of the most formative events of my formative years was The
Trip. In 1951, when I had just turned 10, my family piled
into a 1950
Chevrolet 2-door sedan and hit the road for seven months. We started at
the beginning of summer vacation, and returned just in time for the
This one looks a lot like ours. Even the color is right,
though we didn't have whitewalls. But it's not ours;
it's a Google image search for '1950 Chevy sedan'
And this is my drawing of our car, roof rack and all,
from the dog-eared cover of my photo album.
Think about it! Two adults and three kids age five to ten, driving
around North America for over 200 days (201 to be exact). What sorts of
difficulties might that entail? Here are a few you may or may not have
we there yet?" In a whiny voice, of course. Boredom on
- Getting the kids out of school for seven months.
Getting the adults
- How could we afford it?
- Where did we stay? Where did we
eat? All the minutiae
living day to day.
- Hold on! You said five people in a small sedan? For
I intend to tell how we
coped over the course of this narrative.
Where did we go?
Pretty much all over the US. Most of Mexico. The
Canadian Rockies. Here's a map I kept on the trip. I had forgotten it
existed until I found it folded in pages of my diary. It's the sort of
map grade schoolers used at the time for history or geography projects.
I guess my tracing the route in pencil was a geography project.
How could we all get away for seven months?
Mom and dad were elementary schoool teachers. Mom may have been a
substitute teacher at the time, which would have made leaving easy. Dad
was due for a sabbatical -- one semester away from the classroom, as
long as it was something justifiable as "educational". This was
The diary. If you look really close, it says "David" on the
Being ten years old, I was in fifth grade. I would miss some academics
in a semester off, but my parents made a good case for my going.
I don't remember what Bob and Ruth did about academics. Bob, in second
grade, kept a diary as well; that must be why my name is on
the notebook --
to distinguish it from his. We were both avid readers, and I know he
of the books we brought along. And Mom probably drilled him on
tables. Ruth was in kindergarten; she must have been
having a more enriching time on the trip than she would have in school.
Even if it were just about
socialization, she learned how to get along with siblings and parents
in close quarters for extended periods.
- Math - I was already good at it. Mom kept me from
getting rusty with flash-card drills on the multiplication and division
tables. When I returned at the end of January, my teacher had me sit in
the back of the room with the class' best math student whenever she was
teaching math. (Thanks, Ernie Tews.) It took less than a week for
Ernie to get me caught up.
- English - That's reading and writing. I could read in
a moving car without getting carsick. (Ruth and the parents could, too.
Bob had problems until the folks tried dramamine on him. That worked,
but it took half the trip before we figured it out.) I was buried in a
most of our long driving days and often before bedtime as well. I have
always loved to read. As
for writing, I had to keep a diary, a
page of writing for each day of the trip. 66 years later, I still have
the diary. It is the basis of this narrative.
- Social Studies - In the fifth grade, social studies
history and geography of the United States. When I got back to class
after the trip, I was
pretty much the class expert. While the rest of the class was reading
from the book and
looking at pictures, I had been
and was willing to talk about it.
word about the fact that Dad was a school teacher on sabbatical. His
sounds much better as "an educator from New York, doing a 'unit' on
[wherever it was we were]." That way of putting it often got us the
royal treatment. I particularly remember Custer, SD,
and Bob remembers factories and food processing plants that gave us a
personally guided tour and sometimes samples.
How could we afford it?
Some money became available. We kids
were very young so I'm not certain, but we remember it as a successful
investment, perhaps in Phillips Petroleum. So... what to do with it?
My folks made a decision, a choice. "Do we buy a
house, or do we continue to live in an apartment and use the money for
travel?" It was decided! We lived in a sixth-floor, three-bedroom,
rent-contolled apartment in Parkchester in the Bronx, and went on The
Big Trip and
plenty of more modest trips as well. With 20:20 hindsight,
I am very happy with that decision.
The mechanics of living on the road
I'll say something about this here, and provide more detail as it
becomes relevant going through the trip.
- Let's start the discussion of life on the road by
talking about the
road itself. Imagine a world with no interstate highway
system. None! That wasn't even proposed and funded for another 8
years. The usual road was one
lane in each direction. The only exceptions I remember --
divided highway with at least two lanes each way -- were:
Even the big roads we know today as venerable institutions were not
in 1951. The New Jersey Turnpike was still under
and the New York Thruway wasn't even that far along. The whole trip was
on what we would call today "back roads".
- Within 50 miles of the Atlantic or
- The Pennsylvania Turnpike, considered a wonder at
- A few major big-city thoroughfares (e.g.- Lake
Shore Drive in Chicago).
- Maybe a couple more that I'm forgetting.
- The car was our "covered wagon". It was a two-door
sedan with bench seats; bucket seats were only found in expensive
sports cars back then. Our seating configuration was three in front and
back. The sixth potential seat, the back left, was for a picnic basket
and ice chest with our lunch in it. Breakfast and dinner were in the
motel or a restaurant.
the car was not air conditioned. I don't think there was automobile air
in 1951; if so, it was an extravagance. For our desert stretches, we
got a "swamp cooler" that mounted on the
right front window.
