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Vacation Memories : On the Road West During the Depression

Vacation Memories: This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

April 24, 1988|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a travel writer based in Canoga Park

In the early years of the Depression it seemed that we were always on the road--my mother, my sister and I.

The same road, too: south from Denver to pick up Route 66 in Albuquerque and straight on west to California. Always Denver to Los Angeles or Los Angeles to Denver.

The trips would usually start, at least from the Denver end, with a fight. My mother and father had what one relative described as a marriage made in purgatory.

They seemed to be able to put up with each other for only a certain amount of time and then, when the leaves would start to fall, my mom would propose a trip to California. Dad would stay behind to run what was left of the family business.

It wasn't as if we were going to Palm Springs. It was usually to spend a few months living with Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Alvin on a farm in Downey.

On a Shoestring

Of all the treks to California, and I remember five of them, one was different. It was on a shoestring, like the rest, but it was special.

That year my father hadn't been able to find enough money for the trip, but rather than see the start delayed, he promised to have a money order for $25 waiting for us in Albuquerque. That was good enough for mother. We loaded up the Essex and left.

It was just south of Denver when we first saw the motorcyclers. The man had a pilot's helmet with goggles, and the girl who rode behind, with her arms around him, had nothing on her head but her long blonde hair.

On the straight stretch between Denver and Colorado Springs they came up to the back of our car, then eased around and passed us.

My sister and I waved. The girl, a thin blonde with uneven teeth, grinned and waved back as the motorcycle thundered by, sped on and quickly disappeared in the distance.

My mother tugged at her driving gloves, talked about how dangerous motorcycles were and ended by commenting on the wind "whipping that poor girl's hair to death."

Travel Routine

We all gradually settled into our usual travel routine, developed on the numerous trips we'd taken over this same road before--me with my crayons on top of the luggage in the back seat, my sister trying to read Nancy Drew while my mother hummed "Red Sails in the Sunset" or a few of her other favorites that always wound up sounding like "Red Sails in the Sunset."

That's the way it went hour after hour, my sister, my mother and me riding toward a horizon that stayed forever away or toward a shimmering patch on the road that was always ahead and running on as fast as we were.

"Why don't we ever catch it?" I asked.

"It's a mirage," my sister said. "It's something you see that isn't there."

"Well, smarty, if it's not there how can you see it?"

My sister, who was six years older than I, muttered something and was immediately scolded by mother. I loved it.

There were empty roads and long periods of silence with nothing but the sound of the engine and the wind rushing past the windows.

If we saw a train my sister's thin shell of sophistication would crumble and we'd be halfway out the car windows waving at the engineers. They'd always wave back and sometimes they'd even pull the handle that worked "The Lonesome Hobo," which is what we called train whistles then. The real hobos, and there were a lot them in those days, would wave too.

Motorcycle Again

Then the motorcyclers went by again. The girl dug her chin into the man's shoulder, motioned toward us and they both grinned and waved. They looked as if they meant it, that they were happy to see us.

"They certainly don't seem to have much in the way of possessions," my mother said.

"They've got each other," my sister said.

"Well, sometimes, that's enough."

If you waited till late to check into a motor court, which was the name for motels in the '30s, the rate was much cheaper. So my mother always drove a very long day.

The next morning, just outside of Albuquerque, we saw our first Burma Shave sign. It was a family tradition to read them together.

"When things go wrong / they sometimes will / there's one thing always / fills the bill / Burma Shave."

No Money

It set my mother to muttering. The promised money had not been at the Albuquerque Railway Express office.

A few miles past Gallup we crossed into Arizona.

What did the sign on that barn--"Chew Cut Plug"--mean? Why were all the barns red? And that sign that says "Rooster Snuff". . . what was snuff?

Neither my sister nor my mother knew what "Chew Cut Plug" meant, though years later I found it was an ad for chewing tobacco. My mother's answer about snuff was thoroughly unacceptable.

A little past noon, at a combination cafe and desert museum, we saw the motorcycle but the couple wasn't around. We stopped to use "the convenience." On the way back to the car my mother said something about the girl ruining her pretty hair, took off her blue scarf and tied it to the handlebars.

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