A Smooth Way:The National Road


National Geographic Magazine, November 1999

“Does the horse pull the cart or does the horse push the cart?” 

Holding the reins of his home-built covered wagon, Elam Bender turned to me and smiled as he repeated his question. 

I stared back, half considering the problem and half engrossed in his coonskin cap. I’d seen coonskin caps before, mind you. I had just never seen one with the coon’s head still attached.  

“Absolutely, without a doubt,” I guessed, “the horse is pulling the cart.”  

Bender turned his gaze back to the road. His 14-year-old horse Queen clipclopped along the highway pavement, the top of her head bobbing in and out of view. Ahead of us was the lead wagon; behind us, some 20 more, all participating in a reenactment of the westering caravans that rumbled over this length of the National Road in Maryland during the early 1800s.  The wagon’s wheels crept uncomfortably close to the edge of the road. 

“You’re wrong.” Bender finally said. “Old Queen up there is pushing against the harness with her shoulders. So as far as the horse is concerned, she’s pushing the wagon.”  

At the moment, Queen was pushing us up a pretty steep hill near Keyser’s Ridge.  It was already noon, yet the air was still cottony with fog. I watched Bender’s hands at the reins, the hands of a retired dairy farmer and retired Presbyterian minister, dark-lined from decades of farm work and God’s work and all that overlapped. Now, after 20 years participating in this annual pilgrimage, Bender seemed to know every twist and turn in the road. He pointed out each spot where the National Road’s original path veered to the right or left of the modern highway that has replaced it. Queen turned her head longingly toward these byways, particularly when cars and tractor trailers rudely overtook us with a muffled woomph.  

“The trucks get a little scary,” observed Bender. “But I guess they’re the reason the highway was put here in the first place.”  

The highway is U.S. Route 40. Since the 1920s, that’s been the official name the old National Road has borne for most of its 591-mile length through Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The National Road was the first federal interstate, constructed in fits and starts from 1811 to 1838 with the goal of linking the great port of Baltimore with the wide Mississippi. Originally called The Cumberland Road, it’s also been known as the Great Western Road, the National Pike, the National Trail, the Old Trail. The road commonly became Main Street as it passed through a town; some romantics even got to calling it the Main Street of America.  

The route has been repaved and straightened countless times, but motorists still roll over stone bridges built by hand 175 years ago, past centuries-old inns where wagon and stage coach drivers once shook trail dust from their boots. West from Maryland, original mile markers still count down the distances to Wheeling, Columbus, and some towns that no longer exist. And just a few feet beneath U.S. 40s pavement lie layers of rocks, each fragment hand-hammered to precise specifications under hot summer suns when the nation was young. Rocks of ages. They have absorbed the shock of ox carts and eighteen wheelers.   

I had set out on the road as the leaves began to turn, in a white rental car. It would have been nice to find an old Studebaker--made by the same company that once built Conestoga wagons--but the sedan would prove to be a trusty steed as I frequently urged it off the pavement to explore overgrown, abandoned stretches of the old road.   As one who has spent most of his adult life in cities--where roads are streets, and the best way to tell if you’ve passed from one town to another is by the emblems on the police cruisers--I thought I knew exactly what Small Town America should be like. There would be a gazebo in the park. The entire town’s spirit would hinge on the fortunes of its high school basketball team. When I strolled into Pop’s General Store, the old boys playing checkers would suddenly fall silent and stare at me.   

Well, at various points between Baltimore and St. Louis, my expectations were alternately met and dashed, although I never did find Pop’s, and even if I had I now suspect the old boys would have been reading the Wall Street Journal. But I found something else, even in the most downtrodden villages: an unspoken contentment, a quiet confidence that this is the place to be, and the time to be here.    

The National Road begins in Cumberland, Maryland. The city marks the western end of an old toll road from Baltimore and of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which parallels the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Today I-68 swoops down from the hills, skims on pylons over Cumberland’s rooftops and takes off again, like a barnstorming jet. Between descent and ascent, there’s barely time to admire Cumberland’s turn-of-the-century church spires and stone towers, made all the more impressive by their location on a hill at the heart of downtown.   

