Annie Dillard opens her memoir, An American Childhood, with the belief that, “When everything else has gone from my brain” including her knowledge and her life’s goals, she’ll remember topography, specifically the topography of her native Pittsburgh. I think a similar thing: as my brain declines someday, I hope it holds onto the roads in, around, and near my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois. Certainly the top contender for my possible “last memory” is the road to my grandmother’s house. When I was a kid in Vandalia, my parents and I crossed the river bridge and proceeded about five miles on U.S. 40, a way which had both flat and hilly sections. Then we turned onto Illinois 185 and drove across Four Mile Prairie to the Brownstown Road turnoff. My grandmother (who died in 1972) lived a bit off the Brownstown Road.
But the way to Grandma’s was just part of a collection of fond local memories. The main drag through Vandalia was once U.S. 40, prior to the road’s bypass realignment to Third Street. As in many small communities, the business district is quieter today. But I like to think of my childhood days when a person would go to town and shop (or window shop) among the several clothing stores, buy the hardware you needed at Western Auto, get groceries at the A&P or Tri-City or Kroger, and run other errands. Maybe you’d stop for coffee at the Abe Lincoln Café inside the Hotel Evans and get local news not printed in the papers.
During the Christmas season I loved the Christmas holly and bells that draped over the downtown street lights, and the trees and wreaths that appeared in some store windows. “Silver Bells” depicts a city but I always associate it with our small hometown because the song’s images fit well with Vandalia’s holiday style. I recall participating in our church’s Christmas pageant. I’d stand by the altar in my “biblical” bathrobe and struggle to remember my lines amid the red-and-green drapery of Christmas. (“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field…”) Our church was just a couple blocks from downtown (along Fifth Street, which was the earlier alignment of U.S. 51 through town), so church Christmases mix in my memory with downtown cheer.
On Christmas day itself, after I dispatched my toys with a little kid’s eagerness, my parents and I drove east toward Brownstown, Illinois, to my grandmother’s farmhouse–literally over the river and through the woods–for a holiday feast with relatives. The timber beyond the fallow fields faded in the snowy air, and the fence posts of Grandma’s farm were ringed by white skirts of snow.
Besides trips to Grandma’s, my other early memories of U.S. 40 include our monthly or bimonthly family trips to downtown St. Louis (just 70 miles away) for shopping. My parents liked to shop at Famous Barr and Stix, Baer, and Fuller. We’d travel over on U.S. 40 (I-70 still incomplete) and cross what was still called the Veterans Bridge (with its dime toll). But “big city” shopping was a treat rather than a necessity, because a person would shop for pretty well in downtown Vandalia. I remember aspects of the trip to St. Louis, for instance, the “2 Acres Motel” (which is still there) outside Greenville, a set of Burma Shave signs a little further west (near a house that fascinated me as a little kid because it’s L-shaped), a restaurant outside Highland (no longer there, and I can’t remember the name), the slight directional changes at the road joined Route 66 near Edwardsville, and finally the river bridge. As Interstate 70 was constructed, we had to slow down along some stretches of 40 where the road was becoming rerouted.
U.S. 40 once crossed the whole country, from Atlantic City to San Francisco, although today it ends in Utah. But for me, U.S. 40 will always be trips to St. Louis, visits to downtown Vandalia, and trips to Grandma’s house near Brownstown, 75 miles of happy nostalgia.
The Way of Old Roads
I taught a course at University of Akron called “American Highways and American Wanderlust.” Did you know that odd numbered federal highways are longitudinal, and the evens latitudinal? I never thought about that until I studied the subject, even though I grew up on the west-east US 40 and the north-south US 51. Did you know that the even numbers are higher as you go south and the odd numbers are higher as you go west? I’d never thought about that, either. If you want to be in California and you’re on US 1, you’re in trouble. Similarly if you want a southern vacation and you’re on US 10, you better reorient yourself.
