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Celebrating 100 years of the Lincoln Highway

In 1913, a good road was rare. The automobile had arrived, but paved roads had not. Drivers were lucky to have graded roads, much less gravel or brick. Concrete and asphalt were yet to come.

The Lincoln Highway was originally a gravel road paid for in part by communities along its path. Spanning from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, it was America’s first cross-country highway designed with car travel in mind.

Named for President Abraham Lincoln, the highway will celebrate its 100th anniversary in October. But many Americans don’t even know it’s on the map.

Philadelphia-based photographer Eric Mencher aims to change that.

“It is a microcosm of the country, passing through diverse and nuanced landscapes and communities – a living lesson in this country's history,” Mencher said.

The Lincoln Highway bypasses cities and scenery in favor of a direct course. Even so, drivers are forewarned the route is “very approximate” because the roads themselves have been constantly realigned and updated. (The initial course was 3,389 miles long.)

Working as a team, Mencher and his wife, Kass, have been photographing life along the highway since 1997. They’ve covered about 25,000 miles, returning to some places again and again.

Eric Mencher was previously a photographer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. His job took him all around the world, covering events in South Africa, Chechnya and Cuba.

In 1992, he began working full time on his own documentary projects, eventually focusing on the closer-to-home Lincoln Highway, which passes near where he lives in Philadelphia.

At first he and his wife made weekend road trips out of it, unknowingly embarking on an endeavor that would continue for 15 years. They fell in love with the highway, and the people they met along its path.

They eventually drove the full way and back again as the project took on a life of its own. The highway allowed them to connect with all kinds of people, and they admit to being wanderers at heart.

“As photographers, the Lincoln Highway gave structure to our wanderings and allowed us to share what we saw (and how we saw it) with others,” Eric Mencher said.

“The country seemed to have a rhythm, a flow, and it gave us a more distinct sense of history and how it played out. … Driving west to east, we were more aware of the sense of space and how that affects us psychologically. In the West, we felt the openness and a freedom – an independence.”

Big-sky Wyoming became an unexpected favorite spot along the way – with wild nights of dancing at the Virginia Hotel in the tiny town of Medicine Bow, complete with two-stepping short-order cooks, truck drivers and rodeo-rider guitarists.

While they appreciate the highway’s historical value, the Menchers said the greatest pleasures of their work have been the serendipitous moments that came from courting the unexpected: the conversations, people and places not found on any map.

- Rebecca Horne, Special to CNN