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A Road Trip Across the USA in 1960

My parents were travelers, so when I graduated high school they made sure I got to see the USA.

Upon graduating high school, my parents and I ventured out on a three-week road trip across the country.

Upon graduating high school, my parents and I ventured out on a three-week road trip across the country.

A Nation-Wide Field Trip

The summer after my high school graduation a car trip across the United States was the capstone to my mandatory education, planned out to give me a real, bookless and personal view of our country. My parents loved to travel, but I later realized that this trip was mostly for me.

Our family, living in California, had previously gone on many vacations towing a small travel trailer throughout the western states, sometimes with my older sister and sometimes with a couple of other kids.

A high point on our trip. Me on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, 1960.

A high point on our trip. Me on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, 1960.

Three for the Road

This time it was just the three of us in a '59 Chevy. We were determined to see the wonders of the East Coast.

The round trip took three weeks and almost 7,000 miles traveling to 23 states, the District of Columbia, and one Canadian province.

On the way, we visited with friends in various places, but our main goal was to get a personal look at Washington D.C. and New York City. I kept a journal with entries for those 22 days.

My entire diary is too long. This article is still long, but summarized to help you skim through.

The "magic carpet." Ours was a four-door, white Impala.

The "magic carpet." Ours was a four-door, white Impala.

Starting Out: August 17th

Day 1

We left Long Beach, CA at 4:30 am, hoping to reach Oak Creek Canyon (near Flagstaff, Arizona) in time for a late picnic lunch.

It was cool through the heart of the Coachella Valley. At 6:16 am, when the sun rose, the desert was beautiful. Soon we reached the Arizona border where desert changed faces almost immediately, putting on hundreds of the Suguaro cacti typical of the Arizona desert.

It started to get HOT now as we climbed and descended the winding roads. At 1:00 pm, a few miles outside of the ghost town of Jerome, we had a flat tire on the back left side. Dad put on the spare and we went on planning to have the tire patched in Flagstaff.

2:30 pm—We rode on through the most beautiful scenic country in Arizona. In Sedona, coming into Oak Creek Canyon. We drove through miles of the reddest RED rock canyons imaginable. Stacked red rocks, castles, towers, buttes, monuments, forts and minarets. The dark red earth was complemented by short evergreen and shrubs. The earth is so red, even though I've seen it before, it always fades in my memory. I can hardly believe the color.

We stopped in Flagstaff, AZ at about 4 pm, had the tire fixed, then on to Winslow, AZ where we got a nice motel and took a swim to cool down before fixing dinner in our room and going to bed.

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1960 Travel Conditions

The car was fairly new. There were no seatbelts (they were not required then), no GPS, no cell phones. It was comfortable, but there was no such thing as automobile air conditioning.

Getting an early start through the desert was important since there was a long hot stretch ahead.

Having a flat tire the first day may have seemed inauspicious, but it was considered to be part of the trip in the 60s. In a round trip of over 6,000 miles, you could expect at least a couple of these episodes.

Skimming through the West

Day 2

We got an early start, making a few stops just to stretch our legs at places like Petrified Forest, and some sites with ancient Indian petroglyphs.

We got a motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Our main objective at this point, since we had already visited many western states, was to cover long distances in the first days, and spend our time at more far-flung destinations.

Day 3

Friday the 19th we drove all day and made it through the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma. It was dark by the time we reached Fort Smith, Arkansas.

We had covered many miles through the Southwest deserts, by starting early in the mornings and stopping in late afternoons to cool off with a swim. (No car air conditioning.) We always looked for a motel with a pool.

Day 4

Devil's Den State Park was a very brief off-highway excursion on our way to Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

By noon we had reached the motel and antique shop owned by our former neighbors, Jack and Gladys Strait. We hadn't seen them in five years and they gave us a hearty welcome. We had a spectacular lightning storm that evening with lots of wind, and only a few raindrops.

