Gavin Bell, The Daily Telegraph, June 21, 2013
The Lincoln Highway lays fair claim to being the embodiment of the American dream. The first transcontinental paved road from New York to San Francisco, it opened up new horizons across more than 3,000 miles of prairies, deserts and mountains for America’s love affair with the automobile. This year, enthusiasts are celebrating its centenary with tours beginning simultaneously at either end, and meeting at the midpoint in Kearney, Nebraska.
Arguably the most scenic stretch is in northern California, which is how my wife and I came to be driving a gleaming black Mustang convertible across the Golden Gate Bridge, top down and hair flying in the breeze, to the strains of Canned Heat crooning On the Road Again.
We didn’t have time to cross America, but the Lincoln Highway offered a historic introduction to a Californian road trip, taking in pristine alpine lakes, a valley of gods and a land of giants.
Now designated prosaically Interstate 80, it led us first to the vineyards of the Napa Valley, where Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon in 1880 and tasted 18 local champagnes in one sitting. “Wine,” he later observed, “is bottled poetry.”
We duly imbibed a few verses of a superb Beringer cabernet sauvignon and next day, from a hot-air balloon drifting over a dreamy landscape suffused in early morning mist, we surveyed the vineyard from whence it came.
Then we headed for the hills, or – to be more precise – the towering mountains of the Sierra Nevada, and a place the Washoe Indians called “Lake of the Sky”.
Lake Tahoe is among the highest, deepest and cleanest lakes in the world. When we arrived it was barely visible in the opaque gloom of an unseasonal snowfall, which made its reappearance the following morning all the more dramatic.
There was no sense of being more than 6,000ft above sea level, but nor was there anything to detract from a majestic sight of forested mountains sparkling white in the sunshine.
In 1861, Mark Twain went boating on the lake and marvelled at water so clear it seemed his boat was floating on air. Our plans to emulate him in kayaks were scuppered by stormy weather, so we went to Truckee instead.
The old logging and railroad town north of the lake takes its name from a Paiute Indian chief called Tru-ki-zo, who considered all people the children of a common ancestor, and therefore brothers. His philosophy still imbues the funky, friendly town named after him. The loggers are long gone and the wooden-fronted stores have been taken over by talented arts and crafts makers, and a saloon that promises free beer tomorrow.
The little railway station doubles as a tourist office, which is where we heard the mournful whistle of the Californian Zephyr. This is a glittering steel Amtrak train from San Francisco, bound for Denver and Chicago. Against a backdrop of buildings that featured in Chaplin’s film The Gold Rush, the double-decker train loomed out of the mist like a vision of the future, which in a sense it is.
Truckee was where we left the Lincoln Highway on its long journey east, and headed south then west out of the Sierra Nevada on Interstate 50. This took us from a wintry wilderness through forests of maple and aspen to Placerville, a town in the foothills originally known as Hangtown owing to its custom of stringing up alleged baddies in pairs from a tree.
We gave the Hangman’s Tree Bar on the site of the infamous tree a miss and headed into Gold Rush country on Highway 49, cruising agreeably through aw-gee-shucks towns with wooden clapboard storefronts where Jimmy Stewart should be the sheriff.
In one, Angels Camp, Twain bequeathed a fascination for jumping frogs by writing a story about one. As the annual Jumping Frog Jubilee had passed, we amused ourselves by browsing a boots and saddles store that had everything the modern cowboy could wish for.
Climbing back into the southern Sierra next day on Highway 120, we entered an extraordinary valley. My wife summed up the experience of driving through silent forests of pine, cedar and oak framed by gigantic granite mountains into Yosemite Valley. “These mountains are like gods,” she said. “It feels as though we’re driving into heaven.”
The Ahwahneechee Indians probably thought the same, until the first whites arrived with in 1851 and kicked them out. Images of some of them in traditional dress remain in a little museum in Yosemite village, ghosts of the past that still haunt the conscience of America.
The collection is supervised by Ben, a gentle giant with flowing black hair, a member of the Maidu tribe married to a Cherokee. Asked about the expulsions, he said: “It doesn’t do any good to dwell on that. The important thing is that Indian people are not dead: we are a viable people with a rich history and culture.”
