Back roads of Lincoln Highway still charm

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The voice is a commanding baritone, and if you prompt author Michael Wallis, he will lower it an octave or two until he morphs into the sheriff on "Cars," the kids' movie that made him a household sound.

How many writers get to rub vocal folds with Paul Newman and Owen Wilson, whose voices were also heard in "Cars"?

Then again, Mr. Wallis, the author of the best-selling book "Route 66," wasn't chosen for the plum movie role only because of his powerful pipes. He espouses the movie's central theme: Take the back road through real America instead of the bland interstate to generic America.

The 61-year-old road warrior is spreading the back-road gospel once again with his new book, "The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate."

The road was the first practical transcontinental highway, zigging and zagging its way through 3,389 miles and 13 states and four time zones, from the blinding neon of Times Square past the liar's table in the Ogden Diner in Ogden, Iowa, and through hundreds of other hamlets until it comes to rest in San Francisco.

The 350 miles in Pennsylvania generally are called Route 30, and weave from Philadelphia to Amish Country in Lancaster through the George Westinghouse Bridge and into Downtown Pittsburgh and beyond to Ohio.

"It is a love letter to people along that road, the people living, working and playing along the historic path. It is not meant to be a schmaltzy, sugary one," said Mr. Wallis, in a phone interview from his Tulsa, Okla., home.

"You, Mr. and Mrs. America, with 2 1/2 kids and a basset hound, can fly to Six Flags or Disney. Or you can just take the time to get on an exit ramp. Life begins at the exit ramp. Get off and slip into the old highway and you can really experience America before America became generic, before we were all eating out of Styrofoam and we were busy on our cell phones."

Mr. Wallis and Michael S. Williamson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, spent a month traveling the crooked length of the Lincoln Highway, eating a lot of homemade pie and collecting a lot of doodads along the way. Both men have traveled the road for years.

For his book tour, Mr. Wallis will revisit some of his favorite Lincoln Highway haunts along the way, including a stop in Pittsburgh at noon next Sunday at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in the Strip District.

There will be a ceremony honoring Bernard "Bernie" Queneau, a 95-year-old Mt. Lebanon resident who is a vital part of the Lincoln Highway's history. In 1928, he and three other Boy Scouts crossed the Lincoln Highway in an REO Speedwagon to promote the highway and conduct demonstrations of Scout safety skills. About 70 years later, he met Ester Oyster, the Lincoln Highway Association president, and then the two fell in love and got married. In 2003, for the 75th anniversary of his scout trip, they crossed the coast-to-coast highway again. The two are just back from a Lincoln Highway convention in Colorado, where Mr. Queneau, the only living Boy Scout from the 1928 tour, got a warm reception.



The book's cover.

Author to speak here
Michael Wallis, author of "The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate," (W.W. Norton, $39.95) will appear at noon next Sunday at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District (412-454-6000), as part of a Summertime Fun event. His talk is included as part of the admission. The event also features visits from the Smiley Cookie, Kenny Kangaroo and an antique car cruise.

"They think I am the ultimate collectible," Mr. Queneau quipped.

There are many other Lincoln Highway books out there, including a recent one by Pittsburgher Brian Butko, author of "Greetings from the Lincoln Highway: America's First Coast to Coast Road."

Like Mr. Butko's book, Mr. Wallis' book is a state-by-state hardcover book that describes many of the quirky characters and places along the path. "Mine has more history and directions and his has more storytelling," said Mr. Butko, editor of Western Pennsylvania History magazine who also will speak on July 22.

Is there such a thing as too many Lincoln Highway books?

The more the merrier, Mr. Wallis says. "Everyone has their own take."

The books, he said, will spark interest in the road that is a memorial to Abraham Lincoln and that was founded in 1913 as giddy Americans traversed it on their Model Ts.

But its glory days were short-lived as gleaming new numbered highways became the vogue. The road faded from national consciousness until the late 1980s and 1990s, when the states began erecting signs along the old highway.

Lincoln Highway is less well known than Route 66, the road made famous by the TV show and the song. It was a natural subject for Mr. Wallis, who says he was "born as far from the Route 66 in St. Louis as my Stan Musial could swing a hardball."

Route 66 cut through the fictional town of Radiator Springs in Carburetor County in the animated film "Cars," for which Mr. Wallis was a consultant. Once a hopping town, Radiator Springs was a forgotten place after a gleaming Interstate replaced Route 66 as the main way to get from here to there. A cocky race car named Lightning McQueen screeches into this hamlet by mistake, and the sheriff barks at him in a gruff but knowing way, "Not in my town you don't."

The Pixar film helped increase business along the Route 66 businesses by 30 percent to 40 percent, Mr. Wallis said.

"The message that comes out could also be applied to the Lincoln Highway. For so many of these towns, the road is still relevant. It is still Main Street in a lot of places. I get so weary of people talking about the Lincoln Highway in the past tense."

Michael Wallis, left, and Michael S. Williamson, author and photographer, respectively, of "The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate," at the highway's western terminus in San Francisco.
Click photo for larger image.
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Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.


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