Wednesday, May 23, 2001... Greetings from Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State University and a virtual ghost town right now. Had hoped to get further west tonight, but I need one good night's sleep along the way.

This morning I started the Lincoln Highway from one of its most important points, the Ideal Section east of the Illinois-Indiana border. Unlike the U.S. Routes (and later the Interstates), the Lincoln was a private project, financed largely by the auto, tire, rubber, glass and concrete industries. To stimulate demand for better roads and cars to drive them, they gave away free samples -- a "seedling mile" with two lanes of concrete, set in the middle of a dirty, muddy cart path. The Ideal Section was even better, a four-lane road with wide shoulders and overhead lighting that became a prototype for about $100 billion of roads to come. (But as a reminder that age and quality are not synonymous, a mile from the Ideal Section a local White Castle proclaimed the chain's 80th birthday. Both roadside food and the road itself have come a long way since the 1920s.)

The Lincoln tiptoes around metropolitan Chicago, stirring memories of college friends as I passed from Paul Carlisle's Schererville through Bob Barnes's Plainfield to John Haugland's De Kalb. In the latter I was able to match the perspective of an 80-year-old postcard of downtown -- a downtown with such classic small-town features as a railroad crossing the main street and a city employee who enforces the one-hour limit on free parking by chalking the tires of each car he passes. A film crew was more interested in Geneva, Illinois, whose entire downtown was blocked off for filming.

Illinois has done a great job marking the road. With official "Historic Lincoln Highway Route" signs after every major interchange, it's as easy to follow as Route 66. Wish I could say the same for Iowa, where the locals' emphasis on historically accurate marking -- painting the red, white and blue "L" logo on telephone poles -- loses its effectiveness when the driver's traveling at modern speeds. And with the Iowa countryside a maze of dirt roads and paved routes bearing cryptic identifiers like County Route H41, losing the way is a serious problem.

But not as serious as the weather. From western Illinois across Iowa, it rained about two-thirds of the time -- a nasty, windy, cold rain. One corner of Iowa got half an inch of snow last night; if I'd hit this storm in Wyoming, I'd be snowbound in Cheyenne or Laramie. The weather killed most of my interest in stopping, and all of my interest in driving original dirt-road segments of the highway.

Memorial Arch, Dixon, IL

Still found a few highway-related sights, though, including the Memorial Arch in Ronald Reagan's hometown of Dixon, IL, spanning the route since the it was erected 80 years ago as a World War I memorial and Tama, Iowa's unique "Lincoln Highway" bridge, on which the name of the road has been carved from the bridge railings. Also made my first visit to the national Lincoln Highway Association headquarters in Franklin Grove, Illinois, emerging with yet another road-themed T-shirt. (I'm collecting these the way some people collect shirts from rock concerts. I even have the shirt from a National Road preservation conference I didn't attend.)

Tomorrow morning I bypass the rest of Iowa's Lincoln (no postcards from there, anyhow...) and take the Interstate west to rejoin the route in Nebraska. The expected highlight: a visit to the new Great Platte River Road Museum in Kearney, built directly over I-80.

Go to the next day


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