The Big Trip

The Tutelman family's 1951 advanture

October 9, 2017
Skip straight to the daily pages.

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.
One of the most formative events of my formative years was The Big 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 Spring semester.

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 thought of:
  • "Are we there yet?" In a whiny voice, of course. Boredom on the road.
  • Getting the kids out of school for seven months. Getting the adults out of work.
  • How could we afford it?
  • Where did we stay? Where did we eat? All the minutiae of living day to day.
  • Hold on! You said five people in a small sedan? For seven months? Wow!

I intend to tell how we coped over the course of this narrative.

Where did we go?

North America!

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 easier. Dad was due for a sabbatical -- one semester away from the classroom, as long as it was something justifiable as "educational". This was educational. No doubt!

The diary. If you look really close, it says "David"  on the cover

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.
  • 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 book 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 primary source document this narrative.
  • Social Studies - In the fifth grade, social studies is the 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 there and was willing to talk about it.
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 read some of the books we brought along. And Mom probably drilled him on addition 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.

A word about the fact that Dad was a school teacher on sabbatical. His situation sounds much better when stated 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 continued to live 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 project 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:
    •  Within 50 miles of the Atlantic or Pacific coast.
    • The Pennsylvania Turnpike, considered a wonder at the time.
    • A few major big-city thoroughfares (e.g.- Lake Shore Drive in Chicago).
    • Maybe a couple more that I'm forgetting.
    Even the big roads we know today as venerable institutions were not there in 1951. The New Jersey Turnpike was still under construction, and the New York Thruway wasn't even that far along. The whole trip was on what we would call today "back roads".
  • 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 two in 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.
  • No, the car was not air conditioned. I don't think there was automobile air conditioning 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 trunk, and 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 done.
  • 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 appreciate 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. We only needed warmer clothes the last few days of the trip, in January, dashing up the east coast for home. At that point we turned the heater up and wore 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 separate 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 have today, 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 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 evening motel is one that we would only choose to stay in if night is falling and we are desperate for a room. Absolutely a special case of Murphy's Law.
  • Two 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 about 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:
    • Games. The old classic road games. Perhaps the oldest and best-known was "state 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 different then.
    • Navigating. This worked 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 supposed to know the answer.
    • Reading. The folks brought along or bought on the way age-appropriate reading matter (more detail here and 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.
    • Frequent breaks. 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 & 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 web page for each day. The web page has a scan of the diary page[s] for the day, often along with more current added words of narrative and explanation, along with 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.

The final page is my look back at the experience, with 66 years worth of hindsight.

* A few notes about the photos:

* A few notes about the maps:

Enjoy the ride!

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Index of chapters

Before the trip
July 4-12:From Home to Chicago
July 13-16:Chicago
July 17-28:The midwest through South Dakota
July 29-Aug 9:The Rockies and Salt Lake City
August 10-19:Yellowstone
August 20-27:Northern Rockies - Glacier, Banff, and Jasper
August 28 - September 10 :Pacific northwest
September 11 - September 22 :NoCal and San Francisco
September 23 - October 2 :Los Angeles
October 3 - October 8 :SoCal, San Diego, Las Vegas
October 9 - October 15 :The Canyon Parks: Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon
October 16 - October 23 :Southwestern Desert
October 24 - November 2 :Mexico southbound
November 3 - November 9 :Mexico City
November 10 - November 17 :To Acapulco and back
November 18 - November 26 :Mexico northbound
November 27 - December 2 :Texas
December 3 - December 12 :Gulf Coast
December 13 - December 31 :Miami '51
January 1 - January 9 :Miami '52
January 10 - January 19 :Homeward Bound
A look back


Last updated -- Oct 12, 2017