose beneath a parade of area maps. A perky historical society volunteer smiles and asks what she can help me find. I tell her about Merlin’s Road Trip and she thinks that sounds like a grand adventure. She hands me a map of antique shopping towns with a wink. I ask for a picnic stop recommendation. “Oh, there’s the Jesse James Historical Site.” Perfect.

 Jesse James TrainAn hour later we’re at the scene of the world’s first robbery of a moving train. Allegedly, the notorious James Gang had discovered the drama and ease of heisting trains. Choosing remote, unguarded locations to derail mobile cash seemed the ideal crime of the future, and a healthy alternative to getting shoot by bank guards in towns. In the summer of 1873 they learned about $75,000 in gold due to depart Cheyenne for Chicago on the new mainline Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The outlaws fortified themselves with pies purchased from the section foreman’s wife, and camped in the hills near Adair waiting to topple the train. On July 21, 1873 with a track removed and the engine on its side, Jesse and Frank James convinced the guard to open the safe, but the gold shipment had been delayed. Enraged, they ransacked the passengers, collecting only $3,000. Telegraph alerts shot around the country. Armed posses chased the gang all the way to Missouri, where they disappeared... A bit of rail is all that remains of the Adair railroad line. And it is a lovely spot for a picnic.

Iowa is America’s middle, the land between two rivers, where I-80 runs almost straight east west, like an Indian road aligned to the Equinox, or the promise of a better future. All sorts of normal people are from here, like American Gothic painter Grant Wood and U.S.S. Starship Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk. The radio choices are talk, country, sports or Christ. Merlin settles in for a day of drive-by sniffing of cows as we listen to the next caller getting around to his point. Merlin settles in for a day of drive-by cows sniffing as we listen to the next caller getting around to his point.

 Pet AreaSomewhere in the middle of the Tall Corn State, we pull into a welcome Iowa Interstate Safety Rest Area. Iowans never abbreviate. They have the time to say everything they mean to say, and they take the time to say everything they mean. In my initial exodus from Michigan to California, I stopped in a Poweshiek hardware store to get a rain tarp for my U-Haul trailer full of all my earthly possessions. I asked for a tarp. A chap in a red checkered shirt asked if I meant to request a tarpaulin that resisted wind shear and had been water proofed and was fitted with reinforced grommets and did I have a preference for dark midlands forest green or lapis lazuli blue. I stared back and tentatively said green, please. Perhaps it’s an indicator of a good life to have the time to never abbreviate. Perhaps its a side effect from watching corn grow.

Merlin and I play with the Interstate Safety Rest Area automatic drinking fountain detector while truckers surf the web. Merlin gets covered in ladybugs. For the next 50 miles, I shoo ladybugs out the windows, thinking of Jimmy Stewart’s Charles Lindbergh giving his insect hitchhiker an aw shucks last chance to escape before his Spirit of St. Louis left land for the icy Atlantic. In the movie version of Lindbergh's historic 1927 first solo non-stop transatlantic flight, an airline executive warns that the New York to Paris feat isn’t like dropping a mail bag in Keokuk, Iowa. Fifty years after Jesse James was robbing trains, Lindbergh flew airmail for the army and once hopped a night train after his plane went down in a Midwest blizzard. He said he believed in things he could touch: an instrument panel, a pressure gauge, a compass.  Pet Wash I'd seen the Spirit of St. Louis in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It's smaller than our front seat. Merlin and I sip our canteens and check our gauges. As we’re calculating our next fuel stop, signs announce the World’s Largest Truck Stop. We have to stop. Dwarfed by several hundred semi-trucks, we fuel up. I decline the wi-fi service. Merlin declines the dog wash service.

The Mississippi River is calm here at Davenport as dusk lifts a near full moon over the eastern trees. We drive up the bluff and romp about on the lawn of the closed Welcome Center. A jay squawks and I wonder if it’s an east of the Mississippi or west of species. Indian mounds dot the Mississippi River bluffs. During a 1990’s pre-Merlin road trip, I explored Effigy Mounds National Monument after following the Wisconsin River west with Lewis and Clark. I stood in their footsteps 500 feet above the roaring confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, now Wyalusing State Park, where they had first seen the Mississippi after hearing it for days. Their complete 1804-06 journals are now online in the Library of Congress American Memory Collections. The rivers meet at Prairie du Chien, French for Prairie of the Dog Merlin notes.

 Mississippi BridgeSome time later, find ourselves looking for lodging in Peru. We could have gone on to Ottawa or Marseilles, but our bums were sore from sitting. We check in to a sparse dog friendly motel and check out a huge corn field dog run out back under the stars. We’ll figure out where we really are in the morning. Ah, endless road trip.

Day Seven: Crossing the Mississippi to Peru.
Lincoln, Nebraska to Peru, Illinois. 545 miles.

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.