They also bequeathed lyrical place names. One of the valley’s most striking features is Half Dome, an almost vertical slab of granite that rises 5,000ft. The Indians called it Tisseyak, meaning “woman turned to stone”.
Tens of thousands of people climb this monster every year, with the aid of steel cables over the final 400ft. Not all make it back. Kari Cobb, a ranger, explained: “This is a wilderness. It’s up to visitors to determine their levels of ability and comfort.”
My level of ability and comfort was the valley floor, on the grounds that I didn’t have to clamber up these giants to admire their grandeur. There are miles of walking trails through woods and meadows, and we headed for a lake the Indians called Ahwiyah, meaning quiet water.
It had dried up, but it lies in a forest at the foot of the “woman turned to stone”, which makes it a fine place to meditate on the wonders of nature.
Another lies a few miles south on Highway 41. Giant sequoia trees are the biggest living things on Earth, growing up to 300ft and for up to 3,000 years, and there is a forest full of them in the Mariposa Grove near Wawona. Among them stands the mightiest of all, the Grizzly Giant.
In the prime of life at about 1,800 years old, it is only just over 200ft high but has a circumference of 96ft. We sat reverently at the foot of this lord of the forest, gazing at its enormous muscular arms high above. When its leaves rustled it seemed alive, as if preparing to join forces with Gandalf against the enemies of Middle Earth.
Cruising down Route 140 towards the coast, we encountered a vision of old-time America. The Happy Burger in Mariposa is a classic diner, with green melamine booths, the owner’s LP album covers covering the ceiling and walls, and high school football T-shirts behind the bar. Happily ensconced in this time warp, we enjoyed scrumptious hash browns, and watched a Sixties two-tone Chevrolet cruise past on Main Street followed by a succession of easy riders in a cacophony of Harley-Davidsons.
Arguably the best account of the United States in the early Sixties was by John Steinbeck in his travelogue Travels with Charley. A centre devoted to his life and work in his hometown of Salinas has a wonderful exhibit – the green GMC camper van he christened Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s steed), in which he travelled around America with his French poodle Charles le Chien, aka Charley. Anyone familiar with the book will enjoy conjuring the lore of the open road in the restored van, and images of the writer scribbling notes at its little table.
Steinbeck would be appalled by the profusion of bars, stores and museums bearing his name in Cannery Row, Monterey, the scene of some of his best-loved novels.
“Cannery Row is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” he wrote. The smells and din of the sardine-canning factories are long gone, replaced by a restaurant and retail complex, and all that remains for devotees of his tales is nostalgia for the characters he dreamed up.
The oddest character we met on our way back to San Francisco was a unicorn on a skateboard. He was in conversation with a witch, but no one paid much attention because almost everyone else in Santa Cruz was in equally weird costumes.
It was Hallowe’en, and the university town had entered into the spirit of the occasion with a lively passeggiata on its main street. This meant its century-old boardwalk by the sea was virtually deserted, and we strolled past empty Ferris wheels, roller coasters and a vintage carousel enveloped in sea mist, recalling memories from childhood.
The romance of the open road had been fulfilled. But now we wonder what lies on the Lincoln Highway beyond Truckee.
When to go
Avoid late autumn and early winter when mountain roads can be blocked by snow.
Flying time and time difference
11 hours from Britain. GMT minus eight hours.
Vacations to America has a two-week fly/drive package to northern California from £1,895 per person, including flights, 13 nights’ accommodation and car hire (01582 469777; vacationstoamerica.com ).
Where to stay
Pre-booked accommodation on the package is mostly bed and breakfast in comfortable guesthouses.
Where to eat and drink
Salito’s Crab and Rib House at Sausalito ( salitoscrabhouse.com ) for lunch on the road from San Francisco to Napa, and the old Gold Rush town of Auburn for lunch en route to Lake Tahoe. The Wawona Hotel ( yosemitepark.com/wawona-hotel.aspx ), built in 1879, is a delightful place to stop for lunch before exploring the Mariposa Grove. Nepenthe Restaurant ( nepenthebigsur.com ), on Big Sur, south of Monterey on spectacular Route 1, is a family-run restaurant, café and shop on a clifftop.
For more about the history of the Lincoln Highway, and details of centennial commemoration events, go to lincolnhighwayassoc.org. For general tourism information on California, see visitcalifornia.co.uk .