My recollection of our tour from Whittier to Missouri in 1929 to visit my Uncle Charlie on his 40-acre farm in the Ozarks has rung a bell of memory in several readers.
The transcontinental motor tour is a common part of the American experience; though most people go today by jet, the long trek on four wheels, through rain, hail, blazing heat and the everyday pitfalls of the road, is vivid in almost every family's memory.
The road was there and we took it.
Sometimes we were going back to our roots; sometimes going west into the unknown, toward new frontiers.
We traveled in machines that tried hard but sometimes failed the transcontinental test, over roads that were rough, potholed, narrow and sometimes muddy, through a wilderness of mountains, plains and desert, with gas stations few and far between, and no place to lie one's head at night but crude motor courts not yet known as motels.
E. Turney Hanson of Pasadena recalls an arduous trip that she and her mother made in 1934 from southern Montana to Lake Tahoe in a 1927 Oldsmobile roadster.
Refreshing her memory from a diary, Mrs. Hanson notes that they started out with only $50 in cash. Her mother's only source of income was a Pasadena house rental and occasional voice lessons.
"The number of things that went wrong with the car were probably not unexpected in view of its age and its totally unmechanical drivers," she says, "but according to the diary, our usual response to each new problem was a fit of giggles--probably hysterical, although at 18 I did not know the meaning of the word."
The repair costs were usually small: $1.75 here, $5 there. Blowouts and patching of tubes were common. The ultimate disaster was the simultaneous shredding of a front tire and the loss of the spare, which fell off the sporty little roadster's mount, near Winnemucca, Nev.
The town had no used tires of the right size. Mrs. Hanson's mother had to buy a new one. She didn't have the money. The tire man took her postdated check and as security she gave him the last of her jewelry--a diamond and sapphire dinner ring.
Gasping and rattling, the Oldsmobile finally got them to Tahoe. They had exactly four cents left.
"The really interesting part of this story is that two weeks or so later, after we had gotten back to Pasadena courtesy of a loan from my mother's friend in Tahoe, a tiny package came in the mail--not registered, not insured, just parcel post. It was my mother's ring, wrapped in a little scrap of paper saying, 'The check cleared OK.' "
Hannah Crump of Redlands remembers a trip her family of six made in 1929 from western New York state to Denver. Coincidentally, they were going to visit her grandfather Charlie.
"We drove in a 1924 Maxwell that had a top speed of 28 m.p.h. and camped out in a tent every night. Flat tires every day and on the return trip my daring father even got that automobile and occupants up Pikes Peak. . . ."
Very often the heroes of these tales are valiant women, like Mrs. Hanson's mother. Jim Dobbin of Inglewood writes than in 1918, when he was 7, his mother drove with him from Long Beach to Minnesota and back in an air-cooled Franklin.
"She had to take a crash course in driving and also learn to be a mechanic. We drove the Santa Fe Trail, in part the same as you did, and stayed at Harvey Houses overnight. The roads were lousy after we left Cajon Pass. We usually packed a lunch. Fortunately we had no significant trouble except that we had to hunt up a ferry to get across the Colorado River. . . ."
Geneva Longman, now a resident of the Episcopal Retirement home in Alhambra, recalls a two-car caravan that she and her family of nine made in 1919, from Aurora, Mo., to Alhambra in 18 days.
"We came in an old Model T Ford and a Maxwell of the same vintage, with flapping side curtains. There were no motels at that time. We camped out all the way. Like you, we spent a lot of time fixing flats and getting out of mud holes. . . ."
Dale Crain of Agoura writes that he and a friend are still making the trip from California to Missouri, four times in the past year and a half, once in a 1972 Volkswagen Bug.
"Coffee's lots cheaper than motels, so it's straight through every trip, round the clock, 32 hours. . . .
"Every time we do it we say 'Never again.' But, we always do. It is so exhausting in such a horribly wonderful way. The sense of freedom. No one else on Earth really knows where you are. How often can the average person in our clockwork world say that? You're doing something that few people get to do once in their life. Just the sense of 'hanging it out.' Will we make it? What's that noise? Check the oil. How we doing on money? It's absolutely marvelous!"
Dave Shadovitz of Redondo Beach gives us an update on the old highway:
"Last summer, cycling across the Midwest, I was surprised and delighted when I found myself on Route 66 in Illinois. Weeds poked through the cracks of the broken road within sight of the interstate which had robbed it of its vitality. It felt as if the road was keenly aware of its loss of status, yet had retained its pride. . . ."