This road is part of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental paved road. Of course, it doesn’t often get used to cross the country anymore—they’ve got interstates for that—but in this area, it’s still a pretty major road, passing right through the heart of the city. That’s what makes it a more interesting route than its heir, US 80—Lincoln still crosses cities instead of bypassing them. That’s why three friends and I decided to spend one Spring Break retracing the entire route “from sea to shining sea.”
My childhood home was on a street that intersected this same highway. Once I learned how to ride a bike, I was allowed to ride all the way down the street to the corner where Tulip met Lincoln, but I wasn’t allowed to cross it, or even to ride along that street. Of course, any prohibition is frustrating to a child, but this one was particularly onerous because there were all sort of delights on the other side of that road: a library, a park, a Dairy Queen, and a couple of friends’ houses. But all these were off limits.
“The cars just go too fast” my mother would say. “If someone…if something…” When I would protest to my father, I could see the conflict in his face. He had been the one who taught me how to ride. After long hours of encouragement and picking me up dirty and scraped before I had mastered the skill, he wanted to see me embracing what I had accomplished. But the feeling was restrained by something. He would glance toward my mother and they would share a glance, and then my father would shake his head and say, “Better not. I know you want to, Brian, but there’s more to life than what one person wants. Stay in our neighborhood.” So, I would hop on my bike, helmet securely fastened, and ride to the corner. There I would stare powerlessly across Lincoln and imagine all the joy I would experience across that street, then turn around and ride back the way I had come.
When I was seventeen, I got my first ticket for speeding on that same road. There was a long stretch of the road without any stoplights, and you could build up serious speed and still have time to slow down before the next serious intersection. My friends and I often took advantage of this fact to see how quickly we could make it from someone’s house to the Steak n’ Shake a few miles down the street. Charlie Bridger bragged that he had gotten up to 100 mph. I was pulled over going only 83, though it was still almost 40 mph over the speed limit. I had been afraid that like my cousin Julian had been, I might get roughed up by a prejudiced cop, but he just gave me the ticket and sent me on my way.
My parents were horrified. I already felt guilty and embarrassed, but they weren’t satisfied with that. They marched me out of the house—my dad had his hand on the back of my collar, just like he had when I was a child, and they led me to the corner where our street met Lincoln, the same one where I had stared longingly at the street. They pointed to something I had never noticed before, or if I had noticed it, I had been unable to comprehend its purpose, and so, ignored it. In the corner lot, there was a small white cross stuck into the grass in front of one of those large decorative boulders. Tied to the cross were a number of plastic flowers which had probably once been white, but were now a greenish grey. Mom was crying. In a strained but calm voice, Dad told me all about how she had been out walking when the accident happened. How she had seen the six your old girl crushed by the speeding car. How the family had knelt by the side of the road weeping while cars drove past.
“You need to think,” Dad warned me.
“Life is so precious,” Mom said, “so fragile.”
At 20, my friends and I were intoxicated by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Simon and Garfunkel and idealistically decided to traverse the country. We took a plane out to New York City, rented a car, and drove all the way to San Francisco, where we took another flight back to school. During the first few hours—all the way through New Jersey—we were still so buzzed on the excitement of having been in the Big Apple and of starting our journey that we barely paid attention to our surroundings at all. But after stopping to eat in Philadelphia, we settled into our seats and into the journey. I started staring out the window, my usual road trip habit.
We passed through small and medium sized towns of eastern Pennsylvania, the sort which modern highways would bypass. These points of civilization were all at once strange and familiar, a feeling that would stay with me the whole week. It was strongest in the Midwest, my home region. From Pittsburgh on through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and most of Nebraska, the scenery all looked like home. Wide, flat farmland, clusters of neighborhoods, brick downtown buildings that had stood for a hundred years or more, still quaint but showing their age, chain stores rising up around the edge where suburbia spread out. There variation in size, but the essential features were almost always the same.
The feeling became so familiar that I didn’t recognize my own hometown until we passed the high school. We crashed with my parents that night. It was a nice change from the motels and junk food we were used to, but while I usually felt comfortable with my friends and with my family, it was awkward negotiating both groups at the same time. I felt like an adult with my friends, but a child with my parents. Before I had gone off to college, Mom had sat down with me and told me to make sure I didn’t lose who I was. The advice seemed like a mother’s unnecessary worry. I hadn’t thought there was anything to it until this moment when my sense of self suddenly came into question. Was I one person or two?
We left the next morning, driving down Tulip and stopped at Lincoln, waiting for the traffic to clear so we could resume our quest. I was in the passenger seat and glanced out to see that familiar corner where I had stood as a child. A small cross with the plastic flowers still poked out behind grass and weeds. I had noticed a few other roadside crosses while we traveled, but from that point on, they seemed to leap out at me from the scenery. At the edge of every town, around every sharp turn, sometimes alone, sometimes in clusters, hundreds of white crosses decorated the Lincoln Highway, marking places where a life, no doubt a young life, had been cut short in a careless accident.
Somewhere around Wood River, Nebraska, I began to feel the weight of the road between our tires. America was spread out around us. There could be millions of people driving along different points of that highway at the same moments. Some parts or the road were wide and smooth, others were narrow and filled with potholes. Within a few miles you might see sprawling mansions, urban slums, and wide open fields. People grew up, worked, lived, and died along this one road, and it was all happening around us at once. It’s easier not to think about them, and I spend a lot of time trying not to. It’s easier to just focus on myself and my own concerns. All those lives. I suddenly felt incredibly insignificant.