Learning history, math, selling and more while traveling across I-80 in Dad’s truck
By Doug Donnelly
He may have been Honest Abe, but Abraham Lincoln got me into some hot water when I was in the first grade.
I was only 6, but I was a veteran of the road. I had been across America and back several times, all from my seat perched high above the passenger-side wheel of a cabover Peterbilt.
Watching mile markers and computing how many miles remained on Interstate 80 to get across Nebraska was math. Learning to spell towns like W-i-n-n-e-m-u-c-c-a, Nev., was spelling. And, when my father steered the truck into the Visitor Center at Exit 323 in Wyoming — the site of the Lincoln statue — that was social studies and geography all in one.
I wasn’t exactly raised in the cab of a truck, or born there, but I was pretty good at riding along. I was also good at telling stories when I got back. That’s how Abraham Lincoln and the statue just off the Interstate between Cheyenne and Laramie caused a dispute with my first grade teacher, Mrs. Armstrong.
During show and tell, I always chose “tell.” More times than not, my tale would be about something from the highway and a trip with my father. I was always fascinated with I-80, how you could get on one road, follow the signs, and go all the way to the West Coast. I could read a map and follow our trip with the greatest of ease. Get to the mountains near Salt Lake City and not sure whether you veer left or veer right? Just stay on I-80 and you’ll get there, I memorized. There was no GPS in the cab in those days.
One day during show-and-tell, I decided to talk about the Lincoln statue. My teacher never heard of such a monument and said I must be mistaken or, at minimum, exaggerating. I insisted. She persisted. My mom was called.
Mrs. Armstrong didn’t have the Internet in 1977 to check my story. It’s probably a good thing, too, because that way she couldn’t confirm or dispel some of my other stories. When it came to Lincoln, however, my mom backed me up. And we promised on the next trip west to come back with a photograph of the statue. The picture showed an overconfident me, pointing to the sky and the large Lincoln monument, fitting since I-80 generally follows what was once the Lincoln Highway. I was right and I proved it.
Every state has a story
That schoolroom recollection of the Lincoln statue hit around the time I turned 40 and realized it was 25 years since I used to take those trips with my Dad. I was the luckiest kid in the world, visiting state after state.
After I started school, my trips were reduced to spring break and summer vacation, but each time was a thrill that left me longing for more.
And there was always a story. Like the time in Peru, Ill., that I broke an ashtray while being stubborn and throwing a fit at a roadside eatery. Dad took me out to the parking lot to let me know the consequences of acting out in public. Sitting in the truck wasn’t -quite so comfortable after our talk.
I have a special story attached to each one of the states across I-80.
The Salt Flats in Utah were a mystery that I never figured out, but dad once let me drive the 18-wheeler there, though I didn’t have my license yet. I loved that, in a few spots back then, I-80 would go right through the heart of Nevada. Dad always seemed to have the truck washed and polished so that when we stopped at the red lights in a tiny Nevada town, everyone would notice the shine of the truck. I’d wave from my seat, trying not to break a smile.
As we reached Donner Mountain to cross into California, I would get slightly anxious every time we passed the runaway truck lanes because I could smell the brakes on our trailer. I would just as soon keep on trucking as we drove past the rest area at Donner Summit where I stubbed my toe so bad it bled for hours. Does anyone else remember the big billboard that showed former Oakland Raider Jim Otto saying he was the host at a restaurant somewhere near Sacramento? We never stopped there, but I always secretly hoped one day we would and I could get his autograph.
In California I loved the magic of how I-80 widened to five lanes, with cars in every direction and overpasses that were two or three levels high. I-80 ends at Highway 101 and that’s when I knew the magic was over. After that, we’d turn from one road to another, highways, freeways and Interstates, in search of the exact destination to drop the truck’s load.
And I wonder
I wish I would have known when I got into the truck for my final West Coast swing that it was my last trip down that road. I might have made an effort to keep the tradition going. But driver’s licenses, jobs, school sports and hanging out with friends seemed more important than traveling with my dad when I was a teenager.
I wonder what it would be like, today, to go west with my own kids. Does the imposing cowboy still greet I-80 travelers near the Nevada state line? Is Boomtown still in operation a few miles up the road? Would it still seem like an eternity to travel the 450-plus miles across Nebraska? I wonder if the Green River tunnel in Wyoming still has lights that seemed to glow green every time I would go through it. I wonder if I would still cringe if I saw the sign that tells me how many miles it is to Peru.
Getting to know I-80
- First transcontinental Interstate highway to be completed, with the final stretch dedicated on August 22, 1986
- Traverses 11 states
- America’s second longest-Interstate, at 2,899.54 miles long
- During the construction of I-80’s bridge over the Mississippi River, three workers died
- Passes through 22 cities with populations above 50,000
- Highest point: Sherman Hill Summit in Laramie, Wyo. Elevation: 8,640 ft. Home to a three-ton, 42.5-foot tall statue of Abraham Lincoln
- Miles of turnpikes on I-80: 363.5 miles
- Final resting place of the Donner Party: In 1849, 87 travelers got stuck in a blizzard at Hasting’s Cutoff in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a segment of I-80 that today is closed during heavy snowstorms.