No rain ‘til we’re loaded! Then it poured on the Pa turnpike. Had pancakes in Youngstown. Got home at 4:15. Great place and Jim had it all cleaned up and lots of goodies to eat.
Marge Binder, August 16, 1969
This passage reads like a movie climax: a race towards home, battling every mile against the Family’s travel nemesis — the Pennsylvania Turnpike (though there’s always time for pancakes!) — resolving in the warm glow of Dad’s tidy largesse. We are home at last with “goodies to eat.”
It was a fun and fulfilling 62+ days, both back in 1969 and here in 2019, constructing this blog.
A Few Words with Mom
Mom and I talked a lot about the trip when I visited her last week at our place on Lake Michigan. Here’s a bit of that, shot with the SHAKIEST selfie stick I could find.
There’s one question I forgot to ask Mom in this interview: “We’re you worried about anything on this trip?” So I just asked her on the phone. She thought about it just a few seconds and said, “Nope.” She talked about the new car and her skills with the tent. When I probed a bit, she didn’t back down. “Nope, I knew we’d be fine.”
Loaded up and got started about 9:30. Ate cheese sandwiches on the way and reached Youngstown about 5. Set up and “built ourselves a tommy ache” of ice cream. Then swam.
Marge Binder, August 15, 1969
We camped at the same place every summer, right off exit 16 of the Ohio Turnpike: The Ohio Motel near the Pennseyvania border. It was mostly a campground, with a small and stately structure for those incapable of fending for their own shelter under canvas. Sad.
It had an arcade with the latest (and oldest) pinball machines, and we’d squander the spare change we’d earned for keeping quiet during that day’s drive.
The “‘tummy ache’ of ice cream” could be gotten at Fronz (sp?), a place that made its own ice cream and candy. It was in a strip mall a few miles down the road from the Turnpike. We stopped there pretty much every summer. The owner was a friendly guy, a stocky Wonka type, sans top hat and libretto, who remembered us and gave us tours of his operation. Impressive!
A rite of passage (that I’m sure I never even attempted) was to wolf down a Belly Buster, a massive sundae of some 10 or 20 scoops. Heck, it could have been 31, I can’t say. I’m sure Tim tried, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he succeeded one day.
In constructing this blog, I’ve not been able to unearth a single shred of evidence that Fronz ever existed. That is really sad.
Wait, have we learned nothing on this trip? I hope we waited an hour after the ice cream to take this swim.
We arrive home tomorrow, after 62 days away. Come back for an interview with the Marge Binder of MargeBindersEpicAdventure fame, as well as to share in some of the excellent feedback and accolades her trip received via this blog. Thank you for that!
Got Mike’s shot, washed the car, the washing and picked up money from Jim at Western Union. Ate steak for lunch. Shopped at a shopping center—got Doug new camping shorts. Letting him wear his summer “peaches.” The boys swam. Called Dort but couldn’t get her.
Marge Binder, August 1, 1969
There’s a lot to unpack here, no pun attended.
My Aunt “Dort” Dorothy was the oldest of my Dad’s siblings. She was a judge in the Denver area and a revered character in our Family. She was a protector and champion of Dad since childhood, and Tim greatly respected. She passed away just last year. Sadly, I never met her.
Not a clue what this means. Mom claims not to recall. It’s probably best we leave it at that.
A Different Time
How much the world changed since 1969, some of which we’ve explored on this scroll. One detail of today’s diary entry references calling [Aunt] Dort but “couldn’t get her.” That’s what happened back then, before even simple technologies like answering machines. You call someone, they don’t answer, you move on. In this case, you drive on home another 2,500 miles and don’t see them for decades.
And Western Union is a blast from the past. I’d practically forgotten about them.
Money Handling in 1969
This is the first time Maw cites a means of finances — a stop at Western Union to pick up a money wire from Dad. Western Union (or WU, as it calls itself in its umpteenth rebranding since then) was the world’s largest provider of telegraphic services — telegrams. In doing some cursory research for this blog, I was surprised they’re still thriving in niche but modern markets.
As for how Mom managed money on this long trip, she offered some insights recently. Credit cards were not so in vogue yet. Debit cards were still 25 years away. I was surprised that Maw didn’t use travelers’ checks on this trip. She traveled with a checkbook but few banks would cash them; the big chains didn’t cover the whole country yet, or were few and far between, or were open only during “banking hours.”