Dinner at a nearby log cabin restaurant was steak, a salad piled high with wild cherry tomatoes, and squaw bread with pear honey. We took the huckleberry pie back to the motel to enjoy.

Antique collar button dish with a delicately painted cover. --A gift from our former neighbors.

Antique collar button dish with a delicately painted cover. --A gift from our former neighbors.

Day 5

We had planned to be on our way again in the morning, but a friend of our former neighbors came by the motel early in the morning with his big Cadillac and insisted on taking us on a tour of the beautiful little town of Eureka Springs which included hilltop overlooks, tasting the famous spring waters of some of the famous springs, climbing some of the stone steps and stairways to see some of the notable architectural sites including the Crescent Hotel.

We were back at the Straits by 10 a.m. and headed east through Springfield MO toward St. Louis. We had expected to be there by about 7:30 pm but got caught in a traffic jam several miles before our destination. It was 9 pm before we found a motel with a vacancy. It was old and not very clean. We went to bed tired.

Day 6

Monday, Aug 22. Seemingly we rejoined the same traffic jam we had been in the night before, Crossing the Mississippi River we were in Illinois, the eighth state in five days. Stopped for a hamburger in Joliet, then continued to Chicago. We didn't make any stops there but did take a route that took us down Lakeshore Drive where we could see the marina and the tall buildings.

Day 7

We made an overnight stop in Cleveland, Ohio to visit some friends that we knew from California. They lived in an old part of town where the streets were paved with bricks. They took us on a brief tour around the city and the park showing us the tall buildings and statuary, then we came back to their home and enjoyed a nice dinner. It was a warm August night so we sat out on the front porch and enjoyed the cool air while listening to the enthusiastic music that came from the Pentecostal church down the street.

Buffalo, NY neighborhood

Buffalo, NY neighborhood

Day 8

By the time we got to Buffalo, New York, we were truly lost, but at least we got to see lots of big old houses and churches and streets with large trees.

When we crossed the Niagara River, we could see the mist rising from where we thought the falls should be, and as we crossed the bridge into Canada we couldn't see the falls because the sides of the bridge are high to block the view. Once into the Canadian town of Niagara, we caught only a glimpse of the falls. We found a motel and checked in.

After resting a bit we went out to see some nearby sights. We climbed a tall tower with a statue of an English general on top. It cost us $.15 to climb the narrow spiral stairs. They got narrower as we climbed to the top where there was room for about 3 people and there were two more people behind us. Coming down those stairs the stairs seemed harder and when we got to the base we found out there were 235 Steps Each Way.

Next, we went to the place where the cable car goes across a whirlpool. Mom looked down at the swirling water and said, "I think we can see it just about as well from here–can't we?”

Daddy said, “but it would scare you more if you were up there in that little car.” So we went and hung suspended over the river where the rapids came down into the whirlpool.

We stopped at an exhibit of barrels that people had used to attempt a trip over the falls, or through the rapids.

A rainbow often echoes the shape of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of Niagra.

A rainbow often echoes the shape of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of Niagra.

Finally we saw the magnificent falls themselves. They were truly breathtaking, so much so that I developed a persistent case of hiccups.

By then it was almost evening so we wandered around town a bit looking in the shops until it was dark enough for the lights to be turned on the falls at night. In the meantime we visited Madame Tussard's wax museum.

Going over to get a closer look at the Canadian Falls, we had to walk quite a way uphill and it included steps, which started us wondering why we had decided to climb that tower earlier in the day. It seemed like thousands of cars and thousands of people were there to witness the falls at night with the colored lights playing on them. We would plan for this phenomenon the next night.

Day 9

This was the morning we got a close look at Niagara Falls when we boarded the small boat, "Maid of the Mist", with dozens of other people in black raincoats.

The fine spray wet everyone's faces and made our black raincoats shiny. We continued from the US side, near the American Falls toward the Horseshoe Falls. The boat pitched and swayed as spray showered us steadily.