With interstates, the numbering is just the opposite. The lower numbers are west and south. I-95 goes down the east coast, I-5 down the west coast, I-90 is up north and I-10 is down south. What about diagonal highways? They’re evens. I lived near US 42 in two different cities; the road goes diagonally from Cleveland, OH to Louisville KY. So does US 62, from Niagara Falls to El Paso. In the 1960s the Saturday Evening Post featured an occasional game within its pages: you were provided a small close up of a national map, and your job was to guess the location. If you knew something about the system of routes, the game was pretty fun.
Beginning around 1915, states began numbering their roads. Illinois developed a system, beginning with (but not limited to) several primary routes. There were four longitudinal roads. Illinois 1 is still there, except that the long curve from Norris City to Metropolis, originally part of route 1, is now part of US 45. Except for portions in the north, the original Illinois 2 is now US 51. Illinois 3 is still there, east and south of St. Louis, but north of St. Louis it’s now mostly US 67. Illinois 4 is still there, although it was originally a Chicago-St. Louis route, mostly replaced by the fabled US 66. (This c. 1920 postcard shows IL 2 meeting the National Road just east of my hometown.)
Several horizontal Illinois roads, too, were more or less in sequence north to south. Moving south, Illinois 5 (now US 20) went through Rockford, then 6 (the old Lincoln Highway, now Illinois 38), 7 (now US 6), then 17 through Kankakee (still there), 8 (now US 24), 9 (still there) through Bloomington, 10 (now mostly US 36) through Decatur and Springfield. The next west-east route, though, is Illinois 16 (still there), followed by Illinois 11 (the old National Road and now US 40) and 12 (now US 50). Then—still heading south—you have Illinois 15 through Mt. Vernon, 14 through Benton, and 13 through Marion and Carbondale.
Before roads were widely numbered, people relied upon AAA “Blue Books” to help them get around. You’d need a navigator every time you drove much distance in an unfamiliar territory! That’s because roads were imperfectly marked and followed zigzagging, sometimes informal paths. I’ve a copy of the 1915 AAA Blue Book. Here’s part of the directions if you were driving from St. Louis to Vincennes (p. 291):
66.2 7.3 4-corners, church and blacksmith shop on right; turn left and take first right crossing RR.
66.6 0.4 End of road; jog left and take first right, following poles.
70.2 3.6 End of road; turn right across RR. And immediately left, bearing right away from tracks. Go straight ahead into
75.9 5.7. Salem, Court House on left. Keep straight ahead cross R.R. 76.4. Road is direct with poles. Jog left and right, 77.2, winding through woods 81.5 past Xenia (on right—92.8)
That’s actually one of the easier routes!
I found physical evidence of a very old, winding road like this. If you take U.S. 51 north of Sandoval, IL, the modern alignment goes straight north, but you can see seams in the pavement where the road once made a right-hand curve. Then, following that old alignment a few tenths of a mile, the older road makes a left-hand curve and goes north for a mile or less, crossing a narrow bridge. (I love that bridge because of its plaque that preserves the name of the builder, something I’ve never seen on an old highway bridge.) Past a picnic area, that old alignment rejoins the modern road with a left- and then a right-hand turn. Again, you can see the seams in the modern pavement where the curve had once existed. To think that a major highway would’ve once included such an indirect pathway! You have to assume that the original highway routes followed the paths of existing local roads. (Here is a newer post with better photos: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2017/02/old-highway-alignments.html)
Locating very old alignments is interesting. I’ve spotted other abandoned alignments along U.S. 51 near Vandalia. U.S. 40 between Troy and Highland, and near Marshall, Illinois, parallels abandoned and overgrown stretches of roadbed, presumably from the 1910s or the 1920s. One time I found a highway bridge deep in timber. I was scouting the remains of a pioneer town, Old Loogootee in Fayette Co., Illinois. I found a few bricks from buildings, but I also found that narrow bridge fording a stream. There was little evidence of a road there, the old Vincennes Road that became state route 185. The bridge was haunting in its incongruity.
