Anyone touched with wanderlust has their own list of journeys
that they’d love to make at some point in their lives. In my own case, four of
the top five – not ranking them in any order of preference – run as follows.
There’s an arduous hike into the Peruvian Andes to see the fabulous lost city of Machu-Picchu. There’s a ride down the Nile to see the wonders of Ancient Egypt, and there’s a safari in the game parks of East Africa to see the Big Five – lion, leopard, cheetah, elephant and rhino. Then, being English as I am, there’s a cricket tour on the Indian sub-continent – an experience by turns intense, eccentric, exasperating, mind-boggling, and ultimately life-enhancing.
(click to buy) I’m a lucky man, and I’ve managed all four of them. So to complete my Top Five, there remained the historic ride into the American West, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific – and in 2001 I got to make that journey too. I made it as the last and most essential portion of my research for a book called American Road. It’s my eleventh book, and – as is often the way with the best stories – I stumbled on the subject entirely by chance.
In August 2000, my previous effort was being published simultaneously in Britain and the USA. That was a book about tropical cyclones, titled Inside The Hurricane for the American market. It was a book that involved, among other things, flying with the federal government’s Hurricane Research Division directly into the eye of two major storms, namely Bret and Floyd.
By the time a book comes out, in a perfect world an author would already be well under way with research on the next one. The science of tropical cyclones, however, is not an easy matter to convert into accessible terms for the general reader, so as late as May 2000 I was still fine-tuning the details in a last-minute scramble of copy-editing.
Finally I turned around and wondered what I might do next. Immigration was a subject I looked at for a while, as it’s pretty topical on both sides of the Atlantic - but my publisher in London eventually dismissed the subject as ‘an issue book’. Publishers like stories, not issues, and of course they’re right. Or at least, if you want to make any money they are.
Then I wondered about a story that took place in the last years of the nineteenth century in East Africa, in the arid terrain that’s now Tsavo Game Park in Kenya. Using an army of 35,000 mostly Indian workers, the British were driving a railroad 580 miles from Mombasa on the coast towards the fertile uplands of Uganda and Lake Victoria.
The project was an epic and deadly undertaking; some 9,000 men lost their lives to accidents and disease. It was made more difficult and dramatic yet when a pair of lions acquired a taste for snacking on the workforce. During a year of horror, as construction all but ground to a halt amid panic and desertion, these two lions killed and devoured around a hundred men – the worst tally recorded in any man-eating incident by far.
Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, an engineer who had a penchant for shooting large animals anyway, finally managed to track and kill these two lethal beasts, though not without some close scrapes along the way. It seemed a story that might work – but it was a remote one as well, and an apparent paucity of historical resources on the subject concerned me.
I gave it up. By now I was feeling pretty fretful. I cast about in a random manner. I thought about the oil business. It seemed topical, as Britain at the time was racked with an outbreak of protest over the price of gas, and I simply wondered what our lives would be like without the internal combustion engine.
I read a magisterial history of Big Oil called The Prize, by Daniel Yergin. I became entranced with the stories of the original black gold boomtowns in Pennsylvania in the 1860’s – Titusville was the prime example. These were places that flourished and vanished in the woods in a classic instance of the American propensity to seize a new resource, exploit it to the marrow, and move on (leaving most folks none the wiser, while a bold and/or fortunate few abruptly become rich beyond the dreams of Croesus).
Then, as I read on, I came to the first three paragraphs of Chapter 11. Ever so briefly, these few hundred words covered the fact that in 1919 Dwight D. Eisenhower, then twenty-eight years old, rode with a convoy of military vehicles from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.
Author Pete Davies at the end of his trip
across the transcontinental highway in San Francisco. (click to enlarge)
I’d never heard of this venture, but it had plainly been an extraordinary excursion. Equally plainly, Yergin thought the trip a highly significant one as well. He concluded his account by baldly observing that the convoy heralded nothing less than “the dawn of a new era – the motorization of the American people.”
It may only have been three paragraphs but it seemed worth looking into, so I hopped on the train 200 miles south from my Yorkshire home to the British Library on London’s Euston Road. Here you’ll find pretty much every book that’s ever been published, so finding Ike’s account of the convoy – a tale genially told in his 1960’s memoir At Ease: Stories I Tell To Friends – was an easy first step.