Maw tells me she kept a few hundred dollars in cash to cover things, from gas and food to lodging and doctors. I suppose that’s a pretty straightforward way of doing things, but it certainly doesn’t feel secure by today’s standards — as ironic as that sounds.
Also, note in Mom’s diary what happened right after fetching the cash: “Ate steak for lunch.” That’s just how she rolls!
ATMs and Beyond
Can you imagine living without ATMs? This Gen-Xer cannot. 25% of Boomers, though, don’t use them at all.
A Chemical Bank on Long Island brought America’s first ATM on-line in 1969, advertising the occasion thusly: “On September 2, our bank will open at 9:00 and never close again.” (Get ready for the 50th anniversary of that next month!) The machines were first called Docutellers after the company that innovated the technology, Docutel. Today, there are more than half a million ATMs in the US, one for about every 650 people.
These days, of course, lots of people can live without ATMs, thanks to mobile apps, blockchain and even cryptocurrencies. I’m sure their recollections of these innovations 50 years from now will sound as stale as my defense of the ATM.
Feels like the blog needs a little tap on the gas. Might be that all those hippies got us digging our mellow.
Earlier I covered some of the diversions we had for long days in the car, one of which was Tim reading aloud from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Even though we’re a little north of Steinbeck country by now, it got me thinking about some of the other books about roadtrips.
Of course, first we need to agree on what constitutes a roadtrip. Does any quest like The Hobbit suffice? The Odyssey? Huck Finn? I’m going to limit it to books that center on a motorized vehicle and the surfaces laid down for them. That’s going to constrict the scope a bit. But hey, I haven’t read that many books about roadtrips anyway, as you’ll see.
Five Favorite Books About Roadtrips
First off: Honorable Mention goes to Mom’s diary from the 1969 roadtrip. Friends and followers have praised her terse but comprehensive style as of “Hemingway.” Had she not documented the trip on a daily basis (no doubt a task past exhaustion most nights), this retracing would not have been possible or even conceivable. Thanks to her for allowing me to use it as the basis for this 50th anniversary project.
5. Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck. 1960
I jumped on the Steinbeck wagon after reading The Grapes of Wrath in middle school. Travels with Charley featured less angst than Grapes, and a dog. To a nerdy high schooler living in the suburbs in the early 80s, this book made solitude seem like a reward (and I was so winning!). Of course, a lot of us were craving “freedom” at that age; the open road, adventure and experience sounded pretty good. I got the impression from Charley that Steinbeck wasn’t looking for that anymore. That’s why this was not my favorite of Steinbeck’s and, for all the catharsis, I’ve heard it was not a favorite of his either.
4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson. 1971
I didn’t read it. I tried, I really did. But I never found a way in. Same with Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Yep, feels good to admit it. Perhaps I’ll start another blog of all the other staples and classic literature I didn’t read. First up: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. If anyone actually made it all the way through that behemoth, I’d love to hear what it’s about.
Kerouac wrote the book on, well, roadtripping books. Reading it was an exhausting rite of passage, as most Beat books were, forcing you to wake up, get hip and keep up. It reads like the kind of frenzied work that went into it: three nico-caffeinated weeks typing on one continuously scrolling piece of paper. It oozed with the restless angst that Charley didn’t.
In the end, after all of the drama and adventure, the road leads nowhere and nothing really matters.
“‘Where we going, man?’ ‘I don’t know but we gotta go.’”
This book made me proud to have read it. Steinbeck was a master of restless dreaming, of seeking out a better life somewhere, someday. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way. It’s the journey that helps us arrive at who we really are. Okay, enough psycho babble. The Joads got a raw deal, and the raw deals kept coming everywhere they turned. There’s plenty of political and social symbolism (and the reality of migration, xenophobia, desperation and human nature) in here, but I always come back to this: Tom Joad was an idiot. I’m sure not everyone would agree.
1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig. 1974
This was an assignment for a sociology class during college May session, and it changed my summer and my life. For one thing, it made me a pretentious ass — or, rather, it made me aspire for pretentious assiness. Example: the word chautauqua. For years (and even a recently as last month) I will refer to some occasions five or more people are chatting as a chautauqua. Someone needs to break an acoustic guitar over my head.
After 30 years, a few symbols still resonate with me from this book — forgive the brevity:
The road is time: the past, future and the present. Be conscious of which is most important at any given moment.
The motorcycle represents one’s life: there is the right way to make it work, and there are other ways. Seek out what is the right way for you. Understand the machine well enough so that when it acts up, you are able to make it right again.