At Vandalia, the original path of Route 40 has until recently been signed Illinois 140 but, for reasons having to do with state and local maintenance, it carries no number at all until the outskirts of Mulberry Grove. I wish I had a picture of the Abe Lincoln Motel that once stood well within the city limits on the old route (in town called St. Louis Ave.); one of my earliest memories was the small motel (no more than ten rooms) and a sign along the street. It had not operated for many years as a motel before it was finally razed in the late 1990s. But just beyond the city limits, an early alignment veers off the old road and makes a curve of several hundred feet. This is a remnant of the original automobile highway, State Route 11 or National Old Trails Highway of the teens and twenties. Further east, just beyond Hagerstown, a 1920 Route 11 bridge sits alongside the modern pavement, overgrown with small trees.
A few years ago I found a wonderful book about landscape exploration, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, New York: Walker & Co., 1999. If a person is interested in evidences of 20th century American culture (not just roads but railroads and small town life), Stilgoe is a good author for ideas and inspiration!
Several miles from my hometown, I pass this uninteresting scene: a sign frame next to a mailbox, and a home along the road. But I know that the frame has been there for at least 42 years; it once held a sign for a veterinarian’s practice in the lower level of the home. In 1968 my parents and I acquired a dachshund puppy, whom we named Baron, and for a few years we patronized that vet for our dog’s shots and exams. As I recall, we liked the vet but switched to a practice that opened closer to our hometown. So I don’t know how long the first vet was in practice, but the house is now just a house and only this metal sign frame remains.
I’ve always been fascinated by mundane sights that have significance, or at least a small story, which passers-by would not know. What kind of sign did that frame used to hold? What is the significance of this place, if anything? Near my hometown, on U.S. 40, is an everyday-looking intersection of the main highway and two country roads. But in pioneer days the place was widely known as Twin Pumps. Two pumps served people and horses traveling on the National Road. For many years nothing alerted you to the history of the place.
As you approach Vandalia from the east across the “bottoms,” you notice how the highway curves a bit to the more recent alignment. But you can also see how the original alignment proceeded straight, since the pavement was never removed. For a few hundred yards, you can drive along the narrow roadbed, which not only had been U.S. 40 but, before that, State Route 11 and the National Old Trails Highway, and even before that, the last, westernmost distance of the National Road. A few businesses stand along the pavement and, until it was removed a few years ago, a forlorn warehouse stood which had originally been a skating rink and entertainment place called Junction Park. My mother remembered going there during her 1930s teen years. I sensed from her words the memories of happy youthful times spent in a place that, to me, had always just been a junky building beside the river.
A few years ago, I read an essay in which the writer expressed curiosity about a large L that he saw in the mosaic at the entrance of an empty building in Queens. He passed the place on the subway. Those attractive mosaic entryways grace business buildings in small towns, too; I noticed one in Richmond, IN outside of what must’ve once been a clothing store. Research and serendipity finally led the author to identify the name of the department store that had existed in the building he saw. Only the mosaic L signified a nearly forgotten history.
Illinois state route 185 is the road to the place that was once my grandma Crawford’s farm. One of Illinois oldest state funded roads, 185 crosses an area called Four Mile Prairie where many of my maternal relatives settled and lived. As I drive Four Mile Prairie, I think of family stories told as we visited Grandma’s farm. I knew where our family’s peach orchard stood before a 1920s winter killed it; where six sweet apple trees stood beside a fence row, and where the family grew Ben Davis, Maiden Blush, Snowflake, and yellow Early Harvest apple trees; that Grandma set out a group of maple trees during the 1910s. I knew approximately where my uncle found 75 mushrooms one year during the 1910s, beneath a tree across from “the old Frank Crawford place.” I knew where my great-great-grandfather lived during the 1890s, and where cousin Andy Rush’s barns had stood along a certain fence row. All these places were identifiable only by reminiscence.
At the intersection of 185 and the Brownstown Road is an old tree. Sometime during the 1960s, a young man was killed when he crashed his car into the tree. I wonder who else looks at the otherwise nondescript tree and remembers that; perhaps someone still grieves their loss when they pass by this very common place.