- Luggage? Hey, we're five people; how did we manage?
The car had a
we added a roof rack. No, not the enclosed fiberglass "roof
trunks" you see today; this was a simple sheet metal platform with a
six-inch-tall fence, held to the roof with suction cups and tie-down
straps. Dad and I got pretty handy about hoisting suitcases (two or
three IIRC) into and out of the roof rack. We had a waterproof tarp
that tied over the whole thing. It all worked very well. Bob tells me
that we kept two suitcases in the trunk that we used if we
were just staying overnight. Those on the roof were for a
several-day layover. That sounds tricky to pack for, but it could be
- Luggage is for clothing. The trip lasted from July to
January -- summer
until winter. How did we manage that varied a wardrobe in limited
luggage? We didn't have
to! The route was a brilliant piece of planning that I didn't
until decades later. In the summer, we were in the northern tier states
and the Canadian Rockies. Late October through January, we were in
Mexico, the Gulf coast, and Florida. It was just the last couple of
days of the trip, in January, dashing up the east coast for home, that
we had to turn the
heater up and wear newly bought jackets.
- Accommodations were spartan compared to what
travelers today face. Hotels were big and mostly expensive; we didn't
stay there often. Motels were a pretty new concept. They were mostly
cabins or one-story attached rooms with doors to the parking lot (not
an inside hall). They were usually called "cabins", sometimes "motels",
and occasionally "motor courts". Nothing like the chains we
but maybe like some of the single-story independents that still exist.
- I never heard of Murphy's Law until I was in college
-- well, maybe
high school -- at least not by that name. But I knew it very well at
age ten. We had different words
for it: "morning motel" and "evening motel". Before the trip was a
month old, we were describing motels that way. A clean, spacious motel
with a pool and other recreational facilities was a morning motel. Why?
Because that was the sort that we saw when we drove by in the morning,
leaving town and not looking for a place to stay. Conversely, an
motel is one that we would only choose to stay in if night is falling
and we are desparate for a room. Absolutely a special case of Murphy's
hundred miles does not sound like a lot today, not
with interstate highways and 70mph speed limits. But at an average of
30-40mph on back roads -- which was the only choice in most places in
1951 -- it was more than half the day. Our typical driving day was
200 miles, and the record was over 370 miles. How do you keep
three kids happy and busy for that
long. In other words, how did we ward off, "Are we there yet?" Here
are some of the things that worked:
The old classic road games. Perhaps the oldest and best-known was
license plates". We could spend a half hour to an hour looking at cars
we pass or that pass us -- or parked or maybe even coming the other way
-- to spot as many different states as possible. We did it
cooperatively, not competitively. Typically Mom "kept score", writing
down states as we saw them and reminding us if it was already on the
list. (The list was just for that game; it didn't carry over day to
day.) Other games involved advertising signs and what was on them. BTW,
we took the trip during the heyday of the Burma Shave signs. If you
know what they are, you are grinning now. If you don't, you'll look it
up and say, "How stupid is that?" Roads, driving, and advertising were
for Bob and me; we could both read maps and road
signs. I was usually the navigator, but Bob was occasionally as well.
Dad would go over our route with me in advance,
and I'd sit in the front and track our progress. Occasionally, there
would be the opportunity to warn
of a turn at an approaching intersection, but that didn't happen often
on rural driving days. (Urban navigation, of course, was more
challenging.) One other benefit for the parents: I became the
one who got asked, "When will we be there?" I had the map, and was
know the answer.
The folks brought along or bought on the way age-appropriate reading
matter (more detail here
Bob could read, so I know he was included. I'm not sure about
Ruth. I doubt she could read, but I'm sure she enjoyed picture books
with captions. I imagine (not sure; I'm just guessing) that Mom or one
of us boys would read to her.
Not more than two hours of continuous driving. Stop for a picnic lunch
or a picnic snack. Stop for a play area or something interesting to
watch. Stop at four o'clock because Mom needs her coffee. (A
four-o'clock coffee break for Mom was really true, and remained a
family joke -- but also an imperative -- for her whole life.)
& R days.
No this is not directly about the 200-mile days. But we did have
"weekends" (which didn't generally occur on the weekend) where we took
a day or two off from driving and even from sightseeing. On those days,
we just played. So when we had long, tough days in the car, we
knew before long there would be days with no pressure at all.
The daily pages
Here's a guided tour of The Trip, with two tour guides: my 10-year-old
self, through the diary I kept on the trip, and my current self with 66
years of hindsight.
The "tour" is a page for each day. The web page has a scan of the
page[s] for the day, often along with added words of narrative and
and any photos I took that day with my Kodak Duaflex II camera. (Yes, I
still have those pictures.*)
I have organized the days into "chapters" of a week more-or-less, so
you have a two-level
access instead of an unwieldy flat access to over 200 pages. Each of
those chapters comes with a map*,
except for a few where we stayed in one place for the whole chapter.
page is my look back at the experience, with 66 years worth