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Posted on Fri, Aug. 23, 2002
Hit the highway
Lincoln admirer follows namesake road

San Francisco Chronicle
Craig Harmon's great American odyssey started with a 1964 open-cab fire truck, a giant American flag and a lock of Abraham Lincoln's hair.

Harmon, 46, has spent the better part of two years traveling through the country's heartland, sharing his unabashed love of the United States even before the Sept. 11 attacks sparked a new wave of patriotism.

Something of a modern-day Don Quixote, Harmon tells a story about what happens when someone trusts in fate, humanity and the spirit of Lincoln.

And America's firefighters.

"The firemen," he said with great reverence during a recent interview in San Francisco, "are really like modern-day guardian angels. They just drop what they're doing and risk their lives to help you. And they've welcomed me with open arms."

Harmon is the founder of the Lincoln Highway National Museum and Archives in Galion, Ohio. The Lincoln Highway was the nation's first transcontinental highway. When it was completed in 1913, it linked New York City to San Francisco, making it possible for the first time to drive across the country on one continuous, hard-surface road.

Harmon, a photojournalist who has never been a firefighter himself, wanted to drum up support for the highway and the "greatest president" for whom it was named. So he decided to drive the length of the Lincoln Highway - in style.

In July 2000, he set off with $1,000 cash and the framed brown lock of Lincoln's hair that was lent to him by Miami University in Ohio. He was driving the classic vehicle he calls "America's Fire truck," the eye-catcher he bought from a friend for $6,000. It gets 4 miles to the gallon.

"To carry the flag across the country that way," he said, "now that would be compelling."

Harmon stopped in each of the 450 towns along the highway, which winds through Philadelphia, Chicago, Omaha, Salt Lake City, Sacramento and Oakland. After showing up unannounced at each town's fire station, he raised the American flag on his truck's 100-foot ladder and took a picture.

It is a splendid sight, said Doug Churchill, a 46-year-old San Francisco resident who said he was watching the sun set over Ocean Beach when he saw the stars and stripes fill the sky.

"That flag up against the sky is actually quite spectacular," Churchill said. "I ran out to hug him, I was so overwhelmed."

Firefighters and other kind strangers have fed and sheltered Harmon along the way, including Churchill, who cooked him a dinner of pork chops and ravioli.

Mayors and other fans have splurged and filled his gas tank. Small-town newspapers splashed his photograph across their front pages.

And Harmon himself has fallen in love all over again with the route he says binds the nation together.

"The beauty of America is in its changing landscape," he said. The bumpity-bump road, where he was confined to driving just 45 mph, was "built for the eye," revealing an intimate look at American life missed by modern interstate highways.

"Sometimes, I'd like to be able to do it in one continuous day. Rolling plains to sand dunes to mountains," he said. "And when you come out of the Sierra and into California, the land of milk and honey . . . it's something everybody dreams they can do, to let life take care of itself."

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