The Lincolns are having ham for dinner, which makes sense, because tomorrow is Easter.
The pink plastic pork sits on an antique platter, surrounded by a dozen buttery biscuits fashioned from polyvinyl chloride. They look delicious.
Seventy-five percent of the home is original, but the black silk top hat hanging in the hallway is not.
He moves us on to the next room, affecting a jarring southern accent every time he quotes our sixteenth president, so that “Four score and seven years ago,” sounds like a Nancy Grace newscast.
Excuse me, Sir, but Abraham Lincoln was not a southerner.
But I keep my thoughts to myself and remain silent and obedient, stepping only on the blue carpet and holding the banister with one hand as I glide up the single staircase in the Lincoln home.
“Now you wanna hold onto that banister tightly,” our guide instructs. “That’s the only original piece of this house that you’re allowed to touch—meaning, you are touching something that President Abraham Lincoln himself touched once upon a time.”
I stop for a moment to wrap my hand around the polished wood. Honest Abe once held this same banister, and if objects count, then I am one degree of separation from the man himself. It’s a powerful sentiment that grows as we continue meeting Abraham Lincoln’s objects, one by one: Honest Abe’s horsehair rocking chair, the desk that Mary Todd Lincoln threw out to the curb, the four poster bed that looks just like the actual bed that burned up in the Great Chicago Fire.
We pause for an explanation of Mary Lincoln’s wooden commode, and I feel bad for the first lady, now long-deceased. Not only will she be forever remembered as Lincoln’s crazy wife, but her poor soul must face the ignominy of having one’s toilet on permanent display in Springfield, Illinois.
It seems like we just can’t leave the Lincolns alone. I don’t think any other president has inspired more books (“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel”) or blatant misrepresentation. Some of our worst pundits invoke Abraham Lincoln as a hobby while Hollywood has turned him into a weirdo vampire hunter. The poor man can’t even rest in peace—way back in 1876, a team of dimwitted graverobbers attempted to steal his body, right here in Springfield.
Atop a hilly cemetery north of town, Lincoln’s latest tomb seems more of an obelisk paperweight intended to keep the body from running away. There’s even a sumptuous stone “Custodian’s Quarters” next door that once housed a live-in security guard.
Today’s guard is just a young kid named Cody who sits quietly in a chair inside the crypt, reading a paperback copy of “Game of Thrones”.
“Yes, his body is here,” he whispers to me. “But it’s buried ten feed underground, entombed in 4,000 pounds of concrete.” Cody’s voice grows louder as more tourists gather round. He is telling the story that he tells twenty times per day. The story of Lincoln’s life after death—and the constant entombing and re-entombing of a man whose legacy and game seem to grow in sync with the country he saved from self-destruction.
Now Cody is practically shouting in monotone, “Everybody wonders if Lincoln is really here. It’s like they can’t believe it’s really him—but it is. Lincoln is here.”
The tomb is silent as a tomb, and as the other tourists stand hushed, I begin to envy Cody’s resume: Day guard to Abraham Lincoln’s body. Living in Washington, DC, I feel like Abraham Lincoln is one of my closest friends. I’ve watched plays in the theater where he got shot, I’ve seen the room where he died. And at least once a week, I go running up the stairs to the Greek-temple they built as his memorial. Only now though, driving Route 66, do I actually get to see his grave. Underneath all the stone fanfare and union soldier statues—beneath all that stone circumstance—the grave is no more than single marble block that reads, ABRAHAM LINCOLN.
I pay my respect by snapping successive iPhone pics of the sixteenth president’s tomb, then waiting silently for a while, awkwardly imagining Abe Lincoln sleeping soundly and horizontal, ten feet under. I know his profile well—I’ve seen it on so many windows and Springfield shop displays, I’ve memorized his face, down to that one wise-looking wart on his right cheek.
Back outside, shining like a penny in the sun, a massive metal bust faces south, reminding us all, just one more time, who all the fuss is about. Even in effigy, Lincoln looks contemplative and kind, as he always looks, and yet his dark head is mismatched with his brilliant nose.
It’s a tradition, they say—how everyone who visits Springfield must rub Lincoln’s nose . . . for luck—or wisdom? Whatever the superstition, the constant caress of a million groping hands has polished the president’s schnoz to the golden glow of an Aztec sun god.
It feels silly to hold a president’s giant nose, but I follow suit, then drive away, my thoughts a mix of high school history class and scenes from Gone With the Wind.
Not three miles down the road, I stop for lunch at the Cozy Dog Drive-In—an eatery that’s hard to miss given the sign with two giraffe-sized hot dogs embracing one another with true affection.
Another high school cross-country team has just finished practice and I observe the young men in purple jerseys devouring four and five corndogs apiece. I restrain myself by ordering just two, then watch in awe as the man behind the counter dips a hot dog on stick into the hand-mixed batter before dropping it into the deep-fryer. Surely, this is art.
You see, not only is Springfield, Illinois the land that gave us Lincoln—it is also the land that gave us the corndog. Back in June 1946, Springfield native Ed Waldmire fried up the world’s first corndog and three years later, he was selling them en masse to travelers from this very drive-in on Route 66. Though Ed’s claim is still contested by some historians, America has pretty much bestowed him the title of corndog inventor.
Hand-dipped corndogs just taste better than the freezer aisle variety with which I am somewhat more familiar. Standing there, munching the most American of meals, I am already drafting a letter in my head, addressed to the governor, demanding that he change the Illinois’ state license plates from “Land of Lincoln” to “Land of Corndogs”. I would relocate to Illinois just to register my car for such a license plate wouldn’t you?).
Perhaps I feel a tad frivolous, biting into plump corndogs after paying homage to the man who saved our nation—but this is Route 66. One minute you’re bowing at a president’s grave, the next you’re squeezing the ketchup bottle and trying on T-shirts featuring cuddly hot dog couples. Everything on this road is a monument of some sort, be it Lincoln or junk food, and I am paying my respects the best I know how.
Travel is often the seeking out what is real and what is pretend. Four days on Route 66 and I have witnessed more nostalgic imitation than a Nick-at-Nite marathon of “Leave It To Beaver”—but I have also witnessed the truth. I have seen where Lincoln practiced law. I have walked in his backyard and I have touched my hand to the same wooden beam that he once held. And I have partaken of the progeny of the world’s first corndog, cooked in the very kitchen that invented it.
And that is the magic of Illinois. Not only is this the land of Lincoln and his memory. It is the land of bingo nights at the VFW and warm kettle corn sold from roadside stands. It is the land of good soil and grain silos that stand silver in a row like urgent rocket ships. And it is the land of first-rate people like Cody who guard our president’s tomb and whisper in the dark, “Lincoln is here.”
Indeed, Illinois is the great opening act of Route 66, and it is still the beating heart of America.