“Helmets” (while a good idea, I suppose) prevent us from fully experiencing the world around us. Remove it and see the world with better clarity, feel the wind and breathe it in, and savor the nits and gnats as you encounter them along the way.
What really took me in was the indefinable matter of values and quality that we are immersed in everyday. At age 20, this was an epiphany. The prologue is a grabber:
“What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good, Need we anyone to tell us these things?”
As for Phaedrus, I still spar my own Phaedrus every day. I’m happy to observe that with age comes wisdom, and so my Phaedrus and I have arrived at a healthy entente.
I encourage you all to meet, know and feed your own Phaedrus.
Before we get to the hippies, there’s another thing that happened this day. I got separated from the family at Fishermann’s Wharf. I have visual memories of the terror: strange crowds and cars and noise and movement in every direction; and no Mom! Maw says she was equally freaked.
We were reunited soon enough because I followed my parents’ advice: “If you get lost, just stay put and we’ll find you.” Or maybe they taught me that after this episode. Anyway, it makes sense.
Okay, now on to Dad’s favorite people: hippies!
Hippies were everywhere by 1969, but the Bay Area was still the epicenter of the peace and love action. They seemed nice enough to me, a little dirty and odiferous. For Dad, though, hippies represented a culture counter to his own. He was an establishment man and a veteran of WWII. As the editor-in-chief of ARMY magazine, he was working with a positive narrative on the events in Vietnam. It’s a topic we hashed out many years later; much to my fascination, Dad was both clear-eyed and clear of conscience.
And for all his disparagement, I think Dad liked being around them at Bootjack. I think he found them fun-loving and non-threatening.
We have a beautiful view and the road isn’t too bad. Went to Tiburon and then S.F. Had fish at Fisherman’s Wharf and saw several ships & a museum. Took a cable car & taxi ride. Many hippies at Bootjack.
Marge Binder, July 15, 1969
Dad also liked to recount an event from this day that Mom glosses over in her diary. As he tells it, we were preparing to jump aboard a cable car. While he waited for one to slow, he saw Mom in his periphery hop aboard the runner with me dangling from one arm. Somehow he managed to get aboard, along with Tim and Mike
This must have been a spectacular drive along the coast; it is indeed “scenic.” We passed within a few miles of where I live today. In fact, in one of the earliest posts in this blog I cited Interstate 280 as being among the most scenic and sinuous of highways. But back in 1969, it wasn’t yet finished. So up Highway 1 we traveled, along its twisty, hilly, white knuckle contours overlooking the Pacific. (Note in the AAA guide book: the roads are “not recommended for the timid driver.”)
So when it recently come to light that I spent the day with a bucket in my lap, I can’t say I was surprised, given my track record with projectile car-sickness.
By the end of the day, we were ensconced on Mt. Tamalpais north of San Francisco, communing with hippies!
Packed up and got an early start. Took the scenic route along the Big Sur coast and Doug got sick again. Went through San Francisco and got a spot on Mt. Tamalpais—Bootjack Camp. Had to carry everything in.
Got Mike’s shot and new tennis shoes. Packed and drove along the coast thru L.A. to Pismo Beach. Set up at state beach park. Ate at the A&W.
Marge Binder, July 10, 1969
Though there was a McDonald’s in our little hometown of Vienna, VA, we didn’t patronize a single one on this entire journey — at least not according to Maw’s diary. As I’ve observed before, there were very few fast food chains back in the day. And the ones that existed like Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and even Taco Bell were limited in area and number. Dave Thomas was still four months away from opening the first Wendy’s.
Here’s a little wiki-history of fast food that reaches back to ancient Rome. Good luck getting them to “hold the pickles, hold the lettuce.”
We were an A&W family. Papa Burgers, Mama Burgers, Teen Burgers, Baby Burgers, Olive Burgers, so much selection! Of course, the A&W root beer was second to none. A root beer float passed into the backseat at one of their drive-ins? Sugary, creamy, carbonated heaven. And such convenience!
Here’s a little history of A&W, not including the fact that the Mama Burger is now only available in Canada. Canada!
A&W celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1969, meaning that they are now 100 years old!
A&W doesn’t even rank in the Top 50 fast food chains anymore. It has fewer than 600 stores in the US (only about 300 stand-alones), compared with 14,000 McDonalds and more than 25,000 Subways. [insert Sad Burger emoji]