The following story comes from Chapter 13 of my Gumpy's collection of short stories, titled "That's Life...and then some", self-published in July 2000. I thought this was fitting as a summer time story, occurring 75 years ago in July and part of early August 1937.
California or Bust, 1937, by Keith D. Jones
Dedicated to: My Brother Bob and Two Cousins Tom "Toad" Hendrickson, Guy Hankins
"California or Bust" that's what the oil cloth banner had printed on it, and it was attached to the rear of my brother's new 1937 Dodge. My brother and I with our two cousins, Tom Hendrickson and Guy Hankins, had saved $150.00, and we figured it was more than enough to make the trip to California. Somehow we had got the message "Go West Young Man." We had talked to other people that had made the trip, and we knew some other people that had gone to California and decided to live there. We had heard about the land of sunshine, streets lined with palm trees and the glamour of Hollywood.
Our parents were not exactly in favor of this trip, but they reasoned that my brother Bob being the oldest, would be able to take care of us, and keep everyone in line. The day arrived to head west, Mom had a big box full of sandwiches, cookies and a few other surprise goodies. She gave Bob and I a kiss with tears in her eyes and said, "Take care of yourself and be sure to write." She told Bob, "Don't drive too fast."
We were off early the next morning heading west on US 40. In those days it was a narrow rough road straight across Illinois to St. Louis. We had been working on our box of food and by the time we got to the Mississippi River we had just about cleaned it out. I had seen some big rivers like the Wabash and White River, but the Mississippi was something to behold. It was hard to believe they could make a bridge large enough to span almost a mile wide river. As we crossed it I looked down and could see barges loaded with all kinds of stuff. There was a large paddle wheel showboat tied up to the dock down below and its two tall smoke stacks had a lazy column of smoke drifting across the river.
Bob said, "You could go all the way to New Orleans on this river or you could go to Minneapolis."
That's hard to believe, but I guess he would know, he was always smart on things like that. Right now we were picking our way through the St. Louis traffic looking for Route #66. That road starts in Chicago, passes St. Louis, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles. Just the sound of those names was exciting. Route #66, the road that carried millions to California in the thirties and forties. Many people made this trip hoping to improve their station in life and, some were looking for a break into the movies.
I don't think we four knew for certain what our motive was other than it seemed like the time to make a break from home and see the world, and California and the west was a good place to start. One reasons we figured we could make the trip on $150.00 was because we planned ahead. We found we could eat on 50 cents a meal for all four of us. Here's how we did it. We would buy a loaf of bread for 10 cents, half pound of baloney for 10 cents, a quart of milk for 10 cents, a dozen fig newtons for 10 cents and 10 cents for apples or bananas. That gave us a balanced meal and we only spent 50 cents for the four of us.
Now our lodging depended on the situation. There were no Holiday Inns or motels, but on occasion there were tourist cabins that were pretty primitive and rough, usually the beds were hard, the insides were roughly exposed, with two by four studding and unfinished walls. Sometimes we spent $1.50 a night for a tourist cabin. More often we would find a good location and sleep in the car. Don't forget a seventeen year old boy does not know what a bad night's sleep is.
Our Dad had an old schoolmate that lived in Flagstaff and Dad had said to be sure to look him up. We decided this would be a good place to get a free bed, and if we were lucky maybe a good home cooked meal. We got to Flagstaff early in the afternoon, we didn't want to get there late and catch them at a bad time. After we explained to these people that we were Edgar Jones' boys, and the other two were our cousins, they became more hospitable even though they didn't know us at first.
It was easy to see they did not have a big house and were living on a shoe string budget. They offered us more baloney sandwiches for supper. Dad's friend was a maintenance man for the Arizona State Teacher's College and since their house was so small, Bob slept on the floor in the house and they arranged for the rest of us to sleep on the floor of the maintenance building, that had a school bus, tractor and other equipment stored inside. We had a bed of blankets to cushion the hard concrete floor.