A few miles north, in Brownstown, one can still highway-oriented commercial structures like a cottage-style service station building, as well as former restaurants. But I miss the tourist cabins that hosted U.S. 40 travelers passing through Brownstown. The old motel had deteriorated for several years before the cabins were removed, but when I was little, the place still operated as a shady resting place for travelers. I thought the bonnet on the sign looked like it had little arms and legs.
Since moving to St. Louis, I purchased a book about the several U.S. 66 alignments through the city: the original, main, bypass, and city routes. Most of the places depicted in the book are gone. The main route, Lindbergh Blvd, now looks nothing like the motel- and and restaurant-lined highway of the 1950s. Where a motel has replaced another motel, at the intersection of highways 40, 61, 67, and the former 66, a notorious (according to the book) place has given way to one more upscale. I imagine people looking at the postcards in the book and saying something like, “We stayed at that motel during our 1962 vacation to Tulsa!”
Private memories, nostalgia, and highway history converge around locations that have changed.
Roadside Picnic Stops
Along U.S. 51 between Vandalia, Illinois, which is my hometown, and Ramsey, Illinois, which also has family connections, you can find an earlier highway alignment that lies just west of the main road. When I was a little boy, this short stretch of old 51 featured a pleasant picnic area for travelers. Just north of the area was a quaint metal highway bridge that carried you across a stream before the road rejoined the main alignment. U.S. 51 was Illinois State Route 2 prior to 1926, and I wonder if this bridge dates from the 20s.
Back in the days of Rock City barns and roadside cafes, picnic areas were a common sight along the two-lane highways. They were such pleasant areas, basically a small park beside the road. A very nice picnic area once existed along U.S. 40 west of Vandalia, a few miles east of the intersection with IL 140 near Mulberry Grove, and I’ve written here about another such area along 51 near Sandoval, IL.
I remember a gorgeous little picnic area along Hwy. 40 where we stopped during our 1965 vacation to Washington, D.C. This place was down a hill from the highway and was such a park-like area, I ran around and played, delighted. The area must’ve been in Indiana or Ohio, but I’ve not been able to find it during sporadic attempts. After all, so many years have passed; for instance, that picnic stop near Mulberry Grove has been incorporated into a farm and is no longer recognizable. I noticed a few places in Ohio where gravel roads led down the shoulder into a recessed area. Perhaps one of those places was my idyllic childhood park.
Why would you have a picnic along a highway? Well, you’d probably have food and drinks packed for your trip! My dad certainly did; he’d have bottles and cans of soda and food for our trips. One year he fried a big batch of fried chicken to take along for a vacation. I remember my mother was angry at him because he cleaned the kitchen very inadequately prior to our several days away. We stopped at a roadside park–I don’t remember where—to eat our lunch, and I noticed all the messages people had written or carved into the table’s wood.
I suppose today you’d worry about stopping along a highway to relax; the real-life cousins of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit might jump out from the trees. But, of course, you can exit an interstate highway but you can’t stop along the road to lounge and eat. Picnic areas seem as quaint as mom-and-pop restaurants, but they imply a pleasant, unhurried aspect of early- and mid-twentieth century road travel.
When I visit Vandalia I don’t usually drive north of town, but several years ago I happened to be driving that way and I rediscovered this little picnic area, so pleasant during my childhood. The place was quite overgrown. Not only that, but the old alignment was mostly closed to traffic, because the old bridge is, apparently, no longer sturdy enough. It is barricaded, but you can pull off the main alignment and stroll upon the old road. The narrowness of these original alignments always intrigues me, especially after I’ve driven multi-lane interstates for a while.
I took this picture of the bridge. It was a late fall day, and the resulting photo was more haunting than I’d planned. Where does that narrow road go? Actually just up the hill to the old picnic area, where future archaeologists may someday find chicken bones and bottle caps and arcane messages like “Tim + Mary” carved into wood.
