ON A BUMPY, GRAVEL SLOPE ON THE APACHE TRAIL IN ARIZONA, MY FATHER STOPPED THE CAR, COVERED UP THE COMPASS ON THE WINDSHIELD, AND ASKED, “ARE WE GOING UPHILL OR DOWNHILL?” UNTIL WE GOT OUT OF THE CAR TO WALK, ONLY HALF OF US GUESSED CORRECTLY.
We traveled differently 50 years ago. Changes in vehicles, roads, and communities have taken place so gradually that I hadn’t considered how dramatic the difference is until planning this article.
My family worked and lived on a farm located approximately 55 miles northwest of Chicago. Farm life made summer vacations difficult because crops demanded full attention between May and September.
A number of cross-country highways handled traffic then, but the Interstate system was in its infancy. A driving vacation took a great deal of planning.
So, armed with accordion-folded maps and a number of tour guides, my parents took two weeks off during their birthday month of February to drive to California. With them were my grandmother, brother (8), sister (who turned 10 during the trip), and me (11).
AUTOMOBILES IN 1958
In 1958, automobiles were passing through a gilded age, continually adding chrome and increasing horsepower. The extensive list of features taken for granted in today’s vehicles were rare or didn’t exist then. Power steering and air conditioning were in their infancy. Seatbelts and disc brakes were unusual, but had great promise. There were no airbags, tire pressure monitoring systems, ABS, traction control, or stability control. Dashboards had hard surfaces, and there were few models with bucket seats.
What did we have? Our mid-level, full-size family station wagon had a V-8 engine, a two-speed automatic transmission, two bench seats, and an AM radio. It had been a new purchase the year before with the trip to California in mind. At that time, few manufacturers had multiple lines of cars – just one line with two or three trim levels.
The cargo area was large enough for luggage to be stacked into a rear-facing “seat.” That freed up space in the front so there wasn’t a squirmy child sitting between my mother and father. We three took turns in the “way back,” which was great for waving at other cars and trucks as well as viewing the variety of license plates and reading Burma Shave signs backward on the opposite side of the road.
We had other things to do in the car, because our teachers gave us homework assignments. There were no video games, MP3 players, DVD players, cell phones, or even cassette-tape players.
ON THE ROAD
Going west, our main route was U.S. 66. Only remnants and memories of it remain today, but then it was a thriving artery with four lanes and high speeds. We ate at truck stops, restaurants, and diners. There were few drive-ins. (McDonald’s was only three years old at the time.) Whenever we’d stop to eat, I’d look for a jukebox to play my favorite song – “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” sung by Jimmie Rodgers.
Mom and Dad told us that we could order anything we wanted when we stopped to eat, as long as we finished it. We hadn’t been to that many restaurants, so eating was definitely part of the adventure. I consistently ordered hamburgers, and my brother had fried chicken. At one stop, our waitress Bessie stepped back after our orders to say to me, “My goodness, no wonder your brother is bigger than you!”
Along the way, we stopped at innumerable historical markers and scenic overlooks. Dad loved to travel, and he was curious about places he’d never seen.
We’d take walks after stopping for the night just to look around.
We were excited about some motels having television sets in the rooms. There were few stations, and neither cable nor satellite TV existed. But they were new to us. Compared with today, motel amenities were sparse.
Now the fields are all four lanes
and the moon’s not just a name
Are you more amazed at how things change
Or how they stay the same
– from “75 Septembers,” on the album Driving Home, words and music by Cheryl Wheeler1
Printed by permission: ACF Music Group
1 Download the entire song for free and stream the rest of the album for a limited time at www.rounder.com/cherylwheeler/drive.
During the first couple of days, we stopped at Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, and the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma. (The Arch was yet to be built in St. Louis.) At the stop in Claremore, I discovered that Will Rogers and I had the same birthday, and I became a Will Rogers fan. When we returned home, I read as many books as I could about him.
But most memorable to all of us were the places we visited in Arizona and New Mexico. I still recall them after 50 years, and most retain their allure. They were far removed from our daily lives in northern Illinois. (See the list of sites below.)
Once we made it to the Grand Canyon, we knew we’d never reach California and be able to return within the two weeks we had for vacation. So, after running out of gas while exiting the park, we turned around and headed east, driving a different, more southern route home that included Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
It seems just like yesterday.
Fifty years later, I have no trouble listing places we visited on our vacation because of the impression that they made. These sites and attractions appeal to different interests, and they all still welcome visitors.