Further searches turned up other books that rapidly made clear just how important that 1919 convoy had been. I’d never heard of the Lincoln Highway – despite the fact that on previous trips, I’d already visited ten of the twelve states through which the Highway made its course – but Ike said it was the road they used, so I put it into the library’s computer.
I was given two gems. The first was The Lincoln Highway: The Story of a Crusade That Made Transportation History. This official history of the original Lincoln Highway Association was published by Dodd, Mead & Co. in New York in 1935. It was written anonymously by Gael Hoag of Ely, Nevada, who’d taken over as Field Secretary of the Association after the tragic death of Henry Ostermann in a car wreck in 1920.
The climb into the Dugways en route to Fish Springs on the 1913 route.
It’s a feisty affair, with a lot more zip about it than the self-congratulatory starch that too often passes for ‘official’ history. It has a wealth of good detail about the creation of America’s first transcontinental road, and it makes it richly obvious that the men behind the project were bold and lively characters.
The second treat was Drake Hokansen’s The Lincoln Highway: Main Street Across America, first published in 1988. Well written and beautifully illustrated, this tells the tale of the road, its makers, and the enormous import of what they did with admirable clarity, a deft touch and a dry wit.
So now I had two pieces of good news. Firstly, I had a pair of invaluable sources. Secondly, I didn’t have anything else – which may not sound like good news, until you think about it this way. Here was a fabulous story, alive with color and character, a story that treated with one of the most fundamental developments in the evolution of modern society – the way we took to the automobile – and yet no one had recently written a book about it.
Indeed, it seemed very few people knew this story at all. Initially, I had a nagging doubt that maybe I didn’t know about the Lincoln Highway and all it stood for simply because I was English. Maybe, on the other side of the Atlantic, everyone was taught this story in school as a matter of course. Maybe every American would have at least some consciousness of this seminal road, the same way they would have of the 49’ers and the transcontinental railroad. Certainly, this story was every bit as important as those other two.
Restored Pony Express Station on the original
1913 route in west-central Utah.
So I did a quick vox pop. I e-mailed a random selection of friends in a random assortment of states – some of them on the Highway, others not – and I asked them if they’d heard of any of the following: Henry Joy, Carl Fisher, the Lincoln Highway, and the First Transcontinental Motor Train. Almost without exception, I drew a blank. At least among my circle of friends, this story was news. A writer wants a story to be four things – exciting, interesting, worthwhile, but above all unknown – so this one was perfect.
The next thing was to find out how to tell it. I felt the material would work because it’s really three stories in one. In general terms, it’s the story of the dawn of the motor age. More specifically, it’s the story of the creation and promotion of America’s first transcontinental highway. Best of all, it’s the story of the 1919 convoy that rode along that highway – a precise and particular narrative that brings the other material into focus.
Blessed with an editor at Henry Holt who could see the value of the project, I secured a contract early in 2001. By then, I’d spent a good deal of time in the British Library working on the background – a voluminous trawl through anything I could find on the history of transportation in America. This is the writer’s equivalent of pre-season training. None of it ends up in the book, but it gets your eye in.
General Eisenhower statue at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas. Click to enlarge photo.
Then I spent the last two weeks of February at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas. Thanks to Ike’s participation in the convoy, that excellent institution has a wealth of material on the subject – including reports and other documentation produced by different officers involved, along with photographs and film giving a vivid impression of what it was like to get on the road in 1919.
Of most practical value to the nuts and bolts of the story, they have the daily
telegrams sent back to Washington by the convoy’s most junior officer,
Lieutenant Elwell Jackson of the Ordnance Department. Jackson was a meticulous
reckoner of snapped fan belts and clogged carburetors, and the accumulated
detail of his reports is invaluable.
Even better, he also transcribed the telegrams into his copy of the third edition of the Lincoln Highway Guidebook, which had been published in Detroit in 1918. From this you can see the bare bones of what happened during each of the sixty-two days it took the convoy to cross the country.
I had a fine time in Kansas, a state that holds happy memories for me. I’d spent several weeks there in 1991 writing a book called Storm Country, an effort that involved driving a half-ton Ford pick-up truck some 7,500 miles around the Great Plains. That had been a splendid road trip – but it was nothing compared to the one I faced now.