When we were dating in the early 1980s, Beth and I met in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, to spend Saturdays together. We lived in two different locations, and the small town was about halfway between us. With a mall, an art gallery, a decent downtown, and several antique stores, we could spend a nice day together.
I’ve a small collection of highway signs; since most are 24” x 24” and in so-so condition they’re impractical to collect and display, but they’re fun to me. They’re fun for others, too; for instance, the website http://shields.aaroads.com/ features hundreds of pictures of signs. Looking over that site, I noticed this 1960s photograph from Mt. Vernon which intrigued me (here’s the source link: http://shields.aaroads.com/show.php?image=IL19564601t204600.jpg) I recognized state routes 37 (a favorite highway) and 148, and I knew state route 15 passed through town, but I’d never heard of U.S. 460. I would’ve remembered a U.S. highway there.
Turns out, the road was a major highway at one time. Today, 460 runs from Frankfort, KY to Norfolk, VA, but between 1946 and 1977, 460 began in downtown St. Louis, crossed the old MacArthur Bridge, and traveled across Illinois and Indiana into Louisville before proceeding, along U.S. 60, over to Frankfort and beyond. Here are two other sites, http://www.us-highways.com/ and http://www.usends.com/60-69/460/460.html
I’ve traveled on the now-state highways that comprised this busy, pre-interstate road. The former route of 460 is Illinois 15 from East St. Louis to Mt. Vernon, south through Mt. Vernon on Illinois 37, then southeast on Illinois 142 to McLeansboro, east Illinois 14 to the Wabash River, and then Indiana 66 to Evansville and finally Indiana 62 across that state. Beautiful countryside! I’d also traveled a lot on U.S. 60 in Louisville, not realizing that this spur route had once also been signed along the same highway, en route to Frankfort. Pre-interstate, St. Louis-to-Louisville travelers must’ve taken U.S. 50 and U.S. 150, but travelers also had this more southerly route. I could imagine a traveler requiring much longer to drive 460 than the five or so hours upon the modern I-64, which supplanted the older road.
Southern Illinois two-lane countryside south of U.S. 40 and east of U.S. 51 shines in my memory: country drives with Beth, drives by myself, and earlier, antiques-hunting trips with my parents. Studying old maps to discover the route of 460 makes me nostalgic for that area, truly “landscapes of the heart”. Perhaps I’ll take a couple days this winter or spring to reconnect memories and country vistas.
A Leisurely Drive on U.S. 40
This photo is an intersection of U.S. 40 and a local road in east-central Illinois, a (to me) peaceful view noticed during this next, pleasant road trip.
When I attended school in the East in the early 1980s, part of the trip home was along I-70 between western Pennsylvania and the family home in Illinois. Of course, I didn’t have much thought about revisiting that route in the future. But when our daughter attended college in Pennsylvania—and my wife and I live in Missouri—I rediscovered that interstate during car trips to and from her school. The drive is more fun now, however, because it’s part of my daughter’s life rather than part of my insecure younger self’s literal and figurative journeys.
Nearly any interstate, at least in the Midwest, dares you to find scenery that’s compelling. I love interstates for their speed and convenience, but taking the older roads is more fun whenever I’m not in a hurry. During these recent college-related trips I’ve enjoyed pulling off I-70 and sight-seeing along U.S.40: the National Road milestones and bridges in Ohio, as well as the numerous examples of 20th century highway businesses–motels, filing stations, garages, neon signs, and the like–along the old road in Indiana and Illinois.
During a recent summer trip, I took my time getting home so I could scout out such places. I like to kick my sandals off in the car and, sometimes, I hate to put them back on, if I think no one will mind. Surprisingly, most folks don’t seem to. Making my way West on I-70 on a warm morning, I left the interstate at Terre Haute and followed highway 40 through the city and across the state line. My sandals were reliably abandoned on the floorboard. Just over the border, one notices stretches of sections of old pavement beside the modern highway, and even a rare stretch of brick roadbed. I think of these as “shards” of the earliest automobile highways, in this case, part of the transcontinental National Old Trails Highway which was superseded by the U.S. highway system in 1926. As with ghost signs, I’d love to peak back into history and see these cracked, 1910s roadbeds when they were new and innovative highways for “newfangled” cars.