The sound of falling water roared in our ears, and it was difficult to look towards falls because of the force of the water. Wet hair hung down on my forehead and I could see blonde curls dangling in front of my eyes with big drops of Niagara water trying hard to hang on. The boat turned and headed back out toward the dock. Our trip took about 20 min.

Later we walked along the upper edges of the Horseshoe Falls then drove around the Rainbow Bridge to the US side and onto Goat Island, the piece of land separating the two falls.

"White Dogwood" pattern cups and saucers, English bone china purchased at Niagara Falls, Canada.  One for Mom, one for me.

"White Dogwood" pattern cups and saucers, English bone china purchased at Niagara Falls, Canada. One for Mom, one for me.

Admiring the double rainbow near the rapids of the American Falls and we could see gold at the end of the rainbow. It was actually the golden raincoats of people taking a tour on a wooden stairway. Mom and I decided to take the tour.

We went into a locker room where we changed into green flannel pajamas and burlap shoes, covered by our bright yellow raincoats.

We waited for the elevator to go down to the river rapids with other tourists, and everyone just stared, and laughed at each other because we all looked so silly.

The elevator took us to a tunnel that led to a platform near the river. Our path led over wooden stairways and walkways anchored on the rocks between rapids. As we climbed higher, the railings and steps were covered with a thick padding of green moss. We came to a platform called “hurricane landing” where the force of the wind and water from the falls made us feel we were in a tropical storm.

It was about this point where they had a “No Smoking” sign. Another sign said, “Beware of Pickpockets”. There wasn't one pocket in the entire crowd.

On the way back to the elevator everyone looked funnier than before. Wet green pajamas were stuck to our legs and some of the little kids had wet flannel sleeves hanging out from their raincoat arms. Some slickers were long, some shorter, and everyone had shapeless soggy burlap slippers.

Later, Mom and I did a little shopping and exploring the town, stopping to glimpse falls every now and then. In the evening we watched the colored lights on the falls again, while enjoying ice cream cones.

The view before climbing to the top of the pedestal.

The view before climbing to the top of the pedestal.

New York City, At Last!

Day 10

We had enjoyed Niagara so much that we almost hated to leave, but we knew other adventures were in store for us as we headed toward New York City.

We drove through beautiful hilly forest land, passed pretty little farms, small towns, and fields of wildflowers.

A little before 3 o'clock in the afternoon we came into Albany the capital city of New York State, after traveling through the Mohawk Valley. Albany is an interesting city with many brick and stone streets narrow old brick buildings, big churches and sidewalk fruit markets. (We got lost here again for a little while.)

As we kept coming closer to the city of New York, we were surprised that we still seemed to be in the countryside. It was nothing like the ever-expanding surrounding suburbs of Los Angeles. We almost thought we were on the wrong highway. Then we crossed the Hudson River and found ourselves in the big city.

After checking into our hotel and resting a little we were out on the town walking down Broadway to get a look at the night lights. We found a little place to eat, walked a little more and came back to our hotel room.

Day 11

This was our busy day in New York City, with a cruise around Manhattan. We had walked down to Pier 83 past brownstone tenements while trying to be careful of taxis and bus drivers. It seems that few people paid any attention to traffic signals, especially the pedestrians. We almost felt silly standing there waiting for the light to change. All of the New Yorkers must have known we were California tourists.

On the three hour cruise we saw Rockefeller Center, Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty. We also saw the famous bridges, Yankee Stadium, UN buildings, and many other landmarks. After the boat ride, we took a bus to the Empire State Building. Visibility was slightly limited, however, we still got a good view of the buildings and streets.

At some point, we found the Automat, a coin-operated food dispensary that seemed unique to us—though we had seen something like it in the movies. I think we had pie.

Eating at the Automat

After the cruise, we took a subway express to Battery Park where we caught the boat to Liberty Island. The boat ride took about 20 min.