I drove around town looking for some sort of monument marking the National Road’s zero mile point, but found none. Cumberland, a once-flourishing industrial town which is still reeling from the loss of a tire factory and a fiber plant in the 1980s, seems more interested in promoting a scenic railway. Some 35,000 tourists a year come to the city to ride the old Cumberland and Pennsylvania Railroad tracks westward into the mountains, following a rail route that ultimately helped push the Old Pike to the edge of insignificance.  

As with so many major human accomplishments, the National Road had its roots in someone’s desire to make some money. That someone was a young land speculator named George Washington. In 1752 his Ohio Company of Virginia hired a Delaware Indian named Nemacolin to blaze a path to its holdings near what is now Brownsville, Pennsylvania. A year later, as a Colonial Army major, Washington rode that same trail to demand that French commanders pull their troops from Pennsylvania--a request that was not only rebuffed, but touched off the French and Indian War. Along the trail in subsequent years, Washington built, then surrendered, Fort Necessity and helped command a force that widened the route. When British General Edward Braddock was ambushed and killed by French and Indian forces in 1855, Washington directed that the general be buried right on the trail, in order that the retreating army might obliterate all traces of its leader’s grave.  

After the Revolution, Washington worried about the fate of the young country’s western territories, which were still wedged between conflicting European powers. He feared the residents might align themselves commercially and politically with “the Spaniards on their right or Great Britain on their left.”  

The solution, he declared, was a road that would “open wide a door, and make a smooth way for the produce of that country to pass to our markets before the trade may get into another channel.” 

The dream of a national road was born. 

After Thomas Jefferson endorsed the project in 1806, there followed a spirited congressional debate over whether or not the Federal government had any right to go around building roads between states. Arguing passionately in favor of the road was Senator John Calhoun. In words that could have initiated a Moon race 150 years later, Calhoun declared, “Let us conquer space!” The ultimate consensus deemed interstate highways constitutional. But no federal tolls could be collected. The National Road would be funded with the proceeds from public land sales.  

There was no easy route across the mountains. The Appalachians form a considerable barrier all the way from Georgia to Maine. But it didn’t take long for planners to agree that the best route stretched generally west from Baltimore, following that trail first blazed by Nemacolin, aiming for the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia.    

West of Cumberland they call the territories the Mountain Side of Maryland. Building a road here in the early 19th Century wasn’t easy. It’s not difficult to picture teams of laborers then pushing through the forest; the first group blazing a trail, the next felling the trees, yet another digging a the roadbed. Workers--often moonlighting farmers--sat at the roadside, hammers in hand, breaking native rocks to Congressionally prescribed specifications. The same legislative body that would one day give the nation four- and six-lane interstate highways, costing as much as $100 million a mile, in 1806 authorized all of $6,000 a mile for construction of a 20-foot-wide road within a 60-foot right-of-way, with no slope steeper than five degrees.  

The cost estimates did not include bridges, and there would be many along the road’s early miles. Perhaps the prettiest extant is the Casselman River bridge in Addison, Pennsylvania, which arches over that stream like a 50-foot-high Cathedral rib. A few miles farther is the road’s longest bridge--60 feet beneath the surface of the Youghiogheny reservoir. A dam built in the 1950s inundated the three-span Great Crossings bridge and washed the town of Somerfield off the map.   

Up Chestnut Ridge from Great Crossings I found Don and Eunice Shoemaker. They didn’t expect to stay long when they took over as managers of the Summit Inn in 1958. The Road practically passed through the parking lot of the sprawling hotel, 1,500 feet up at the western rampart of the Appalachians.   

The Inn has a glorious history. It is a resort in the grand old tradition, with a sweeping covered verandah and a 30-foot stone fireplace in its cavernous lobby. Built in 1908 as a retreat for the wealthy coal barons of nearby Uniontown, the Summit rode the automobile craze of the early 20th Century in a big way. Signing the Summit guest book with a flourish were such visitors as Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. They and other auto tycoons tested the mountainworthiness of their newfangled contraptions against the perils of the National Road, which a few yards west of the Summit dropped off the Appalachians at a 9 percent grade--a rare violation of the Congressional mandate.  

“That swimming pool out there was built in 1929--it’s the first one ever made by U.S. Steel,” said Shoemaker. “Sometimes they put an alligator in there. They had a bubble dancer in the club downstairs, and in the winter they had a burro-powered ski lift.”  