Downtown Marshall, Illinois, not far from the Indiana border, has interesting business architecture; George R. Stewart’s classic book US 40: Cross Section of the United States of America (Houghton Mifflin, 1953) featured a photo of a pretty downtown block. Wanting to get a contemporary view, I parked my car and sighed with happiness as my heels made gentle thuds upon the sidewalk. I padded around the town square and took pictures of the quiet downtown. In Stewart’s photo, there is one more building on the left (no longer there), the middle building (now plain brick) was painted, and the building on the right had a cornice at the very top which read “1889 Graebenheimer Building.” Unfortunately the antique stores were closed on Monday. I worried about the pleasant grocery store, not far from downtown on Illinois 1, which surely gets competition from the Wal-Mart north of town. I visited the store, where the cool linoleum felt good on my feet after the warm sidewalk of downtown. As I pushed the cart and selected items for the trip and for home, the manager greeted me with a smile.
Illinois Route 1 is an original state highway from 1918. The highway ran from Chicago to Metropolis, but when U.S. 45 was established, the portion from Norris City to Metropolis became U.S. 45, while another road down to the Ohio River became signed as Route 1. If you look at a map, you can see how Route 1 would’ve passed through Eldorado, Harrisburg, Vienna, Belknap, and Metropolis. These towns are familiar to me from a happy time in my life in the 1980s—and the pastor who married my wife and me was from Eldorado—but they’re quite a bit south of Marshall.
West of town, a traveler who has already forsaken I-70 can also forsake the modern pathway of U.S. 40 and drive the still-older alignment of 40 toward the village of Martinsville, Illinois. Usually these older alignments rejoin the main highway after you’ve passed through the town. But the first time I visited Martinsville, I became a little worried when the road didn’t quickly rejoin the modern U.S. 40. Instead, that oldest alignment took me all the way into the next little town, Casey, for an interesting six-mile section of narrow highway beside farms and rural businesses. According to A Guide to the National Road (ed. by Karl Raitz: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), this original and still usable stretch of the original alignment is unique in Illinois, where most of the longer stretches were replaced when the highway was realigned and upgraded in the 1940s.
Casey is a more comparatively substantial town in this area (pop. 3000). On the outskirts, an enormous red Pegasus stands atop a large pole above roadside businesses. The symbol for Mobil gas must’ve belonged to a filling station, which no longer exists, and the sign remains, incongruous and lonely. Driving into downtown Casey, I parked and walked among the shops and several empty storefronts, typical of small towns along the road. Along with patronizing those open businesses, one can appreciate the local heritage revealed in the commercial architecture.
Driving several miles west, I arrived in Greenup, a town named for a pioneer surveyor who also helped found my hometown. As quiet as Marshall’s downtown, Greenup’s business district is interesting and unusual because of the balconies along the street. Still barefooted, I strolled the main street for a while, took pictures of business exteriors, and also checked out a gift store where I purchased some nice “country crafts.”
Much farther down the road, as I made my way along the old highway, I stopped at St. Elmo, IL, in my home county. St. Elmo, probably named for a popular postbellum novel, is a (to me) very familiar village a few miles east of my hometown. As I strolled toward one of the antique stores, I spotted a Mesker facade on the front of a downtown building and took a photograph of the identification. These cast iron business facades were manufactured by the George Mesker Co. in the 19th century (see http://www.gotmesker.com) and can still be found in area communities. Vandalia once had several Mesker facades but because of downtown fires over the years, only three or four remain.
I was interested in 20th century American culture (highways, railroads, and small town life) long before I read Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe, but his book provided recent inspiration for me to regain my earlier hobby of photographing interesting small town architecture. In the case of this favorite stretch of U.S. 40, I have other books, too: not only George Stewart’s but also A Guide to the National Road, edited by Karl B. Raitz (Johns Hopkins, 1996). I was so pleased to discover that one of the authors footnotes my own book on early Vandalia, but of course the book is more than that single sentence: many communities along U.S. 40 are highlighted, photographed, and described in relationship to the pioneer highway as well as the modern federal highway.