It was the height of the tourist season so there were hundreds of people lined up for the elevator to the top of the pedestal. The day was hot and humid so we decided not to climb the spiral stairs inside the metal structure with crowds of slow-moving people, to get to the top of the statue, but we got a good sense of the immensity of the monument from where we were.

We took the boat back to Battery Park and decided to take the 5th Street bus instead of the subway so we could see the city. Although we were tired we stopped at St. Patrick's Cathedral. This Gothic style cathedral is supposed to be one in the US most like the famous ones of Europe and it was very beautiful.

The cathedral is not too far from Rockefeller Center so we walked through the square on our way back to the hotel–only about 2 blocks.

We went back to the room and relaxed for a while before heading out for the evening. We found a cafeteria nearby ate spaghetti, then went to Rockefeller Center again to the RCA building and took a tour of NBC-TV and radio studios.

Day 12

We needed to squeeze a little bit more of New York City into our trip before we headed for Philadelphia, so we did little sightseeing before heading out. On an early Sunday morning, the traffic was relatively light.

We drove through the Bowery which reminded us of LA's skid row, then once more through Central Park to find Cleopatra's needle. Coming out of the park we drove down Fifth Avenue to look at the fancy apartments. From there we went to Wall Street and drove around Gramercy Park and on to Washington Square and the Greenwich Village section.

The Holland Tunnel took us under the Hudson River to New Jersey we traveled on turnpikes and tollways through New Jersey to Pennsylvania.

By a little after noon we were at Eastern Baptist Seminary, just outside of Philadelphia, to visit a student that we knew there. Being summer, there were few other students around—just some of the full-time residents. He took us on a tour through the seminary chapel and we took our luggage to our room where we got ready to go down for a swim. The pool was very large and a cool relief from the humid heat of the day.

That evening we went to a stone and brick church to hear our friend, the seminary student, give a message. The church had absorbed the heat of the day. It felt like a pizza oven. Later we went to a speciality ice cream parlor that was apparently a favorite spot for the seminary students.

Valley Forge

Valley Forge

Day 13

We were also introduced to the diner experience for a hearty breakfast and then drove through the Bryn Mawr district. We continued to Valley Forge where we stopped to look at some of the accommodations that were similar to what Washington's soldiers had back in the hard winter when they stood against nature's forces as well as the invading English.

We then headed back to Philadelphia, parked the car and walked to City Hall where we took the elevator up the tower to the base of the 37 foot “Billy Penn” statue which was the preeminent feature of the Philly skyline.

We walked to Independence Hall where we saw the Liberty Bell, (it was still in the entryway inside of the building, back then) the Supreme Court chamber where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and the assembly room where representatives of 13 colonies ratified the declaration and proclaimed liberty.

At that point, we found we had walked quite a long way and were too tired to walk back so we took a cab back to our car.

BIGGER than I thought it was—even after seeing photos of it all my life.

BIGGER than I thought it was—even after seeing photos of it all my life.

We continued our journey, heading towards Washington DC. Driving through the city of Baltimore, Maryland and saw many buildings with white marble steps. Mom said everyone in the city scrubbed their steps with the ambition of having the cleanest and brightest.

I fell asleep while riding and it wasn't long before I was awakened by Mom telling me to look at the Capitol building. I didn't know what she was talking about until I looked for myself and there it was. In the distance, I could also see the unmistakable pointed shaft of the Washington Monument. We drove through the center of the city right in front of the Capitol building and were surprised that it was of greater size than we had imagined.

We found that we couldn't get accommodations at the motel in Arlington where we had planned on staying, so we had to go look for another. We finally found a nice motel room one and a half miles from Mount Vernon. It was about 7 PM.

George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate

George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate

Day 14

Tuesday, August 30 we started out a little before 9 AM to go to Mount Vernon. The gates opened at 9 and we wanted to avoid the crowd and afternoon heat. Walking up the carriage path to enter the main entrance of the estate we looked across the Bowling Green and could see the home of Washington flanked by smaller white buildings which had served as offices, servants quarters storage rooms etc.

