Lincoln Highway Days
Text + Photos: Mike Blanchard
Feature | All over the country as winter fades into spring and summer, there are civic celebrations in towns large and small. People love getting together to celebrate their town and visit with their neighbors, eat some food and have a good time together. Easily the most enjoyable of these parties are in rural small-town America. Everyone knows each other and the locals are genuinely happy to have the chance to show off their treasures and town.
Way out in the middle of Nevada straddling Highway 50, the Lincoln Highway, sits a gem of a town, Austin. Every spring they hold the Lincoln Highway Days. The celebration features a car show, a community lunch, a raffle and fundraiser for the fire department, a poker run, a band and this year, mini-bike races.
Austin was founded in 1862. Legend has it that a Pony Express horse kicked over a rock revealing silver ore, and the rush was on. By 1865 the population had grown to 10,000. Currently there are something over 300 residents. The town sits in a steep wooded canyon that rises into snow-covered mountains. Houses rise up the canyon on both sides of the highway. Three picturesque churches look down on the highway from on either side of the canyon. The silver petered out in the early 20th century, but there is still some high-grade turquoise mined in the area.
Along with Route 66, Highway 50 is one of the mother roads. Before Interstate 80, it was one of the main east-west roads that crossed the country. It roughly follows the track of the Pony Express. Crossing Nevada from Reno, it winds through Fernley and Fallon, past Sand Mountain to Middlegate, through Austin, Monument and on out to Ely and points east. The road goes up and over long rows of mountains that run from north to south and down through the valleys that were once great prehistoric seas. As you crest mountain passes you can see for many miles in the clear mountain air.
If you have ever seen the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian,” you will get a good feel for the country. Seemingly desolate but nonetheless compelling and beautiful.
Unlike some little desert towns, Austin does not feel like it’s dying. It may not be a boom town, but there is something special and vibrant there. It has the things you need to have a good town. There are some motels, a good hardware store, a library, a wrecking yard, the oldest Masonic lodge in Nevada, two gas stations and your pick of several bars and cafes. The buildings have that weathered look that wood and brick acquire in a dry desert climate.
Many of the residents have that dry and weathered look as well, but on this weekend they were distinguished by their openness, good humor and hospitality.
There is an air of activity in the Austin area. A big geothermal power-generating plant is being built just east of town, and there is some increased mining activity. The state is widening and improving the highway to the west, so there are construction trucks parked in the motel parking lots and men with money to spend in the cafes and bars.
An interesting group of cars from antique to modern lined the Lincoln Highway when we pulled into town Saturday morning. The first thing we saw was Jerry Foreman and his wife idling down the hill in their black T-bucket. Jerry is instrumental in organizing the celebration, and many of the cars belonged to friends of his that have come from all over northern Nevada. Last summer at Bonneville Speed Week, he invited us all out to take part in the mini-bike races he was planning.
So Dean Anderson, Hunter Bender and I had been working for weeks getting our bikes ready. Well, I didn’t work that hard but Dean and Hunter did, getting their bikes finished at the very last moment. They hot-rodded the little frames with new motors and a host of farkle from the interweb. I changed the oil in my bike and replaced the fuel line. But I will say those hot rod engines really added some pop to the machines, easily giving them top speeds in the neighborhood of 50 mph.
All day, people were wandering up and down the highway admiring the automobiles parked at the curb while they dodged cars full of tourists and big rigs as they drove through town on the highway, their drivers gawking at the lineup of cars on either side.
Before lunch, the mini-bike race was held in an empty lot next to the Pony Canyon Motel. Only four of us turned out to compete. The race lasted 10 laps; it was a great and humorous spectacle. Before the race, Jerry introduced us to the crowd and gave a safety talk that consisted of reminding us that the nearest doctor was 100 miles away. ’Nuff said.
Jerry’s nephew Matt was dressed as Richard Simmons and wore no helmet. He did have on a wig and sweatband. Dean was dressed all in orange from his helmet on down to his Vans. He wore an orange prison jumper and rode a vintage orange Bonanza mini bike. Hunter was dressed in American flag pants and a shirt emblazoned with a bald eagle, and since the helmet he brought was too small, he also wore no protection for his noggin. But his machine was replete with an American flag seat and BMX handlebars and sported an Evel Knievel theme. I went all in and wore my mechanic’s coveralls and a helmet.
The race settled into a battle between Hunter and Dean for first place and me and Richard Simmons for third. At one point, Hunter caught his handlebar in Dean’s pocket going into the turn and nearly wiped out into a pile of bricks. Richard Simmons and I had a tick-tock battle for several laps with him blocking me out at the turns, but eventually I got by. Just before he could retake the position he threw a chain and I sailed into third place. In the end, Dean won the battle royal and he was mostly gracious in victory. The mini-bike race was a testament to how much fun you can have with small machines.
Then a tri-tip lunch was served followed by the band. Afterwards everyone gathered for the awards ceremony. Almost all the local businesses chose a favorite vehicle for an award, and the plaques were handed out to genial hoots and cheers. There was a People’s Choice award, which went to Ken Priest's gorgeous black ’62 Impala with a stonking great 409-cubic-inch V-8 under the hood. And then the raffle went down. The grand raffle prize was won by a young woman who is part of a team of college students out in the hills counting sage hens for the feds. By 3:00 it was all over, but in the afterglow of good times the celebration dwindled slowly. People who lived close packed up their cars and headed out. Everyone else drifted into the bars and cafes or back to their homes up the hill.
We headed out to Stokes Castle to find Jerry and a few friends enjoying the view and a moment of calm before dinner. Stokes Castle is one of the famous sights of Austin. Built in the 19th century, it looks like an 18th century Scottish keep. It was built by a railroad man named Stokes who installed his two sons to look after his business. They lasted weeks before slipping off to San Francisco, never to return. The castle sits on the shoulder of the foothills overlooking a stunning broad valley view to the south.
Jerry and his wife Marsha hosted us all to a BBQ dinner at their house overlooking the highway, and like all good parties it ended with fond farewells and promises to visit later in the summer. As we walked through town in the gathering dusk, all that was left was a neon sign blazing orange over an old bar in the cold desert night next to an old highway.