Episode #30: The Great American Road Trip
Summertime is when many families hit the road for vacation. Even in an age of social distancing, people are getting away for short day trips and jaunts in the countryside. In this episode Jennifer takes a nostalgic look back at the history of highway travel in America.
If you prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down to find a transcript.
Episode 30: The Great American Road Trip
Hello, sparklers. Welcome to A Sparkling Vintage Life, where we talk about all things vintage and celebrate the grace and charm of an earlier era. I’m your host, Jennifer Leo, and this is episode number 30. It’s August 2020 as I record this. It’s high summer here in North America, and with all the travel and social-distancing restrictions still in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought a number of you might be taking road trips, probably just with just your immediate family, maybe for just a day or two, maybe longer, maybe camping along the way. You might even stay within the boundaries of your own state. Still, a getaway is a getaway, and it can benefit both mind and heart to get out and see something new and unfamiliar after so many months spent self-isolating at home. This got me to thinking about road travel of the past, how our Sparkling Vintage ancestors might have hit the road back in their day.
The topic of this episode was inspired by a new book that just came out called The Drive in 65 written by Sandra Lynne Reed. This engaging book is part family memoir, part travelogue, part historical narrative. The year was 1965, and Sandra was a young teenager when her family set off set off from Alaska to tour North America in a ramshackle Chevy van christened the Wayward Bus. And so we see national events unfolding through the Sandra’s eyes as she ponders some words and ideas foreign to her sheltered Alaskan upbringing. All knit together with vivid details of life on the road and a rollicking cast of characters. I’ll link to the book in the show notes, or just search for it at your favorite bookseller: The Drive in 65 by Sandra Lynne Reed.
Reading The Drive in 65 inspired me to pull out some old photos of trips my own family took back in the 1960s and 1970s. Then I began to wonder about what road trips were like even further back than that. I remember my mother talking about a memorable car trip out West she took with her family during, I believe, the 1940s, when driving with the windows open meant a constant stream of grasshoppers leaping onto her lap. She surely must have seen many interesting things on that trip, but it seemed that the main thing she remembered was the grasshoppers.
The road trip has long been a popular family adventure, but before the 20th century, the idea of taking an excursion in your own motorized vehicle would have been preposterous. Prior to 1900, for example, those who crossed the country did so in wagons and stagecoaches pulled by horses or oxen over wretched roads–if you could even call them roads. If people back then had a hankering to travel far distances, especially for leisure travel, they would have done so by railroad. Only a very few courageous and adventurous souls would have put their shiny new automobiles to the test by driving them any distance before 1910.
Among these intrepid souls were H. Nelson Jackson and Sewall K. Crocker, who made the first North American transcontinental trip by automobile in 1903 In a 1903 Winton Touring Car, the pair, plus a dog named Bud, traveled from San Francisco to New York in 63 days.
The first woman to cross the American landscape by car was Alice Huyler Ramsey. In 1909, with three female passengers, Ramsey drove from Manhattan to San Francisco in 59 days (make and model of car unknown).
In those early days, tourists wealthy enough to afford the earliest automobiles liked to putter through the countryside, stopping to picnic or camp by the side of the road. One attractive reason for doing this was, of course, the beauty and serenity of unspoiled countryside, especially during the summer when cities were at their most crowded, dirty, and hot. Another motivation for taking road trips was the freedom to start and stop one’s journey at will, freed from the inflexible schedules of railroads. There were some serious downsides, though. In addition to the lack of suitable roads and the hazards of rain, rocks and mud, there were few filling stations, garages, mechanics or even restaurants outside of the large cities. Drivers who chose to hit the road needed to be independent and self-reliant types, skilled at everything from fixing flat tires to shoveling cars out of thick mud.
Even so, most American families could not yet even afford an automobile, which cost between $650 and $1300 in those early years when a typical annual salary was around $500. That began to change when Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908–an affordable automobile that an average family could afford.
