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Travels to Charlie : Some Vintage-1929 Kicks on Route 66

August 10, 1986|JACK SMITH

This is the summer, we are told, that Americans are discovering America in greater numbers than ever.

Scared away from foreign travel by terrorism, we are exploring our own country by the tens of millions.

Our efficient cars, our endless freeways and our ubiquitous motels have made it possible for any family to cover from 200 to 400 miles of geography a day, depending on the pace.

Add our handy credit cards, which give us the illusion that it's free.

Never in history have a people enjoyed such travel within their national boundaries.

My wife and I recently traveled into Northern California and back, never worried about the performance of our car, about where we would stay, about how we would pay.

We just drove on, picking destinations from our road map, and in late afternoon we would find some inn with a "Vacancy" sign, show our credit card and put up for the night. Sometimes we had a pool and a hot tub. Often free ice. And always TV, which we never watched. Not watching TV, we found, was a part of being on vacation.

It was so easy I couldn't help remembering the trip my family made from Whittier to Joplin, Mo., back in 1929.

We set out in early summer in our Oakland sedan--my mother, my grandmother, my older brother Harry, my cousin Betty Mae and I.

My brother was a student at Whittier College. Being the only driver, he drove every mile of the way--a heroic performance.

As I remember, my grandmother was 75 years old. Her youngest son, Charlie, who had been maimed and blinded at 21 in a mining accident, was working a 40-acre farm in the Ozarks and she wanted to see him before she died.

We took U.S. Highway 66. It was an arduous trip. The Oakland was a good car for its day, but it had no air conditioning. The highway was only two or three lanes and in many places only gravel.

We never knew where we were going to spend the night. Motels were a brand-new thing in those days. They were mostly courts of small cottages, mostly without inside plumbing. Sometimes, in small towns, we stayed in private houses whose owners were trying to eke out a living by renting out rooms and offering "home cooking."

Somewhere in Arizona we pulled off the road into a real ghost town. We walked through a swinging door into what had been the saloon. The long bar and the mirrored back bar were still in place. It looked like the set of a hundred Westerns we had seen. There was not another human being in town.

Today, if that place still exists, there will be three motels on either side of it, the saloon will be a restaurant, and every other old building in the community will have been "restored" into a restaurant or a souvenir shop. Buses will pull up, disgorging tourists; there will be a fake mine, a chamber of commerce, a newspaper and at least half a dozen art galleries.

We drove through Arizona, New Mexico, the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma-- all of them great wastes of land. I think it was when we crossed into Missouri that we encountered mud so deep that we made only 10 miles that day.

My grandmother weighed less than 100 pounds, but she was tough. As a young wife she had crossed from Kentucky to Colorado in a covered wagon and had encountered hostile Indians. She never complained.

My uncle Charlie was scratching out a living on his 40 acres with his wife, Elsie, and two small sons. Because of Charlie's blindness, Elsie and the older son did most of the work, plowing the earth with Molly, their only horse, and harvesting their paltry crop with the help of neighbors.

Uncle Charlie was absolutely thrilled by the Oakland. He had never ridden in a car before. We drove him into town one day. He sat in the front seat by my brother; Elsie sat in back. My brother drove faster and faster.

"How fast we a-goin' now?" my uncle shouted.

"Forty!" my brother said.

"You hear that, Elsie?" my uncle shouted back. "We're a-goin' 40!"

Returning to California was harder than going east. It was so hot crossing the desert that we hung wet towels in the windows to cool the air.

The last day, we had six flat tires. Every time a tire blew, my brother and I would have to get out, jack up the car, remove the wheel, remove the tube, patch the tube, put it back in the tire, pump it up, put the wheel back on the car and set out once again, waiting for the next blowout.

If I'm not mistaken, my grandmother died soon after we got home. But she had seen Uncle Charlie. Mission accomplished.

And we did it without a credit card.

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