Follow the Rs and the Ls

In another example of strangers collaborating to share information online, Minnesotastan asked for an explanation for a confusing passage in the novel Free Air:
She rarely lost her way.  She was guided by the friendly trail signs -- those big red R's and L's on fence post and telephone pole, magically telling the way from the Mississippi to the Pacific. (p.69)

At first glance, "L" and "R" would seem to mean "left" and "right", but that wouldn't help someone drive across the country. A commenter knew that "L" stood for the Lincoln Highway. With the help of reddit, we find out that "R" designates the Yellowstone Trail. Why they chose that letter instead of a "Y" is still a mystery. Link

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It may not come as much of a surprise, but I was skeptical that L and R refer to highways. So I spent a couple of hours digging around on the net. It seems to me that as a matter of fact the "L" and "R" refer to Left and Right on the MRT (Mississippi River Trail). At least according to the MRT website. I pulled up a history of highway naming in the United States, several of them, which followed the development from "Good Roads" to Appalachian Highway Development System and never once found a systematic lettering designation. The letter L was used to refer to the Lincoln Highway, but the metal plaque looks markedly different from the photo. However, there was considerable argument revolving around the change from names to numbers. Many Americans protested numbering a pioneers progress as such, and claimed it was strictly anti-American to number the roads. I was left with the thought that perhaps this internet collab got it wrong, but I wasn't going to say anything.
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Actually, another reader discovered that the "L" and "R" were used as left and right turn signs on the Yellowstone Trail. A followup post is in the works.

p.s. - It turns out that 50 years ago my childhood home in MN was on the Yellowstone Trail. Amazing coincidence.
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