We raised the overhead door about a foot to give us plenty of air, and we laid there and talked about the events of the day. The next day we planned to take a side trip to the Grand Canyon. It was not long and we were all asleep and it must have been about two o'clock in the morning when we were awakened with a flash light in our eyes. The man with the light was a rough looking character with a dirty uniform, a police badge and a pistol on his hip. He told us to get out and not give him any problems or he could arrange to get us a free room in the local jail. He thought we were some sort of bums. We had a hard time convincing him to wake our host for verification of the situation. He reluctantly knocked on the door of the little house to see just what was going on. Soon the lights were going on. At last when I heard laughter between the night watchman and our host I was much relieved. Next morning his wife fixed bacon and eggs before we started for Grand Canyon, happy and full of anticipation. We headed west on Route #66 for about thirty miles and at Williams, Arizona, we took the cut off to the Grand Canyon.
For the next sixty miles we were in some very barren country and every few miles there would be an Indian sitting under a little grass and stick shade structure. When a car approached the Indian would rush out from the shade of the lean to and hold up a blanket, or another handmade item.
The stuff was certainly cheap enough, but we did not have money for these kind of things. Eventually we got to the Grand Canyon and we were surprised to find large pine trees around parts of the south rim. We parked the car near the El Tovar lodge and casually walked over to an observation point and with a sudden and almost a reverent moment of awe we stood spellbound with the vastness of the ever changing beauty of the Grand Canyon. We were able to see the mighty muddy Colorado River chewing away with its continuous effort to cut through the canyon walls. Mule trains were slowly working their way down a canyon trail where they would spend the night at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. Never in my life had I seen such grandeur and beauty. Certainly, Indiana had nothing to compare.
Across from the lodge there was a Hopi Indian village. They were working on rugs and jewelry. It was our first time to see Indians up close. They told us to come back at night and they were going to put on a rattlesnake dance with live snakes. We missed the dance, but we did take some side trips around the canyon, and every view was more impressive. Back at the lodge we bought cards to send home. Cards were one cent and postage was one cent, not a bad deal. Sure wish we could have stayed there for the night, but we did not have the five dollars to spend on a hotel room, but it was fun to see the rich people getting off the Santa Fe trains that were lined up next to the El Tovar lodge.
After awhile we headed back to Williams to pick up Route #66 and points west. We stopped for gasoline and the service man asked if we were going west and when we told him, that we were heading to LA, he said, "You will be driving across a lot of hot desert country and had better take some extra water."
He showed us a canvas water bag that most motorists carry water in. Holds about a gallon, and you hang it from the radiator cap in front of your car. We figured we might need one and this would assure us of drinking water or water for the radiator if we needed it. The man said the process of evaporation through the canvas kept the water cool, whatever that meant. Bob said he understood and since most of the travelers had one, we purchased the bag for 75 cents and filled it with water.
The filling station man was right, the desert was hot and dry. On through Kingman and Needles we drove. Of course, those days we had no air conditioning and the temperature must have been well over 100 degrees F. We were told it would be better to drive across the desert at night. So after a short rest, taking on more gas and water, we joined the other motorists and set out for Los Angeles. It was early in the morning when we arrived in San Bernardino, it was much cooler and the lush green irrigated fields were pleasant to look at after seeing nothing but sand, sagebrush, tumble weeds, and cactus for several hundred miles. We got our first look at orange groves that were in abundance. What a pretty sight with dark green leaves and trees full of oranges.
These country boys had not seen anything like this before. We managed to get to LA, San Diego and past the red roofed Coronado Hotel and to Tijuana, Mexico. Traffic was not as congested in those days, there was no super highways and we did not have any trouble getting around. While we were in Mexico I purchased a large straw sombrero that said Mexico across the front. I also got my mother a very pretty serape. It had colors of bright red, blue, green, orange stripes with a sort of rainbow effect. I thought she would like to put it on her dresser or piano. One day when we were driving in LA we had stopped for a traffic light at Hollywood and Vine when a motorman on a street car spotted our Indiana car license and he flung open his door and hollered at us and said, "Hi Hoosiers, is the monument circle still in downtown Indianapolis?"
The light changed and we were both on our way. I often wondered what prompted his remark. We toured Hollywood with a guide and got to see all the movie stars homes. Some were very pretty and looked expensive with palm trees and tropical flowers. Some of these homes must have cost $10,000 or more. We worked our way up the coast and spent the night at Carpenteria, just below Santa Barbara. We had a tourist cabin with access to the Pacific Ocean. This was fun playing in the ocean, and by now we realized that we had made it all the way to California, and we decided it would be a good place to remove our California or Bust sign from the rear of our car.