The Model T, plus new forms of payment plans available for buying one over time, plus rising wages plus lower prices on used cars, put automobile travel within the reach of the average American. Loading up their cars with everything from camping gear to gasoline and water cans, tire chains and spare parts, they set off to see the world.
Very soon, entrepreneurial types in small towns across the country saw dollar signs in this new tourism industry, and started opening garages, gas stations, roadside cafés, and motor hotels, shortened to “motels.” These new enterprises paid to advertise in guidebooks produced by organizations such as AAA, and service stations stocked up on maps covered in oil company logos, and handed them out for free.
Meanwhile, governments dedicated tax dollars to improving the roads. The number of pothole-ridden gravel roads fell, while the number of smooth-surfaced and well maintained highways increased, making motor travel that much more efficient and pleasant. Plans for the famous Route 66 between Chicago and California were approved in 1926, and it was completely paved by the end of the 1930s.In 1956 the Eisenhower administration passed the Federal Aid Highway Act, which led to the construction of today’s massive Interstate Highway System.
With the growing popularity of road trips over the twentieth century, I just knew there had to be guidance on how to conduct a good road trip, and I was right. In her book This Way Please, published in 1940, Eleanor Boykin had this sage advice for America’s youth:
“Reserve riotous renditions of ‘Sweet Adeline’ and hilarious whooping for highways bounded by fields or woods. Even then, there is the danger that the driver’s attention to his job will be distracted and that he will lose control of the car. In an automobile, rowdy behavior can become criminal conduct. Don’t try to get a thrill by racing another car–the speedway, not the highway, is the place for racers. When you are a passenger, don’t chatter too much to the driver. Blow your horn as a warning,w hen necessary, but don’t be childishly rude by uselessly tooting it when there is a tie up in traffic. Don’t scram out abuse to pedestrians and other motorists. Don’t impersonate Gabriel and announce your arrival at a house by loud horn blasts. Unless you are rheumatic, don’t sit still while a feminine guest climbs in the car. Get out and open the door for her, then close it after her. Stretch your muscles again when she is ready to get out. Girls may wait for this attention.”
Interestingly Miss Boykin seems to assume that the person at the wheel must be a male. How times have changed!
The same assumption was made by Marianne Meade. Writing in 1938, she wrote, “A man driving his own car should open the door for women guests, assist them into the car, and see that they are comfortable before taking her own place at the wheel. He should not open the right hand door, climb across into the driver’s seat, and let his woman guest get int the car after him, closing the door herself…. The driver with guests in his car should consider their comfort in the matter of speed, taking chances, and swearing at other drivers. Do not force guests to endure speed if it spoils the ride for them. If they are nervous, don’t show off by cutting in and out of line, squeezing between cars with onlya small margin of safety. Of course it is ill-bred and childish to snarl and swear at other drivers for the style of their driving or for real or fancied invasions of your rights. And if passengers ask you to stop the car along the road, do not drive miles beyond, trying to convince them that they don’t wish to stop. So many men have a peculiar aversion to stopping, for example, if their wives wish to purchase some fresh eggs or farm-grown fruit from a farm house advertising such things. Brakes are very simply operated, and they were put in cars because people sometimes wish to stop, so if a passenger requests it, be gracious and stop.
Passengers must refrain from backseat driving. They should not tell th driver how to drive, call his attention to the fact that the traffic lights are red or green, or emit nervous little shrieks or gasps when they feel the occasion calls for it. The hostess should consult her guests’ preferences as to having the windows of the car open or closed. The guest on a motor trip should take as little luggage as possible. He should be especially careful not to embarrass his host by bringing more luggage than the car will accommodate.”
Please bear in mind that, while I’m recording this episode in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m hoping that by the time you’re listening, especially those of you who are listening in the future, the worst will have passed and things will be returning to normal as far as requirements for social distancing and face-covering. But if not, be sure to respect the mandates of whatever region you happen to be visiting, and if the COVID-19 rules seem too restrictive, it might be smarter to stay home this year and postpone your trip for a later date. With that in mind, here are some Sparkling Vintage and a few not-so-vintage tips for planning a great road trip.