Before I set off, however, I had first to go to Ann Arbor, Michigan. To finish cementing together the background, I needed to spend time sifting two more priceless collections of Lincoln Highway history. These are the official papers of the Lincoln Highway Association, held in the University of Michigan’s Special Collections Library, and Henry Joy’s papers, held in the university’s Bentley Historical Library, and between them they’re a gold mine.
From these two sources you can see in detail how and why Henry Joy and his colleagues promoted the Lincoln Highway, and you can hear all their voices in person. None of them more captured my imagination than the abundantly energetic, deliciously bumptious Joy, whose explosive expansion of Packard into the world’s largest maker of luxury cars is a fascinating story in itself.
One moment neatly sums up Joy’s boundless joie de vivre. Driving back to Detroit from New York one winter’s night in 1914, he hit a hole in the road and crashed his head into the windscreen. The injury required minor surgery. He had the operation, then telegraphed his wife Helen, “Am bald-headed! Hurrah! Do not have to work!”
Henry Joy not working would, in fact, have been something akin to the sun not rising in the morning – and he more than any other man was responsible for the success of the Lincoln Highway.
Pete Davies on Cindell Street near Canton, Ohio with his pea-green ’85 Chevy Caprice.
With this background under my belt (including a few bonus days in Detroit) I
made for my starting point – the Zero Milestone by the White House in
Washington, D.C. I spent a couple of days in the National Archives and then, on
April 7, 2001, I bought a pea-green ’85 Chevy Caprice for $2,000 at Jimmy’s
Autos at 418 New York Avenue NW. Jimmy said he could sell me something more
expensive, but if all I wanted to do was drive across the country, then that
Chevy would get me there.
It did, and the next two months living out of that car were just wonderful. My objective was to follow the path of the convoy as nearly as possible, stopping every place they stopped, and hunting down every last detail of their journey that I could find reported in local newspapers in any town or city through which they made their way. As things turned out, they were front page news all across the country, and in one local library after another I was lucky enough to amass a treasure trove of news stories.
My routine was pretty simple. Libraries are open six and a half days a week, so that’s when I worked. At the end of every day, I quit poring over a microfilm machine or driving to the next one, found a motel, slept, got up, and moved on. For the most part it was pretty easy; the route passes through few major cities (and one of the joys of it is the way you get to explore Small Town America) so finding a place to stop without breaking the bank wasn’t hard.
If I was making for a major city, I e-mailed a particularly good travel agent here in Yorkshire who booked me a room a day or two ahead of time. That worked for Pittsburgh, Chicago, Omaha, Salt Lake City, Oakland and San Francisco. Every other place, I shifted for myself.
Sunday mornings were the only time I took off. I’d sleep late, have a long, large breakfast, then find the nearest laundromat. I’d taken only barely more than a week’s worth of clothes, leaving my suitcase half-empty – a sensible precaution because, by the end of the trip, it was so stuffed with photocopied news reports and historical articles that I could barely close it.
Of course I didn’t just look for news stories on the convoy itself. In public and academic libraries, in state archives and historical societies, I also wanted to get a feel for what it was like to be living in 1919. What were people concerned about? How was the world changing around them? Did their state have a Highway Department yet, and if so what (if anything) was it building? In this way, I wanted to set the convoy in the context of its time, so its significance would be fully clear.
To that end, I was wonderfully assisted by the librarians of America. From Washington to San Francisco, I did not meet one single unhelpful person in that undervalued trade, and I’d like to give them all thanks for their kindness and their willing readiness to help. The USA is a marvelously hospitable country anyway, but this was a fine example of how welcoming Americans can be.
What they thought of me, I don’t know. The first few weeks in the East were pretty comfortable, but as things got wilder and farther apart the deeper I got into the West, understandably I got steadily more tired. I began to talk to myself at the wheel. I began to draw worried glances as I cackled and whooped with glee any time I found some gem of a detail at the microfilm machines. By the last few days, as I climbed the Sierra into California, I was all but drooling with fatigue.
By then, I had also all but entirely relocated in my mind to 1919. From one town to the next, I was living the stories of the day – the High Cost of Living, the League of Nations, the baseball results, the chaotic condition of the railroads as Americans took to their automobiles. It was, I think, the most concentrated single piece of research I’ve ever undertaken – and it was bliss.
