My brother Ron, he was 8, and I, all of 10, hollered out, “We are going to California!” My father quickly corrected us by saying, “We are heading west. When half the (vacation) money is gone, wherever we are, we are turning around and heading home.”

Even though the balloon of excitement became a little deflated for my brother and I, there were little smiles on my parents’ faces. They had saved and planned this trip for a long time and California was not the goal but the destination and, more specifically, Disneyland! And, we weren’t flying — we were driving.

To make this trip work financially, we were not only going to drive to California, but sleep in our blue 1952 Plymouth station wagon instead of staying in motels. Sleeping in the back of a station wagon on a trip was not unusual; “back in the day” many people did.

For the trip, my mother made car curtains using cloth measuring tape for curtain rods. Small hooks to hang the curtains were inserted in the perimeter of the car’s headliner. A feather bed mattress fit perfectly in the back.

The suitcases, the Coleman camping stove and a couple of boxes containing pots and pans, utensils, various dishes, cups and other cooking and eating essentials were packed on top of the mattress, along with an 18-inch square insulated cooler. On the floor of the back seat was a 40-gallon milk can filled with water for drinking, cooking and washing. And, under the front seat, my father put about a dozen cans of oil, just in case. After all, the car was 6 years old.

The vacation began on a Saturday. The station wagon was loaded up and we left our Auburn home. Being race fans, our first stop was Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough that night. After the races, we headed south, putting up for the night at a picnic area a few miles into Massachusetts.

The next day, we drove through New England, across Pennsylvania and into Ohio, where we picked up U.S. Route 40; there were few interstate highways in 1958. Route 40 went from Baltimore all the way to San Francisco. In addition, U.S. 40 hit all the major cities along the waistline of America — Indianapolis, St. Louis, Denver, Reno, Salt Lake City and Sacramento.

Every night, we would pull in to a picnic area, a state park or a ranger station, unload the car, put up the curtains, make up the mattress and go to sleep. My mother, father and I slept in the back while my brother slept on the front seat. All of our belongings were piled up against the car, which no one would ever do today as everything would have been stolen by daybreak.

People had more respect for others’ possessions back then.

Each morning, we washed up, cooked breakfast, talked to fellow travelers, re-packed the car and off down the road we would go. We stopped at a grocery store by late morning each day to stock up on perishable food items for lunch, supper and breakfast the next day — and ice for the cooler.

Along the way, to occupy my brother’s and my minds, we watched for race cars (remember, race fans). We each had a little notebook and we would write the number of every race car we saw. Back then, there seemed to be a race car parked beside every gas station. Lord knows how many race cars we missed driving at night and, in the end, our little notebooks were filled with just a bunch of numbers that we could not put a picture to. And, every time we stopped to eat, we dug out the ball gloves and baseball and “played catch” with our father joining in more often than not.

Being the latter part of August, the temperature was over 100 degrees when we drove through the Great Salt Lake Desert. Newer cars than ours, some brand new, were overheated alongside the road, but our little Plymouth kept chugging along.

On U.S. 40 there was only one gas station in the desert — a Richfield station. We stopped to get gas and ice cream bars, which began to melt before we could get the wrappers off. Talking to the woman behind the counter, we discovered she not only owned the gas station but that she once lived in Lewiston and had worked at Bates Mill! A small world even in 1958.

Seven days after our journey began, we pulled into Sacramento around noon. Since we all needed showers and laundry needed to be done, we checked into a motel for the first time on our trip. And, being a Saturday and being race fans, my father bought the local paper and found a race track in action that night on the outskirts of the city. We didn’t know the name of one driver and, yet, we all enjoyed the evening a lot.

The next day, we drove to San Francisco then down the coast to Los Angeles and another night in a motel. Like most tourists, we did the tourist thing — Disneyland and touring Hollywood stars’ homes.

The guide pointed out various stars’ homes but they were hidden behind tall ivy-covered brick walls, except for two. On one corner was the home of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds and around the corner was the home of Elizabeth Taylor. The next year or so, Eddie divorced Debbie and married Liz. Guess he hopped the fence a time or two.

Disneyland was very big, especially to two young boys. We went on a lot of rides, or it seemed that way as we spent only one day there. And, we met a family from New Hampshire; that small world thing seemed appropriate in Disneyland.

My father looked up a Marine Corps buddy who lived near Los Angeles. He and his wife had a pool in their backyard and my brother and I were welcomed to swim, which we did.

The next day we headed for home, traveling the famous U.S. Route 66 — Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and on up to St. Louis, where Route 66 crossed Route 40. We visited the Grand Canyon, drove through Las Vegas and took the tour down into Boulder (Hoover) Dam.

When we hit St. Louis, we turned onto Route 40 for the final leg home. The 40-gallon milk can full of water tipped over when my father rounded a corner in downtown St. Louis. The lid came off, dumping water onto the floor of the back seat. My brother and I hollered, my father quickly pulled the car over to the downtown curb. Water gushed out when my brother opened his door and people on the busy sidewalk “gawked” at us tourists. We all laughed about it for the next 10 minutes or so. I still smile about the milk can tipping over, even though it’s 53 years later.

We got home on the afternoon of the first day of school. We had a pretty good excuse for our absence.

To this day I look back on that cross-country vacation trip with fondness. My father always said “You cannot see this wonderful country from 30,000 feet in the air.” He was so right.

The four of us saw a lot of this country on that trip, from the picnic areas we ate and slept at, to the desert sands of the Southwest, to walking the streets of Reno at night, to the beauty of the Grand Canyon, to seeing Salt Lake City all lit up as we traveled the downside of the Rocky Mountains, to the wonderment of Disneyland and, yes, even the woman from Lewiston in that Richfield gas station in the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert.

It was a trip of a lifetime and I thank my parents for the experience.

Bob Morris lives in Auburn.


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