Producer Rick Sebak heads out on the highway for his latest PBS program, "A Ride Along the Lincoln Highway," premiering nationally on Tuesday at 7 p.m. (KUED-Ch. 7).
Fans of Sebak's love letters to Americana won't be disappointed as he visits both ends of the highway at Times Square in New York City and next to a bus stop in San Francisco and many locations in between.
Unlike past Sebak productions, "Lincoln Highway" offers more of a historical focus with less emphasis on oddball Americans (or maybe Lincoln Highway enthusiasts just aren't prone to saying wacky things). He traces the history of the highway a designated route laid out in 1913 on existing roads rather than a from-scratch new highway and interviews experts who explain that its creation was as much about commerce as it was mapping a route across the country.
"Follow the money," suggests Lynn Asp, a volunteer with the Lincoln Highway Association in Franklin Grove, Ill. "The men who started it made Packard cars and Goodyear tires and Prest-O-Lite batteries. They needed you out, using up their product."
Sebak and his crew traveled across the country on the Lincoln Highway, but more than in his past national programs for PBS, this one features destinations closer to his Pittsburgh home base at PBS station WQED. These include a chat with local historian Brian Butko at Peppi's Diner in Wilkinsburg, located on a stretch of the Lincoln Highway; a love story involving the highway that took 70 years to come to fruition; and The Lincoln Motor Court, a motel built in the 1940s in Bedford County.
"What makes it a motor court is the fact that the cottages are cottages, they are not connected," explained owner Bob Altizer. "This is pre-Holiday Inn."
"Lincoln Highway" features plenty of "roadside stuff" of its own, including a Mexican restaurant owned by a family of Irish heritage in New Jersey, "the Coney Island of the West" near Salt Lake City, and a monument to the "Ideal Section" of the highway in Indiana that commemorates an early staff member killed on the road.
As for the road itself, Sebak shows viewers test stretches of the highway called "seedlings," long since abandoned, that offered mile-long cement surfaces for early drivers.
Sebak doesn't traverse the Lincoln Highway in a straight line, instead he bops from one point to another. Viewers who fail to pay close attention may find themselves confused about the locale, but I'm not convinced that a straight shot across the country would have been the best way to tell this story either.
As in all Sebak specials, "Highway" offers appreciation for the mom and pop America that exists beyond the beaten path, away from the modern and commercial. Photographer Michael Williamson describes his own Lincoln Highway trip to see the Shoe House, the world's largest ball of yarn and other oddities.
"We never spent a dime at a national chain," Williamson said. "We met the owner 85 percent of the time at either the motel or the restaurant that we stopped at."
Rather than grabbing music from a music library as he usually does for his shows, Sebak enlisted musician Buddy Nutt to create the soundtrack. The end credits, usually devoted to outtakes in past Sebak shows, instead features Nutt singing about "Going' all the way/On the Lincoln Highway."
The sound of this jaunty tune meshes perfectly with the tone of Sebak's travelogue, an enjoyable celebration of American culture from the recent past.