Palisades over the highway west of Green River, WY
As I say, it was easier in the East. Out west, some of the places the convoy passed through aren’t even on the map any more. You can’t stop in a library at Tipton Station in Wyoming, for example, because there never was one, and there’s virtually nothing at all there now anyway.
Consequently, above all in Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, the story had to be pieced together for the most part from state archives. This meant slightly longer stays than I was accustomed to in Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, and Carson City – pauses in the journey of a few days each that were welcome on the one hand, but which on the other hand left me edgy, fretting to get farther down the road. I had begin to feel by then that if I didn’t get miles under my belt, I was stalled. I had, in keeping with the spirit of the story, become addicted to motion.
view from Orr's Ranch, Skull Valley, UT, where the convoy stopped before
tackling the Great Salt Lake Desert.
Three things kept me going. One was the sheer pleasure of the work itself. Another was the endless variety of the journey – the changing face of the continent as you cross it, with its vast scale and, so very often, its heart-stopping beauty. For a European, America is an exhilarating place to be, and sometimes an exhilaratingly alien one as well.
I’ll give you an example. I’ll not embarrass the lady in question by citing which particular diner in which particular town I was eating, so suffice it say that I was having breakfast somewhere in Nebraska on a Sunday morning. When I got up to pay my tab at the till by the door, seeing as I had my laundry to do, I asked if I could have some quarters in my change.
The woman at the counter, a well-turned out matron whom I’d guess to have been in her fifties, stared at me with a look of absolute incomprehension. I repeated, “Could I have some quarters in my change, please?”
Still she stared. I wondered what the problem was. I knew she didn’t have a hearing disability, because she’d been happily chatting away with other customers – so what was wrong with me?
Then she started making tropical bird noises. “Kwah? Kwaahh? Kwaaahhh?”
“Quarters,” I told her, “quarters.”
How hard could that be to understand? But, evidently, my English accent was so baffling to her that I might as well have come from Mars.
A few days later I was in a bar called the Upper Deck in Grand Island. The barman was the size of a small whale, with no neck and no hair. I told him the story about the quarter lady. He looked at me and said, “Quarters? I can understand that.”
He paused a moment, then he said, “Mind you, when you asked me to pass the salt for your sandwich, I didn’t have the first idea what you were saying.”
I said, “Since I crossed the Mississippi I’ve had to say everything twice. When I get to Utah will I have to say everything four times?”
He laughed and told me, “Probably you will, boy, probably you will.”
Lincoln Highway Garage, Tama, Iowa
Such are the small pleasures of being at large in a foreign land. In the United States, however, one of the greater pleasures – and the third thing that helped keep me going on the long road to San Francisco – is simply the warmth and hospitality that you meet in so many good and decent people along the way.
I’d therefore like to conclude this account of my journey down the American Road with a particular note of thanks to all those members of the present-day Lincoln Highway Association who helped me out in different states along the way. There are too many to name here, and it’s invidious to single out one person or state over another, but it’s fair to say that the generosity with which I was shown around various sites in Ohio was representative of the welcome I met everywhere.
Hywet, Goodyear founder Frank Seiberling's mansion in Akron, Ohio
Highlights of the trip through that state included my visits to the Classic Car Museum in Canton, and to Frank Seiberling’s splendid mansion Stan Hywet in Akron. My night at the Spread Eagle Tavern in Hanoverton was unquestionably the most comfortable of the whole journey, and the food was excellent. Dick Taylor’s lovingly restored 1905 National Automobile in the foyer of Mansfield City Hall is well worth seeing, if you’re anywhere near there, while Mike Buettner’s guide to the Lincoln Highway through Ohio is an exceptionally diligent and useful piece of research. My thanks to Mike McNaull as well, not least for showing me the surreally comic spectacle of the VW Beetle that some inventive soul has half-buried as an ornament in his front garden.
Pete Davies, Author, at an original concrete pillar, East Canton, Ohio
Finally, my thanks to Jim Ross for showing me two original stretches of the Lincoln Highway just east of Canton. It was both a treat and an insight to be able to stand on that narrow strip of red-brick paving, and to imagine the army’s great caravan rumbling through the rolling green farmland over eighty years ago.
They were on the road to the future – and it’s down to them and their story that we live the way we do now.
Ohio Lincoln Highway League