Road Trips, Stories Told

Bursting the nostalgia bubble: A story from my new book, A Place to Start

My new book has been out for a week and a half now and I’m surprised and thrilled with the response so far. If you’ve picked up a copy, thank you!

If you’d like a copy of my book, get one here:

I want to share one more story from my book. In the first several years after I was newly single it was a great distraction from my troubles to spend a fair-weather Saturday seeing where an old road would take me. I still love the old roads today, and it’s led to a broader interest in transportation history.

I had this vision of days gone by, people driving these old highways at a leisurely pace, enjoying the view.

One day I got to meet Paul Ford, a legend in Terre Haute radio. In his retirement, he and his wife operated a set of Christian radio stations along US 40 between Terre Haute and Casey, Illinois. We talked about radio a little bit, but we also talked about US 40 itself. His tales of how dangerous this road had been opened my eyes!

This story first appeared here on January 25, 2008.

My old friend Michael is an occasional companion when I take to the road. We took our first road trip together a few years ago along the National Road (US 40) in Illinois. The state built modern US 40 alongside an older brick and concrete road – and abandoned the old road.

Abandoned National Road
Paul Ford’s house and radio studio, in sight of the abandoned highway

As we explored the abandoned road, Michael asked me what drew me to the old roads. I replied that it lets me enjoy imagining a time when drivers took it slow and enjoyed the scenery and people they encountered, something I wished for but found elusive. I said I wished I could hear stories about driving the old roads. Michael said, “I’ll bet Paul Ford knows about this old road. He lives nearby. Want to meet him?”

Of course I wanted to meet him! Anybody who’s ever worked in Terre Haute radio, as I have, knows Paul’s name. He built Terre Haute’s first FM radio station, WPFR, in 1962 and operated it through the early 1980s. Later, Paul started building a small network of Christian radio stations that he and his wife operate from their home on US 40 a few miles west of the Indiana state line and within sight of a strip of the old brick road. Michael volunteers at Paul’s stations.

Paul dropped everything and sat down with us in his radio studio, which filled his house’s front room. He was tickled to hear that I had worked for WBOW in Terre Haute because he had too, many years before. He told a ton of great radio stories, including getting his first radio job in high school, how hard it was to get advertisers on FM in the 1960s, and how he got to interview former President Truman in Indianapolis just after he left office by going to his hotel and asking. It was great talking with him.

I asked him about the brick road. “Oh yes,” he said, “I used to drive on that when it was US 40 about the time my wife and I got married, which was in 1949. It was a dangerous road. People would get behind a truck, and they’d get impatient as it’d go slowly up the hills. They’d look for a chance to pass, but there were so many curves, and the road was so narrow. Eventually, they’d lose their patience and pass even if it wasn’t safe. There were a lot of bad wrecks on that road.”

I was a jarred by what he said. I thought I’d hear him talk glowingly of Sunday afternoon drives in the sunshine with his family, waving and smiling at people in oncoming cars, stopping at a farm stand for an apple. Instead, I felt the bubble of my idealizations burst. Pop.

As we drove away, I felt unsettled and wondered what made me enjoy following the old road so much if my nostalgic visions were false. But I started thinking of reasons pretty quickly. I enjoyed feeling connected to the National Road’s history, following a path that had been in use for 170 years by generations of people making their way from eastern states into the Illinois prairies. I also enjoyed seeing the road’s 1920s brick and concrete construction. I enjoyed knowing enough general road history to predict that the road probably wasn’t even striped at first – because there were so few cars, people often drove up the middle and moved right when another car approached!

Abandoned National Road
Michael on a rough patch of the old road

But times changed in the postwar prosperity years during which Paul drove this road. Roads everywhere became more crowded as more people bought cars – for a time, demand for cars outpaced Detroit’s ability to build them. Also, through the 1950s cars became faster and more powerful every year. The old roads’ hills and curves just weren’t engineered to handle so many cars going so fast. Paul’s memory of the road made perfect sense. US 40 was soon rebuilt straight and wide, and later I-70 was built nearby with four lanes and limited access. Drivers could travel much faster and safer. They undoubtedly welcomed the new roads without looking back.

Reality certainly cast my nostalgia in the proper light. I realized that it represented something I very much want from life – a peaceful pace that lets me enjoy the journey. Even if the old roads never offered that to travelers in their day, they offer it to me now. On this trip, I got to spend most of the day with a longtime friend. We took it slow, averaging barely 20 miles an hour because of all our stops to explore. And I met someone interesting who taught me something new. Most of my old-road trips turn out this way. The very thing I imagined I missed, I can have today when I go out on the old roads.

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Brick Route 66

Brick Route 66 in Illinois
Canon PowerShot S95

When you follow Route 66 west in Illinois, when you reach Springfield you have to decide which of two alignments to follow to St. Louis. The newer one hugs I-55 — or, more accurately, I-55 hugs Route 66, as 66 came first. The older alignment is a little farther west, generally following what is now State Route 4.

That old road was routed around farm boundaries, creating a number of sharp turns. Over the years, the state rebuilt sections of that road to make it straighter and smoother. The old sections of the road were left behind so farmers on the road could still reach their properties.

