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Francis Barry's 'Back Roads and Better Angels' details his Lincoln Highway trip

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

During the pandemic year of 2020, when so many people were stuck at home, Francis Barry got a little footloose. Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, and he persuaded his employer to support a cross-country trip. He and his wife bought a used Winnebago and drove from New York City to San Francisco. They followed a famous old route along back roads known collectively as the Lincoln Highway, and they did this during the 2020 election campaign. Now Barry has written a book called "Back Roads And Better Angels" about traveling in a divisive time.

FRANCIS BARRY: I wanted to go exploring what holds the country together and to try to help us see a little bit more of ourselves on the other side.

INSKEEP: That all sounds very high-minded, but did you really just want to go on a big road trip?

BARRY: (Laughter) Well, that was definitely part of it for sure. I hadn't driven cross-country since I was a little kid, when my parents packed us in the family Vanagon and off we went. So, yeah, the pull of the road was part of it for sure.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry. Did you use a word that I - the family Vanagon?

BARRY: Family Vanagon. We had an old pop-up camper.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. All right. I can picture it now. I can picture...

BARRY: Yep.

INSKEEP: ...It now. So you drove the Lincoln Highway, which is a thing that I had heard of but really didn't know anything about. What is the origin of this thing?

BARRY: The Lincoln Highway is the first road that connected the two coasts - New York to San Francisco. It was dedicated in 1913, at a time when there were very few roads in the country. And the concept was - a auto industry pioneer came up with it as a way to encourage people to drive more - as a way to encourage people to buy cars. But it was also a way to encourage people to see more of the country.

The original slogan was see America first. A lot of people on the East Coast would vacation in Europe before they would go traveling across the country because it was so difficult traveling across the country, because there were so few roads and cars were so primitive.

INSKEEP: I am thinking about what the origin story of this highway says about America, because the guy you mentioned, Carl Fisher, is like a giant promoter - right? - like a self-promoter, and he's promoting this highway that doesn't even exist.

BARRY: Completely. It's a gonzo idea, and it was half-baked, and it was a marketing gimmick. And it was really so - it was a little bit of P. T. Barnum. And as he said to a crowd in Indianapolis of auto industry executives as he was trying to persuade them to do it, let's build it while we're young enough to enjoy it. And so there was a lot of his spirit in the road. It never really happened. That was half of the beauty of it. He tried to convince local localities to build the road. They never really did. But the spirit behind it has always lived on.

INSKEEP: So it's not really a highway. It's a route.

BARRY: Yeah, it's not a highway at all. In fact, they drew a bunch of lines on the map and called it a highway. But it's essentially a series of routes between towns that they called the Lincoln Highway. Many of them were dirt roads. Many of them are still dirt roads, and we drove on them in the RV. But it was never a fully formed road, and its route has shifted many times over the years. And so the Lincoln Highway - as the U.S. Army said as it tried to cross it in 1919 - really exists more in the imagination than it does on paper.

INSKEEP: I'm sure glad that you brought up that 1919 episode because I didn't really know what the Lincoln Highway was, but I have a vague memory of hearing this story when I was a kid in school about Dwight Eisenhower in 1919. What did he do?

BARRY: Eisenhower joined a convoy when he was still a young lieutenant colonel in the Army, and it was just after World War I. And in World War I, the Army learned that they didn't really know very much about how to move trucks across the country. And so the threat of a future war in which they would need to do that led them to organize this convoy across the country, and that experience for Eisenhower was very formative.

It took them about two months to get across the country. They were pulling trucks through the mud. They lost a lot of vehicles. And Eisenhower would later credit that experience with helping to inspire the interstate system that he signed into law.

INSKEEP: So if I'm driving on I-65 in Indiana - I-74, whatever - in my home state, I can credit the Lincoln Highway in some indirect way for that experience.

BARRY: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: You said that some parts of it are still dirt. How did that Winnebago handle on the dirt roads?

BARRY: Really well. It may not have been the smartest thing because if we had broken down or gotten a flat tire, it wouldn't have been easy to get us out of there. But the roads - so even the dirt roads are well maintained - a lot of farm roads. And we cruised along slowly, rolling along at about 15 miles an hour, which was about the top speed for some of those early travelers 'cause the roads were so bad. At one point, a woman pulled alongside us and said, excuse me. Are you lost? And we said, no, we're just driving the Lincoln Highway.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Define lost.

BARRY: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: What's your advice for the person who's listening to you and saying, man, I wish I could do a road trip like that?

BARRY: Well, I - we were very fortunate to have the opportunity in COVID to do it. That was the big silver lining for us. But - and one of the big takeaways, of course, is the beauty of the country. And my advice to anyone would be, if you can do it, do it. And if you do it, do the back roads. Get off the interstates. The national parks are amazing, but there's a lot more to the country than the national parks. And so the more that people get on the back roads and take a more circuitous route and let the journey be the experience instead of focusing on the destination, the more rewarding it will be.

INSKEEP: I'm delighted to hear you say that. I'm thinking of a road trip that my family took that took us around parts of Wyoming a few years ago. And, of course, we stopped at Yellowstone, which is incredible, but basically, the whole rest of Wyoming is also amazing.

BARRY: Yes, absolutely. And that was a revelation for us. There's so much beauty out in the American West. And having not spent a lot of time there, it really is a jaw-dropping and an awe-inspiring experience.

INSKEEP: Does it ultimately change your perspective to get away from the media capitals - Washington, New York?

BARRY: It does, because one of the things we heard from people in both parties again and again was a sense of optimism, a sense of hope and a sense of the country's resilience. As I said, people felt very frustrated by the divisions, but there was also a belief that we would be able to overcome them. They weren't always able to articulate why, but it - mostly, it boiled down to their faith in the country and in the values that define it. And that was a very affirming thing to hear from people in both parties.

INSKEEP: Francis S. Barry is the author of "Back Roads And Better Angels: A Journey Into The Heart Of American Democracy." Thanks so much.

BARRY: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.