In 1957, Mac and I were nineteen years old, attending college full time and working part time. Active Duty Military Training scheduled in July, put a damper on our efforts to secure full time summer employment. Why not plan a summer fling; an “ultimate guy’s road trip?” Now, at that ripe old age, we possessed all the maturity and judgment of your average nineteen year old, but that’s not to say we didn’t carefully plan every aspect of the journey.
Money would be a problem of course, so we would piggyback the trip with our two week military training in Fort Riley, Kansas. The Army would give us TPA (travel pay allowance) to cover our round trip expenses from Chicago to Fort Riley, but instead of heading back to Chicago, we would head west taking the southern route to California and the northern route back to Chicago. We would be gone from home for over six weeks.
We would be driving a car as old as we were, my family’s 1938 Buick (the same age as the two of us). The car had over 90,000 miles, so we would bring a complete automotive tool kit along with an extra spare tire strapped a rooftop luggage carrier.
There was little money for the luxury of motels along the way so we packed a two-man military pup tent. We would plan our route to hit every known relative along the way, hoping to garner a hot shower and clean sheets to sleep on for a night or two. In between kinfolk we planned to camp in national parks along the way.
The AAA auto club prepared a booklet of road maps with the recommended route for the entire trip highlighted on each page.
We felt we had covered all eventualities except of course for the unknown.
In July, 1957 we hit the road for our first stop; Fort Riley, Kansas. When our military training was completed two weeks later, we headed west.
Mechanical problems with the car would become a recurring problem, first rearing its ugly head by way of a rod knock just outside Wichita. We pulled into a service station with the old fashioned grease pits and cajoled the owner into letting us use one of the bays. We identified the offending cylinder, dropped the oil pan and removed the worn crankshaft bearing. Unfortunately, to do the job properly, we would need to have the crankshaft bearing surface honed and install an oversized piston bearing. It was late Friday afternoon so we spent the week-end in Wichita swimming in the local public pool and using two nights of our precious motel budget. By Monday noon, we were back on the road.
In Nara Visa, New Mexico we stripped the rear spline on the drive shaft. Our Buick sported what General Motors heralded as a “torque tube” which meant the drive shaft was a sealed, direct drive assembly. That meant instead of simply replacing a universal joint, the entire drive shaft needed to be replaced. We hitchhiked fifty miles to the Highway 66 Junk Yard in Tucumcari and salvaged a drive shaft off another, junked Buick. We slept in our car for three days.
On the rim of the Grand Canyon the tappets on the overhead valve assembly became extremely noisy and when we removed the valve cover we discovered the oil line to the mechanism was clogged. It was a simple fix. We didn’t know it at the time, but with the exception of a flat tire, that would be the last car trouble of the trip.
From Nara Visa, we made it straight through to my cousin’s home in Needles, California where he and his family welcomed two very greasy and probably odiferous teen-agers. There was indeed a shower and clean sheets and we extended our stay there for an extra day to enjoy their pool and take a quick side trip to Mexicali, Mexico, just to be able to say we went to Mexico. We left Needles feeling well-fed and shower fresh. We would miss the clean bed and three meals a day, but Mac’s aunt in West Covina, California (part of Greater Los Angeles) was our next stop and it was a relatively short leg, although my cousin warned us were heading into mountainous territory.
We left Needles late afternoon to avoid the desert heat and midnight found us in the Cajon Pass between the San Bernardino Mountains and the San Gabriel Mountains. The word “pass” had a nice ring to it. These two Illinois flatlanders equated it to…well…a pass…an easy route through difficult terrain. Our closest local experience with mountains was Rib Mountain, Wisconsin which towered some 700 feet above the surrounding landscape.
Well into the pass, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we discovered an all-night gas station and diner. We stopped to switch drivers and grab a midnight breakfast at the Meeker Café at the junction of Routes 66 and 138. It was a straight shot on 66 to West Covina, but for some reason we brought the maps in with us while we ate. The tiny squiggly road map lines showed that while both 66 and 138 headed west from that point, 138 would cut several miles off our trip. We double checked with the waitress and she confirmed that either route would take us to the same point west of Cajon Pass. That settled it, we would take the shorter road, route 138. Had we discovered the AAA mapper’s first mistake?
Mac took the driver’s seat and I climbed into the back seat where I hoped to catch a few hours’ sleep. It was a clear night with billions of stars streaking across the Milky Way. The mountain air was fresh and cool. We were on the road just a short time and before I settled in to sleep the road turned narrow with multiple switchbacks, occasionally with steep drop-offs on one side or another. Trees canopied over us and came to the road’s edge leaving no shoulder. The blackness of the mountains surrounded us. Far above us we caught the flicker of headlights, no doubt coming down in our direction. Where would we meet? Would we be able to pass one another without dropping off the road? Could the oncoming driver see our lights?
Mac settled in for some white knuckle driving while I sat on the edge of the back seat peering at the blackness out front of us. He had also seen the headlights above and we confirmed one another’s siting. The switchbacks were brutal and unpredictable. At times we were descending and other times climbing. During the climbing we would catch the definite flashes of the oncoming headlights through the trees, but the with the constant twists and turns we lost all sense of direction, but the occasional glimpses of light from above were unmistakable. It was the overwhelming blackness that spooked us. If it wasn’t for that approaching vehicle approaching from far above us, we would have no frame of reference beyond the headlight of our own car.
There wasn’t much conversation but each time the light from above showed itself it would be the same:
“Yeah, he’s still up there—somewhere.”
“Is he getting closer?”
“Shit! I can’t tell.”
“Dammit! He’s still above us. He doesn’t seem to be getting any closer.”
“Well, these are mountains like we’ve never seen before.”
“What the hell is going on?”
Suddenly, at the end of a long climbing switchback, the trees above us cleared revealing the most intense Milky Way we had ever seen…along with the mystery headlights—a most striking full moon.
West Covina, California was about the halfway point of our trip. From there we would take the northern route back to Chicago, stopping to swim in the Great Salt Lake—definitely not recommended for people without access to a shower. We camped on the isolated fire roads of Yellowstone Park. There’s a bear story here, for another time.
We were keeping an eye on the odometer and in Cody, Wyoming, we stopped and bought some beer. A few miles further east, the old Buick turned 100,000 miles, a watershed event for any car of that era. We stopped on the shoulder, sat on the running board and drank a beer.
We hit the last relative in Rapid City, South Dakota, and at breakfast that morning we decided to drive the 18 hours straight through to home sweet home Chicago. We had been gone for over five weeks. We had had enough!
- Special thanks to Cliff Bandringa (http://backroadswest.com/) for the historical information that made the accuracy of this story possible.