Eating breakfast with the Shoemakers in the Summit’s spacious dining is a lot like meeting up with your grandparents at the spa where they honeymooned. She’s up and down, getting coffee and moving chairs. He’s more or less stationary, occasionally left out of the conversation due to failing hearing. Their devotion to each other transcends 40 years of marriage. They bought the hotel in 1963, and are partners in every way.  With its shag rugs and decades-old room furnishings, no one would confuse the Summit with the Greenbrier--nor with Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a spiffy all-season hotel built by lumber magnate Joe Hardy just a few miles east on the road. But Don and Eunice keep sets of checkers in their lobby, hold Bingo every week, and each afternoon serve lemonade and tea on the verandah.  

My feet were propped on the white-painted railing at the Summit porch west end. The rosy sun, low on the horizon, argued for bragging rights with the reds and oranges of early fall. Then the lights of Uniontown, a quarter mile below, flickered on. Eighty years ago, glowing coke ovens would have dotted the landscape.   

I was sitting atop the last mountain on the National Road. Beyond this point spread the rolling hills and flatlands of America’s Midwest. I could imagine those road builders, after two years of battling gravity in the Appalachians, viewing this same landscape with a sigh of relief--then bracing for their plunge into that forest.    

The Amy C out of Tampa, Florida, was passing beneath my feet, heading south on the Ohio River. The barge was pushing nine huge bins, lashed together with cables, six of them filled to their rims with coal. Behind the wheelhouse glass, the pilot glanced up and returned my wave as he disappeared under the 137-year-old Wheeling suspension bridge--once the world’s longest--which carries the National Road toward Ohio. 

Wheeling marked the road’s end until July 4, 1825, when construction resumed to the west. Jubilant local folks turned out at the St. Clairsville, Ohio, courthouse to listen to speeches and watch the first spade of dirt turned.  

As the road rose from the Ohio River valley, I could see its stages of history laid out side-by-side-by-side. To the north sits the original roadbed, alternately concrete, brick, and gravel pushed up by grass, overhung by unruly trees. To the south roars I-70, four lanes of interstate highway that, with the pedal to the floor and a wallop of caffeine, will get a motorist from Pittsburgh to Utah in a couple of days. And in between lies U.S. 40, two lanes of blacktop that eases you between towns, then joins the old route as it passes through alternately picturesque and shabby business districts. The most dismal ones pass namelessly. The more vibrant ones all seem to have a personal claim to fame: Cambridge (site of the honorary Hopalong Cassidy Sidewalk), New Concord (childhood home of John Glenn, the astronaut and senator), Zanesville (birthplace of Zane Grey, author of western novels that glorified the pioneers whose Conestoga wagons rolled through his hometown).  

The original road groans back to life on its own in the less fortunate settlements that have been bypassed by 40, which veers abruptly around them like a motorist trying to avoid a pothole. 

Whether the intention was to preserve the tiny towns or simply speed the flow of traffic, the strategy of rerouting Route 40 often amounted to a municipal death sentence.  

One such bypassed town, Gratiot, Ohio, is hoping to find salvation as a suburb of Columbus, 38 miles west. “I’m a native Gratiotian,” declared Marty Swinehart, stumbling just a bit over the correct pronunciation of the term. Some locals pronounce the place Gra-de-ot; others say Gray-shot. All would probably agree 

it was not the best place for Swinehart to open his own restaurant/convenience store/video rental shop. As I sat at one of the four tables at his Brickhill Foods, he showed me some turn-of-the-century photos of his hometown. It hasn’t changed much, except now the commercial buildings are empty and some of the homes appear unoccupied, too. The through traffic barrels by on I-70, a quarter-mile away, and a Brickhill sign on the Route 40 bypass hasn’t coaxed all that many visitors through the door of Swinehart’s shop.  

“But I was a kid here in the 60s, when we had two gas stations,” recalled Swinehart. There’s one now, its pumps standing at the roadside, circa 1920s. “I studied agronomy at Ohio State for four years, but I just wanted to come back here.”  

People left Gratiot for the city, now the city is coming to Gratiot. These days, increasing numbers of people from Columbus are discovering it and other formerly overlooked burgs along the road. They buy underpriced old homes and fix them up, or build pricey new digs. It’s happening in Gratiot, but maybe not fast enough to save Swinehart.  

