Carl Graham Fisher, the astigmatic speed-freak credited with envisioning the first trans-continental road – the Lincoln Highway – may not have ever stepped foot in Nevada, but his life mirrors the boom-or-bust history of the Silver State. Born in Indiana, Fisher’s father left him when he was young, causing Fisher to quit school early to help support his family. He proved adept at the task, and revealed himself to be a remarkable inventor, investor, and showman. By the age of 50 he was worth over $100 million and famous for his promotional stunts, which involved, among other things, dropping a car from a hot air balloon and then racing it back to town (the dropped car was engine-less; he drove a prepositioned, perfectly good car back); riding a bicycle off the roof of a building; and enlisting a baby elephant, frocked in a Fisher-project sandwich board, to caddy for a vacationing President-elect Warren G. Harding. Like the history of Nevada, Fisher’s fortunes rose and fell, and he was destitute near the end of his life, surely the result of the Great Depression, but probably the result of his whims as well. His then ex-wife, whom he met and married when he was engaged to another, said he was all speed and that his millions were simply incidental – “he just liked to see the dirt fly.”
In 1913 the thirty-nine year old Fisher conceived of the Lincoln Highway, eventually labeled Highway 40 and now known as Interstate 80, and though through much of the country her asphalt is laid within a few miles of Fisher’s original trace, for 8.6 miles in Reno the Lincoln Highway still resides, incognito, as Fourth Street. All of American History moves east to west, and so it does here as well: the oldest stretch of the original Lincoln Highway begins somewhere around the very modern Rail City Carwash; her terminus a parking lot in Verdi on the other side of railroad tracks with an elevated view of an abandoned, vandalized trailer and a short walk through a sandy field to the Truckee River. Here I find two fly fishermen, retired, going home to Santa Cruz with nothing more than a nibble or two. The older man tells me that he remembers driving Highway 40 as a kid, staring out the window from the backseat of his father’s car at the desert, then the motels and bars, then more desert. I tell him the buildings probably haven’t changed much but keep to myself my suspicions that the road seems to be about as lucky as he is. Fourth Street, I think, could use a nibble. Or two.
Three hours earlier I am the first breakfast customer of the day at Los Compadres; on the way out I watch as an industrial sized garbage dumpster births an old woman. We lock eyes and she, sheepishly and after a pause, says “I was talking to the bird.” I ask if it answered; she smiles and continues her day. I momentarily consider following her rather than Carl Fisher’s aspirations, but instead walk across the street to inspect the artwork on the Desert Sunset bar. The owner, huge and tank-topped and holding back a pit bull with a giant metal chain the size used to tow cars, emerges from the motel next door. He’s gregarious and proud of his business, and we talk about the other hotels on Highway 40.
A sign on the door at Shorty’s tells me that ROADHOUSE TOM’S COATRUN Has Moved to the Wonder Bar; I contemplate their frivolous use of capital letters but quickly resolve it in Shorty’s favor, as I have a weakness for the semi-colon and who am I to judge. An Indian – the sub-continent type, not the native – at the desk of the Hi Way 40 Motel lets me park for free while I take pictures; the woman at the In-Town Motel does as well, reluctantly and only after scolding me for texting while I was turning into her parking lot (guilty). I am sized up by a prostitute near the bus station; I discuss the tragic beauty of the mosaic entryway of the N.C.O. Railroad Depot, soiled by urine and spray paint, with a man sporting a neck tattoo and who I think is going to ask me for money but instead just stands and stares with me; I pause from picture taking at Abby’s Hwy 40 to let a man, severely overweight, pass by in his wheelchair. He moves not by pushing the wheels with his hands, but by shuffling his feet slowly forward, one never fully extending beyond the other. For three blocks I am enchanted by a middle-aged Hispanic man’s custom bicycle. It has thick wheels and extended handle bars and a beautiful silver eagle mounted on the head stem. The bike is painted the colors of the Mexican flag, and I tell the rider – booted, cuffed denim jeans, snapped-to-the-top black satin jacket with matching slicked back hair and dark sunglasses – that his bike is badass. He says thank you.
The west end of Fourth Street is no more optimistic, but the fornlorn seems to have dispersed a bit. There is an artist’s motel, seemingly in business but without a car or person in the parking lot; a brief stretch of industrial, the kind built big and cheap and windowless and populated with gymnastic centers and beer distributors; then a huge, abandoned wooden riverfront resort complex, fence locked and without any indication of what it once was. Then, nothing. A stretch of road with high desert and retaining wall on the right and a rolling river with trees in foliage the colors of fading sunshine and leaking chlorophyll on the left. This, I think, is what must have driven Carl Fisher’s dream, and the dream of Highway 40 and is maybe even what drives someone’s dream on the other end of Fourth Street. Maybe the dreams of a woman who talks to birds.