When federal and state highways pass through towns and cities, the roads are identical with local streets. This is not the case with interstate highways. But I like to reminisce about the older roads as they still wind and turn through communities. One of my favorite series of highway “jogs,” for instance, is in Pana, Illinois, where northbound U.S. 51 becomes Poplar Street, turns east four blocks on First Street (which is pretty), turns north a block on Cedar St., turns east again on Jackson St. for a mile or so, and then returns to its northerly path. (I also love the slight turn the highway makes a little ways north, at the undulating landscape around the turn to Dollsville, IL) You don’t get that kind of local commonality with interstates; you just rush along to get where you’re going. Most days, that’s what I want.
I share my late father’s odd habit of studying maps for no particular reason. Back home in St. Louis, I ordered a 1950s city map from eBay because I wondered where the older highways had been located in the city, prior to the interstates.
This map revealed a fact that I’d always read about in Route 66 histories: the St. Louis versions of old 66 were several, including the main route, the city route, and the bypass route. Today, U.S. 40 is also Interstate 64 straight through St. Louis (locals, in fact, don’t even call the interstate “64,” they call it “Highway 40”), and U.S. 50 follows the southerly route of Interstate 255. But 40 and 50 once followed the city and county streets and also had alternate routes; 50, for instance, was additionally signed “Turnpike 40,” and U.S. 40 was also signed “City Route 50.”
Manchester Road, a major west-east street in St. Louis, is locally commemorated as an early path of Route 66. This map, however, revealed to me that Manchester Road was also U.S. 50 through the city. U.S. 50 is still a transcontinental highway, from Ocean City to Sacramento–unlike routes 40, 60, 70, and 80, its route has not been truncated in the West–and was the subject of a Time magazine cover story a few years ago. In Nevada, 50 is “the country’s loneliest road.” How interesting to see that a street I regularly travel had, at one point, been part of that highway.
My own favorite section of U.S. 50 is the ten-mile stretch between Sandoval and Salem, Illinois, about 45 minutes or so from my hometown. This area is farm land, numerous small houses, the village of Odin, IL, and a few small industries. When I was a kid, my parents made country drives to this area to shop for antiques, for instance the Lincoln Trail shop at Odin, which is still there. Another antique store, on the north side of Route 50, looked promising but was open “by chance or appointment.” Unfortunately, the store was NEVER open when we chanced by. Its perpetual closure became a family joke. Sometimes we stopped at a mom-and-pop hamburger place in Sandoval, at the north side of town across from an old motel (pretty and southwestern-looking in its day) at the 50-51 split. You waited forever for your burgers but they were so good!
I’m sure I was bored and restless on these country trips, but they shine in my memory. U.S. 50 connected to the “home roads” IL 185 (via IL 37) and U.S. 51. But the highway was a Sunday drive away; we lived in another town, and the houses, businesses and churches along Route 50 were other people’s countryside. In a childish way I wondered what people’s lives were like in this “distant” rural area. Homes along the road had nice yards like mine, but behind those yards were cultivated fields, and beyond the fields were lines of deciduous timber. To me, the landscape incorporated pleasant aspects of town and countryside, both cozy and spacious. (The landscape along nearby U.S. 51, including the area in and around Vernon, IL, provides a similar nostalgic mix of highway, farm, timber, and home.)
I discovered a German word, fernweh, which means “far sickness.” It’s the opposite of “home sickness” but is a similar kind of longing: longing for a place that’s not home, a nostalgia for some place distant. I’ve experienced this feeling for places more exotic than the Sandoval-to-Salem highway, but that road was enough like–and close enough to–my own home places that home- and far-sickness mingled. The word describes well nearly any highway of happy personal associations.
(These pieces were written during the past several months for paulstroble.blogspot.com, although one was originally written for an Advent collection of Christmas memories.)