We walked through both the upstairs and downstairs rooms then to the kitchen which had a lot of the original furnishings, a separate building, the smokehouse, storage shops and stables and then down the path to the tomb of George and Martha Washington .

Arlington House: The Custis Lee Mansion. During the Civil War, The Union made the grounds of Robert E. Lee's ancestral home a national cemetery.

Arlington House: The Custis Lee Mansion. During the Civil War, The Union made the grounds of Robert E. Lee's ancestral home a national cemetery.

After visiting the museum and gardens we came back to the motel and took a swim before packing and check out. We found another motel and just rested in the air-conditioned room for relief from the heat and humidity. Later we drove to Arlington National Cemetery where we visited the Custis/Lee Mansion.

At the tomb of the unknown soldiers, we witnessed the changing of the guard. We visited a few other monuments, including the US Marine Memorial, and the Iwo Jima statue.

Day 15

We took a half-day limousine tour rather than trying to fight traffic, find parking places, and navigate. We shared the tour with a family from Michigan.

Our first stop was the Bureau of Engraving and Printing where we toured the building on catwalks above the work area, as ten dollar bills were printed, processed, counted, cut, sorted, and packaged into neat bundles.

Next, our driver took us to the main building of the Smithsonian Institution where we viewed the Wright brother's plane, Lindbergh's plane, what and what was left of the flag that flew from Fort Mc Henry when Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner.

Many other interesting things like relics of various wars and early inventions were on exhibit . . . an amazing display.

We next went to the White House. We passed through the rooms on the lower floor with a continuously moving line of people.

Then it was on to the capitol where we walked through the rotunda and the halls lined with statues to the Senate chamber. LBJ was speaking. Next came a brief stop at the National Archives to see the original Declaration of Independence, and then quick visits to the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, capped by an elevator trip to the top of the Washington Monument for an overview of the mall.

I don't know how the limo driver managed to get us to all of those places in such a short amount of time, but it was well worth the price and we certainly could not have done it on our own without taking an extra day or two.

Mom and Dad at Harper's Ferry.

Mom and Dad at Harper's Ferry.

Heading Home

Day 16

The next day we starting the last leg of our journey. We stopped at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and learned the history of Abolitionist John Brown's raid on the armory. The event became the prelude to American Civil War. Oddly, I don't think I had ever heard about this in my high school history classes.

Ruins of historical buildings were preserved and explained by signs and photos of the events that occurred there. It was designated as a National Monument at that time, and became a National Historical Park in1963.

Our car was pointed west again and we had another flat tire in Elerya Ohio.

Day 17

Today we traveled through miles and miles of corn. We stopped for a big farm breakfast in the Amana Colonies and looked around at the woolen mills where mom bought some wool fabric to keep her sewing machine busy when we got home again.

We stopped in David City, Nebraska. My parents had friends (actually relatives of some of their high school friends who had been out to visit in California quite a few times) living in this small farm town. It was almost evening, and the big event of the day was the annual jalopy races down at the fairgrounds—so that's where I went with the teenagers of their families, while the older people stayed home and visited.

Day 18

This multi-generation farm family had a long agricultural tradition and wanted to show us their cornfields, and their hog-raising operations on this day. We had planned to be on our way again, but they insisted we stay a little longer to enjoy their unbounded hospitality.

The corn was tall, and we praised it to be polite but being city folks we had no idea about corn worthiness. The hog raising was done under a high shade shelter on concrete slabs, designed to be easily hosed off so that the hogs were healthy, clean and cool.

At the time this was a new idea, and many hogs are still raised this way, but there are differences of opinion on if this is the best situation, or if it is unnatural. At the time it looked very clean and the hogs, pigs and piglets looked very happy and healthy.