“I’m not going to give up until I absolutely have to,” he said with a smile that was half hope, half resignation. Next to my table, the menu board read, “This is the day which the Lord has made. Let us rejoice in it and be glad.”    

It is past Columbus, they say, that the Midwest truly begins. One thing is for sure: Beyond it the National Road begins to ignore the contours of nature and makes a beeline toward Indianapolis. At this point, the Congress was getting impatient with the cost of building the road. In the best Federal tradition, the road was running way over budget. Surveyors were ordered to plot a route as straight (and cheap) as possible. Even today, their dedication to the task is admirable. If not for a slight pull to the right on the front wheels of my car, I could have pointed straight ahead, closed my eyes, and let the cruise control take me to Indianapolis.   

Of course, that would have meant missing West Jefferson, Ohio, home to the Western Hemisphere’s one and only Krazy Glue distribution center (Division of Toagosei America, Inc.); South Vienna, where the corn ears painted in the middle of the road commemorate the annual Corn Festival; and the Enon Mound, a 40-foot high, 574-foot-circumference Indian creation typical of the mounds that pop up all over southern Ohio. Early settlers refused even to consider the mounds to be the work of Native Americans. Caleb Atwater, an Ohio postmaster, declared in the 1800s that the mounds had been created by Middle Eastern shepherds who arrived here shortly after Noah’s flood.  

I stopped in Phoneton, founded in 1893 by AT&T at the junction of three major phone and telegraph lines, to find a telephone. Naturally, there was no public phone in Phoneton. But there were ostriches. Two of them. Staring at me bug-eyed just as I was accelerating to head out of town.   

“They’re named John and Martha,” said Jim Callahan, “and they’ll kick the tar out of ya.”  Callahan and his wife Letha have been raising ostriches--and their flightless cousins, emu and rhea--practically on the shoulder of the National Road since 1962. 

“Used to sell them for meat and leather for boots and jackets,” Callahan said, pouring some pellets for John and Martha’s dinner. His dog Jake followed close behind, seemingly intent on keeping Callahan between himself and the birds. “A few years ago, I could get $10,000 for a year-old bird. Now it’s more like $400.”  Blithely unaware of the whims of market demands, Martha was this month laying an egg every two days. In a shed, Callahan showed me an incubator with four eggs in various stages of gestation. 

“Now, Letha, she’s scared to death of the ostriches. They’ve got this big claw on ‘em. But let me show you what she does with the eggs...”  

He led me into their modest house, through the screen porch to the living room. I stood in a folk Faberge museum. Everywhere were ostrich eggs. Carved ostrich eggs. Decorated ostrich eggs. Hollowed out ostrich eggs with dioramas lovingly placed inside them. A carousel topped with a half-ostrich egg canopy. On one shelf, an ostrich egg figurine held an ostrich egg parasol and wore an ostrich egg hooped skirt, all decorated with pink beads.  

I just knew that three miles away from here these things would fetch a pretty penny at the Wal-Mart along I-70. But Letha wouldn’t dream of it. “If I sold them, it would be labor,” she said, straightening the parasol shell. “So I’m not interested in that.”    

Western Ohio rolled past under my wheels. This farm country. The land is sealike in its lightly swelling flatness, the sky arching over wide horizons. Massive barns rose darkly, like islands, skirted by bright gabled farmhouses. Fence posts and mile markers whizzed by, the only real indicators of speed as my eyes focused on distant stands of beech and maple. I was surprised to see tobacco barns, with their telltale slatted sides, among the scatterings of farm buildings. Then I remembered that the term “stogie” comes from the National Road’s Conestoga wagon drivers, who favored cigars rolled from Ohio tobacco.   

Richmond, Indiana, puts a temporary stop to the farm idyll. This is a town that has something to prove. You sense it from the tourist flyers at the brand-new Richmond/Wayne County visitor’s bureau, just across the state line. The town has not one, but four historic districts reflecting its history as a trading outpost, a railroad depot, and a manufacturing center. One of the Midwest’s best preserved Victorian neighborhoods draws nationwide admirers who stroll along Richmond’s gaslit sidewalks, peering past the wrought-iron fences at imposing homes with gingerbread wood trim.  

But a few blocks away in Richmond’s business district, something is wrong. The road used to run right through here, now it’s been closed off as a pedestrian mall. It was the middle of a weekday, yet the street was empty. Half the stores seemed vacant. I was oddly depressed, doubly so because the mall was peppered with icons of commercial optimism: fountains, flagpoles, nicely laid brick. 

