In those days, we weren’t afraid of anything. The war in Vietnam was finally winding down, and our futures loomed bright before us. I had finished graduate school and my youngest brother, Wade, had just graduated from high school. We thought it would be a great adventure to travel across the US together, celebrating both our graduations. My friend, Teresa, was planning a visit to her sister in California, so we invited her along.
My parents and siblings helped me “convert” my baby blue Volkswagen van into a camper. We extended the cargo space by pulling out the back seat. Mom made curtains for the windows, and Dad installed carpet throughout. I regret not having many pictures from those days (long before digital cameras) – just a handful of faded snapshots of Yosemite and the deserts of the Southwest. No pictures of us. So unlike now.
It’s amazing that my folks let us go on this trip, but they did. No cell phones, no GPS system, no internet (hard to imagine, I know). We did have a AAA Triptik to help us plan our travel days and when/where to stop for the night. This was a very good thing, because my head was full of the romance of the road, not the “what if’s” that could happen along the way.
[I recently found an old book (Explore America) at an estate sale. It reminded me of our trip planning back then. You can see on the map page that straight-line Interstate Highway 40 route East-West across the Southwest. So much fun.]
Traveling the interstates in the summer in those days was amazing in itself. We got lost the first time before we ever left our home county. Once we found I-40, it was clear sailing. We were surrounded by truckers and large RV’s. I had been living away from home for quite awhile, but traveling for days in that van felt more grown up than anything else I’d experienced. [This was years before any overseas travel.]
Wade and I talked recently about the trip. This is a short summary of our memories. We stayed in KOA campgrounds mostly, but every 3rd night, we “shook off the dust of the road” in economy hotels. While Teresa and I tried new food along the way, Wade ate hamburgers at least once every day. His favorite food remained unchanged. Staying at campgrounds was fascinating as the culture lent itself to conversations with strangers and making “new friends” (at least until summer’s end).
Driving through the desert was captivating. You would think it was a visually barren experience, but there is so much life and diversity in the desert. With long stretches of road, we wouldn’t always have words, just listened to the radio (rocking along to the tunes of the 70’s). Then we reached the Grand Canyon. If you’ve been, you know that words (or even pictures) can’t do justice to the beauty and expanse of that “river bed“. We entered Las Vegas, Nevada, at night, and the bright skyline was beyond dazzling against the dark desert sky. We parked in the RV Lot of the Stardust Hotel, and between us, Wade and I lost about a dollar gambling that night. [We learned our lesson.]
To go from the heat of the Nevada desert to the snowy remains of winter in Yosemite, California was a crazy experience. Such a beautiful place. Then we pushed on to San Diego, leaving Interstate 40 for the great North-South I-5 Corridor. California is such a beautiful and funky state (then and now). So much to see and experience, and we did our best over those few days. The San Diego Zoo was so much fun. The downer of the whole road trip was also part of our time there. After our zoo visit, we returned to the van to find it vandalized. All our suitcases were gone. Sigh…
We called home. In those days, a phone booth gave privacy to the tears, and we got the counsel and confidence we needed to take the next steps. The police were kind though apologetically not helpful. We would not retrieve our belongings, as was the case for many other travelers that way. Before this trip, I may have used my Sears & Roebuck credit card once or twice. That day, after the shock of all the loss, it was like Christmas, with the refurbishing of our wardrobes with the best of California-stylized Sears duds.
On to Los Angeles, we did the Universal Studios Tour. During the tour, the friendly guide surveyed our group for where we called home. There in that sea of strangers was a couple who lived near us (in the Pleasant Hill Trailer Park, which is now a mall, a few miles from our home in Georgia). Those surprise encounters are a new anticipated part of travel.
San Francisco was a magical place. Cool weather with flower gardens and sea views at every turn. Wade doesn’t remember this but he pulled onto a one-way street the wrong way. It took a bit of maneuvering to get through that “hillbillies in the city” experience. I wasn’t very kind to him over that unfortunately (now I know that very experience myself…demands lots of grace from spectators).
We ate at Fisherman’s Wharf. A mixed seafood platter there became quite a different experience (my first taste of squid). Sitting along the Bay, we watched all the sailboats, white sails drawing the breeze, in that deep blue water. Lombard Street was a sweet find (for those of you who saw the classic car chase scene from the 1968 film Bullitt, you see a bit of this street at 2:20 of this YouTube video. The rest of the video is a gift – you can almost smell the burning rubber).Lombard Street, San Francisco – World’s Crookedest Street
Our friend, Teresa, left us soon after our San Francisco exploration. Then for Wade and me, the trip was on the downside. We were making a dash for home. This time, we traveled Interstate 80 into the Midwest, and then our memories blur on how exactly we got home. We did stop in to see the Mormon Tabernacle as we crossed Utah. In those days, we discovered, if you sign the visitors’ book and leave any kind of contact information, you could be assured of a visit from one of those young, missionary duos when you returned home.
The VW bus was a fine vehicle for that trip. We burned out quite a few fuses, but we became quite adept at changing out good fuses from equipment we needed less to replace bad fuses of that which we needed more. For instance, at night we needed that interior light. Unfortunately, as our fuses blew, we discovered on the trip back, we had miscalculated one fuse exchange. During the beginning of a huge rainstorm, on a rural stretch of highway, our windshield wipers went out. That and another coincidental mechanical issue sent us searching for a mechanic on a Sunday. Not a good situation.
There on that highway, in the middle of nowhere, a truckstop loomed ahead. We pulled in, and there was this tall, lanky young mechanic, all grease and grin. He had the fuses (for that little VW bus, of all things) and fixed our other problem, and back on the road we went. To this day, I’m thinking he could have been an angel from God – coming to our aid in that distant place.
My brother, Wade, and I were always close. We had our share of fighting on the road that trip, and finally learned to reach peaceful resolutions of our differences. Seeing him through others’ experiencing him opened my eyes to so many gifts he had that I had missed along the way. I also let up on the “big sister” bit, and he just seemed to grow up across that two-week time span…or maybe I did.
I wonder what a road trip would be like today. It would be so fascinating to do it again…if only. When our kids were teenagers and we’d be in the States on vacation, we would occasionally ask them to pull out their earbuds and listen all together to something on our car sound system. What a concept! Or weirder…to talk awhile together about something. I miss those road trips. So thankful that, at least for Wade and me, we had those days on the road before our futures swept us fully into our grownup lives.
Photo Credits: Map of US by www.roadtrippers.com and VW Van by www.dustycars.com. Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA from www.wikimedia.org. Graduation picture by Olan Mills Photography. Other photos are mine.