WILLMAR, Minn. — Starting in downtown Detroit, U.S. Highway 12 eases southwestward, bellies up to the bottom of Lake Michigan, views the steel mills of Gary, Ind., rushes through Chicago and up to Madison, Wis.

It survives in the shadow of Interstate 94 until the Mississippi River, where it blends into the interstate for the dash through the Twin Cities. It splits from 394 at Wayzata as it rounds Orono on a new bypass and starts its cross-state run through towns named after 19th-century railroad pioneers — Delano, Atwater, Willmar, Pennock, Kerkhoven — exiting the state at Ortonville and soon becoming a fine divided highway to Aberdeen, S.D., continuing past fields of sunflowers to the wide-open country on the way to Hettinger and Bowman in the southwest corner of North Dakota.

Now comes the endless journey across mighty Montana, the final 69 miles to Missoula paired with Interstate 90, then the remote mountain forests of eastern Idaho (“No services next 70 miles”) before descending on “Winding road next 99 miles” to the Snake River and Lewiston at the border with Washington.

Whew!

After more than 2,000 miles, you now are ready to navigate the only east-west highway crossing the state. The 400-mile-long final leg ends when 12 bumps up against coastal highway US 101 in a second Aberdeen, this one a city of 16,700 people on Grays Harbor in Washington. The city bills itself as the “Gateway to the Olympic Peninsula” and the “Birthplace of Grunge Rock.” In fact, when we came through the city in 2014 after coming down 101, we noted a Kurt Cobain memorabilia shop across the street from the small road sign unceremoniously announcing “End U.S. 12.”

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The mostly rural two-lane bobs, weaves and slugs its way through 10 states in its 2,484 mile length.

This is an old highway. It is one of the original national highways officially designated by transportation officials on Nov. 11, 1926. (At the time, U.S. 12 terminated in Montana). U.S. 66 from Chicago was designated on the same date. It became famous through a novel (“Grapes of Wrath”), a hit song and a 1960s TV drama. It terminates near the beaches of Santa Monica, Calif., a glamourous end compared to the docks of Aberdeen.

In the ‘20s, highways were mostly gravel outside of major cities. In Minnesota, the stretch of U.S. Highway 12 between Litchfield and Willmar became the first rural paved segment in 1929. By 1940 the entire Minnesota link — just under 200 miles from the Mississippi/St. Croix River to the South Dakota line — was paved.

On either side of Willmar are leftovers of the old road that appear in original — or near original — condition. These quiet lanes serve homeowners to this day.

From a historical perspective it's neat that neither has been blacktopped. Practically, the east segment is ... well, put it this way: "Drive with Care." There are some bumpy stretches that would make the Oregon Trail seem tranquil, and several "shell holes" large enough to hide a prize-winning pumpkin.

Both pieces of history include a sharp bend — the east side of Willmar at Cloverleaf Cemetery

Looking east, the sign at Cloverleaf Cemetery on Willmar's eastern edge understates the otherwise pleasant drive bordering the below-grade railroad double tracks – the Great Northern - when this portion of the highway was in its heyday.
Rand Middleton / Special to the West Central Tribune
Looking east, the sign at Cloverleaf Cemetery on Willmar's eastern edge understates the otherwise pleasant drive bordering the below-grade railroad double tracks – the Great Northern - when this portion of the highway was in its heyday. Rand Middleton / Special to the West Central Tribune

and on the west near St. John's Lutheran Church.

With grass growing to the edge of the concrete and fluffy green plants filling its cracks, the old U.S. Highway 12 roadway is parklike just a mile west of Willmar.  
Rand Middleton / Special to the West Central Tribune
With grass growing to the edge of the concrete and fluffy green plants filling its cracks, the old U.S. Highway 12 roadway is parklike just a mile west of Willmar. Rand Middleton / Special to the West Central Tribune

By consulting plat books at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society, it appears these two elbows were bypassed by new road construction in the early 1950s.

Highway 12 has just as much overland muscle as Route 66, which is known as the "Mother Road" and the "Mainstreet of America." While many national routes have been bullied into near oblivion by interstates, 12 remains a vital venue of local and regional traffic. And Highway 12 can claim its share of Americana, too: "Historic Heritage Road" (Michigan), Yellowstone Trail (the Dakotas), "Lewis & Clark Trail" (Montana) and Wine Country Road (Washington).

Perhaps salty old 12 just needs a catchy phrase to bolster its image in popular culture. Here's a set of mileposts: The road west starts in the original home of Motown Records not to mention Kid Rock, goes through Gary where the Jackson 5 got their start, grinds through the home of the Blues Brothers and the annual Chicago Blues Festival (though not this pandemic year), then there's the hometown of Prince and it ends the epic march from the Great Lakes to the sea not far from Kurt Cobain Memorial Park.

US. 12: “Route of Rock 'n' Blues” – take that “Main Street of America.”

Of special note: U.S. Highway 212 originated as a spur of U.S. 12, breaking off in St. Paul. Today U.S. Highway 212 stretches from Edina to Yellowstone National Park entirely independent of its more northerly sibling.