Then I saw, at the west end of the pedestrian mall, a brick wall with the words: “In Memory of the 41 Persons who Lost their Lives in the Tragic Downtown Explosion April 6, 1968.”  I walked a few hundred yards over to the Romanesque Wayne County Courthouse, past the 10 Commandments carved into a low monument, in search of someone who could tell me what happened that day. I found the county clerk, Jo Ellen Trimble. She knew all about it. Her husband was one of the 41.   

“Jim was an attorney,” said Trimble, a woman with sparkling eyes that outshone her violet jogging suit. “It was Saturday, the week before Easter. A gas main ruptured, and there was a huge explosion. And then there was another explosion--it touched off a supply of gunpowder in the basement of a sporting goods store.”  Two city blocks of Richmond vanished.   

“I’d been out of town that day, and when I first heard about it, I wasn’t worried about Jim,” she said. We had left the courthouse and were walking past the blast site. It is occupied now by a department store. “It was a Saturday, and Jim didn’t usually work on Saturdays. But that Saturday...”   

A cold wind was picking up. Trimble pulled the collar of her jacket close around her neck. It occurred to me that for 26 years, she’d been walking past this spot. So had scores others who lost husbands, wives, children in a moment of explosive violence.  You might not remember the Richmond explosion of April 6, 1968. I had not, even though it should count as one of the great American tragedies of the 1960s. The night before, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Riots erupted nationwide, leaving hundreds dead. That dark weekend, Richmond was just another American city in flames. At the library, I flipped through news photographs of Richmond residents, black and white, running into collapsing buildings to save each other’s loved ones. A multiracial group of volunteers determinedly held a fire hose. In one account, Lucy Robinson, a black mother of eight who was out of town that day, tried to call Richmond and, when she couldn’t get through ,was told by a telephone operator there was probably a riot going on there.   

“You may know telephone work,” Robinson told the operator, “but you don’t know Richmond, Indiana.”     

I was well into the Indianapolis suburbs when I encountered the home of James Whitcomb Riley, Indiana’s most famous poet. Now, James Whitcomb Riley may not mean much to a lot of folks today, but he was something of a sensation in his time. He made a fortune traveling the country and the world reciting homey dialect poems that captured the fancy of turn-of-the-century audiences, works like “The Old Swimmin’ Hole” and “Little Orfant Annie.” Among the poems Riley committed was a recollection of the National Road passing his window, with its “snowy caravans, in long parade / Of covered vehicles, of every grade / From ox-cart of most primitive design / To Conestoga wagons, with their fine / Deep-chested six-horse teams...” 

The women conducting tours of the Riley home attacked the task with the zeal of guides at Shakespeare’s birthplace.  

As he wrote those words 100 years ago, Riley was waxing nostalgic for the then-distant days—the days before railroads—when the National Road had been important. Little did he know that, right next door in Indianapolis, a bunch of inventors with greasy hands were about to breathe new life into the old road. 

It seems fitting that just a mile or so north of the National Road lies the most famous automobile race track in the world. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built right about the time the road was awakening to its motor age rebirth.  

“In those days, Detroit was not yet Detroit,” said Donald Davidson, historian of the United States Automobile Club, which has its headquarters across the street from the track. 

“The Chevrolet brothers lived here in Indianapolis. Stutz was an Indy firm. The old Deusenberg factory still stands at the corner of Washington and Hardy. They needed to know what cars could do. They needed a test track, to get out there and drive cars to the max.”  

The first Indianapolis 500 was held in 1911, the same year Carl Graham Fisher, an Indianapolis tycoon, publicly called for construction of a “hard rock” highway from New York to San Francisco. His dream, the Lincoln Highway, was never completed, but if you take Interstate 80 coast-to-coast, you’ll pretty much follow the route Graham had in mind.   

While the newfangled autos were roaring around Indy’s brick track, in the real world horses still dominated the roads. Farmers complained that their horses were terrified by the smoke-belching, backfiring tin lizzies. But I’ll bet more than a few were secretly scratching their chins, wondering if there might be some way to yoke up plows to those horseless-carriage things.  

