Sally Carrera: Forty years ago, that interstate down there didn’t exist.

Lightning McQueen: Really?

Sally: Yeah. Back then, cars came across the country a whole different way.

Lightning: How do you mean?

Sally: Well, the road didn’t cut through the land like that interstate. It moved with the land, it rose, it fell, it curved. Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time. —“Cars” 2006.



I come by my heaping helping of wanderlust honestly.

My immigrant German-speaking ancestors — the Aschauers, Samps, Wittnebels and Langbeckers among them — had a noun in the native tongue for wanderlust, fernweh, a phrase coined by the old German Romantics for that inner ache for distant places and the insatiable craving for travel.

Consider fernweh as the opposite of heimweh or homesickness, in this case farsickness, and you get the idea.

Truth be told, my insatiable itch for travel and hitting the open two-lane highways in search of adventure was inevitable. The die was cast early.

Growing up with peppy “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet” advertising jingles and the American Petroleum Institute’s wildly successful, if self-serving advertising admonitions to “See America Best By Car,” my formative childhood experiences were steeped in idyllic Kodachrome memories of scenic weekend drives in our ‘68 Dodge Charger on Wisconsin’s classic two-lane state and federal country highways of yore — roadside picnics in elm-shaded waysides, grazing dairy cows and red barns, root beer drive-ins, mom-and-pop cafes and tchotchke shops, roadside vegetable stands, country apple orchards, roadside cheese factories, Miller High Life barn silo ads, and rural DX and Zephyr billboards exhorting drivers to “Check Your Gas”, in the days before 24-hour pay at the pump and the rise of the omnipresent Kwik Trips dotting the state.

Summer vacation drives “Up North” on the old two-lane U.S. Highway 51 alignment through the heart of Merrill, Tomahawk and Nokomis in the pre-freeway bypass days were my juvenile kicks on Route 66: “You’ll find fun on Highway 51.”

As a kid, I delighted in the sights of the majestic National Register-listed Beaux Arts Lincoln County Courthouse in Merrill and the kitschy giant bull moose supper club statue in Tomahawk, and the youthful culinary delights of 10-cent burgers at the Chip’s Hamburgers stand in Merrill, coney dogs and frosty root beers at the Dog ‘n Suds drive-in in Tomahawk, and sweet treats served up at the Windmill Ice Cream stand on the scenic shores of Lake Nokomis.

Truth be told, the 56-year-old kid in me still enjoys those same enduring delights on my annual retro nostalgic spin on the long-bypassed old Highway 51 alignment, the old two-laner asphalt ribbon still rising, falling and curving with the ever-changing North Woods terrain.

Not surprisingly, my favorite childhood read, and re-read, was my lovingly worn and dog-eared copy of Caroline Emerson and Tibor Gergely’s gold-spined 1961 Little Golden Books classic, “Make Way for the Thruway.”

The 24-page, 25-cent tome is still a fernweh page-turner for me more than a half century later as bulldozer driver Mike, crane operator Tony, dump truck driver Pedro and “the Big Boss” work to build a highway for fernweh-crazed travelers itching to hit the road in search of adventure around the next bend.

I long envied the nomadic lifestyle of roaming “roads scholar” CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt, as he put more than a million miles on six motor homes criss-crossing the U.S. between October 1967 and May 1994, filing more than 600 of his folksy “On the Road” dispatches from backroads America for the CBS Evening News, two-minute vignettes about daily life in off-the-beaten-path small-town America.

My admiration in later years also extended to the adventure travel works of author John Steinbeck, who chronicled his 1960 cross-country adventure with his standard poodle in “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” and author-humorist Bill Bryson, who penned memories of his 13,978-mile, 38-state trip around the United States in “The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America.”

Road tripping is the ultimate way to see America, offering the freedom to go where you want when you want — an open roads adventure as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and seeing the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.

But as Kuralt once sagely observed, “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.” That’s why he stuck like glue to the backroads.

Eschewing the interstate and instead searching out the legacy “Main Street of Mid-America” as it winds 1,277 miles from Hurley south to New Orleans, scratching the itch of the inner fernweh I still find fun, and lots to see, on the classic Highway 51 two-laner.

One ribbon of asphalt. Six states. A million stories waiting to be told.