Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Mother Road

Happy motoring on the old Lincoln Highway

It rides 3,000 miles from the footlights of Times Square to the grandeur of the Golden Gate. This is the Mother Road, the first cross-country two-lane, and named for the Rail Splitter himself.

We’re on the Lincoln Highway, looking for mementos from America’s original car culture. It’s on the Lincoln where diners learned to sling hash. Motor courts grew up to become motels. Hotels took on the shapes of cruise ships. There’s a two-story shoe house. A restaurant built like a castle, “serving kings and queens.” And our first surprise: The Land of Little Horses.

Just west of Gettysburg dozens of mini-mares and waist-high stallions (not ponies!) prance and perform on a daily basis. They share a pristine farm with miniature mules, peacocks and even a single-humped dromedary. We coo at the camel and feed the little dobbins crunchies from the horsy gift shop.

A few miles past the micro-ranch a life-size baby-blue elephant poses outside Mr. Ed’s Elephant Museum and Candy Center. The aroma of roasting peanuts wafts over us as we explore a ramshackle candy land with thousands of elephant gewgaws. First, candy necklaces, molasses paddles and a zillion jawbreakers, each quite capable of doing the job. Then elephant bookends, banks, candleholders, and lookee here: pachyderm potty chairs!

With root beer barrels in our cheeks and a Jumbo table lamp in the ragtop’s trunk, we blow past Chambersburg, out where peach trees and fresh cherries replace strip malls by the bushel. Dairy farms reach for the Tuscarora Ridge, where we climb nigh on to 2,900 feet. This was the original trace for Conestoga wagons rolling westward-ho. Today we turn ridge-top hairpins and peel eyes for the signs with a big blue “L” that keep us on the Lincoln road.

For the most part, the Lincoln Highway is U.S. Route 30. But Route 30 isn’t always the Lincoln. We take the “business route” whenever the option knocks. It’s the old road, usually the main street for beautiful little burgs still alive with dress shops and drug stores, newsies and cafes.

The town of Bedford’s a perfect example, and a perfect place to explore the Lincoln’s living memory. We can’t believe our eyes when we spot the original Coffee Pot on the edge of town. Just past a dreamy art deco filling station, The Coffee Pot’s a two-story percolator that once fueled pioneering road trippers with caffeine and comfort food. Newly restored to its kitschy majesty, it has a dignified pedestal at the county fairgrounds.

In Bedford the Lincoln is a main drag lined with cheery shops and a vintage movie theater that takes us back a bit. We stroll into LIFeSTYLE, a former cigar shop with its dark mahogany shelves now full of rustic handmade pastas, olive oils, and colorful pottery. It’s all from Italy, including Stefano Ferrari, imported by his wife Sarah, a local girl who knows her way around rigatoni. They help us pick out some creamy pesto and we put on a couple pounds just thinking of supper.

A few miles later we check into the Lincoln Motor Court, one of the last of the 1940’s cottage collections to welcome happy motorists at the end of day. We’re in Number 6, with a firm queen bed, a small living area, a TV nook with a fridge, microwave and coffee pot. The bath has pink and black tiles that recall the best of times.

Debbie and Bob Altizer run the joint, and their labor of love keeps the knotty pine paneling tip-top. Color TVs arrived just a few years back. “I think there's something nostalgic about black and white,” Debbie says. “But people don't think like that anymore. Now they even want remotes." We flip ours off and enjoy a nostalgic nightcap in a little manicured grotto behind old #6.

Morning has us back in the saddle. Up the road apiece we see a sign for the Flight 93 memorial. In the middle of a rolling green meadow a spontaneous collection of flags and flowers, badges and banners pays tribute to the hijacked passengers who gave their lives on September 11, 2001. Bob Musser lives a mile from the crash site and he and his wife volunteer here just about every day. “We greet a lot of people who come to pay their respects,” Bob says. “This here’s hallowed ground.”