Sometimes, the original pavement remains. This is one of those times. Thanks to a restoration, this is brick in wonderful condition. This is the typical Illinois brick highway, with bricks fitted inside a wide-U-shaped concrete pad. I wrote about how these roads were built here, with diagrams from old Illinois Department of Highways documents and photographs of one of these roads under construction.

I made this photo at the north/east end of this 1.4-mile segment, facing toward Chicago as the road goes. The road used to curve left here to flow into the current alignment of State Route 4.

This is a truly gorgeous segment of old brick road, and gives the best feel I’ve ever encountered for what these roads were like when they were new. If you’d like to visit, you can find it on the map here.

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Photography, Road Trips

single frame: Brick Route 66 in Illinois

A restored section of brick pavement on Route 66 in Illinois.

Road Trips

Me on abandoned US 50 in Illinois

As I’ve been moving my road-trip reports from my old site to this blog, I’ve looked back through my photographs.

Sometimes I brought a friend along on these trips. I loved sharing my odd hobby with others! When I explored US 50 in Illinois in 2009, I invited my longtime friend Michael along. He lives in Terre Haute, which was on the way.

Michael made a couple photos of me as we explored the road, shots with lots of context. They help me remember that very good day and my time with my friend.

I frequently brought my dear, departed Gracie along on road trips. She loved to go! We’re standing on the original alignment of US 50 where it enters Illinois after crossing the Wabash River from Indiana. The property owner was using part of the brick road as a patio for his home!

Here I am on an abandoned bridge, one of three in a row on a long abandoned section of US 50 that runs right alongside current US 50. I’m using my Kodak EasyShare Z730 to photograph the current US 50 bridge.

I started making road trips both to scratch a curiosity itch and to distract myself from the pain of my divorce and ongoing difficulties raising children with an acrimonious ex. These trips were a tonic. They were always better when I shared them.

My road tripping started to fall off about five years ago. I’d met Margaret, the woman I’d marry. I focused my time on her and on getting my old house ready for sale. It needed a lot of work inside and out. And then Margaret and I married, and I moved into her house, and we’ve had one incredible challenge after another in our family since then. Last year, for the first time, I made no road trips at all. Given COVID-19 and family priorities, I’m not sure I’ll make any road trips this year, either.

There are still roads I want to explore! I’ve long wanted to drive the many old alignments of State Road 67 between Indianapolis and Vincennes. I want to drive the National Road in eastern Ohio again — so many great old alignments with original brick and concrete pavement! I’d like to drive the Lincoln Highway across northern Indiana. And I want to search for old and abandoned alignments, especially with original pavement, anywhere they are to be found in Indiana.

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Lincoln Memorial Bridge

The Lincoln Memorial Bridge
Kodak EasyShare Z730

This isn’t the usual view of this stunning bridge. Normally, it’s photographed from the Indiana side, in Vincennes. (See my photo from that side here.) Here, I shot it on the ground, on the other side of the Wabash River in Illinois.

It’s called the Lincoln Memorial Bridge because it was near this point that young Abraham Lincoln crossed into Illinois as they left their Indiana home behind. There’s a lovely memorial to this crossing on the Illinois side, not far from where I stood to photograph this bridge; see it here.

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Photography, Road Trips

single frame: The Lincoln Memorial Bridge

The stunning Lincoln Memorial Bridge, connecting Vincennes, IN to Illinois, from the Illinois side.

Road Trips

Refreshed: Posts about my 2009 road trip along US 50 in Illinois

Old US 50 in Illinois

On May 25, 2009, my longtime friend Michael and I drove to Vincennes, Indiana, crossed over into Illinois over the Lincoln Memorial Bridge, and explored US 50 and its old alignments until we ran out of energy for the day.

I wrote a full report on my old HTML site here. But I wrote about it in parallel on this blog, the first road trip to get that treatment. The HTML site had more information on it, so I’ve updated the posts here with that info and enlarged the photos. Here are the posts:

  • Where Lincoln first entered Illinois — Abe Lincoln’s family moved to Illinois from Indiana, crossing over the Wabash River at Vincennes at about the place where US 50 would eventually go.
  • Three abandoned bridges in a row — An old alignment of US 50 runs right alongside the current alignment for several miles in eastern Illinois. Three steel-truss bridges still stood on the old road when we made our trip.
  • The General Dean Bridge — A suspension bridge serves pedestrians today in Carlyle, Illinois. It is the original alignment of the road that was made into US 50.
  • What if they built a bridge and nobody ever drove on it? — US 50 was to be widened to four lanes, divided. The project was cancelled, but after several bridges were built that then were never used to carry traffic.
Abandoned, never used US 50 bridge

Abandoned, never used US 50 bridge in Illinois
Kodak EasyShare Z730

As you drive US 50 across Illinois, west of Carlyle you’ll cross four bridges that have unused twins right beside them. I told the whole story here, but in short they’re left over after a project to widen US 50 to four lanes was abandoned.

That’s my friend Michael there, balancing on the railing to make his photograph while I made mine of him.

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Photography, Road Trips

single frame: Abandoned, never used US 50 bridge in Illinois

An abandoned, never used bridge.