- Navigation. Even if your car is equipped with a global positioning system, get yourself a good printed travel atlas or paper map of your route. Not only are paper maps fun to look at, if you’re fond of that sort of thing, but even the best GPS can fail you. We once had a GPS try to send us on a detour around supposed road construction. When we realized the detour would take us four hours out of our way, we devised our own much shorter workaround using a printed map. Had we obeyed the GPS we would have gone four hours out of our way unnecessarily. So enjoy a good GPS system, but have a paper map handy, just in case. One caveat is to make sure that your paper map is up-to-date. Vintage maps may look fabulous hanging on a wall as a decoration, but when it comes to finding your way in the real world, only an up-to-date map showing all the current roads will do.
- Entertainment. Before you go, definitely download your favorite music and audiobook playlists to your smartphone. But for a vintage touch, tune into the radio now and then as you pass through different regions. It might be fun and enlightening to hear what the locals like to listen to.
- Exploration. If you’re not in a hurry, take the road less traveled. The interstate highways may be faster, but smaller highways and byways are typically more scenic, with more interesting towns and places to stop and stretch and see the local color. Roadtrippers, which is both a website and a mobile app, can help you find interesting things to see and do.
When planning what to see, keep your interests and those of your traveling companions in mind. Don’t feel you have to see things just because they’re so-called “tourist” activities. If you don’t love museums but you do love bookstores, make your choice accordingly. Just be sure to keep everyone’s preferences in mind. If you love winding mountain roads but they make your trip-mate carsick, have some compassion and stick to the straightaways where possible.
- Scheduling. Try to not be in a hurry. Plan your itinerary loosely so you can change your mind, stay longer in a place that captures your fancy, or at least not get overly stressed out by a traffic snarl or a mechanical issue that disrupts your schedule. On the other hand, you might want to book ahead for popular attractions during high tourist season. Even so, plan with enough slack in the timetable so that sticking to the schedule doesn’t become a point of tension on your trip.
- Division of labor. If you’re traveling with others, divide up the tasks in a way that makes sense. Someone who loves reading maps is a better choice for navigator than someone who doesn’t know north from south. Maybe the non-map-reader is mechanically inclined for keeping the vehicle in good working order, or maybe he or she can be in charge of planning meals and lodging.
- Speaking of meals, plan to carry a cooler filled with water and healthy snacks, and replenish it at grocery stores along your route. Taking all your meals at truckstops, roadside diners, and fast-food restaurants won’t do any favors for your stomach, your energy level, or your pocketbook. Spreading out a blanket and enjoying a roadside picnic in a quiet, attractive spot is a very Sparkling Vintage thing to do.
- Cleanliness. Cleaning out your vehicle before, during, and after your trip will make it a more pleasant experience for everyone. Make liberal use of disposable wipes and hand sanitizer, and toss the trash at every gas station or rest stop.
- Safety first. Be sure to tell someone back home where you’re going, and let them know if you change your route or itinerary. If a planned route or destination starts to feel sketchy for any reason, trust your spidey sense and choose another route. Sign up with a roadside assistance service like AAA. Before you leave, get your vehicle checked out and make sure you have basic equipment like jumper cables, an inflated spare tire, wiper fluid, and motor oil. Carrying extra gallons of water and gasoline is a good idea, too.
Above all, if you take a trip this summer or fall, stay safe and have fun. If you enjoy this podcast, I’d appreciate it from the bottom of my heart if you’d leave a review at Spotify or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. Reviews are very important to help a little podcast like this one get noticed by like-minded listeners. You can find read the show notes at sparklingvintagelife.com under Episode 30. You can also find me on Facebook as Jennifer Lamont Leo, or send an email to email@example.com. And tune in again soon when I’ll be discussing another aspect of A Sparkling Vintage Life.