In the late 1940s and early 1950s, George R. Stewart traveled the “main street of America,” U. S. 40, from coast to coast several times: He had an idea for a book. Like most of his works, it would be completely unique, ushering in a new type of book – the popular “odological” or road book.
U.S. 40: Cross Section of the United States of America was published in 1953. He chose U. S. 40 since it connected the Atlantic with the Pacific, followed the most central route, and was built upon several historic and prehistoric trails.
It contains essays about the history and development of American roads, the sounds and smells of driving the highway (before air conditioning sealed cars’ windows closed and shut out the external aromas and anti-smoking laws banished the internal aromas of smoke), a final reflection on the future of highways (freeways were just being developed) and a photo essay of road signs and and text about the place names they carry. He divides the US into sections, east to west, often doing so by the former historic trails that took humans over that particular part of the geography; each has an introductory essay about that section.
Then Stewart gets to the meat of the work – a series of photographs of archetypal locations along the road, some of which contain road-related activities and people, carefully described in the most precise (yet poetic) manner on an accompanying page.
Thus, photo 26, “Tavern,” shows the historic Red Brick Tavern, built as a waterhole for the “pike-boys” who drove the wagons carrying freight along the National Road that preceded U.S. 40. Photo 50, “Two Species,” taken at a buffalo preserve just west of Denver, shows grazing buffalo and a few humans observing and photographing them. Photo 85, “Donner Pass,” taken from an elevation a good climb up a mountain just south of the Pass, shows the beautiful curving highway as it climbs from Donner Lake over the central Sierra Nevada, with the magnificent Rainbow Bridge and a prominent Sierra peak behind it. And so on, for the 92 photos that define the book.
(By the way, the peak behind the Rainbow Bridge at Donner Pass is now officially “George R. Stewart Peak.”)
With U. S. 40 George R. Stewart created a roadside interpretive guide to the United States of America. Travelers along the highway used and use it as such a guide. (I do.) My collection includes two first editions of U.S. 40 with travelers’ notes in them. When Wingards of Pasadena, California, for example, visited a place Stewart described, they penciled in the date on the page; so we know they drove through Kansas City on June 10, 1956, and crossed Colorado’s Berthoud and Rabbit Ears Passes on the 13th. And some unidentified driver typed and taped a small page on the frontispiece of their copy recording the year and model of their car (a 1941 Dodge Sedan, NY license plate) and listing each day’s mileage and the places they stopped that night.
The book doesn’t have the widespread fame of Stewart’s Earth Abides, but it has its own power and has created and inspired a network of creative people. Tom and Geraldine Vale wrote what is certainly the first “descendant” of a George R. Stewart work: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1533632.U_S_40_Today
Now considered a minor classic, the Vales’ book followed Stewart’s route, photographing and describing most of his sites 30 years after the original U. S. 40 was published.
William Least Heat Moon was partly inspired by the book to write the brilliant American masterpiece , Blue Highways: A Journey Into America. A few years later, working with road colleague Frank Brusca, he wrote an entire section about GRS and U. S. 40 in his work, Roads to Quoz, an American Mosey.
One more accolade to George R. Stewart and U.S. 40 deserves a mention here. Production is beginning on a documentary by Filmmaker Doug Nichol about Stewart and the road. As the project develops, I’ll be sending progress reports. In the meantime, if you want to see his well-regarded, highly rated, and darn-right-enjoyable work, here’s the link to a wonderful film he recently produced, California Typewriter.
In the meantime, Frank Brusca is carrying the U.S. 40 torch onward. For decades, he’s been working to create a work of literature, geography, and photographic that would carry Stewart’s book into the 21st century and the current world of the web. Now, I can announce that he is premiering the work. On the “Return to Route 40” website, Frank carries the site’s followers from east to west along U. S. 40, with maps and current photographs of most of Stewart’s sites. He adds a description of each site as seen and photographed by Stewart and by the Vales, and includes his own contemporary comments. It’s really a brilliant site and I highly recommend it to all lovers of things Stewartian, and all lovers of roads – especially the classic blue highways like U. S. 40. There is very reasonable fee to join his site’s premiere section – well worth it – but also a free section. So you can get a good idea of his masterwork even without paying the $2.50 a month fee. In fact, you can even preview the first post on the paid site for free (There is an error on the page. Ignore the “this plan cannot be found” and scroll down to see the links to the free website or the paid site.)
Frank’s Return to Route 40 is a work that honors the work of his predecessors, like William Least Heat Moon, Tom and Geraldine Vale, and, of course, George R. Stewart. If you are an odologist – one who follows the Blue Highways – an armchair traveler, or simply one who, like old Chaucer’s folke —
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
— longen to goon on a pilgrimage, Frank’s website is a good place to begin.
Return to Route 40 Image courtesy Frank Brusca