America's National Road
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: MARCH/APRIL 2006)
JOHNNY’S PASSING THROUGH today, Clara Glenn told a few people in New Concord that July morning. Word spread, and not just because Clara’s son was a war hero and famous test pilot by 1957. But also because it was Johnny Glenn, and when you grow up in this little eastern Ohio college town on US- 40, people remember.
Clara made it clear that Johnny would pass by pretty quickly. At about 700 mph and thousands of feet up, in fact, on the fastest transcontinental journey taken at the time. As Johnny roared overhead in an F8U Crusader jet, two sonic booms rattled New Concord, right down to the balsa wood planes still hanging in his room.
You’ll have to forgive Johnny’s mom for the understatement. Living on the National Road means you get used to some impressive things coming through.
This was, after all, the country’s first great thoroughfare. In the early 1800s, nearly anyone who wanted to see the frontier, sell a product or run for office used the road. Even today, the National Road survives as Main Street in most of the towns it passes through from Maryland to Illinois. When you want to watch America roll by, this has long been the curb to sit on.
"The road was something almost magical, " says Licking County Commissioner Doug Smith of Harrison Township, Ohio, who is co-author of a National Road driving guide. "It really was the road that helped build the nation. "
Today’s drivers leave Interstate 70 and follow US-40 when they’re ready to put their journey ahead of the destination. Along the old trail, they find more than 800 miles of backroads full of changing scenery, a few cities and enough antiques shops and bed-and-breakfasts for a lifetime. But the biggest draw is the chance to follow historical icons from George Washington to John Glenn and to join the 200-year caravan of Americans who went looking for adventure along this famous road. It’s just another day on the National Road when you visit Washington’s first battlefield, cross a 180-year-old stone bridge and fall asleep in the home of a Civil War officer-turned-bank president.