Just a few miles west of Indianapolis, I thought I was driving past corn farms gone bust. As far as I could see, the fields were sloppy landscapes of broken stalks surrounded by dead weeds. As usual, it took a patient local person--a fellow at a gas station near Brazil (birthplace of Jimmy Hoffa) to set me straight.   

“We call that no-till farming,” he said, talking real slow in the apparent hope that I might just comprehend. “Don’t have to plow after the harvest. Just plant the seeds underneath the stalks, and spray for weeds during the growing season.”  I asked if all that spraying causes any problems, such as chemical runoff contaminating streams  “Nooooo,” he said, speaking ever slower. “We’re real careful.”    

Teutopolis, Illinois, introduces itself with an exclamation mark: The spire of St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church occupies a portion of the sky usually reserved, in these parts, for grain elevators. A quick look around confirms that St. Francis is not merely the most impressive church in town. It is the only church in town.  

“I guess there was one Protestant church some time ago,” I was informed by a woman hurrying out the church doors. “But they closed up. This is the only church T-Town needs.”  

Indeed, Teutopolis--named for its heritage as a German Catholic settlement dating back to the 1830s--thrives as an island community of 1,400 that has stubbornly melded its historic, ethnic, religious, and political identities. Its streets are a neat grid of meticulously kept homes. Front yard Virgin Mary statues are more plentiful than birdbaths. The local ballfield, on the grounds of a former Franciscan seminary, is still flanked by the school’s large devotional statues. A really well-hit home run could imperil a Blessed Virgin beyond the right field scoreboard.  

Now it was late fall, and the basketball season was about to begin. Teutopolis High School is fiercely proud of its team. I expected to find the players hard at work in the high school gymnasium. But the gym was empty.  I stopped in at the school’s main office. “I’m sorry, the principal’s not here today,” a secretary told me. How about the vice-principal? “No, he’s not here, either.” Again, I was getting that look. Finally, she declared, “It’s the first day of huntin’ season!”  

It occurred to me that since arriving in Teutopolis that afternoon, I had not seen a single male. There were women everywhere, but the guys, it turned out, were off in the woods stalking deer.    

Vandalia is the end of the road. Past a succession of cornfields and oil wells, the old roadway ends abruptly at the Kakashkia River, where a covered bridge used to stand. Here, nearly 600 miles from Cumberland, a standard issue sheet metal highway sign planted in the middle of the pavement declares, “ROAD ENDS.”  

Across the river, I wandered through the creaking halls of Vandalia’s old State Capitol. Abraham Lincoln served in the legislature and gave his first published speech here, opposing an investigation of the state bank. Out front is a Madonna of the Trails statue, one of 12 erected nationwide in the 1920s by the Daughters of the American Revolution to honor America’s pioneer women. Ten feet high and five tons heavy, Madonna strides forward with a baby to at breast and a child clinging to her skirt. The DAR placed five Madonnas along the National Road, in every state except Maryland.   

By the time the road reached Vandalia in 1838, the town was breathing its last as the state capital. Springfield would inherit the title the following year. The road was pretty much out of breath, too, proceeding more from momentum than necessity. There were plans to continue it on to the Mississippi, but existing roads already went there from Vandalia, and besides—the railroads had all but obviated the road’s purpose of joining East to West. 

And so the Old National Road ended ingloriously on a riverbank at the dusty edge of an extinct state capital.  

I drove on to St. Louis along U.S. 40. The original route of this highway from Vandalia ends in East St. Louis, near a Mississippi riverboat casino. Nearby, barges are loaded with corn for shipment downriver. Highway bridges leap toward the beckoning Gateway Arch, symbol of America’s expansion to a West far beyond George Washington’s wildest dream.  

I thought then of Evan Bender’s riddle. Did the road pull the nation west, or did the nation push the road west? A bit of both, I figured.   

It was past sundown. For tens of thousands who had traveled this far in their wagons, from this point on there would be no more roads. The great trails of the West had no inns spaced along their lengths, no mile markers with the comforting assurance that civilization awaited somewhere beyond the sunset  

Many of the early travelers never got this far. They dropped out, settled down, started new communities here and there along the Old Pike. 

Nothing wrong with that. After all, the most rewarding dreams aren’t always realized at the end of a road.  

A considerably shorter version of this story appeared in the November, 1999, issue of National Geographic Magazine