We enjoyed our drive to San Francisco. Of course, we had to ride the cable cars, take in Chinatown and I recall that Bob bought his girlfriend a silk kimono with a dragon on the back. When we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, the view was great, and we could see Alcatraz Island where the prison is, and we noticed the fleet was in. Next day the Navy was taking people out to some of the boats. We went on the battleship Tennessee and I was about ready to become a Navy man. Little did we realize that some of these ships would be lost at Pearl Harbor in a few years. San Francisco then, as now, offered much to see. We drove to Knob Hill and went up and down the steep streets.
It was here that we had another chance for a free meal and possibly a night's lodging. A girl by the name of Roberta Elliot, a couple of years older than Bob, had recently moved there with her new husband. So we proceeded to look them up. We found them living on one of those hillside streets about three floors up. I guess now days they call it an apartment. Sure enough the newlyweds were home, still on their honeymoon. They made us welcome as they were glad to see someone from Thorntown. I recall that Roberta went to Fisherman's Wharf that was nearby and got a gallon bucket of fresh shrimp.
She brought them home and proceeded to prepare them for our supper. I had not had shrimp before, and I was not sure if I would like it, but soon developed a taste for these funny looking sea creatures.
When bedtime came I was amazed to see them pull a bad out of the wall, from what I thought to be a closet. With two on the floor and two in the folding bed, we all had a good night's rest. I am not sure about our host, but they must have had another bed someplace.
Our trip continued from San Francisco to Sacramento and to Reno. Reno was still a wild west gambling town and Las Vegas had not yet been developed as a gambling mecca. We took a side trip to Lake Tahoe, such a beautiful mountain lake surrounded by huge pines. We gathered pine cones that were a foot long to give to our mother when we got home. Bob's new 1937 Dodge performed perfect and we spent the night in the car on the flats of the Great Salt Lake.
The next day was a fun day in Salt Lake. We were impressed with how clean the town was and especially the Mormon Temple. Bob said some Mormon men have more than one wife, that was hard for me to believe, but I guess he should know. He told us how Brigham Young settled the town and how the gulls saved their crop from a plague of locusts many years ago, and he pointed out the monument to the sea gull. We spent a night in Vernal, Utah which was a very primitive wild west town.
We managed to get through the Colorado Rockies and took a side trip through the Rocky Mountain National Park on the Trail Ridge Road which was part gravel at the high altitude of 12,183 feet. We stopped long enough to look around and we all walked out on the snow. Hard to imagine snow in August. Hank wanted me to take his picture making snow balls. Coming down the mountain was a lot easier than going up and we soon were in Denver. We found Colfax Avenue and headed east. I recall staying in Manhattan, Kansas and then Hannibal, Missouri where we paused long enough to see Mark Twain's boyhood home, and sure enough the white picket fence was there that he had written about painting when he was a boy. Crossing the Mississippi River somehow did not look so big after all the other things we had seen the past weeks.
We reached home feeling more worldly and well traveled. When we pulled up in front of Guy Hankins house at Thorntown, his dog, Jiggs, had dug a hole next to the house to seek relief from the August heat. He looked up with little interest, yawned and went back to sleep. We dropped "Toad" off at his house, his dog Pepo ran in circles when he got out of the car, but that was not unusual since she did that every day when he came home from school.
Bob and I went home to Indianapolis. The folks were glad to see us and know that we had a safe trip. They were more interested in our safe being than the Grand Canyon or California. When Mom gave me a kiss she had a smile on her face, but a tear in her eye. Next week Bob would go back to work at Indiana Central Business College. My school would start in a couple of weeks. Football practice would start early. It was my senior year.
The next day I was sort of in a daze after the long trip. I went over to see my friend John Jenner to tell him about California and the west. He was on the front porch with his sister in the swing. He looked up and said, "Hi there, haven't seen you around for awhile, what ya been doing?"
"Just got back from California." I said.
"So, what else is new?" Said John. He paused and said, "Hey, let's go to the Lyric tonight and see Duke Ellington, they say he has a good show and the movie has Edward G. Robinson in it."
We had a great trip west. Spent $136.00 and I learned not to try to impress other people with your travels.
The chapter this story is from includes a sketching made by Gumpy of their Dodge on Route 66 in the Arizona desert and a picture of Bob, Tom and Guy in front of their California or Bust sign on the side of the road in Missouri on 1 August 1937. I'll scan these and post here later.
This was quite a trip. I'm glad that my Gumpy recorded this and other stories.