A truck on Loveland Pass

A truck on Loveland Pass

Day 19

Though our Nebraskan friends wanted us to stay longer, we were already a little behind schedule, and Dad needed to be back to work on time. We started out toward Loveland, Colorado and found a motel for the night there.

Day 20

Following Route 6, we crossed the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains at Loveland Pass 11,990 feet (3,655 m) above sea level.

The winding road had a steep grade with hairpin turns. Above the treeline, the road offers spectacular views in all directions.

The Eisenhower Tunnel, on Interstate 70 was not finished until 1979. This pass was one of the main routes across the Rockies before the tunnel was completed.

Day 21

Dinosaur National Park, near Vernal Utah was interesting stop where massive dinosaur fossil beds were discovered in 1909. Many complete skeletons have been recovered and reassembled.

One of the main attractions is the "Dinosaur Wall," a steeply tilted section of hillside that has been partially excavated to reveal hundreds of fossilized bones.

We continued on our way to eat a quick lunch at Bryce Canyon, then headed out to Las Vegas for our last night on the road.

Day 22

As I said, this was a gift from my parents, a firsthand glimpse of many things I had only seen before in school books, as well as many other places. Mom had done the planning and map-reading. All of this was well before anyone had imagined things like cell phones, internet information and GPS systems.

1960 was a year of optimistic idealism. America had gone through a post-war economic boom, we were about to elect a young idealistic president, cars had fins and Elvis was in the army.

Though three weeks is not long enough to understand a country as large as the USA, it was enough time to give me a greater appreciation of my heritage, and a feeling of the vastness and diversity of my country.

The people we visited in the green hills of Arkansas, in an old neighborhood of Cleveland, on the green manicured college campus near Philadelphia, and in the farm country of Nebraska, all were bound together, though their lifestyles varied.

While traveling across the deserts, mountains and plains, and glimpsing the big cities, I got a feeling about the people who made our history, and some hints about the modern people who live here.

We got a feeling about historical events from the American Revolution to the Civil War, and the Westward movement all while visiting historical sites.

We enjoyed the simple abundance of a generous Amish-style breakfast, the powerful spraying thunder of the Niagara, the impressive buildings and monuments of the capital and the towering buildings and busy streets of NYC.

We had stood at the birthplace of Independence, traveled across the expansive miles of productive farmland, marveled at the amazing excavation of dinosaur bones in the desert, and comprehended it all much better than we had before.

Crossing long distances between the old frontier to the west on a modern highway, made me marvel that people had traveled a similar route a hundred years before, crossing mountains, plains and deserts when there was only wilderness and no roads.

When I read or see stories of American history, I can visualize some of the places I saw in person.

The other result was after I got married and had children, I knew it would be possible to drive back and forth across the country.

It was fourteen years later when my husband and I took four weeks, with two boys and a dog, seeing some of the same things and more . . . but that's another story.

Travel Expenses in 1960

Our average motel fee was about $12 per night. The cheapest one was $8.50. The highest two were a hotel in New York City and a motel near Washington D.C. for which we paid an outrageous sum of about $24 a night, each. Lodging totaled $217 for 15 nights. Six nights were free, thanks to friends in various places.

Gasoline averaged 25 cents per gallon, a notable high was in New Mexico at 38 cents. The car got about 17 miles per gallon. We probably spent less than $100 for gasoline, plus something for tire repairs.

One expense that was unexpected, was a series of turnpike, bridge and tunnel tolls in the eastern part of the country. Tolls were not common in the west where we lived. These fees added another $20 to the closely budgeted trip. Imagine paying .50 to go through the Holland Tunnel! I think it is about $12, now.

Tickets for boat rides, attractiions and and admissions, were extras. From Mom's notes, it seems she pre-estimated a cost of about $660 for the trip including eating out infrequently.

We usually ate breakfast in the motel room. Cold cereal and canned fruit with milk kept in our cooler. We picked up things like bread and sandwich makings on the way. Spending money on restaurants was not a priority.

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