From "Highway 50: Ain't That America" Jim Lilliefors


September 12, 1993|By Jean Thompson JIM LILLIEFORS is the editor of Ocean City Today. His chronicle of his road trips, "Highway 50: Ain't That America" (Fulcrum, 1993), is available at area bookstores. Excerpted by permission of the author.

It came to me on a warm spring morning while driving in sea mist alongside the Atlantic that far too much had been taken for granted. The sign. Every day for nearly a decade, I had passed beneath a highway sign at the southern end of Ocean City, Md., the town where I live, that reads: "Sacramento CA 3073." Five thousand passes, and the sign was part of the scenery. Like the barnacle-encrusted anchors at the edge of the inlet, which I also did not really see anymore, or the fishing shanties that lined the harbor.

On that mild morning in March, however, I took notice again. The sign's message burned through the mist and fog as if I had never seen it before, and the sea breeze, drifting faintly from the northeast, seemed to carry a scent of other seasons. I felt a pull toward different landscapes, toward more lucid dreams.

It was time. Instead of driving to work, I stopped at my bank on the mainland and closed out my account. I placed the money in the bottom of a rusty tackle box in the trunk of the old Ford. And then I began driving west, into the brightening haze of a Monday morning. Past the familiar exit to the familiar life. After 15 years in journalism, I had been contemplating this move for weeks. Trading in my stable but increasingly monotonous role as a small-town newspaper editor for a life on the road. Going, slowly, where Highway 50 goes.

For years my home had been on the eastern end of 50, the centralmost of the transcontinental U.S. routes and probably the least appreciated. Only highway historians and a few old-timers seem to know the significance of Highway 50, a route that traces most of the major pioneer trails as it makes its way west; a road that changes its name to Main Street in a majority of the towns it passes through.

"As much as any highway, Route 50 tells the history of how this country developed," Richard Weingroff, a writer with the Federal Highway Administration, once told me. But ask anyone about great U.S. highways, and they'll mention Route 66. Or Highway 40. Or U.S. 1.

Highway 50's golden years were in the 1950s, when you could stop at any motor court along the way and find brochures that touted the road's importance:

"Fast and thoroughly modern, avoiding the extremes of heat and cold."

"No one has fully enjoyed America who has not traveled Famous Fifty. America's Central Pleasure Route."

"See it all on Highway 50, America's All-Year Playground."

The brochures cluttered the front seat of the old Ford as I left town. This was the Highway 50 I would travel -- a link of historic trails that had spawned towns and commerce routes, that helped nurture the nation. But also a pleasure route that hasn't changed significantly in years -- and where a quiet rebellion is taking place.

Along this transcontinental Main Street, which before the interstates came along was a major thoroughfare across the country, the stories one hears -- the things people tell each other and themselves -- are different. Traditions survive. I decided as I drove west that I would listen, in remote prairie settlements and mountain hamlets, through rich, rolling farmland and dying mining towns. Where stories we have forgotten, or never heard, are still told.

Highway 50: There's a lot of wisdom out there

"I think the Sacramento sign became a metaphor for everything that was missing from my life," Jim Lilliefors says between deep, ragged breaths as he cools down from a morning run around his hometown of Ocean City. "I'd done the same thing for years, worked at a small-town paper for a long time. One thing I'd always wanted to do was get out on the road."

That road, when he finally followed his muse, proved to be a chain of Main Streets and byways coursing the country, connected by little more than the familiar, shield-shaped route signs. Route 50 was mapped along existing roads beginning in 1926 and amended through the years. "Centralmost of the cross-country U.S. routes but the littlest known," Route 50 wends a 3,083-mile path (OK, so the sign errs) through wheat field and desert, river valley and hillside.

"There's a tremendous diversity to the route," Mr. Lilliefors says. "In some places, it's like an interstate and in others it's a broken-down, potholed, two-lane route, like through the mountains. In my notebook, I wrote that Highway 50 isn't really one highway, it's many highways." He finds the road's condition symbolic of the nature of this nation he traversed: At turns in the road, one finds, "This isn't one country, it's many countries."

Along this "Main Street, truck route, lifeline," he discovered a rich diversity instead of a stereotypical Middle America sameness.

"You can see it on a smaller scale in Maryland," he says. "There's a cosmopolitan sense to Annapolis, and just a real backwater, country flavor to Tilghman Island. The high-rises in Ocean City are just about seven miles from some very poor housing in Berlin."

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