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Nation's longest highway inspires book on Route 20

Along life's journey there are many coincidences.

Malcolm "Mac" Nelson found that similarities in his life intertwined with the same roadway that has been part of his home address more than once.

A distinguished professor of English at the University at Fredonia, Nelson has always been interested in the path of U.S. Route 20. The highway has been near his homestead now and many times in his past.
About six years ago, he decided to start researching the roadway for a new book, "Twenty West," that will be out this fall, published by SUNY Press.

Route 20 is now the longest highway in the United States, starting on the east coast near Boston and ending near Newport, Ore.

Along the way, the majority of the road is still two lanes.

According to Nelson, only about 75 miles have become intertwined with the interstate.
"Route 20 goes through some of my favorite places," said Nelson. "I adore Yellowstone."

His home, on Route 20 in Brocton, is decorated with photographs of the famous national park, which he's visited frequently to canoe and camp.

Nelson's tribute to the highway is not a "mile by mile book." He said it is a collection of unique facts about sites that are either directly on the highway or very nearby.

For instance, two lanes of Route 20 are outside his front door and he recalls interesting bits of history concerning "The Brotherhood of the New Life," a commune in Brocton that thrived in the 1860s.

Founder Thomas Lake Harris was well known among the spiritualist religious movement. He believed in making wine, which was a staple of the commune in the rich grape-growing region of Brocton.

Nelson also mentions Lily Dale, which is not far from Route 20. This private community was home to many leaders of the spiritualist movement and remains popular today.

Further east on Route 20 another religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- also known as the Mormons -- was founded in Palmyra.

Religious history is not the only thing recounted in Nelson's book. The author notes that the site where Crazy Horse was killed is located at Camp Robinson, Neb., on Route 20. The famous leader of the Oglala Sioux in the Battle of Little Big Horn was reportedly stabbed by a soldier's bayonet at the camp on Sept. 5, 1877.

The high plains areas are crossed by Route 20 as it travels through the western region of Nebraska. These areas are recounted by famous writer Mari Sandoz and excitement about Sandoz's work and his vivid descriptions were inspiration to Nelson, who also traveled the sandhills areas and thought about the travails of pioneers.
Nelson has traveled all of Route 20 more than once.
He has written other works, but this is his first one devoted to a highway.

"I hope I inspire people to get off of the expressways and see the land," he said.

For many who live close to the highway in Western New York, Nelson recounts architectural, historical and cultural sites in and around Buffalo. For example, the Ganondagan State Historical Site is just seven miles south of the roadway in Victor.
Near Route 20's start in Massachusetts is the home of the Merriam brothers, publishers of the first Merriam Webster Dictionary. Springfield, Mass., is also home to Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss. The Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden is there with images of Horton, Yertle and more of the whimsical creatures that were part of many readers' early days.

"If I could offer one bit of advice on Route 20, it would be 'Go see it,' " Nelson said.

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