Not far away is another story of inspiration with a much happier ending. It’s the site of the 2002 Quecreek Mine rescue, where nine trapped coal miners were brought out of the darkness alive and well. We peer down the tiny rescue shaft, now the center of a pretty little garden that celebrates the miners’ miracle.

We have a lot to ponder on the way to Ligonier, an old fort town with its feet firmly planted in the French and Indian War and its mind set on happy visitors. An effervescent Patty Campbell greets us at her Campbell House B&B. If you don’t feel welcome here it’s your own fault. She must be curator of the largest collection of Campbell’s Soup bric-a-brac west of Camden. She gives us a room with the Campbell’s Kids hanging over our bed and discount cards for two of the town’s better eateries. Then she sends us off for one wild pint of beer.

Joe’s Bar doesn’t look like much. A brick front with a red neon “JOES” gives nary a hint of the big game menagerie inside. We order pints of lager, wander into the back room and nearly drop our suds when we see the polar bear. And the huge horned ram. And the two-story giraffe. And by gosh, there’s a great elephant’s head looming over the taproom.

Spiral stairs lead us to more taxidermy trophies: scores of beasts that met their fate tangling with Joe Snyder of Ligonier. A bar-side local tells us Joe had no room for his stuffed animals at home, so he brought ‘em down the bar to keep everybody company.

We’ve not seen anything like it, nor expect to ever again. But one never knows what’s around the next turn of the old Lincoln Highway. Heck, the largest paperweight collection in Pennsylvania is a stone’s throw away. Not to mention a museum devoted to the Big Mac, invented for better or worse right here on the Mother Road.

Until then, it’s seared scallops and pad Thai noodles at Ivy’s Café, and home fries to beat the band at Ruthie’s Diner in the morning. As we head for what’s next along the Lincoln, we’ll look for you along the bends and back roads.

Get an illustrated map of our adventure along The Mother Road, complete with photos and other goodies, when you cruise over to

The Land of Little Horses
These little Falabella Miniature Horses (not ponies!) dance, prance and perform. The farm is a beautiful stop along the way.
125 Glennwood Drive, a couple miles south of Rt. 30 and just west of Gettysburg. 717.334.7259. See for yourself at

Mr. Ed’s Elephant Museum
We hear there are 6000 elephant trinkets in Mr. Ed’s museum. We’re too busy stuffing our faces with fudge and peanut brittle to take a complete count. 6019 Chambersburg Road just west of Chambersburg.

The Coffee Pot
One of the landmarks of the Lincoln Highway heyday. Restored and resplendent at the Bedford Fairgrounds on the west side of Bedfore.

The Lincoln Motor Court
Why stay in a sterile chain motel when you can book a cottage at this little treasure? See what they meant by, “Happy motoring!” 5104 Lincoln Highway, Manns Choice PA. (Just west of Bedford.) Call Debbie for a reservation at 814.733.2891.

Old-world pasta, hand-made pottery, Italian coffee and chocolates. And fabulous tins of tuna in virgin olive oil. Ask about the family-style dinners at Stefano and Sarah’s communal table. Right in the heart of the main drag, Pitt Street ("business route 30") in Bedford.

The Igloo Soft Freeze
It’s an ice-cream stand in the shape of an ice-cream sundae. (We love the root-beer float.) Very Lincoln Highway! 42 E. Main St. (Business Route 30) in Everett. 814.652.2442

Flight 93 Memorial/Quecreek Mine Rescue
The 9/11 crash site is one big lump in the throat. Not far away is the rescue shaft that brought 9 trapped miners back to their families. Both places tell tales of triumphant human spirit.

Joe’s Bar
Lions, tigers and bears! A few stools are made of elephant’s feet and we drink beer out of jars. Look out for the stuffed jackalope. Maybe the best bar ever. 202 W. Main St, Ligonier.

Ivy’s Café
Local boy marries Manhattan girl. Together they make beautiful kitchen music. We love the blue cheese and walnut wantons. Great wine list with good prices, too. 201 E. Main St, Ligonier. 724.995.1050.

Ok, now it's your turn. Let us know what you find out there with an email to

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